That Sinking Feeling: Climate change, climate fiction, and why they’re both real and here

Gautham Shenoy July 28, 2017

On July 9 2017, New York magazine published a long-form article by the American journalist David Wallace-Wells, called ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, that spoke about the worst case scenario of what might happen to us all and what climate change can wreck, in the most pessimistic tone possible (it started with the words, ‘It is, I promise, worse than you think’).

It immediately created quite a stir with some people calling it alarmist and scare-mongering while an equal number of people defended it for being right and factual. And then some science fiction fans waded into it with a very specific criticism of their own (and which is how the article first came to my attention).

What some science fiction fans found fault with was this sentence from the ninth (and last) section of the article: “In his recent book-length essay The Great Derangement, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh wonders why global warming and natural disaster haven’t become major subjects of contemporary fiction — why we don’t seem able to imagine climate catastrophe, and why we haven’t yet had a spate of novels in the genre he basically imagines into half-existence and names ‘the environmental uncanny.”

There were snarky comments to the effect of ‘Hey, haven’t you heard about this thing called science fiction, where climate change is the subject of many novels?’ directed at Wallace-Wells (and I presume, by extension, to Amitav Ghosh). Something didn’t feel right. Because I’ve read – and read about – Amitav Ghosh, and for a fact, he’s a well-read man and a scholar. Also, being a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for his book The Calcutta Chromosome in 1997, surely Amitav Ghosh is aware of this thing called science fiction?

There were snarky comments to the effect of ‘Hey, haven’t you heard about this thing called science fiction, where climate change is the subject of many novels?’ directed at Wallace-Wells (and I presume, by extension, to Amitav Ghosh)

So I went and read The Great Derangement to find out for myself. As it turned out, Amitav Ghosh does know about science fiction.

Ghosh mentions science fiction explicitly in his essay (even though he’s a bit dismissive about it). To give the benefit of doubt to Wallace-Wells, let’s assume that his copy of The Great Derangement was missing the following sentence: “Indeed it could be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction”. This sentence was in the copy I read. So Amitav Ghosh knows about what is consigned to be science fiction – a genre many writers who want to be taken ‘seriously’ and which lovers of ‘literary fiction’ don’t consider serious or literary enough. And if a book is labelled as sci-fi, it’s a relegation or a downgrade, however unfair that is.

To his credit, Ghosh throws in a line much later on that this line exists for neatness, because, zeitgeist of late modernity! Well, the love-hate relationship between lit-fic and genre is a story for another day but it’s easy to see why even a great writer like Kurt Vonnegut said, “I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file drawer labelled ‘science fiction’… and I would like out…”.

As to my fellow sci-fi fans, let’s give them the benefit of doubt too; how were they to know Wallace-Wells was selectively quoting Ghosh? They were just standing up for a genre they love, because all said and done – and this is relevant – it was only within the realm of science fiction that one could until recently find stories that dealt with climate change and rising sea levels, portraying how they could (will?) affect our collective future.

They were just standing up for a genre they love  

Today, if one cares to look, the market is flooded with books dealing with climate change – not all of them good, though, and some unreadable. But they’re there in enough numbers to have their own cool ‘label’ as far as sub-sub-genres go – Climate Fiction or Cli-Fi for short.

And lest it be said that after talking all this about climate change and science fiction, we didn’t put up a recommendation list for NWW readers – a starter pack if you will, of good sci-fi books that deal with climate change — here then are just five of them. Some written very many years even before global warming and climate change entered public consciousness, and not all of them are dystopian. They are stories with a glimmer of hope, of human resilience, cautionary tales of what can (will?) be, covering everything from geopolitical implications and societal impact & inequality to the human condition, genetics and evolution.

The Drowned World by JG Ballard

Civilization lies beneath the stagnant seas of a drowned world in this 1962 classic of the genre by the English author, JG Ballard. The year is 2145, and solar radiation plus global warming have melted the ice caps and triassic-era jungles have overrun cities that now just tropical lagoons with only the upper floors of the tallest building sticking up out of the water and silt. The story follows Dr. Robert Kerans, a biologist and his team of scientists as they try to investigate and analyse the changes, while confronting giant iguanas, albino alligators, and endless swarms of malarial insects. Over the course of the story, Kerans and his companions find themselves changing in many ways, physically and psychologically. The impulse to go back to nature is strong with this one.

