The best fiction allows us to hold ideas in our heads about time and space and causality and connection that are difficult to articulate in other ways, argues the Australian author James Bradley. It helps its readers engage with dangers and possibilities that are at the very edge of imagination
James Bradley is a novelist, critic and editor of The Penguin Book of the Ocean (2010). His fourth novel, Clade (2017), follows the story of three generations in the 21st century to explore the effects of climate change.
James Hansen, one of the most distinguished scientists to warn of the dangers of climate change, once said that being in his line of work is like screaming at people from behind a soundproof glass wall. You’ve written that being an author of fiction who is concerned with environmental questions often feels frighteningly similar. What, then, is the point? Is there a way to shatter the glass?
The psychology behind our responses to climate change is complex, but a big part of the problem is that we simply don’t have the cognitive tools to deal with it. It’s too big, too complex, the interplay of risk and time frame is too hard for us to hold in our heads. That means that while we understand there’s a problem we either cannot make sense of it or in those moments when we do get to grips with the enormity of what’s going on it’s so overwhelming we just shut down or give way to despair.
Finding a way of bridging that gap and making it comprehensible is vital. We need to find ways of communicating not just the scale of the problem but its ethical and philosophical dimensions, ways to think about ideas that challenge our assumptions about agency, of articulating grief, and bearing witness to what’s going on around us.
In an odd way the novel should be perfectly suited to this task. Its mutability and variousness make it enormously adaptable, and the fact it provides an interface between the interior and exterior world, and the private and public sphere means it can document the changes in both. The hybridity of the novel means it’s also able to explore more abstract ideas in the same way non-fiction can, while simultaneously using the mimetic possibilities of fiction to communicate ideas and experiences that are more resistant to non-fictional representation or discussion.
“Fiction allows us to hold ideas in our heads about time and space and causality and connection that are difficult to articulate”
When it comes to climate change this can be as simple as helping us understand what it might be like to live in a climate-affected world. Certainly one of the things I wanted Clade to do was to take the abstract idea of climate change and give it an affective dimension, because it seemed to me that if I could give readers a way of imagining what it might be like to live in a climate-changed world it might help them think about the problem more effectively. But fiction also allows us to hold ideas in our heads about time and space and causality and connection that are difficult to articulate in other ways, and to give shape to experiences of unsettlement and dislocation that aren’t easy to communicate in abstract terms.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, fiction can open up space for change. Doing that demands we resist the seductions of the apocalyptic; as Fredric Jameson famously observed it’s always easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but it doesn’t necessarily require us to imagine alternative modes of social and economic organisation in the way somebody like Kim Stanley Robinson does. In a moment when – to borrow Mark Fisher’s phrase – “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable”, the simple suggestion the reality we inhabit is neither inevitable nor the end of history becomes a radical act. As Ursula Le Guin observed not long ago, “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
In a series of essays gathered under the title The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that ‘serious’ or literary fiction largely fails to address climate change and the Anthropocene, and he appears not to take science fiction or fantasy seriously. I take it you disagree with him. If so can you identify some of the characteristics of fiction that succeeds? Is it time to leave ‘serious’ literary fiction – whatever that may be – behind?
I’m actually an admirer of many aspects of Ghosh writing on climate change. His arguments about the historical relationships between colonialism, capitalism and climate are fascinating, as are a number of his observations about the ways in which the very privileged perspectives of those of us in the West frame the problem more generally.
Likewise he says a number of incredibly useful things about the ways in which climate change resists description and analysis in fictional form. This isn’t a new observation – many people have observed that the incremental nature of climate change, its non-human timespans, its complexity and connectedness all make it a difficult subject to write about in a conventional way. But Ghosh goes further, arguing that the social realist novel struggles with the phenomenon because the very strategies it uses to capture reality, strategies which emphasise the quotidian detail of everyday life to the exclusion of the extraordinary and inexplicable, smooth out and regularise the world in ways that make it almost impossible to adequately describe the cognitive and temporal rupture of climate change. As Ghosh puts it, “thus was the modern novel midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishment of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.” Or, more bluntly, “the irony of the ‘realist’ novel” is that “the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real”.
I think this analysis is broadly correct, but I take issue with Ghosh’s claim there is a dearth of serious fiction dealing with climate change. Quite aside from the fact I think his notion of ‘serious’ fiction –which in this case seems to be defined in opposition to genre fiction – is incoherent, it just isn’t true. Indeed I probably would have said the opposite: that once you start looking, anxiety about climate change and environmental change is everywhere.
