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Climate-change fiction: In search of brave new worlds

  • The publishing landscape is filling up with books that inspire new ways of looking at climate change
  • These genre-bending books go beyond the doomsday, dystopian variety of writing on climate change

‘Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog’ (1818), a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Alamy
‘Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog’ (1818), a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Alamy

Cli-fi", “Anthropocene fiction", “eco-fiction", “environmental writing", “nature writing"—there is no one descriptor for a growing globe-spanning subgenre of fiction. It encompasses the five key elements of nature—air, water, fire, earth and ether—as well as extraterrestrial, otherworldly ones. It treks through thick forests, moves along ocean waves, rises like hot air, and roars, blooms, bursts with life.

From the biological catastrophe in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2013), to rising sea levels and migrations in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004) and Gun Island (2019), to J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), writers across the world have produced works that have now become classics among climate change novels. The past couple of years alone have seen the publication of several such books: Richard Powers’ 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory—a love letter to trees and structured like a tree; or the 2018 Nobel prize in literature recipient Olga Tokarczuk’s oeuvre, especially her newest novel in English, an “eco-mystery" titled Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead. Closer home, Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes Of Longing, shortlisted for the 2018 JCB Prize for Literature and longlisted for the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, features turtles, geologists and the “ghost of an evaporated ocean" among its cast. Then there’s Lucy Ellmann’s over 1,000-page-long 2019 Booker Prize shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport, which is preoccupied with climate change and endangered species. Our planet may be in danger, but this genre of literature is alive and well.

In a recent interview in The Guardian, Scottish poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie mourned that “Nature writing... has been colonised... by middle-class white men". In the Chicago Review Of Books column “Burning Worlds", author Annalee Newitz implied that in a few decades, all fiction would transform into climate change fiction: “Any story about the future that’s at least a century out has to include a dramatic picture of climate change."

The landscape of contemporary publishing is filling up with genre-bending books that inspire new ways of looking at climate change. From poetry collections to graphic novels, mysteries to magical realism, Lounge picks works that imagine whole new worlds.

Terrestrial texts

Terrarium, Urvashi Bahuguna’s debut poetry collection, travels from the bountiful imagery of mangoes, mud and Indian monsoons to global itineraries, pointing its poetic compass at multiple latitudes and longitudes. From Ennore in Tamil Nadu to the Peter Harrison Planetarium, London, these poems cover diverse geographies. Poems such as Spilt, The Pilot Whales Speak and Urur Olcott Kuppam speak specifically of (mostly man-made) environmental disasters. Some don’t directly do so—poems on mental health and heartbreak, for instance—but, then, they also do. As poet Sridala Swami says of Bahuguna: “(She) writes her very self into the earth—she gulps air like a pelican, is tightly-woven like a pinecone and her headaches are the size of Crete." Ultimately, Bahuguna puts her geography teacher’s lesson—“how to love this bruised and bumpy earth"—into practice through poems that are both odes to landscapes of abundance and eulogies for wastelands.

Max Porter’s enchanting and funny novel Lanny, filled with folklore and magic, is set in a village not far from London. This village “belongs to" its present as well as past inhabitants: The young boy Lanny’s family aside, there’s Mad Pete, ancient Peggy, and Dead Papa Toothwort, who has woken from his slumber in the woods and is eavesdropping on them all. Typographical experiments and unusual sentence structures spill off the page. Halfway through this wildly inventive novel, Lanny is lost; that’s when the humans (and spirits) begin to look for him.

A countryside mystery and a state-of-the-nation novel, in part comparable to Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 and Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall, respectively, Lanny concerns itself with borders, belonging, history, identity and indifference. You will cherish Lanny’s oddities and curiosities (and the talking tree, of course) for years to come.

Aranyaka: Book Of The Forest, Amruta Patil’s just out graphic novel, is a collaborative work with Devdutt Pattanaik. Not unlike the recent wave of Greek and Hindu epic retellings which foreground forgotten female characters and voices, the world of Aranyaka, too, resurrects the Vedic rishikas (female seekers). This journey into the wild is about “the forest within us and outside of us" and “the fear and hunger that underpins all human interactions". History, philosophy and mythology aside, Aranyaka is a modern, deeply feminist story, moving into the age of #MeToo, environmental issues, and the instinct for survival in the face of extinction. Patil is not interested in stories that are “dead" like “museum pieces"; instead, she wants “to lead people through a story", “through atmospheres" and colours.

Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin’s nightmarish novella Fever Dream (translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell) is where spine-tingling horror meets eco-criticism—culminating in the “exact moment when the worms come into being". A dialogue between a mother on her deathbed and David, the son of a mysterious woman, this slim, suspenseful book with place-as-character is full of big ideas.

David was once infected by contaminated water, and this mystery is also sociopolitical and climate commentary. Schweblin writes of the fear of GM (genetically modified) crops, folk superstition and motherhood in a maddening world. Violence (and metamorphosis) lies at the crux of Schweblin’s collection of short stories, Mouthful Of Birds, too—including against animals. A teenager eats live birds and a man waiting to pick up his daughter from school unthinkingly crushes a butterfly between his fingers (for more on butterflies, see Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour).

Deep Dives

In Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children Of Tokyo (translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani) and Niviaq Korneliussen’s Crimson (translated from Danish by Anna Halagar), environmental tragedies are either only starting points for the plot or sidestepped entirely. In the “vaguely post-Fukushima world" of the former, where “dystopian or post-apocalyptic are both ill-fitting categories" (as Rebecca Bates notes in The White Review), Tawada shares only nuggets of information.

A major earthquake has pushed the Japanese archipelago further away from the Asian continent and the tremors of this eco-terror-filled world are felt both genetically and linguistically on its citizens. In Crimson, set in the melting and retreating ice sheets of Greenland, Korneliussen wished to step away from the canon of Greenlandic literature and its landscape of wilderness—and put the spotlight on human lives. The novella looks at issues of homesickness, loneliness, queer love and identities.

Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (translated from Spanish by Achy Obejas) and Robbie Arnott’s Flames, set on the islands Dominican Republic and Tasmania, respectively, could not be further apart from each other but come together in magical ways.

In Tentacle, the sea has “turned to chocolate-coloured sludge" and three consecutive ecological disasters have emptied “practically every living thing under the sea". But time is fluid—as is gender—and there exist second shots and saviours. Trippy, terrifying, weird and wonderful, this 132-page book defies expectation and a neat summary.

In the lush world of Flames, the reader can expect to encounter water rats, cloud gods, and a father forming from a fire—all fused with elements of folklore, family drama, detective story and idyllic prose.

You could also take a bet on Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes To Rain, set in a submerged Bangkok of the future, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Afrofuturist novel, Lagoon, where a rapper, a biologist and a rogue soldier must join forces to prevent mass extinction.

“Cli-fi is not speculative fiction any longer," says author Siobhan Adcock. All these books push the boundaries of genre and geography—beyond the doomsday, dystopian variety of climate change fiction. They encompass and evade our ideas of the environment and its literature. This may not be a reading list to save our world, but it may just send you on a search for old, lost and new worlds.

Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prize culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London.

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