The Most Important Stories of Our Time: Anthropogenic Climate Change in Fiction (Part 2)

Part One of this series outlined a brief history of climate change and charted how the numbers of non-fiction climate change publications have changed over time. The enormous spatial and temporal scope of climate change has led to a cultural “disbelief” and “failure of imagination” which seems to affect the ways in which we tell the story of the Earth’s changing climate. Although the number of non-fiction climate change publications have increased, there seem to have been very few serious attempts at including climate change issues in literary fiction.

Part Two of this series will first look at the role of fiction in contextualizing complex issues like climate change, then how climate and weather were represented in fictional literature in the past and why anthropomorphic climate change seems to be underrepresented in modern fiction. Finally, we’ll investigate how our role as readers may be more important than we realize in terms of finding climate change issues in what we read.

Fiction, What Is It Good For?

“I enjoy good fiction.”

“In this case,” was the grave reply, “no fiction could be so strange as the truth.” – Edward Bellamy (Looking Back 2000-1887, 1888)

Even though climate change is a complex topic to deal with, disseminating information in the form of non-fiction, whether that be books, news stories, or scientific reports, seems to be the “easy” part of writing about the issue. In an article for The Conversation, Adeline Johns-Putra writes that there seems to be more of a difficulty in the transformation of this important information “into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.”

Useful for more than just escapism, reading fiction helps us hone our skills of cognitive empathy or “representative thinking.” Novelist Namwali Serpell wrote a brilliant piece about the empathy we experience while reading where she explains that as readers we can “make an active, imaginative effort to travel outside of [our] circumstances.” As readers, “[r]ather than virtually becoming another,” we can read about different experiences in order to “encompass the positions of others.” Serpell goes on to quote philosopher Hannah Arendt: “The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions.” The ability to understand what is happening in other minds and bodies, will (or at least should) be a quality that will serve us well when dealing with the very real impacts of human-caused climate change. 

Worcester Map No. 3, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2020

Potential psychological benefits aside, reading fiction, which by nature “deals in expedited timelines,” also allows us to conceptualize large-scale changes and helps us “begin to understand the process.” 

When we look at the world, we see it in pieces, and it’s hard to understand how those pieces fit together. On a linear timeline, how did we get from point A to point B? Fiction gives us context.

It makes the world clearer to see all of it at once — like flying high above the trees to see the forest, or looking at the world via a map — instead of on the ground where you can’t tell if there’s a street running parallel to the one you’re on.” – Hannah Frankman

Fiction’s ability to concentrate timeframes is a useful tool when dealing with an issue as complex as anthropogenic climate change. In an interview from 2012, Jesse Oak Taylor contends that the way literature speeds up the “slow violence” of climate change is akin to scientific modelling. Just as climate scientists use computer and mathematical models to examine and explain anthropogenic climate change, the “modeling process happens all the time in language as we understand the world. Metaphors are models that help us understand how different parts of the world fit together.” Taylor goes on to say that novels help with the “process of trying to imagine aggregated human action,” and anthropogenic climate change is arguably one of the most important aggregates of human action ever.

The Definition of Context, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2020

One of the phrases my graduate thesis advisor uttered time and again was, “Context, context, context.” Without context we are lost. Fiction, as a model, is a way for us to gain some context about the behemoth that is climate change. Fiction allows us to examine our predicament from multiple angles and allows us to consider any number of possible outcomes. What remains to be seen is if literary fiction is capable of contextualizing anthropogenic climate change in any meaningful way.

Climate as Subject and Climate as Stimulus

Art and literature, from the earliest iterations of the forms, have always featured representations of climate and weather events and how these have affected humans. Climate and Literature, a new academic text edited by Adeline Johns-Putra, highlights numerous examples of climate in literature from ancient times to today. Far from being absent in literature, these subjects appear again and again in written form. Weather cycles and anomalies are cited in sacred texts, Greco-Roman almanacs and geographies catalog weather phenomena and presumed links between air, health, and national character, while seasons poetry in various cultural traditions describe “seasonal characteristics […]  linked to stock feelings, expressions, and subjects.” 

