“Out at sea, beyond the grey stone bulwarks of the port, zigzags of lightning electrocuted the water, bringing poltergeist winds that sucked random objects up to whirl and dump. Passionate gusts punched at the sails of struggling boats and then headed inland, flattening corn, uprooting trees, smashing hop silos and storage barns, whisking up torn rubbish sacks that pirouetted in the sky like the ghostly spirits of retail folly.”
This is how Liz Jensen draws us into the world of paraplegic therapist Gabrielle Fox and psychotic teenage patient Bethany Krall in her eco-apocalyptic climate change novel, The Rapture.
What imaginative powers does it take to write plausibly about the unthinkable? Does it require a sorcerer’s occult energies, to translate the looming threats of climate change into prose that will grip the reader’s imagination, leaving her a changed person perhaps? Beyond the internal cinema and the soft afterglow that quality fiction offers, isn’t a revision in the way we observe and engage with the world also a desirable quality of a good book?
Confined for years on a regulation diet of what has been labeled “literary fiction”, I have lately been sampling a smorgasbord of eco-dystopian and, more specifically, climate fiction (cli-fi) works. Besides helping to sharpen my perspective about man-made threats to the planet, these readings have also provided pleasant satisfaction.
The books I am talking about also made me aware that the genius of their authors lies in a combination of vivid imagination, a willingness to bridge the nature/culture divide and an eagerness to experiment for the sake of telling the most urgent stories of our times. In creating these works, they have not flinched from employing specialised vocabulary or language.
Language, in fact, that is marked by edginess and novelty in one author, preparing us for the “prodigious happenings” of a book, darkly humorous and peppered with scientific jargon in another, brooding and melancholic in a third. These techniques, between them, have helped to impart characteristic flavours – a blend of urgency, despondency, vulnerability, pessimism and even a cold-hearted cynicism that suits cli-fi.
Here is Ian McEwan in Solar writing about his flawed Nobel Laureate character Michael Beard, whose patents on artificial photosynthesis could provide a source of clean energy and hence tackle climate change. The scientific vocabulary pours out at ease, mingling effortlessly in an acid bath of satire. The cynical Beard is attracted to an immigration officer at Heathrow and fantasises her working with him:
“…working with and for him, living for and with him and his vision of a world cleansed and cooled and energised by photovoltaics, by concentrated solar power, above all by his own artificial photosynthesis, and by systems centralised or distributed and grid-tied. He would teach her all he knew about thin film, heliostats, feed-in tariffs. She would be efficient in hours; out of them, generous, athletic, with low tastes.”
“What is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction?” asks Amitav Ghosh near the beginning of his semi-scholarly work on the subject, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. This is an important question for me, not just because I have been a climate activist telling industry to mend its ways, but also because I had been writing a novel about environmental disaster where global warming has a role to play.
It is strange that no one has asked this question before, for surely there is no good reason that literature, whose business, as Ghosh rightly points out, is the “imagining of possibilities”, should shy away from engaging with the greatest challenge that life on earth faces today.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, another book which takes climate change head-on, has a plot revolving around climate induced disruption of the migration patters of the monarch butterfly. This fascinating description of roosting monarchs overwintering in the Appalachia is from Kingsolver’s book:
“The density of butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Out across the valley, the air itself glowed golden. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered with trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies.”
Let us dig a little deeper into three novels.
Solar, Ian McEwan
McEwan’s Solar is the story of the Nobel-winning physicist Michael Beard, whose best days are behind him. A dazzling work of satire, this novel uses the character of the cynical, philandering professor to show how runaway ambition can ruin the best laid plans for a better world – in this case a world running on clean energy, freed of greenhouse gas emissions and the climate demon.
But inner demons refuse to quit as the celebrated discoverer of the Beard-Einstein conflation meanders in and out of affairs and marriages while getting assigned to head the National Centre for Renewable Energy in Reading. There is a storm brewing in his personal life because his fifth wife Patrice has started an affair with an obnoxious builder named Tarpin, but Beard still loves her.
