Questioning Categories in the Era of Climate Change
Ben Smith | David Sergeant
What would it be for climate fiction to be a genre or sub-genre in the same way as, say, crime fiction? The latter involves crime and the attempt to solve or combat it. So, climate fiction would involve climate change. But as critics usually end up acknowledging when they start to write about it, climate fiction can appear in different ways and in different guises across genres that still remain recognisably in the mode of those other genres – the multiple sub-generic varieties of science fiction, literary fiction etc. – and while something similar might be said of crime, there is a pure or distinct crime genre where there is not for climate fiction. It would be strange to say that Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Margaret Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora are the same genre; but all have been given the label ‘cli-fi’. So, already we reach an impasse and need to back up.
The term cli-fi was coined in the late 2000’s by journalist Dan Bloom and has subsequently entered academic and journalistic discourse, with a growing number of books and articles addressing the subject. In a sense cli-fi could be seen to have emerged as a practical (and useful) term to describe a growing number of books from a diverse range of authors and genres, dealing, in a variety of different ways, with climate change. Having a catch-all term to describe this writing is especially useful in an age when most readers will discover new books via a search engine rather than browsing the shelves of a bookshop. At a time when there are a growing numbers of readers, authors, journalists and academics interested in climate change and fiction, it makes sense that there would emerge a term to signpost work which might reflect such interest.
…there could also be nervousness at the thought of aligning a ‘serious’ work of fiction with a term so suggestive of tongue-in-cheek irony in its punning nomenclature.
Interestingly though, despite the ubiquity and apparent usefulness of the term, it is very rare to find instances of publishers actively marketing a novel as climate fiction, still less cli-fi. Perhaps this is a factor of the conservatism of the bookselling market, which rarely looks beyond such amorphous groupings as sci-fi/fantasy, crime/thriller, YA and literary fiction. For works that fall into the latter category, there could also be nervousness at the thought of aligning a ‘serious’ work of fiction with a term so suggestive of tongue-in-cheek irony in its punning nomenclature.
Or perhaps the reticence of the books industry to embrace cli-fi is due to a recognition of the problems mentioned above – the seeming instability of a genre that includes such a diverse range of authors, all of whom draw on recognisably different traditions in their work. But then, the same could be said for any of the other genres that booksellers use comfortably. Any list of crime, historical fiction or sci-fi works will speak to the formal and stylistic breadth of those genres. And very often the most interesting and engaging works are those that are cross-pollinated from different genres. So, why is climate fiction different?
Defined by the Drama
Perhaps we need to simplify things and go back to the issue of subject matter. However broad and varied a genre is, we may say with confidence that crime fiction takes crime as its subject, that historical fiction deals with historical events. So then, cli-fi is fiction about climate change. But what does it mean to take climate change as the subject of a novel?
The first problem here is one of perspective, because, as some critics have pointed out, any fiction produced today could be said to be ‘about’ climate change simply for being produced at a historical moment when all human activity is bound up with that phenomenon. A novel with people living in a house that uses electricity, in which people drive cars? Climate fiction. A historical romance set in 19th Century Manchester? An adventure in a stone age settlement after the invention of the clovis spear? Or a mystery set on a colonised Mars? All climate fiction, because how can the recent developments that have led to climate change be separated from the broader cultural and technological history and possible future of humans as a species?
If a novel focuses on a group of characters surviving in a flooded future world then it is still a novel about survival: it is not about climate change.
So, already we need to nuance this and say explicitly featuring climate change – or rather featuring the explicit climatic changes that are the most obviously visible consequence of global warning. But to say that is to say both too little and – revealingly – too much. This ‘featuring’ is not enough to constitute a genre, as we have seen, because these novels remain recognisably in the mode of, produced through the dynamic of, other genres.
If a novel focuses on a romantic relationship but has climate change occurring within it as part of the world building, then it is still a novel about romantic relationships, because that is where the drama is happening: it is not about climate change. If a novel focuses on a group of characters surviving in a flooded future world then it is still a novel about survival: it is not about climate change. Even if these climatic events are foregrounded, featuring descriptions in every chapter, that would not mean that a novel is primarily about climate change, because that is not where the drama of the narrative takes place.
And here we come back to that word ‘drama’, which is at the heart of the problem of writing about climate change. The problem with climate change as a subject is that it is inherently undramatic. The effects of climate change may generate crisis or conflict, but the problem is one of causality – a flood or a wildfire may be presented in a novel as a result of anthropogenic climate change, but caused by what, precisely? The deforestation of the Taiga? Air travel in the US? Car use in rural England? Coal-fired power stations in India? The answer of course, could be all of these things, or a completely different combination of activities going on elsewhere in the globe.
Either way, there is no way of drawing a direct causal line between one specific set of activities and its effects on a global scale. In real life this problem should not matter; as rational individuals we should be able to understand that the cumulative effects of a whole range of activities contribute to catastrophic climate change, and that should be enough for us to act; but, as readers of fiction we require something different. To paraphrase a sentiment reiterated by writers from Aristotle to Tom Clancy, fiction is not real life, fiction has to make sense – there must be a clear line of causality between action and effect, event and event, that the story (and reader) can follow.
