Writer David Thorpe overviews the development of fictional works addressing climate change, and how the term ‘Cli-fi’ (which he discovered when he published his novel, Stormteller) reveals the tension between our twin fascinations with utopian and dystopian visions.
2,110 words: estimated reading time 8.5 minutes
I hadn’t heard of Cli-fi until my novel Stormteller came out in 2014. It’s a novel for young adults, set where I used to live in Borth, north Wales, a beautiful part of the country. Climate activist and writer George Marshall read it and told me I’d written a cli-fi novel. I said, what’s that? And he put me in touch with Dan Bloom, who’d coined the term in 2007. Bloom is not an academic but a self-styled journalist and campaigner, he likes being an outsider. An ex-pat American, he lives in Taiwan, blogging and tweeting as the self-appointed guardian of all things cli-fi.
Cli-fi is fiction about climate change. I’d written a novel which was about climate change, set ten years in the future, when a storm surge means Tomos’ house is destroyed and he has to live with his sworn enemy, Bryn. But Bryn’s smallholding is raided by people from Birmingham, desperate for food as the supermarkets are empty. This sets in motion a deeply upsetting series of events. So I marketed Stormteller as cli-fi.
On the back of that we got the Hay Festival to agree to hold its first panel session on cli-fi, which I invited George to sit on as a way of returning the favour, and I brought in a couple of other cli-fi writers, like Saci Lloyd. Saci is the author of The Carbon Diaries 2015 (written in 2007) and 2017 (written the following year). These are written for teenage girls in particular.
Saci discussed how she had been working on climate change with kids in schools and youth groups, using the book to stimulate conversations. “Compared to superheroes or music, climate change is a pretty dull subject but I’ve learned that the best way to get my message across is to be passionate, completely committed. Gradually they move from being apathetic to ‘What? Why didn’t we know any of this!'”
That, for me, is what cli-fi is for. That’s the measure of its success. To wake people up. The panel at Hay was asked by the public there why we feel the need to talk about climate change in books. Well, basically, because it’s hardly taught in schools. “If you do geography or science, then you might touch on it,” said Saci. “But it’s not a core subject, so it’s quite possible to go right through school and come out the other not knowing anything about climate change.” There you go. Amazing. The most pressing subject facing the planet and we pretend it isn’t happening.
So I heard myself defending this: “There’s nothing wrong with using fiction to talk about serious subjects. Children’s writers have been doing this since Charles Kingsley wrote The Water Babies about child chimney sweeps.” Yet there was a young Telegraph journalist sitting on the front row. She took what I said and turned into a headline in the following day’s printed version of the paper, which read: “Climate activists say: ‘We must infect children’s minds'”. Infect children’s minds. As if they’re not infected anyway by advertising and junk food and social media.
So, with the predictable inevitability of the internet, this was soon picked up by nutters and climate sceptics. And the next thing I knew I was being accused of corruption of minors, child molestation and even, in one tweet from a fundamentalist Jewish organisation, of being Hitler. Which just goes to show the truth of Godwin’s Law, that any internet argument will inevitably lead to somebody being accused of being a Nazi.
So what else is cli-fi? If you read the Wikipedia entry it cites Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole as an early harbinger, which imagines climate change due to tilting of Earth’s axis. His Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1883 and set during the 1960s, has Paris have a sudden drop in temperature which lasts for three years. Wikipedia lists J. G. Ballard’s climate extremism novels from the early ’60s; then, as knowledge of climate change increased, fiction about it really started coming out, one of the earliest being Susan M. Gaines’s Carbon Dreams.
Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004) is a techno-thriller that portrays climate change as “a vast pseudo-scientific hoax”. And Margaret Atwood is always referenced in articles about cli-fi because of her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). Oryx and Crake envisages a world where “social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event”. You’ve got corporate compounds, gated communities and “unsafe, populous and polluted” urban areas where the plebs live. Yep, standard dystopic stuff.
Which gets me thinking. Do the stories we tell influence the future we will live in? Or are we just speaking to the converted?
Do the stories we tell influence the future we will live in?
I know from my own introspection that fear is a massive motivator for negative behaviour… In Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, fear of being a victim of crime is given as a prominent reason for the huge disparity between homicide rates in Canada and the USA, many other factors being equal. But what fuels the fear? The daily dosage of crime reportage meted out to the American public in the media, says Moore. This drives gun ownership and an obsession with security, a perception that crime rates are much worse than they really are and a consequent perceived need to arm oneself and shoot first.
In other words, he says, the moral, social and political fabric of American society is being skewed by the distorted picture of the world being drip fed into the American psyche. In this feedback loop, each random mass shooting and each deliberate homicide reinforces the feeling of threat and the conviction that possession of loaded firearms is the best form of personal security, a feeling that is precisely opposite to the reality. For — as Moore’s documentary portrays — in Canada, where levels of gun ownership are approximately equal to the USA and the population is also racially mixed, many people do not even bother to lock their doors and murder rates are extremely low. News media and politicians there do not fuel the inevitability of violence as a means of solving problems, instead focusing on the need for mediation, negotiation and compromise.
