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Is it possible to write good fiction about climate change?

Is it possible to write good fiction about climate change? It might sound like a frivolous question, but it’s one that’s been on my mind for the last couple of days.

It’s been occasioned by two things. The first was a post by one of Overland’s new guest bloggers, Stephen Wright, arguing the failure of Australian novelists to engage with issues such as indigenous dispossession and climate change reflects a profound moral failure. The other was reading Ian McEwan’s startlingly awful new novel, Solar, a book that quite deliberately sets out to address the “elephant in the room” of climate change.

Being lectured about what’s wrong with contemporary fiction is one of the more dreary fringe benefits of being a novelist. And it’s made more irritating by the fact that those who do it are usually advocating replacing one sort of (perceived) narrowness with another.

But unlike most of these sorts of tirades, Wright has a serious point, and he’s doing rather more than simply whinging about the state of Australian fiction. As he says in his post:

“It’s not about trying to fit an indigenous eco-friendly character into your novel, or writing novels full of didactic speeches. It has very little to do, I’d venture to say, with being incredibly topical or writing about Copenhagen and climate science . . .

“It’s probably got more to do with the depth of our awareness of just where we are living: on stolen land, on an ecologically devastated continent. Meanwhile, an inexorable planetary disaster unfolds around us. An awareness of this situation could enable us to write, give texture and ambivalence to our work, enable us to track and expose and map the fault lines of where we live “.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Wright about the urgency of the problem. But simultaneously I think it’s easy to make sweeping statements about the need for new kinds of fiction to address the burning issues of the day, and rather more difficult to actually write such things. So perhaps there’s a different question we could ask here, which is what would a book which succesfully addressed the issue of climate change actually look like?

One thing it certainly wouldn’t look like is Solar. For those of you who haven’t read it or seen the first reviews, the book is McEwan’s long-awaited “climate change novel”, and – not to put too fine a point on it – it’s a stinker.

McEwan gets a lot of stick, mostly for being a slick, smug parody of the bourgeois novelist. I think most of that criticism is misplaced, and fails to engage with the skill and sophistication of a lot of his writing. And while he certainly turns out the occasional dud (Amsterdam is a shocker) books like Atonement and Enduring Love are the work of a writer of pretty remarkable gifts (I challenge anyone to forget the tongue scene towards the end of Atonement in a hurry).

All of which makes the sheer awfulness of Solar even more puzzling. It’s not so much that it’s didactic, or even that it feels like the work of a writer who feels so passionate about a subject that they have to do something (though it does), it’s that it’s so under-imagined and structurally uncertain, so embarrassingly unfunny, and – perhaps most damningly – that McEwan himself doesn’t feel convinced by what he’s doing.

The plot, such as it is, seems to be assembled out of offcuts from McEwan’s other books. There’s the requisite accidental and destabilising death. There’s the requisite unloading of scientific information and musings on the interplay between the subjective interior world of the individual and the objective world of scientific fact. There’s even the requisite scene of hideous physical dismemberment/disfigurement (the already famous frozen penis scene). But instead of feeling fresh, or fascinating, they feel like attempts to prop up the otherwise faltering business of the novel. Even the scenes describing the landscape I saw Andrew Reimer waxing lyrical about in The Sydney Morning Herald sound to me like McEwan on auto-pilot. Indeed, in a very real sense, the book reads like McEwan is doing a parody of himself: the only problem is that it’s a pretty feeble parody.

Part of the problem is that McEwan has clearly decided to save himself from writing an awful “issue” novel by flicking the switch to vaudeville, a decision which clearly made sense at the time, but given that McEwan’s real strength is exquisitely modulated depictions of violence and transgression (and more particularly the intrusion of that violence into the ostensibly “safe” world of middle class life) seems a little misguided in retrospect.

But I suspect Solar’s failure is also reflective of some of the conventional realist novel’s more general limitations, especially when confronted by an issue as large, and as systemic as climate change.

The problem is that the things social realist novels are good at – characters, narrative, interiority, social context – are hopelessly inadequate when it comes to something like climate change. Obviously I’m talking to some extent about the limitations of my own imagination here, but it’s very difficult to imagine how one could encompass such a subject in a conventional novel without projecting some sort of coherence or shape onto it which does violence to the scale and difficulty of the problem.

