“Cli-Fi” and our post-modern anxieties
RE: A discussion with 'cli-fi author' Nathaniel Rich
In writing Odds Against Tomorrow, author Nat Rich wanted to write about the anxiety of the modern age, in all of its forms. “Natural disasters, epidemics, terrorism, nuclear war, financial collapse — it’s all in there,” he says. It is the man-against-nature story of what happens to disaster-obsessed mathematician Mitchell Zukor when a huge hurricane hits Manhattan.
“It’s impossible to look at social media or the news without reading about all of these potential horrors. What do we do? Do we obsess over them? Do we ignore them?” he says. Rich answers through his protagonist: In responding to the disaster, Mitchell is forced to take action despite his fears.
This ''cli-fi ''novel is different than many recent dystopian or post-apocalyptic books and films; a Category-3 storm is well within the realm of possibility. In fact, Hurricane Sandy hit when the book was in the final stages of preparation. The category-2 “superstorm” began in the Caribbean, swept upwards and finally took a left turn directly into New Jersey. The storm resulted in a 13-foot surge that flooded the streets and underground tunnels of New York City on Oct. 29, 2012.
“Sandy pushed the book into this conversation about climate change,” says Rich. “It provided a frame of reference for readers.”
Rich claims that he did not intend to write a novel about climate change, and he denies an environmentalist agenda. In fact, he believes that the impulse to accomplish a social mission through fiction is antagonistic to great literature [despite the power of such earlier novels as THE JUNGLE, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, ON THE BEACH or THE GRAPES OF WRATH].
“As an author, you ask questions, you don’t give answers.”
Nevertheless, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and concerns about the effects of increasing warmth and moisture on the intensity of tropical cyclones, the book and its author are now part of a discourse on climate change.
Vanderbilt professor of English Dr. Teresa Goddu comments that in the novel, the storm incapacitates Wall Street, the symbol of our country’s economic strength. Yet as soon as the waters recede, the machine starts again, and the underlying issues are never resolved.
There’s the sense that there will be another disaster; that despite our efforts to proceed with our lives, this can and will happen again.
Indeed, some geoscientists believe that as mid-Atlantic ocean waters warm, this won’t be the last time a storm takes Sandy’s unusual path.
“How can we make peace with the uncertainty of the future?” Goddu asks. “To what extent do we freak out, and to what extent do we proceed with our lives?”
Rich admits to feeling prone to ''paralysis by analysis'' himself.
“We feel like there’s this big thing coming, and it’s part of our lives, down to our everyday actions and decisions.”
While he acknowledges that some people are unaffected by anxiety about the future of our planet, he believes that environmental issues are “bigger than many other geopolitical issues,” since they directly impact the economy and human health. “Going forward, the effects of climate change will only become more noticeable.”
“Many facts about the future are scary,” says Rich. “People have this hunger to engage with their fears, and fiction provides the means to do that,” he says. During the Cold War, people could read spy stories and other thrillers like 1984 by George Orwell, but in today’s world, people who are anxious about the future simply go to the Internet and obsess over seismic activity of the Yellowstone caldera.
We may be anxious, Rich says, but that’s where stories like Odds Against Tomorrow come in: “Novels help me see how the larger world intersects with my personal world.”
Nathaniel Rich appeared at Vanderbilt as part of an “Environmental Series” hosted by the College Halls.