Hot Tomorrow: The Urgency and Beauty of Cli-Fi

Cli Fi Crop

Earlier this summer — in a year marked by new record global temperatures — I toured some of the more exotic, outré, and far-fetched works of “Anthropocene fiction” that envisioned how humanity might imprint its often lethal image onto our home planet — even distorting other planets and the whole cosmos at large. After such visions as entire worlds clad in steel, and a solar system whose components were juggled about and reprocessed, the simple notion of Greenhouse Earth — the scenario where an unintentional and relatively tiny incremental change in average world temperature brings vast environmental and geophysical disasters and sociopolitical and cultural disruption and mass mortality — is now hardly science-fictional at all. Climate change is indeed the stuff of daily headlines, to an extent than when we encounter a recent front-page feature in The New York Times reporting on “climate refugees” in the USA and South America, the pairing of those two terms requires little in the way of explanation.

But the hard-edged Paris Agreement realities of climate change do not preclude science fiction focusing its speculative lens on the topic, any more than the reality of the atomic bomb dampened the power of A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Road. To the contrary, science fiction remains, as ever, the best tool for charting our path into such a chaotic future. Thus the birth of a newish subgenre of SF, what has recently been dubbed “climate fiction” or “cli-fi.” Though writers from Frank Herbert and Roger Zelazny to George Turner had by the 1970s used ecological awareness as an imaginative springboard, the awareness that human-created planetary warming was incontrovertibly real has made it a topic of urgency for many twenty-first-century writers.

Two new cli-fi anthologies represent the latest literary broadcasts from these shifting and still unfixed hothouse futures, while an ambitious novel from 2015 displays how cli-fi crosses boundaries into unclassifable literary territory as well. Finally, two recent works of nonfiction borrow SF modes of thinking to look at the grimly real issues human communities face as the result of our impact on the planet.

Current cli-fi might be said to owe a great deal to two voices. Kim Stanley Robinson contributed one of the first landmarks of the genre with his Science in the Capital trilogy (2004−7). And his outspoken, prominent comrade in the battle these days is Paolo Bacigalupi, with such novels as The Windup Girl (2009) and The Water Knife (2015). Depicting the harsh realities of a dog-eat-dog future of dwindling resources, Bacigalupi’s novels reflect the same world-correcting missionary impulses as Orwell’s 1984.

Along with over two dozen other writers, Robinson and Bacigalupi feature in Loosed Upon the World, the mammoth new reprint anthology of cli-fi from master editor John Joseph Adams. The oldest tale herein is 1990’s “Hot Sky” by Robert Silverberg, with all the rest reflecting twenty-first-century publication dates, thus making this volume reflective of the most current thinking on the topic.

Bacigalupi’s introduction sets the stern and Cassandran tone for the volume, as he registers his disbelief in, and moral objection to, any kind of techno-wizard solutions to our current climate chaos. His own story “Shooting the Apocalypse” kicks off the fiction, and inhabits that same water-starved American Southwest that he vividly conjured up in The Water Knife. Violence and the hardscrabble life prevail, with few if any heroes or solutions on the scene.

Written before the current Zika outbreaks, Toiya Kristen Finley’s “Outer Rims” looks prophetic in its depiction of a new disease as encountered firsthand by a hapless mother and her kids. Admittedly, this tight focus on small-scale stories, often domestic, shared by many entries here (Tobias Buckell’s “The Rainy Season”; Nancy Kress’s “A Hundred Hundred Daisies”; Jim Shepard’s “The Netherlands Lives with Water”; Jason Gurley’s “Quiet Town”; et al.) serves to drive home the emotional immediacy of climate change. But it also abjures, to some extent, the traditional mission of SF, which, as characterized in the famous lament by Neal Stephenson, was always to portray the doing of big things.

Sean McMullen’s bracingly mordant “The Precedent” does not shy away from this older mandate, although the Big Thing he concentrates on is a tearing down rather than a building up. In the year 2035, what amounts to the Nuremberg Trials of the Greenhouse Era are underway, with all the big-carbon-footprint sinners up for summary execution. McMullen captures all the self-righteous Year Zero fanaticism of the movement and yet does not proclaim either side the moral victors.