In addition to being frequent subjects of literature, weather and climate have also acted as stimuli for writers. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, widely considered to be the first true science fiction novel, was written because of bad weather. In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia experienced a massive eruption, causing a volcanic winter in much of the northern hemisphere. In the summer of 1816, Shelley found herself cooped up, along with her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, friend Lord Byron, and other Romantic era personalities, in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Called “the year without a summer,” the weather was rainy and dark, prompting the friends to remain indoors much of the time. In order to stave off boredom, Byron suggested they write horror stories to entertain themselves. The climatic disruption caused by Mount Tambora’s eruption resulted in the composition of his poem “Darkness” and Shelley’s Frankenstein

Although it’s not about anthropogenic climate change, Frankenstein is still important to mention in any discussion about climate change and literature. The novel was written because of a drastic, albeit temporary, shift in the typical climate; “uncanny” weather became an artistic stimulus. In the introduction to A Year Without A Winter, Dehlia Hannah writes that Frankenstein “registers the unpredictable impact upon the literary imagination of an atmosphere in disarray. Just as the narrative itself continues to haunt our encounters with emerging science and technology, the conditions of its production offer an exemplary case study of creation from within a global environmental catastrophe.” 

Present-day climate change events, from destructive storms to the decimation of honey bee populations, have the potential to drastically alter modern ways of life on geographic and temporal scales much larger than those of the volcanic winter of 1816. If the so-called “year without a summer,” an ultimately short-lived disruption of the global climate, inspired the story of Frankenstein and Byron’s “Darkness,” what literature will be produced in the face of anthropogenic climate change? More importantly, since climate change has been in the public eye, however marginally, for decades, why haven’t we yet been inundated with these climate change stories?

Climate Change in Modern Literary Realist Fiction

Human-Centric, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2020

According to Ghosh, part of the answer to this question lies in the 18th century Enlightenment with the advent of the modern realist novel. Prior to the cultural changes of the Enlightenment, stories relied on fantastical and leaping plot devices to advance the narrative. Mirroring the direct observations and codification of nature happening in science, writers of the period began to include realistic descriptions of everyday life in their writing, ushering in the modern realist novel. Novels also started to center human characters and the grandeur of natural forces was “pushed farther and farther into the background” creating a narrow-view of focus. The novel became a self-contained, discrete package ill-suited to representing “inconceivably large” expanses of time and space – those challenging characteristics of anthropogenic climate change.

This hyper-focus on the small scale of the human and the everyday continues to be present in many works of modern fiction. Today when we pick up a realist novel, the fantastic, improbable, and sweeping is not what we necessarily expect to find between the covers. Ghosh’s contention that realist fiction has fallen short when it comes to climate change hinges on the idea that the events of climate change are too big, too uncanny, too “wildly improbable” to be represented with this type of writing. He writes,

“[…] it is commonly said, ‘If this were in a novel, no one would believe it.’ Within the pages of a novel an event that is only slightly improbable in real life – say, an unexpected encounter with a long-lost childhood friend – may seem wildly unlikely: the writer will have to work hard to make it appear persuasive.

“If that is true of a small fluke of chance, consider how much harder a writer would have to work to set up a scene that is wildly improbable even in real life? For example, a scene in which a character is walking down a road at the precise moment when it is hit by an unheard-of weather phenomenon?”

Last summer, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a novel set in present day Appalachia. In the book, Dellarobia, an unhappily married woman, discovers a wooded mountainside filled with monarch butterflies which, because of climate change, are wintering far north of their usual spot in Mexico. The improbability of the butterflies’ arrival drastically alters Dellarobia’s story arc and commands the rest of the novel.

When I first read the story, I have to admit I felt slightly annoyed by the “improbability” of the monarchs’ appearance. While I didn’t especially care for how the butterflies were introduced into the story, in the end I think Kingsolver did a good job of weaving climate change issues (via the butterflies) into her novel. Because it seems like an underrepresented demographic in climate change writing, I think it’s especially important that she describes the reactions and thought processes of a predominantly poor, rural population. When I read Ghosh’s book later, he even mentions Kingsolver’s work as being one of the very few examples of literary fiction which he thinks gets climate change right.

It is difficult at times to get past Ghosh’s incredibly high standards when it comes to what he feels literary fiction should be and what it is able to depict, a critique that has been mentioned by other writers as well. He seems to believe that a literary climate change novel should encompass the entirety of the spatial and temporal vastness of the issue, the myriad interconnections between climate change and other systems, in short, every aspect of climate change. Ghosh makes the argument that modern literary novels cannot represent climate change well because they are too constrained by time, space, and subject conventions. If, as Ghosh contends, literary fiction has been unsuccessful in representing climate change, are there other fiction genres more suited to telling the story?

