Anatomy of a cli-fi – books about how nature will take revenge on humanity

    01 Jan 2022

    We’ve found for you an excellent review of “climate science fiction” written by Knife.

    Parasitizing on the paranoia of contemporaries is one of the methods of science fiction. The 1950s, when nuclear war was a new and unthinkable threat to life on the planet, can serve as a textbook example. The B film industry has channeled these fears towards aliens or mutated giants. Even the ridiculous stories of toy spaceships and vampires from the Ed Wood films are mixed with the anxiety of the post-war period. The Cold War became the catalyst for “nuclear” apocalyptic literature, e.g., the novels On the Shore by Neville Shute (1957) and The Red Alert by Peter George (1958), the basis for Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped be afraid and loved the bomb.”

    In the 21st century, science fiction continues to play with our conflicting desires for constancy and progress. But problems of an ideological and political nature have sounded in speculative literature more loudly.

    The 2000s are replete with images of a future ravaged by war and saturated with totalitarianism. Many books and films depict free-carrying weapons societies, zombie infestations and environmental collapse.

    The latter topic was dissociated into a separate literary movement, eco-fiction, which is not surprising: natural disasters often excite the imagination of writers. For example, Mary Shelley wrote a novel about Frankenstein who created a man from parts of corpses in 1816. It was an abnormally cold “year without summer”, with snow falling in Europe and North America in the summer.

    Cli-fi (climate fiction) was spoken about in 2007 after the popularization of this term by the environmental activist Dan Bloom. The works written in this genre tell about the severe consequences of climate change.

    Strictly speaking, cli-fi is reflections on the topic “What would happen if Robinson Crusoe lost to a desert island?”. In 21st century fiction, human interest is no longer understood by the authors as the only legitimate interest.

    If in the first sentence they talk about eco-fiction, then in the second one they usually call to memory about its tasks. It is generally accepted that modern science fiction writers have a specific goal: to poke a person with “smartphone finger” and “fear of missing out” syndromes into his helplessness in front of the world.

    At the same time, many (readers – Ecolife) seriously believe that science fiction can help prepare for radical change when the situation becomes too comfortable for humanity. It sounds a bit like saying that “Pulp Fiction” can prepare us to give us an adrenaline rush to our hearts.

    In fact, Bruno Latour called climate-quietism (by analogy with the mystical movement in Catholicism) what the eco-SF-writers reproach the reader for. Similarly to Christian ascetics who believe that somehow God will provide for salvation, humanity, Latour argues, hopes that climate disturbance is something that will bounce back on its own.

    The reason to consider cli-fi as something like modern eco-propaganda, perhaps, was the story of the American writer and biologist Rachel Carson. Once she was shown blackbirds infected with DDT. It was used to treat fields from pests in the 60s. Birds, beating in agony, so stressed Carson that she wrote the book “Silent Spring”, for which she was immediately called not only an alarmist, but also “incompetent hysterical.”

    Although the US banned the use of DDT only 10 years after the publication of the book, in 1962 Carson’s book immediately became a bestseller and a symbol of environmental education.

    Long before Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote another eerie book, Under the Sea Wind, which contains observations of several coastal areas in the 1930s. She not only mesmerizes with her documentation of animal life and the environment around them, but also describes landscapes before World War II, which today do not exist in the same variety.

    Environmentalists argue that human relationships with nature often went unnoticed in earlier literature. However, this is not an entirely new concept: the “roots” of eco-fiction can be traced back to pastoral literature, magical realism, science fiction, and other genres. Jules Verne played with this idea in several of his novels in the 1880s, but the topic of artificial change did not come up in literature until the 20th century.

    British author James Ballard first spoke of ecological apocalypse in “The Wind From Nowhere” in 1961. In the novel, the wind blows around the world, which gradually increases and eventually forces people to go to tunnels and basements.

    And yet Ballard’s system is anthropocentric, and a natural disaster serves as a decoration: by putting humanity in a jar and shaking it, the writer observes how catastrophe and tragedy can unite people in a way that no other experience could.

    As public awareness of climate change increased, so did the popularity of these topics. From the second half of the 20th century, post-apocalyptic novels began to appear more and more often, where Egyptian executions appear on their own, and not at the behest of God. It can be drought, like in Water Knife (2015) by Paolo Bacigalupi, when drinking water becomes scarce, or an unknown cataclysm altogether, like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), where a father and his little son travel through post-apocalyptic America. The reader will never know the names of the protagonists, or the nature of the disaster that mowed half of humanity. “Water Knife”, in which California, Arizona and Nevada are practically without water, it is difficult to sincerely call a fantasy, although the novel outlines a near alternative future. Firstly, because the events described are painfully reminiscent of the real “water wars” that took place in Los Angeles shortly before the most destructive man-made disaster in the history of the United States of the XX century. In 1928, the breakthrough of the dam of St. Francis provoked a flood that killed more than 500 people. Secondly, because of Bacigalupi’s mention of the cartoonish religious sect Merry Perrys, whose members pray for rain.

    The name unambiguously alludes to Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas. In 2011, when wildfires engulfed the state and destroyed crops and more than 400 homes, the then governor declared the three-day period “Texas Rain Prayer Days.”

