"Our House, Our Fire, Our Fiction"
Full text at:
OpEd by Liz Jensen, novelist, ''Rapture''
(C) copyright 2019 Liz Jensen
Published in Denmark in Danish today online website there.
This is the original English version. It also appears on Liz Jensen's blog on her website now, see link above.
Headline: ''Verdens forfattere har fundet genren, der møder klimakrisen: Cli-fi''
“I want you to act as you would in a crisis,” the Swedish climate activist
Greta Thunberg, 16, said in Davos in January: “I want you to act as if our house is
on fire. Because it is.”
When a kid in pigtails speaks truth to power, the world listens.
At a time when the science could not be clearer, Thunberg’s burning house
metaphor turned her appearance at Davos into an iconic moment in climate
Our house on fire: an image everyone on the planet can understand. Our,
implies an us: a community or family. House implies a home, and shelter.
Fire spells danger. Instantly, a mental narrative is triggered, leading to
Choice One entails pretending there is no fire, or that there is one, but it is a
containable household accident.
Choice Two involves doing one’s best to
douse the flames and limit the damage.
Choice Three offers the simplest
solution to the crisis: run.
But where to?
Thunberg’s simple, evocative metaphor mobilized millions around the
world: proof, if ever it were needed, of the impact language can have. As the
novelist Margaret Atwood once put it, “A word after a word after a word is
If climate change challenges the imagination by demanding that we re-
frame our relationship to the entire world, then that shift of perception calls
for powerful new stories, and powerful new ways of telling them.
So, since we are famously a storytelling species, how have the fiction writers
of the Anthropocene tackled the rolling catastrophe of a world heading for
four degrees of warming in the lifetime of any baby born today?
With shocking inadequacy, according to Amitav Ghosh, who in his 2016
lecture series and nonfiction book based on the lectures ''The Great Derangement'' argued that literary fiction had been slow to address the issue upon which the survival of our
“It’s our job, as writers, to make imaginative leaps on
behalf of those who don’t, can’t or won’t,” he admonished.
So why weren’t we doing that job? Why couldn’t we acknowledge the
elephant in the room?
In part because the “inconvenient truth” of climate
change and the likely consequences of runaway global warming were too
huge, to horrifying and too complex to take in: they were quite literally
So, lacking the mental apparatus to convey the temporal
scale and the complexity of the crisis, we looked the other way and wrote
about anything and everything else.
Future readers, Ghosh contended,
would look back on our era and “conclude that ours was a time when most
forms of art and literature....prevented people from recognizing the realities
of their plight.”
Ghosh (whose novel ''The Hungry Tide'' addresses the social and political
repercussions of catastrophic flooding) cited notable exceptions to his
criticism including Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 ''The Road,'' Barbara
Kingsolver’s ''Flight Behaviour,'' Margaret Atwood’s ''Oryx and Crake'' and Ian
But there was pushback:
Many accused Ghosh of ignoring
science fiction and young adult fiction, which had been tackling climate
change and ecocide for years: had Dr Ghosh read the ground-breaking works
of Kim Stanley Robinson, many argued, he might have muted his
Yet his point remained a salient one that resonated not just with
climate scientists, activists and the reading public but with Ghosh’s main
target audience: other writers.
And what a difference 3 years makes.
Since Ghosh issued his challenge to world literature, the tide has turned:
the Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ has found its moment,
and the moment has found its genre: cli-fi
Ghosh’s next novel ''Gun Island''
(published later this year) joins a veritable ocean of literature rising to the
occasion of our times, while older works such as Maggie Gee’s startlingly
prophetic 1998 novel ''The Ice People'' are being rediscovered, thanks in part
to the increasing surge in interest in the planet’s predicament, and the
fictions it engenders.
The man who has since 2011 tirelessly promoted the term ''cli-fi,' is a 70-year-old American
climate activist who has not boarded a flight since 1996. Since he doesn’t
own so much as a laptop, he spends his days in an internet café near his
home, raging against the stupidity of the not-
clever-enough ape – and campaigning to get cli-fi firmly established in the
lexicon, pausing only when a hurricane blows in and scuppers his
Dan thinks we are doomed, and likes to quote the
''Two planets meet in space. One is green and blue and healthy; the other is
pale and chocking and sick.''
''The healthy planet looks at the sick one sand says. “Oh, I had that disease
once. It’s called Mankind. But don’t worry: it goes away all by itself.”
