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In recent time climate change has become a very complex problem all over the world. More and more people realize that a climate crisis or even a climate catastrophe may result from it. Although climate fiction can never be a one-hundred percent reflection of reality, it can contribute a lot to understanding many aspects of this global threat. My article is based on the following publication: Axel Goodbody and Adeline Johns-Putra (eds.), Cli-Fi. A Companion. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019. The volume deals with 29 primary sources on climate fiction, among them also five films as well as three children's films and young adult novels. My focus will be on written fiction rather than on filmed fiction and on adult fiction rather than on children's books. Apart from these two criteria my choice of ten primary texts discussed by Goodbody and Johns-Putra is based on my personal predilections.

Some Thoughts on Climate Fiction

Willi Real


Climate Fiction is not quite a new phenomenon: it has existed for several decades by now. In many countries, however, the year 2019 will be the one in which the problem of climate change started to play a role of ever increasing significance. In this year the above mentioned volume was published. Most of the works discussed were originally written or produced in the English language, but there are also translations from other languages, for example German or Finnish, and they take place practically over the whole world. The volume also contains illustrations, pictures, photos which make it attractive at first sight already.

Its contributors come from many different countries such as the USA, Great Britain, Australia, Taiwan, Scandinavia, Germany, Croatia … They were chosen because they have become known for their work in the field. All articles are of moderate length: they consist of 6-7 pages only, even if they deal with novels (trilogies) of more than 1000 pages. Besides all contributions are supposed to include a few remarks about the critical reception as well as some ideas about teaching them, for example in university courses.

This procedure has obvious consequences. On the one hand, the articles have to be very strict and concise, of course. On the other hand, it may be the case that, due to the limited space of 4.000 (5.000) words, the studies have to proceed in a very selective way: some aspects are presented like theses or as labels without being developed or they are simply left out. The volume, then, as the editors point out, is supposed to fill the gap between internet blogs and academic studies or monographs,(1) and thus it may serve a very important purpose. In the following I will concentrate on ten outstanding paradigms of climate fiction, which have been published since 1990. My aim will be to provide the reader with an impression of this companion to climate fiction including some comments on my own.

T.C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth (2000): an activist novel

Boyle's novel may be classified as an example of activism in climate fiction. When it was published, it was a key moment in American public consciousness of climate change. In 1999 Al Gore's presidential campaign was started. In the 1990s radical environmentalists emerged to fight for specific natural areas, for example in Oregon or California. Boyle's novel has two time levels: the future year 2025 and the retrospective years 1989-90, which are modelled on real-life Earth First! activities. In 2025 there will be an impoverished economy which is dominated by hopelessness. In 2025 the protagonist Ty Tierwater has a private zoo, which, however, is destroyed by thunderstorms and by flooding.

Looking back Ty feels bitter in the appraisal of his activism. He and his daughter Sierra started their fight by acts of passive resistance. As a consequence of Ty's and Sierra's humiliating treatment by the sheriff, his individual protest became more radical, which only led to greater opposition by the state. Thus aggressiveness was followed by violence from which resulted a spiral of violence and counter-violence. Ty had recourse to acts of sabotage, such as setting fire to the state's expensive machines. His next step consisted in setting fire paradoxically to parts of the forest that he originally wanted to protect. Last but not least he even tried to poison California's water system, which implied that many people's lives were at stake. Thus the friend of the earth finally turned into an enemy of humans. As to Sierra, she practiced a marathon of tree sitting and finally falls to death. Thus her father became a radical environmentalist or an Eco-Warrior. In sum, Ty confesses to have achieved absolutely nothing. In fact, environmental politics have collapsed by that time. According to Adam Trexler, Boyle wants to criticize the moral simplifications of the late 20th century.(2) Even today his novel may raise the readers' consciousness for climate change.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Science in the Capitol Trilogy (2004-2007), [later published as Green Earth (2015)]: Science and Politics in Cli-Fi

This trilogy was written by an American writer also well-known in the field. When looking back on T.C. Boyle, the reader is confronted with the familiar motif that, as a result of a severe flood, the animals from the Washington zoo are released. Yet, this narrative is about politics and science: it is set in the present and the near future. Not only because of its length (1050 pages), it is much more comprehensive than Boyle's novel. The fictitious senator Phil Chase becomes the very first American President who is supposed to fight against climate change: Robinson's narrative considers how engaged scientists might devise and implement multi-levelled solutions to address the climate crisis.

