The absence of the engagement of literature with climate change is not universal. There have been writers in the past, and among those working today, who have engaged with various aspects and indicators of climate change. Of course we expect more and more writers to write cli-fi, but that is not our only concern, there are two other important ones.

First, there is hardly any literature of climate change being produced in those areas of the world which are expected to bear enormous human and other “costs” because of it. And second, there is a tendency to ghettoise cli-fi to the realms of “genre” fiction. Let us look at the existing material and the attempts to categorise it. This will help us analyse if, why and how certain types of climate writing are better equipped to address the issues at hand, and whether some have more resonance with readers.

The imaginaries

Gregers Andersen has classified a large number of climate change novels and fiction into five themes or what he calls “imaginaries”. These are: Social Breakdown, Judgement, Conspiracy, Loss of Wilderness, and Sphere.

  • Social Breakdown, whose cultural history he traces to the biblical story of Babel, consists of stories where anthropogenic climate change has led to wars or small scale conflicts for limited resources.
  • The Judgement imaginary covers stories where nature strikes back, so to speak, and we find non-human agency at play. Andersen traces the cultural history of this imaginary to TheEpic ofGilgamesh and to the legend of Atlantis, among others.
  • The Conspiracy imaginary blurs the realms of politics and science, telling stories where climate change is used as a tool of manipulation. It traces its history to the gods of the Greeks and their secretly orchestrated interventions in human life.
  • Loss of Wilderness themed stories are those where nature as an entity of exceptional value is ruined or lost because of climate change. They trace their cultural coordinates to the biblical story of eviction from paradise.
  • Sphere stories are seen to trace their roots to the tale of Noah’s Ark,  presenting alternative terraformed worlds or bubbles to which people escape from a climate change-ravaged Earth.

Andersen provides examples of books and movies for each. For example, Marcel Theroux’s Far North is a story of Social Breakdown, Frank Schätzing’s The Swarm fits into Judgement, Michael Crichton’s State of Fear is a tale of Conspiracy, Jean McNeil’s The Ice Lovers has a Loss of Wilderness theme, and the Sphere theme is to be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy Science in the Capital and other books.

It goes without saying that the Conspiracy imaginary, which often posits climate change as a conspiracy foisted upon humanity, easily plays into the narrative of deniers who, despite the evidence, hold and propagate the view that anthropogenic climate change is a myth.

Denial, caution, resistance

In American Literature in Transition 2000-2010, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson identifies three broad themes in the climate fiction novel. The first theme is “denial avoidance, and acceptance of climate change”, the second, “cautionary fables of the Anthropocene”, and the third, “ecopolitics of resistance”. In the first category he places both Flight Behaviour (acceptance) and State of Fear (denial), in the second is The Road, among others, while in the third category we find Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.

Sci-fi, cli-fi or supergenre

We often hear a debate over the status of cli-fi as a form of science fiction. Some critics hold the view that climate fiction is indeed science fiction because of its use of what Darko Suvin called “novum”, a kind of novelty or newness, which in this case is caused by disaster. This is contested by the fact that we find realism, fantasy, speculation and various other literary types in the library of cli-fi. As many effects of climate change are already visible and writers like Amitav Ghosh in Gun Island draw on these real world happenings in their cli-fi, it is difficult to position climate fiction within the house of sci-fi, which needs a so-called “novum”.

Climate change is actually subjecting the familiar critical categories and genres to stress, and even dismantling them in some cases. One way to address this is to consider cli-fi as a kind of speculative writing which asks the what-if question (what if things got worse), but this would still not include all stories in the genre. Better still would be to consider cli-fi a supergenre covering all kinds of stories, and not a sub-type at all.

This position is supported by Andersen’s imaginaries – which, however, have a speculative element to them – as well as the work of critics like Schneider-Mayerson who in his study of the influence of climate literature has found that these books belong to all kinds of genres. He writes that the books he studied, “include the following genres (at least): realist literature, young adult fiction, noir, thriller, satire, post-apocalyptic fiction, science fiction, speculative fiction, and weird fiction. They are set in the recent past, the present, the near future, and the distant future.”