In a way the problem is analogous to that of fictional representations of the Holocaust. The sheer enormity of what actually happened means fictional recreations of it tend to be cheapening at best, downright offensive at worse. As Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones demonstrates it’s not impossible to do (though interestingly The Kindly Ones’ success depends at least in part on its success at mimicking the authority of non-fiction, and synthesising vast amounts of factual detail into its fabric). It’s that the desire of the novel to make sense of events, and find shape in lives is fundamentally at odds with the brutal and senseless nature of the reality, so much so that attempting to impose those shapes on the events often ends up looking like the worst sort of kitsch.

Solar, which has a relatively simple narrative and a small cast is one example of this problem at work, but I suspect it’s also a problem for larger, multi-strand narratives that attempt to grapple with the problem. Imagine, for example, the Underworld or (to use a filmic example) the Syriana of climate change. To work either dramatically or thematically they require the imposition of order upon what is an open-ended and diffuse problem. As James Wood correctly observes of Underworld, it “insist[s] on connections (the atom bomb is somehow connected to JFK’s assassination and to paranoia) as Dickens’s plots insist on connections (wills, lost relatives, distant benefactors)”. The problem is there are no connections in climate change, unless of course you believe there really is a vast conspiracy linking oil companies to governmental inaction (which there is, of course, but it’s the sort of messy, mutating, ad hoc conspiracy that crusading journalists can’t expose). Inventing a conspiracy, even a vanishing one as in Syriana, trivialises the problem by making it a function of individual action, rather than the system itself.

So, to return to my question before, what might a good novel about climate change look like? One answer might be science fiction. But while the capacity of SF to step outside the strictures of reality makes it better at dealing with these sorts of big ideas than conventional literary fiction, it’s hobbled by many of the same problems when it comes to climate change.

Take Stephen Baxter’s recent novel, Flood, as an example. In Flood Baxter graphically depicts the consequences of rapidly rising sea levels. At least initially this process is driven by climate change, but Baxter then adds a wrinkle of his own, suggesting that the release of the melting ice’s pressure on the earth’s crust allows vast sub-surface oceans to begin to pour forth, dramatically accelerating the process, so that within the space of a few decades the entire world is submerged.

When Flood works, it really works. The scenes in which the Thames Barrier gives way and London floods are truly terrifying, and there are any number of amazing details. But because it is, like most SF, essentially realist, it’s still compelled to at least gesture towards character and story (there’s actually an oddly clinical detachment to the whole book, so in many ways it is only a gesture). And, as a result, the thing it most resembles is a fictional version of a disaster movie, and more particularly films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 (with which it shares a number of important devices).

So if not SF, then what? Some sense of an answer might be found in the work of William Vollman, and more particularly books like Imperial or Seven Dreams. Imperial is actually non-fiction, but all Vollman’s books sit on the borderland between fact and fiction, and seem to be less interested in representing the world than actually recreating it. They push at the boundaries of both fictional and non-fictional forms, and indeed at the limits of what readers are prepared to read, but they also suggest a point beyond the neatness and coherence of conventional fiction. And, with them in hand, it’s at least possible to imagine a book that might be able to draw together the many strands of the climate change catastrophe without trying to impose an obviously artificial order upon them.

The question to my mind though is less whether a writer like Vollman, or a book like Imperial might be able to assimilate and represent the subject, but in what sense it would be fiction if it did, especially if it also incorporated large slabs of factual detail or reportage. In this I am, of course, articulating the same sort of anxiety about fiction David Shields explores in Reality Hunger (a book I’ll post about soon) but it’s a real question: at what point have we so exploded the idea of the novel, and of fiction, that what we’re reading isn’t really a novel anymore? And if writing about climate change demands that sort of dismantlement, what does that tell us about the “failure” of contemporary writers to deal with the issue?

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39 Comments Post a comment
  1. Delia #

    Really interesting post, James. I may put off the pleasure of reading Solar for a while…

    My immediate thought as a writer was that the most satisfying and viable narrative I could imagine putting together would be be set pre-disaster, rather than post-disaster: a novel about living out the last days of nature. Perhaps a kind of fictional version of Gretel Ehrlich’s The Future of Ice, in which she visits the world’s cold places in a spirit of preemptive nostalgia, before they disappear.

