Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate change fiction, or “cli-fi,” in partnership with Yale Climate Connections.
Next month, leaders from around the world will convene in Bonn, Germany for the annual United Nations conference on climate change. Not only will the meeting potentially affect international policy, it’ll serve as an important reminder that climate change—and any effort to mitigate it—is a global phenomenon.
Writers of climate fiction also come from around the globe. Case in point: James Bradley, an Australian novelist and literary critic, whose novel Clade hit shelves last month. He’s the author of three other novels and a book of poetry, as well as the editor of The Penguin Book of the Ocean.
In Clade, we follow one family and their closest friends over the course of several generations. As they change, so does the planet—floods, droughts, wildfires, animal extinction, and mysterious “horrors in Chicago” all occur with greater intensity and frequency as climate change wreaks havoc all over the Earth. It’s a stunningly beautiful novel, characterized as much by lyricism as pointed critique of how humans are stewarding the planet.
Bradley spoke to me about his aesthetic influences for Clade and how his native Australia informed the narrative.
I was fascinated by the structure of Clade. Like the title suggests, all the characters are related, through blood or via close friendships, and as they grow and change, so does the world around them. The result is a book that makes climate change feel very personal. How did you arrive at this structure?
When I began the book I knew I wanted to write about climate change, but I couldn’t see how to do it. The phenomenon is so huge and complex that it’s very difficult to dramatize. For a while I worked on a novel that tried to represent that immensity directly, but it was so vast and unwieldy and shapeless it just overwhelmed me.
And then one day it occurred to me I could just turn the whole thing inside-out. Instead of writing a book that was about everything and everywhere I could write a book that concentrated on a single family and use the particularity of their experiences to explore the ways in which climate change affected their lives.
Once I had that structure I realized it allowed me to do a whole series of things the much bigger novel couldn’t. The focus on the characters meant it was possible to explore the effects of climate change in a very personal way, and the generational nature of the story meant it was possible to talk about a whole series of questions about time and loss and deep time, all of which are absolutely central to the book as a whole (and indeed any discussion of climate change). And the fact it was about a family meant it was possible to illustrate not just the disruptions engendered by climate change, but also ideas of continuity, which ended up being very important.
I’m not sure I thought about it in these terms at the time, but what I was really up against was one of the fundamental problems with writing about climate change, which is the way its immensity and complexity resist the sorts of tools the novelist has at their disposal. That’s doubly true when you’re talking about literary or social realism: as Amitav Ghosh has observed, social realism seeks to smooth out and regularize the world by moving the extreme and the uncanny into the background, meaning novels that include the sorts of disasters that are an integral part of climate change are likely to end up looking cheap and trashy.
I suspect there’s also an even deeper problem though. Stories demand we break reality up into manageable chunks by selecting particular sequences of events and identifying beginnings, middles and ends. But climate change resists that process by demanding we recognize how interconnected everything is, meaning any attempt to parcel reality up making us uncomfortably aware of the artificiality of the process, and of narrative more generally.
That’s absolutely one of the problems I was wrestling with in Clade, and which the structure seeks to hold at bay. Instead of having a single through line, the book is intended to work more like a piece of music, so the different motifs and ideas create a large picture through the way they refract and repeat. The structure is also designed to be open-ended in some sense, so it opens outward (something you see in the way the time scale begins to expand outward exponentially toward the end). This last mattered very much to me, because I wanted the novel to create space for possibility by reminding the reader that the future is deep, and we’re not powerless to affect it.
At times your novel feels hopeful, and other times, depressingly pessimistic. What vision do you hold for humanity’s future? Will we find ways to mitigate climate change, perhaps even find ways to reduce carbon from the atmosphere? Or are we destined to destroy ourselves?
That’s a question I think about a lot. Paul Kingsnorth has written eloquently about the need to step outside history and recognize the reality of what is happening, the fact “no one wants to be the first to say the dam is cracked beyond repair,” and I often wonder whether he mightn’t be right, and despair isn’t the only realistic—or at least intellectually honest—response to the challenges we face.
