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Posts tagged ‘Climate Change’

Writing on the Precipice: On Literature and Climate Change

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“Late last year, in the dying days of the American presidential campaign, the World Wildlife Fund published its most recent Living Planet Report. Published biennially, these reports have long made sobering reading, but 2016’s took that to a new level, declaring that between 1970 and 2012 close to 60 per cent of the world’s wildlife had disappeared, and that without concerted action that figure was projected to reach 67 per cent by 2020. In other words, humans were close to having wiped out more than two thirds of the world’s wildlife in just half a century.

“As somebody who has spent most of their adult life thinking and writing about animals and the environment, I found this story physically distressing. As with last summer’s bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef it felt like a tipping point, a moment when it had become clear we could not continue down the path we are on, a moment when things would have to change.

“In fact the world’s media greeted the story with a collective shrug. A few articles here and there mentioned it — and then it was gone, swamped by the drama of Donald Trump’s terrifying rise to power.

“It is difficult to know what to do in such circumstances. The climatologist James Hansen once said being a climate scientist was like screaming at people from behind a soundproof glass wall: being a writer concerned with these questions often feels frighteningly similar. Because although it is difficult to understand how one could not be writing about these questions, the ethical urgency one feels is tempered by a sense of the futility of the gesture in the face of such enormity, a feeling one’s tools are not fit for purpose. What is the point of stories in such a moment, one wants to ask. How can one poem or one song or one novel make a difference?” Read more at Sydney Review of Books

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Ghost Species

shell-219665_960_720It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting on the beach beside the steel gantries and fuel tanks of Botany Bay’s container terminal watching my kids build a sandcastle by the water’s edge, a structure that keeps collapsing because the waves keep hitting it. But what I can’t get out of my head is the section of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140, I read this morning, in which an unnamed narrator offers an imaginary account of the first sudden sea level rise in the 2040s. It’s a possibility I’ve also imagined in Ghost Species, the adult novel I’m writing (although mine is done from a more personal, experiential perspective), but simultaneously it’s a scenario that no matter how difficult it is for us to comprehend is now pretty much assured even if we do get emissions under control (as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote recently, “once feedbacks take over, the climate can change quickly, and it can change radically … It’s likely that the “floodgates” are already open, and that large sections of Greenland and Antarctica are fated to melt. It’s just the ice in front of us that’s still frozen”). All of which means this beach, a lot of this city, most coastal habitats, mangroves and reefs and, I suspect, much of our world, are all already lost, swept away by the ocean, like the bathetically symbolic sandcastle my kids are trying to build against the backdrop of the engine of global trade. Is there a word for his prospective grief, this knowledge nothing here will remain? For all the species and ecosystems that still linger, although they are already lost? For the way I feel when I watch my kids, and know that however safe the world they inhabit seems the future holds dislocation and disaster, or for my own uncertainty about what I should be teaching them? In his book Orison for a Curlew the writer Horatio Clare talks about Greece’s economic ruin being a cenotaph for our society, I wonder whether this moment might be another.

The world has changed: on writing in the Anthropocene

Here’s me in conversation with the wonderful Iain McCalman (if you haven’t read his marvellous The Reef: A Passionate History it’s brilliant).

The End of Nature and Post-Naturalism: Fiction and the Anthropocene

One of the most interesting things about watching a novel go into the world is discovering what other people think it’s about. Sometimes that can be illuminating, sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s always fascinating, not least because the book people seem to read is never quite the book you thought you were writing.

In Clade’s case this process was complicated by the fact a lot of people didn’t seem to know quite how to categorise it. For my part I tended to say it was science fiction, simply because that’s easy and relatively uncontroversial. A number of reviewers, especially in literary outlets, called it dystopian, which it isn’t, or not quite, while a couple of reviewers with an interest in science fiction described it a slow apocalypse or breakdown novel, which I suspect it is, at least in one sense. Others have called it cli fi, or climate fiction, a term that has some utility as a marketing category but seems to occlude more than it reveals when deployed as a critical tool; elsewhere some people have called it Anthropocene fiction.

Interestingly though, several reviewers registered the inadequacies of the terminology, and went on to ask about how exactly we should be describing the growing number of books engaged directly or indirectly with climate change and environmental transformation.

The most substantial of these discussions was in Niall Harrison’s characteristically thoughtful and perceptive review at Strange Horizons, a review that ended with what he described as “a coda about categories”. Noting first that Clade was only one of a number of recent novels “that to varying degrees explore the personal and social effects of environmental crisis”, he went on to note that while many such novels are “kinds of science fiction … there is a sound political logic for discussing them as a group unto themselves”.

