...on a hot earth where climate change is no longer novel. What to make of it? "Scenes from a Melting Planet" is a must-read essay from The New Yorker on literature's ventures into the alarming transformation that's already begun. It looks both at realist and science-fictional takes, both novels and stories, and both fiction that features global warming as its main subject and fiction with a glancing relationship to it.
A glimpse at Carolyn Kormann's piece:
This liminal moment, when the signs are everywhere that the climate in which human civilization developed is gone, seems a natural subject for fiction, and a number of recent novels have grappled with it—Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior,” and Ian McEwan’s “Solar” among them. These books have been labelled “cli-fi,” but chances are that the name won’t stick. It makes the genre sound marginal, when, in fact, climate change is moving to the center of human experience.
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Traditionally, environmental havoc has flourished in postapocalyptic fiction, where it makes for vivid, frightening atmospherics and, paradoxically, fosters a sense of unreality. In John Christopher’s “The Death of Grass,” from 1956, a new virus infects grasses across the globe, causing mass famine. “The Drowned World,” by J. G. Ballard, published in 1962, is set in 2145, after solar radiation has melted the polar ice caps and London has become a tropical swamp. T. C. Boyle’s “A Friend of the Earth,” from 2000, is set in a nearly apocalyptic 2025—a hot, food-scarce U.S. that is plagued by mass extinction. Margaret Atwood’s great dystopian trilogy, “Oryx and Crake,” “The Year of the Flood,” and the forthcoming “MaddAddam,” engages with similar disaster scenarios.
Today, novels that would once have been called science fiction can be read as social realism.
In the introduction to “I’m with the Bears,” Bill McKibben, a writer and environmental activist, explains why the stories in the collection are unusual. They “represent a real departure from most literary work,” he writes. “Instead of being consumed with the relationships between people, they increasingly take on the relationship between people and everything else.”
Still, I wish more novelists would accept the challenge. I’d like to read a story about a citizen of Kiribati, or an ambivalent coal executive, or, for that matter, a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Indeed, global warming could be a prompt for the return, long-awaited, of the large social novel. There are still writers working in this form, of course, but fewer and fewer of them. Because it is such a far-reaching, fundamental transformation, climate change brings a full array of big, important issues for fiction to take on.