The Costanza framework

If for a moment we look at that subset of sci-fi which tells stories set in the future, we can divide these into four groups following a matrix developed by Robert Costanza in “Four Visions of the Century Ahead”. While this matrix was not developed to study cli-fi per se, we can modify it to divide climate stories primarily into two types – those marked by technological optimism (technology and science will solve climate change), and those shot through with techno-scepticism (only social cooperation, including reduced consumption and greener production, and not technology can mitigate and reduce the effects of climate change).

This techno-optimist vision can be either come true – that is, technology (eg, geo-engineering, fusion energy, etc) really solves climate change – it may prove “wrong”, and climate change gets worse, moving us towards dystopian scenarios and stories. Similarly, the techno-sceptic vision, wherein cooperation and other means and not technology play a major role in reducing climate impacts, can come true, giving us scenarios like Ernst Callenbach’s Ecotopia, or they may be wrong, voluntary cooperation does not work and we get big governments and authoritarianism to control consumption and production and fight climate change, essentially an Orwellian setting.

The challenges of writing climate fiction

When I decided that climate change would be the backdrop of my novel The Butterfly Effect, I realised that the slowly unfolding pace of climate disaster would prove particularly difficult to negotiate in fiction. Unlike a nuclear explosion, climate change in its myriad manifestations progresses slowly through disparate and apparently unconnected events and developments spread across continents.

While a single storm can have dramatic elements which can fit into a short story, and we have the example of movies like Into the Storm, communicating the widely distributed developments surrounding climate change as a phenomenon is far more difficult. To work around this problem I built my story around something else, a fast progressing genetically modified food disaster, to guide the flow of the narrative, while disparate climate events unfolding in the background reinforced the disaster.

In the real world, it is quite possible that such multiple disasters will reinforce one another, amplifying the overall effects to unmanageable proportions. The Fukushima nuclear disaster is a case in point. One way to make cli-fi possible is to twine its narrative with a fast progressing disaster, though this may sometimes dilute the focus on climate catastrophes.

Another strategy is to pick out one of those elements of the natural environment which can get destabilised pretty quickly and aggravate climate change. You will find examples of this in Liz Jensen’s The Rapture, where a seabed methane mining accident (the big daddy of greenhouse gases) causes a tsunami besides triggering runaway global warming, and in the movie Snowpiercer, where a geoengineering effort to spray aerosols in the atmosphere to block part of solar radiation freezes the world into an ice age.

The nature/culture partition

The British scientist and novelist CP Snow pointed out in his famous The Two Cultures (1959) lecture how the sciences and the humanities are divided from one another. Similarly, the French philosopher Bruno Latour has been calling attention to the partitioning project of modernity wherein nature, which consists of the natural world and is the preserve of science, is separated from the realm of culture which includes literature. This, as Amitav Ghosh has mentioned has led to the relegation of those literatures which can be called nature-culture hybrids to the outhouses of “genre” fiction, while “serious” literature (and high culture) remained pure and untainted by science.

Because its subject matter is a nature-culture hybrid, cli-fi has suffered a similar fate. This dissuades many writers from taking the perhaps professionally risky step of working in this area, and being condemned to the ghettos of genre fiction. Still there are many writers from the past and the present – from Lewis Carroll to Doris Lessing, and from genre writers to serious literary fiction writers – who have worked with nature-culture hybrids and succeeded in their efforts.

The material

One major problem with writing cli-fi is the intransigence of the material itself. Anthropogenic global warming, climate change, and its manifestations are spread out over vast geographies, unfold over large time spans, affect large collectives of people, seem to involve non-human agency, and are often seen as improbable events. The modern novel, as Ghosh discusses, is ill-suited to handle many of these.

