[from the pen of Adrian Tait...] Adrian Tait is a practicing eco-critic Adrian Tait (firstname.lastname@example.org)
........Nor is The Drowned World an isolated example of Ballard’s interest in what we would now call ‘cli-fi’.
Indeed, and as if to acknowledge the success of that novel in alerting its readers to the implications of nuclear war, Dan Bloom, the American writer who coined the term ‘cli-fi’, recently announced the launch of the (spectacularly entitled) ‘Nevil Shute-like Literary Award for Climate-Themed Novels’, no doubt in the hope that a contemporary novelist might have similar success in raising awareness of climate change [with a launch date of 2020].
Its (lasting) influence can in turn be felt in a much more recent example of ‘cli-fi’, Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013), set in Melbourne in 2030.
This may well be, as the Huffington Post recently announced, ‘The Rise and Rise of Cli-Fi’ by Hannah Gal.
In this context, it is therefore all the more remarkable that, as early as the 1960s, Ballard began to rehearse the language of this new (sub)genre. Like the quartet of which it forms a part, the images conjured up in The Drowned World anticipate concerns that only years later formed themselves into a global discourse of environmental anxiety; this is ‘cli-fi’ before climate change was itself understood.
Even Turner’s relatively early novel was published at a time when a growing number of scientists were discussing the possibility of anthropogenic climate change; within the year, the UN had created the IPCC (1988) to assess and synthesise this new body of knowledge. But perhaps more importantly, The Drowned World stretches and tests what we mean by ‘cli-fi’ itself.
Bloom first used ‘cli-fi’ simply to refer to—but also to popularise—climate-themed novels and movies. His definition was deliberately open-ended, and by that token, it can accommodate both a novel like The Drowned World and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which explicitly denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change.
But as even a short list of recent cli-fi suggests, many climate-themed novels have focussed on the dramatic, destructive potential of climate change.
Humankind survives, diminished but recognisable, amidst the relics of its past: by (re)definition, cli-fi becomes a ‘subgenre of dystopian fiction set in the near future, in which climate change wreaks havoc on an otherwise familiar planet’ (Wired 2013).
A more challenging form of cli-fi—and one closer to the sense of it as a sub-genre of SF—takes that journey a step further, and imagines how, in the face of a changing world, humankind itself could adapt or evolve.
What, then, are we to make of Ballard’s early and undeniably original contribution to ‘cli-fi’? As Clarke concludes, ‘his nightmare vision of abandoned buildings rising from steamy floodplains transcends literature and is now an iconic signifier of global warming itself’.
This is, perhaps, to return to the question of what we want ‘cli-fi’ to mean.
‘Have you ever worried that you might be too prescient?’ an interviewer asked Ballard in 2006, late in his life (Elborough 5). Ballard demurred; but the honest answer is that, in deep and disquieting ways, his novels both anticipate the current interest in ‘cli-fi’, and help shape its terms.
For Ballard, ‘cli-fi’ is not simply another excuse to imagine the end of the world. In The Drowned World, it provides him with the opportunity to probe the very Ballardian contrast between the people we are and, as Ballard put it, ‘the civilized human beings we imagine ourselves to be’; to (re)consider the link between biological and psychological, and to ask whether our sense of self—and of self as independent, sovereign, irrevocable—is itself a construction, and a temporary one.
[Adrian Tait is an independent scholar and long-standing member of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. His specialist interest lies in the way in which Victorian writers, such as Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, responded to the changing nature of their now urban and industrialised environment. He has published several related papers.]