Writing About Writing About Climate Change, Ctd.

Posted by Niall Harrison

Mark Charan Newton picks up on this week's issue, and in particular my post yesterday about ecocriticism of sf, and asks a couple of important questions. First of all:

I wondered if there was little criticism because there simply isn’t much Science Fiction being written about the real effects of climate change in the first place? That there isn’t much to really interest Science Fiction writers?

I mean, aside from the sea levels rising, there isn’t much for Science Fiction wow-porn. Climate change is the slow, steady evil that will effect everything else in our lives. There is no instant Hollywood apocalypse. It is causing heavier rainfall in certain areas, droughts in others. It will see food prices rocket. It will see people die and suffer from disease on a wider scale than we’ve seen previously. And some of these health effects can be very subtle. There are no wars over climate change, but there are wars over the effects.

See what I mean? Not exactly the stuff that a Science Fiction writer, certainly not one interested in big concepts or ideas, can really use all that easily. Climate change is the mother of all evils, and the effects are profound; but they are subtle and complex and not easily dealt with in a novel concerned with the big idea.

There is something in this. For literary sf that attempts to compete with multiplex sf, as quite a lot does, it's true that literal climate change doesn't offer much in the way of explosive set-pieces. But sf doesn't have to be about set-pieces, it can be about how things might be otherwise, in the ways people behave and think, and the values they enact in their lives. Thomas H. Ford applies this to climate change fiction in a way that I like, in an essay at the too-infrequently updated climate change and contemporary fiction blog that considers George Turner's The Sea and Summer and Nevil Shute's On the Beach:

Can we locate within contemporary fiction a new sensitivity to climate, a new aesthetics of average temperature, of precipitation, of sea level? Of course, climate cannot be ‘felt’ directly. What we experience day-to-day is weather; climate is a statistical abstraction of weather that appears to lie outside our categories of possible experience. However, we are also accustomed to living amidst just such real abstractions. Custom itself, the customs of second nature, provide some of the basic parameters of everyday life. In this sense, one could speculate that climate could emerge as a new regulative idea, and that social life could soon come to be shaped by climate as if we could apprehend it directly. Given that we recognise our actions are changing the climate, we may now start to act as if we could in fact feel those changes, as if rates of icemelt could be sensed on the skin, changes in rainfall patterns registered by the glottis, rising average temperatures felt in the joints.

This is one of the things an ecocritical approach to sf could look out for, embodiment of this concept of climate as a "new regulative idea". Here's an example from the last few years, in The Windup Girl (which I'd argue is, without forgiving its flaws, a significant and interesting work of ecological sf):

A minute later the guide indicates a door and nods that Kanya should step through. As Kanya opens the door, Ratana looks up from her files. Smiles slightly in the glow of her monitor.

The computers down here all have large screens. Some of them are models that haven't existed in fifty years and burn more energy than five new ones, but they do their work and in return are meticulously maintained. Still, the amount of power burning through them makes Kanya weak in the knees. She can almost see the ocean rising in response. It's a horrifying thing to stand beside.

There stands a character whose relationship with the environment is fundamentally different than ours, who reacts as if she could apprehend climate change directly. For me it's a powerful and worthwhile scene.

To Mark's point about an absence of sf that deals with the real effects of climate change, I'd offer three responses. First, although I teased the SFE yesterday for suggesting that "consideration of climate change has become virtually inevitable in serious Near Future sf of the twenty-first century" -- and although you could also argue they've covered themselves through tautology, that near future sf that doesn't include consideration of climate change is by definition not serious -- the image of ecotastrophe found in The Windup Girl is becoming more familiar. If nothing else Night Shade Books appear to be working hard to turn it into a subgenre, what with Rob Ziegler's Seed at the end of last year and EJ Swift's Osiris later this year. Second, those novels that do engage with climate change are often not considered as such. Think of the response to a novel like River of Gods, for which reviews often noted that climate change is a part of the background, and perhaps even that a water war plays a role in the climax, but were generally more interested in focusing on other aspects of the (admittedly hectic) worldbuilding. So there are probably quite a few works that could be seen as climate sf that are primarily thought of in other ways. Third, finally, and relatedly, if there is a lack of such works, an ecocritical perspective could be brought to bear on that absence, to point out a lack of engagement in much the same way as we might point out the unacceptable paucity of complex female characters.

