Danny Bloom
I seek the truth wherever it lies.

Can modern literary novels deal with a subject as cataclysmic as climate change?

Writers around the world — novelists, film script writers, poets, short story punks — are coming to appreciate the urgency of runaway climate change impacts on future generations (as well as the gathering storm of narrative possibilities), according to an unsigned article in the prestigious British newsweekly The Economist.

The article was unsigned and carried no byline because that’s the magazine’s style and has been since its beginnings in the 1800s. Most newspapers and magazines use bylines to identify the journalists who write their articles, of course, but The Economist, since its first edition in 1843, does not. Its articles never carry bylines and all its reporters remain anonymous.

But back to the story at hand.

Why is the modern literary novel beginning to tackle climate themes, and why now and can we expect more of this in the 2020s and 2030s and well into the 2050s? Because it’s in the air, and everyone feels it now.

Even the prolific Brooklyn novelist Amitav Ghosh recognized this in  his 2016 book of Chicago essays titled ”The Great Derangement.” While he once argued that climate change seemed ”too capacious, uncertain and abstract a subject” to be addressed in literary novels, he has now become the author himself of his first cli-fi novel: “Gun Island,” slated for publication in June.

It’s  true that Ghosh once snobbishly called sci-fi and cli-fi the “generic outhouses” of literature — specifically thinking of spec-fic and sci-fi (and saying that ”any literary genre with a hyphen in it is low class”) — but he has happily changed his tune now and wants to tackle climate change head-on with his new novel.

In 2019, the literary establishment has begun to recognize the imaginative possibilities of climate change. One might say that is was Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (published in 2006) which led the way.

“That novel served as a bridge between the fears of one generation, which involved mushroom clouds and mutually assured destruction, and those of the next, which are of melting ice caps and wildfires,” the Economist opined.

McCarthy wrote “The Road” based on a dream he had had about a massive comet strike on Earth. He was in his mid-50s at the time and was the new father of a little boy. Gazing over a Texas landscape with his son, he told a reporter, he ”imagined the hills scorched black by a comet strike, depredations the boy would see but he would not.”

McCarthy’s novel let to later books by the British writer Ian McEwan and the Canadian visionary Margaret Atwood.

Now the genre that McCarthy helped galvanise, sometimes known as “cli-fi,” is gathering pace, according to the Economist.

Take two recent examples: “The End We Start From” by British writer Megan Hunter is, according to the unsigned article, ”a narrative interlaced with passages from mythological sources, closing the circle between the destructive floods of the cli-fi future and the watery origin stories of many religions.”

A second example is American novelist Louise Erdrich’s haunting “Future Home of the Living God.”

Then there’s John Lanchester’s widely-reviewed 2019 novel titled “The Wall,” and Canadian writer Omar El Akkad’s “American War.”

“Literary novelists have begun to appreciate that climate change is not just an urgent subject but a font of drama and plots,” says the Economist, adding: “All too soon the theme may revert from the territory of speculative fiction to the realm of old-fashioned realism.”

So can the modern literary novel handle a subject as cataclysmic as climate change? You bet. Watch.

About the Author
Danny Bloom is editor of The Cli-Fi Report at www.cli-fi.net. Danny graduated from Tufts University in Boston in 1971 with a major in Yiddish Literature. A newspaper editor and reporter since his days in Alaska, Japan and Taiwan, he has lived and worked in 14 countries and speaks French, Japanese and Chinese. He hopes to live until 2032, when his tombstone will read "I came, I saw, I ate cho-dofu."