Re-writing the world with eco-narratives
-- a literary essay by Marco Dotti
[Translated from the Italian by Kitty Rock in Rome. THANKS KITTY!]
When the impossible is removed, even the most improbable remains have the taste of life. Maybe things are really like Mack Reynolds saw them in the 1960s, when he was a pioneer of social sci-fi and an activist in the US Socialist Party.
In the XX century, science fiction had the task of dealing with an unlikely environmental apocalypse caused by global warming, floods, lack of water and food, nuclear deflagrations. All natural elements, water, fire, earth, air, contributed to the creation of dystopic futures. Then something happened. The Ecological Debt Day (EDD) has hit the calendar and imagination is not necessary anymore. It is enough to turn our head and have a look at what is around us to see that the old improbable scenarios have become reality.
If in 1987 the day marking the end of the available global resources of energy and the beginning of the future generation's debt was estimated to fall on 19th December, in 2015 the Earth Overshoot Day was reached four months before, on 13th August. Moreover, all climatologists agree on considering 2015 the hottest year ever, since when experts started to monitor temperatures.
No more prophecies are needed, a look around will do. In these conditions, even sci-fi is falling behind with a world that goes beyond Philip Dick's or J.G.Ballard's most bitter predictions. What future do we see now that the impossible has become possible? Now that, as Reynolds affirmed, disaster has the taste of life?
We will not have any future if we can't rewrite it here and now. Built on the ashes of sci-fi and often confused with fantasy or dystopic novels, cli-fi came to the scene with the aim of finding solutions in literature. Used for the first time in 2008 by the American journalist and activist Dan Bloom, the term cli-fi or climate fiction is gaining recognition as a literary genre and generating an increasing awareness and interest in the public.
The Twilight Zone
While some people in the 1960s were predicting immense floods, post-atomic glaciations and transmodern monsters, TV writer Rod Serling was ready to present the series which would influence the collective consciousness for years to come: ''The Twilight Zone.'' In the TV series, he described a planet devastated by global warming and for the first time the environment was at the centre of something more than utopia or dystopia: there were no more possible futures, only a present to change.
In The Midnight Sun (1962), the 75th episode of the Twilight Zone's third season which is considered the forerunner of climate fiction, overheating generates social monsters living in a world where a few people decide for the rest of the population. Thefts, crimes, violence, and exceptional conditions mark a paradoxical return to a state of nature, the same state of nature that the philosopher Hobbes centuries ago defined as the condition of terror which any individual constantly risks to fall into.
Nevertheless, in order to gain full recognition as a genre, cli-fi had to wait for another half century and a novel, Solar (2010) by Ian McEwan. The key point of the book is perfectly summarized by the words of the protagonist, Michael Beard whose claim draws the attention of the readers on the fact that virtuous, ecological behaviour is not enough to sustain civilization, it can only put off global disaster.
States of fear
As McEwan reminds us, active environmental demonstrations are not sufficient because “Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilisation, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are.”
Greed prevails over virtue. This is why it is necessary to reinvest financial resources into clean and accessible energy. And this is also what makes cli-fi engaging, its ability not only to describe the present situation, but also to rewrite it in order to avoid the final catastrophe.
The apocalyptic theme never fails to be part of the narration: it is either clearly approaching, as in Margaret Atwood's novels and Michael Crichton's State of fear, or in progress, as in Paul Auster's In The Country of Last Things, or it has already occurred, as in Jim Laughter's Polar City Red.
Another key point in climate fiction is the constant condemnation of the technological drift.
In Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (2014) for example, calories have become currency in Bangkok, terrorism has become bio-terrorism and anonymous food-hunters look like old treasure hunters. In the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood foreshadows a waterless flood in a world marked by the cult of transhumans.
Cli-fi is characterized not only by narrations concerning the climate change, but also by a call to action: readers are called to understand it and do what they can to take an active role because, as the great scholar and traveler Robert Macfarlane wrote about 10 years ago in his article on the Guardian, "The effects of climate change are now perceptible in language as well as in degrees Celsius."
In an article published on 27 July 2015 on Medium, the creator of the cli-fi term Dan Bloom reintroduced a crucial question, later debated at the Paris Cop21: "Can Cli-fi help keep our planet livable?".
A question that somehow echoed what the environmentalist Bill McKibben had written in 2005 in the eco magazine Grist: "What the warming world needs now is art".
In this sense, observed Bloom, rather than a narrative genre, cli-fi was born as a stimulus for the new generation of writers exploring this literary genre. There are in fact lots of cli-fi classes in universities all around the world, including children literature.
"Cli-fi has allowed me to participate imaginatively in rewriting our future" has written on the Guardian Sarah Holding, British author of famous children's books.
It is difficult to say if cli-fi will be able to redirect the world and influence the decisions of the governing international institutions, but it certainly offers its readers a space for real comprehension of global risks and reformulates the old question posed by Kant: does our world have a moral purpose? or is it our purpose to give it meaning? Doesn't literature have the responsibility of fulfilling this ultimate aim?