    Sometimes activists use fiction to initiate public discussion of the dangers of global warming, as happened with George R.R. Martin’s adaptation of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. While the “Game of Thrones”’ climate change link may not be as clear as in “The Day After Tomorrow” or “Interstellar”, bloggers draw parallels between the responses of fictional people in Westeros to the impending threat of winter and responses to climate change in reality. Jon Snow in the third episode of the seventh season “Queen’s Justice” asks the rhetorical question: “How to convince people who do not know me that the enemy in whom they do not believe is going to kill them all?” Not surprisingly, after that, on Reddit, Jon Snow was compared to Al Gore, a former US Vice President and arguably one of the most notable climate change activists.

    In this interpretation, the mythical race of white walkers, chained to ice and cold, becomes the embodiment of the threat of climate change. Of course, not everyone agrees with this interpretation, including George RR Martin himself: “If I really wanted to write about climate change in the 21st century, I would write a novel about climate change in the 21st century.”

    The German artist Caspar David Friedrich, who lived in the 18th century, has a painting “Wanderer Above the Sea of ​​Fog”. The man on it is turned with his back to the viewer, and his face is turned to the mountain crevice. Figures facing the sea, rocks or sunset appear in other paintings by the artist. On his canvases there are at least two heroes: man and the element, but not to the honor of the first – people in Caspar David Friedrich experience the Old Testament “fear and awe” before nature.

    Jeff VanderMeer, in Annihilation (2014), the first part of the Southern Reach trilogy recently filmed by Netflix, does what the German romantic artist does. He makes the heroine, and with her the reader, feel small.

    What VanderMeer writes is a “new weird”, not a climate fiction, but it is related to a cli-fi by a shift of focus from a person to … yes, to anything.

    In Annihilation, the landscapes of Zone X do not need to be seen by humans, and the ecosystem takes care of itself and seems to be doing pretty well. Such are the plant prophecies on the walls of the tower in the novel, which are more like glossolalia: meaningless and frighteningly attractive. The funny thing is that all that the biologist sees in the fantastic “Zone X” is the real landscapes of St. Mark’s Reserve in North Florida (yes, even the lighthouse).

    The biologist’s character does not automatically know all the species that are in the Zone. But the ones listed are organisms that can be found near Tallahassee, Florida, where VanderMeer lives. And the “creepy” forms of marine life that have adapted to freshwater, described in the book, are just a feature of the Florida ecosystem, where dolphins often swim into freshwater channels. A similar list of “neo-fauna” is in the book by Claire Vaye Watkins “Gold Fame Citrus” (the writer explains the strange name at the beginning of the novel – this is why people always came to California). The desert that California has become is inhabited by carnivorous plants, hares with deformed ears, albino hummingbirds, which were created by “superfast evolution.”

    In reality, scientists also talk about evolutionary changes that humanity has had a hand in, for example, when insects got used to pesticides or when one of the species of butterflies, the birch moth, lost its spots and turned black, which about to become like industrial soot. Another contemporary writer, Salman Rushdie, noted that the world is currently so full of lies, fantasy and fiction surrounding the truth that maybe it is a science fiction writer who is required to explain what reality is.

    The secret of cli-fi literature is that a writer may not exaggerate when describing the collision of a modern man with the elements and climate change. Fear of nature and the expectation of its possible revenge have been sitting in people for so long that you just need to hook with your fingernail and pull it out.

    Even the most harmless creature, such as a butterfly, can become a harbinger of disaster. In “Flight Behavior” (2012) by American writer Barbara Kingsolver, the villagers discover that the valley behind their homes is covered with millions of monarch butterflies. A university professor who studies monarchs warns locals that while the butterflies are beautiful, displaced from their typical wintering site in Mexico, they are a worrying symptom of global climate change.

    Terrorism threats have exacerbated suspicion and fear of outsiders, and recent news such as data mining and 24/7 surveillance of users have raised new worries. Science fiction puts its finger on the pulse of humanity again. Cly-fay is really easy to exploit: post-apocalyptic moods are back in vogue, and it is as easy as shelling pears to play on them. The Water Knife, for example, came out a few weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown said California was facing the worst drought emergency.

    But at the same time, modern environmental science fiction writers somehow manage to revive in the reader a sense of wonder at the world. VandermMer once admitted that he was inspired, among others, by Tove Jansson’s books on the Moomins, to create Southern Reach. And you readily believe in this when you read how often the biologist from “Annihilation” kneels down to examine the pollen on the grass or some other little thing that an adult does not notice from his height.

    Susan Sontag, in her essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” wrote about the ambiguous pleasure of observing a planet that is about to be destroyed: pictures of a world affected by a catastrophe allow us to experience the forces of destruction and the enveloping chaos and fear associated with them.

    Climate change can be explained as a huge and looming thing that is so great that it is difficult to understand. And this is one of the pleasures provided to the modern reader: the opportunity to observe how different authors paint their portrait to something that does not have a specific form.


    Considering that the first “Matrix” has become a benchmark for cyberpunk and science fiction, the fourth part of the epic made our columnist curious. Read here his review about the fourth movie about a world where the Sun is not visible.

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