Mark continues:

I’m not even sure Science Fiction is really the field that should be dealing with climate change.

Climate change is reality – it is happening right now, it was while I studied it at university, and has been for decades. Perhaps there is material for the effects of climate change being a backdrop for a novel, but shouldn’t mainstream authors be dealing with this, rather than Science Fiction authors?

I’d also say that most of these effects will be felt most shockingly in the developing world. Authors who write predominantly about the West, and Western concerns, will not likely be all that bothered.

To work backwards, I'd say it's profoundly to be hoped that over the next decade sf continues to broaden its perspectives (and that it becomes increasingly hospitable to perspectives currently under-represented); that it becomes a global literature fit for what is realistically now a planetary society faced with planetary ecological challenges.

But in some senses that's by-the-by. I'd welcome more contemporary, "mainstream" fiction that engaged with the issues that climate change raises; but I don't think it's a subject that has to always be engaged with in a strictly literal manner. That's one reason why Glenda Larke, who writes secondary-world fantasies, was one of the writers I invited to take part in the round table. Within the context of sf, climate change can be represented in abstract or metaphoric terms as well as realistic terms, and still provide a sense of what a new regulative idea of climate might feel like. To wrap this all up neatly, such a strategy can give the sf writer their set-pieces back: consider Stephen Baxter's Flood.


           

Comments (4)


Yes, I do agree about the fact SF doesn't have to be about set pieces - and those examples you state are fine ones.

I suspect much of this will come down to where one draws the line, and one can end up slipping into a taxonomical debate. Children of Men / Never Let Me Go - very much SF novels to me, but not considered like that to many, I'm sure. And perhaps novels of that nature - as you say, the near-future category - are perhaps best placed to deal with the subject. That climate change is absorbed into the world-building of a SF novel in your examples says much about the reality. These are the consequences of dealing with climate change in a slow and painful and illogical manner - that they become backdrop, part of the setting. So yes, I guess in that sense, SF writers really are dealing with it in the most appropriate way.

If you've ever heard of the Dark Mountain Project, they might offer some interesting perspective on ecology and science fiction. Recently I wrote a review of their collections of essays and prose for the Ecologist: http://www.theecologist.org/reviews/books/1029317/dark_mountain_issue_2.html

Many of these essays / poems / stories directly deal with the very general consequences of ecological disaster. It's a kind of 'So what do we do now?' handbook, not really with any solutions, but certainly girding our loins for the mourning process.

It's a very unique project, and one that's gaining a lot of traction, both in the environmental movement and, I hope, on an artistic level too. Perhaps this is the kind of blending of science fact and science fiction that perfectly serves issues such as climate change; but it is a rather obscure niche admittedly.


Thanks for the link, Mark -- Dark Mountain sounds fascinating, I'll check it out.


I'd like to say that personally for me science fiction (in particular, and spec fic in general) is a field that is as much about the "now" as about the future, and climate change is happening now. I don't see mainstream literature talking much about climate change, and I agree it should. But if SF is the one literature that deals primarily with (among other things) our relationship with the physical universe and with non-humans, then climate change ought to be a natural subject for SF. Since solutions to the issue would involve creative, paradigm-shifting ways of looking at the world, which is something SF can do very well, in that sense also there is a fit.

I do see Mark's point, Apart from perhaps the catacylsmic weather events, there may not be much to excite a certain kind of SF writer/reader. But maybe that kind of writing/reading is really so pre-climate change awareness, and it is time for a shift.

Thanks for the review in the Ecologist. I can't wait to get my hands on the book. I was also fascinated by the Naomi Klein quote, which resonates with my thought that writing about climate change might require a structural shift as well.


I think SF should be tackling climate change if for no other reason that I as a reader find these stories interesting.

SF does play a role in making these kinds of scenarios visible in ways that the abstracts of scientific papers don't. Part of SF's job description is to show us where we might be headed and climate change definitely fits the bill.


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