At the Centre, Beard meets the brilliant researcher Tom Aldous, whose gangling, big-boned features and a mind bristling with ideas has more than passing resemblance with the polymath novelist and acclaimed master of dystopia, Aldous Huxley. It is interesting to remember here that the novelist Huxley, in his Science and Literature, was one of those who had engaged with CP Snow’s Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution and had himself written a memorable novel that blurs the science/literature or nature/culture divide.
McEwan’s Aldous has path-breaking ideas for clean energy, including the quadruple-helix wind turbine, which the Centre takes up, but his other passion soon brings him in direct conflict with Beard, leading to disastrous consequences, and a train of incidents that keep the plot on the boil.
Meanwhile the professor and a group of climate-conscious artists are taken on a junket to the Arctic to watch global warming in action for themselves on the island of Spitsbergen, where, “just ten miles away, was a dramatically retreating glacier whose sheer blue cliffs regularly calved mansion-sized blocks of ice onto the shore of the fjord.”
In a characteristic satire-laced tone that helps expose the shadow-boxing and inherent cynicism of a consumer culture, the author slips in an aside about the carbon offset for the trip – how the “guilty discharge of carbon dioxide from twenty return flights and snowmobile rides and sixty hot meals a day served in polar conditions would be offset by planting three thousand trees in Venezuela as soon as a site could be identified and local officials bribed.”
The Arctic trip has its own darkly humorous interludes, including one where Beard almost loses his penis to frostbite and a funny and allegorical boot room story, which seems to be a comment on how human beings have destroyed the environment by not following rules.
On his return from the Arctic, Beard gets sucked into a vortex of events from which only vengefulness and cunning can save his skin.
A few years later, in a hilarious twist, the gluttonous, overweight professor falls foul of postmoderns, gets labelled a neo-Nazi and eugenicist by the media, and loses his job at the Centre. But Beard has other irons in the fire. He now owns a series of patents on clean energy from artificial photosynthesis and believes “planetary stupidity was his business”. He has been wooing investors and setting up a clean energy prototype plant in New Mexico, while becoming the unwilling father of a child with his lover, Melissa.
Just as human ambition has taken nature for granted, exploiting the planet’s limited resources to the hilt, bringing upon itself the climate crisis, so too in the end it is for the reader to discover how and if the demon of Beard’s ambition and the ghosts of his past come to haunt his pet project.
In Solar, McEwan’s scintillating prose and the flawed brilliance of his Nobel laureate character are conflated into a powerful message about the seriousness of the climate crisis and how humans may be ill-equipped to find a way out of the pit they have dug themselves into. Looking down at the urban sprawl of London from his plane window Beard muses, “We appeared, at this height, like a spreading lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a soft fruit – we were such a wild success. Up there with the spores!”
Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is set in a rural mountain community of Appalachia, far removed from the London of McEwan’s Solar. What is common though to all three books under discussion is that they communicate what Ghosh describes as “a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment”.
The flame-haired Dellarobia Turnbow, mother of two, out on a tryst with a paramour up in the mountains, spies something magical. The “vision”, which soon turns out to be a giant colony of roosting monarch butterflies, will have profound influences on the life of the community of Feathertown in general and on her in particular.
Dellarobia’s family and her in-laws Bear and Hester live on the same sheep rearing farm in Feathertown, Tennessee. They are hard-up, and her in-laws are planning to invite the Money Tree company to clear the forested hillside where the monarchs have settled. But it is not an easy decision and soon church, family and outsiders are caught up in a conflict of interests and ideals pitting faith and concern for the natural environment against economic interest and survival.
Kingsolver’s prose is exquisitely crafted, richly observed, ringing with the sounds and smells of the Turnbow farm, their family life and the forested hills. Asked about her appreciation of the natural world, which is a distinctive feature of her works, the author has said that “it arose in part because I grew up running wild in the woods with little adult supervision …”.
