“It is inevitable,” Stephanie Bernhard wrote in The New Inquiry in January, “that our fictional landscapes will evolve in tandem with our physical landscapes.” A changing climate, she argued, will change the way we write: the ravages of a warming world “will soon be ubiquitous enough that novelists will make them a central concern.” Climate change literature will become the war literature of our generation—its central concern so “painfully known to readers that it will hardly need to be named.”
Inevitable perhaps … but how “soon” really? Last fall, I posed the question “Where is all the climate change fiction?” in an article in the Guardian. And yet, since then only Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior has offered itself up as a mainstream, non-genre response. Perhaps, this lack of climate change fiction reflects what’s going on in the world: we know how serious a problem we face, but do we engage with it directly? Perhaps tomorrow, we say to ourselves. Aren’t other people looking into it? We are not too concerned about our relationship with climate change, and neither, it seems, are the characters in most published novels.
But now Beacons has been released,a collection of 21 Stories for Our Not So Distant Future. It’s a rich and diverse book—brave in its intention, and original in its writing—and it places its emphasis firmly on what we can sometimes neglect in our theoretical, often abstract discussion of temperature rises and carbon reduction targets: the very human aspect of climate change. Beacons is “not polemical; nor is it a policy document or a lifestyle guide,” the collection’s editor, Gregory Norminton, points out in his introduction. “It is, rather, a meeting place for new stories that recognize where we are and where we might be heading.”
Which future will it be? The one where people living in regions threatened by climate change get “Zero-rated”? In Liz Jensen’s chilling contribution to the book, dubious TV shows trick these unfortunate “Zeros” and “Sub-Zeros” into believing that suicide is the honorable thing to do. After her mother has complied (“Five floors is a long way, if you’re someone falling”), a young daughter confronts the TV host—Mother Moon—in her office, but Mother Moon only snaps at her: “Honest truth, the big picture can’t afford people like Mummy.”
It’s hardly surprising that speculative fiction continues to be a natural choice when it comes to writing about climate change: a distressing sense of uncertainty runs through most aspects of the issue. Not about the Whether—there’s precious little doubt about the Whether in the year 2013, unless you receive a paycheck from the fossil fuel industry. But about all the Hows and Whens and What Exactlys. About: how on earth are we going to deal with it?
When, in the middle of the night, Clare Dudman’s protagonist encounters a refugee in front of her fridge with a knife, his logic is simple: “I hungry. I have baby, wife, child. They all cry. You not need. I do.” It’s an unsettling illustration of a potential consequence of a warming world—the mass movement of displaced people across borders—that is all too often neglected, or simply ignored, because we can’t quite stomach the implications.
The same goes for armed conflict. In Jem Poster’s devastating story, soldiers are patrolling the Welsh countryside, looking for “protestors, draft-dodgers, saboteurs. The so-called resistance.” It’s a future where only a huge military presence, within our own borders, seems able to protect the “freedom to live as we want,” as the soldiers put it. It’s a future where anyone who dares to criticize society’s agreed mantra—that we need to stay in the game, and that we need all the oil supplies we can get our hands on for it—has become an enemy. It’s a future where the empty barn of a widowed farm-owner (located next to a refinery) is suddenly a security threat.
The widow can only stand back—powerless, and strangely resigned—as the soldier burns down her property in front of her eyes. It’s deeply saddening to watch, and yet: it seems to be one of the more harmless acts we are prepared to tolerate in our effort to keep this show running, slaves to the monster we have created. When, in Alasdair Gray’s story, a bunch of gods (of a kind) reckon that “it was maybe a mistake to give big brains to mammals” a nod doesn’t feel too inappropriate a reaction.
Last year, during the six hours of the US presidential debates, there wasn’t a single mention of climate change, not even during an extended discussion of offshore drilling. President Obama had merely sprinkled his campaign speeches with a reference here and there. Back in office, he—like most politicians of his generation—seems happy for it to remain a second-tier issue: too many other, allegedly more urgent, things to think about; too much uncalculated risk in acting; too little play with the electorate.
Tell that to the “pre-Revolt” Prime Minister of Adam Thorpe’s contribution. Living as a recluse in a world of ration cards and attacks on petrol-driven cars, he has started to write his autobiography, but “his years in politics, his period of apparent power and influence, some twenty years ago” has long fizzled out. All that’s left are “issues and small dramas no one save the academics now remembered.” In the end, “he wished to say sorry.” How many of today’s politicians, I wondered, will feel this way in twenty years’ time?
Arriving at Maria McCann’s story after all those accounts, its present-day quarrel—about changing our lifestyles—has almost a touch of silliness: Is this really what we’re still arguing about? This kind of interplay between stories is one of Beacons’s strengths. There is nothing silly about it at all, of course: what it means to do “the right thing” is by no means obvious, and we are all filled with contradictions when it comes to our personal response to climate change. After much soul-searching, the couple in the story decides to shun a holiday in Italy for a house swap closer to home. In bed, at night, the wife asks her husband the tormenting question that hangs over all our personal efforts to change: “What if nobody else stops?”
Meanwhile, companies and governments of all persuasions are using the adjective “green” to describe even their smallest (and often bogus) efforts to become more sustainable, loading the word with so many different meanings, it has lost almost all of them. Holly Howitt provides a dazzling twist to this: in her story, “Green people” are those living in a zone where mankind has learned to control the weather (“You press this button, it rains. You press this one, the sun shines”). The controlled environment allows them to keep growing food—to the detriment of those living in the “sandtowns” next to them, where people are perishing. “Don’t tell me you believe in being Green now?” a furious wife shouts at her pragmatic husband, who, for their newborn baby’s sake, has just accepted employment as a “weatherman.” “You can’t be that stupid. Or that shallow.”
The story poses another uneasy question: What does it really mean to care for the next generation? To give your daughter a good life (by playing the system), or to fight the injustice the system is based on (to her detriment, probably)? Tensions like this are what make climate change such a challenge for the environmental movement. The unique nature of the situation—that we have to drastically change our ways now to prevent something becoming truly terrible in the future—is one of the hardest messages to get across. Might we need to see the post-glacial flooding of our cities to realize the full extent of our predicament, or perhaps, like the guy in Lawrence Norfolk’s story who builds self-sustaining “earthships” near the Rio Grande (and who everyone thinks is half-crazy), might we understand a little earlier than that?
Closing Beacons, I felt—perhaps more strongly than ever before—that fiction writing is one of the greatest aides we will have in our collective coming-to-terms with climate change. These “fictional landscapes” did not just resemble our future “physical landscapes” in enlightening, often challenging ways; they also resembled my inner journey as I read through the stories, from sunlit peak—from the conviction that we can meaningfully come together, and put the struggle against climate change at the very heart of who we are—to desolate sandtown, where quiet resignation lives. Will we ever be able to turn this around? What stops us from simply going on the way we are right now? And then where would we be?