    How to write a novel about the worst consequences of global warming, after the fact? Much harder! Given how dependent most of us are, at some level, on the cycles of nature, and animals, to set off the human colour of our writing… I think we’ll be seeing even more historical novels as global warming increases, given that I think they’re starting to perform this function of letting us look back on a richer natural world before we wrecked it.

    March 22, 2010
  2. Do you have an opinion on Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about climate change?

    March 22, 2010
    • Unfortunately the only KSR I’ve read is Red Mars, so any views I did have would be pretty incomplete. I’d be more interested in yours, and more particularly how well you think SF is handling the question. My sense of it is that while there are any number of books exploring the implications of climate change, or set in its aftermath (Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War for instance) there aren’t many set in the midst of it, or trying to represent the reality of the situation, which seems ironic, given that it so exceeds our usual frame of reference (and more pointedly since it’s actually nominally SF writers like William Gibson, or writers who are doing somethign which is almost SF such as Richard Powers who have engaged most effectively with thematic hydra of the post-9/11 world, another nightmare for novelists).

      March 22, 2010
  3. davidsornig #

    A fascinating topic and one that keeps me awake at night on all fronts. Giles Foden’s ‘Turbulence’, a novel about weather, science and bending the ear of political and military strategists in the lead up to D-Day, is a useful parable that’s relevant here. Given that it’s a historical novel it has the advantage of dealing with a completed event. However like ‘Solar’ it too suffers (though not as heavily) under the basic narrative burdens of the novel form in the unlikely machinations of plot and character. I think as readers looking for the killer climate change novel what we’re actually doing is looking for something that is going to play out and manifest a political transformation, a consciousness-changing novel. Given the poor critical reception of Solar, McEwan’s apparent failure (I’m not quite convinced it’s a complete failure – though it is disappointing) might be a failure to meet the unrealistic expectations of a novel reading public. Perhaps the Shields manifesto – as roundly bashed as it seems to have been – is nevertheless on target in some respects. It’s not the novel has a problem so much, it’s just that we are expecting too much of it.

    March 22, 2010
    • Kerryn, David – I completely agree that the problem is really one of expectations (though I’m slightly embarrassed that wasn’t clear in the post). We’re expecting novels do something they’re just not equipped to do, because they are, as Kerryn so eloquently puts it, both products and vehicles of booj individualism. They do what they do because that’s what they’re for, and to complain about that is a bit like complaining music isn’t visual enough.

      March 22, 2010
  4. ‘But I suspect Solar’s failure is also reflective of some of the conventional realist novel’s more general limitations, especially when confronted by an issue as large, and as systemic as climate change.’

    Or perhaps it simply isn’t a job that fiction should be required to do: not so much a matter of limitations as specialist tasks. Writing a novel ‘about’ climate change is like trying to zest a lemon with a melon-baller. Especially in these days when a single omniscient POV really can’t be got away with in fiction, yet precisely that authoritative voice is crucial to any form of polemic or rhetorical persuasion.

    From my vantage point as an examiner of many, many theses in Creative Writing over 20 years, I think we’re seeing a generation of writers and would-be writers (not, interestingly, of readers, so much) who at some deep level simply do not understand that good fiction works on a metaphorical or allegorical level of meaning, and that when it comes to the kind of engagement Wright was talking about, the most appropriate written form is nonfiction of various kinds. I think there’s a strong connection between this issue and your ‘Welcome to the real world’ post.

    Of course if one understands that, it’s still more than possible to write good fiction that focuses on ‘the issues of the day’, but like all good fiction it would work best at the level of examining the effects of social and environmental change on ordinary human lives. Here in Adelaide, we were within weeks of running out of water last summer, and what an excellent near-future/climate-change novel could be made of that, if the writer focused on the daily life of half a dozen families and their behaviour in the face of events. (Like Jane Austen, or Christos Tsiolkas. Heh.)

    Fiction is stories about human behaviour, which I think is the one unequivocal success of Solar — I reviewed it for the Sunday Age Magazine — in that it shows very effectively the spectacle of human beings continuing to be embroiled (as it were) in petty quarrels and rivalries while Rome burns (so to speak).