The Magical Cli-fi Factor

Make Believe, K. Hydrick, photograph, 2020

While Ghosh makes a fascinating and persuasive argument for why literary fiction has thus far not managed to tackle climate change, for the most part he categorically dismisses the potential of other genres such as magical realism or science fiction. 

According to Ghosh, magical realist and surrealist novels aren’t suitable to portray climate change because the “weather events that we are now experiencing…are neither surreal nor magical.” Ghosh continues by saying that “to treat [climate change events] as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling – which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time.” What Ghosh somehow seems to be forgetting here is that we are talking about fiction, which strives, via make-believe, to grant readers a greater understanding and different perspective of the real-world situations in which we find ourselves. 

Ghosh treats the science fiction genre in a similar way. He quite colorfully contrasts “serious fiction” with science fiction and fantasy: “Inasmuch as the nonhuman [issue of climate change] was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.” As an enthusiastic sci-fi fan, I laughed upon reading this potentially incendiary quote. 

Ghosh states that when the topic of climate change appears in highly regarded literary journals or book reviews “it is almost always in relation to nonfiction.” However, “fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.”

Although the genre has been marginalized by the gatekeepers of “serious fiction,” Ghosh later admits that science fiction, and specifically climate fiction (cli-fi), is especially well suited to address issues of climate change. However, his reservations about the genre taking on the responsibility of climate change representation are similar to those he has about magical realism and surrealism. 

He laments that cli-fi “is made up mostly of disaster stories set in the future […] The future is but one aspect of the Anthropocene: this era also includes the recent past, and, most significantly, the present.” He claims that anthropogenic climate change “resists” science fiction because it is happening today, it is not taking place in another world, in another time, or another dimension. This is rather short-sighted, as he seemingly discounts the usefulness or impact of science fiction because the genre is too fantastic, too “other.” Dan Bloom, champion of cli-fi, criticized Ghosh’s fixation on genre: “Using words to tell a good story is all that matters. Genre is only important for organizing library shelves. Truly. Story is everything.” In the end, the genres of climate change fiction shouldn’t matter as long as the issue is being fictionalized at all.

What Ghosh is really looking for, and which he gives a few examples of, is realistic fiction that deals with anthropogenic climate change: fiction that is set in our current time period, with believable human characters, without the use of fantastical plot elements, and about climate change. He claims that literature that meets this criteria is virtually non-existent. But it isn’t exactly non-existent; as readers we may have only been missing it.

Re-reading Literary Fiction

Book Shelf, K. Hydrick, photograph, 2020

Ghosh is not wrong in suggesting that we need more stories about climate change, especially in modern realist fiction; this needs to happen, full stop. Our current environmental predicament requires artists to step up and tell the most important stories of our time. Equally as important, however, is our need as readers to reevaluate what and how we are reading. 

In his review of The Great Derangement, Jesse Oak Taylor argues that as readers we tend to focus “on individual characters and their domestic pursuits rather than the historical and/or geomorphological settings in which they appear.” Characters and their exploits do not exist in a vacuum, they are situated in a specific time and place which is also capable of being interpreted or (re)examined by the reader. Taylor reels off several examples, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to novels by Thomas Hardy, which contain hints and bits of information that point us toward the issues of anthropogenic climate change. He continues,

“there is a good reason to think more seriously about the position of the reader—and hence the capacity to reinterpret familiar works in a new way—in confronting the “great derangement.” A reader (or viewer) encountering a work of art is in a position of constrained freedom, limited not by the author’s intent but by the properties of the work itself.”

Taylor argues for us as readers to keep an open mind in order to find Ghosh’s “traces and portents of the altered world” wrought by climate change. These traces are not missing from literary fiction, as Ghosh contends, rather we have just not been looking for them. 

Chatterley’s Coal Miners, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2018

Because anthropogenic climate change has existed since the Industrial Revolution, it is possible that signs of these changes will also exist in realist novels from that point onward. From the coal miners in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover to the descriptions of the Dust Bowl in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, portents of climate change are already there in old familiar works. As James Bradley, author of the climate novel Clade, writes, “once you start looking, anxiety about climate change and environmental change is everywhere.”

