The Most Important Stories of Our Time: Anthropogenic Climate Change in Fiction (Part 3)

Climate Change Reading Suggestions

In Parts One and Two of this climate change and literature series I explored whether climate change is well-represented in fiction. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that modern literary fiction does not adequately represent climate change issues. He contends that we have been suffering from a lack of cultural imagination when it comes to telling these imperative stories about our changing world. On the surface, this seems like a salient point, and in some respects it is. Climate change issues have not been at the forefront of fiction writing and Ghosh’s call for “transformed and renewed art and literature” with more of a focus on climate issues is to the point.

The flip side of the coin, however, is that we as readers have not been looking for climate issues in what we read. Ghosh and others state that we have been conditioned to pay attention only to the human aspects or characters in modern stories. Because of this, we have generally been missing the traces, however miniscule, of anthropogenic climate change in literature. As an example, I recently read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and there is a wonderful little passage that touches on some climate change issues:

“Paul and I are in his garden harvesting fresh basil for a pesto recipe he promised to teach me. We successfully avoid talking about the past, having brushed by it earlier that morning. We talk, instead, of cage-free eggs. He pauses from his picking, pulls his cap over his brow and lectures, with steeled intensity, on how antibiotics cause infections in commercially farmed hens, that the bees are dying and how, without them, the country would lose its entire food supply in less than three months, how you should cook olive oil on low heat because burning it would release free radicals that cause cancer.

We sidestep ourselves in order to move forward.”

Had I not read The Great Derangement or been researching this article, this brief conversation about the very real perils of a declining honey bee population would have gone mostly unnoticed by me. I find now that I’m hyper-aware of any mentions of climate change issues in whatever I’m reading. It may not be a central theme, but once you start looking, the undercurrent of climate change anxiety is present in more literature than expected.

The following are books (and one web-site) that I read or re-read while writing this story, and that I specifically recommend. For a more comprehensive list of both fiction and non-fiction books, check out Literary Hub’s “Every Day is Earth Day” reading lists (divided into four parts, The Classics, The Science, The Novels and Poems, and The Ideas), as well as their Climate Change Library for short articles related to climate change and literature. Another excellent resource for author interviews and book reviews, all focused on anthropomorphic climate change, is the “Burning Worlds” section at the Chicago Review of Books website.

Non-Fiction

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and The Unthinkable – Amitav Ghosh (2016)

Ghosh’s book served as the backbone for this article. Ghosh provides a compelling argument for why we currently seem to be “deranged” when it comes to conceptualizing and dealing with anthropogenic climate change. He structures his book in three parts: Stories, History, and Politics. Ghosh delves into the history of the modern novel and why he believes it has been inadequate in representing climate change. For me, the most eye-opening, yet world-view affirming parts were the History and Politics sections. Ghosh breaks down how not just capitalism but, perhaps more detrimentally, western imperialism gave rise to and in many cases continues to fuel the inequalities inherent in climate change. This book provides a unique, non-Eurocentric view, of human caused climate change and our collective failure to address it thus far. 

Excerpt:

[I]f the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over – and this, I think, is very far from being the case.

But why? Are the currents of global warming too wild to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration? But the truth, as is now widely acknowledged, is that we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm: if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these torrents, then they will have failed – and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.

No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference – Greta Thunberg (2019)

A slim volume that collects the speeches of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. While many of the speeches are repetitive when they are read back-to-back, they nevertheless pack a scientific and emotional punch.

Excerpt from a speech made during the Extinction Rebellion “Declaration of Rebellion” protest in London, October 31, 2018:

When I was about eight years old, I first heard about something called climate change, or global warming. Apparently, that was something humans had created by our way of living. I was told to turn off the lights to save energy, and to recycle paper to save resources.

I remember thinking that it was very strange that humans, who are an animal species among others, could be capable of changing the earth’s climate.

Because, if we were and if it was really happening, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. As soon as you turned on the TV, everything would be about that. Headlines, radio, newspapers. You would never read or hear about anything else. As if there was a world war going on.

But. No one talked about it. Ever.

Climate and Literature – Ed. Adeline Johns-Putra (2019)

This new academic volume collects work from scholars who examine the history of climate and literature. The authors treat such disparate topics as the agency of climate in Greek and Roman work, literary politics of transatlantic climates, terraforming other planets, and the climate change novel, among numerous other topics. Taken as a whole, the book challenges the idea that climate belongs strictly in the realm of science as the authors detail the lineage of and links between climate and the written word.