Part of the problem with Ghosh argument is his excessively literal definition of “fiction about climate change”. Novels do not have to approach the subject directly or explicitly to be engaged with it: in fact the very difficulties Ghosh identifies mean writers are often more likely to approach it tangentially or metaphorically, or to simply incorporate it into the fabric of the worlds they create. I recently read Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation, which is set in an economically ruined Greece where fires are ravaging the landscape, and while it never says anything explicit about climate change the background of economic and environmental breakdown means the novel’s portrait of psychic breakdown becomes charged by the dislocation we all feel as the future unravels around us, but the reality is there are many, many books engaged with these questions both directly and indirectly.
“Discussing the literature of climate change without talking about Kim Stanley Robinson is frankly bizarre”
Ghosh’s desire to exclude the literatures of the fantastic from discussion is also deeply problematic. Discussing the literature of climate change without talking about Kim Stanley Robinson is frankly bizarre, but even setting Robinson aside it requires him to ignore the long tradition of science fiction that grapples with environmental questions and the considerable body of contemporary science fiction concerned the impacts of climate change. Sometimes the question is addressed directly, as in the work of Paolo Bacigalupi and novels such as The Water Knife. But it can also be seen in the planetary space opera of writers such as Paul McAuley and Alastair Reynolds, both of whom create worlds in which climate change and various forms of geo- and bio-engineering are simply givens. Likewise, Robert Macfarlane has argued that the resurgence of the eerie in British and Irish literature can be seen as a response to environmental disruption and the perturbations of late capitalism, meaning the increasing prominence of haunted landscapes and anti-pastorals offers a reminder of the fact “[t]he supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.”
So Ghosh isn’t wrong about the challenges climate change presents to writers of fiction and the novel more generally. But he frames his argument in a way that deliberately ignores how much contemporary writing is engaged with the question, and as a result fails to recognise the ways in which that engagement is reconfiguring and transforming contemporary fiction. Sometimes that’s about the resurrection and revitalisation of older forms like the ghost story or the adoption of narrative strategies once confined to science fiction and the literatures of the fantastic, sometimes it’s about de-centring the human, or emphasising various forms of spatial or temporal entanglement, sometimes it’s about trying to think about deep time. But there’s no doubt it’s happening all around us.
I read your first choice, Annihilation (2014) by Jeff Vandermeer, as – among other things – a kind of ghost story. But neither it nor the other books in the Southern Reach trilogy of which it is a part are easy to label.
In the introduction to The Weird, the 2011 anthology that Jeff Vandermeer and his wife Ann edited, they suggest the weird isn’t a genre or a form so much as a technique or an affect, a thing that lurks in the interstices, and which emerges in unexpected and unsettling ways. I rather love this idea, not least because it captures something of what makes both Annihilation and its two sequels, Authority and Acceptance, so compelling, the way reading them leaves you feeling like you’ve been colonised yourself, your brain permanently altered by your descent into the world of the books.
Read this way, Annihilation is a ghost story, albeit a ghost story of a very particular kind. But as is often the case with the sort of writing gathered together under the loose (and contested) rubric of the weird, the novel takes the tropes and techniques of a particular kind of supernatural story and empties them out so they give rise to something entirely new. Instead of the supernatural hokum of a ghost story or a horror novel, the book generates a sense of sustained dread and abjection, as the characters at its centre are killed or hollowed out and replaced by whatever it is that lurks in the mysterious Area X that lies at the heart of the three books.
In itself that would be an achievement, but what makes Annihilation and its sequels so exciting isn’t merely that they’re such extraordinary studies of the dislocation of the self. It’s Vandermeer’s decision to apply these techniques to the questions thrown up by climate change to create something that might be described as a kind of ‘ecological uncanny.’ The reader is brought face to face with the unknowability of the world, its inhuman scale and indifference to the human and the disjunction between our minds and the minds of the other presences – animal, vegetable, even mineral – that share our planet.
“ The reader is brought face to face with the unknowability of the world, its inhuman scale and indifference”
In the Southern Reach books this sense of nature’s immensity, complexity and ferocity are given palpable force. This is partly down to the clarity and intensity of Vandermeer’s prose. But it’s also because the books give shape to a deeply unsettling sense of disruption, of unknown forces intruding into the real, dislocating and deranging it. To the characters these forces feel like violations of the natural order, but that’s at least partly because what’s happening exceeds their powers of comprehension.
In this the trilogy echoes philosopher Timothy Morton’s notion of the hyperobject — that is, something so massively extended and distributed in time and space it transcends spatiotemporal specificity. Constituted out of the relationship between other objects, hyperobjects cannot be experienced directly, or in their totality. Instead we only ever perceive their effects, or imprints. As a result hyperobjects remain essentially ungraspable, apprehended only imperfectly and intermittently, yet simultaneously affecting us in unpredictable and often disconcerting ways.
Morton’s most important example of a hyperobject is climate change, a phenomenon generated by the interrelationship between the Sun and the Earth and atmospheric conditions under human impact, yet experienced by us in the form of rising temperatures, extreme weather events and environmental and social breakdown. But one might just as easily think about the Earth’s ecology in this way, or even evolution and consciousness.
The result is an incredibly potent way of imagining our own inability to conceive of the disaster of climate change, and the way its disruptions and convulsions unsettle our sense of the order of things. Like Area X, the effects of climate change make the world alien, even terrifying, deranging our sense of the natural order and revealing the void at the centre of things. The Southern Reach books make this process manifest, and in so doing they ask us to rethink some of our most fundamental assumptions about our centrality to the world and the meaning of our existence.
In your novel Clade some of the characters get caught up in a superstorm that hits eastern England and causes a huge flood. The scene is set in a future when, you write, people no longer deny the consequences of climate change, but – as one of your protagonists surmises – they still do not understand the scale of the transformation that is overtaking them. In light of the super-hurricanes and floods in 2017 reality seems to be catching up with fiction. But your work and Vandermeer’s are about more than climate change, aren’t they?
One of the really disturbing things about writing Clade was that even as I was working on it reality was overtaking me, meaning that a whole series of things that were still speculative when I began the book were actually happening by the time I finished it. That sense of reality outpacing fiction was unsettling, and it’s only accelerated since I finished the book.
But as you say, climate change is only the most significant of a host of environmental pressures that range from overpopulation to pollution, falling biodiversity and habitat loss, and which are altering the Earth’s climate and environment in entirely unprecedented ways. The familiar is being erased, as landscapes are razed and burned or alienated to human use, birds and animals disappear, supplanted by new and unfamiliar species, rivers die and the oceans empty out.
This transformation has been dubbed the Anthropocene. I’m a little uneasy about the term, and the way it celebrates human primacy rather than the costs of that primacy (personally I think E O Wilson’s term ‘Eremocene’, or Age of Silence might have been more appropriate), but whatever we call it the reality is, as Mckenzie Wark writes, that human and natural forces are now so entwined that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.
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The immensity of this transformation is such that, like climate change, it’s essentially unthinkable at some deep level, both because its complexity exceeds our imaginative capacities, and because any genuine attempt to engage with its ethical dimension is completely overwhelming.
Part of what I find fascinating about the Southern Reach novels is that they transcend this problem by shifting our frame of reference. Humanity is hollowed out and left behind, and what we find in its place is the unknowability of nature. It’s also one of the things I wanted Clade to do: as the novel heads toward its conclusion the time frames begin to expand, leaving the human behind and reaching out into deep time, since doing that not only reveals something of the transience and contingency of human history, but also a context within which the scale of climate change can be understood.
Your second choice is Flight Behaviour (2012) by Barbara Kingsolver. This is in some respects a more conventional novel than Annihilation, written by a highly-regarded author of – for want of better phrase – serious literary fiction. But it has an extraordinary, unsettling ‘miracle’ as its starting point.
One of the things that’s fascinating about Flight Behaviour is that at at least on the surface it offers a counter-example Ghosh’s argument social realism is not fit for purpose when it comes to climate change. After all, here is a novel that is absolutely depicting the social realities of a small community through a fine-grained attention to the detail of individual lives. The only remarkable thing is the arrival of a flock of butterflies whose migration has been disrupted by climate change, and even that might well have been plucked from the pages of a newspaper.
And in an odd way it’s precisely this attention to social reality that makes the novel so effective, and so interesting. Because what Kingsolver lets us see is the way small disruptions to natural cycles alter the world, often without us even being fully aware of it, gradually deranging and unsettling individuals and communities.
“ Kingsolver lets us see the way small disruptions to natural cycles alter the world, gradually deranging and unsettling individuals and communities”
I don’t think there’s any question writing like this is vital. Delia Falconer recently wrote eloquently about the “urgent need for fiction that can register the tiny cultural shifts that are enabling the disaster that is unfolding everywhere around us,” and while I suspect I’m less optimistic about the larger question of whether the social realist novel can genuinely accommodate the sorts of psychic and environmental climate change causes I share her desire for books that engage with these questions directly as well as metaphorically or through the medium of the fantastic.
Likewise it allows the novel to ask a series of fairly pointed questions about the framing of the problem of climate change, and the assumptions underlying much of our discussion of it by introducing a strong class element. The butterflies appear not in some elegant upstate New York university town or a comfortable Californian community, but in the Appalachians, and to people with extremely limited education and material wealth. For many of the researchers who come to study the butterflies this is unknown territory, and so they blunder condescendingly about, oblivious to their ridiculousness (the fact the main researcher, Ovid Byron, is African-American sets up another conflict). It’s a process that culminates in a truly excruciating scene in which a climate change activist lectures the central character, Dellarobia, about things she can do to reduce her carbon footprint, suggesting she buy fewer clothes, replace her appliances less often and fly less, failing to realise the character already wears second hand clothes, has never flown and finds the notion of replacing appliances before they have died a natural death unthinkable simply because it’s economically impossible.
Alongside this critique is a no less interesting exploration of the interplay between love and beauty and grace and an attempt to understand the motivations of those in America’s Bible Belt for whom climate change is at best an abstraction, and at worst a communist plot. Kingsolver tries to reveal the ways in which these two awarenesses of the world – religious and scientific – are perhaps not as far apart as they seem to be. “What was the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it?” wonders Ovid at one point.
Yet in a way one of the things that’s most compelling about Flight Behaviour is that something happens in the final pages that shifts it out and away from the careful realism of the earlier sections. At one level it’s another miracle, book-ending the miracle of the butterflies’ arrival at the book’s beginning, but it’s also a literal expression of the way everything we think of as permanent, even narrative, is destabilised and swept away by climate change.
Your third choice, Barkskins (2016) by Annie Proulx, is a novel about ways of life that are swept away. What does it bring to the literature of climate change and the Anthropocene that you particularly value?
Barkskins begins in 1693 with the arrival of two young Frenchmen in America, and traces the paths of their descendants as they rise and fall across more than three centuries. But while the story is told through the lens of the families, its real subject is the destruction of the forests of North America, and the environmental and human cost of that process, especially for the indigenous peoples, whose lives and culture are shattered by the process.
Its depiction of the latter is absolutely unflinching. Rather like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, another novel concerned with the destruction of cultures, Barkskins is incredibly violent, and its characters are routinely slaughtered, maimed and tortured. This kind of violence isn’t new in Proulx’s work, but where in her earlier work it occasionally shades into what feels uncomfortably like misanthropy, in Barkskins it becomes a kind of strength, capturing not just the violence of implicit in the colonial process, and later capitalism, but also the indifference of time and history to individual lives, which are swept away over and over again.
“Barkskins captures the violence and indifference to individual lives, which are swept away over and over again”
This process allows the novel to focus on the forces underlying the destruction it documents, and the degree to which they can be seen as an inescapable part of our economies and cultures. As one of the characters declares early on, “to be a man is to clear the forest.”
The temporal sweep of Barkskins also allows it to break free of a human timescale and glimpse other, larger timescales. This is something you see in a lot of fiction dealing with climate change. At a practical level it probably reflects the difficulties of dramatising the incremental nature of climate change, but I suspect it’s also about something deeper, and reflects a need to get a handle on the geological scale of what is taking place around us. The reality is that as soon as we talk about climate change we’re also almost always talking about time, and to do that we need frameworks that step outside an individual perspective.
That decentering of the individual is one you see paralleled elsewhere by a larger decentering of the human and a focus on other ways of being in the world. That’s something you see quite a lot of in British and Irish literature at the moment, both in the rise of a sort of anti-pastoral focused on the disturbance and unsettlement of traditional landscapes, and in novels focused on animals like Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border and Paula Cocozza’s How To Be Human. In the case of Hall’s book, which centres on a rewilding project intended to reintroduce wolves to northern England, you have a novel that is intensely, almost meditatively aware of the landscape, but in which the wolves themselves are incredibly powerful presences, their wildness both tangible and somehow unknowable. Likewise How To Be Human is haunted – possibly literally – by a fox, and centres on a character who is losing her grip on the human world because of her relationship with it, a process that’s echoed in Sarah Hall’s astonishing short story, ‘Mrs Fox.’ It’s something you also see in Jon McGregor’s fabulous Reservoir 13. This takes the idea of a landscape unsettled by human violence and tells the story of that landscape over 13 years, eliding the distinction between animal, human and landscape in intriguing ways. But in all of them the movement away from a human perspective makes it possible to break free of our fairly solipsistic (and instrumental) relationship to the natural world and glimpse other ways of understanding it.
