The Possibilities of Climate Fiction
As a narrative, the climate crisis poses many problems. Its protagonists and antagonists are not easily identifiable, its resolutions remain unclear and it operates on a scale at which the individual might be deemed insignificant. Psychologically, we are also remarkably ill-equipped in our ability to conceptualise climate change in its totality. Firstly, we cannot experience climate change as an enduring threat; we live in the day-to-day time of weather and cannot directly perceive climatic patterns year-on-year, so extreme weather events are often experienced as freak, isolated events rather than manifestations of a changing climate. Secondly, it is difficult to imagine the suffering that climate change causes; we experience acute ‘psychic numbing’ when empathising with more than one person, let alone the billions of people who will be impacted by climate change now and in the coming centuries.
Climate fiction presents itself as a way to tackle this numbing head-on. Fiction is a crucial way to make the intangible appear and contextualise overarching threats. Narratology researcher Brandi Morris and colleagues find that climate fiction broadly ‘facilitate[s] experiential rather than analytical processing’ which ‘increases empathy [... and] prosocial behaviour’. Readers will not walk away from a novel with the same interpretations.
For the novel to truly represent the scale of climate change, contemporary climate fiction novels must derange scales.
However, through emotively evoking the experiences of climatic events, such as living in a dystopian future or surviving a tropical storm, fiction can encourage a sustained affective engagement with climate change. Readers can imagine what it would be like to exist in a future generation, or be encouraged to examine their own feelings of awe, shock and sorrow that arise from living in the Anthropocene. These imaginative processes help a reader to affectively relate to climate change in a way that fact-based mediums, like a journal article or a report, cannot.
The author Amitav Ghosh argues extensively against the quotidian scale of the realist novel, which focuses on the experience of an individual living through a specific spatio-temporal moment. He argues this mode of representation is a ‘mechanis[m] designed to keep the regular “narrativity” of life under control’ and thus cannot represent life in an increasingly volatile climate. For instance, contemporary realist novels like Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (2016) or Lauren Oyler's Fake Accounts (2021) make passing references to climate change, but this topic is immediately sidelined in favour of the interpersonal drama that forms the crux of the text. The philosopher Timothy Clark argues that climate change demands cognitive ruptures and ‘a loss of proportion tout court’. This mode of thinking requires new, vertiginous proportions to be drawn in the novel.
Climate fiction attempts to create new proportional narratives which acknowledge the destabilising reality of climate change. Amitav Ghosh calls this effect the ‘derangement of scale’. For the novel to truly represent the scale of climate change, contemporary climate fiction novels must use derangements of scale in order to expand our climatological imagination and represent the reality of living in the Anthropocene.
I: Derangements of time
Although we are living through an epochal change, our literary – and political – short-termism too often fail to acknowledge the significance of this shift. Instead, the critic Robert Nixon calls for narratives which pay attention to forms of ‘slow violence’. He argues that we typically conceive of violence as a ‘bounded event’, such as a drone strike. We count the casualties within distinct temporal bounds, then ignore the suffering which continues after the spectacle, such as air pollution deaths or experiences of PTSD. Climate change itself is a kind of slow violence as the acts of perpetration (e.g. the fossil fuel emissions of oil companies) are widely temporally separate from their implications (e.g. rising sea levels destroying coastal communities). Climate fiction must grapple with these events of unbounded violence, and acknowledge temporal scales which do not prematurely bind it.
Dystopias in climate fiction represent slow violence well, as they present the future realities of the consequences of our current emissions. Novels such as Ben Smith’s Doggerland (2019) present the lingering trauma inflicted by slow violence, set in future worlds disfigured through climatic disruptions. In the bleak landscape of Doggerland, the characters inhabit an offshore wind turbine buffeted by rising sea levels and desertification. The slow violence of our petro-carbon dependency is made apparent to the reader in this dystopian landscape.
However, the characters are completely unaware that they are living through the slow aftermath of climate violence; not only does slow violence entail constant suffering, but it also renders that suffering incomprehensible. Their lifelong task is to repair the rusting turbine farm with dwindling numbers of resources to do so, and they are unable to prevent the turbines from flaking and disintegrating. Far from their current status as emblems of our techno-future optimism, the redundant turbines in Doggerland become little more than a practice in Beckettian absurdism.