There is a conscious effort in her fiction to foreground the frugal lifestyle of her principal characters, to avoid brand fetish, and to problematise the wave of consumerism fuelled by sweatshop labour sweeping across the world. Dellarobia, her friend Dovey and her simpleton husband Cub, driven by their limited means, shop at used garment stores and count their pennies while buying gifts for Christmas. These lengthy shopping scenes could be a little tedious for the story-seeking reader but they do well to strengthen the idealistic scaffolding of a way of life whose carbon footprint, as a clueless environment activist discovers while trying to instruct Dellarobia, is much smaller than that of average city folk.
With the arrival of the butterflies, their Mexican winter habitat destroyed by climate-change-induced deluge and mudslides, come eco-tourists, activists, miracle-seekers, TV crew and most importantly the entomologist Ovid Byron. Byron, who is an acclaimed expert on monarch butterflies, camps in the Turnbow farm, studying the reasons for their change in flight behaviour.
When he recruits Dellarobia to assist him, instilling in her a new confidence, she is smitten by the handsome scientist. Just like the butterflies, a displaced Mexican family appears at Dellarobia’s doorstep with their little daughter. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, the little girl Josefina explains that her father was a tourist guide for those who wanted to see the roosting monarcas. Because of the deluge (triggered by climate change) in their Mexican hometown, the butterflies stopped coming and they lost their livelihood:
“‘If you don’t mind my asking, why didn’t you stay there?’ Dellarobia asked.
‘No more. It’s gone.’
Dellarobia leaned forward, hands pressed between her knees, strangely dreading what might come next. Miracle or not, this thing on the mountain was a gift. To herself in particular, she’d dared to imagine. Not once had she considered it might have been stolen from someone else.
‘Do you mean the butterflies stopped coming?” she asked. “Or just the tourists stopped coming?’
‘Everything is gone!’ the girl cried, in obvious distress.
‘The water was coming and the mud was coming on everything…Un diluvio.’
…Josefina nodded soberly, her body shrinking into the sofa. ‘Corrimiento de tierras.’ The mother lifted the girl onto her lap, folding both arms around her protectively.
…They all sat quietly for a long time. Dellarobia had ridden out prayer meetings aplenty, but had no idea what to say to a family that had lost their world, including the mountain under their feet and the butterflies of the air.”
Just before a harsh winter creeps over Feathertown and the gorgeous monarchs are threatened by extinction a doleful Ovid asks Dellarobia, “What was the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it?”
Will the butterflies survive the freezing temperatures? Will the hard-working community be able to withstand the onslaught of a weather system gone berserk? This breathtakingly crafted novel, which cradles an entire world within itself, will reveal it all in the final pages. But there are already some hints at the beginning:
“Dellarobia couldn’t remember a sadder-looking November. The trees had lost their leaves early in the unrelenting rain. After a brief fling with colouration they dropped their tresses in clumps like a chemo patient losing her hair. A few maroon bouquets of blackberry leaves still hung on, but the blue asters had gone to white fluff and the world seemed drained.”
The facility with which authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Liz Jensen portray the improbabilities of climate-related catastrophe is worthy of note. In their handling of “narrative leaps” and their engaging with the “unthinkable”, these works stand tall, effortlessly blurring the artificial boundaries between “genre” and “literary” fiction.
The Rapture, Liz Jensen
In Jensen’s The Rapture, the paraplegic wheelchair-bound art therapist Gabrielle Fox is given charge of Bethany Krall – a damaged psychotic teenager who has murdered her mother with a screwdriver plunged into the eye. Bethany, who has been suffering from death delusion, is confined to the Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital in the coastal town of Hadport, England, where she is administered electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) interspersed with sessions of art during which she creates cryptic images predicting global warming doomsday.
Jensen, who has said that “more and more, I feel that climate is the only thing worth writing about”, is a master storyteller. A quality buttressed by her psychological insights, bringing to life two complex characters, who stick with you long after you have finished the book.