    As the great Martha Gellhorn once remarked, ‘War happens to people, one at a time.’ And so does climate change. I have no doubt that scornful cries of ‘Booj individualism’ can be heard from some quarters at this point, but, like it or not, the fact that the novel form is both a product and a vehicle of booj individualism is one of the first things any student of literature learns.

    March 22, 2010
  5. Kerryn, Russell – Kerryn’s line about water running out and the focus on a few families is interesting to me because in a way that’s the essence of the various mid-20th century environmental disaster stories I’ve read recently, in particular John Christopher’s completely chilling The Death of Grass, a book which manages, in less than 200 pages, to be more eloquent about the fragility of human domination than many books many times its length. What’s interesting (and is at least part of an answer to my previous question to you, Russell) is that it’s both entirely conventional at a formal level, but highly disturbing in the way it estranges reality and makes the abstract question of environmental disaster powerfully and hauntingly real.

    March 22, 2010
  6. Barbara #

    It’s late , and I’m tired, and I’ll probably rethink all this later and repost, but …
    The first climate change novels I’ve read that spring to mind are Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (and does climate change always = post-apocalyptic?), Gabrielle Lord’s “Salt” (seeing as we are talking Australian) and George Turner’s “The Sea, the Sea” (ditto) [and while we are at it, why not most things by John Wyndham?]
    Turner nearly bored me into extinction with his “why” lectures before he go to the point and into the story of his novel. Lord, bravely, went Australian with a big theme in a genre novel (mystery/detective/thriller), but – like McCarthy – couldn’t escape the bleakness that is the ultimate destination of post-apocalyptic novels (And isn’t most climate change stuff bleak? Where’s are all the happy endings?)
    Living on stolen land? I hope to talk about that later.
    On genre: the library where I work is in the process of moving (come October) and one of the things that is happening in preparation for that is a change in the shelving of the Adult Fiction collection. It’s going from alphabetical to genre. Well, we are all working really hard changing spine labels and catalogue records to reflect these new locations. It’s become evident very quickly that genre is an arbitrary definition. So, maybe, when we are looking for the great Australian climate-change novel and we can’t find it… perhaps it’s sitting somewhere else… on another shelf?

    March 23, 2010
  7. The question isn’t frivolous; it is simply the wrong question.

    Interestingly, your post doesn’t really appear to address the question either, but instead focuses upon the challenge of reaching the right balance between what may be a work of fiction or a work of non-fiction. Or some hybrid.

    It is even more interesting, since the excerpt you share from Stephen Wright seems to point directly at the challenge to the writer of fiction, which is to become immersed into the context of the issue that the actions of the characters in the story and the story itself become comprehensible, given that context.

    The fictional form requires climate change to be a scene setter.

    The fictional form requires the writer to know how characters will act in that setting.

    Which is why I found myself raising an eyebrow when reading your assertion that the problem is “that the things social realist novels are good at – characters, narrative, interiority, social context – are hopelessly inadequate when it comes to something like climate change.”


    Of course, with zero books under my belt, and zero books in the pipeline, I may well be speaking out of my bottom. 😉

    So, anyway, “Is it possible to write good fiction about climate change?”

    No. I don’t think so.

    Is it possible to write good fiction that is set in the context of the issues of climate change.

    Yes, most definitely.

    March 23, 2010
    • Are you suggesting my post wasn’t internally consistent? Say not so!

      March 23, 2010
  8. I don’t actually feel that competent to talk about it, since I read Robinson’s books some time ago, and they are the only relatively recent books I’ve read that use climate change as a setting, I enjoyed all three books, both because I cared about the characters and their problems and because I was enthralled by the vivid depictions of massive storms, floods, and so on. However, there was also a certain air of unreality – which is not what you want in this sort of regulation science fiction, which is very much dependent on a sense of realism. There was something too thin and schematic, and the scenarios described seemed just too much the worst possible case to be believable.

    I’d like to see a massive science fiction novel done in the style of Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar or The Sheep Look Up, set in a version of the future 50 or 100 years from now … with a large cast of characters and changes to the climate that are realistic in terms of current scientific projections. That might work, though it would certainly be beyond my powers to write.

    March 23, 2010
  9. What’s booj individualism?

    SF as a genre has a habit of putting words into its characters mouths, creating dialogues about current scientific/political/historical issues in order to get a particular message or idea across to the reaer. Often enough the characters have a habit of speaking in whole paragraphs and sounding like an article in Scientific American.

