The End Of Dystopia?
Emily Diamond in the UK on ''Writing 'cli-fi' for a new climate''
On February 9, 2015, Emily wrote to me after I asked her if she had heard of the cli-fi genre and if her two books could be considered cli-fi?
- Dear Dan,
- Yes I have heard of cli-fi, I don't think it existed when ''Flood Child'' was published so I never really thought of my books in that way. Well done for coming up with the term. Anything that encourages people to consider the awful consequences of what we're doing is needed, I think.
- Very best regards
- Emily Diamand
A few days later she added after I asked her if FLOOD CHILD had been published in Taiwan yet and if I could interview her for this blog about her two books:
- Dear Dan,
- Thank you for your email. I know ''Flood Child'' was published in China a few years back (possibly Hong Kong?). I received an author copy but couldn't read any of the details about publisher etc because it was in Chinese!
- I would be very happy to do an interview with you, but I hope you don't mind if it could be over a few weeks please?
- Thank you for your email, I look forward to hearing from you and I hope you will be patient with me if I am slow to reply.
- best regards,
- Emily Diamand
From their places on that patch of grass, the more seasoned campaigners saw things differently: ‘If you explain how serious it really is, people go into denial and won’t do anything.’ I didn’t quite believe them, perhaps because at that point my main experience of ‘saving the world’ was from disaster movies. Could it really be true that, faced with the catastrophic, most people simply went around pretending it wasn’t happening?
The consensus on the adverse effects of carbon emissions was considerable even then – the Kyoto Protocol on reducing emissions was signed in 1997 – and in the following years it only seemed to strengthen. Assessment reports rolled out from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which I found increasingly frightening. Scientists began to talk about ‘tipping points’. Campaigners around the world took action to try and gain the attention of the public and governments, from building sandbag defences around UN summits or dragging giant lifeboats to them, to many, many protest marches and even ‘die-ins’. Yet, despite all the evidence and activism, public concern in developed nations had actually declined by the late 2000s, and scepticism was increasing.
Now, imagine this scenario: at a party with your friends, you bring up the subject of climate change and what it means for our future. Doesn’t that feel awkward? Maybe you have an instinctive feeling that the subject is inappropriate? If so, then you aren’t alone. According to one recent survey, [which is not accurate and has never been proven], [10 percent] of Americans have rarely or never had a conversation about the issue – [but 90 percent have!] -- [and] the same survey found that 90 percent of our cousins across the pond are interested’ in hearing about it.
Our reluctance to speak is so great that the British climate communications ''expert'' George Marshall has argued there is a culturally-constructed silence around climate change. We know what it is, but we also know not to talk about it.
The same silence holds within fiction.
A few authors, admittedly, are volubly concerned. The U.S. cli fi novelist Paulo Bacigalupi, for example, whose novels all deal with the consequences of living in a changed environment, has said that ‘I don’t think you can write honest futuristic fiction without engaging somehow with climate change… I’m not actually sure you can really write contemporary fiction without engaging with climate change — if you try to posit that our world is the same as it was yesterday, it’s not true.’
And he is not alone in his views — from Marcus Sedgwick’s cli-fi Floodland to David Mitchell’s somewhat cli-fi Cloud Atlas and Margaret Atwood’s very cli-fi MaddAddam, authors have sounded alarms, imagining flooded worlds and ecological dystopias. I would include myself in this group because my first two children’s cli-fi novels were set in a future, flooded England.
A smaller number of authors have tackled the here-and-now of climate change, often reflecting on the theme of human inaction. For example, in Barbara Kingsolver’s wopnderful cli-fi novel Flight Behavior, the seemingly miraculous appearance of monarch butterflies in a rain-drenched Appalachian town turns out to be ecological disruption rather than a sign of hope.
The novel skilfully explores the conflicting concerns that so often surround environmental crises, and the poverty-stricken farmers must weigh worries about their own survival against the calls from scientists and activists to protect the butterflies that have taken refuge on their land.
In his cli-fi, Solar, Ian McEwan satirises a wide range of responses to climate change, centring on the cynical and self-serving involvement of an eminent physicist in attempts to develop a new form of solar energy. The novel questions whether our profit-driven society is even able to take meaningful action on climate change.
