Casey Williams wrote:
[AUTHOR BIO: Casey Williams is a writer and doctoral student based in Durham, North Carolina. His work covers environmental politics and culture, and has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and other national and local outlets.]
If you live somewhere other than under a large rock, the premise of The Tangled Lands will sound familiar: A declining empire owes its former splendor to a
miraculous energy source. Now, emissions from that source threaten to destroy
the empire. Everyone’s freaking out.
The story is (maybe too) obviously an allegory of climate change. Instead of hydrocarbons, the fictional world Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell
create in their recently released novel draws power from magic, which also
fertilizes the voracious, writhing, poisonous weeds now bearing down on
one of the last great cities.
Migrants pour in from the bramble-choked periphery. The rich and
powerful seek to turn the crisis to their advantage while ordinary
citizens resist. Al Gore is …
not there, but you get the point.
Novels like The Tangled Lands are seismographic readings from a
trembling society. They register a profound anxiety that the world we know
under our feet. Literary critics interested in climate change are currently debating whether these works can also give readers tools for
addressing the ecological crisis. Perhaps fiction, the thinking goes,
makes it easier to wrap our heads around complex
environmental changes and dream up useful ways of dealing with them.
The stakes are high. “If there is any one thing global warming has
made perfectly clear,” wrote Amitav Ghosh in The Great
Derangement, “it is that to think about the
world only as it is amounts to a form of collective suicide.”
Fiction that wrestles with the changing world takes a number of forms. Some
aspire to a kind of gritty realism (David Simon’s television series “Treme,”
Other works pine for better days or “trade in the nostalgic
dreams of empire’s many lost wonders,” as a character
in The Tangled Lands puts it.
In general, cli-fi and science fiction and fantasy are the preferred
genres for staging the sometimes slow, sometimes
holy-shit-I-should-write-a-will-fast transformation of the world.
While some of these works avoid apocalyptic cli-fi themes,
such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York: 2140, much climate-fiction
plunges readers into near- or post-apocalyptic futures.
Think movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Snowpiercer”
or novels like Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus and
Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Even “Game of Thrones” is a story about cataclysmic changes in the weather.
These cli-fi stories can be powerful aids for thought.
Novels like The Tangled Lands let us sample catastrophe
from a safe distance.
Films like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which tracks a bayou
community through a violent storm, make
familiar dangers strange so that we might escape
ourselves and reflect on a bizarre, broken world.
The best of these works, like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower
(published in 1993, well before the current craze),
highlight the uneven violence of large-scale environmental change. ....
.....Such speculations aren’t confined to fiction, of course.
New York Magagzine Journalist David Wallace-Wells’ controversial
article “The Uninhabitable Earth” fused literary conventions
with hard reporting to conjure apocalyptic visions of a warming world.
Even Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, remembered as the nonfiction book
that sparked the environmental movement back in the 1960s,
begins with a cli-fi “fable.”
“There once was a town at the heart of America where all life
seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” Carson wrote.
We know how the story ends: Humans lugged in
their cars and pesticides, and broke the balance.
Fictional or factual, these stories matter because they frame
people’s moral and political responses to ecological change.
....There are plenty of reasons to be afraid.
Global average temperatures creep higher each year;
superstorms ravage coastlines; droughts and floods
wipe out homes and farms and city blocks.
As usual, those denied wealth and power suffer most
from the intensifying disaster.
Journalist Kathryn Schultz summed up the problem nicely. “We
excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones,”
she wrote in a New Yorker article about a mega-earthquake threatening the Pacific Northwest. “But such apocalyptic visions are a form of
escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action.”
Some recent cli-fi is resisting the easy spectacle of apocalypse.
Take Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04. The novel’s action is bookended by fictionalized versions of two actual superstorms ― Hurricanes Irene and Sandy ―
that fail to live up to the apocalyptic hype that precedes them.
When Irene hits, the narrator expects catastrophe,
but none arrives. “I went into the kitchen and drank a glass of water and
glanced at the instant coffee on the counter and it was no longer an
emissary from a world to come,”
he says. “There was disappointment in my relief at the failure of the storm.”
The narrator’s disappointment contains a lesson:
Reckoning with the complexity of climate change means
acknowledging one’s desire to turn it into a spectacle,
an art object, a moment of personal transformation,
a dramatic tale to which one can append existential anxieties
ike so many railcars on a train barreling over the edge.
Lerner asks readers to confront an unsettling possibility: For the wealthy and well-connected, climate change will not feel catastrophic most of the time.
For Lerner, as for Butler and Bacigalupi and Buckell,
confronting climate change isn’t about staving off some future disaster,
but dealing with the everyday injustices that make the
present unbearable for so many.
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