Saturday, October 20, 2012

Climate change fiction melts away just when it's needed

It's the most urgent problem of our era, but novelists appear singularly reluctant to address it

Thursday 18 October 2012  

Icebergs and Ice Bits Near Kangilerngata Sermia Glacier, Disko Bugt (Disko Bay), West Greenland
Climate change ... disintegrating iceberg near west Greenland. Photograph: Jenny E Ross/Corbis

"Guys, the ice caps are melting now," wrote Chris Ross in the Guardian Review last year. "Where are those stories?"
The review's subject was a collection of short stories, I'm With the Bears, all on the issue of climate change. It featured good writing – from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Lydia Millet – but, as Ross put it, "much of this material seems to have been lifted from the wastebasket." Why was no one writing fresh fiction about it?
One year on, the question still stands. "In spite of the stakes," said Andrew Simms on the Guardian's environment blog the other day, "the issue has receded from the political frontline like a wave shrinking down a beach." It seems that the wave never quite reached our beach – the beach of fiction writing – in the first place.
Sure, there was Solar. Ian McEwan's 2010 satire of a balding, overweight scientist with marriage problems explicitly focused on "the most pressing and complex problem of our time". That's the one everyone could probably mention. But after that? There was mainly silence (if you leave aside poetry, where much more seems to be going on, most notably, perhaps, Tom Chivers' ADRIFT project).
There's apocalyptic fiction, of course, and you could, I suppose, connect a novel such as Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood to climate change. But is this type of literature really concerned with the issue, or does a vaguely related scenario merely serve as a purpose for other themes and situations? (Also, as environmentalists are increasingly keen to point out, climate change isn't really about the end of the world at all; it's about living conditions becoming harder and harder as we go along.)
Yes, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (2010) touched on the issue (the "greener than Greenpeace" Walter is deeply worried about it), and one could stretch things by considering books such as Joe Dunthorne's Wild Abandon (2011), which is interested in low-carbon living. A number of childrens' books are on-topic, too. In Saci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries 2015 (2008), for example, the UK has become the first nation to introduce carbon dioxide rationing. But the kids are alright, really: many are getting climate change much better than the grown-ups do (and, naturally, they're much more worried about it).
No, it's we adults who are failing to have this conversation. It's an unpleasant conversation to have, no doubt about it – and maybe that's why it's not really taking place in fiction, at least not centre-stage. Many novels vaguely reference the situation; sentences such as "in a warming world" or "in these times of climate change" are common in much of what's being published at the moment. But that's about it.
As such, the portrayal of climate change in fiction might actually be a pretty accurate reflection of what's going on in the real world. We know about it, and we know it's a pretty damn serious problem, but engage with it directly? Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the day after tomorrow. Isn't someone else looking into it? We don't want to have this conversation, it seems; and neither do most characters in most novels being published
Full piece at The Guardian

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