The Sea and The Summer by George Turner

An Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner, this 1987 book was also released with a descriptive title, Drowning Towers. As much a story of ecological and societal collapse – and ruminations on a new form of casteism and capitalism – as it is a coming-of-age tale with characters that we come to care about, The Sea and Summer is set in the near-future, 2041 to be exact, in Australia where the summers are eternal and the sea is very fast encroaching. People have been split into two castes: the well-off 10% are known as Sweet while the remaining 90% are known as Swill. The Sweet live precariously in middle-class suburbs, never knowing if their luck will continue; while the Swill are jammed into enormous, barely maintained high rises. The story closely follows the paths of two Sweet children who drop to the fringe of Swill territory when their father loses his job and commits suicide. Very reminiscent of David Copperfield this one be.

Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson

Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest living sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson’s books have been labelled as the gold standard of realistic and scientifically rigorous writing. Green Earth which came out in 2015 was his (successful) attempt at updating, amending and abridging his own Science in the Capital trilogy consisting of Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. Bringing down a groundbreaking 1,100 page trilogy into a single, tight 800-page story. Featuring characters that are mostly scientists, with Buddhists featuring prominently too, Green Earth is set not too far in the future in a world on the cusp of a new ice age, and highlights the need to tackle climate change at a policy level, the squaring off of science and bureaucracy on said subject, ecology in the context of rising sea levels, the thermohaline circulation in the Gulf Stream and lots more. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson says – is a very nice description of what we can achieve in the coming centuries, if we succeed in building a sustainable civilization. We haven’t done that yet, but now’s the time to start. This novel is one version of what that start might look like.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel (tying with China Miéville’s fantastic The City & the City), the Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award are just a few of the accolades this (label alert!) biopunk novel has won. The post-oil 23rd century world of The Windup Girl is powered by calories, while global warming has raised sea levels and while a lot of things have changed, many remain the same. Large corporations still exist, but with more power. Politicians thrive. Fundamentalism too. Feels a lot like today. The story follows an American in Thailand – where the novel is set and whose culture and mores permeate through its pages – who falls in love with the titular ‘windup girl’ – a bioengineered artificial human called Emiko. The Windup Girl is probably a few dozen pages too long and tad labored in short bits but that’s not take anything away from what is an essential read in contemporary science fiction. It isn’t without reason that this book has often been compared to William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer (doing for bio what Gibson did to cyber), but against the backdrop of – and set in – a world changed forever by climate change and all that it entails.

Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell

This book is a fast-paced flat-out thriller. The Arctic Ice Cap has all but melted, and various countries race desperately to claim the massive amounts of oil beneath the newly accessible ocean, while drug smugglers for one look at a new sea route. Positing a very realistic portrayal of geopolitical scenarios and economic realities that can arise with unpredictable shifts in our planet’s ecosystem, Arctic Rising also throws in a mysterious corporation – who may or may not want to reverse global warming, a missing nuke and a heroine who is a former mercenary turned UN Polar Guard pilot, patrolling the region to protect against pollution and smuggling. Call it a techno-thriller, an eco-thriller or an adventure story in the times of the flood, Arctic Rising has enough twists and turns while deliver just enough food for thought.

Making a list you can live with is tough. Leaving out books even tougher. That’s why I’ve stuck to books where climate change & rising sea levels and their immediate aftermath from a larger societal perspective are very much in the foreground. More shall – and will – follow, like an Atwood trilogy for instance and maybe even a Barbara Kingsolver novel. In the meanwhile, do read these books, let me know what you thought and if there’s any other books you’d have liked to add to this list. Leave a comment below or tweet to us with #NWWonFD.

I will see you again next week with yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live long and prosper!

Lead Image: Installation by the Spanish artist Isaac Cordal in Berlin titled ‘Politicians Discussing Global Warming’, a part of his Follow The Leader series.


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