There are many concrete features of climate change described in the novel: weather anomalies such as thunderstorms, torrential rains and flooding, which are again reminiscent of T.C. Boyle (cf. above), and also of Barbara Kingsolver (cf. below). Often these are followed by periods of long-term absence of rain, excessive heat (droughts) and crop damage as well as famine. There are also examples of power failures (black-outs), whose direct effects are felt in every household. There is also ice melting in the Arctic, which may cause a redirection or an interruption of the Gulf Stream. Melting glaciers, then, will lead to a sea level rise in the Atlantic Ocean of about incredible seven metres. Even united political efforts cannot be but partly successful. In order to lower melt water, large quantities of salt are used, almost to no avail. Nevertheless in the novel, some devices invented by the scientists may be able to consume a great deal of carbon dioxide emissions, such as the cultivation of lichen. Recently, German scientists have found out that this claim is also true of seaweed and algae.(3) In this case a transfer from literature to reality is possible as there is no difference between fictional literature and the reality we live in.

From the very beginning of Robinson's novel it becomes clear that President Chase feels little inclination to fight against global warming: “... let the next generation solve the problem” (p. 108), since he believes it is “easier to destroy the world than to change capitalism even one little bit. “ (Ib.) Eventually, however, President Chase disposes of a programme in order to save the world: this consists of a capitalistic enterprise, as a possibility of earning unimaginable sums of money. In the chapter on “terraforming” (chapter 28) the President is asked by one of his advisors whether he wants „to make saving the world a capitalist project“ and „to make it some canny investment opportunity?“ (p. 939) President Chase does not only answer both questions in the affirmative, but he also maintains: „And this is what globalization has been so far – capital moving on the new zones of maximized return” (p. 940). This statement is in strict accordance with the American tradition, with its myth of fighting one's way from rags to riches. To my mind, this is such a perfect example of the writer's irony that it cannot be overlooked. Yet irony is not mentioned in Chris Pak's article,(4) perhaps as for him, Phil Chase's statement does not need any comment as it speaks against itself.

On the whole, according to Robinson, neither science nor politics are successful. Some people even think that the consequences of climate change are more dangerous than terrorism. The problem is rooted in overpopulation: now about eight billions of people are living on this planet, and as there is no balance between births and deaths, soon there will be probably more than ten billion human beings. And there are many nations which cause a lot of air pollution: The USA for example represent five percent of the world's population but they cause 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.(5) The National Science Foundation (NSF) pleads for the reduction of military spending, yet this suggestion is not seriously considered by the Chase administration. In Robinson's vision, there seems to be hardly any possibility of survival for mankind. Again, if we believe this author, our planet is definitely very close to a catastrophe.

Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behaviour (2012): a cautionary tale

The writer deals with climate change as a force of globalization; climate change is presented as a phenomenon that people perceive, interpret and assess very differently. A significant role is played by the different media such as radio, TV and the internet. The novel is set in rural Tennessee, but this is a place defined by a combination of local as well as global ecological, economic, social and cultural forces. In this community there is a strong sense of privilege and social inequality and its possible change is seen as a global risk. It presents a warning which is not alarmist.(6)

The 28-year-old protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow undergoes a decisive transformation. Meeting scientist Ovid Byron and working for him means a valuable process of education for her as she herself becomes a scientist in order to fight against climate change and global warming. And there is also hope in the fact that some butterflies are able to survive during the USA winter. The novel's title links Dellarobia's behaviour to that of the butterflies: so there is an analogy between human and non-human lives.

According to Sylvia Mayer, Barbara Kingsolver also anticipates a catastrophic ending.(7) However, to my mind, the novel is not apocalyptic. Kingsolver argues that everybody can contribute to the fight against climate change: we should use less fossil fuel, upgrade our light bulbs to energy efficient appliances, buy second-hand articles, support recycling-measures, drive our car only when necessary, control its air pressure regularly, buy a low emission vehicle, use a bicycle or means of public transport, fly less (cf. pp. 450-454). It goes without saying that all these measures are still highly topical.

There are many examples of biblical images, but Kingsolver's imagery also includes many aspects of daily life: her language fills the novel with life, endows it with a touch of poetry and thus makes it very entertaining and even hilarious reading. To quote but a few examples. In order to characterize Dellarobia's religious attitude the writer points out „She and Jesus weren't that close" (p. 19), whereas her bigoted mother-in-law “could live her whole life as a string of Bible quotes“ (p. 28). The butterflies are compared to a "trembling flame“, (p. 72), and concerning the heavy rains during last summer Dellarobia remarks: „The world of sensible seasons had come undone“ (p. 67). The metaphors are also used to underline the seriousness of climate change. Probably, the most drastic metaphor of the whole novel is used by the biologist Ovid Byron, who confronts his TV interviewer with the following rhetorical question: „We are at the top of Niagara Falls … in a canoe ... We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?“ (p. 507) Perhaps many people will share Byron's view and listen to Kingsolver's cautionary tale, which is not utterly devoid of hope.

Maggie Gee, The Ice People (1998) and The Flood (2004): two apocalyptic novels

For the first time in this sequence a British female writer will be dealt with. The two novels by Maggie Gee mentioned above have got a lot of traits in common: both are dystopian, both are apocalyptic. Both works are classified as “condition-of-England” novels: there are public and political ties with private and personal lives. Like Robinson's trilogy, they are set in the present or the near future: ironically, people think they live in a beautiful new world.

However, there is one decisive structural difference between the two novels. In The Ice People, the events are causally linked and presented from the view of the first-person narrator Saul, who looks back on his life. However, he is also the protagonist of the novel who comes to ask himself what the sense of life is and what it has ever been. Conversely, there is no causally linked plot in The Flood: it is about an ensemble of characters whose fate is revealed bit by bit. Therefore the novel consists of many episodes so that it is more demanding for the reader to find out how they form a thematic unit.

In The Ice People, there are technological innovations like domestic robots called DOVES (= DO Very simple things): men want to be creators like God, and thus the robots are meant to function as children and women substitutes. At first, they are really very useful and also eager to learn. Later updates, then, are able to repair and recycle themselves: by use of the so-called replicator device they are able to prevent their own shutdown, and thus they do not only become self-determined creatures but also their own children so to speak. And as a consequence, they will be dangerous and superior to men, an idea which is also dealt with by Ian McEwan, in his recent novel Machines like Me (2019).

Apart from the socio-political lives and men's connection with non-human environment, there is social inequality (cf. Kingsolver). Men and women are living separately from each other, which is typical of parents and children as well. There are also gender cultural battles, but it is the female association Wicca World that has the power in this community. As in Aldous Huxleys Brave New World, natural procreations are replaced by artificial inseminations (called “techfix” by Maggie Gee). In the end, a pandemic is followed by disorder and a collapse of society. There is an enormous social and environmental fall-back, and living conditions again come to resemble those of the Stone Age. Three quarters of mankind are dead in the end: Gee's vision is clearly an apocalyptic one. Saul is unable to save his lineage, as his son Luke becomes the guide of the wild children, who do not acknowledge any ethical norms: this means the end of civilization. The title The Ice People, then, should be understood as a metaphor.

In The Flood, people are confronted with rising waters, a runaway comet and war as three possible causes of a final catastrophe. Thus there are three different causes of a societal collapse: abnormal weather conditions due to climate change as man-made Anthropocene, war as a consequence of man-made internal conflicts, and a runaway comet as a cosmic cause. Again there are social injustices that amplify both the causes and the effects of climate change. There are outsiders and rich people. The poor and underprivileged people live in a kind of ghetto, in the so-called “Towers” which may be reminiscent of the historical Tower in London. The privileged people in their homes feel much better protected against the consequences of the climate crisis.

The President instrumentalizes war in order to divert attention from people's daily lives, a technique which is also practised in George Orwells 1984. The President's name Bliss is a speaking one and a clear example of irony. Maggie Gee uses another element of irony when she alludes to a well-known fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, namely “The Emperor's New Clothes”, where she compares the fictional emperor and his nakedness to President Bliss. In a similar way Gee utilizes an ironic contrast by calling Bliss's narrow-minded followers the “the salt of the earth”, as they occur in the Bible, namely in “The Sermon on the Mountain” (Matthew, 5:13). There is a religious group called the “One-Way Believers” whose motto is: “One Way, one Truth, one Path”. This is a radical sect who do not know tolerance and use the general dilemma in order to convert as many people as possible. The role played by religion in Flight Behaviour is totally different: it descends from the Baptist Church but follows stricter rules.(8)

The epilogue in The Flood is different from the concluding chapter in Ice People as far as language is concerned: it represents an ironic contrast to the rest of the novel since it describes, in a very poetic style, a kind of Elysian realm, which may be regarded as a means to avoid overt didacticism. Not only in this part is Gee's style, which is reminiscent of Kingsolver's, very impressive. Gee does not deal with the causes of climate change. Rather than that, she describes its consequences in a very direful way.

