The fiction of climate change

What is a climate-change novel, and what makes a good one? Andrew Dobson takes time from his day job as professor of politics to read the existing literature and emerge with suggestions about how to do it better.
Andrew Dobson
17 September 2010

The renowned English novelist Ian McEwan expressed surprise at a literary festival at the paucity of climate-change novels. The point is reinforced by McEwan’s own latest novel, Solar, whose action unfolds against the constant hum of a warming world. Its protagonist is a Nobel prize-winning scientist with a failing career and marriage (his fifth) who is offered a late chance of a kind of redemption. But even this bald description is enough to indicate that this is more a mid-life-crisis novel with climate-change as a backdrop than one “about” climate change.

Indeed, how could it be otherwise? There may be good ways of putting some of the realities of climate change - its scientific origins and weather-effects, international deal-makings and public arguments - at the centre of a novel, but a climate-change textbook dressed in fictional clothes would be pointless and boring. Ian McEwan is a story-teller who seeks to engage, entertain, and perhaps at some level enlighten. But his comment does raise the question of what is a climate-change novel, exactly - and what makes for a good one?

The imagined world

Any novel set in a landscape after major climate change has already happened is an obvious candidate. JG Ballard’s magisterial 1960s trilogy The Wind from Nowhere and The Drowned World (both 1962) and The Drought (1965) all fall into this category. In these books Ballard explores in turn the consequences of 700-mile-an-hour winds, constant rain, and years of drought.  These apocalyptic scenarios enable Ballard to explore human reactions to extreme circumstances, using his characters to trace the effects of what could be a key aspect of catastrophic climate change - social and political dislocation.  It seems that Ballard tried to suppress The Wind from Nowhere as “juvenilia”; but every one of these books is a harrowing and brilliant evocation of the darkest possibilities climate change offers. 

Yet to describe these as climate-change novels is also problematic, in the sense that climate change as we now know it didn’t exist in the 1960s - or rather, it existed as scientific fact but not as the social phenomenon that is now so pervasive and familiar (a fact which makes Ballard’s work, as so often, even more remarkable and prescient). Maybe this would in the terms suggested by Ian McEwan disqualify Ballard: a “real” climate-change novel must be born in contemporary circumstances and be appropriately date-stamped. 

But this in turn begs the question of what would be the “right” starting-date for a contemporary novel about the phenomenon. 1997, when the Kyoto protocol was signed, looks appropriate?  This would make Maggie Gee’s The Ice People (1998) a pioneer of the genre, though the purist might invoke Ballard to say that Gee’s is, like his, a novel about a post-catastrophe world rather than one “about” climate change. And there are similarities between The Ice People and McEwan’s Solar in that Gee’s imaginative projection is also a device to explore a theme at the centre of her concerns: gender relations. This is true too of Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (2007), which also contains a classic global-warming trope (much of England is underwater). So although all of these books depict a vastly changed climate they are not per se “climate-change novels”.

The disjunction between context and actual narrative heart is familiar, and creates problems for even the most promising novels with climate-change as a theme. can fall into it. Saci Lloyd’s novel for teenagers, The Carbon Diaires 2015, is one of the few novels that integrates the potential policy implications of climate change into its arc. The idea is brilliant: it’s 2015, Britain is the first country in the world to introduce carbon-rationing, and every citizen has been issued with a carbon-card.

How do young people live, love and make their way in a carbon-constrained world? But the climate-change backdrop often disappears from sight as the story turns into a … novel for teenagers. The heroine, Laura Brown, catalogues her relationships with mum, dad and boyfriends in her diary, as well as her attempts to get a band together. So far, so normal. Towards the end the Thames Barrier fails and Lloyd drags the narrative back from the intimate to the epic.  For me, this is another missed opportunity - but then I’m not 15 any more.

