This happens on a global level – as Rivera points out, such impacts are sharper on the ‘Global South’, and the governments of developed nations must be forced to reckon with this. Yet, within our own societies, and I believe this is as true of Mexico and Brazil as it is of India, to use his examples, the vast inequality has its own horrifying implications. I believe it is the work of storytellers to be able to bring these implications to visibility.
Certainly I’m concerned with the global dimensions of this problem, but one of the great beauties of fiction – and this happens when we write and when we read – is that it allows us to examine ourselves. I wanted my readers in India to think about how we all are complicit in this situation, living in our privileged bubbles. In Leila it takes the form of a literal Air Dome, but to me that physical structure was a representation of a manner of thinking that prevails in much of our society, one of enclosure, of cordoning yourself off from the problem, of living then as if the outside does not exist. Some sociologists think of this as a legacy of colonialism.
SD: The idea of unevenness also makes me think about the critic Ashley Dawson’s recent observation that “as we inhabit an epoch of increasingly perilous climate chaos, global capitalism is characterised by uneven and combined disaster.” Climate apocalypse is not so much a thing of the future, but one that is already unfolding, particularly for those regions already most affected by either drought or flooding, which are often the same regions which have in-built inequalities and vulnerabilities as a result of the structural legacies of colonialism and capitalist inequality.
Following on from your point about ‘living as if the outside does not exist’, how might cli-fi from the Global South offer a corrective to the ‘invisibilisation’ of these already-occurring disasters in the Western media? How might it intervene in the kinds of representations that we get in cli-fi thrillers from Hollywood or Euro-American fiction, where apocalypse often seems like this sudden, total shock to a bunch of privileged white people fleeing for their lives, rather than a process unfolding incrementally, or as a compound catastrophe?
PA: That’s a wonderful question and not something I’d thought of before. In Leila the environmental disaster does unfold incrementally, as the years pass. I suppose that was a consequence of watching a city I love, Delhi, start to rot, to go to pieces. To invert that supposition, it might be fair to say that the cataclysmic nature of Western sci-fi is a result of the outward functionality of your societies. Things seem, on the surface, to be clean, orderly, working well. Perhaps it is hard for writers to imagine a slow disintegration so an abrupt intervention – Deus Ex Machina? – is seen as more believable.
But again, I believe this is a result of the things we pay attention to and the things we don’t. As human beings it is hard to get to grips with how close we live to the edge, how fragile everything is. The COVID-19 situation is a good example.
I recently read about just how many asteroids and comets come close (in space terms) to Earth, and how difficult such a collision would be to predict until it is almost upon us. We could have a few days’ notice and all of life as we know it would end. This is the plot of Armageddon, of course, which all these years I’d assumed was Hollywood scaremongering. According to the book, if a comet was on route to hit Earth, we would be unable to stop it. But this is so very hard for us, immured in the comforting lies of modernity, to comprehend. If we fretted about comet collisions constantly, as people this year have begun to fret about Chinese wet markets, bats and pangolins, the worry would get to us before anything else. So we pay attention to some dooms and other dooms we don’t.
SD: Thinking further about the visibility and invisibility of different kinds of disaster, Patricia Valderrama has a great piece on what kinds of climate change lessons can be learned from Latin American literature. She asks, “Who more cli-fi than us?”: pointing out that the Americas have been the site of invasion narratives, ‘alien’ encounters, mass epidemics of disease, ecocide, and literal climate change since the first trauma of colonial conquest.
In that sense, the ‘futures’ of so many classic SF invasion narratives or apocalypses are really the past and present of the formerly-or-still colonised. In what ways do you see global cli-fi and SF as challenging perceptions of the capitalist North as being the real site of the ‘future’ or the most ‘developed’ or ‘advanced’? And maybe vice versa, how might they contradict perceptions of the Global South? How does India or South Asia get represented from ‘outside’ in SF and how does it get represented from writers and artists from the subcontinent or throughout the South Asian diaspora?
PA: It’s interesting thinking about this in light of your earlier question about the representation of climate disaster as sudden, totalising shock versus incremental change. There’s no doubt that colonialism has shaped our imagination and our understanding. The colonial encounter exists in the Western imagination as a sudden, cataclysmic shock, a moment of militarist victory that confirmed cultural and racial supremacy. Perhaps that contributes to why white writers, writers from the colonising countries, create these stories where disasters are also quick and immediate. In the colonised countries we understand better how colonialism slowly spread its tentacles, the subterfuge, how the inroads were made and the nature of contestation therein. Perhaps that is why our stories carry sometimes a different shape?
Whether stories can challenge perceptions of the capitalist North as the site of the future is hard to say. I suppose one recent example would be Marvel’s African kingdom of Wakanda. The interesting thing about that story, to me, is not that an African country commands this incredible technology, but that it has commandeered it. To share it with the other countries of Africa, or with the developing world, would constitute some kind of disaster, we’re told, though it is not clear what. That smacks of a colonial imagination. “If there is to be a place more advanced than our white society”, such an imagination says, “let it exist as an invisible, tiny pocket, never as a threat to the established supremacy.”
SD: I also wondered about how audiences in the Global South might react differently to texts than audiences in the Global North; and, related to this, how the expectations of publishers and editors of what cli-fi should entail might operate to shape the marketing and publication of texts?
In the past, I’ve had several Irish writers, for instance, tell me that they had been told by various editors that their own particular versions of speculative climate-fiction “wouldn’t sell” or “didn’t look like what Irish fiction should look like and American or British readers wouldn’t understand it”. So, I’m curious about your own experience in negotiating literary marketplaces in different geographies. Could you say something about the reception and positioning of Leila in different markets?
PA: I can only speak from my experience with Leila, but I do think different geographies read differently. This is only natural. As I’ve said, India is going through a slow-burning environmental disaster and seems unable or unwilling to tackle it (I say unwilling because the air quality and quality of water in the rivers improved tremendously in the first weeks of the very strict lockdown instituted in India, when all industry ceased, so there is reason to think that this could be handled with the right regulation).