Yet despite the wrenching violence of the early sections of Barkskins, I actually find the final sections the most affecting. As the novel enters the present day the legacy of the history it depicts becomes inescapable, refracting out through ruined landscapes, poisoned water, cultural loss in ways that are horrifyingly tangible because they are real and present now. But as you reach these sections you also feel the narrative itself foundering, unhinged by grief and the weight of this past. This makes for incredibly confronting reading, but there’s also something weirdly salutary about the way it demands we reckon with the enormity of the catastrophe we have made.
Your fourth choice is Aurora (2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson. I find it interesting that you chose this rather than his more recent book New York 2140, which is about life in a city that has been partly flooded as a result of climate change. Aurora is set in a future where missions to colonise other star systems have become a reality. It’s vividly realised and posits technology that is far beyond reach at present; and yet – as is perhaps the case with a lot of fiction by Robinson as well as other science fiction authors – it feels to me as if the book is actually much more about the present than the future.
I suppose New York 2140 might have been a more obvious choice, not least because it offers such a fascinating example of the way fiction can not only engage with the reality of climate change (and indeed the enormous political and economic complexities of it), but also offer a vision of the future that suggests the space for political alternatives. But you could probably say something similar about almost all of Robinson’s novels, right back to the Three Californias trilogy and the Mars trilogy, both of which wrestle with the interconnectedness of politics, history and the environment, and the practical difficulties of building futures that work.
In his more recent work Robinson has crafted surprisingly optimistic yet plausible visions of the future: 2312 is another example of the sort of planetary space opera I mentioned earlier, and envisions a future in which Earth’s environment has been profoundly altered by global warming, and in Aurora, a book whose future history runs parallel with that of 2312 without quite coinciding with it, he posits something similar, yet uses it as the backdrop for a much bleaker and in many ways more distressing portrait of the way our fantasies about progress and scientific possibility blind us to the human and environmental costs of our actions.
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To do this the novel takes one of the classic tropes of science fiction – the generation ship – and interrogates it scientifically and politically. The ship in question has spent 150 years travelling from Earth to a planet in the Tau Ceti system (a nod to Asimov). As the novel begins arrival is imminent, and for those on the ship it is the culmination of five generations of effort and privation. Yet almost immediately it becomes clear the planet is hostile to human life. Faced with an impossible choice between dying alone and spending another five generations trying to coax their failing ship home, the colonists opt for the latter, and begin an increasingly perilous journey back through deep space.
Part of what makes Aurora so fascinating is the fact that the story is told by the ship’s computer, Ship, an AI that, as the novel proceeds, narrates itself into personhood. Ship is a wonderful creation in its own right, but Ship’s emergence is only one part of a larger engagement – and dismantling of – many of the assumptions about space travel that underpin science fiction. Drawing on epidemiology and biology rather than physics and engineering Robinson suggests closed environments like generation ships are inherently unsustainable, doomed by the rapid evolution of bacteria and other pathogens, and that even if alien planets do sustain life, that life is unlikely to be compatible with terrestrial biology.
A number of science fiction writers have taken issue with Robinson’s approach to these questions, accusing him of loading the dice against the colonists. I’m not in a position to assess the science, but in a way that doesn’t matter, because these arguments are actually part of a larger assault upon the fantasy that space travel – or indeed any of the various forms of transcendence science fiction traffics in – is a solution to our problems, or that there are other worlds we can turn to if we ruin this one. We only have one Earth, Robinson is saying, one place exquisitely designed for us, and to pretend otherwise is an act of the most profound ethical negligence. For the colonists that negligence has immense personal consequences, but the novel also allows us to see the way those fantasies infect our relationship with the natural world.