Alan Dean Foster conjures up almost a 1950s monster-movie vibe with his tale of insects on the rampage in “That Creeping Sensation.” Silverberg’s pivotal tale of iceberg harvesting — midway between Frank Herbert’s 1970 epiphany and the present volume — evokes Conradian Weltschmerz in his usual potent manner. Cat Sparks zeroes in on an outsider milieu with her “Hot Rods.” And Buckell and Karl Schroeder poke cleverly at the seams of macro-scale remediation schemes in their “Mitigation.”

The majority of these tales are narrowly limited to First World settings (“Staying Afloat” by Angela Penrose is a notable exception), but these assembled stories nevertheless bring enough variety, ingenuity, and compassion to the theme to convincingly and shockingly limn these early days of the new era, without necessarily illuminating any exit signs.

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Jonathan Strahan assembles brand-new tales of the Anthropocene in Drowned Worlds, and even labels them as such in the book’s subtitle: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond. He thus makes his book one of the few to actually employ that pivotal descriptor, and the stories themselves follow suit by being totally on target and au courant, a testament to his editorial acumen and direction. There’s almost zero overlap with the authors in the Adams collection, and because these stories were deliberately commissioned around the topic, they exhibit a moderately tighter focus on the Ballardian Umwelt cited by Strahan in his introduction than do the Adams selections, which arose spontaneously, hither and yon, over the years.

Paul McAuley kicks off the volume nicely with “Elves of Antarctica,” chronicling the remediation efforts at the icecap, as seen through the eyes of a simple yet deeply empathetic worker named Mike Torres. Many small and subtle touches contribute to the tangibility of this future: “[He] tithed to the Marshallese Reclamation Movement . . . ” The story gives a hopeful spin to its inevitabilities.

Skipping around through the subsequent tales, we find other gleams of sunshine amid the wreckage. “Venice Drowned” by Kim Stanley Robinson shows the life of a tour guide amid the ruins of that city and a moment of his epiphany. “Let them [the scavengers] have what was under the water. What lived in Venice was still afloat.” In “Brownsville Station,” Christopher Rowe vividly posits a “linear city” arcing around the Gulf of Mexico, a habitat that shields its citizens from the environment. His viewpoint character is the “Young Conductor,” the crisis a fracture in the vital express train tube. Echoes of Lucas’s THX1138 flavor the mix.

All too often, only changes in the world during the Anthropocene future are considered, neglecting any parallel changes in our species, directed or spontaneous. But Kathleen Ann Goonan, superb mistress of biopunk, makes no such omissions, chronicling the family life centered on the matriarch Zoe Raphael-Aphrodite, “a mature tropical reef in the shape of a voluptuous woman . . . ” With her many hybridizing grafts, Zoe represents the “hopeful monsters” we must all become to survive. This tale, my personal favorite, strikes me as the apex of the book.

Equally bracing in another way, Jeffrey Ford follows the opposite, nihilistic path in “What Is,” surveying a kind of Cormac McCarthy dog-eat-dog landscape. “The New Venusians” by Sean Williams is a rollicking account of some rogue terraforming applied to Venus, as seen through the eyes of an elderly fellow and his feisty granddaughter. James Morrow’s wit and cynicism have never been more acidic than in “Only Ten More Shopping Days Left Till Ragnarök,” which follows some hapless tourists who opt for the Arctic travel package. And finally, Lavie Tidhar’s “Drowned” brings a mythological slant to the aftermath of civilization’s collapse, involving contradictory narrators and a disarming simplicity of language.

This well-wrought anthology marks a bold move toward not merely acceptance of Anthropocene realities, but taking charge of trends and forces and learning how to conduct eternal human behavior on new platforms and with new limitations and new possibilities.

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If climate change brings us a wealth of fiction as exciting and bracing and unpredictable as by Claire Vaye Watkins did in 2015 with Gold Fame Citrus — well, I can’t realistically say that all the global chaos and suffering would be totally redeemed by such literary treasures. But we could at least call it a silver lining.