It often works by focussing on “place” (and concealing continuities) and “period”, it narrows itself to the level of the individual and their “moral adventure” and it ensures that narrative leaps and improbabilities are connected with “fillers”. These bottlenecks make the modern novel ill-equipped to handle the material presented by climate change. So writers have to discover ingenious ways to engage with the subject.

Thus we find an artful handling of different time periods in Ghosh’s Gun Island, which connects disparate geographies and times through climate disasters. In Flight Behaviour, where place is handled with all the care of a modernist novel, the connectedness of one place with another, between Feathertown, Tennessee and little Josefina’s Mexican hometown, is central to the plot. This balance between place and a sense of the planet is something that can make a climate novel tick.

Ursula K Heise was among the first to focus on this balance between place and planet in the environmental imagination. More recently, critics like Adam Trexler and Adeline Johns-Putra have expressed the hope that “environmental criticism, or ecocriticism, moves beyond its long-standing interest in concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘place’, to embrace a new understanding of the local in relation to the global.”

Another distinctive feature of cli-fi, non-human agency, comes into play in Frank Schatzing’s Swarm, where whales attack ships. In fact, other books can also be slotted under Andersen’s Judgement imaginary. And who can forget the scene from the film Into the Storm when the funnel of the tornado sucks up storm-chaser Pete to his death, in the final moments of which he is illuminated by a brilliant golden light and it seems the funnel is turning him around slowly to observe him closely before hurling him to his end. The sense of the “uncanny” and non-human agency are beautifully blended here, which is never easy to accomplish. Liz Jensen’s The Rapture, the Snowpiercer film, and many other cli-fi works, also handle improbable events.

Finally cli-fi and eco-fiction which foreground large collectives of people, instead of what Nick Admussen would label as narratives centred on individualism, are a challenge to put together, but we find writers doing this too. One example would be Kim Stanley Robinson, whose books feature “ensemble” casts.

A deeper problem lied with the deficiencies of language itself. Ghosh points out, with examples of Buddhist pagodas in Burma and “thinking forests”, how images and forms could be better vehicles to convey these stories. With the advent of the internet and the popularity of graphic novels and other visual media, it has become increasingly possible to use text and image together, he point out, and the emergence of such hybrid forms could help to counter the resistance offered by climate change to language.

Dystopia, slow decay or utopia?

It is difficult to ignore the allure of the apocalypse. Dystopia is attractive because of the possibilities of drama, and also because readers like to get frightened from a distance. Successful dystopian works spawn numerous inspired followers. Michael Svoboda, who teaches creative writing at George Washington University, points out in his piece on cli-fi movies with an ice-age theme, which he christens ice-fi, how the success of Day After Tomorrow was followed by at least eight inspired works. He goes on to explore why this ice-world theme caught on. At the time of writing, the Goodreads Best Dystopian fiction list has 3256 books, while Best Literary fiction has only 1040.

However, many commentators, including climate activists, argue that dystopian tales while entertaining can push people to despair. If we agree that climate literature has a purpose beyond mere entertainment then dystopian tales, they say, immobilise people with fear and despair, making them avoid any action to change the status quo.

But despair is not always negative. Commentators like Jem Bendell, in the context of communicating the true picture of the worsening climate change scenario, has pointed out that “the range of ancient wisdom traditions see a significant place for hopelessness and despair. Contemporary reflections on people’s emotional and even spiritual growth as a result of their hopelessness and despair align with these ancient ideas.” If we simplify this, it means fear and despair can move us into action mode.

Elsewhere, researchers like Schneider-Mayerson have used construal level theory of social psychology to show that dystopian or not, diminishing readers’ psychological distance with climate change scenarios leads to detailed and specific construals – “how individuals perceive, comprehend, and interpret the world” – of the future, which in turn can move people to action.

