Wednesday, October 25, 2017

In this powerful Q&A excerpt, Australian literary critic James Bradley completely demolishes Amitav Ghosh's argument against 'cli-fi' and sci-fi genre novels

A TWEET: In Q&A, lit critic James Bradley completely demolishes @GhoshAmitav 's argument against 'cli-fi' genre novels

James Bradley recommends 5 best Cli-Fi novels for this Five Books website

The best cli-fi allows us to hold ideas in our heads about time and space and causality and connection that are difficult to articulate in other ways, argues the insightful Australian literary critic James Bradley. The novels also help their readers engage with dangers and possibilities that are at the very edge of cli-fi reality we are living in today.....
BRADLEY in this answer to the Q&A completely demolishes Brooklyn-based Amitav Ghosh's spurious arguments against cli-fi and sci-fi and fantasy novels with this rebuke:
INTERVIEWER: In a series of essays gathered under the title The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the India-born Broooklyn novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that ‘serious’ or literary fiction largely fails to address climate change and the Anthropocene, and he appears not to take science fiction or fantasy seriously. I take it you disagree with him. If so can you identify some of the characteristics of fiction that succeeds?
Is it time to leave ‘serious’ literary fiction – whatever that may be – behind?
JAMES BRADLEY: I’m actually an admirer of many aspects of Ghosh writing on climate change. His arguments about the historical relationships between colonialism, capitalism and climate are fascinating, as are a number of his observations about the ways in which the very privileged perspectives of those of us in the West frame the problem more generally.
Likewise he says a number of incredibly useful things about the ways in which climate change resists description and analysis in fictional form. This isn’t a new observation – many people have observed that the incremental nature of climate change, its non-human timespans, its complexity and connectedness all make it a difficult subject to write about in a conventional way.
But Ghosh goes further, arguing that the social realist novel struggles with the phenomenon because the very strategies it uses to capture reality, strategies which emphasise the quotidian detail of everyday life to the exclusion of the extraordinary and inexplicable, smooth out and regularise the world in ways that make it almost impossible to adequately describe the cognitive and temporal rupture of climate change. As Ghosh puts it, “thus was the modern novel midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishment of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.” Or, more bluntly, “the irony of the ‘realist’ novel” is that “the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real”.
I think this analysis is broadly correct, but I take issue with Ghosh’s claim there is a dearth of serious fiction dealing with climate change. Quite aside from the fact I think his notion of ‘serious’ fiction –which in this case seems to be defined in opposition to genre fiction – is incoherent, it just isn’t true. Indeed I probably would have said the opposite: that once you start looking, anxiety about climate change and environmental change is everywhere.
Part of the problem with Ghosh argument is his excessively literal definition of “fiction about climate change”. Novels do not have to approach the subject directly or explicitly to be engaged with it: in fact the very difficulties Ghosh identifies mean writers are often more likely to approach it tangentially or metaphorically, or to simply incorporate it into the fabric of the worlds they create.
I recently read Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation, which is set in an economically ruined Greece where fires are ravaging the landscape, and while it never says anything explicit about climate change the background of economic and environmental breakdown means the novel’s portrait of psychic breakdown becomes charged by the dislocation we all feel as the future unravels around us, but the reality is there are many, many books engaged with these questions both directly and indirectly.
“[Ghosh] discussing the literature of climate change without talking about Kim Stanley Robinson is frankly bizarre.” - James Bradley

Ghosh’s desire to exclude the literatures of the fantastic from discussion is also deeply problematic. Discussing the literature of climate change without talking about Kim Stanley Robinson is frankly bizarre, but even setting Robinson aside it requires him to ignore the long tradition of science fiction that grapples with environmental questions and the considerable body of contemporary science fiction concerned the impacts of climate change.
Sometimes the question is addressed directly, as in the work of Paolo Bacigalupi and [cli-fi] novels such as The Water Knife.
But it can also be seen in the planetary space opera of writers such as Paul McAuley and Alastair Reynolds, both of whom create worlds in which climate change and various forms of geo- and bio-engineering are simply givens.
Likewise, Robert Macfarlane has argued that the resurgence of the eerie in British and Irish literature can be seen as a response to environmental disruption and the perturbations of late capitalism, meaning the increasing prominence of haunted landscapes and anti-pastorals offers a reminder of the fact “[t]he supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.”
So Ghosh isn’t wrong about the challenges climate change presents to writers of fiction and the novel more generally. But he frames his argument in a way that deliberately ignores how much contemporary writing is engaged with the question, and as a result fails to recognise the ways in which that engagement is reconfiguring and transforming contemporary fiction. Sometimes that’s about the resurrection and revitalisation of older forms like the ghost story or the adoption of narrative strategies once confined to science fiction and the literatures of the fantastic, sometimes it’s about de-centring the human, or emphasising various forms of spatial or temporal entanglement, sometimes it’s about trying to think about deep time. But there’s no doubt it’s happening all around us.

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