This masterful, affecting, surreal, and heartbreaking book takes place some twenty-five years into the future, in an era when California (that mythic realm once denominated by the triple allures of the title) is practically an unpopulated wasteland save for scattered raggle-taggle misfits, its bankrupt citizens carted away to evacuation camps, its multimillion-dollar homes abandoned. At first glance, the most obvious point of recent comparison for this scenario would be Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. But whereas Bacigalupi went all Realpolitik and thriller and noir in his novel, Watkins takes an essentially Ballardian tack, delving more into “inner space” and bizarre emotional states while still manifesting acute attention to vivid objective correlatives, thick sensual and sensory details. And after all, whereas Ballard’s The Drowned World claims all the attention and influence nowadays, appearing in bright new editions, that author’s neglected The Burning World hosts not inconsiderable pleasures and lessons along an opposite axis.

Certainly the opener to Watkins’s book could not be more in line with the fetishes of the Sage of Shepperton. An abandoned mansion, an empty swimming pool, a beautiful young woman playing dress-up with the lost finery of the old resident, while her lover, a psychically scarred war veteran who shields himself from reality by a carapace of competence, stays busy outside, digging a latrine — this is pure Vermilion Sands, conveyed in a lush yet clinical prose to rival JGB’s own voice.

Watkins’s heroine is Luz Dunn, and she is utterly emblematic of her era. Born famously as “Baby Dunn,” she and her fate in a climate-change world were deliberately linked by the media with that of the Golden State. “The child has been adopted by the Bureau of Conservation, which embarks today on a heroic undertaking that will expand the California Aqueduct a hundredfold . . . ” Revisited by detrimental online fame throughout her upbringing, she has gone off the rails and ended up aimless and lost, living a refugee’s life with the ex-soldier named Ray — who loves Luz immensely — in the shards of the culture.

One night she and Ray descend to the city to hang out with the tribal gutterpunks and lowlifes who remain. There they encounter a mysterious toddler who, missing obvious parents, is being abused by the tribe. Ray and Luz abduct the child, out of a mix of compassion and a selfish desire for a motivating engine to their lives. After a time back in the starlet’s mansion learning the peculiar needs and abilities of the little girl they dub Ig, they embark on a half-assed hegira towards some nebulously dreamed better life.

On the road, Luz and Ray get separated, and Luz and Ig end up in the Amargosa, a newly formed realm of sand, “a dead swath of it blown off the Central Valley and Great Plains, accumulated somewhere between here and Vegas.” There they encounter the floating commune ruled by the slightly Mansonesque, slightly ridiculous figure of Levi Zabriskie. Amid this new “family,” Luz and Ig will experience strange tides of change and many freaky happenings, before Luz meets her ultimate, perfect apotheosis.

By shifting between the interior states of Luz, Ray, and Levi, Watkins inhabits their consciousnesses with depth and insightfulness. The three emerge as fully formed entities with all the perverse willfulness, for good or ill, that denominates our species. Lesser characters, such as Levi’s harem, receive a good helping of individuation as well. And Watkins is not shy about non-traditional methods of narration, such as the section that begins: “There are three ways to learn about a character.” Here, a portrait of Ray is assembled from lists and fragments. Another section purports to be the full text, with illustrations, of a naturalist’s book that Levi has written.

Watkins’s novel harks to a whole tradition of California apocalypses, starting with Nathanael West and going straight through George R. Stewart, Rudy Wurlitzer, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Lucius Shepard, and — again — K. S. Robinson. Her depiction of the minds and attitudes of the remnant population, all of whom are seeking some twisted, debased, half-recalled variant of the “gold, fame, citrus” triad, feels indelibly accurate. And her insights into how a resource-deprived world would function, or malfunction, is keenly detailed. One feels every sand-gritted bedsheet and precious warm gulp of bottled water. Additionally, there’s a big riff on the automated nuclear waste depository at Yucca Flats and the “molemen” who live there that summons up images of Bradbury’s famous devastated automated house performing its senseless tasks in the absence of all humans.

But the paramount achievement of this book is the ironic elegance of its prose, its black-humored assessments of the human condition, its absurdist imagery and its incantatory fevered assaults on this sea change afflicting the world and the new rituals that arise therefrom.