Dan contends that we have always created -- and indeed reveled in --
apocalyptic narratives: the Bible is bursting at the seams with floods,
plagues, storms of locusts and other signs of God’s mighty wrath. The
theme of judgement and punishment is a particularly resonant one in
movies such as ''The Day After Tomorrow,'' ''Mad Max:Fury Road'' and
Climate disaster movies operate on a scale that reflects the extremity of our
accelerating times: hyperactive narratives in which humans must struggle
to survive the wrath of what Nature (Mon dieu, did we once call her
Mother?) has become.
Post-disaster scenarios paint a more elegiac picture
of a Lost Eden: while ''Wall-E'' mourns a planet converted into a titanic trash-
heap, ''Beasts of the Southern Wild'' imagines a waterlogged delta community
in which humans must re-invent themselves, their myths, and their
relationship to nature if they are to survive.
In storytelling terms, Apocalypses are seductive -- and inevitably extreme.
While many supporters of voluntary human extinction –Dan among
them - warn that Homo Sapiens is an infestation which will wreck the
planet unless we remove ourselves from the equation, some 50 million
Christian Americans believe in a religious event called the Rapture in which, come
Doomsday, the pure in heart will be airlifted to heaven while the sinners
will remain on Earth suffering the consequences of their depravity.
The roaring success of the Christianity-themed ''Left Behind'' novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B
Jenkins testifies to the traction of the judgement theme among believers.
But while Extinctionists, the Rapture-ready and the billionaire would-be
colonizers of Mars dwell on scenarios on the outer fringes of the
imaginable, somewhere in the middle lies the main story.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote E.M.
Forster. This may be true, but as foreign countries go, humankind’s shared
past is so plentiful in maps, documents, films, art, history books, and living
memory that it is not actually difficult to visualize: most of the heavy lifting
has been done for us.
Imagining the future has always been a trickier
matter: a niche preoccupation of Research and Development teams,
planners, futurologists, scientists and sci-fi writers.
But now that many of
yesterday’s direst scientific predictions have come measurably true - in the
form of melting glaciers and ice-caps, bleached coral reefs, warmer oceans,
unprecedented species extinction, extreme weather events, disappearing
shorelines and destabilized seasons, the future has become easier to
picture. Indeed, we can take a highly educated guess at what it will
resemble: a faster-moving, uncannier and more furious version of the
In this context, climate fiction is becoming the new realism.
And it is evolving fast.
Jeff Vandermeer’s beautiful, chilling ''Southern Reach trilogy'' (the first
volume of which, ''Annihilation,'' became a haunting film), explores the
notion of the natural world developing a hive mind with its own colonizing
Meanwhile Kim Stanley Robinson’s ''New York 2140,'' whose huge
cast of characters duck, dive and thrive in the semi-drowned metropolis,
has been hailed as a pioneer of the emerging sub-genre solarpunk, which
celebrates the notion that whatever fine mess we have gotten us into, our
ingenuity and adaptability might just see us through.
While post-apocalyptic landscapes vary dramatically according to local
geography, two of its most enduring props are the shopping trolley and the
shipping container: the displaced person’s equivalent of the vehicle and the
Today’s shopping trolley symbolizes the abundance of the
globalized world: as capitalism’s hunter-gatherers we search the aisles for
bargains, collecting avocados from Israel, mangoes from Peru, coffee from
Ethiopia, plastic houseware from China, or home-produced meat from
Europe’s second biggest pork exporter, Danish Crown.
In the climate- altered world of a fictional tomorrow the trolley’s purpose is a simpler one:
as a means of transporting the few possessions you have left. Meanwhile
the shipping container, today the iconic symbol of global movement,
becomes its opposite: a sign of stasis.
In Omaar El Akkad’s ''American War,''the metal boxes are the only homes that the vast communities of refugees and the internally displaced will know.
Much ''cli-fi'' is inevitably preoccupied with water: not enough of it, or too
Rising seas are the backdrops in Sophie Mackintosh’s unsettling
dystopia ''The Water Cure,'' Paolo Bacigalupi’s ''Drowned Cities'' and the
inundated New York of Nathaniel Rich’s ''Odds Against Tomorrow.''
Given that, it is perhaps surprising that a country as pancake-flat as Denmark has
not spawned more flood and Ark narratives.
Exceptions are the brilliant, but oddly overlooked 2018 Danish movie ''Qeta,'' set in a semi-submerged Copenhagen, while Hanne Richardt Beck’s novel ''7 Sydøst'' contemplates the
societal conflicts triggered by flooding and an influx of refugees.
Britain is far from flat, but that does not stop the distinguished writer John
Lanchester from flooding its shores in ''The Wall,'' his first foray into climate
Part philosophical meditation on social control and inequality, part
gripping thriller, the ethical issues it raises distinguish it as a landmark text
of the genre.
