Is Climate Fiction the New Black?

It is unarguable that science fiction is intimately connected to the real world. Now, this may seem like a contradiction—one of the defining features of the genre is that its worlds are expressly disconnected from our own, be they via futuristic settings, uber-advanced technology, or a combination of the two – but as the renowned science-fiction critic Heather Urbanski said: ‘science fiction is the literature of the reality we live in.’ However, this ‘reality we live in’ isn’t always merely connected to the work of science fiction at hand, but can also be commented on, in a process similar to that of realist fiction (think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and colonialism; or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the Beat Generation; or Christos Tsoilkas’ The Slap and 21st-century Australian life).

Of course, not every piece of science fiction comments on the real world: sometimes a space opera is just a romp, a piece of cyberpunk is just crime-noir in fancy dress, and an alien-invasion story is just an excuse for an old-fashioned ‘shoot ‘em up.’ But almost since its inception, some science-fiction writers and creators (indeed, many of them) have drawn explicit connections and made direct commentaries on the times in which they lived and the way their world was (the ‘reality’ they lived in, if you will). These explicit connections and direct commentaries are sometimes subtle and sometimes heavy-handed, and often do more than simply act as unique structural and/or framing device, or serve as a metatextual ‘wink’ at the informed reader. Instead, they can often enrich a story by providing a sense of relevancy and emotional depth: we see our world existing within the story (even if it’s just below the surface), meet the kinds of characters/people that we might actually know and interact with, and can relate to their situations and sympathise with their plights. In the end, if these techniques are handled with skill and flair, the resulting texts often move from the realm of ‘good’ into the rarefied air of ‘classic.’ Take the following short-ish list of classics as an example:

  • The Island of Doctor Moreau—H.G. Wells
  • The War of the Worlds—H.G. Wells
  • 1984—George Orwell
  • The Martian Chronicles—Ray Bradbury
  • Fahrenheit 451—Ray Bradbury
  • The Body Snatchers—Jack Finney
  • Make Room! Make Room!—Harry Harrison
  • Stand on Zanzibar—John Brunner
  • The Forever War—Joe Haldeman
  • Neuromancer—William Gibson
  • The Postman—David Brin
  • Ender’s Game—Orson Scott Card
  • Jurassic Park—Michael Crichton
  • Snow Crash—Neal Stephenson

Now look to this list of historical real-world problems, events, controversies, political discourses, and cultural changes that each text explicitly connects to and directly comments on—once the connections and commentaries are spelled out, it becomes almost impossible to see each book outside of its real-world influences:

  • The then-emerging science and ethics of vivisection (The Island of Doctor Moreau)
  • The English class system, and English colonial expansion (The War of the Worlds)
  • Governmental intrusion into private life, totalitarianism, and social conformity (1984)
  • Race relations, and the emergence of postcolonial theories (The Martian Chronicles)
  • Governmental censorship, and social conformity (Fahrenheit 451)
  • McCarthyism, social conformity and the Cold War (The Body Snatchers)
  • Overpopulation, famine, and the corporatisation of culture (Make Room! Make Room! and Stand on Zanzibar)
  • The Vietnam War and its attendant cultural and psychological consequences (The Forever War)
  • Punk culture, the influence of computing and the incipient internet on ordinary people, and the corporatisation of culture (Neuromancer)
  • The rise of U.S. conservatism and the Cold War of the 1980s (The Postman)
  • The arms race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and the emergence of ever more destructive weaponry (Ender’s Game)
  • The late-century advances in genetics and cloning (Jurassic Park)
  • The globalised and ‘melting-pot’ nature of society, and the growing impact of the internet on society (Snow Crash)

All of this brings us, in a roundabout way, to climate fiction and its apparent position as the dominant science-fiction subgenre of our times.

Authors like Margaret Atwood (the MaddAddam trilogy), Kim Stanley Robinson (the Red Mars trilogy, the Science in the Capital series) and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl, The Water Knife) have become elders of the climate fiction field, paving the way for others to follow. Their works are both warning and prophecy, asking necessary and urgent questions, positing scenarios and outcomes that many would rather avoid confronting. Some authors have even found their works shoehorned into the ‘literary fiction’ category, such is the growing crossover appeal of the subgenre—in many a reputable bookstore, you’ll find works such as Clare Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road shelved in the highfaluting literature section, rather than in the ghettoes of science fiction. Even here in Australia, some science fiction/speculative fiction writers have embraced the trappings and tropes of climate fiction—Steven Amsterdam refreshes the post-apocalyptic subgenre in Things We Didn’t See Coming by having his protagonist live through a series of climate change-induced catastrophes; in Peter Docker’s The Waterboys, climate fiction is one of the many subgenres included in its hybridised form, and the sub-genre’s specific attributes underpin both the novel’s narrative and its world. And if further evidence is needed of climate fiction’s increasing reach and influence, look no further than the fact that the winner of this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel went to NJ Jemisin for her novel The Fifth Season, which is a richly-detailed and thoroughly terrifying story of a planet undergoing a series of cascading climate change-induced catastrophes.