Michael Crichton, State of Fear (2004): “denialist” climate fiction

In Robinson's trilogy, the general attitude to science is favourable: it is expected to find possible solutions for the political organs to deal with the problems of global warming: there is cooperation between science and politics. Crichton's novel is basically different. State of Fear differs from most other climate fiction because of its overt scepticism concerning science and anthropogenic climate change: it has been justly called “denialist” climate fiction. The writer himself points out that scientists differ in their attitude towards climate change in the first place. Besides, they are dependent on donors: therefore money plays an important part in climate change politics. Consequently, scientists may start from pre-conceived notions, which means they may be biased. According to Crichton, a real climate change science has yet to be developed, and in his view, science should never become politicized.

In Greg Garrard's view, Crichton's best-seller State of Fear is a hybrid genre: it is both a thriller and a thesis novel,(9) which means for the critic that, on the whole, the author's work is unsatisfactory: its characters are one-dimensional, its plot is full of clichés, its outcome is often easily foreseeable, its overt message is tiresome.(10) A typical example is the mysterious Professor Kenner, an expert for risk analysis from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who again and again explains the 'truth' to the (naïve) protagonist Evans. Right-wing sceptics assert that climate change either is exaggerated or even a mere hoax. According to them, by a constant creation of fear, there has been a grip on power in America in order to control social behaviour.(11) In the novel, there are two types of environmentalists: there are the well-meaning liberals, and there are the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) followers, the latter forming an extremist group or so-called eco-terrorists (Ib). These people would be willing to sacrifice many human lives in order to get publicity for environmental problems. In the novel they carry out several terrorist attacks in order to influence the outcome of a climate conference in California.

Many aspects concerning the discussion of climate change in this novel are well known: global warming by CO2 emissions, the melting of ice in the Arctic, the rise of the sea levels, etc. However, the questioning of climate science as well as opposition to environmentalism are important aspects of contemporary climate culture. Apart from that, there arises a critical question: what can be achieved by knowledge if it is not supplemented by a global political will? Greg Garrard thinks that this question is more intriguing than the novel itself.(12) Any answer to it cannot be but speculative as it will only be answered by the future history of our planet. It may be the case that one day nobody will call in doubt that climate change does exist. And it may also occur that scientists find the adequate solutions for overcoming any climate crisis. Still it is a different problem whether their knowledge will be used for the benefit of the world, for it will be necessary for all nations and continents to cooperate in a basic humanitarian dilemma. Such a procedure would include states with different social orders such as the USA and China for example. The way from theoretical insight to practical consequences will probably be very thorny. Erik M. Conway's and Naomi Oreskes's view from the future is even more sceptical as they affirmed: “Knowledge did not translate into power”.(13)

Ian McEwan, Solar (2010): a satirical climate novel

This novel belongs to British comic climate fiction. Richard Kerridge points out that environmental problems reach across the globe.(14) Consumerism has environmental problems the consumers do not see, hear, touch or smell: these are called “shadow places”.(Ib) McEwan's novel was published still some years before the Paris climate conference on global warming was held in December 2015, however, his novel anticipates many of the problems discussed there.

In Solar, there is one scientist on whom McEwan's novel focalizes: Michael Beard is the director of a national laboratory for renewable energy, a centre of research into climate change, global warming and CO2 emissions. From the very beginning there is an ironic contrast between his academic achievement on the one hand and his human weaknesses on the other hand. While Beard tries to develop a new solar energy technology, at the same time, he is unable to resist sex or food. As a result, he becomes a comically excessive figure.(15) He is naïve, selfish, extravagant, pathetic, indefatigable, insensitive, subject to numerous failures and drawn into melodramatic plot-twists. As an anti-hero, he is lacking in empathy as well as conscience and is restlessly insatiable (Ib.). He is good at adapting to his immediate short-term environment, but he is catastrophically poor at adapting to long-term considerations. He represents the collective failing of wealthy consumers to change their behaviour in response to the threat of global warming (Ib.).

