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Strange Weather: Writing the Anthropocene

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Miya Ando, ‘Obon (Puerto Rico)’, 2012, photo by Lorraine Young, miyaando.com

As fires engulfed the hills outside Adelaide in early January it was difficult not to be gripped with an uneasy sense of déjà vu. For while there have always been fires and floods, in recent years they have grown more frequent, more intense, more devastating.

On their own these events would be frightening, harbingers of what a changing climate will mean in the years ahead. But in fact they are only one part of a much larger environmental crisis, embracing accelerating species loss, collapsing fish and bird populations and acidifying oceans. What’s worse it’s a situation most of us feel powerless to affect.

In such a situation it’s probably not surprising thatour literary culture has become suffused with narratives about the end of the world, or that so many of them have an environmental element. One only needs to look at the recent oeuvre of Margaret Atwood, whose Maddaddam trilogy took place against the backdrop of a world despoiled first by human rapacity and later by a genetically engineered plague, or American author Edan Lepucki’s debut, California, which depicts an America sliding back into tribalism in the aftermath of peak oil and climactic instability, or her fellow American Nathaniel Rich’s surreal actuarial comedy, The Odds Against Tomorrow, the second half of which features a journey through a flooded Manhattan.

Some have argued this growing library of books exploring environmental themes should be understood as a new genre, usually described as climate fiction or – to use the shorthand preferred by its proponents – cli-fi.

Speaking personally, I’m unconvinced of the term’s utility. After all, there’s nothing new about books about worlds transfigured by environmental disaster or environmental change, as classic novels such as John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher’s Grass, John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up or Australian author George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, which was recently republished as part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, and takes place in a flooded Melbourne attest. Nor, given the fact many of these books are distinguished at least as much by their tendency to elide traditional genre categories as by their subject matter, does it seem useful to impose a rigid new category upon them.

But more deeply the notion seems to ignore the fact that novels such as California and Maddaddam are really only a subset of a much larger phenomenon, one that embraces not just the rapidly growing list of novels set against the backdrop of a world devastated by disaster or disease like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, but television shows such as The Walking Dead, in which the characters are cast adrift in a world almost emptied of other humans (it seems unlikely to be a coincidence its action takes place almost exclusively during the oppressive heat and crowding green of the summer either), and even movies such as the nonsensical but visually sumptuous Tom Cruise vehicle, Oblivion, in which the world’s most famous scientologist spends his days exploring the remains of an Earth devastated by alien attack. For while not all are about climate change in any narrow sense – both Station Eleven and The Dog Stars take place in the aftermath of a flu pandemic rather than some unspecified climate catastrophe – they speak to the same fears, the same sense of vulnerability and loss, the same grief.

Of course one might counter that in this regard climate change is simply the latest in a long line of fears that have given rise to apocalyptic imaginings. Go back a decade and it was terrorism we were frightened of, fears that echoed through books and television shows such as The Road and Battlestar Galactica; go back three decades and it was our terror of nuclear war that gave rise to television events like The Day After and books such as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Over and over again fictional narratives have afforded us a medium in which the anxieties of the day can be engaged with, explored and, hopefully, controlled.

Yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion there is something different about climate change, and not just because of the scale of the challenges it presents. The scholar and critic Frederic Jameson once remarked that it’s easier to imagine the end of world than the end of capitalism. And indeed it often seems we have lost our capacity to imagine the future, tending instead to imagine more of the same or total collapse.

I wouldn’t be the first to observe climate change poses unusual challenges for writers of fiction. As Robert MacFarlane observed almost a decade ago the subject lacks the charismatic swiftness of nuclear war; instead it “occurs discreetly and incrementally, and as such, it presents the literary imagination with a series of difficulties: how to dramatize aggregating detail, how to plot slow change.”

For writers of fiction this poses problems. Because it tends to focus upon character and psychology, fiction often struggles to find ways to represent forces that cannot be turned into obstacles for its characters to overcome, or which take place on time frames that exceed the human. And so we tend to fall back on set-pieces and stories we understand, of which the apocalypse is only one.

Looked at like this our passion for narratives about our own extinction begins to look vaguely suspect, a symptom of a larger failure of imagination. For while they give shape to our sense of loss and vulnerability there’s also something reassuring about imagining the end of the world, a sense in which it absolves us of the responsibility to imagine alternatives.

Imagining alternative futures has traditionally been the preserve of science fiction, so perhaps it’s not coincidental that one of science fiction’s luminaries, Neal Stephenson, recently issued a challenge to his contemporaries, calling on them to give away their passion for dystopias and rediscover the belief in technology’s transformative power that underpinned science fiction’s Golden Age.

But it is also a reminder that genuine imaginative engagement with the meaning and effects of climate change demands writers do more than imagine devastated worlds and drowned cities. We need to find ways of representing not just the everyday weirdness of a world transformed by climate change, but also the weirdness of the everyday, find ways of expressing the way the changing climate affects not just the natural world but our own worlds, our own imaginations, find forms and modes capable of making sense of the enormity of what is happening around ourselves. Or, as the narrator of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 puts it as he looks out over Manhattan, “I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously … work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid”.

In many ways that is a revolution that has already begun, visible in the flood-haunted visions of novels as different as Kathryn Heyman’s comic yet tender Floodline, Jane Bryony Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists and Simon Ings’ bleakly brilliant vision of near future Britain, Wolves, both of which explore the way the changing environment infects our consciousness, dissolving social bonds and altering our sense of who we are as much if not more than it alters the world around us. But it is equally visible in Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel, the deeply impressive Flight Behaviour, in which a swarm of monarch butterflies whose migration has been disturbed by climate change descend upon a community in America’s rural Midwest, throwing the lives of the locals into disarray.

With its careful dissection of the contradictions of class and privilege, Flight Behaviour underlines the extent to which the degree to which the challenges climate change presents are inextricably intertwined with a series of much older questions about wealth and power.

This awareness of the interconnectedness of these questions is also present in books such as Ruth Ozeki’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted A Tale For The Time Being, which explores time, loss and globalisation, and science fiction author Monica Byrne’s dazzling debut, The Girl In The Road, in which the main character elects to walk from India to Africa along a floating wave power installation, a structure that symbolises both the possibilities of the future and the way history divides the rich from the poor, the fortunate from the unfortunate. For despite their differences both seek to open up a conversation about the degree to which our thinking about climate change is framed by the privilege of our lives in the West, the way our wealth inoculates us from the consequences of our lifestyle.

Auden famously said that poetry makes nothing happen. Yet people tend to forget he also said it survives, giving voice to our experience, bearing witness. And when it comes to climate change that isn’t nothing: we need ways to articulate the despair so many of us feel about what is happening around us, about the world we are bequeathing our children, about the species we are condemning to extinction.

But fiction can also help us repossess our future, take imaginative control of it. In time that might mean big change: as Ursula Le Guin observed recently, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”. But if nothing else it can help us grasp the enormity of what is happening in a way that allows us to comprehend it, and perhaps, just perhaps, begin to do something about it.

This piece originally appeared in The Weekend Australian on 24 January 2015.

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