Set in the near-future which J.G. Ballard liked to call “five
minutes from now” in the wake of an event referred to simply as the
Change, the Wall of the title encloses a territory that could equally be
Denmark, or any other nation with a coastline.
Lanchester deftly sketches the architecture of a Europe in which rapid sea level rise has devoured the
shores in the space of a mere generation, while the disruption of the Gulf
Stream has brought on freezing temperatures.
Lanchester’s young protagonist, Kavanagh, is on his first compulsory tour
of duty defending The Wall whose primary purpose is not as a buffer
against the sea, but as a deterrent to the desperate “Others” seeking refuge.
Patrolling the Wall is a cold, harsh life, and one that the Defenders must
endure in order to ensure their future rights at citizens. But there is a
further, more brutal equation, which puts lives at stake: for every Other
who breaches the Wall, a Defender will be cast out to sea.
“We were used to feeling frightened of them, hostile to them: if they came
here, we would kill them. It was that simple, “ says Kavanagh. “No hard
feelings, the living and the dead, more in common than you might think; a
tiny bit of luck here and there dividing them, taking turns to live, taking
turns to die; all in the same boat. All the same really. Others. Defenders –
what’s the difference? I couldn’t decide if this was the opposite of what it
would be like to fight to the death, or a good preparation for it.”
In light of the isolationism of the militant Brexiteers, of Trump’s vote-
catching plans for an anti-Mexican Wall, and the anti-immigrant policies of
Inger Støjbjerg, Lanchester’s novel hits a nerve that is so of-the-moment it
hurts. Equally timely is its unflinching portrayal of the radical inequality
that exists between the generations, already in evidence today. In ''The Wall,''
thanks to the Change, parent-child relationships are irredeemably poisoned
by resentment and blame.
“None of us can talk to our parents,” reports Kavanagh. “By ‘us’ I mean my
generation, people born after the Change….The old feel they irretrievably
fucked up the world, then allowed us to be born into it. And you know
what? It’s true. That’s exactly what they did. They know it, we know it.
Everybody knows it.”
While Kavanagh and his peers despise the older generation, he does not
question the social hierarchies of the world he has inherited. As one
character puts it. “There was our parents’ world, and now there is our
“Our world” consists of 3 social strata: the Elites, who fly in the planes
Kavanagh sees crossing the sky, and make the decisions; the regular
citizens who must serve time as Defenders; and the Help. These are Others
who made it over the Wall and have been offered the choice of being
“euthanized”, cast back out to sea, or remaining on land in exchange for a
lifetime of unpaid work.
Deftly, Lanchester plants the notion of a slave state without ever using the word ‘slave’: by presenting slavery as a simple fact of life, Lanchester triggers a queasy cognitive dissonance whereby on the one hand the reader feels horrified, and on the other shares Kavanagh’s guilty satisfaction when on a camping trip, the loaned Help erect the tents, cooks the meals and carries the luggage.
But the future Britain’s Help also serve another, darker purpose.
young people resist becoming Breeders, given the bleakness of the world
they will inherit, and since there are not enough babies being born to
sustain the population, the Help are allowed to have children, who will
become regular citizens – but they must relinquish them.
“You see the kids all around the place, often with older parents, or parents who are a visibly
different ethnicity from their children,” reports Kavanagh with characteristic matter-of-factness.
It is an astute move on Lanchester’s part to make Kavanagh an Everyman
figure: apolitical, unquestioning of the status quo, and prepared, when a
Big Question appears on the horizon, to shrug his shoulders and settle for
the monosyllabic non-answer “just because.”
Even when the story takes a
shocking turn, and Kavanagh finds himself and other Defenders cast out to
sea, Lanchester leaves to the reader to guess whether his protagonist’s
sense of injustice will awaken, or whether it will be trumped by the instinct
to survive, no matter what the moral cost.
Like Greta Thunberg’s burning house, ''The Wall'' conveys what Martin
Luther King once called “the fierce urgency of now” with eloquence and
panache, while intelligently exploring some of the challenges and ethical
dilemmas and injustices that the planet’s youngest humans have already
begun to face.
Historians will look back on this era and note its defining paradox: that
while the public imagination was increasingly occupied with the dangers
ahead, those in power were either in active denial, busy plotting how best to
profit from a range of oncoming disasters, indifferent, or – at best - doing
far too little, far too late.
But those same historians may also note that today´s storytellers, inspired
by solid science and the evidence of their own eyes, have begun to reclaim
the power of the prophets and seers of past ages by resuming their almost
forgotten role as the cognitive avant-garde.
And that collectively, they bear a message that the world ignores at its peril.