Like others, Harrison thinks it’s possible to distinguish such novels from other kinds of science fiction because “climate change is already happening, which means it is in a different class of speculation and social relevance to, say, a pandemic: writing about it is a question of degree and perspective, not whether or not it will happen at all, and the degrees and perspectives that writers choose can be usefully compared” (a point Dan Bloom has also made). But he also – rightly – points out that acknowledging this distinction then demands we recognise the existence of novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which are engaged with these questions but are not science fiction in any meaningful sense.

Like me Harrison is unconvinced of the utility of the notion of “cli fi” in this context (as I have also done he notes its troubling tendency to elide the long history of environmental science fiction), and similarly sceptical of trying to group such books together as dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories, even though many books in this area deploy tropes and strategies associated with these traditions, before acknowledging that while he doesn’t have a solution to the question he believes it deserves further attention, if only because “this is a vital literary area, and … we need to get better at describing and discussing it”.

For what it’s worth I agree with Harrison that this is an area in which our conventional terminology fails us, and that none of the options on offer seem to be able to make sense of the work that is being produced, its relationship to traditional genre categories like science fiction (and indeed non-fictional and essayistic forms such as nature writing), or the various strategies it deploys to open up the realist novel in ways that let it embrace and engage with environmental questions.

That’s partly because of the sheer diversity of such books, and their tendency to elide traditional genre boundaries: certainly there’s almost no meaningful family resemblance between a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, the affinities between the two means they can (and should) be usefully discussed together.

At one level this diversity reflects the many and complex ways in which writers and artists are engaging with these questions, and more deeply their ongoing attempts to map out an imaginative language with which to make sense of what’s happening to our world (and indeed ourselves) in the 21st century, a point I’ve made elsewhere in the context of what might be best described as the new nature writing. Certainly it’s not accidental so many writers fall back on stories about lost parents and missing children when they seek to articulate their feelings about climate change, devices that capture something of the rupture and grief which suffuses the contemporary condition (something that has prompted the writer M. John Harrison to talk about “loss lit”, and which is also present in articles like this, or this). Nor is it a coincidence that so many of these books employ fractured structures, and borrow devices from science fiction and elsewhere to talk about time and deep time (I suspect all the lost parents and children are another way of getting at these questions as well), or that questions of landscape, and our solastalgic sense of loss about its erasure intrude over and over again (in an excellent piece earlier this year Robert MacFarlane made a similar point about the rise of the eerie in contemporary British culture).

More importantly though, this diversity suggests why thinking of these books in terms of genres or categories is to miss the wood for the trees. Because these books aren’t a genre, they’re expressions of the deeper and more pervasive transformation of the world and ourselves we have taken to calling the Anthropocene in exactly the same way novels like Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses reflected and embodied the transformative effects of modernity upon our culture and our selves. As Mckenzie Wark quipped on Facebook earlier this year, all fiction is anthropocene fiction, some of it just doesn’t realise it yet.

To my mind the benefits of thinking about the question in this way are considerable. Not only does it allow us to step away from fruitless arguments about generic definition, but it allows us to see climate change as simply one (if still a very considerable) part of a larger process of transformation, one that embraces, amongst other things, genetic engineering, virtuality, over-population, species loss, habitat destruction and the broader disruption of natural and social systems by environmental change and capitalism.

And, perhaps more deeply, it recognises that we inhabit a world in which we ourselves are being altered, not just by technology and social transformation, but by the shifting terms of our engagement with what we would once have called the natural world. If one wanted to define when this change became apparent perhaps you might point to the floods and fires that tore through Australia over the summer of 2010/11, or the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or the droughts in the Middle East in 2008, or any one of the flooding events or hurricanes or droughts or heatwaves that have struck countries around the world in recent years, but perhaps the really significant moment was earlier this year, when average CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere passed 400ppm for the first time since the Pliocene. As Virginia Woolf might have put it, on or about March 2015, human character changed.

What we call the literary expressions of this condition is an open question. The obvious choice is Anthropocene fiction, although I’m resistant to that term, both because like cli fi it suggests a set of generic boundaries, instead of emphasising the degree to which this transformation leaches into everything, and because it emphasises human agency when, to my mind at least, what many of the books and stories we wish to discuss are attempting to find ways to talk about the non-human in fictional terms (I also think it’s worth making the point that while the idea of the Anthropocene is usually assumed to embrace the effect upon the natural world by human activity, but it also – and importantly – embraces a different and more interstitial kind of ecological awareness, one that recognises the presence of wildness and the natural world within the fabric of the human world).

Yet still, given that this idea of the transformation of the natural world, and of the end of a particular idea of nature is central, I wonder whether it mightn’t be simplest to begin to speak of the post-natural, or post-naturalism, and to begin to think of it not as a fad or a fashion or a genre, but as a tangible condition, something shaped and defined by the transformation of the natural world by human agency that is going on around us, and which helps determine the nature of the way we see the world, the questions we ask, and perhaps most importantly, the stories we tell.