Though it would be anachronistic to believe these authors shared our concerns, when taken together, these details provide glimpses of climate change. Whether or not these authors understood what they were portraying, future literary critics and historians will find myriad examples of anthropogenic climate change within past and present works of fiction, as will we as readers, if we pay attention.

But there’s always room for more representation as it were, and perhaps this is the real crux of Ghosh’s argument. Fiction up until very recently has not had a laser focus on climate change issues. Rather, it was a peripheral and perhaps unintentional aspect of literary fiction, but one which can be parsed out with reexamination of earlier works.

The Most Important Stories of Our Time

Climate Change Scrabble, K. Hydrick, photograph, 2020

Currently, there is more and more academic work and literary criticism being completed that deals with the relationships between climate science and fictional climate change stories. Dylan Harris, who completed his PhD at Clark University in Worcester, recently published an article about how climate scientists can adopt methods used by oral storytellers in order to better tell the stories of climate change research. Working with professional storytellers in Alaska and Appalachia, Harris presents techniques that storytellers believe could help scientists “find more meaningful ways to tell their stories to the people who need to hear them most.” And these stories are so important that everyone needs to hear them, from voters to politicians, rural farmers to city dwellers, young children to pensioners.

I have two young sons, so I watch way more than my fair share of kids’ TV shows. Reading Harris’ article immediately brought to mind “The Tales Glaciers Tell” (2017), an episode of The Magic School Bus Rides Again, which is surprisingly relevant to the idea of how we tell the story of climate change. In this episode, one of the kids, Dorothy Ann, is set to tell a story in front of a live audience, but while practicing in class she keeps inundating her listeners with facts and figures. 

Only relaying facts can overwhelm and potentially alienate, as Dorothy Ann discovers. In an NPR interview from 2013, Barbara Kingsolver explained that in writing her novel Flight Behavior she wanted to examine the possibilities of conversations “between scientists and non-scientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative – that when it comes to understanding the scientific truths about the world, there must be another way to bring information to people that is […] beyond simply condescending and saying, well, if only you had the facts. If only you knew what I did, then you would be a smart person. That gets you nowhere.” Storytelling is one way to start these conversations. 

Eventually, after taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy, Dorothy Ann wows her audience by combining science and entertainment to tell a thrilling tale of Earth’s changing climate. She has the right idea. The synthesis of scientific data and storytelling to create a cohesive and compelling whole is exactly what Ghosh hopes for in a “new” kind of realist climate novel.

Although Ghosh questions the ability of the realist novel to adequately represent climate change, James Bradley has the opposite opinion. He believes that the modern novel’s “mutability and variousness make it enormously adaptable” and “perfectly suited to [the] task” of telling climate change stories. Whether in the oral tradition, as Harris examines, or as written work, fiction has “a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness of readers who may not be following the science.” 

In 2013 Daniel Kramb, author of From Here, said that “when [people] look back at this 21st century … they will definitely see climate change as one of the major themes in literature, if not the major theme.” Twenty years into the 21st century, as climate change continues to affect our lived experiences, it only seems inevitable that authors will continue to “write about what [climate change does] to the human heart — write about the modern condition, essentially,” just like writers always have.

***

While researching and writing this article it was difficult to maintain any semblance of positivity regarding the world’s chances of combating climate change, but James Bradley had some wise words to keep hopelessness at bay: “The physical, conceptual and ethical immensity of climate change is overwhelming, so it’s unsurprising we tend to retreat into denial or despair. But the reality is that both responses are ultimately self-fulfilling, and if we’re going to move past them we need to learn to think about our situation in new ways and create a space in which we can imagine change. Fiction can make that space.” 

Writers and publishers are starting to produce more climate change fiction, of various genres. Literary fiction, genre fiction, graphic novels, poetry, etc. are all able to tell the complex stories of anthropogenic climate change. While new works are important additions to the climate change corpus, it is equally important that we as readers start to pay attention to how we read. Instead of focusing exclusively on the human aspects of literature we should consider the non-human elements as well. As we begin to read more dedicated climate fiction and reorient our ideas of who and what deserves attention in what we read, perhaps a “poetics of climate change” will slowly be defined.

Publishing or reading more stories about climate change will not magically cause the problem to go away. But, hopefully creating spaces in which we can explore the scope and severity of how climate change could impact humanity and the Earth will bring us one step closer to making the systemic changes needed to prevent disaster.

Part three, for anyone looking for further reading recommendations and resources, will be coming soon.

Please comment here - We love discussion!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.