Similarly, how else can we explain the fact that it’s only really in America that climate scepticism reaches epic, violent proportions, where political polarity fuelled by fake news paid for — literally, as documented by Greenpeace and others — by fossil fuel companies convinces scientifically illiterate people that they know better than 97% of the world’s climate scientists?
The conclusion I draw from this is that the stories we are told about the world out there define the way we prepare ourselves to face it. And, as Dan Bloom has it, fiction has the power to reach parts of the human psyche inaccessible to politicians and scientists. We writers like to believe we can change minds.
Or are we just speaking to the converted?
Let’s look at it from the writer’s point of view. Some of us are thinking: what kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of future will our children inhabit? What is the best future we can imagine? But others aren’t. From Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, through George Orwell’s 1948 book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138, Mega-City One from Judge Dredd, conceived in 1977, to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, they have all set the template for many other stories and films, such that in the popular imagination the sprawling mega-cities of the future will largely be over-populated, polluted, broken places, featuring dark towers, high levels of surveillance and crime, their citizens treated little better than battery-reared animals, and no room for nature.
If that’s the popular image, does this mean that this makes the dystopic metropolis a self-fulfilling prophecy, subconsciously if not consciously reinforcing the mindsets of planners and architects? Does it soften up the public, preparing them to acquiesce in the face of grim and unimaginative design, polluted air, poor policing and service levels, corrupt or inefficient governance, long commute times, constant noise, high levels of personal danger?
Where would you rather live: Utopia or dystopia?
William Gibson, in his 1979 cyberpunk thriller Neuromancer, describes Night City, a fictional city located between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the west coast of the United States as being “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button.” Dystopian par excellence, it has inspired a roleplay game, Cyberpunk 2020, and a detailed guide book — not bad for a fictional city. Night City is an arcology — a portmanteau of ‘architecture’ and ‘ecology’ — a design concept for very densely populated habitats, coined and popularized by architect Paolo Soleri. But it turns out that he and other architects have conceived highly sustainable and desirable arcologies. Soleri’s concept appears as early as 1969 in his Arcology: City in the Image of Man (MIT Press, 1969). Attempts have even been made to build them.
Soleri intended his Babel IIB arcology as “an anti-consumptive force and a city form that is the only choice compared to pathological sprawl and environmental destruction”. It was designed for a population of 520,000, at a height of 1,050 meters. Besides residential spaces it includes gardens and waste processing plants, everything you need: parks, food factories, etc.
Funny that Gibson took the idea and then reverted it to pathological sprawl and environmental destruction. Just goes to show that the devil gets the best tunes. Which, I submit, is part of our problem as we collectively, culturally, try to imagine the future.
Why are there more dystopias than utopias? Partly the answer is obvious – in dystopias there is more conflict and this means more drama. In a utopia, less so, so they are intrinsically boring. But, I submit, we need the examples of pleasant potential societies to aspire to. Or is that the province of religion?
Some cli-fi novels contain solutions. The Sea and Summer by George Turner (1987) ends with the protagonists being taken from a hellish part of the world ruled by misguided religious nutters to a sanely governed one. But we don’t get to see much of it.
Ben Parzybok, author of Sherwood Nation (2014) did it in Portland, Ohio, where he lives. He imagined it being wrecked by prolonged water shortages and part of the city forming an autonomous zone. In an interview I did with him he said:
“Since I live in the center of the temporary autonomous zone in Sherwood Nation, it was a joy to bike through it and imagine where a wall would go, or guard posts, or how the micro-nation might implement a trade route — or even how I might destroy a friend’s house. Also, the Occupy movement was setting up TAZs in many cities, and so I extrapolated that to a full-fledged alternative government.”
But he doesn’t think it’s a utopia, just a grass-roots way of organising society. And it gets destroyed, easily, by the authorities. He said:
“I would love to try to write a utopia, especially because these visions are subjective, though I’m guessing it would be more challenging. Story is dull without conflict or tension, and so the author would need to find a means of adding that into a utopia without sacrificing the utopic nature of it. A book with a character who wanders between a dystopia and utopia, I would read / write.”
In Part 2 of the Rise of Climate Fiction: The Emotional Key, which you can read here, David discusses the importance of fiction that explores the emotional ramifications of climate change in the daily realities of the lives of its characters — and of ourselves.
This two-part post was originally a talk David gave to a recent workshop on Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk – part of a series called Fate, Luck and Fortune.
Find out more
David’s novel Stormteller is published by Cambria Books in paperback and e-book.
You can find out more about the series of workshops Fate, Luck and Fortune, which were organised by Nottingham University’s Department of Classics as part of an AHRC-funded research project into how do we talk about the risks of our environment?