Climate fiction explores the potentially drastic consequences and endpoints of climate change, in terms of its effects on the environment, society and the individual. It tends to be much more realistic in nature; instead of a focus on uber-advanced technologies or outer space, it is all about Earth and our ability to survive and adapt to the environmental devastation we’ve collectively wrought. Some works heavily rely on current scientific theories regarding the consequences of climate change, and on rigorous and realistic extrapolations of these theories; while most tend to examine the political, societal and psychological dimensions of living with a changed climate.

Is climate fiction a brand new subgenre? Or has it just become pre-eminent, befitting the fact that climate change is ‘our’ era-defining global problem (in much the same way as the Cold War during the 1950s and 1980s, as overpopulation and the rise of the counterculture during the 1960s and 1970s, and as the increasing reach of the internet and the globalisation of culture during the 1990s)? While the difference between these two questions may seem slight, what the answer says about the relationship between science fiction and society is important to both fans of the genre and the wider world.

As we all are no doubt aware, climate change isn’t exactly a ‘new’ problem—the by-products and consequences of humanity’s inevitable technological and industrial progress have been having a negative effect on the natural environment for as long as we’ve been around. However, ever since the Industrial Revolution reshaped the world and wrought massive changes to societies and to humanity’s relationship with nature, these effects have steadily become ever-more detrimental to the health of ourselves and our planet. Some far-sighted and thoughtful people saw these changes coming long before the general public did, but their protests and prognostications were mostly confined to the margins and overlooked. However, with the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s came an accompanying rise in the awareness of our collective impact on the environment. This awareness steadily grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s as the evidence of this impact started pouring in, confirming that the damage was becoming worse and that the by-products of our way of life were changing the climate itself. During this initial rise in awareness—and arguably beginning even earlier—certain science-fiction writers could read the writing on the wall (as it were), and created futuristic scenarios and settings that were an extrapolation and forward-projection of humanity’s negative impact on the environment.

And so the sub-genre of climate fiction was born.

You only need to look at books like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass/The Death of Grass, JG Ballard’s The Drought and Brian Aldiss’ Earthworks to see this. Respectively published in 1951, 1956 and 1965, each of these books makes explicit the link between the by-products of humanity’s technological and industrial progress and the despoiled environments that their characters call home. And even though some readers may only see these books as post-apocalyptic narratives with a slightly different twist, the fact that these links are emphasised so heavily is something that I believe makes them a sub-genre all of their own. Of course, this line of thinking is helped by the fact that, as time marched on and this ecological awareness steadily grew during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, more and more of these futuristic scenarios and settings began appearing. However, despite this growing awareness, climate change still remained something of a ‘fringe’ concern.

Despite the arguments of some misguided, stubborn-minded and disbelieving people, the science is settled: climate change is here, and it’s here to stay unless people as a whole get their act together quick-smart. It has become about as mainstream an issue as issues get; when you see advertisements for solar-panels during the football, infomercials about using water wisely during the cricket, community awareness campaigns for the victims of climate-change disasters broadcast during the tennis, and reports of unseasonal droughts and floods on the commercial news and in commercial newspapers, you know that awareness of climate change has moved from the fringe to the centre. And when we consider the fact that what was once considered a problem of the future has now become a problem of today—when we open our eyes and see that climate change is here, and that it heralds a bleak future—it should come as no surprise that science-fiction writers and creators have embraced this mainstream awareness and used it as a lynchpin for their stories.

This is what science fiction does: it takes the problems of today and shows them to us in a new light, sometimes as a warning and sometimes just for entertainment. And seeing as though a future in which the climate has changed (as opposed to changing) seems to be hurtling towards us at speed, the rapid rise and reach of this particular type of science fiction should come as no surprise. This why works by writers like Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi and Clare Vaye Watkins et al are so important—good science fiction, like all good writing, is watertight, logical and thoroughly convincing. The type of climate fiction practised by these and other ‘quality’ writers is one whose own internal rules and climate-induced endpoints are both consistent and plausible, two factors that make the warnings contained within all the more frightening.

It’s no wonder that climate fiction is the hottest thing since sliced bread or the invention of the wheel. And I for one wouldn’t have it any other way—we need all the warnings we can get, and anything that increases our awareness of the dangers posed by climate change and offers up potential solutions and ways of adapting to it can only help.

(Originally published in Aurealis #94, September 2016)


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