Our Earth’s climate is undeniably in transition: 2016 was the hottest year since modern observations began, solidifying it as possibly one of the worst years ever.
Earth is by no means experiencing its first world threatening climate event—our biological ancestors survived five mass extinction events, including a dinosaur-demolishing meteorite impact and countless erupting super volcanoes. But this is the first world threatening climate catastrophe humans can truly call our own. We are fouling our own nest, stealing from our grandchildren and their future.
Climate change is occurring rapidly in terms of geological time, but too slowly to attract our full attention. Earth’s life supporting climate system faces threat from the fossil fuel-dependent material needs of a rapidly increasing population. Those alluring moon bases promised as alternative accommodation by the golden age of science fiction disappointingly failed to materialize. Might science fiction authors’ fantasies of terraforming Mars become a matter of necessity before too long?
Climate fiction (Cli Fi) is the literature of our planet in transformation. Focusing specifically on human-created climate change, it allows readers to imagine and experience its complexity. Extrapolated from scientific data rather than pure imagination, climate fiction draws attention to the physical, political, and socio-economic changes that will no doubt be required to mitigate and adapt to the ever-increasing threat of global warming, such as reorientation of economies, government intervention, and changes to mass consumption practices.
Climate science speaks of great uncertainties: targets outlined in the Paris Agreement are no longer achievable, the release of methane from the melting permafrost might be more devastating than previously guessed. Bleaching coral, ravaged crops, and the spread of vector-borne diseases are only the tip of the iceberg.
Climate fiction is shaping up as the literature of now because we’re past the point of no return regarding science fiction’s cautionary tales. Many of science fiction’s blockbuster books and films warned us with catastrophic visions of the future. But caution was not exercised; it was thrown recklessly to the winds, and remains there still.
Climate fiction utilizes similar literary plot devices as traditional disaster narratives: historical monuments destroyed, familiar skylines ablaze or drowned and families torn apart. But cli fi narratives enhance and emphasize realism by presenting global warming and associated effects as an immediate and verified problem, rather than something that may happen in another place or time, or by accident or the wrath of god. Many cli fi novels feature scientists, either strategically placed to deliver information, investigate or provide explanations for environmental events, or as protagonists effecting change to traditional institutions or ways of thinking.
Most effective are the stories revealing what life might feel like when affected by events such as carbon rationing, mass transience, the spread of vector-borne diseases, extreme heat and water shortages—and everything played out through characters and their actions, as all good fiction should. The plots also often mirror current events: reflecting widening chasms between rich and poor; countries overtaken by militant authoritarianism, ushering in a return to brutal religious fundamentalism; barren lands lashed by killer storms; flooded cities; drought-stricken farmlands; post-catastrophe cityscapes tainted by a breakdown of law and order and stateless populations on the move. Some of these situations might sound more familiar than others.
Cli fi is in the process of expanding its parameters and becoming a contemporary literature of purpose and revolution. It is challenging the status quo of business as usual, of capitalism as a perpetual motion machine eternally borrowing from the future, passing the burden of recovery up the line by using real science, real data and real scenarios to envision our near future. We best pay heed to what climate fiction is illuminating: it is fast becoming the literature of transition, of loss, of learning and adjustment to wilder times and, ultimately, a literature of hope as we face the prospect of adjusting to a warmer, wilder world.
Cat Sparks is author of the novel Lotus Blue, available from Talos Press, an imprint of Skyhorse.