The fiction of climate change

The monsoon broods at the edges of our consciousness. We grumble about the erratic weather that has beset the Valley in recent times. Once its steady rhythm of storms and showers commences, traces of dusty disgruntlement will fade, roads to greener pastures will crumble and we will once more rest easy in the certainty of the elements. But if the onset of the rainy season hasn’t much altered, it seems stormclouds are stretched thin across the subcontinent. Going by the records of the last couple of decades, we can no longer expect the monsoon to withdraw by end September, leaving us with breezy kite-flecked skies cooling the home stretch to the festive season. We can blame climate change for the scattering of our seasons, and the cultures they enable. This is no less than a remoulding of our imaginations. How do we face up to our rebellion against Mother Nature, and her wrathful response?

Writing about it is an obvious way to go. But Amitav Ghosh, author of many fictions set in his watery homeland of Bengal, declares fiction has failed us. Lamenting the low profile of “cli-fi”, or climate fiction, and accepting blame for his own failure to contribute to the genre (despite dealing in elemental themes), he attempts to explain why – through a work of non-fiction.

The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is not just about how crazy we (the military-industrial complex) are to be boiling our planet alive. It’s about a failure to recognize not just that we are in a pickle, but that we have to do something about it, and that means the way we live has to change if we (or our children and co-species) want to live at all. It’s about a failure of imagination. The arts, with their power to recalibrate the way we think, have a critical role to play here, Ghosh insists, but the discourse of climate change is limited to the domain of real life, or non-fiction – academic papers, news reports, documentaries. When it does make its way into fiction, we get overblown Hollywood blockbusters and fantastical tales set in a range of dystopias that are promptly relegated to the category of science fiction, which like all genre fiction, tends to be undervalued. Why can’t writers get a grip on the most existential question humanity has ever faced?

Intriguingly, Ghosh points to the very form of the novel as a barrier. Born out of a very bourgeois sensibility desirous of stability in the face of the tremendous changes wrought by the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, the novel was itself a fantasy of domesticity. As such, Ghosh observes, the Western novel is not equipped to deal with climate change.

This is not to say other variants of the novel that incorporate surrealism and magic realism, as well as poetry, have not succeeded in capturing some of the emotional freight of what we are doing to our planet. But Ghosh concludes, “climate change is too powerful, too grotesque, too dangerous, and too accusatory to be written about in a lyrical or elegaic or romantic vein”.


Photo: Luna sin estrellas

Of course, cli-fi does exist, and not all of it is speculative. Not long after after Ghosh, I chanced upon Flight Path, by Barbara Kingsolver. Here, for reasons unknown, an entire colony of nesting Monarch butterflies has been displaced from its native Mexico, and lands up in a nook of the Appalachian Mountains, throwing the close-minded and fractious community downstream into considerable confusion. None more so than Dellarobia Turnbow, the headstrong heroine who discovers the butterflies. Locals see the Monarchs as a sign from the Almighty; scientists as a signifier of climate disaster; journalists as a heart-warming story. For Dellarobia, trapped in an unhappy marriage and hurtling from one hollow crush to another, it offers redemption, but of what sort? Flight Path uses climate change as a metaphor for many things, and makes a decent fist of portraying how a complex scientific problem is refracted into many inadequate understandings, but on a very basic level it is about the nature of change itself, rather than a change in nature. Unlike early exemplars of cli-fi such as JG Ballard’s The Drought and The Drowned World, wherein the protagonists find their personalities dissolving into the dystopias they live in, environmental change crystallizes Dellarobia, galvanizing her into action. Ultimately, the novel is about the humans that populate it – would this satisfy Ghosh? In the Anthropocene, is it possible to write a “successful” novel that does not accord human subjects the respect they are accustomed to?


Day 173, Veggie Raj

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