Excerpt:

From ancient literature onwards, we find recorded the effects of weather in both extraordinary and everyday terms. Certainly, from classical to Renaissance literature, dramatic weather events abound in literature, whether Homer’s storms or Shakespeare’s, but predictability and familiarity, too, have their affective dimensions; we see this in season’s poetry through the ages and in various cultural traditions, where seasonal characteristics are linked to stock feelings, expressions, and subjects. In the literary – and, indeed, human – imagination, day-to-day climatic stability and unusual weather events are inextricably linked as two sides of the conceptualization of climate as fundamentally stable […].

Greenpeace Climate Visionaries Artists’ Project – various contributors (2020)

Although it’s not in book form, this new collaborative project from Greenpeace is a worthwhile addition to this list. Each day in January 2020, the website posted a new commentary on climate change from some of today’s leading creatives.

Excerpt from “Dénaturé,” an essay by Jamie Quatro:

On the drive home I can’t stop thinking about Alice’s dénaturé. Something dead that goes on behaving as if it’s alive. Like zombies, I think, or ghosts. 

[…]

The particular horror of ghosts and zombies, I think, lies not in their ability to terrify, but in the fact that they were once human: babies carried and birthed and loved by human mothers. They represent the particular horror of something good gone very, very wrong. They’re dead but don’t know it. They go on acting alive.And this, I think, is the particular horror of climate change: entire innocent populations are denatured against their will and they don’t know it. Armadillos go on being armadillos and don’t realize they’ve migrated to places they were never meant to live; mother albatrosses go on feeding their babies plastic lids, the babies go on dying, the cycle repeats; camels eat plastic bags and starving reindeer keep searching for grass beneath the ice, and only the humans with the power to do something can recognize the fact that all of it is terribly, terrifyingly dénaturé.

Non-Fiction/Fiction Hybrid

A Year Without a Winter – Ed. Dehlia Hannah (2018)

This interesting collection of fiction and non-fiction can be read as a thoughtful response to The Great Derangement. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is the collective writing assignment, set out by the editors, meant to replicate Lord Byron’s 1816 ghost story challenge which resulted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A Year Without a Winter features new science fiction stories by Tobias S. Buckell, Nancy Kress, Nnedi Okorafor, and Vandana Singh along with Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness,” an excerpt from Frankenstein, and several non-fiction essays dealing with the relationships between climate change, literature, art, and the human experience. It’s an engrossing book that has it all.

Excerpt from Editors’ Introduction by Brenda Cooper and Joey Eschrich:

We all live enmeshed in scientific realities, whether we like it or not. Science fiction helps bring the science thrumming in the backgrounds of our lives – from radio waves knitting together the planet to blood pumping through our arteries – into the foreground. […] Science fiction is uniquely well-suited to the era of climate chaos: it clarifies that our diagnosis of climate change and our responses to it are all caught up in both science and sociality, our methods and instruments of measurement, in cultural values and priorities, in faith, both in gods and in the veracity of our economic system. Equally important, it invites us into empathy with people whose lives and situations and opportunities and thought processes are utterly alien. The right story can clarify the stakes of climate chaos in terms of human anguish and anxiety and displacement and hope abandoned, hope stubbornly enduring.

Fiction

Looking Backward 2000-1887 – Edward Bellamy (1888)

Although not about climate change (the closest the novel comes is to praise the disappearance of polluting smokestacks from the Boston skyline of the year 2000), Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel has distinctive passages that could be applicable to how future generations may look on our own time and dealings with the climate crisis. This novel is a good example of rereading works to look for traces of anthropogenic climate change. It’s an interesting read, from a man born in Chicopee, MA, that describes how one 19th century author hoped our future would pan-out.

Excerpt:

Then he observed, “And you tell me that even then there was no general recognition of the nature of the crisis which society was nearing? Of course, I fully credit your statement. The singular blindness of your contemporaries to the signs of the times is a phenomenon commented on by many of our historians […].”

Feed – M.T. Anderson (2002)

I first read Feed in a communications class as an undergrad, and I’ve been recommending it to others ever since. This young adult novel is set in the near-ish future when everyone has computing technology implanted into their bodies. It is more of a commentary on how technology is changing our interactions with people and the world around us, but there is mention of extreme environmental changes, like the fact that CloudsTM have replaced the real things and traditional farming practices no longer exist.