    It’s a pretty clunky method sometimes, but good authors like, say, Brian Aldiss or Margaret Atwood, can use it very effectively. And I can see how it could be easily turned to deal with an issue like, say, climate change.

    Of course as Kerryn says novels work at an allegorical/metaphorical level and deal with human issues, but that’s not *all* that they do. After all, if all you do is create a metaphor and a human issue you won’t have much of a novel. A good novel for me is a combination of numerous elements, and one of those elements can be the inclusion of current political/scientific arguments.

    March 23, 2010
  10. Brian Aldiss’s novel Hothouse deals with climate change, of a sort, and it’s a fun and interesting read. His novel ‘Superstate’ has amongst other things rising sea levels – and their effect on ordinary British families – but it’s just one even in a rather sprawling comic novel, albeit a good example of how sf can deal with these issues at a dramatic/metaphorical level.

    March 23, 2010
  11. Sorry, TimT, that was a bit of an in-joke for Delia. ‘Booj’ is short for bourgeois; it must be uttered in a tone of withering scorn, and regardless of the utterer’s own level of material comfort and mode of acquiring same, it always refers to someone else.

    ‘one of those elements can be the inclusion of current political/scientific arguments.’

    Sure, of course. But ‘arguments’ in whose voice? This is what I mean about narrative working on more than one level, so that an ‘argument’ can be deduced from what happens in the story, rather than the kind of literal-minded spelling out of things and clunky obvious ‘moral of the story’ endings that I’m seeing in fiction more and more. Good novelists of ideas can create articulate characters whose lives consist largely of talking and arguing about their own specialisations, which is one different and better way to do it. But I’m inclined to agree that SF does it best.

    March 23, 2010
  12. Oh – Booj = bourgeoise. I had it pegged as an abstruse joke about the boojum.

    Urban dictionary has some… intriguing… entries!

    March 23, 2010
  13. Completely agree Kerryn.

    One of these days an enterprising novelist of ideas is going to include stuff like this here series of blog comments in their novel, in an entertaining, and dramatically significant way, that both reinforces the working metaphors of the novel, and expresses the individual views/disagreements of their characters. If it hasn’t been done already.

    March 23, 2010
  14. davidsornig #

    James – I think you spelled out the argument about expecting too much from the novel precisely. I was merely moved to add to the point.

    I often wonder whether spec fiction is the right vehicle for the cause. The moods that recieve sf/spec so enthusiastically are impatience and its cousin urgency. Those of us who are concerned about the warming of the planet want a wider readership to visualise the perhaps distant consequences of the problem, now. We want to bring the future into the present. This is what leads campaigners like Monbiot to call ‘The Road’ ‘the most important environmental book ever’. My concern is that novels that depict apocalypse and the post-apocalypse reach too far into the future and end up in predictable dystopian places that might serve to reinforce the self-defensive psychology of denial that Clive Hamilton writes about.

    March 23, 2010
  15. Delia #

    Pavlov: hee hee! I did indeed get the reference.

    Your memory is long, and excellent.

    March 23, 2010
  16. Jane GW #

    Fascinating post and discussion, James. I agree with Sylvano’s distinction between writing fiction ‘about’ climate change – not necessarily possible – vs fiction set in the context of climate change, which probably is. And with his point that:

    ‘the excerpt you share from Stephen Wright seems to point directly at the challenge to the writer of fiction, which is to become immersed into the context of the issue that the actions of the characters in the story and the story itself become comprehensible, given that context.’

    which is why I found Wright’s post so good and so provocative.

    And while I agree that ‘war happens to people, one at a time’, it also happens to whole populations, as Tolstoy demonstrated in ‘War and Peace’, with its big picture/small picture narratives.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with davidsornig’s point that novels like ‘The Road’ which depict apocalypse and post-apocalypse ‘reach too far into the future and end up in predictable dystopian places’, possibly serving to reinforce denial.

    And I wonder about your search for the elusive climate-change conspiracy James: ‘The problem is there are no connections in climate change’. For a start, there is, as you say, the connection between oil companies and governmental inaction. I’d say the whole – edifice? machine? – of our industrial capitalist mass consumption socio-politico-economic order is implicated in climate change. And each and every one of us, in our daily consumption choices. Surely enough material for the Dickens, DeLillo. Orwell of climate change to be going on with? Perhaps she just hasn’t come along yet.

