The Rise of Climate Fiction #1: Beyond Dystopia and Utopia

In our latest Members’ Post, author David Thorpe gives an overview of the development of fictional works addressing climate change. This was a talk he gave to a recent workshop on Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk – part of a series called Fate, Luck and Fortune – and I’m delighted he is sharing this with ClimateCultures. In this first of two parts, David starts with his own discovery of the term ‘Clif-fi’ when he published his novel, Stormteller – and how its rise reveals the tension between our twin fascinations with utopian and dystopian visions.

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.

Stormteller, by David Thorpe
Artist: Elaine Franks © 2014
http://www.elainefranksartwork.co.uk

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.

Defining cli-fi

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.

Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole First English edition, 1891

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.

Paulo Soleri’s ‘Arcology: The City in the Iage of Man’

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 the second part of this post, 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.

Find out more:

David’s novel Stormteller is published by Cambria Books in paperback and e-book. And you can see more of his fiction and non-fiction at his website.

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?

Walking the Winds: Mistral

Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’, tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. Our final extract comes from Nick’s journey down France’s Rhône Valley on the trail of the Mistral – a name derived from the Latin ‘magistralis’, or Masterly. The Mistral is the ‘wind of madness’ or ‘idiot wind’ that inspired and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.

The clear light of the Mistral in the Plain of the Crau, southern France.
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
http://www.nickhuntscrutiny.com

‘There is a town north-west of here called Aubenas, deeper in Ardèche. The old people say that until fifteen years ago, they had never known Mistral. Now it blows there frequently, very strong, only in the last two decades. No one knows why.’ 

This was not the first time I’d heard of winds changing their patterns – in Croatia people had argued incessantly over whether the Bora was stronger or weaker than before – but it was a topic I had mostly steered clear of. The dizzying complexity of meteorological science had been impressed on me early on, and statements like ‘the winds are changing’ are impossible to back up without meticulous data and computer modelling. Anecdotal evidence is equally dodgy territory, because people’s memories of what the wind was like fifty years ago, or twenty, or two, relies on their subjective state, which can change as dramatically as the winds they are trying to remember. As every poet knows, the boundary between weather and mood is infinitely porous.

However, it seems clear enough that if Europe’s climate is changing, the time-worn pathways of its winds eventually will too. If the climate changes the temperature changes, which means the atmospheric pressure changes; if the atmospheric pressure changes air will be forced along different routes, adapting to environmental shifts as species do. In fifty or a hundred years perhaps the Mistral will have migrated to the east or west, rendering those blank north-facing walls obsolete technology. Perhaps the Helm will be displaced from its redoubt on Cross Fell – the demons finally exorcised for good – and the Bora, Foehn, Tramontana and Bise channelled into different territories, like climate refugees.

Viviers, it turned out, was a fitting place for such thoughts: a local legend warns of the perils of the winds changing their patterns. According to this origin myth the Mistral rises not far from here, in an area of marsh, pouring through the open mouth of an enormous cave. After years of suffering, the people living in its path devised a method of stifling it; they constructed a great wooden door, reinforced with iron bands, and nailed it swiftly into place to take the wind by surprise. The Masterly howled its discontent, cursing and threatening, but was trapped inside the rock with no hope of escape.

That winter was the mildest the Rhône Valley had ever known, untroubled by frost or snow, and the people were glad of what they’d done. When summer came, however, everything started to go wrong. The air was humid and unhealthy, causing sickness and disease. With no wind to dry the fields the grass grew lank, the ground became boggy and the crops developed mould; the countryside sweltered, and was plagued by insects. Unable to bear these conditions any longer the people decided to free the wind, nominating the nearest village to prise open the door. Before they did so, the locals made the Mistral promise to behave more gently, to stop flattening their crops and tearing down their barns. The Mistral kept its word, but – like any deal with the devil – acted to the letter rather than the spirit of the pact, sparing the immediate environs but not the countryside beyond; once released it howled to the south, frustrated from its captivity, and raged with a violence even greater than before. The moral of this environmental fable is very clear: don’t mess with forces you don’t understand. The cold north wind, for all its discomfort, brings blessings to the land.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com

Questioning boundaries? Space for creative thinking... 