Another view is that people are able to filter out the fear element of dystopia as speculation and will act if there is a strong message. Sophia David cites Keira Hambrick who “suggests that readers have genre expectations and are more resilient to the apocalyptic depictions in climate fiction, since they decouple genre and reality. She (Hambrick) writes, ‘the speculative nature of apocalypticism becomes clearer in fictional texts, and readers may be less likely to feel immobilised by fear and eco-anxiety, and may respond favourably to the call-for-action espoused by the narrator, characters, or the author.’”

A related problem with apocalyptic depiction and dystopia is that they still remain far from reality. Although individual storms can have their apocalyptic moments, overall the progress of climate change is over longer periods of time. This makes apocalyptic depictions difficult unless we bring some scientifically plausible, accidental and fast evolving imaginary situation into the picture.

As for utopias, in his research on sustainable future fiction Jeffrey Barber has discussed the presence of “secret utopias”, like the African country of Wakanda in Black Panther, hidden in the midst of a suffering and exploitative world. These secret utopias, often powered by magic or extra-terrestrial elements – vibranium in the case of Wakanda – consequently engage in the wider struggles of the world. In my novel The Butterfly Effect there is one such secret utopian enclave held together by magic and spiritual powers, which absorbs the misfits of the surrounding high-consumption world but eventually succumbs to an eco-disaster.

There are other critics of dystopia and apocalypse in fiction. Historian Barnita Bagchi has pointed out the absence of the apocalyptic vision in south Asian writing in her discussion of three Indian writers from the past and present, linking this to the decolonisation of the mind, while Ghosh has recently said that dystopia is a kind of fantasy, lamenting the fact that there is not a single novel about Hurricane Sandy while there are so many about the future destruction of New York.

Aesthetics, politics, entertainment

Finally, and what is perhaps of crucial importance for the literatures of climate change, is the balance between the political and the aesthetic. If we subscribe to the view that one of the responsibilities of cli-fi is political, that these books should influence action, then the question arises, is it possible to communicate political messages without sacrificing aesthetic value? This is a question equally applicable to other “genres” of the novel. However if we agree that ecological breakdown from climate change is the greatest threat to life on this planet and cli-fi can play a role in influencing positive action, then this question assumes great importance.

Sophia David deals with this question in detail by contrasting the views of György Lukacs and Theodor Adorno. Lukacs, she says, gives importance to art as a driver of political resistance but he holds that politics can be emitted by the work not because the author desired but because of the work’s “subtle mirroring of society”. Adorno on the other hand held that art born of political intention “fails as an artwork”. This would imply that climate fiction which stresses on political engagement will fail aesthetically.

In my own reading of climate novels I have often felt Adorno’s thoughts validated in that some of these books which were overtly conscious of their politics didn’t work (for me) aesthetically, and didn’t provide the joys of reading. But clear political intent is one thing, and for a book to emit its politics, as Lukacs says, is a slightly different matter, keeping the field open for experimentation, which is what is happening in climate literature today.

If we look back at Admussen’s Six Proposals, clearly his stress is on politically engaged climate fiction, but the challenge is how to write such a book while retaining the aesthetic and at least some of the entertainment value of the work. The scores of authors who are right at this moment hunched over their keyboards trying to write the next cli-fi tour de force, which will move legions of readers to action while entertaining and pleasing them with its aesthetics, will have to answer that.

Today, from books like Carbon Diaries meant for young adults, through thrillers like The Windup Girl, and from there to aesthetically pleasing masterpieces like The Road, right up to the politically engaged novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, the climate novel is fertile ground for experimentation, from which many more interesting and engaged works are expected to appear.

[To be continued.]

Part one in this series: Why contemporary fiction can no longer evade an ethical obligation to engage with the climate crisis

Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. He has advocated on climate change issues at the United Nations and has recently published The Butterfly Effect, his fourth work of fiction. This article is an edited version of his keynote address on the “Literatures of Climate Change” delivered at a national conference in St Andrews College, Mumbai.