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 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.

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?

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #4

For our latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, I'm delighted to welcome this contribution from curator Ruth Garde. For me, Ruth’s fascinating selection of three artworks evokes a sense of past, present and future that highlights how Deep Time and 'human time' are implicated in each other, and the imbalances in our relationship with the rest of nature that are produced by our culture of neglecting Deep Time. I'm grateful to have been introduced to these three artists.

As a curator and writer who has had the great good fortune to work on many Wellcome Collection exhibitions, I began with the intention of choosing three objects from amongst their own collections for my “history of the Anthropocene” post. However, it quickly dawned on me that, over the last few years, my increasingly insistent preoccupation and engagement with environmental questions has primarily been inspired by contemporary art. Moreover, since I feel strongly that contemporary art has the power to shine a light on and prompt reflection about such questions, it seemed like the most meaningful choice.

I have therefore chosen to share three artists’ works that have had a particularly powerful impact on me and on my professional preoccupations.

Out of Deep Time …

For the ‘Past Anthropocene’ I would like to introduce a work by Anaïs Tondeur. Anaïs is a French artist, based in Paris, who creates seductive and compelling works that combine fact and fiction in poignant, often unsettling, ways. Her piece I:55, or the girl who swallowed the remnants of a forest, traces the epic, imaginary journey of a specimen in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Pathology collection. The specimen is a calcified bladder stone, which contained the core of a pencil.

Graphite on Paper, map, pathologic specimen I.55 or the girl that swallowed the remnants of a forest – Selection of 41 drawings realised on an expedition from London to the French Alps to retrace the history of I.55, specimen from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Pathology Collection Artist: Anaïs Tondeu © 2012 http://www.anais-tondeur.com/main/i55/

Through a series of exquisite impressionistic drawings, also rendered in pencil, Tondeur depicts the journey of this specimen, beginning with the formation of graphite in a carboniferous Alpine forest 320 million years ago, through the vein of graphite formed ca. 100 million years later, which led to the French mine from which it was extracted around 1910. From here the journey continues to the remnants of the Plombagine factory, where graphite was transformed into powder, and thence to the Conté pencil factory. The final stage of the journey is the Sennelier art supply shop in Paris, where according to documents in the shop archive, an English journalist was a customer. And here we come full circle: as Tondeur’s narrative goes, some months later his daughter swallowed a pencil.

I:55 has stayed with me ever since I first saw it. To me, it beautifully captures both the deep time of nature and the relative pinprick of human existence, whilst also tracing how we through history have sought to exploit the natural bounties offered to us by the earth. 

Through our sweet overload …

Around the same time that I encountered Anais’s work I also discovered the art of Ken and Julia Yonetani, an Australian artist duo whose work is powerfully engaged with the detrimental impact of human behaviour on our natural environment. Their sculptural work Sweet Barrier Reef alludes to the bleaching of corals, which eventually leads to coral death.  

Sweet Barrier Reef (detail). Sugar, 2009. 1.4 x 8.5 x 3.7 in metres. © Image courtesy of the artists and GV Art Source: https://ruthgarde.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/sense-of-taste-a-delicious-solo-exhibition-at-gv-art/

Making their sculpture out of sugar, the Yonetanis highlight the fact that one key cause of the bleaching is the harvesting of sugar cane. However the work is more layered than that: sugar is also used metaphorically to indicate humanity’s insatiable greed for consumption and the destruction that it entails.

Into immense entropies

Finally, for my “Future Anthropocene” object I have chosen a photographic series by the artist Julian Charrière, whose work I sought out last year when he exhibited at Parasol Unit in London. The Blue Fossil Entropic stories documents an artistic intervention that Charrière undertook in 2013, when he stood on an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean armed with a blowtorch, attempting to melt the ice beneath his feet.

The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories I, 2013 Artist: Julien Charrière © 2013 http://julian-charriere.net/projects/the-blue-fossil-entropic-stories

For me this absurdist intervention succeeds in summing up the future of our relationship with nature: on the one hand we are but a blip in geological time, destined to be outpowered by nature whose majesty and preeminence we can never subdue; on the other, our assaults on nature will over time cause immense and irreversible destruction that will injure ourselves as much as our habitat.

The impact of these artists’ work prompted me to write three online pieces – linked to below.

Find out more

You can see Anaïs Tondeur’s I:55, or the girl who swallowed the remnants of a forest (2012) and other works at her website – and Ruth’s 2014 article on Anaïs’ work for Apollo Magazine, Lost in Fathoms: Anaïs Tondeur:

‘Anaïs Tondeur is an artist who delights in expeditions. Whether tracing the wildlife burgeoning in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant (Chernobyl’s Herbarium, 2011), or following the migration of a graphite pencil from its geological origins to its unlikely terminus in the bladder of a 17-year-old girl (I.55, 2013), her journeys conjure intriguing narratives that are in turn poetic, poignant, and scientifically compelling. Her installations have delved into history, geography, and an array of scientific disciplines (physics, geology, oceanography), but at the heart of each is a captivating story that engages the most human of emotions.’

