Tuesday, April 21, 2020

FROM THE NY TIMES -- 2020: The Year You Finally Read a Cli-Fi Novel About, What Else, Climate Change


2020: The Year You Finally Read a Cli-Fi Novel About, What Else, Climate Change

Here is a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from literary activist Dan Bloom to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus, interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

 Indian-born Brooklyn novelist Amitav Ghosh became something beyond the renowned author of Sea of Poppies — perhaps the most penetrating cultural critic of a new age defined by climate change and the strange, inadequate, and often self-deluding ways we process its transformations in our storytelling. His new novel, Gun Island, is a cli-fi epic, one that fulfills many of the failings and missed opportunities he identified in the dizzying essay.

You wrote The Great Derangement in 2016, diagnosing a broad failure in literature, but also in our political culture, to face up to this story that we were all living in and yet unable to really process properly. Putting aside for a moment the subject of climate change itself and the changing nature of climate politics, how do you see climate storytelling (cli-fi) having changed since you wrote that book?

I think since 2016 there’s been a dramatic change in cli-fi. How often did you see a book about climate fiction in The New York Times Book Review? Or The New York Review of Books. Almost never. They were just treated as marginal. I do think that Richard Powers’s cli-fi novel Overstory was a major turning point — not just because it is a great book, which it is, but because it was taken seriously by the literary mainstream.

What do you think explains that?
I think in part it’s just his own personal reputation. But it’s not just that. Because if you look at the response to Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, it’s quite instructive.

And she’s a giant, too.
By the time The Overstory was published the ground had somewhat seriously shifted.

So what did change? Is it because the public has learned to think of cli-fi novels and movies as a front-and-center story, rather than a fringe concern?
Going back to 2016 and Bernie Sanders saying right then that this is a major existential crisis, and then that voice being amplified. Extinction Rebellion has been a very major turning point. The rise of the cli-fi genre has been a very major turning point.

Perhaps you prefer reading to escape reality, not confront it. But if the 50th anniversary of Earth Day has inspired you to decide that now’s the time to pick up a cli-fi novel about climate change, we’re here to help you find the right one for you.

For the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, The New York Times brought you The Greenhouse, a five-part digital event series on climate change. We hope you joined us on our next live video call this Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, where an editor at the Times Book Review named  Gal Beckerman discussed this listicle.


The Drowned World
by J.G. Ballard
cli-fi fiction
With its vision of a London swamped by the rising Thames River and a warming planet leading to an urban landscape of lush tropical foliage, Ballard’s dystopian cli-fi fantasy — written in 1962 — laid the groundwork for generations of climate-change fiction to come. The book imagines the dawning of a new geologic age like the one environmentalists now call the Anthropocene, with resulting changes to a broad swath of plant and animal species, humans very much among them.
The plot involves a looter who refuses to leave London even as the water grows hotter, and an expedition of scientists trying to determine whether civilization might someday take root again. “But the main action is in the deeper reaches of the mind,” Kingsley Amis wrote in a 1963 review of the book for The Observer, “the main merit the extraordinary imaginative power with which whatever inhabits these reaches is externalized in concrete form. The book blazes with images, striking in themselves and yet continuously meaningful.”


The Wall
by John Lanchester
cli-fi fiction
Lanchester’s novel, published in 2019, elegantly and chillingly imagines how current political attitudes might play out as the repercussions of climate change grow more severe. With sea levels rising and extreme weather events increasingly common, an island nation that closely resembles Britain has built a concrete wall around its entire perimeter to hold back both the water and the desperate tide of refugees from harder-hit areas.
The narrator, Joseph Kavanagh, has embarked on his mandatory two-year service as a “Defender,” guarding a section of the wall against outsiders even as he falls in love and mulls in restrained language about what the future will bring. That includes the threat of invasion, as a government official tells the Defenders at a pivotal moment: “The shelter blew away, the waters rose to the higher ground, the ground baked, the crops died, the ledge crumbled, the well dried up. The safety was an illusion. … The Others are coming.”


Salvage the Bones
by Jesmyn Ward
cli-fi fiction
Set in the days leading up to and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, this National Book Award-winning novel follows a black family in Mississippi as it prepares for, and recovers from, disaster. Esch, a pregnant teenager, is at the center of the story. A fierce, mythology-loving young woman, she’s quick to connect the events of her own life with those of the Greeks.
For all the devastation at its core, this is an insistently hopeful book. As our reviewer put it: “Like every good myth, at its heart, the book is salvific; it wants to teach you how to wait out the storm and swim to safety.”



