Something Wicked This Way Comes: Dystopian Lit and the Rise of “Cli-Fi”

Image credit to Sean R. Heavey
Image credit to Sean R. Heavey

 

Complaining about the erratic weather is a traditional New England pastime, and this past winter—with its Antarctic winds, biweekly apocalyptic snowstorms, and inexplicable  30°  temperature swings—gave us plenty of reason to continue regarding the climate as a fickle and unpredictable foe. We’ve made it through to Spring (or at least what’s passing for Spring this year: I’m still rocking a peacoat) relatively unscathed, but the recently departed winter season seems a reflection of the past decade as a whole: a decade which has ushered in wild weather, a fierce debate over global climate change, and the serious notion of an English wine industry, for god’s sake.

 

If you listen closely, you can hear France performing a collective spit-take.
If you listen closely, you can hear France performing a collective spit-take.

 

Beyond allowing Mediterranean grapes to grow on an island which once considered the sun to be largely mythological, the apparent shift in the world’s weather patterns has given rise to what some are calling a fledgling genre unto itself: climate change science fiction, or cli-fi for short. These stories—which are generally set on Earth in the (relatively) near future—are almost always dystopian in nature: they explore worlds ravaged by rising seas, depleted foodstocks, and wide-ranging tropical disease in which future generations of humanity struggle to survive on an Earth laid low by their forebears. They aren’t exactly light reads, but they are good reads, and I’d like to share some of my favorites.

 

1. Monstro, by Junot Díaz

Image credit to The New Yorker & Dan Winters
Image credit to The New Yorker & Dan Winters

Still a work in progress, this upcoming novel from the wildly acclaimed author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao builds on Díaz’s love for science fiction by painting a picture of a near-future Haiti, situated on a planet “cooking like a chimi and down to its last five trees”. Blast-furnace heat and rampant overpopulation has allowed for a bizarre new fungal infection to take hold in the impoverished areas of the nation: particularly in those outside of the climate-controlled (and über expensive) “dome”-enclosed communities that bring the heat down to a “breezy 82 degrees”.

Díaz combines his trademark knack for evocative (and more than a little provocative) narration with a touch of Lovecraftian horror as he describes the obscene progression of the disease, in which “viktims” gather from around the country in a single-minded, self-imposed quarantine: silent except for an inhuman scream carried out—in unison—”two or three times a day”. I’ll spare the gory details so you can read them for yourself: the publicly released excerpt can be found in the June 2012 edition of The New Yorker.

http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2012/06/04/120604fi_fiction_diaz

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2. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Hunger-Games-Map-of-Panem-the-hunger-game-trilogy-13703262-1024-714

 

 

A more accessible (and, thanks to the recent films, more widely known) read than the others listed here, The Hunger Games envisions a cli-fi setting in which the environmental aspects of global climate change operate in the shadows behind the text’s primary focus: the dystopian social dynamics of a world struck by disaster. It’s easy to forget that “Panem” is meant to be an analogue to North America, one of the few diminished shreds of land not swallowed up by the world’s rising oceans. Although the novel struggles with some logical inconsistencies as it depicts common cli-fi themes like technological regression and resource scarcity alongside futuristic hovercrafts and Star Trek-esque replicators, it serves as an enjoyable early foray into the genre at large.

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3. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Image credit 2929 Productions
Image credit 2929 Productions

 

Another familiar title, and—by a wide margin—the bleakest text on the list, The Road doesn’t depict an altered earthly environment so much as an obliterated one. Within the narrative, an unnamed man and his son trek across the blackened and ice-bound remains of some unspecified country, seeking what little food is available to ward off starvation and striving to reach warmer climes in a world that grows colder and darker by the day. Some would balk at categorizing The Road as a cli-fi novel: it lacks the implication of a slow, creeping destruction by dint of global warming or some other gradual human effort, asserting instead some immediate and climactic end to the world as we know it. As a reader, we aren’t treated to the image of some new society evolving to fit the niche provided for it: instead, we see human society as a whole wiped off the face of the planet, leaving what human beings remain as scattered and bestial vestiges of their former selves.
Still, the basic concerns of the novel are emblematic to the cli-fi movement. It emphasizes the fragility of the human condition in the face of a rapidly changing environment, reminding us that we aren’t yet deaf to the beating drum of natural selection, and it yearns for earlier eons, when “there were brook trout in the streams” and the world wasn’t yet en route to a dismal end.
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4. Far North, by Marcel Theroux
farnorth
I’ll be upfront with this one: I haven’t read it myself, but I’ve been meaning to, and that counts for something. Described as “The first great cautionary fable of climate change” by Lydia Millet of The Washington Post and boasting a narrator whose frank diction in his assessment of his society, (

“My father had an expression for a thing that turned out bad. He’d say it had gone west. But going west always sounded pretty good to me. After all, westwards is the path of the sun… but our world had gone north”) in which books are rendered down for raw materials while firearms are cherished, suggests a setting where civilization regressed along with the warmth of the sun. It’s on my to-read list, and the Amazon teaser—from which I’ve quoted above—is pretty promising. Check it out.
http://www.amazon.com/Far-North-Novel-Marcel-Theroux/dp/031242972X
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5. The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi
Image credit Raphael Lacoste
Image credit Raphael Lacoste

Probably the most emblematic cli-fi fiction discussed so far—and, indeed, the book that introduced me to the genre—The Windup Girl tackles a number of ecological, sociological, and climatic issues head on. Taking place in a world where resource scarcity and an out-of-control greenhouse cycle have rendered fossil fuels all but useless, and where food stocks are subject to constant genetic modification in an effort to keep ahead of the countless plagues ravaging the planet, The Windup Girl presents a reader with a setting that is hauntingly familiar despite its inherently foreign nature. Bacigalupi fleshes out his novel with suitably sci-fi sounding vocabulary: words whose meaning are implied well enough through context that the narration is spared undue exposition. Take, for example, the “calorie men” discussed in hushed ( and often acerbic) tones by the setting’s native Thai population: part genetic scientist and part copyright enforcer, calorie men represent the interests of western agricultural conglomerates, providing the world with disease resistant sterile seedstock… for a price.

Bacigalupi’s first full-length novel is a masterpiece. Even bereft of the social commentary, the writing would stand on its own: Bacigalupi leads five protagonists through an interweaving narrative that never becomes confusing despite its complexity. I’d advise anyone interested in dystopian literature—particularly those narratives that touch upon the issue of climate change—to check out The Windup Girl at the nearest available opportunity.

You won’t be disappointed.

 


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