Excerpt:

It smelled like the country. It was a filet mignon farm, all of it, and the tissue spread for miles around the paths where we were walking. It was like these huge hedges of red all around us, with these beautiful marble patterns running through them. They had these tubes, they were bringing the tissue blood, and we could see the blood running around, up and down. It was really interesting. I like to see how things are made, and to understand where they come from.

It was a perfect afternoon. They had made part of it into a steak maze, for tourists, and we split up in the steak maze and tried to see who could get to the center first.

Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward (2011)

Ward won the 2011 National Book award for her visceral novel which follows a black family in rural Mississippi right before and after Hurricane Katrina hit. The hurricane becomes a central character in its own right as Ward personifies the storm to great effect. It is in this personification of nature that Ward’s novel embodies exactly the type of literary fiction about climate change that Ghosh calls for in his book. Salvage the Bones is about so much more than just the hurricane, but the story highlights how it will be the poorest members of society who will suffer the most from the adverse events caused by climate change.

Excerpt:

The water swallows, and I scream. My head goes under and I am tasting it, fresh and cold and salt somehow, the way tears taste in the rain. […] [M]y head bobs above the water but the hand of the hurricane pushes it down, down again. Who will deliver me? And the hurricane says ssssshhhhhhhhh. It shushes me through the water, with a voice muffled and deep […].

Love in the Anthropocene – Dale Jamieson and Bonnie Nadzam (2015)

This is a beautiful, but quietly heartbreaking little volume of short stories which imagine how people of the not-too-distant future may experience love in a world devoid of the sublimity of nature. The stories are remarkably recognizable and range from a father-daughter fishing trip, to the dichotomy between a homeless man and an office worker, to an awkward first date marred by feelings of culpability about the state of the planet. The five short stories are bounded by an introduction and an afterword that get quite philosophical, but not preachy, about the nature of love.

Excerpt:

“You know,” he said, “in the future they’ll say we didn’t do enough. Especially people like me. I do nothing.”

“There’s nothing else we can do. Make people comfortable if we can. That’s it.”

“Don’t you worry that we’re in the midst of something bigger that we can’t see?”

“You see what’s in front of you. You do what needs doing.”

“A lot of people wouldn’t do it.”

South Pole Station – Ashley Shelby (2017)

Set at Antarctica’s Amundsen-Scott station, Shelby’s first novel focuses on “Polies,” a motley crew of scientists, construction and support staff, and artists in residence, living in the harsh environment at the end of the Earth. The novel was slow to get into the meat of the story and felt overly expository at times (the author is an award-winning journalist), but it succeeds in weaving politics, science, and interpersonal relationships together into a believable story about climate change circa 2003. Laced with whip-smart humor, this is surely a prime example of Ghosh’s call for realist climate fiction.

Excerpt:

“How is it that people like this have the power to shut down an entire research base?” Sri said to no one. “I mean, what about the medical science that makes it possible for them to go in for their triple bypasses and come out as fresh as a newly plucked daisy? Did a Jesus in scrubs float down on a cloud of ether and come up with the protocols for that shit? I hate humanity. And yet I’m down here because I want to save humanity from certain suffering and death once this planet bursts into fucking flames.”

“You’re a misanthrope with a heart,” Pearl said cheerfully.

Cooper glanced over at Sal, who was still squeezing Sri’s shoulder. “No,” he said. “He’s a scientist on a choke chain.”

Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-speculation – Eds. Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland (2017)

This collection of short stories, poetry, and artwork is what you might expect from a stereotypically sci-fi take on climate change. While there is nothing especially ground-breaking in the collection, it is a good introduction to the genre. The foreword to the volume includes a brief definition of solarpunk, helpfully placing it within the larger science fiction genre. The stories and poems are entertaining and sometimes thought provoking, but the artwork, consisting of black and white drawings, is sadly disappointing.

Excerpt from “Strandbeest Dreams” by Lisa M. Bradley and José M. Jimenez (after Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests):

Star-lit, lupus-bit
The Hands reviewed the last few
screens of diagnostics, wondered at
the widening gyre of introspection
that paralyzed but

So sorry, ‘beest

cold-scoured, stiff-fingered
she simply hit REBOOT.

I hurt
in parts you don’t have,
ache in ways
you can’t comprehend.
All I wanted was to go home,
don an analgesic patch, and collapse,
agony not silenced,
but mercifully muted.