“ We only have one Earth, Robinson is saying, one place exquisitely designed for us, and to pretend otherwise is an act of the most profound ethical negligence”
In one sense Aurora is Robinson’s most despairing book: even his immense faith in human possibility and the future is strained by the callousness of a culture that is prepared to send hundreds of people off to die in pursuit of what is, ultimately, not just a fantasy but a poisonous fantasy. As one to the colonists demands of those on Earth who persist in seeing something beautiful in the dream of humanity spreading to the stars, “It isn’t just foolish, it’s sick… Ninety-nine per cent sent out to die, as part of the plan? Die a miserable death they can’t prevent, children and animals and ship and all, and all for a stupid idea someone has, a dream? Why? Why have that dream?”
Yet despite its deliberate dismantling of so many of science fiction’s core assumptions, Aurora is simultaneously a celebration of the possibilities of both science fiction and the spirit of human endeavour that animates so much of it. Because embedded in it is a vision of something that feels genuinely new, and deeply important: an understanding of the complex interdependence of organisms and environments, and of the ways in which our capacity to recognise or resist that understanding will shape not just our future but our present. The result is a book that is rich in possibility but also deeply aware of the depth of time and the transience of life. Or, as Ship says at one point, “life is complex but entropy is real.”
In New York 2140, Robinson describes a world in which capitalism as we know it is replaced by what he portrays as a better system. I get the feeling that he’s teasing us a little – why does it have to take so long? – but also that he is actually quite optimistic, and this is something we’re not used to in science fiction.
Absolutely. He’s very explicit in his optimism about the future, which is partly political and partly a function of the awareness that history doesn’t stop happening that’s embedded in all his work. Whether that’s something we’re not used to in science fiction strikes me as a slightly more complicated question. Within the science fiction community there’s been a bit of an ongoing debate about whether there’s too much depressing, dystopic science fiction, with some writers like Neal Stephenson arguing that kind of work betrays science fiction’s responsibility to dream big, and create the imaginative framework for the sorts of projects that will transform our future. To my mind there’s a fair bit of nostalgia tied up in that argument: whether science fiction really helped make the moon shots happen is debatable, but even if it did that kind of big engineering was mostly driven by the Cold War, rather than engineers reading Arthur C Clarke. Likewise it’s a view that harks back to a time when science fiction saw itself as having a mission or a program, and where the community that was producing it was cohesive enough to cleave to that mission.
But in a way this debate also misses the way science fiction at the moment is leaking out into the mainstream. That’s partly about a shift in the culture of publishing and reading, and changes in the way we consume and discuss books, and indeed about a generation of writers like myself who have grown up seeing the fantastic as simply one form of expression rather than something to be embarrassed about. But I suspect it’s also because our world feels increasingly science fictional, and science fiction – and indeed all the literatures of the fantastic – offers a toolkit that allows writers to get at the weirdness and immensity of what’s taking place all around us. That’s especially true when you look at climate change: if Ghosh is right and one of the problems with realist fiction is its inability to make sense of the exceptional then the toolkit of science fiction, a form whose core business is transformative change should be tailor made for exploring these questions, whether by giving us ways to represent the uncanniness and dislocation of a climate-altered world or by providing tools with which to talk about time and deep time. Indeed I’d go so far as to say one of the reasons so much fiction about climate change is science fictional has less to do with a desire to represent the future as a recognition of the effectiveness of the tropes and strategies of science fiction at making sense of the perturbations and weirdness of climate change.
“Whether science fiction really helped make the moon shots happen is debatable”
To go back to that idea of optimism, I suspect one of the reasons this kind of work doesn’t seem optimistic within the sort of big engineering framework that people like Stephenson advocate is that it resists the idea that climate change is simply a problem we can engineer away, or that technology can fix it. Obviously technology will have to be a big part of fixing it, but as Aurora reminds us, those assumptions about our capacity to out-engineer nature are part of the problem. Or, as one of the characters in New York 2140 puts it, “Mother Nature always bats last”. What Aurora offers is a way to see both things at work at once: an optimism about the future and technology, and an awareness of the cost of failing to recognise the degree to which we are expressions of our environment, and temporary expressions at that. Coupled with his insistence our current economic and social conditions are neither natural nor the end of history makes for a very potent mix.
Your final choice is The Swan Book by your fellow Australian Alexis Wright. This is set about a hundred years in the future in world devastated by climate change. It starts with a teenage Aboriginal girl who is mute after a gang rape, and is hiding inside a giant tree. She is rescued by a refugee from northern Europe who names her Oblivia Ethelyne, and who takes her to live in a polluted swamp that is fenced off from the rest of the world by the army. What kind of world are we entering here?