"Nick ends his series of excerpts with thoughts about changes in Europe's winds - and the 'infinitely porous' boundary between weather and mood. How might we construct maps of a future Europe illustrated not by our natural or political boundaries changing with its climate but by the altered moods of its peoples and places'?" 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

 

Walking the Winds: Foehn

Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’, tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. Nick’s fourth extract for ClimateCultures comes from his  journey through Switzerland in pursuit of the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn, which brings clear skies and wildfires – as well as insomnia, nosebleeds, anxiety and depression – to the Alpine valleys as winter turns to spring.

Stepping outside was like being plunged into a warm, stormy sea. Channelled, diverted and rebuffed by the complexities of the slopes, the Foehn’s southerly flow was confused, broken into conflicting currents that rushed nervously against one another, so that one moment I was standing still and the next propelled alarmingly forward at speeds I could hardly control. The cable car was grounded, its gantry and trembling wires caught in one unending scream; the only alternative route was the three-hour trail down the mountain. The forest was a static roar, and the pines bent like rubber with the impact of each gust. When the world emerged below, it looked as if layers had been removed to reveal it for the first time.

A Foehn-clear day in Altdorf, Switzerland.
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
http://www.nickhuntscrutiny.com/

The surrounding mountains had jumped closer, dabbed with Tippex-white snow, each crease and ripple illuminated to a hyperreal degree. The rooftops of Altdorf were so defined it was like looking through a telescope: every chimney, turret and tile had been tuned to perfect focus, giving everything an oddly computer-generated quality. Descending to the windswept town was like turning a dial and zooming in, the picture growing more precise with each step.

Loud with sunshine, bright with wind, Altdorf was a different town from the rain-streaked place I had left. The temperature had leapt ten degrees and warm air coursed the streets, flapping the shirtsleeves of gossiping elders, hurling the water from orderly fountains and driving tornadoes of leaves through the lanes. The keys, crowns and pretzels of ironwork shop-signs swung madly over doorways, and woodcock feathers vibrated in the brims of Alpine hats.

There was only one direction: blossom, leaves, litter, dust and plastic bags all chased north, and the clothes on washing lines had turned to weather vanes. I followed this flurried migration back to Flüelen and the lake, where the water had turned an unreal blue, flecked with magnesium flares. A steady procession of white horses roared offshore in repetitive ranks, divisions of cavalry on the move; on the quayside an elderly man sat watching the waves, wind-bathing.

The energy overwhelmed my senses, made me drunk with it. With the  Foehn’s encouraging hand at my back I fairly flew along the trail, under the Ober Axen cliffs, through a tunnel in the rock where the air was funnelled so intensely it forced me into a clumsy jog, and soon I was back beside the lakeside chapel at Tellsplatte. Soon after that the black bull of Uri was replaced by a white cross on red: I had entered the canton of Schwyz, which gave Switzerland – Schwyzerland – its flag, and its name.


Next week, in our final excerpt, Nick shares his experience on the trail of the ‘idiot wind’ – France’s Mistral.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com

 

Walking the Winds: Bora

Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’, tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. Nick’s third extract for ClimateCultures comes from the end of his three-week journey from north-east Italy down the Adriatic coast, through Slovenia and Croatia, in search of the freezing Bora – whose name comes from Boreas, the ice-bearded Greek god of the north wind.

Gornje Sitno was the highest village, the end of the road. Six inches of powder snow squeaked under my boots as I climbed, snowballing at the tips of the laces, making lion’s tails. The snow had favoured the windward side of every leaf and blade of grass, while tree trunks and telephone poles were vertically scored with a furred white line angled precisely northeast, as if magnetised to a new pole. The world had been perfectly bisected, divided between spring and winter.

The Bora on Mount Mosor, Croatia
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
www.nickhuntscrutiny.com

Sheltered by the slope at first, I could only hear it. But then I reached the top, and the Bora was upon me.

It was on my skin, freezing my face, blizzarding into my eyes. My eyelashes were frosted, my beard stiff with ice. I made the mistake of removing my mittens and my fingers throbbed so much it felt as if they’d been slammed in a door. The chill of it pushed me back, forced me to proceed in a crouch, as if advancing under fire. Or as if I was bowing.

It was in my ears, but it wasn’t blowing; nor was it moaning, whistling, howling, or any of the other words usually used to capture wind. It was less a sound than a sensation, a nameless energetic thing that erased the line between hearing and feeling; for the first time in my life, I understood sound as a physical force. It was in my lungs, under my skin. Like a religious maniac, I roared my appreciation.