But I’m also really wary of this sort of despair. That’s partly because I think there’s something slightly self-regarding about it. Giving up isn’t an option if you’re poor, or have kids, or live in one of the places where climate change is already hitting. Indeed it’s only really an option for the privileged.
More importantly though, I think despair is self-fulfilling. Nothing we do now can change a lot of what’s coming—there’s too much warming already locked in for that. But at the end of the day I think there’s a big difference between saving half the coral reefs and saving none of them, or holding sea level rises to a meter instead of six or ten, or temperature rises to two degrees instead of four or six.
I think that tension between a realistic assessment of the scale of the problem and the desire to preserve some space for change is one of the things I was trying to think through in Clade. Certainly I wanted to capture something of the sense of grief associated with the loss of places and species and human possibility, but I also wanted to emphasize various kinds of contingency. That’s partly because I think the sort of all or nothing thinking that surrounds a lot of our discussion of climate change is part of the problem. The reality is there isn’t one solution to the problems we face, there are many, and while some are about transformative technological change the focus on them prevents us from focusing on questions about economics and justice that are equally—if not more—important. But it’s also because I think fantasies about the apocalypse are unhelpful and even consoling because they let us off the hook. Saying the world is going to end is scary, but in a very real sense saying it isn’t is even scarier, because that means we have to face up to the mess we’ve made and work out what we’re going to do about it.
I’ve been reading some terrifying reports about climate change’s effects on Australia specifically. Do you think that your being from Australia has shaped your views of the environment and climate change more generally?
It certainly shaped the book, quite a lot of which was written in 2013 and 2014, when we had a series of extreme weather events and incredibly intense bushfires and floods. Watching all that happen fed into the section in England, but the book is also colored by the more general feeling of weirdness about the weather and the environment that now prevails here, and the sense the seasons are deeply disturbed.
But I suspect it’s also influenced by the actual physical environment in other ways as well. Australia is incredibly ancient, and the Aboriginal presence stretches back 60,000 years, so you’re often keenly aware not just of the sheer depth of time written into the landscape, but also the silences in both our history and the landscape. That sense of loss is there in the book, but so is that sense of the immensity of time, and the way it demands we rethink the way we think about ourselves and our world, and our assumptions about the permanence of any human culture.
Many discussions surrounding climate fiction focus on the social purpose of the novels—that is, their ability to spark progressive thinking about climate change, or even activism. But your writing is so lovely I’d like to focus a moment on your aesthetic choices. From the forest fires you describe early on to the “shimmer” (colorful lights in the sky perhaps a result of changes in Earth’s magnetic field) you describe at the end, your novel often renders environmental catastrophe as stunningly beautiful. This combination of horror and beauty often brought to my mind the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. Please tell me a bit about your aesthetic influences and the artistic decisions you made while writing Clade.
I suspect part of the answer is that I’m genuinely drawn to the beauty of the altered world. Places like container ports and airports, the weird interstitial spaces that surround our cities, garbage dumps and so on, they all have a sort of spectral beauty. Sometimes that beauty inheres in the places themselves, but it’s also because they act as a sort of memento mori, reminding us of what’s been lost.
Some of that was definitely on my mind when I was writing the book—certainly it’s there in the sense that the characters are often weirdly moved by the ruination of the world, or find it answers some kind of desire for destruction—but I was also interested in capturing the beauty of some of the places and events it depicts, especially where what is being revealed is the sheer power of planetary systems and planetary change. I suppose some of the time that was about underlining how much has been lost, as it is in the scene where they look at virtual representations of the forest, but I think it was also about reminding myself that some things always endure.
At the same time, though, I was really anxious not to end up aestheticizing or sentimentalizing the material. One of the challenges of writing about climate change is giving shape to the grief it induces, that sense of places and lives and entire ecosystems being erased, without slipping into bathos. So while I was writing the book I was quite consciously trying to find a language that could register grief without being overwhelmed by it. At a line-to-line level that meant trying to find a language that was very spare.
I suspect it’s also there in the structure, and the way it lets so much of the story happen in the gaps between the sections, and relies upon association rather than plot. And—although I’m not sure I’d necessarily thought about it until now—I suspect the suggestion the future might also be beautiful was another way of allowing myself to make the space for possibility I mentioned before: if there’s beauty as well as grief, then we are reminded that not everything is lost.