    March 23, 2010
  17. ‘And while I agree that ‘war happens to people, one at a time’, it also happens to whole populations, as Tolstoy demonstrated in ‘War and Peace’, with its big picture/small picture narratives.’

    Oh, of course. In fact, what I understand Gellhorn to mean is that whole populations consist of people, one at a time, so to speak. But I don’t see those two things as dichotomous, which would put me offside with Wright’s traditionally Left position but not in opposition to it, though he may not think so. To me the very best fiction is almost always the kind that shows the interaction of the two: the great sweeping forces of history and society and politics pushing individual lives hither and yon.

    March 24, 2010
  18. What would a novel about Climate Change look like? I guess it would be characters – predominantly middle class – having affairs or mid-life crises, or musing on dramas from their past as they grow older, while, in the background, we get every more serious news reports of the imminent end of the world as we know it. The characters continue to live their lives in their particular determinist ways, changing their light bulbs from incandescent to low emission, recycling their garbage, growing a few vegetables, but the looming disaster happens on the periphery, untouchable in some way unless the individuals give up everything, laptops, cars, aeroplane flights, supermarkets, which they don’t seem to be prepared to do, regardless of the necessity of what we, the reader can see they need to do…
    As for what novels are supposed to do it’s hard to go past the old Hemingway trope, if I want to send a message I use Western Union…

    March 24, 2010
  19. Jane GW #

    Yes, I agree Kerryn. And that’s what I was trying to say. That war happens both to people individually and to populations. I wouldn’t trade one view for the other, which is why I mentioned ‘War and Peace’, because it does both so well – the sweeping forces of history and the pushing around of individual lives. (Tolstoy even resorts to calculus to ‘prove’ that the force of history is the sum of individual lives.)

    I’d have to go back to Wright’s post but I’m not sure it took a ‘traditionally’ Left position. I think he was looking for a way beyond traditional Left/Right dichotomies and in fact beyond dichotomies altogether. I think he was mostly asking why fiction wasn’t addressing the biggest issues of the day in Australia, which in his view are climate change and indigenous dispossession.

    Which seem to me no less reasonable subjects for fiction to address than Dickens addressing the corrupt workings of the law in Victorian Britain, or Tolstoy or Hemingway the horror and waste of war. (I’m not sure engaging with big themes in storytelling is the same as ‘sending messages’, much as I like Hemingway’s line.)

    James, I’ve also been thinking about your suggestion that the problem of writing about climate change ‘is analogous to that of fictional representations of the Holocaust’, because of ‘the sheer enormity of what actually happened’. Yes, ‘what actually happened’ – the Holocaust is an event of recorded history perpetrated by particular people against other people. It has a beginning and an end, although it may not yet be concluded in the lives of many.

    Climate change is an event in progress, has not yet been concluded and, if we accept that it is to any extent human-made, it is being perpetrated by us all against us all and against the planet right now. I think that despite the sheer enormity of both, the Holocaust and climate change are very different and writing about them poses very different challenges. Not least being the fact that every being on earth is implicated in climate change.

    March 24, 2010
  20. Lucy Sussex #

    If you can’t forget one tongue scene in ATONEMENT,then I can’t forget another, on p. 14:

    Yes. Unable to push her tongue against the word, Briony could only nod, and felt as she did so a sulky thrill of self-annihilating compliance spreading across her skin and ballooning outwards from it, darkening the room in throbs.

    O editor, where were you?

    The form most suitable to the theme of climate change, I suspect, would be either a SYRIANA-style film thriller, or the variant of the C19th social issue novel (think Dickens), which is currently found, most successfully, in crime.

    March 24, 2010
  21. Chris Oliver #

    Very pleased to have discovered this site via a link posted on The Australian’s Pair of Ragged Claws site.
    I’ve enjoyed reading James’s initial piece and the comments that have followed. One thing that concerns me, though, is that everyone here is coming at climate change from the same or similar alarmist perspectives.