A Derangement of Links
More difficult still is the broader issue of linking individual action to global events. Even if we could say with certainty that a drought or tropical storm was definitely caused by a particular collective action, how could we ever hope to draw causal links between that event and the specific instances of individual human action that contributed to it – our protagonist driving a car, boiling a kettle, eating a burger – in a way that is meaningfully dramatic? As the philosopher Timothy Clark points out, to try to follow a direct causal line from individual action to global climate catastrophe is to enact a “derangement of scales” too complex (and absurd) to trace.
Here we hit on an irony at the heart of climate fiction: that the climate change events we would most think of as dramatic are actually, specifically, undramatic in that they do not adhere to a recognisably causal narrative structure. For us as readers, they always seem to come from nowhere.
This point is illustrated clearly by Amitav Ghosh in his book The Great Derangement, in which he gives an account of a real extreme weather event that he experienced – a tornado that suddenly hit Delhi in 1978. Despite the fact that this was an event that Ghosh personally experienced, he has never been able to write about it – the sheer improbability of his being in the right place at the right time to experience the tornado and survive created a barrier to its representation. He writes:
"To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic outhouses that were once known by names such as 'the Gothic,' 'the romance,' or 'melodrama' and have now come to be called 'fantasy,' 'horror,' and 'science fiction'."
Here Ghosh echoes the concerns of a number of eco-critics and philosophers regarding the capacity of modern ‘realist’ fiction to accurately represent the new reality of climate change. In their adherence to probable action and visibly causal narrative structures, how can realist novels hope to represent climate change? And yet, a great number of novels identified as climate fiction (including Ghosh’s own) clearly make use of realism as their dominant mode. Does this then mean that all of these books are failures?
It might depend on whether you feel that the job of fiction is to represent its subject. It is widely acknowledged that climate change poses mind-breaking problems to representation: too vast, too tiny, too pervasive, too slow, too invisible, too everywhere. But the assumed response often seems to be that we should therefore represent it better. But you can’t – or rather, if you want to do that, then turn to the various scientific disciplines and discourses that deal with this phenomenon. Narrative fiction deals with or through people and operates fundamentally at a human scale. The question about fiction in the time of climate change should be about how it represents people in the context of the Anthropocene, and not how it represents (or doesn’t) the climate events which supposedly define and unite these various works. And the question about genre then becomes one about what kinds of human relationships individual genres are capable of representing – which might include, of course, relationships with the nonhuman.
Even with the qualification, this might seem like an uncomfortably regressive statement, given that anthropocentrism and the haughty assumption of a divide between human and nature – the former sovereign over and somehow separate from the latter – has played such a key role in the history and present reality of the Anthropocene. But to qualify too drastically the power of human agency, the centrality of Anthropos to the Anthropocene, might equally be an overcorrection. As Clive Hamilton has pointed out, for all that the Anthropocene has revealed the non-mastery of humankind before the Earth System in this epoch, it is simultaneously both proof of humankind’s exceptional capacity for agency, and a demand upon it.
…it is also connected with the history of the novel – a form that emerged in conjunction with modernity and has been a dominant form for exploring its condition and effects for the past four hundred years.
The very impossibility of representing climate change at a human scale is central to any accurate reflection of the experience of living in the world today. The philosopher Timothy Morton describes climate change as a “hyperobject” – something too vast to be apprehended in its totality. As such we might align it with the basic problem of scale, as it has manifested through the history of modernity: the scale of the globe, of the universe, of geological time, of the species, of the social totality. These all existed as problems and concepts before critical anthropogenic climate change was even a gleam in your nearest seam of coal.
Climate change is an unprecedented historical development – ‘development’, ha ha – but it is not an unprecedented representational problem, or freestanding historical event. And indeed, returning it to this status, this continuum, is to accord with one sensible understanding of what climate change is: part of the history of modernity, bound up with capitalism, globalization, colonialism, secular history, class struggle and a particular type of acquisitive masculinity. In this sense, it is also connected with the history of the novel – a form that emerged in conjunction with modernity and has been a dominant form for exploring its condition and effects for the past four hundred years. So perhaps climate fiction isn’t a genre, after all; perhaps it’s just fiction, doing what fiction has always done – changing with the times, testing and troubling its own formal boundaries in an attempt to convey new realities.
For more information on Dan Bloom’s work see http://www.cli-fi.net. For good overviews of climate fiction in academic discourse see Adeline Johns-Putra and Axel Goodbody (eds.) Cli-Fi: A Companion (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019) and Adam Trexler Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015).
Defined by the Drama
See for instance Aaron Bady’s comment: ‘All fiction set in the present is now about climate change. It might be “about” characters who are in denial about climate change. But, nevertheless.’ Quoted in Symposium on Science Fiction and the Climate Crisis Science Fiction Studies Vol. 45, No. 3, SF and the Climate Crisis (November 2018), pp. 420-432, 420
A Derangement of Links
Clark ‘Derangements of Scale.’ Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change. Vol. 1. Ed. Tom Cohen (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities, 2012) p.150. For further exploration of the scale effects of the Anthropocene, see Clark Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as Threshold Concept (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
Ghosh The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) p.24.
Clive Hamilton Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (London: Polity, 2017) p.4.
See Timothy Morton Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).