When the Strandbeest started dreaming
The Hands kept it home for observation,
programmed it to patrol the quarter-mile
in front of HQ.
Once the clan dispersed, each
to its own zone of eco-rehab,
The Hands conducted

TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS TESTS

The Overstory – Richard Powers (2018)

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, this slow moving novel by Richard Powers gives voice to trees, arguably one of the most familiar and symbolic elements of nature. The story follows several characters, each of whom, in some way or another, have been profoundly affected by trees. Compared to some of the others on this list, The Overstory didn’t hold my attention, especially after the first two-thirds; however, I consider it worth the read for the accurate scientific facts about trees and the ideas about the agency of nature within the story.

Excerpt:

Close your eyes and think of willow. The weeping you see will be wrong. Picture an acacia thorn. Nothing in your thought will be sharp enough. […]

All the ways you imagine us – bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal – are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.

Tentacle – Rita Indiana (English translation 2018; original Spanish 2015)

Rita Indiana is a Dominican musician and writer whose work is just beginning to be translated into English. Tentacle is set in Santo Domingo in three different time periods. In the near future, a biological weapons disaster has wiped out all ocean life and left nothing but disease and destruction. In our own time period, a group of artists are gathered to create an art installation in order to raise money for an ocean research station. Finally, in the 17th century an isolated community of buccaneers eke out an existence through leather production and trade with passing pirates. Replete with voodoo magic and ritual, high-tech medical interventions, and multiple realities, Tentacle is not what I was expecting from a work of climate fiction. It tackles questions of art, climate change, history, poverty, queer politics, sexuality, and technology to explore what people really care about in the end. This was a surprising read that once I started, I couldn’t put down.

Excerpt:

The movie is Blue Lagoon and it’s being screened in the dining room of La Victoria prison, while the inmates swallow their portions of synthetic protein and water. It’s summer. A row of industrial ceiling fans is useless against the temperature, forty-six degrees Celcius in the shade. Movies in which the sea is full of fish and humans run in bare skin under the sun are now part of the required programming during this season, just like movies about Christ during Holy Week.

“Isn’t that something, that now that the seas’s dead, that’s when they come round to believing in its power?” says an old man with a Cuban accent. […] 

“In a few years, when those of us who saw it are no longer around, people will talk about the fish in the sea as though they were unicorns.”

2040 A.D. (McSweeney’s Quarterly Review, No. 58) – various authors (2019)

This stunning volume features ten all-new short stories that imagine our world as it might be in twenty years if we allow the global average temperature to rise more than another half-degree Celsius. While all set in the year 2040, the stories span the globe and several genres. I was most captivated by Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Night Drinker,” a horrific tale that explains the natural and man-made disasters that take place during the last days of Mexico City. Written in the form of a chronicle, a historian details the rise of a self-styled shaman who gathers devotees in a return to the worship of a terrifying old god: Xipe Totec. With a sense of disquietude the historian writes, “If you who finds this chronicle do not know how to say such a name, try saying this: Sheep eh Toltec. Leave out the L. But I beseech you, do not say it out loud. The God of the Harvest. Also known as the Flayed One. The Skinned God. Father of Suffering. And The Night Drinker.”  

Climate refugees, unpredictable and volatile weather, food scarcity, and police states feature in nearly every story, dire predictions of our possible future. But along with these issues there is no shortage of human resilience, small acts of kindness, and hope that it is still possible to make the world just a little bit better. With contributions from the likes of Urrea, Tommy Orange, and Elif Shafak, among others, the stories are just plain good writing.

Excerpt from “New Jesus” by Tommy Orange:

I should clarify about how much water we walk in. It’s not as if we always walk in water, it’s that the tide has risen, comes higher when it comes. There’s not always water we have to walk in but it’s there more often than it’s not. We’d wanted to leave, but couldn’t afford to just up and go. We got used to it, got used to the storms and floods and the heat, got used to knowing the end of the world had finally arrived not with a bang but a whimper, or a series of minor disasters. Actually too many people call it the end of the world when the world, the earth, would be just fine without us, better off actually, give or take an era or eon or age or whatever amount of time the world might need to get over us.

Once you start reading through a “climate change lens” there is so much fiction to explore.

What works of fiction have you read that you feel address climate change issues? Are there any classic novels that you think contain references to climate change? Please share in the comments!

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