The final group of contemporary authors – the majority – don’t even mention climate change, and I find this most interesting of all.
Here is an issue that could lead into a wide range of meaty subjects – from our relationship with the natural world to conflict between generations, to migration and war – and yet it hardly breaks the surface in most modern fiction. Narratives of climate change are so absent that Robert Macfarlane in his burning 2005 oped in the Guardian titled THE BURNING QUESTION and Bill McKibben's similar essay in 2005 in the U.S,.magazine GRIST have in the past ten years been moved to ask ‘where are the stories?’
Of course writers are not social activists or political campaigners, and no-one is obliged to write about anything that doesn’t interest them, but I cannot believe that climate change is simply boring. [It is not boring.]
Nor do I think there has been a collective failure of imagination.
Instead I have my suspicions that the culture of silence may have been just as pervasive for authors as for everybody else. Certainly, discussing my first two cli-fi books often felt awkward.
People didn’t really want to talk about their central theme very much, and I found myself focussing instead on sassy heroines or the use of the first person in children’s fiction. I knew that climate change was a ‘difficult’ subject, and I worried about appearing sanctimonious.
After being told by a publisher that ‘eco is over’, I squeezed tiny portions of what concerned me into books about other subjects; without even being aware of it, I had absorbed the silence.
Then in 2015, two books made me think again about might have been happening.
In ''Don’t Even Think About It: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, ''Marshall argued that by depicting climate change as overwhelming, intangible and far away, writers and campaigners had constructed a threat that was the exact opposite of those our brains evolved to cope with. We respond quickly to the immediate and direct, such as an attacking predator or spear-wielding warrior. But a problem for the distant future? That we can ignore, our attention drawn instead to the modern equivalent of predators — whether bills, bosses or terrorists. When I considered this in the context of my own work, it occurred to me how often climate novels end up in the science fiction and fantasy sections of bookshops, even though the evidence is overwhelming that climate change is real.
In What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: toward a new psychology of climate action, Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes argues that doom-laden, guilt-inducing messages can sometimes but not always -- and it has never been proven one way of the other so the jury is out on his idea -- provoke unconscious psychological defences. We feel frightened, helpless and at the same time responsible — a very uncomfortable sensation, which is often resolved by ignoring the problem or even actively denying it.
Stoknes’ theory might or might not be ble to explain why the narratives of pessimism and inaction that appear in some contemporary fiction. It might also explain the absence of the issue in so much of our literature. After all, writers are as much guided by their unconscious as anyone else. Fiction reflects; in this case, it might reflect our denial.
At first this all seemed disheartening, but Marshall and Stoknes agree that the solution may lie in art, and specifically within ''story.'' They suggest reframing climate change, as Jeffrey Newman has also said, so that it is no longer about statistics and terrifying scenarios.
Instead, they call for narratives that emphasise the positive — such as humanity’s coming of age, our ability to overcome difficulties, or a quest for survival. Or if the writer wants to go the dystopan route, that's fine too. Cli-fi has no agenda, there is no school of cli-fi, there is no cli-fi canon, and there is no leader, although Dan Bloom has done a wonderful job organizing the cli-fi community worldwide and getting the word out.
To me, this approach seemed counter-intuitive until I realised that they are asking for something that many storytellers are already familiar with.
While uncommon in climate fiction, the positive narrative is found in many other genres. In fact, if we describe climate change as the challenge that must be met and overcome, then this is part of the classic unfolding of the ‘hero’s journey’.
Of course, I don’t expect preferences for dystopia and pessimism to give way that easily. If novelists themselves want to go down that road and that is where their imagination takes then. so be it. Who am I to tell them how to write their cli-fi? And who are Marshall and Stoknes to think they know the answers? They are not novelists and they do not inhabit the novelist's mind.
Tragedy has a long and distinguished artistic heritage, while the offering of bright alternatives can seem naïve. Yes!
But if we endlessly reinforce the view that humanity is doomed -- when in fact we are ''doomed, doomed'' -- then is e risk that we play a part in ensuring less is done, not more? Maybe, maybe not.
Artists and writers can be viewed as the custodians of society’s imagination, and a shift toward the cli-fi genre now seems to be required in ours. To stave off the end of the world, perhaps we need to imagine ourselves saving it. Or is that too naive and innocent a concept?