The Swan Book exists in an incredibly heightened kind of reality, both in terms of the world itself, which is rich and beautiful as well as violent and profoundly disturbed, and the language, which is vivid and raw and repetitive in ways that sometimes seem almost incantatory.
The effect is close to what we might usually describe as magical realism, but I think it’s really important to be careful about what we mean by that. Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation, whose country is in the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia’s north, and although Aboriginal culture and mythology suffuse the book, as Jane Gleeson-White has pointed out they’re not magical, at least not in the the way the magical realism that came out of South America in the 1960s and 1970s was. Instead they’re the reflection and embodiment of a lived and living culture, a way of seeing the world and understanding it, spatially, temporally, historically, socially.
This is especially true of the way the novel blurs time and time frames. More than almost any other novel I’ve read The Swan Book gives you a sense of the different ways time inhabits country for Aboriginal people, the way the deep past is not gone, but still living, still present. That sense of connectedness – and the derangement of disconnection – is written deep into the novel.
“For Aboriginal people, the way the deep past is not gone, but still living, still present”
Yet at the same time the book is an intensely political document that grapples directly with the present day. To an Australian, many elements are immediately recognisable: the refugee camps, the reminders of the Howard Government’s use of the army to intervene in Aboriginal communities and strip their people of basic rights, the hastening environmental crisis.
That last seems the obvious way in, not least because in a very real sense Australia is a laboratory for what climate change is going to be like. The south-east of the continent is warming fast, and although fire and flood have always been integral to the Australian environment the fires and floods of recent years have become increasingly destructive, and that process looks like it will accelerate in coming years. But what The Swan Book forces us to see is that this transformation is just the end point of a longer process that began when Europeans arrived here just over two centuries ago, and that it and the dispossession and murder of the Aboriginal peoples are really just two sides of the same coin in the starkest possible terms.
How do you see the future of fiction about climate change and the Anthropocene? Are you confident novels still have a role?
I don’t think there’s any question novels have a role. The disturbances and convulsions of climate change increasingly touch every aspect of our lives, disturbing our social relations, bleeding into our psyches by demanding we recognise the cost of our privilege, the way it depends upon the exploitation of the natural world and those less fortunate than us, even unsettling our capacity to believe in the existence of some kind of consensual reality.
Doing that requires fiction to take on new shapes and find new ways of addressing and representing not just our lives but reality itself. As I said earlier, I think the growing prevalence of tropes and techniques from science fiction and the other literatures of the fantastic in the literary mainstream is at least partly about the fact they offer ways of talking about the effects of climate change, but I also suspect you can see writers working through this process in other, less obvious ways: certainly it’s not an accident there are so many books that employ discontinuous or mosaic narratives in the way Clade does, or that use the family and its disruption as a metaphor for the effects of climate change, since both offer ways of talking about time and the disruption of our sense of connectedness to past and future. Nor that there are so many novels around at the moment that blur the boundary between the human and the non-human, or that grapple with ideas of time and deep time.
“Fiction has an important role to play in helping us imagine alternatives, either explicitly, or simply by reminding us of the contingency of history”
Fiction also has an important part to play in resisting the weird amnesia of capitalism, the perpetual Year Zero of a culture which seeks to hide not just its origins, but the violence at its heart. Those processes are at the heart of novels like Barkskins and The Swan Book, both of which grapple with the slow violence of climate change and the fact that violence has a history and a logic, in which all of us are implicated.
And as I said at the beginning, fiction has an incredibly important role to play in helping us imagine alternatives, either explicitly, as Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels often do, or simply by reminding us of the contingency of history. I don’t think it’s an accident that so much fiction about these questions seeks to make sense of the immensity of time: to talk about time is to talk about loss, but placing our human conception of time within a geological context is also a way of reminding ourselves of the impermanence of things.
To my mind at least it’s this last that matters the most. The physical, conceptual and ethical immensity of climate change is overwhelming, so it’s unsurprising we tend to retreat into denial or despair. But the reality is that both responses are ultimately self-fulfilling, and if we’re going to move past them we need to learn to think about our situation in new ways and create a space in which we can imagine change. Fiction can make that space.
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James Bradley is a novelist, critic and editor of The Penguin Book of the Ocean (2010). His fourth novel, Clade (2017), follows the story of three generations in the 21st century to explore the effects of climate change.
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