Such disappointments are rife. Liz Jensen’s The Rapture - climate-change with a twist, once again more in the background than the foreground - has a 16-year-old heroine, Bethany Krall apparently capable of predicting natural disasters. Or is she somehow causing them? And what of the wheelchair-bound psychiatrist assigned to dealing with her? And her physicist lover? Do we care? By the end, not enough - although the climatic denouement is carried off with just about enough panache to overcome the faintly ridiculous circumstances with which Jensen surrounds it.

Robert Edric’s Salvage (2010) uses climate-change as the deep backdrop for a study in corruption. Quinn, a civil servant, is sent to an unspecified part of  northern England to audit progress on the creation of a new town. He encounters some nasty characters all intent both on self-enrichment and on concealing various irregularities - especially the toxic residue from the culling of large numbers of farm animals, necessitated by the collapse of farming that a warming climate has wrought. It’s a grim place in a grim time. Yet once more the climate isn’t integral to the story - though the ending is satisfyingly weather-ridden.

A common narrative device in climate-change fiction is a journey. The protagonist in The Carhullan Army escapes from the hell of an Authority-run city in England’s northwest and sets off across the Lake District in search of a women’s commune she has heard of. There are journeys in each of Ballard’s trilogy, in Stephen Baxter’s Flood (2009) and in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). But then The Road isn’t evidently a climate-change novel; the disaster that befalls father and son in the story is unspecified. The same is true of the novel with the longest peregrination of all, Toby Litt’s Journey into Space (2009). Both McCarthy and Litt deal in the currency of “end-ism” without specifying why the world as we know it and its familiar supports have gone.

The lost character

The character of the novels referred to so far suggests that a key criterion for a climate-change novel might be that the theme drives pretty much everything that happens in it. A prime example is Matthew Glass’s Ultimatum (2009). This is the story of standoffs and negotiations between the two biggest Co2 polluters in the world - China and the United States. The two countries are at loggerheads, just as they were at the Copenhagen summit in December 2009; and if real life looked bad enough, the dispute in Ultimatum reaches eye-popping proportions. Yet the novel is full of descriptions of drab high-level political meetings, and struggles to take flight until the stakes get really high towards the end.

A better version of a similar sort of effort is David Hood’s Fatal Climate (2006). This is a thriller with climate change at its heart and the usual pot-pourri of familiar tropes: car-chases, love-affairs, explosions and ruthless baddies. But there’s also some good science, discussions of whether social movements or governments are best placed to bring about change, and the persistent fear that catastrophic climate change could occur in a relatively few years - just as some readings of the historical record suggest it might. There’s even implicit and explicit reference to environmental justice in Hood’s novel; indeed this is what drives the book’s (rather implausible) denouement.  On these counts, Fatal Climate is the kind of climate-change novel that Ian McEwan might recognise. 

So both Glass and Hood have written climate-change novels - all the action is driven by the fact of global warming. But are they good climate-change novels? The problem with both is that the characters are ciphers. There is no sense that they react to and are changed by the circumstances surrounding them. If climate change is certain to test our capacities for generosity, solidarity and resilience, then a good climate-change novel must surely allow its characters to develop (and perhaps not always for the better) accordingly.

There are lessons to be learned here from one magnificent novel from the eco-apocalypse stable - John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956). This is definitely not a climate-change novel (catastrophe comes about via a virus that destroys all species of grass); but Christopher’s human portraits brilliantly allow him to trace the possible evolutions of sensibility under the tremendous strain of environmental collapse. Christopher’s characters change, and this is an essential ingredient of a good climate-change novel (as of any novel).

The template

So here are the essential ingredients. The future must be grim, and it must be different from the present. If the novel is set in the future there must be regular flashbacks to a familiar past which contrasts with the difficult present. Characters must be used to explore the ethical and moral strain of changing circumstances: liberal values should be tested to possible destruction.

There must be lots of weather - preferably wild and wet. There might, according to the author’s taste, be a journey - which may or may not be redemptive. Finally, it’s a climate-change novel, not an exploration of middle-aged angst, teenage hormones or any of the other themes that get in the way of the topic at hand.

So there’s the recipe. Who’s going to write the book?

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData