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Climate change and contemporary fiction
August 9, 2014 6:39 PM   Subscribe

"Novels are no use at all in days like these, for they deal with people and their relationships, with fathers and mothers and daughters or sons and lovers, etc., with souls, usually unhappy ones, and with society etc., as if the place for all these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time." posted by brundlefly (57 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not if it's already too late. In that case, for better or worse, our relationships with each other in these last moments are all we can really effect, all we have left. And if not, well then our relationships are more important than ever because we need to strengthen them enough to sustain our efforts to overcome the challenges looming ahead.

People arguing for the obsolescence of various things for reasons were annoying back when it was "The End of History" in the 90s and it's still annoying now. It's a cottage industry nobody really wants or needs. Americans are just obsessed with prematurely declaring important things over now for some unfathomable reason.

Maybe it's people shying away from the often grim difficult work of adulthood to retreat back into adolescent fantasy. I don't know, but it's getting really old to me.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:49 PM on August 9 [25 favorites]


Humans are capable of rich relationships with others and themselves even during acute disasters and trials. Slow changes over time do not impede at all, not should they, and our writing can reflect that.
posted by michaelh at 6:52 PM on August 9


I seem to recall a whole novel-length series of stories by some refugee from kuro5hin which started with humanity going extinct and the Earth snowballed. Maybe someone will remember that guy.
posted by localroger at 6:53 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


I probably should have made it more prominent, but the quote above is from the novella Man in the Holocene. I would not take that at face value.
posted by brundlefly at 6:59 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]


"Novels are no use at all in days like these, for they deal with people and their relationships, with fathers and mothers and daughters or sons and lovers, etc., with souls, usually unhappy ones, and with society etc., as if the place for all these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time"

This quote is from Max Frisch's 1979 comic novel, Man in the Holocene, and appears to be the perspective of one of the characters, Geiser.

posted by Bwithh at 7:01 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]


Sorry I guess instead of Americans I meant Westerners or something like that. People of the American Century.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:01 PM on August 9


Ha! Well, either way. I should probably just come back at this one when I'm not all cranky and feverish and too annoyed to drill down very far into the links.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:03 PM on August 9


I've read several novels of late that take climate change as a given - A Visit From the Good Squad and All the Birds, Singing and But Not for Long and David Mitchell's new one The Bone Clocks. That is, climate change is not the focus of the novel, the effect of a changing world on "people and their relationships."
posted by minervous at 7:07 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


I guess I'm a bit cranky too, but you made that quote very prominent. It sure looked like something to discuss.
posted by michaelh at 7:08 PM on August 9


I thought it was an interesting quote given the context, but... I provided no context! Sorry. Miscalculation on my part.
posted by brundlefly at 7:09 PM on August 9


No worries. Thanks for the links!
posted by michaelh at 7:11 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]


I looked at the previously and still didn't see any mention of Tobias Buckell's Arctic Rising or Hurricane Fever. They're more action-y than what I usually read, but well thought out.
posted by wintersweet at 7:18 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Hey but maybe everything will be fine

Then we'll look back on this and laugh I bet
posted by clockzero at 7:18 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


The Earth Abides
posted by Renoroc at 7:22 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


No one who read Crichton's book will look back and laugh about that experience, I promise you.
posted by MoonOrb at 7:23 PM on August 9 [12 favorites]


Last Contact by Steven Baxter, a short story that deals with this on a much larger scale.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:39 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


Yes, how dare people use things like illustrative language and metaphor to elicit emotional responses to actual states of affairs in the world? Why, next you'll be telling me that they're using allegory to describe specific conditions and events, or inventing whole people to represent particular concepts or arguments! The absolute nerve! They might even extrapolate from current events to suggest possible future outcomes, or employ irony in order to throw certain aspects of present society in to relief within the mind of the reader! To think of it!

I tell you, if consulting statistical tables was good enough for the nominal discussion-leader of the policy unit I was assigned to, it should be good enough for anyone!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:04 PM on August 9 [7 favorites]


I really wish I had constructed this post differently. :(
posted by brundlefly at 8:17 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]


I just finished Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour, and it's a fantastic account of climate change and the book works on both levels, from the point of view of literature as well as science. I highly recommend it.
posted by dhruva at 8:27 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]


Then we'll look back on this and laugh I bet

look back from our spaceships while we nyoom away from this disaster ideally
posted by elizardbits at 8:42 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


So by "contemporary fiction" are we excluding SF?
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:43 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]


look back from our spaceships while we nyoom away from this disaster ideally

In every crappy horror movie there's a scene where someone is getting chased and they always look back right before they trip and fall. The literature is our glance back, but the tripping is shared by all.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:24 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


A.S. Byatt's version of the Ragnarök myth is beautiful.
"... there is a sense in which the Norse Gods are peculiarly human in a different way. They are human because they are limited and stupid. They are greedy and enjoy fighting and playing games. They are cruel and enjoy hunting and jokes. They know Ragnarök is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story."
posted by nixt at 9:33 PM on August 9 [10 favorites]


I sometimes thing that climate change hysteria is basically the rapture for liberals. Which is not to say that it's not bad -- from all accounts it'll be an economic catastrophe if nothing else. But even a moderate to worst case scenario is not the end of all life on earth, guys.
posted by empath at 9:40 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


The end of the world has always been right around the corner. Christians expect Armageddon (I know two families who are in active preparation for this); we grew up expecting the Russians to bomb us into Kingdom Come (they installed air raid sirens all over town and outfitted our high school as a Civil Defense Shelter); everything was supposed to end as the century turned (a dud for sure); we were attacked in 2001, which was unbelievable and certainly was the opening for the end of America, if not the world; not to mention two World Wars; now it's climate change - if a wayward asteroid or a solar flare doesn't get us first.

I too am finding all the fear and speculation tiresome. When the end comes, it will simply come. Graveyards are full of people who were expecting something bigger than a simple death from heart disease. What is the point of the fear and preparation if not just to line the pockets of those who can make money on the idea?

I personally don't think climate change is nearly as dangerous as a climate of generalized fear.
posted by aryma at 9:43 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


empath, I doubt many people think it'll be the end of life on earth. If life could make it through the end of the Permian, it'll probably be okay in the face of humanity. It's us I'm worried about. If nothing else, things will be very shitty (and deadly) for a lot of people for a long time. That's reason enough to worry.
posted by brundlefly at 9:52 PM on August 9 [8 favorites]




What is the point of the fear and preparation if not just to line the pockets of those who can make money on the idea?

I don't see enough fear. I see complacency and nihilism. That's what's lining pockets today.
posted by Quilford at 10:06 PM on August 9 [6 favorites]


Let's add almost the entire Paolo Bacigalupi ouevre, Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, TC Boyle's A Friend of the Earth...
posted by twsf at 10:37 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


And in YA there's things like When We Wake and Feed...
posted by foxfirefey at 11:19 PM on August 9


Also, "What Did Tessimond Tell You?" which I just read is in the same TEOTUAWKI* vein.

*U = universe
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:23 PM on August 9


...now it's climate change - if a wayward asteroid or a solar flare doesn't get us first.

I too am finding all the fear and speculation tiresome. When the end comes, it will simply come. Graveyards are full of people who were expecting something bigger than a simple death from heart disease. What is the point of the fear and preparation if not just to line the pockets of those who can make money on the idea?


Some of those people in the graveyard, including some of the ones who died from heart disease, ended up there much earlier than they needed to because of smoking, some other addiction, diabetes, etc.—things that were entirely preventable, which they saw coming from a long way off, and refused to take simple and expedient measures to prevent, but endured a long, slow, knowing decline instead.

Climate change isn't a Hollywood immediate extinction event like the Earth getting hit by an asteroid or global thermonuclear war. Instead it's playing out as a gradual strangulation and broiling of global society, a constriction of resources and living space and living standards accompanied by increasing conflict. There's a hell of alot more money to be made and power to be gained in taking advantage of the disaster as it unfolds than there is in the discipline and abstinence necessary to mitigate or reverse climate change trends.

When someone keeps smoking or doesn't take care of themselves, it's primarily they alone who bear the consequences. But if you throw your hands up and decide to do nothing about climate change, or you actively spread "all we have to fear is fear itself" nonsense like this, you're not just participating in screwing yourself over: you're screwing over nearly the entire human race now and in the future, including many people who haven't even been born yet but will live their entire lives amidst the unfolding disaster and its consequences. For the vast majority of the world's population, little things like the Northwest Passage opening up centuries after it was so ardently sought will far from offset the down sides.

There will be some small percentage of people who will thank you, though; even with all of the sanctions against tobacco companies, for example, it's still an immensely profitable business, especially in parts of the world where the government can be made complicit. The beneficiaries of climate change probably will be held to even less account than tobacco magnates and shareholders have been for the misery and destruction their profits have sown. They already revel in every voice that rises to appease and abet those profits, and their descendants will likely be raising a toast to all the people who decade after decade proffered similar attitudes—from seaside Antarctic villas—some day.
posted by XMLicious at 11:26 PM on August 9 [20 favorites]


This list badly needs The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard.
posted by bouvin at 1:30 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


I seem to recall a whole novel-length series of stories by some refugee from kuro5hin which started with humanity going extinct and the Earth snowballed. Maybe someone will remember that guy.

I remember that guy, and those stories. I'd love to see more.
posted by aurynn at 1:56 AM on August 10


Mankind has always and forever been spoiling Eden.
posted by chavenet at 3:07 AM on August 10


Given some of the insanity I've been hearing about chemtrails and their supposed connection to California's drought, I half expect somebody to set a novel there where California does some bat shit insane thing like secede and then declare war on the rest of the country or some scary shit.

But PA's governor wants to turn the state into a natural gas Texas and oh by the way fuck funding basic education so we got a nice little dystopia brewing on the East Coast, too, where kids will have little concept of history or science but will know how sick you can get if there's fracking nearby.
posted by angrycat at 5:16 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


"Novels are no use at all in days like these..."

That's okay, because I don't read them for any "use." If they had a use, I'd probably stop reading them. I read them, because they make me feel. I'm pretty sure they have the same capacity to make people feel they've always had, climate change or no climate change.

Humans are pack animals, with brain processes "built" for social processing. Climate change isn't going to stop those processes until it extinguishes the species. So while we're alive and kicking, novels about human relationships will still push our buttons. I read novels because I like the feelings I get when those buttons are pushed.
posted by grumblebee at 5:21 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


"Oryx and Crake" touches on it, as well as on many other trends.
posted by texorama at 5:24 AM on August 10


I half expect somebody to set a novel there where California does some bat shit insane thing like secede and then declare war on the rest of the country or some scary shit.

1975 beat us to it: Ecotopia.
posted by XMLicious at 5:33 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up (1972) is relevant in many ways to this discussion. Also, it's just a damn good book - go read it.
posted by jammy at 5:51 AM on August 10


I probably should have made it more prominent, but the quote above is from the novella Man in the Holocene. I would not take that at face value.

Not face-value, no, but if you look at Tom Ford's discussion of that novella and that passage specifically you can see that he sees in it a proposition that requires serious reflection and one which he partially endorses. That is, he isn't arguing that "novels are no use" in a world with climate change, but he is arguing that climate change profoundly alters our relationship to literature and should radically affect the way people think about literary creation. And I think that's a pretty dubious argument.

For one thing it simply isn't the case that prior to the anthropocene people universally regarded the world as eternally unchanging. The concept of "mutability" was extremely influential, for example: a view of the world in which, quite explicitly, what was now sea would become land and vice versa. And, of course, once more concrete scientific knowledge of geological change started emerging in the C18th and C19th writers rushed to incorporate that into their texts in various ways (see Tennyson's In Memoriam for example). So, in fact, the idea of profound geological and climatic instability is one which really poses no special new challenge to Western artists. They have always written with a consciousness that things might be falling apart in the long run--none of which need necessarily affect the particular stories they want to tell about what is happening in the short run.
posted by yoink at 7:14 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


1975 beat us to it: Ecotopia.