Though it was the colony that moved across the desert, the reverse felt true. It wasn’t long before the swimming pool oasis left them — save for the water they drained from it, and the chairs, ropes, sheets of fiberglass, peels of tin and other salvageables they pried from it, and the algae, which Jimmer scraped from the bottom and dried for his concoctions. This was life at the colony: the solid, grounded, unyielding world getting up and walking away. Ravines, canyons, ranges, alluvial fans and gardens of boulders, all folded beneath them. They pilfered from abandoned Indian casinos and deserted truck stops. The sturdy was no longer something to hold on to.

Undespairing and defiant in the face of disaster, Watkins and her creations demand that we do not throw up our hands in defeat, but press on to find ways to go on living in a world whose changes even fiction has to accept.

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Science fiction, of course, is not the only literary medium by which the Anthropocene is parsed. Several nonfiction books of late have begun to delve into the implications of this new era, and here we consider two outstanding recent titles as capstone to this survey.

Roy Scranton’s passionate yet clear-eyed screed, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, is a kind of scientifically rigorous Tibetan Book of the Dead or Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind for our modern naked ape−dominated era. Curiously enough, despite its insistence on the essential value of humanist texts such as Gilgamesh for our survival, and despite being very much aligned with the core methodologies of SF, it stringently avoids mentioning any actual SF, except for a passing nod to Star Trek. Yet such an omission can be forgiven, for the book is almost science fictional itself.

What I mean is that Scranton plumbs the intersection of history and technology, culture and philosophy in the same manner that the best science fiction does, seeking to illuminate the hidden foundational assumptions of our culture, its virtues and defects, and to chart where these traits are leading us. It reads like a book that H. G. Wells might have written in the prime of his career as polemicist and educator.

Limning the science of our current and future predicament in vivid layman’s terms and exhibiting the same anti-techno-fix stance as Bacigalupi, Scranton holds up a hopeful torch for humanity’s adaptation to the unprecedented conditions of our altered landscape. “We humans are precocious multicellular energy machines building hives on a rock in space, machines made up of and connected to countless other machines, each of us a microcosm.” The vision might have come from T. J. Bass or Olaf Stapledon, and it should form a valuable springboard for future science fictional forays by novelists wise enough to heed Scranton’s insights.

In The Birth of the Anthropocene, Jeremy Davies clears away so much fog from the concept in such a readable and clear-eyed manner that there can be no excuse any longer for employing this neologism in sloppy fashion.

His introduction parses the several definitions of the term and plumps for one in particular: a hard-edge scientific description in line with the rigorous methodology of stratigraphic studies, as determined by longstanding scientific committees. If we are to believe that the Anthropocene is indeed a new era, then we must define it in the same way we have defined previous eras, pinning down its start to an accurate date universally acknowledged by an irrefutable set of markers.

But this insistence on scientific precision hasn’t gotten in the way of the book’s many touching and startling moments, nor its clarion call for practical measures to be undertaken. My favorite section, “An Obituary for the Holocene,” divides the Holocene, that earlier epoch that contains all of human history, into twelve sections of one thousand years each, Davies presents a capsule history of our species that is incredibly stirring and hopeful, further boosting his contention that the Anthropocene is not a disjunction so much as a natural transition, something to be adapted to, not feared. Ultimately, this is a book to inspire and educate, not alarm and frighten the reader. It really should be part of the new curriculum for all good citizens of this strange new world.

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Perhaps we can sum up the necessity for and allure of cli-fi and its allied nonfiction by quoting author Cat Sparks from a recent interview on the topic. With her own cli-fi novel, Lotus Blue, due out soon, and nearing the completion of her Ph.D. in climate change fiction, Sparks has plainly devoted much intellectual energy to the topic and its themes. She remains unsentimental but optimistic about the literature and its ability to help.

Climate fiction definitely has a part to play. In my eyes the argument that art should be beholden to nothing and no one breaks down when it comes to a situation as dire as this one, where the one planet in the universe known for certain to harbor life is under threat of being rendered uninhabitable . . . What we need is people talking about alternative pathways. We need this in science, politics, government and we need this in art. Because people respond to art differently to the way they respond to facts and figures. Art has the power of becoming personal. Different media speaks to different people in different ways. Art encourages people to think and feel.

And, one might add, even to act.