Examining how climate change comes to bear on the present moment is another important task for climate fiction. In Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide (2004), the Sundarbans are depicted as a place where ‘the Wheel of Time was spinning too fast’. The landscape undergoes accelerated transformations and experiences intense climatic disasters such as migratory disruptions, typhoons, and floods before the rest of the world. But in Ghosh’s sequel, Gun Island (2019), the characters realise that this acceleration is no longer an isolated event unique to the Sundarbans: it is now occurring globally.
Deen, the protagonist, initially dismisses the idea that climatic events could ever truly interfere with his quiet, affluent lifestyle in the safe haven of New York. He reassures himself that ‘it was all chance [...] to lose sight of that was to risk becoming untethered from reality’. For him, ‘reality’ relies upon regularity and predictability and he dismisses the idea that climate change might be creating a new reality where security and predictability no longer exist. He is promptly chased around the world by one extreme climatic event after another: flooding in Venice, forest fires in California, and storms in the Sundarbans.
In a recent interview, Ghosh stated his surprise and horror that nearly every climatic crisis in Gun Island – though fictional at the time – has occurred since its publication. Deen does not exist in a fictional hypertemporality, where sequential climatic events are squeezed together for brevity; all the novel does is open his – and our – eyes to climatic temporalities that already exist.
II: Derangements of space
Fiction can also help us to conceptualise the enormity of the climate crisis by pushing our gaze beyond our immediate ecosystems. This not only helps us to recognise how inherently interconnected local ecosystems are, but also to recognise the diverse spatial injustices that the climate crisis inflicts. The author Zadie Smith has argued that a sense of connection with ‘local sadness[es]’ is vital to emotionally connecting to climate change.
Local place-based attachment is a necessary first step towards conceptualising a more complex, global sense of place.
However, there is a danger to this emotive parochialism in the Anthropocene, which demands the acknowledgement that we all inhabit the same global commons: the atmosphere. For readers in developed countries, a local sense of place can actively obscure the derangements of space that occur in the Anthropocene. Global warming pays no attention to national borders. As Clark points out, ‘to live the hourly trivia of an affluent lifestyle in France is already to lurk as a destructive interloper in the living space of a farmer on the massive floodplains of Bangladesh’. A divisive sense of place must thus be reconsidered.
The danger of a divisive sense of place is shown – quite pointedly – in John Lanchester’s The Wall (2019), named after its setting, a highly militarised sea wall that has been built around Britain’s coastline. In this near-future dystopia, sea levels have risen dramatically, causing thousands of climate refugees to try and scale the wall and seek safety in Britain. The protagonist, Kavanaugh, is a soldier on the Wall. He refuses to imagine the climate hellscape that exists beyond the channel. Instead, he only focuses on local beauty and the idyllic countryside. For Kavanaugh and his comrades, the British landscape promises a safe haven where even ‘the hills seemed friendly.’
The sociologist Kari Norgaard studied the attitudes towards climate change in a remote Norwegian village and concluded that the villagers use cognitive ‘tools of innocence’ to justify their climate inaction. By seeing their existence ‘characterized by closeness to, respect for and love of nature’, the villagers actively perpetuate ‘socially organized denial’ of climate change. Lanchester’s novel dramatises this process, showing how the appreciation of natural beauty and innocence are only made possible because of the militarised border which invisibly protects the privileged audience within. The British idyll actively obscures the spatial reality that climate change has caused the outer world to become acutely inhospitable.
Some eco-critics, as theorist Ursula Heise points out, view local place-based attachment as the necessary first step towards conceptualising a more complex, global sense of place, as ‘global connections present themselves as a kind of addition or multiplication of local scenarios’. However, even when hyperlocal novels gesture towards the global, this does not necessarily facilitate a sustained engagement with it. In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behaviour (2012), the northwards migration of the monarch butterflies brings the protagonist, Dellarobia, into contact with different species, ways of ecological thinking and modes of being that she has never encountered before in her rural American hamlet.
Dellarobia meets a family who were forced to flee their home in Mexico, where the butterflies previously nested. Their town was destroyed by flooding and mudslides, and many people were killed. At the end of the novel, Dellarobia (and the butterflies) face the same threat of flooding, but her fight against the flood is used to symbolise her personal growth, her determination to leave her confining marriage and, ultimately, her desire to pursue an education. Her newly-found inner strength allows her to escape the flood and she watches as the butterflies burst forth from their winter hibernation, subverting catastrophe to personal epiphany. This moment of distance, looking out over the flood and rejoicing, risks representing climate change as a single local event that can be overcome by grit and determination.