    A one extreme there’s James Lovelock who foresees human beings reduced to small breeding populations in polar regions, reformed tobacco grower and divinity student Al Gore whose lesson from the Iraqi WMD spin seems to have been that corrupting important debates with very dodgy and misleading graphics showing Manhattan being drowned is a legitimate thing to do. Most of the reviews of Solar have been at this end of the spectrum, giving the misleading impression that somehow, by some bizarre mechanism, humanity will die out if global mean temperature rises from the less than 14C it currently is to 16C or even 18C. At the other end of the spectrum are people like Bob Carter who insists global warming is a beat-up.

    I know writing about middle courses, about moderate effects, is extremely hard, but is it too much to hope someone out there will try? Do we want to live in a society that has public funds available for health, education, Literature Board grants etc? Do we want the means to support an ageing population without having to have yet more immigration to a fairly fragile, drought-prone continent? If we do, then we need to generate surplus as well as distribute surplus more fairly and we do that best by having cheap baseload power.

    March 25, 2010
  22. Jane GW #

    That’s a good point Chris. I tend to extreme views. But I also think there’s something fundamentally wrong with our economic system that I’m not sure a middle path can fix. Not that I’m calling for revolution, just serious thinking about how we structure our material lives. I think it would be better if the dominant global political/economic system didn’t conjure war and mayhem near critical reserves of oil and other key resources, and didn’t reward companies that destroy habitats, extract minerals from sacred lands, privatise everything right down to plant seeds, invest fortunes in building weapons capable of mass destruction, etc.

    But to get back to one of your original questions, James – at what point have we so exploded the idea of the novel, and of fiction, that what we’re reading isn’t really a novel anymore? – and going back to your Holocaust analogy, would you call Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’ a novel?

    I think fiction has proven pretty protean over the centuries. I’m sure it’s up to climate change.

    March 26, 2010
  23. Chris! I thought you were in permanent residence at Stephen’s blog, how nice to have you here. And sorry to both you and Jane for being slow to reply.

    First of all, Jane – it’s probably worth pointing out that I wasn’t comparing the Holocaust and the effects of climate change, merely suggesting that because of their scale and complexity they threw up similar problems for writers of fiction. As for your question about Austerlitz, it’s an interesting example to choose, because at one level it illustrates my point, which is that there are some subjects the conventional novel simply isn’t equipped to deal with, and in order to get at them you have to give away a lot of what we tend to think of as the defining characteristics of the novel. But I think it also illustrates the larger re-engineering of narrative forms that’s going on at present as they try to adopt to new technologies and changing cultures of reading and writing, and the ways in which the boundaries between what we might once have thought of as fiction and what we would once have thought of as non-fiction are blurring (I suspect James Frey and his fellow fraudsters are another part of this process). Whether what comes out of that is best described as a novel or as something new, I don’t know, but it’s a question I suspect we’re all going to spend some time trying to work through over the next few decades.

    Chris – I know from reading the string over at Stephen’s blog you took exception to Geordie Williamson’s comments about climate change posing an existential threat to humanity. I’m not sure I’d go as far as that either, but if the science is even half right we’re in deep, deep trouble. If that makes me an alarmist, so be it, but at the end of the day I’d rather put my money on the vast weight of international scientific opinion than on fringe players like Plimer.

    March 26, 2010
  24. Jane GW #

    I didn’t think you were comparing the effects of the Holocaust and climate change, James, so sorry if I made it sound that way. I understood that you were talking about their comparability in sheer scale and complexity. There was something about your line ‘the sheer enormity of what actually happened’ that stuck in my head and prompted my response. I wanted to make the distinction that the Holocaust is contained in history (regardless of how much it continues to leak into the present) and climate change is ongoing, yet to unfold fully. I wasn’t meaning to talk about their effects, I was wanting to suggest the urgency of engaging with climate change imaginatively and narratively, and perhaps too to our moral responsibility to do so.

    I like your response to the question of ‘Austerlitz’ and agree with what you say and your connection of it to Frey and his fellow fraudsters. I agree they’re comparable.

    But I’ll now be silent because I also take your point that ‘Being lectured about what’s wrong with contemporary fiction’ is dreary for a novelist – and given you’ve written three successful novels, one more at least almost done, and I’ve written none, I’ll defer to your experience and judgement.

