Saturday, November 23, 2019

Maria Kjos Fonn on cli-fi in Norway and the world at large: the power of climate fiction novels

The power of climate literature

by Norwegian novelist and journalist Maris Kjos Fonn

November 23, 2019 in the Aftenposten newspaper [COPYRIGHT 2019]


''Tonight, this year /
in a city between all its atom /
deaths that one can call my mother,''

writes the Danish poet Theis Ørntoft.

Many people perceive the climate crisis as abstract and theoretical. But can fiction -- novels and movies and TV series -- be used to understand it better?

Australia and California have been enduring uncontrolled fires recently. In the Norwegian Arctic, k a town called Svalbard, climate warming has warned faster than anywhere else in the world. Do we also need, in addition to scientists' projections, poems novels, movies about the prospects of a world where climate becomes a man-made enemy?

  I'll admit it. The climate news about global warming scares me - to the extent that it turns sometimes into existential anxiety. While the Earth has a fever, I can wake up, overheat, and look out into the night, somewhere between all its atoms, and fear death. Then I finally manage to keep my head, as opposed to the globe, cold. I have to close my eyes. Think of something else. Sleep.

 Apocalypse now?

Yet it is not so clear outside here that I live in Oslo, Norway except perhaps from less stable winters, tropical summers and some sudden cloudbursts that cause the cows to dance. But to read about the warming is, almost chilling: the permafrost has begun to thaw at Svalbard, we are heading towards the famous tipping point that can make the huge amounts of inland ice in Greenland really start an irreversible and rapid melting process, water shortages and hunger are accelerating in the the most marginalized areas of the globe, where the least resourceful people live.

 Can we do nothing but reduce our own climate-damaging behavior, and then vote for the politicians who want to change the systems in a sustainable direction? As a reader and writer, I also ask - without it being able to save us, can fiction be used to sense and understand?

 Toxic poems

Human life conditions are changing at an extreme rate. It provides the foundation for science fiction, climate fiction and ecopoetry. Espen Stueland has written the book ''The 700-Year Flood, On Environmental Pollution and Climate Change and How Man's Relationship to Nature Shows in Politics and Poetry.
 "Pollution is a central trope in contemporary literature," Stueland writes, talking about a description of nature that is almost as depraved as man who considers it, poisoned, ill. He writes about the Danish poet Inger Christensen's influential work ''alphabet'', which he reads within a so-called "toxic discourse": the defoliants are found / for example dioxsin / which decompose trees / ".

 For my part, I have never had a more sensual literary experience of poisoning than when I read Ingrid Storholmen's ''Chernobyl Tales'' (published in 2009) about the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986. ”You steal fruits from the trees, teeth crush against the taste buds, the grinders fuck out of the mouth cavity and sprinkled like lime out of the gap ”.

    "To forget Chernobyl is to under-communicate the risk of nuclear power," the reverse text says. At the same time, the UN Climate Panel writes that the share of nuclear power must be resolved sharply to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Still, Storholmen's book is relevant beyond describing a particular historical event - it is a picture of the poisoned nature that can awaken empathy for the future environmental threat.
 Dystopias and doomsday prophecies

Stueland writes about Christensen's ''alphabet''. "If the alphabet was a less poignant, musical, and wise work, the literary critics would dismiss the author as a doomed prophet who plays on fear (as in the cli-fi and climate-horror genres)."

 But climate fiction (cli-fi) can also make useful contributions. Cli-fi's close relative sci-fi was early on to describe extreme temperature changes: such as the new ice age in Anna Kavan's Ice (in 1967), or intense heat that causes glaciers to melt and the ocean to rise in JG Ballard's The Drowned World .

 Today, climate disasters are not speculative horror. Swedish Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson's poem Aniara (in 1956) flees the people of the Earth due to violent environmental damage: And while we rush to the safe death, in a space that lacks land and coasts (…) within the last moment that all humans / eventually should meeting wherever they found a party.

 Science fiction with a journey into space can also be found in Tarjei Vesaas-nominated Maria Dorothea Schrattenholz's collection of poems Atlaspunkt. The collection is a journey from the beginning of humankind in the Stone Age, and beyond agriculture, until we find ourselves on Mars, the only place left where the climate is hospitable. The poet self is looking down on Earth:
you are covered in earth, ash, dust /
they say I come from you /
but I have never touched you /
forgot your gravity.

 And then, like an echo of Theis Ørntoft:
I needed a reason for my grief /
so I killed my mother.

When the poems melt

Is there anything at all about writing, or reading, fiction about climate? Norwegian Agnar Lirhus writes in the preface to the book ''What Was She Saying,'' a drawn poem, illustrated by Rune Markhus, which is close to Christensen's alphabet: "We read poems that blend with the world".

  Put at the forefront, with the extremely demanding political solutions required to curb mass destruction in a Domino effect, can poets be used for anything, besides the art having an aesthetic value in itself?
Does it have political impact? I say yes.
As several climate psychologists have pointed out, it is not that we are not aware of the seriousness of the climate crisis. But numbers and news become abstract, far away, too big. Fiction can create a closeness and empathy that graphs and newspaper articles cannot. It does not mean that a poem can change the world - it cannot. But it can be one of many expressions that contribute to changes in attitudes and behavior.

 As Anne Helene Guddal writes in her ollection of poems ''There is also the irreconcilable'' from 2014, which admittedly is about mental, not ecological, collapse:
Can art save lives? /
Hardly / - but it tries /
whether you want to or not.

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