The Bora roared right back at me, and the mountainside ignited. An eighty-mile-per-hour blast lifted veils of powder snow, frozen spindrift that swirled like smoke, spinning itself into ice tornadoes that leapt from slope to slope before blowing apart again in mists of agitated dust. It happened again and again as I watched, each white eruption spreading and merging to create gyrating clouds that travelled as fast as a forest fire, hurtling down the mountain. The Bora’s face was visible in each fleeting pattern of snow, each convolution and curlicue, each vortex, twist and coil. I saw the invisible appear, the formless given form.

What did the Bora say to me, on that frozen mountainside?

I could not read its words. Its language was too large.  


Next week, Nick shares his experience of the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn of Switzerland, bringer of wildfires and insomnia and clear skies.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com

Walking the Winds: Helm

Between 2015 and 2016, writer Nick Hunt spent six months walking the invisible pathways of four of Europe’s named winds to discover how they affect the landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. His new book, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’, tells the story of these wind-walks through the continent. In the second of five excerpts for ClimateCultures, Nick describes his walk across England’s Northern Pennines on the trail of the Helm, which blows from desolate Cross Fell to wreak havoc in the Eden Valley. 

The view resembled a different country to the one I’d seen the morning before. There was no sodden cloud, no murk; the land was bright and loud again, the weather vane of the topmost pines twitching to the west. I made coffee in a pan, cowboy style – a mouthful of grits and a mule-kick to the heart – and as I was thinking of going out, the door banged open.

It was a cheerful pink woman who had hiked up from Kirkland. ‘You can hear the Helm up there,’ she announced breathlessly. ‘It’s horrible, howling and moaning and groaning. I was too scared to go up.’ I was already pulling on my boots, fumbling with the laces. ‘You know why it’s called Cross Fell?’ she continued, taking out her sandwiches. ‘It used to be called Fiends Fell. People thought that demons lived there, so they sent a holy man to bless it. He exorcised the evil spirits, built a cross to drive them away. But I don’t think it worked. It still sounds like it’s cursed.’ I was halfway through the door. I didn’t want to miss them.

The Helm Bar, over Cross Fell
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
http://nickhuntscrutiny.com/

It certainly looked like the home of fiends, despite the bright sunshine. Dramatic events were occurring above, in the fathomless workings of the clouds; it seemed that opposing weather systems were engaged in epic warfare. To the north and west a ragged mass scoured the lower slopes of the fell – Grey Scar, Black Doors, Man at Edge, said the place-names on my map – hazing the air with a smudge of rain, leaving shreds of itself behind. Autonomous mists of water vapour travelled in long vertical trails high above the Eden Valley, and grandiose crepuscular rays poured down on the mountains of the Northern Lakes, where Ullswater distantly shone as bright as a mirror. The Helm Bar was not in place, but developments were moving so rapidly it seemed that anything might happen. Scattering Swaledale ewes I hurried on the Pennine Way, up the long, deceptive rise that led towards the summit.

Who was this mysterious holy man? I wondered as I climbed. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that no one really knows; some say a bishop, some say a saint, some say a wandering monk. A local clergyman, the Reverend Robinson of Ousby, wrote in 1709 of the

evil Spirits which are said in former Times to have haunted the Top of this Mountain; and continued their Haunts and Nocturnal Vagaries upon it, until St. Austin, as is said, erected a Cross and built an Altar upon it, whereon he offered the Holy Eucharist, by which he countercharm’d those Hellish Fiends, and broke their Haunts. Since that time it has had the Name of Cross-Fell, and to this day there is a heap of stones which goes by the name of the Altar upon Cross-Fell.

What had the woman from Kirkland meant, talking about howling and moaning? Alone in that empty place I soon found out. Something must have shifted in the air, for the aural landscape suddenly changed: above the buffeting blows of gusts that banged recurrently on my ears, flatlining like microphone distortion, rose an unearthly whispering like dozens of tiny voices. It was a mischievous chattering accompanied by a hissing that suggested branches and spirals, complex patterns being woven in the air, and under it all a low moan, like an animal in distress.


Next week, Nick shares his experience of the Bora, walking the Adriatic coast from north-east Italy through Slovenia and Croatia.

Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas Brealey. It’s available from the publisher, from Amazon , or – much more preferably – from all good bookshops.

Nick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

You can find more of his writing – fiction, non-fiction, audio – and reviews of Where the Wild Winds Are at nickhuntscrutiny.com