    March 26, 2010
  25. Jane GW #

    Meant to say James, I’m also reading ‘Reality Hunger’ and it’s so relevant to everything you’re raising here, as you say. So I’ll be looking forward to your post on it.

    March 27, 2010
  26. Ah, Jane, you can come back any time. And will be very interested to hear you what you think of Reality Hunger. I’m finding it interesting because it resonates with a lot of things I’ve been thinking for some time now, especially about the sense there are new forms springing up, but simultaneously I’m made uneasy by a lot of the “novel is dead” schtick you hear because it seems to me the endless talking down of the novel (and I do it too) is part of the problem. It’s a bit of a simplistic reaction, but if Shields is bored by novels he doesn’t actually have to read them, and the fact he finds them boring doesn’t mean others do. As I’ve said in this post I do wonder about the capacity of the novel to speak to contemporary culture, but we also need to bear in mind that “speak” is essentially a subjective judgement, and that despite the last rites of Shields and others the novel is actually looking pretty healthy, both in terms of sales and as a form. Perhaps it’s become an entertainment rather than a hand grenade designed to shatter social mores, but I suspect it was always that, really (and the manner in which readers have embraced books like The Slap suggests it is actually still capable of “speaking” to contemporary readers and contemporary culture).

    March 27, 2010
  27. Love the Keating quote 10 or so pars down.

    March 27, 2010
  28. bluerose #

    I think part of the problem is defining the novel as inherently limited to/belonging to the booj individualist sensibility/frame of reference.

    Things like John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy suggest that the novel is a compendium form, and that you can stuff into it whatever you think belongs there. The Living Newspaper theatre productions were a broad-focus form.

    It’s a matter of realizing that to deal with something really large, you have to abandon booj individualism.

    March 29, 2010
  29. I guess the real problem with “issue” novels – and there’s no doubt they can be done – is that the novelist has to inhabit the imagined reality, rather than the over-riding idea. The empty feeling you get from a lot of committed fiction is that all you notice is the subtext, and the writing forgets all about the textural things that matter in fiction. This where something like Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tuleyev – about the betrayal of the Bolshevik revolution – really gets it. He learned quite a lot from Don Passos.

    Re the Holocaust, the exemplary novel is surely Andre Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just. One of the most devastating novels I’ve ever read. And a brilliant example of a novelist using imaginative fiction – he leaps far beyond mere realism – to convey a brutal reality.

    March 31, 2010
  30. bluerose #

    Russell, Alison: Yes, I remember The Sheep Look Up as a good novel; and the primacy of the imagined reality is the key. When Ulysses was first published it was condemned as “vile” and disgusting” – i.e., not bourgeois.

    March 31, 2010
  31. Claire Corbett #

    I suggest The Carbon Diaries as quite a successful attempt at Climate Change fiction – it’s kids/young adult lit, which does this kind of thing very well sometimes. The scenarios presented are not extreme (as mentioned above, not post-apocalyptic) but presents life for a British family as their carbon ration is reduced, the heating goes down and so on. Interesting and this relates to the point made above that maybe we’re looking on the wrong shelf.

    July 29, 2010
  32. davidsornig #

    James, I quoted the following from your post in an essay I wrote earlier this year and am just now revising for publication:

    “The problem is there are no connections in climate change, unless of course you believe there really is a vast conspiracy linking oil companies to governmental inaction (which there is, of course, but it’s the sort of messy, mutating, ad hoc conspiracy that crusading journalists can’t expose). Inventing a conspiracy, even a vanishing one as in Syriana, trivialises the problem by making it a function of individual action, rather than the system itself.”

    In the context of the recent wikileaks events it takes on another colour.

    December 7, 2010
    • Heh. What’s the essay?

      And is the moment when I should come out of the closet and say I’m writing a climate change novel? Part SF, and still embryonic, but pretty definitely happening . . .

      December 7, 2010
  33. davidsornig #

    It’s about climate change, future time writing and the uncanny for MelbUni postgrad journal.

    On the climate change novel: I’ll race you (slowly)

    December 7, 2010
  34. Global warming | Could a Nevil Shute-like novel raise awareness

    February 1, 2014
  35. James, I wonder if you’ve revisted this since you originally made this post. There’s been a flood – if you’ll pardon – of climate change novels since you first posed the question. Do you think anyone’s successfully tackled the issue yet?

    April 23, 2014

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