Novel Climates

Sam J Knights
9 min readMar 23, 2023

“Here we are, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. What can I do but write a novel?” This was the answer Barbara Kingsolver gave over a decade ago, when asked why she had decided to write a novel about climate change. Her book, Flight Behaviour, is preoccupied with misinformation and the culture wars. In one passage, a scientist shouts at a news reporter. “You are letting a public relations firm write your scripts for you,” he rages. “You are allowing the public to be duped by a bunch of damned liars!” The rant is recorded and goes viral, as so many rants from climate scientists now do. But, behind the moment of anger, lies a deeper concern. Kingsolver and her characters are worried about the inexpressible, the inarticulable aspects of climate change. In her “Author’s Note”, Kingsolver writes, “The biotic consequences of climate change tax the descriptive powers, not to mention the courage, of those who know most about it.” There is a hint of arrogance here, a patrician-like concern for the people who “know less”. But, alongside her denunciation of the media and her faith in scientific truth, there is also a question for her fellow writers. “Here we are, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. What can I do but write a novel?”

Over the last decade, there has been a growing anxiety in the literary world that the novel form is incapable of depicting the climate and ecological emergency in all its horrifying, banal, infuriating totality. Ian McEwen gave the Orwell Memorial Lecture last year on the issue; he argued that “the climate change novel is hard” because the subject is so “vast”, “complex”, and “scientific”. Perhaps part of the problem is our insistence on thinking about climate change as just another genre. Climate fiction, or “cli-fi” as it is often called, is now a growing trend. Books about climate and ecological disaster fill the shelves of my local bookshop. But climate change is not something that can be so easily categorised. Climate change pervades every aspect of our lives, and all literature is — even in its silence — responding to it in one way or another. Is a book about politics also about climate change? Yes, of course. Is a book about falling in love? Yes. Missing cats? Yes. Slaying monsters? Yes. There is sometimes a misguided belief amongst artists that they, personally, have to produce “the climate novel”, or “the climate play”, or “the climate film”. Climate change is seen as something so vast and sprawling that the challenge, naturally, becomes to sum it all up in four hundred pages. This is an impossible task.

In 2016, Amitav Ghosh wrote that “it is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion.” In 2019, David Wallace-Wells wrote that “climate devastation is everywhere you look, and yet nowhere in focus.” He predicted that in the years to come climate change would cease to be a story and become, instead, “an all-encompassing setting.” Will climate devastation become the inevitable backdrop for all contemporary art? It seems almost unavoidable. Look, for example, at the younger generation of novelists, for whom eco-anxiety is an unavoidable part of the human experience. Sally Rooney, in her latest novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, wallows in the insignificance of our daily lives when compared to “the mass drowning of refugees” and “the repeated weather disasters triggered by climate change.” It is a book that repeatedly questions its own literary merit, sneering at successful authors who write “sensitive novels” about “real life”, before concluding: “My own work is, it goes without saying, the worst culprit in this regard.” It seems we are meant to be annoyed by at least some of this. Novelists once assumed that the problem with climate change was a lack of knowledge, but knowledge of the polycrisis now dominates our lives. We are drowning in information, we are experts in pain and suffering. And yet, still, we fail to act with the urgency that is required. “Environmentalists are so dreary,” writes Jenny Offill in her novel Weather. Grief has come quicker than joy to the literary world, too. In fiction, doomers are everywhere.

We have, as a species, always been obsessed with the end of the world. There is a reason The Book of Revelation holds such a sway over the cultural imaginary. These foundational myths are darkly fascinating in a distressing, narcissistic fashion. “And behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth.” Given the latest science on anthropogenic climate change, one might expect a resurgent obsession with dystopia, with demise and destruction. This has indeed been the case. Look at The Road by Cormac McCarthy or The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Or, more recently, The Wall by John Lanchester or The Oryx and Crake series by Margaret Atwood. However, in recent decades, an opposite tendency has also asserted itself. Light and shade. Day and night. Even The Book of Revelation ends with the coming of the “new Jerusalem”, “a new heaven and a new earth.”

The earliest examples of “cli-fi” are often said to be bad science fiction. Disaster stories have been commercially successful for decades and, over the course of the twentieth century, these anxieties played out in popular fiction. In 1933, Laurence Manning wrote The Man Who Awoke, a terribly written story in which a man wakes up at five-thousand-year intervals across human history. The first time he wakes up, humanity is recovering from what has become known as the great “Age of Waste”. Better science fiction soon followed — The Day of the Triffids, The Death of Grass, The Drowned World — as disaster piled upon disaster. In the 1970s, scientific opinion began to coalesce around global warming as the next biggest risk to the planet. Ursula K. Le Guin, the great science fiction writer, produced politically charged classics such as The Word for World Is Forest, The Dispossessed, and The New Atlantis. Breaking with decades of tradition, her writing took utopianism as seriously as doomism. “To find a new world, maybe you have to have lost one”, she once wrote. “The dance of renewal, the dance that made the world, was always danced here at the edge of things, on the brink, on the foggy coast.” Her work was not full of despair, rooted to the spot in horror. It was hopeful, radical, and active. “You can only be the revolution,” she wrote. “It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

