Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining important trends in climate change fiction, or “cli-fi.”
In 1970, Brad Follett designated April as Earth Month, and every April since, the Earth Month Network, the group that oversees official Earth Month activities, has worked to bring greater awareness to environmentalism and the need to protect and conserve our planet’s natural resources. This year, Earth Month’s theme is “Our Changing Climate,” a topic meant to generate discussions about how climate change “has and will continue to impact our lives globally.”
To celebrate Earth Month 2017, this installment of “Burning Worlds” features a round-up of some of today’s most prominent cli-fi authors — Lydia Millet, T.C. Boyle, Kim Stanley Robinson, Alice Robinson, Edward Rubin, Helen Phillips, Michelle Tea, Nathaniel Rich, Eric Shonkwiler, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Barbara Kingsolver — who are also bringing greater awareness to climate change through their fiction. I asked them each to respond to this question: What can fiction tell us about climate change that scientific reports can’t?
I also asked them to recommend a favorite cli-fi novel or non-fiction book about climate change. Their answers proved to be even more thoughtful and urgent than I imagined.
“Climate change is still so abstract for so many people, its impacts so mysterious — despite the fact that we’re already seeing impacts — that we need fiction, in books and film and all narrative media, to run imaginative models for us. That’s the only way the stunning scale of the transformations that are coming will be made emotionally real in the short term. We need to understand now how the story of the future changes under the drastic climate change scenarios that are increasingly likely. There’s no chance of political will being summoned fast enough to stop catastrophe unless greater pressure is brought by the culture to force an energy and economic revolution.
I’d recommend Karel Capek’s The War with the Newts, Marcel Theroux’s Far North, and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, a disaster story that takes on sea-level rise in Manhattan.” —Lydia Millet, author of Pills and Starships (Black Sheep, 2014)
“What fiction can do—what it does, inexhaustively—is to put us inside the heads of characters as they endure, enjoy, conquer or submit to the crises this mysterious world thrusts on us all. So it is with climate change, species extinction, island biogeography, the refugee crisis and other issues I’ve examined in my fiction. Often, non-fiction, passionately written and argued, can turn the reader off because it tries too hard to push a point, because it is advocacy rather than argument. People tell me that my 2000 novel, A Friend of the Earth, with its satiric (and, I hope, ultimately moving) take on what awaits us regarding global warming, opened their eyes, made them feel, in the way that much non-fiction did not.
That said, I am addicted to science writing, which is where I find so much of my inspiration. Two of my foundational [non-fiction] titles are Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From A Catastrophe, which takes no prisoners in its portrait of the destruction climate change is wreaking. The other is Carl Safina’s elegiac The View From Lazy Point. I love the creatures of the sea and the soil and the air, and I love my own species too—it is so very sad to see it all going away right now, right here in our own time.” —T.C. Boyle, author of A Friend of the Earth (Penguin Books, 2000)
“Fiction can tell us how new situations will feel, and also, what things mean. This is what it is for and what it always does. There are many good [novels about climate change,] but this time I’ll recommend Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker.“ —Kim Stanley Robinson, author of New York 2140 (Orbit, 2017)
“Scientific reports are only projections, best estimates based on facts. But fiction can transport us into the now of a climatically altered future, showing us not only what the world will look like, but also how it will be experienced. Even more powerfully, fiction has the capacity to talk in emotional terms about what will be lost. While science is able to communicate the scope of potential extinction and so on, fiction can portray the associated grief. It can go where science cannot: into memory and desire, hearts and minds, charting the capacity of the human race to reflect on what has transpired, to remember and, regardless, to soldier on.
In the late 1980’s, Australian writer George Turner published a novel called The Sea and Summer (renamed Drowning Towers for US distribution) portraying Melbourne, my home city, as a derelict and impoverished floodplain under pressure of global warming. Australia is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change given its environmental history and its conditions; this novel strikes me as eerie in its prescience.” —Alice Robinson, author of Anchor Point (Affirm Press, 2015)
“A work of fiction provides a sense of immediacy that non-fiction often lacks. A good novel creates convincing characters who can carry the reader into a past, future, distant or simply different world. A good plot then moves the reader through that world, providing a visceral, unfolding experience that parallels the reader’s sense of what it feels like to live in a particular time and place. This is crucial in the case of climate change. Some people understand that we need to rethink the way we manage our society. For others, future crises are simply too abstract or too far removed from their present-day existence to motivate any behavior but irrational denial. The only way to reach them may be through the immediacy of fiction.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, is mainly about threats to the world’s food supply, but it is set against a background of global warming and is a tour de force of imaginative writing.” —Edward Rubin, author of The Heatstroke Line (Sunbury Press, 2015)
“Facts, figures, predictions—we absorb them intellectually, but we don’t feel them in our bodies. Fiction, though, enables us to imagine our way into new realities, into other bodies. As a mother, I find myself using my imagination to envision the worst possible scenarios (that pot of boiling water tipping onto the toddler reaching for the handle) in order to prevent them (distract toddler with measuring spoons ASAP).
In Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, the environment poses a dire and unexplained threat, particularly to children, who suffer from mysterious illnesses. The disturbing ambiguity of the dangers present in the novel calls to mind the warnings about climate change—we don’t know how much, how fast, how bad, and the eeriness of not knowing is topped only by the eeriness of knowing that it, whatever it is, has become inevitable.” —Helen Phillips, author of Some Possible Solutions (Henry Holt and Co., 2016)
“In a time when the existence of climate change is still being debated or denied, novels exploring the inevitable consequences of global warming are crucial. For many, climate change exists as a headline, a concept, a vague future. Fiction can obliterate this vagueness and situate us in the consequences, utilizing the writers’ tricks of world-building and engaging all five senses to really show us what climate change is and what the future looks like for us, for you and me, here, on earth, our home. It’s a poet’s job to find links and patterns that aren’t obvious, and this skill, when applied to the massive cause and effect of global warming, can make global warming human, not theoretical, showing us devastation on a more intimate, personal scale.
I recommend The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, whose writing about the planet is always so wise and accessible and clear-eyed.” —Michelle Tea, author of Black Wave (And Other Stories, 2017)
“What fiction does very well—better than any other form—is to mediate between the public realm and one’s own private universe. As Saul Bellow put it, the novelist’s concern is “man’s heart.” How do the events of the world, big and small, affect the inner life of a single person? How, for instance, do the hierarchical social structures of the British Regency interfere with the emotional life of Elizabeth Bennet? How does Holden Caulfield negotiate the phoniness of post-war American society? But in the exchange between public and private life, the novelist’s emphasis almost always lies heavily on the latter—man’s heart.
There is an enormous body of nonfiction literature written for a general audience on the subject [of climate change], much of it excellent, and an even more prodigious volume of scientific literature. But fiction has until now only offered a tentative response to this torrent of information and dread. It would be like if, four decades after Hiroshima, only a few scattered novels had been written about the atomic bomb. This has begun to change in recent years and inevitably we will see many more novelists address the subject in the years to come. At a certain point, it’s unavoidable. The creeping sense that we’re destroying our civilization, that we know we’re doing it but can’t stop ourselves, has become a dominant fact of contemporary life.
I love Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. Don DeLillo, Ray Bradbury, JG Ballard, and Martin Amis wrote about many similar existential questions in their fiction, though they were writing about nuclear anxiety, not climate. The nuclear problem—which persists, by the way—and the climate problem seem to me to be different manifestations of the same crisis of human civilization.” —Nathaniel Rich, author of Odds Against Tomorrow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)
“While scientific data can tell us virtually everything fiction can, fiction renders that data in accessible ways. Good climate fiction will immerse a reader into a world–essentially sinking them into the hyperobject that is climate change–and consistently reveal the impact on humanity that climate change will wreak, all in a manner that scientific reports can’t achieve. Compare a projection that examines a 4C rise in global temperature with a novel that speculates on an American famine, and you’ll see, in practical terms, the same information–but you’ve affected a very different swath of readers.
I would recommend Berit Ellingsen’s novel Not Dark Yet. It’s a ruminative look at a young man as he struggles to find his place, and peace, in a near-future world in which climate change has begun to shake the planet. It’s particularly potent because climate change is infrequently the prime motivator of the plot, yet it is omnipresent, providing a realistic and subtle examination of an existential threat.” —Eric Shonkwiler, author of Above All Men (MG Press, 2013)
The opportunity that fiction presents related to climate is the same one it presents when discussing any topic that we’re hostile to, or that is outside of our experience. Many of my friends are science journalists, and I see two big barriers for them:
1) As responsible journalists, they can only report on what we’re seeing now. Sea ice collapse, polar bears and grizzlies interbreeding, permafrost melting, what have you. They cannot say what will happen tomorrow, as indeed, it is speculation, mostly contained in scientific reports that can give us numbers and potentialities;
2) Readers who have hardened their thinking about climate collapse are largely immune to facts. They’ve built up neurological walls that don’t allow them to learn any more; a new article filled with more facts can’t breach that defense.
Entertainment, on the other hand, still can sneak over the walls. Someone who doesn’t think climate collapse is real can still sleep with the liberal enemy in the pages of a book. After all, it’s all made up, right? Ideally the result is that a reader becomes emotionally connected to something that was distant, abstract, and systemic. Ultimately, speculative fiction like this can help us build empathy for our future selves, and our future children’s lives. We can’t live those lives right now, but through the power of imagination, we can think differently about the present. Try Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital series, or else his novel Aurora, which looks at how difficult it is to recreate an entire earth-like biosphere from scratch. We only have one world. It seems prudent not to break it.” —Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Water Knife (Knopf, 2015)
“Fiction, unlike journalism, directly reveals the insides of people’s minds. That’s useful on the subject of climate change because the problem is almost too big for humans to grasp. Even if we know it’s causing droughts, fires, famine, and extinctions, we’re left struggling to identify an antagonist. Fiction can personalize the victims of famine or drought, and give an emotional shape to an adversity that is really–let’s face it–a gigantic physics problem. It’s not easy to do, but it’s possible.
When I wrote Flight Behavior, I wanted to explore the ways people think about climate change: why we resist the evidence, why our convictions follow a cultural divide, how we make decisions about what we accept as truth. It’s fascinating territory, and relevant to the civic process as we try to reach agreements on where to go from here.
If fiction writers have been slow to take up climate change as a subject, it may be because they need a comfortable authority over their material. I’m the odd writer who was a biology major, so I’ve always gravitated toward science as background or even foreground of my novels. But this material shouldn’t intimidate writers. After all, we educate ourselves about plenty of things beyond our direct experience in order to construct plots. Libraries are full of accessible nonfiction books explaining climate change in its full context–physical, biological, socioeconomic. Two of my favorites are Eaarth by Bill McKibben and This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.” —Barbara Kingsolver, author of Flight Behavior (Harper, 2012).
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.