With hope and horror, climate fiction writers depict the future

The second part of a series. Click here for the first part.

Mitchell Zukor, the fictional protagonist of Nathaniel Rich's novel "Odds Against Tomorrow," is consumed by probabilities. A disaster forecaster by profession, he agonizes over the likelihood of impending heat waves, floods and drought. Microburst storms terrify him, so he takes solace in calculating risks of elevator failures. His future existence is structured -- and caged -- by the equations in his head.

They are taken to an extreme in Zukor, but anxieties over the future are nonetheless relatable. Who hasn't, at some point, been unnerved by a car fatality statistic or felt unease in the pitch of a lightning storm? Through Zukor and his tortuous calculations, Rich tackles a question as old as the story of Noah: How do we, as prescient beings, find balance in a world increasingly threatened by catastrophe?

Hailed by Rolling Stone as "the first great climate change novel," "Odds Against Tomorrow" is at the vanguard of a new genre of fiction called climate fiction -- or "cli-fi" -- that sets its human protagonists against the onrush of planet-altering global warming. At times humorous, hopeful and terrifying, these stories offer a wider lens on a subject long dominated by hard science.

And while the struggle between humans and nature is one of the oldest tropes in literature, cli-fi can deliver a peculiar form of angst.

"There's something uniquely unsettling about a force that's both shaped by us and shaping us in really dangerous ways," said Shane Hall, a doctoral student at the University of Oregon who teaches a course on imagined climate futures. "It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion, only we're in the engineer's seat and we can't do anything to stop it."

The road to adaptation?

Anxiety has always been fertile ground for creativity, and climate change fits neatly into the narrative arc's demand for conflict. How the climate conflict resolves, however, depends entirely on the author.

Some, like Rich, thrust the reader directly into the path of catastrophe, offering them only two options: sink or swim. As Zukor's predictions begin to happen -- Manhattan is submerged by a Katrina-like hurricane midway through the book -- he's compelled to confront, and ultimately survive, the fears that once paralyzed him.

Such treatment of a protagonist may help readers face their own anxieties, said Tracey Heatherington, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Coming amid daily news coverage of hurricanes and superstorms, wildfires and droughts, Rich's themes "are vibrant because they're happening now -- they describe a future that's moving closer and closer to the present," she said.

Other authors leap forward in time, beyond the upheaval of climate catastrophe and into a world that is piecing itself together again. In her book "Parable of the Sower," Octavia Butler depicts a planet stripped down by the gradual encroachment of worsening drought, fire and storms. It's a cautionary tale of the consequences of inaction, in which climate change is less biblical flood than the steady drip of an unchecked, corrosive agent.

Other authors appear more optimistic. In Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior," climate change arrives as a fire but ultimately acts as a kind of liberating force, disrupting the rigid order of modern life so that something more holistically stable can emerge.

"One of the things these fictions tell us is, we don't necessarily have to be terrified," said Stephanie LeMenager, a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches about climate change through the lens of culture. "Adaptation is an option, more responsible climate policies are an option. Fiction can combat fear, but it also makes room for creative and innovative thinking."

Seeding the popular culture

Outside the cli-fi niche, global warming has been percolating through popular culture for the better part of a decade. It received glancing notice in the best-selling "Hunger Games" books but took full advantage of the spectacular force of computer-generated imagery in such films as "2012" and "The Day After Tomorrow" (ClimateWire, March 30, 2012).

Generally, though, these popular works treat climate change as a device -- much as nuclear war functioned as a device for science fiction writers in the mid-20th century -- to advance the reader into a new and altered world. Less attention is paid to the particulars of climate change itself, its causes and culpabilities.

"I think the apocalyptic genre is very adaptable -- it tends to reflect the dominant concerns of the day," said Stephen Siperstein, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oregon Department of English. "Dwelling on the end of the world is limiting, though -- it doesn't force you to do the hard work of thinking about what comes after."

At the same time, the casual treatment climate change has received from popular culture might be an indicator of the degree to which it has penetrated the U.S. psyche, he said.

"Whether we're talking about it directly or not, climate change has found its way into the back of our minds," he said. "It's influencing how we think about nature, how we connect to things at a global scale."

"Art can offer us what science can't," Siperstein added. "Science can tell us how we got to the Anthropocene Era, but it takes art to tell us what it's like to be human in the Anthropocene Era."

Art may not necessarily have the right solutions for climate change, but it presents the reasons why we may need to change harmful behaviors and to innovate, Siperstein said.


Next week: Cli-fi spreads into graphic novels, music and plays.


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