Also KS Robinson's Three Californias trilogy and from the far right Pierce's Turner Diaries; Butler's Parables books fit in as well.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:23 AM on August 10


Rachel Brody has written Hot Mess, a book of speculative fiction about climate change. She's a friend of mine, but she's also a really good writer.
posted by pxe2000 at 9:06 AM on August 10


Also KS Robinson's Three Californias trilogy

And his Science in the Capital series, or does that not count for some reason I missed?
posted by rtha at 9:43 AM on August 10


Also KS Robinson's Three Californias trilogy

And his Science in the Capital series, or does that not count for some reason I missed?


It does not count because it is the terrible.

His Mars Trilogy has climate change on Earth playing a significant role starting in the second book, if I recall correctly.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:22 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


I like Helliconia. It's basically an allegory designed to illustrate the futility of human desires for stability and relationships in the face of global climate change.

One thing I rarely see addressed even in the most pedestrian near-future novels will be the sad, extreme lack of nice sandy beaches in our immediate future. Even before the global sea level rise, we were already seeing beaches receding widely because we have interrupted the natural flow of eroded particles from the interior to the coast. Some of the oldest beaches are around 5,000 years old (dating from after the last extreme phase of ocean level rise) and would take minor geological timescales to re-establish naturally. Together with the rapid destruction of coral, within a couple of centuries, except for stinky river deltas, the only sandy beaches could likely be small enclaves created only through expensive, limited engineering. And much of the coastline could itself be a toxic mess due to the rising sea levels overwhelming and eroding all the waste storage buildings/vats/lagoons.

So all those seaside novels? Anything where ordinary people casually promenade along a seaside? Could become historical fiction as alien to our descendents as tales of balmy Hyperboreans.
posted by meehawl at 10:23 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


It does not count because it is the terrible.

You are full of wrong!
posted by rtha at 10:30 AM on August 10


And his Science in the Capital series, or does that not count for some reason I missed?

I really liked his Californias trilogy (acknowledging the more clunky parts, but overall they are great) but everything else of his I have tried has been terrible not to my taste. Based on the pieces I have read, I'd guess most of his books are at least climate-aware if not using climate as a major element and certainly his work would need to be included in any serious discussion of that trope.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:57 AM on August 10


It's kind of amusing considering the last few comments that it was KSR's Blue Mars which alerted me to the fate of Earth's beaches.
posted by localroger at 1:03 PM on August 10


I love most of his books but then I love when OOPS there's a novel in my policy wonk reading. I realize this is not to everyone's taste.
posted by rtha at 1:12 PM on August 10


This is great brundlefly, thanks!
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:56 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


What saulgoodman said

Also, Harold Rosenberg wrote about this some years ago, in his prescient book entitled "The Tradition of The New"
posted by Vibrissae at 7:33 PM on August 10


Man in the Holocene is a great short novel.
posted by stbalbach at 8:37 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


The Capital trilogy is great if you're really into booklong descriptions of frisbee golf and nitpicking details of the NSF's paperwork procedures.
posted by malocchio at 11:04 AM on August 11


stbalbach: "Man in the Holocene is a great short novel."

It really is. I read it in high school and really enjoyed it and was really curious to see how it held up for me as an adult. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I found so much more in it during my recent reread. My supplementary reading is what lead me to this site.
posted by brundlefly at 11:16 AM on August 11


Cool topic, thanks!

As far as the "Rapture for liberals," I don't know. But unlike the Rapture, the end of life as we know it on this planet isn't up for speculation. It is happening already.
posted by agregoli at 11:46 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


One thing these scenarios tend to get right is that humans are very, very adaptable.

But taking the scenario for granted? If there's gods or other overwhelming forces involved, sure. But otherwise, humans are responsible, and everyone is guilty for contributing to it. My sense of guilt is different from the court definition though; I dislike the perception of "innocence" because it gets you into a mentality that you couldn't have done anything, so why worry?
posted by halifix at 1:45 PM on August 11


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