At its heart a cli-fi novel, The Rapture, set in the near future, begins by pointing out the weather:
“That summer, the summer all rules began to change, June seemed to last a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other.”
Within a few pages, the reader is introduced to Gabrielle Fox, who has lost the use of her legs after a car crash which killed her lover and her unborn child. The first interactions between the wheel-chair bound Gabrielle and Bethany are fraught with tension. The green gum chewing seventeen-year-old, with scars and cigarette burns all over her arms, is known to be dangerous.
Soon enough the young girl’s clairvoyance and uncanny ability to predict disaster comes to light. Without having an inkling about Gabrielle’s past, she tells her about her accident and later about her sexual relation with the physicist and turbulence expert Frazer Melville, who appears on the scene. After sessions of ECT which she seems to thrive on, – “give me the volts,” she says – Bethany begins to predict a string of natural disasters, including a deadly earthquake in Istanbul and a cyclone that flattens Rio, taking out the statue of Christ the Redeemer.
“I can see stuff happening before it happens,” says Bethany, “I feel it. Atoms popping about. Vibrations in your blood. These huge fucking wounds. The planet in meltdown…”
While Gabrielle’s boss makes light of these predictions even though they all come true, Frazer looks for scientific explanations, statistical probabilities and clues in Van Gogh’s last paintings.
In The Great Derangement, Ghosh has shown, quoting different authors, how the word “uncanny”, which “recurs frequently in translations of Freud and Heidegger”, best approximates the feelings evoked by the freakish events triggered by climate change. It is no surprise that Bethany’s pinpoint accurate predictions of cyclones and earthquakes transmit a similar feeling of uncanny to the reader, as it does to her therapist, Gabrielle.
In a virtuoso feat of characterisation, Jensen has created this eerily clairvoyant child as if to communicate the uncanny essence of climate disasters. “Bethany’s pain is planet-shaped and planet-sized,” writes a therapist in his report and indeed it seems as though the tortured planet is communicating through the damaged child.
Gabrielle, meanwhile, sets forth to find out more about Bethany’s evangelist father Leonard, a Faith Waver, who preaches the eschatological concept of Rapture, which says that true believers will be carried away to heaven while the world will descend into seven years of Tribulation or End Times. Predictably enough, she has noticed Bethany talking about End Times and The Rapture, but the girl warns her that it will happen soon and they will all be drowned, so she has to help her escape.
The story now springs forward at a brisk pace as Frazer, studying Bethany’s drawings, links her prophesies with sea bed methane hydrate mining operations which could go horribly wrong. As the real dangers of methane leaks – methane being a very powerful greenhouse gas – submarine landslides and runaway global warming dawn upon the physicist and a small group of scientists and activists, there is very little time to convince anyone that the end may really be near. Nor is there any way to get Bethany to pinpoint the location of the seabed drilling rig which might trigger the catastrophe, because Frazer, Gabrielle and her charge are on the run from the police.
Near the end of this mind-bending novel, Bethany meets Harish Modak, a Calcutta-born world-renowned Planetarian who has decided not to have children and who doesn’t believe humans will last forever. She says:
“‘I agree with Professor M here,’ grins Bethany, ‘The world sucks. Humans suck. We don’t deserve to live. None of us. Let something else take over the planet…’”
Before spectacular events unfold and the uncanny sweeps across the final pages, this then is the footnote that the “mad” teenager leaves for civilisation, having seen through its hypocrisies. A footnote echoed and developed in the thoughts of her therapist, who laments:
“How is it that we, the inventors of devices that fly across oceans, hurtle to other planets, burrow underground, and kill from a distance; we, the atom-splitters, the antibiotic-discoverers, the computer-modelers, the artificial-heart-implanters, the creators of GM crops and ski-slopes in Dubai have failed to see five minutes beyond our own lifetimes.”
Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Trust, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. He has advocated on climate change issues at the United Nations and has recently finished writing his fourth work of fiction about environmental disaster.