You can see Ken and Julia Yonetani’s Sweet Barrier Reef (2009) and other works at their website – and Ruth’s 2011 post, Sense of Taste: a delicious solo exhibition at GV Art, on her blog, Words. Pictures. Objects: 

‘Maybe a … suitable cultural analogy would be Hansel and Gretel standing before the Gingerbread House. As in the Grimm fairytale, these works are delectably tempting to the senses – sight and touch as well as taste – but they also explore serious subtexts fraught with danger and ultimately, death. The danger explored by these works are environmental, the unhappy consequences of our endlessly insatiate consumption-lead society, so it is therefore utterly appropriate that one’s sense of taste is so aroused.’

And you can see Julian Charriere’s Blue Fossil Entropic Stories (2013) at his website – and Ruth’s 2016 article for Apollo Magazine, Smart art that will make you reconsider your smartphone:

The relationship between art and science, ‘The Two Cultures’ once lamented by Charles Percy Snow as mutually uncomprehending fields divided by an unbridgeable gap, seems more robust than ever. Artists’ residencies in scientific institutions, such as those established five years ago at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), are proliferating … That artists engage with scientific themes can be of little surprise at a time when rapidly evolving digital technologies, scientific breakthroughs and the Earth’s ecological fragilities are critical to our lives. Art can be a rich and fertile means for people to engage with such challenging subjects, harnessing emotional sensibilities where explanations on a purely intellectual level may fail.’


You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Ruth’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures later this month.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to let send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

“Water’s Rising, at Their Ankles Now…”

For our latest Members' Post, we see James Murray-White return to ClimateCultures fresh from a trip to Hull, City of Culture 2017. James brings us his review of the remarkable and immersive performance of 'FLOOD', a production "stimulating and prodding and exploring our humanity and responses to the world."

This past weekend I happened to be in Hull, City of Culture 2017, and stumbled upon an extraordinary multi-media and immersive piece of theatre about climate change and the human condition. ‘FLOOD’ is a year-long project, written by James Phillips and produced by Slung Low, a theatre company based in Leeds that ‘specialise in making unlikely, original and ambitious adventures for audiences.’ And they excelled with this production, told in a dock on the edge of Hull.

Part climate change drama, part biblical parable of human foibles and virtues and community self-determination, and chiefly a story of humanity telling its story in and about a “city by the sea”, ‘FLOOD’ is a captivating, urgent, and sometimes mesmerising drama, told in the water it tells of. 

‘FLOOD’ Omnibus opening night Photograph: James Phillips © 2017 http://flood.hull2017.co.uk/flood-omnibus-opening-night/_mj47736/

Setting it and performing it in the dock – with the audience clustered round the railings looking down into it and the action happening on a floating set tied together and sometimes coming apart, with little boats navigating to and from them, and even actors in the salty brine, “near drownded” – makes this a literally immersive piece, engaging the audience’s senses while we huddled and shivered as one in awe, and a lot of sadness.

“A drowned girl but….”

The drama takes us into several characters’ experiences of sudden, violent change. It’s held by a central character, who we come to know as Gloriana. We first meet her as she’s ferried into dock by a fisherman and his son, telling of “one net empty of all fish. In it, one hundred life jackets. Orange like those migrants leave on beaches. One hundred life jackets and a girl. Curled pale naked, just bandages on hands. A drowned girl but….”

Gloriana is very much living flesh and blood, but after her ordeal has resurrected into a reflection back upon each characters’ motivation and input into life. She’s received by Jack, an officer in a detention centre, and their lives become interlinked. Gloriana meets Johanna in the centre, described as an Iraqi Christian; and then Natasha – former Overseas Minister and now Lady Mayor – and her daughter Kathryn. These and the fisherman and his son Sam all hold the drama fast and furiously, bound to each other as water to land, and sea to sky, as humans caught in trauma, seeking salvation.

Slung Low’s Flood Part Two: Abundance By James Phillips Gets Underway Image: Hu17.net © 2017 http://www.hu17.net/2017/04/13/slung-lows-flood-part-two-abundance-by-james-phillips-gets-underway/

The drama reaches into our current migrant crisis, and the ex-Minister’s role is partly to provide an exploration of guilt and political responsibility around this issue. This theatre piece took place in a city covered in statues to its former ‘great and the good’, from Ferens and Wilberforce to De La Pole, all of whom are honoured but who all might now be seen to be culpable in the light of current political thinking, be it on votes for war, whaling, lack of action on carbon measures, or similar. The presence of a character who has sanctioned wars, who now has the opprobrium of her daughter and protestors outside her house and who takes a role as a leader when the floating islands become a necessity, opens up a whole strand of moral dialogue, guilt, and responsibility. Like writer James Phillips, I’ve also spent time volunteering at the Calais Jungle, where many thousands of refugees have headed in the hope of getting to the UK; once you witness such a place and hear some of the stories about fleeing atrocities, both human and climate-caused, then the full spectrum of humanity gets peeled back, and any response is a response.