By equating personal triumphs to ecological successes, Kingsolver has deflected concerns about ecocide and the longer-term future of the monarch butterfly. The ending also fails to recognise how the text also diminishes the spatial disparities of climate change. Zygmunt Bauman has proposed that we often rely on an ethical framework of proximity, which relies on the assumption that we have more responsibility to those closest to us. This ethic is particularly inadequate when we consider that climate change, largely perpetuated by the Global North, has a disproportionate effect on the Global South. By focusing on Dellarobia’s successful escape, the novel obscures the destruction of the flooded Mexican village, upholds a framework of ethical proximity and conceals the grosser realities of climate change in the Global South.
Ghosh’s Gun Island denies a specifically local attachment to space, as it attends to migrant narratives from humans and other species. Patterns of migration repeatedly expose how spaces in the novel are formed through international, ecological connections. The novel follows Deen’s international journey, which allows him to recognise the radical interconnectivity of space - including his own connectivity and participation in the physical world. As Deen’s plane lands in Venice, he admires how ‘it was possible to mistake the Venetian lagoon for the Sundarbans’. Another Bengali man echoes these remarks, noting that the embankments of Venice are ‘just like the Sundarbans’, because the shipworms infesting Venice are remarkably similar to the crabs infesting the Sundarbans.
By dwelling on these enduringly multicultural port spaces, Ghosh repeatedly emphasises the interconnectivity of space. The subsequent flooding further cements the two places together, supporting the eco-critic Mitchell Thomashaw’s argument that ‘there is no such thing as a local environmental problem’ because any particular locale or ecosystem is all part of a far broader planetary network.
A single flood, by itself, might be an inadequate way of resolving climate change tensions in the narrative, as if climate change manifests in one, local event that can be survived. Ghosh refuses to limit his portrayal of climate to a specific locale, and instead examines how climatic events occur in different spaces. The Venice flood is not just a flood, but explicitly linked to the pattern of American forest fires, snake migration, and Asian typhoons. And these events do not destroy uniformly. In California, the characters are in a conference centre as the fires start to close in. Within minutes, they are transported safely back to their hotel in a minivan. In the Sundarbans, when the floods threaten to physically and economically destroy the towns, the refugees flee through Asia, past attacking armies and in leaky dinghies.
Unlike Flight Behaviour’s Dellarobia, whose personal escape from the flood forms the narrative closure for the novel, Gun Island refuses to finish with a single narrative. Instead, it focuses on a group of climate refugees approaching their destination, Venice, as well as the disparate groups of people (documentary makers, human rights activists, far-right agitators) who are travelling to meet them. The novel does not clarify whether these refugees safely reach their destination, but instead closes with an ambivalent valence. For some of the refugees, this journey is a triumph of endurance; for others it has been a necessary tragedy. Just as the narrative could have chosen to tie itself up neatly, it actually broadens itself out further to emphasise the multiplicity of stories and climatic events that have led to this conclusion.
The novel, as a form, is capacious enough to push the focus beyond the individual whilst retaining the significance of the human. Deranging the scale at which we write about climate allows us to start to grasp the enormity of the issue. It also allows us to imagine the people and communities who will be affected by the climate crisis and open our eyes to important social and ecological connections.
Some climate fiction novels fall short of disclosing the consequences of climate change on an adequate scale; it is difficult to process, even fictionally. But, when the texts do manage to face up to the scale of climate change, they help us to picture the future we will enter. Eco-critic Greg Garrard has spoken of his frustration that there has not been a novelistic ‘tipping point', one book which catalyses an overdue cultural upheaval. But maybe we should see these texts as the inverse of slow violence: a ‘slow construction’ which is incrementally building a way to connect with future worlds, and also to reconceive the present.
Freya graduated from the University of Oxford with an undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature. She is interested in examining the intersections of Environmental Studies and New Materialism and her dissertation focused on how the climate crisis is represented in contemporary literary fiction. She works as the partnerships manager for a non-profit that alleviates food poverty, and you can find her personal blog here.
Artwork by Anastasia Troshkova.