 

Write Around The Murray

Detail from Kathy Holowko's 'Batmania', featured at Write Around the Murray.

Detail from Kathy Holowko’s ‘Batmania’, featured at Write Around the Murray.

Just a quick note to say that if you’re in the Riverina I’ll be appearing at Write Around The Murray in Albury on the weekend of 12-13 September. The full program was announced a couple of weeks ago, and features a bunch of fantastic people, but if you’d like to catch me I’ll be discussing ‘When Sci-Fi becomes Cli-Fi’ with Jane Rawson, Cat Sparks and Tim Flannery at 1:00pm on Saturday 12 September, and at 3:00pm on Sunday 13 September I’ll be in conversation with Jason Steger as part of Write Around the Murray’s Big Book Club. Both events are at LibraryMuseum, Corner of Kiewa and Swift Streets, Albury, and you can RSVP online.

And just a reminder that I’ll be appearing at Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend and Brisbane Writers Festival the weekend after.

Apocalypse Now? The Big Issue’s Fiction Issue

I’ve got a story in the new Big Issue, which hits the streets today. Entitled ‘Solstice’, it’s part of the magazine’s annual Fiction Issue, which this year is focussed on fiction about the end of the world.

I’ve not had a chance to read the whole magazine yet but since it features stories from writers of the calibre of Margo Lanagan, Miles Franklin shortlistee Tony Birch and Sophie Cunningham, as well as an essay by the depressingly multi-talented James Franco I’m sure it’s brilliant.

Of course it’s always a buzz when a new story goes out into the world, but I’m particularly pleased about the publication of this one (which is set ten minutes from now amidst the melting glaciers of Antarctica) because it’s also the first part of the novel I’ve been working on for the past few months, and which I’m very, very excited about.

So what else can I say but do yourself a favour and grab a copy of the magazine today? After all, how often do you get to grab a pile of great stories and help people who really need it at the same time?

Waves, the ocean and the sublime

Today’s Australian contains the last Australian Literary Review for 2010. A chunk of the issue is given over to a long piece by Michael Costa suggesting some solutions to the problems facing the ALP and a forum of prominent academics such as Glyn Davis, Peter Doherty and Stephen Lincoln exploring the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and the world as we look forward to 2020.

But the issue also features a long piece by me about Susan Casey’s new book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Ocean’s Greatest Furies. Some of you may know Casey as the author of The Devil’s Teeth, which explored the world of Great White Sharks and the researchers who study them, and while it’s largely shark-free, The Wave often reads like a sequel or counterpart to its predecessor, using the career of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton as the springboard for a much larger study of the science of waves and the gathering storm of climate change.

I won’t rehearse the arguments of the book here, except to say that it’s an intelligent, if sometimes slightly slick piece of work. I’ve subsequently learned there’s been something of a scandal about the fact Casey shared the proceeds from the book with Hamilton, a fact that lends her already over-eroticised and hagiographical descriptions of him a distinctly queasy edge. But as I say in the review, Casey writes brilliantly about the breaks themselves, and the larger picture the book paints of the effects of climate change on ocean turbulence and wave height is likely to be deeply disturbing to anybody who’s not familiar with the facts surrounding the changes taking place beneath the ocean’s surface (if this material is new to you you might want to take a moment to read this story from the ABC, and perhaps this piece by Elizabeth Kolbert as a primer).

Much of what I want to say is in the review itself, but there is one story in Casey’s book I desperately wanted to include but just couldn’t shoehorn in, and that concerns the wave that hit Alaska’s Lituya Bay in 1958. Situated midway between Vancouver and Anchorage, Lituya Bay is one of those rare places where the various factors that generate tsunamis converge, combining a narrow fjord and near vertical cliffs on three sides with a steeply rising bottom, large glaciers and seismic instability. First charted by La Perouse in 1786, it has a long history of sudden and violent wave activity.

But the wave that struck on 9 July 1958 dwarfs all other recorded waves. Triggered by an earthquake, the ocean sent a tsunami which reached 524m in height rolling through the bay and out to sea.

The notion of a wave more than half a kilometre high beggars belief. Yet it is not the most remarkable part of this story. That honour belongs to the fact that at the time of the tsunami several fishing boats were moored in the bay, and one of the captains, Howard Ulrich, survived by steering his boat up the face of the approaching wave.

You can read the review in full here.

Update: I thought these two videos, one of Laird Hamilton in action, the other of an unidentified surfer riding a very big wave might be of interest (thanks to Tim Dunlop for the reminder).