A thing worth living for

Once the characters are afloat on the islands, bound together in tents, nailed together with pallets and bodged together as a refuge, then we see three different and distinct camps. The first, led by Johanna, uses faith to hold itself together, even evolves to sending out missionaries in boats to proselytise that faith to other survivors (which then horribly backfires). The second, led by Natasha, is titled Renaissance as a bastion of ‘law and order’, despite the Government in the South falling and power being shown to be nothing other than what we construct it to be. And in the third camp Sam, the fisherman’s son, gains power by violence and control; torture and murder dominate on his island. None of these three options appeal to me – so I would be a lone wolf, snaking between them all in my kayak, bartering fish in exchange for human contact and a little piece of the values that each offers.

Gloriana lives, and is either revered (by Johanna) or feared and hated (by Sam), and tries to reflect back to every character their inner nature; including Kathryn, with whom she falls in love. Her journey as a presumed fleeing migrant, with letters carved into her fingers and signs of torture upon her body, to death in the water, resurrection in the net and then becoming an angel upon the water – and literally sailing off into the rising sun – is the redeemer’s journey. The arc of the entire play is that all we have as humans is love. Faith may sometimes help, and faith will bring troubles upon us, but love will give us something worth living for. An unusual thread of lost love between the fisherman and the Lady Mayor brings an extra complexity that weaves within the narrative.

The night I saw FLOOD was the omnibus event, so we saw part two on the water, were herded to a nearby marquee to watch part three on a screen, then returned to the dock for part four. This helped to engage us further, pulling us together with the bribery of heat and tea and food, reminding us of communality and needs, while the characters were suffering the greatest calamity known to humankind.

‘Thousands Of Life Jackets Laid Out In Parliament Square In Moving Tribute To Refugees’ Image: SWNS news agency © 2016 Source: https://www.buzzfeed.com

“Where we are, we are, and on we must go.”

Part one of this epic had already been screened online, and I understand that part three will be available for a limited time on BBC iPlayer, and clips are on the FLOOD website. So the scope of the production is being mediated both live and online and I hope it reaches a wide audience, as it needs to be seen. Standing watching the drama – encompassing back-projection onto water, water sprayed as rain above the actors, fire on stage, and the constructed encampment-islands amidst the water, as the characters become migrants on the world’s seas – is a visceral experience which will forever bind me to the story and the experiences being told. That is very different to watching anything on a screen, but the two ways of experiencing this drama make for a very powerful and urgent experience.

For me personally, as a graduate from Hull University’s drama department, which I left many years ago to head off into a career in the arts and became disillusioned by a theatre system that seemed dull and even unconscious during the 90’s and noughties, seeing this production in Hull, amidst a vibrant year of culture – stimulating and prodding and exploring our humanity and responses to the world – is joyous and so exciting.

The bigger picture, well – where will we go from here? As creatives, mediating dialogues and inquiry across artforms, as leaders, as animals within a system, and as a species afoot in the world? We may be bringing the rains down upon our heads, and there may be individuals or systems we can follow, and there will always be love.

“One dawn sailing far out towards the rising sun.
Where we are we should not be and yet
Where we are, we are, and on we must go,
What new world lay ahead we did not know,
Eyes facing front, vanishing world behind.”
 - FLOOD, by James Phillips

And the last line of stage directions from the play: ‘A little boat disappearing into the light. ‘

Find out more

The BBC’s showing of Part 3 wasn’t available at the time of publishing this post – but it’s the BBC, so it will no doubt be round again before you know it! Check out the episode page on their site.

You can see ‘FLOOD – the story so far’ on YouTube

You can explore some of the issues around sea level rise, coastal change and flooding affecting the Humber region, including Hull, at the EU FloodProBE site.

You can find out about the work of the UNHCR  the UN’s refugee agancy – on climate change and refugees.

Questioning the camps? Space for creative thinking...  

"In FLOOD, the people divide into three camps - faith, law and violence. Snaking your way between these camps and more, belonging to none, what tangible things would you kayak between them to show each a broader way?"  

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link! 

 

Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

Returning to a theme of 'Wicked Cultures' for 'Wicked Problems', I give my personal review of John Gardner's Grendel, a 1971 novel that speaks to us about 'Othering' the natural world, and how our monsters insist on coming back in.

“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.

Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall

This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.

The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.

Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1973
http://michaelleonardartist.com

The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.

Creating realities

Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.

Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:

“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”

Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.

When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:

“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”

He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.

Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1970
http://michaelleonardartist.com

(B)ordering the world

This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?

Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.

In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.

Monster culture

In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in

“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen

Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:

  • Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body

As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.

  • Thesis II: The monster always escapes

Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.

  • Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis

Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”

  • Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference

As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.

  • Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible

Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.

  • Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire

What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.

  • Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming

Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.

Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’

Look your monsters in the eye
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

The British Museum – Beowulf. You can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection, and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky

Jeffery Jerome Cohen – Monster culture (seven theses), in Cohen J (ed), Monster Theory: Reading Culture, 1996, University of Minnesota Press

John Gardner –  Grendel, 1971, Gollancz

David Wright –  Beowulf (a prose translation), 1957, out of print