Cli-Fi Studies and the Environment
''What ‘Frankenstein’ Can Tell Us About Climate Change and the Cli-fi genre''
These contemporary uses of the monster are appropriate on a deeper level than they appear, for the original novel “Frankenstein” was written exactly 200 years ago during a frightening change in the weather that created widespread political anxiety.
What’s even more remarkable to a contemporary reader is that climate change was part of its inspiration. The year 1816 was known worldwide as “The Year Without a Summer” because of its dark skies, record snowfalls, frozen rivers and failed crops. New Englanders called it “Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death”: part of a three-year meteorological catastrophe spawned by Tambora, a volcano that erupted in Indonesia in 1815, spreading a blanket of ash all over the world.
Inhospitable weather is everywhere in “Frankenstein.” Thunder, lightning, rain and ice caps of the polar north paint the atmosphere not as scenery but as a foreground: as ecological index of social, political and economic conditions that entangle human and geological time scales. As the ship captain Robert Walton seeks a northwest passage across the polar seas to find the monster immured in ice, the novel describes the warming to the Arctic caused by volcanic sulfate aerosols. Yet sightings of the monstrous dark speck across the vast and irregular ice plains repeatedly interrupt the captain’s enthusiasm for the new northern opportunity. The monster’s body becomes a historical repository for out-of-control forces, producing bizarre connections not yet named.
and early version of cli-fi literature.
Fictional monsters appear, notoriously, in times of crisis and social anxiety. Think of the zombies of 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” or the unfriendly aliens of the McCarthy-era’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Reflecting on what seemed to be the end of times in his baneful poem “Darkness,” composed in July 1816, Lord Byron laments:
The world was void,Like “Frankenstein,” these stormy lines venture into the nightmares of a cli-fi climate doomsday. There is much uncertainty in modern climate change, what the historian Gillen D’Arcy Wood describes as “hard to see and no less difficult to imagine.” The posture of many would-be leaders – including the famous denialist Donald Trump – is to pretend the tempest is just an illusion.
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay
The realism of “Frankenstein” reawakens history under the spell of fiction. In the years of the popular hashtag #clifi, the original monster’s birthday should remind us of a time when an angry climate was the inspiration to the story—and not just the setting that fades into the background