Utopian fiction has often been affected by its environment. Islands, forests, hidden kingdoms. In early myths, writers dreamt of infinite abundance. Later, political utopias reimagined our relationship to the natural world. In 1890, William Morris wrote News from Nowhere. It is a bold vision of a utopian future. The spirit of the new days”, he wrote, “was to delight in the life of the world; intense and overweening love of the very skin and surface of the earth.” The book was a piece of propaganda, itself an attack on Looking Backward, another utopian novel by Edward Bellamy. Here, in the “no-place” of utopia, writers were able to stage huge debates about the future of politics, society, and nature. Today, these debates are still playing out across the pages of the novel. The latest addition is Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. I have lost count of the number of climate activists who have told me it is the best book they have ever read. Without wanting to sound like a grumpy old man, I find this a little strange. The book is, amongst other things, about a shadowy organisation which aims to intervene in international politics. Technological fixes and assassination attempts dominate the narrative. At one point, central bankers are convinced to upend the global financial system. It all seems a little far-fetched to me. But, nonetheless, there is clearly a desire for these sorts of novels. People recognise that climate change is a political crisis, and they want their literature to recognise that too. Stanley Robinson once studied under the supervision of the great Marxist scholar Fredric Jameson, who famously wrote, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Perhaps, for the climate novel, that is now the challenge.

Politics and literature can work hand in hand. In 1975, Edward Abbey wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang, a novel about a group of aspiring eco-saboteurs who target a nearby dam. “My job is to save the fucking wilderness”, says one of the gang members. “I don’t know anything else worth saving.” When it was first published, the book was very influential in the American climate movement, inspiring David Foreman to create ‘Earth First!’. The Earth Liberation Front also used a monkey wrench and a stone hammer for its logo, and the novel became integral to the history of the American climate movement. It showed that novels could guide people towards action, that despair was not the only option. Unfortunately, however, the politics of many “clif-fi” books have not progressed a lot since then. Many of the books about “nature” fail to recognise the political and economic forces that are destroying it. For human suffering, you often have to turn towards international literature. Look at The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, The Neighbours by Ahmad Mahmoud, or How Beautiful We Were by Imbola Mbue. Hopefully, British literature will come to understand this. The story of climate change is also the story of racial, sexual, and economic injustice.

There will undoubtedly be more novels about climate change to come. After all, there are now eco-fables, eco-satires, eco-romances. There are books that deny climate change and books that embrace it. The novel is doing just fine. So is climate change, really, the threat it was once made out to be? Ian McEwen, in his Orwell Memorial Lecture last year, argued that “the ordinary, the everyday is about to be utterly changed.” Therefore, he concluded, “the realist novel will have to work hard if it wishes to avoid or deny what is real.” This particular preoccupation feels borrowed from the writings of Amitav Ghosh. In The Great Derangement, Ghosh argues that the contemporary novel struggles to comprehend climate change. The timescales are too large, the effects are too improbable. Ghosh is also wary of metaphor and abstraction, warning that climate change is neither surreal nor magical; “to treat them as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling — which is that they are actually happening on this Earth, at this time.” It would be easy to say that the climate novel requires a break with all that has come before it, that the threat of climate change is so great that everything has been totally upended. This, I think, would be wrong. But it would also be wrong to say that no innovation was required. Or that climate change cannot be surreal, magical, a cause for experimentation. Everything is changing, and the novel should too.

Authors have always engaged with environmental issues. The climate novel is, in many ways, nothing new. Yet, some of the novels that we might categorise as “cli-fi” are leading the way in terms of formal innovation. Books with animal or plant narrators. Books with nonlinear or extended timeframes. Books with fantastical dream sequences, fabulous myths, surreal moments of crisis. Books with magic, other worlds, infinite imagination. Richard Powers once wrote that “writers need to turn their eyes outward and start asking what kinds of values we would need to develop, what myths we need to tell ourselves, and what perceptions we need to cultivate to truly live here and not in an imaginary, self-exempting place that externalises all costs and acknowledges only private and individual meaning.” To do so, writers will need to take more risks. They will need to dream bigger, be bolder. “We’re at that time where the problems of the world just can’t be answered by the prevailing imaginary”, writes Samantha Earle. “We are in a time of breakdown.” How will novelists respond? How will they change? “What can I do but write a novel?”

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Sam J Knights

writer, actor, activist, clown | writing about imagination, revolution, and the end of the world