New York 2140
by Kim Stanley Robinson
cli-fi fiction
It can be easy to forget that the island of Manhattan is just that, an island — but as rising waters encroach on coastal lands everywhere, life in the city has the potential to change dramatically. Robinson’s cli-fi novel, published in 2017, envisions a financial district with canals in place of streets and an uptown crowded with skyscrapers as the wealthy move to higher ground.
A thought experiment with an ensemble cast, the novel is less concerned with a conventional plot than with showing a slice of life across various classes, with particular attention to the workings of the economy and other social systems. Maybe the most remarkable feature of the story is how little it imagines life changing, despite the drastically revised landscape: The building super works on repairing submerged apartments, the police inspector looks for missing squatters and the hedge funder bets on mortgages that are (literally) under water.


by Jenny Offill
cli-fi fiction
Lizzie, the narrator of Offill’s cli-fi  novel, is a mother who’s juggling fears on multiple levels: concern for her brother, a recovering addict; financial worries; and general apprehension about the direction of the world. This taxonomy might feel familiar to many readers: How can you reconcile your personal, daily inconveniences with the fear that the world as we know it is ending?
Our reviewer pointed out the book’s narrative dilemma, asking: “What happens when the horror of climate change gets lodged so deep under our skin we can’t escape it any longer? What happens when an author manages to translate this horror from an abstraction to a gripping tale of immediate particulars?”
Ultimately, this slim cli-fi novella is an “attempt to tell a story about climate change that carries the same visceral force as our private emotional dramas — that is, in fact, inseparable from them.”


The Madaddam Trilogy
by Margaret Atwood
cli-fi fiction
Atwood’s terrifying, though often very funny, cli-fi series imagines the societal, economic and biological fallout from an ecological disaster right down to glowing rabbits, labs with names like the RejoovenEsense Compound and pseudo-foods called ChickieNobs.
“Oryx and Crake,” the first book, focuses on a character named Snowman, who makes his way as one of the last remaining humans in a post-pandemic world. “The Year of the Flood,” the next novel, essentially retells that story from other perspectives, giving Snowman’s backstory, set against the backdrop of the arrival of a disaster long feared by a religious cult. And as our reviewer wrote of “MaddAddam,” the finale: It “lights a fire from the fears of our age, then douses it with hope for the planet’s survival. But that survival may not include us.”


The Fifth Season
by N.K. Jemisin
cli-fi fiction
This fantasy cli-fi novel, the first in Jemisin’s astonishing Broken Earth trilogy, imagines social collapse going hand-in-hand with geologic catastrophe on a planet as violent as the people who inhabit it. With the world’s single supercontinent in the process of dividing, and climate change wrought by vast clouds of volcanic ash, the ruling elites work to subjugate a minority population that has some ability to influence planetary events.
In The Times, the science writer Annalee Newitz praised the book for exploring a science that is “oddly neglected in science fiction: the geophysics of exoplanets. Though we have plenty of stories about the physics of space travel and the biology of alien life, very few authors tackle the actual rocky, gassy, molten stuff that planets are made of. Jemisin does it brilliantly, crafting a tale that is both intensely moving and scientifically complex.” The book was the first by an African-American writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel, but not the last: Each of its sequels also won, making Jemisin the first author ever to win the Hugo for every book in a trilogy.


The Overstory
by Richard Powers
cli-fi fiction
Trees are the real heroes of this Pulitzer Prize-winning cli-fi novel, a series of interconnected stories that follow characters from 1800s New York to the timber wars of the Pacific Northwest. Whether it’s an immigrant family staking its new life on the American chestnut or an 11-year-old coder who has an unfortunate encounter with a Spanish oak, humans’ connections to trees make up the emotional core of this book.
As our our reviewer, Barbara Kingsolver, wrote of Powers: “Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.”


Flight Behavior
by Barbara Kingsolver
cli-fi fiction
The sudden, unusual appearance of monarch butterflies rattles a rural Tennessee farm town, and a rift soon opens up in the community: Religious residents see the insect swarms as a sign from God, while others are drawn toward scientific explanations. Dellarobia, a young mother in an unhappy marriage, is one of the latter. When an entomologist comes to town to study the butterflies, he hires Dellarobia to work alongside him, offering her a chance to expand and improve her life.
Kingsolver, who was a scientist before she began writing novels, seamlessly weaves together the story of a biological aberration and a woman’s coming of age in this powerful cli-fi novel.


Parable of the Sower
by Octavia Butler
cli-fi fiction
It’s 2024 California and the situation is dire: Water is scarce, communities are walled off and a pill called “pyro” gives immense pleasure to people who start fires. As one character puts it: “People have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back.”
This 1993 classic is composed of diary entries by an African-American teenager, Lauren, who’s determined to make her way in this new world. The daughter of a Baptist minister, she develops her own belief system, Earthseed, and has “hyperempathy,” which causes her to experience other people’s pain and pleasure as if it were her own. Eventually, she’s forced to flee her home and head north, accompanied by a group of survivors who rally behind her vision for a better world.



The Great Derangement
by Amitav Ghosh
 Amitavji gets right to the heart of the matter.
The interesting contribution of this book, which comes out of a series of lectures Ghosh delivered at the University of Chicago in 2015, is his indictment of the New York Times gatekeepers and culture-makers. To make climate change the theme or setting of a cli-fi novel, Ghosh writes, is “to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence.”
His bigger point is that we need a change of narrative. But to do this means that those who make our narratives need to lead the way, to bring their talents of storytelling to bear on what is, he writes, no less than an “existential danger.”


No comments: