Review: Why aren’t ‘serious’ writers writing about climate change?

Cover for Anthropocene Fictions
Why aren’t more literary realists getting real about climate change?

Policy wonks, eco-alarmists, and right-wing denialists dominate the climate change conversation with boring reports, deafening polemics, and forgettable op-eds. The mound of non-fiction reaches to the moon, and we’re no closer to a collective response to a warming world. In contrast, the number of novels written with climate change themes might not reach the top shelf in your living room.

Where are the novelists, author Adam Trexler asks? Where are the imagineers using story to organize, illustrate, and give emotional meaning to the nearly invisible fact of a heating planet? They’re out there, he says, but they’re lurking among the paperback thrillers in airport newsstands and on science fiction shelves in mega-bookstores. With a few exceptions, the “serious” literary world is completely ignoring the most important challenge to Homo Sapiens in 10,000 years.

Trexler builds the title of his book, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, published the University of Virginia Press, on a relatively new argument: humanity is the most potent geological and ecological force on the planet since the last Ice Age. The Anthropocene Era started with the invention of agriculture, but it picked up steam in the 18th century with the burning of coal to fuel industry, which turned the atmosphere into a dump for waste carbon. When a real-life “greenhouse effect” was first identified by science in the mid-20th century, intrepid sci-fi and thriller writers found fertile ground for storytelling.

Trexler and others cite the first novel with global warming as its central theme as J.G. Ballard‘s 1962 The Drowned World, which describes a Britain submerged by rising seas caused by sun-driven heating. From then on, the bulk of novels with climate change at least in the background are either thrillers such as Werner Herzog’s Heat and Clive Cussler’s Arctic Drift or science fiction and speculative fiction, such as George Turner’s The Sea and Summer and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.

Trexler, an independent scholar and former researcher at the UK’s University of Exeter, has little praise for a writer who’s become the doyenne of climate fiction in North America, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake he calls “unfocused.” In his view, her Year of the Flood is more about the “economic hegemony” of corporations than a response to climate change. On the other hand, Trexler heaps pages of analysis on Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy, which imagines the National Science Foundation as the planet’s climate savior. In this world, bureaucratic savvy and good data win the day.

Counting as many as 150 novels as his source material, Trexler finds common tropes and themes running through them, such as the reliance in thrillers of ad hoc teams of scientists and civil servants who come together more or less secretly to circumvent the political dolts and get ‘r done. One of the most interesting threads is the use of the flood metaphor to bring home the effects of the warming climate. Some people saw the recent Russell Crowe vehicle Noah as a climate change movie with its warning against disobeying God’s command to be good stewards of his creation.

As a literary phenomenon, the first generation of climate change novels probably reflect the general immaturity of humanity’s response, certainly in the United States, to the threat. When Trexler examines common political themes, they’re heavily weighted toward dystopia. Climate change novelists, as a rule, are dispeptic pessimists. It’s hard to argue with Trexler’s analysis, but he either missed or chose not to mention The World We Made, by environmentalist Jonathan Porritt, a cheery novel that describes a new, less wasteful economy powered mostly by wind.

In the last few years, Trexler sees literary realists finally taking up the subject explored primarily in genre novels. Examples includes Barbara Kingsolver in Flight Behavior and Ian McEwan in Solar. Trexler complains “serious” writers, however, offer few visions of life actually lived under climate change. It’s assumed that a warmed world is sometime in the future, not happening right now. Science tells us so, but most “realist” writers prefer not to deal with this reality or don’t know how.

Trexler limits his analysis to traditionally published work, which skews his view of climate fiction toward that of publishers interested in selling to a mass audience. He deliberately avoids self-published novels, some of which might address the lack of imagination he laments among literary realists. His academic prose is often opaque, but his call for novelists to construct narratives that illustrate the true-life effects of climate change rings true. Acres of shelved non-fiction haven’t help us figure out how to live with climate change. Maybe a great novel could.

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