Clade covers so much ground when it comes to the consequences of climate change: there are floods, fires, pandemics, changes in the most fundamental of Earth’s natural systems. Which do you think is the most pressing danger in real life?
One of the things that troubles me about a lot of the debates about climate change is the degree to which they focus on the risks to humans in developed countries, when in fact the worst effects will be felt by people in Asia and Africa and Oceania, places that are already experiencing significant impacts. But that emphasis upon the lives of people in developed countries also blinds us to the effects upon non-human species, especially when you factor in other pressures like habitat loss. The figures about the human impact on the natural world are horrifying: in 2016 the WWF published a report showing that between 1970 and 2012 60% of the world’s wildlife disappeared, and projecting that figure would reach 67% by 2020. That means we’ve killed two thirds of the world’s wild animals in just 40 years, and there’s every reason to think that process is accelerating.
Things are even worse in the ocean: some estimates suggest global fish populations are down to 10% of what they were in 1950, and many ecosystems, in particular coral reefs, are in desperate trouble, especially here in Australia, where the recent bleaching events mean two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef north of Townsville is now dead rock. I find these figures almost impossible to comprehend, and much more challenging to think about than a lot of the more obvious manifestations of the process like extreme weather.
If you could recommend one other work of climate fiction or nonfiction about climate change, what would it be, and why?
One of the things that’s been really exciting over the past few years has been watching fiction and non-fiction writers grapple with the challenges of thinking and writing about climate change, a process that’s produced a lot of wonderful books. Just recently I adored Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From and Australian writer Jane Rawson’s fabulous Anthropocene novel From the Wreck, as well as Paul McAuley’s Austral. But I think if I was to suggest one novel it might be Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, which is essentially a deep history of environmental change that ends in the dislocation and wrenching grief of today, and if I was to recommend one non-fiction book it would probably be Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.
Since starting this column I’ve discovered that most climate fiction authors have an “oh crap” moment when it comes to understanding the scale and ferocity of climate change. Do you have one? What was it?
I’ve been thinking and writing about climate change for a long time, but I found the bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef over the past couple of summers profoundly upsetting, not just because they underlined how catastrophic the effects of climate change are going to be, but because they made the scale of our moral and political negligence inescapable. Coral bleaching isn’t a surprise: we’ve understood for two decades that warming water kills coral, but successive governments in Australia and elsewhere decided it was more important to protect the mining and fossil fuel industries than to try to save the Reef. I’m not really interested in whether that decision was deliberate or simply by omission. The reality is they understood the consequences of what they were doing and they did it anyway. As a friend of mine said at the time, “oh look, we broke the world”.
More generally though, I’ve spent the past few years wrestling with a series of questions about whether it’s really possible to make the changes we need to make, or whether the inherent nature of capitalism makes that impossible. Are we already in the midst of collapse? Is so much warming already locked in to the point where it’s impossible to stop what’s coming? Are technocratic solutions a part of the problem?
Some of these go back to those questions about despair and denial I was talking about earlier. So much of our discussion of climate change pretends it’s a problem we can find a solution to, but what if the problem is too deep for that? Doesn’t continuing to pretend the system can be fixed become a sort of delusion? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that what we’re really engaged in is a massive experiment in resilience. Will our societies survive the disruption that’s coming? Or will they collapse? My guess is the answer is probably a bit of both.
But I also think this is why we need fiction in this space. We’re just not cognitively equipped to deal with a lot of these questions. The problem is too big and too complex, so when we try to think them through we tend to either throw our hands up in despair or retreat into denial. Fiction offers a way of getting past this problem. It gives us a language with which to talk about grief and loss, and of imagining what’s coming in human terms. But as I said before, it also creates space for possibility by reminding us the future isn’t set, and it’s open to us to change it. I think—I hope—that’s something Clade does.
Clade by James Bradley
Published September 5, 2017
James Bradley is a novelist and critic. In addition to Clade he was written Wrack, The Deep Field, and The Resurrectionist. He is also the author of a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, and the editor of The Penguin Book of the Ocean. He lives in Sydney, Australia.
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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.