”Verdens forfattere har fundet genren, der moder klimakrisen,” is how a Danish newspaper recently introduced a new literary essay about how novels are tackling the global climate crisis.
The English translation might look something like this: “Novelists are responding to the climate crisis in a variety of ways.”
What author and literary critic Liz Jensen in Denmark was getting at was this: A new literary genre that’s been dubbed ”cli-fi” is rising to meet the challenge of runaway climate change.
“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,” Jensen says.
She adds: “So, since we are famously a storytelling species, how have the fiction writers of the Anthropocene Era tackled the rolling catastrophe of a world heading for four degrees of warming in the lifetime of any baby born today?”
Her answer: “The ancient Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ has found its moment,
and the moment has found its genre: cli-fi.”
Jensen, the author of nine novels herself, including globally-acclaimed “Rapture,” notes that Amitav Ghosh’s new novel ”Gun Island” is joining 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.
In her oped, written in English and translated later into Danish, Jensen retells a joke that often makes the rounds at climate conferences around the world:
”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’.”
Many of our direst scientific predictions have come measurably true, Jensen says, noting how 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
And in this context, she says, the literary genre of ”climate fiction” is becoming the new realism, and evolving fast.
She mentions how Jeff Vandermeer’s ”Southern Reach trilogy” (the first volume of which, ”Annihilation,” became a haunting film), explored the notion of the natural world developing a hive mind with its own colonizing agenda.
She also points to Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi novel ”New York 2140,” whose huge cast of characters ”duck, dive and thrive” in a semi-drowned Manhattan, adding that the novel,has been hailed as a pioneer of the emerging sub-genre dubbed ”solarpunk,” whichcelebrates the notion that whatever fine mess we have gotten us into, our ingenuity and adaptability might just see us through.
Much ”cli-fi” is inevitably preoccupied with water: not enough of it, or too much, Jensen, who has read widely in the genre, observes.
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,” Jensen notes.
While Britain is far from being a flat country, that has not stopped the British writer John Lanchester from flooding its shores in his new novel ”The Wall,” which Jensen says represents his first foray into ”climate fiction.”
”The Wall” conveys what Martin Luther King once called “the fierce urgency of now” with eloquence and panache, Jensen says, while noting that the book intelligently explores some of the challenges and ethical dilemmas and injustices that the planet’s youngest humans have already begun to face.
So what are we to make of this current moment in the Anthropocene?
“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.,” Jensen, looking into her crystal ball, predicts.
”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,” she concludes.
These global storytellers, she adds, some in India, some in Europe, some in the Americas, ”bear a message that the world ignores at its peril.”