There is an early episode which characterizes Beard and his peers (artists and scientists). When they take part in an expedition to inspect the melting of Arctic glaciers, they turn out to be unable to keep order concerning their own equipment in the boot room. Artists are said to be idealists and incapable organizers. Beard would “leave nothing to science or art or idealism”” (p. 111) - a standpoint which implies both irony and self-irony.

This behaviour is a micro-example of the general problem. Michael Beard is no different from most people in affluent societies: he represents the recklessness of consumerism. At the novel's end, it looks as if Beard's commercial venture, as a result of his multiple follies, will collapse. There is a tense countdown which ironically mocks any lingering assumption that providence will save us in the nick of time. There is only the accidental possibility that his discoveries will have a saving potential in the hands of others.(16) Solar, then, may be read as an example of social satire.

At the age of sixty, Beard has become an expert of orbital solar power. He gives many talks about climate change which are supported by facts and dates: ironically, his talks are not successful. Beard has no empathy: as a result, he cannot listen to others. He is more interested in money making than in climate change: sometimes, like Michael Crichton, he even calls in doubt whether global warming really takes place. Meanwhile, Beard's state of health is becoming more and more precarious: he is suffering from excessive overweight, an enlarged liver, breathing as well as heart problems and diabetes. He undergoes a permanent crisis so that in the end he considers the possibility of escaping his personal enemies by going to Brazil. Anyway, it is clear beyond any doubt that he is not qualified for saving our planet.

Thus the reader is likely to come to the conclusion that the climate catastrophe is unstoppable. In Beard's case, his monetary interests are stronger than the avoidance of environmental damage. This has long been true of the governments of many states, too. Michael Beard is an allegorical character who is about to kill himself: there is an obvious analogy between his person and mankind in general. It also becomes clear that science or knowledge is not sufficient in order to fight climate change successfully. It has to be supplemented by a world-wide political determination if global warming is to be controlled: again this is reminiscent of the comment on Michael Crichton's State of Fear (cf. above). On the one hand, perhaps people will cling to the standard of living they have reached which means that the resources of our planet will be exploited until it is too late: this is called “endarkenment” by David Mitchell (cf. below, note 25). Or, on the other hand, knowledge, pressure and anxiety will prove to be stronger than time-honoured behaviour: in that case, humans may learn that they will have to change their lifestyles if they want to survive.

David Brin, Earth (1990): an example of science fiction

Brin's novel Earth was published in 1990 already, i.e. almost thirty years ago. In more than one respect, it may be regarded as a fantastic achievement. At its beginning, mention is being made of a black hole at Earth's interior which, because of its immense gravitational force, may become extremely dangerous for man's very existence on earth: such a black hole in its crust is threatening to absorb the planet from the inside out. Therefore different researchers, at the top of them a British physicist to the funny (German sounding) name of Alex(ander) Lustig, are busy locating it in order to find a way out of this dilemma. Later on in the novel, however, a different explanation of the black hole is given, namely that a reckless human experiment has gone wrong when trying to develop a new powerful weapon, namely gravity lasers which may cause simultaneously earthquakes and disasters all over the globe. However that may be, the novel under consideration is a thriller about the possible fate of our earth in 2038. This means that the novel belongs to science fiction rather than to climate fiction. However, even if the climate crisis is not in the centre, many of its symptoms, aspects and phenomena are dealt with in the course of the novel. And it is just mentioned incidentally that mankind is responsible for the fact that they are standing at the brim of an abyss.

In the course of the novel, there are many characters who have different ideas and aims in fighting against climate change. Some people complain of the fact that resource extraction by mankind occurs “at a furious rate” whereas “projects such as reforestation or orbital solar power … are not making any progress” (p. 68). As a rule, torrential rains are directly followed by long periods of heats. Thus weather conditions become unusual: the rains “shifted unpredictably” so that “great changes were at work, in the air, and land and oceans” (p. 72) The unexampled heat waves are accompanied by the spreading of deserts all over the globe, and the melting of Arctic ice is responsible for the rising of the sea levels so that many islands are flooded, which means that their inhabitants become climate refugees. The same is true of Venice, whereas other coastal towns like New York, New Orleans, Peking, Shanghai have to fight very hard for their survival. In addition to that, the oceans have become waste disposal sites all over the world.

Many of these problems result from overpopulation: this is a theme also discussed by Robinson, Mitchell (see above) and Atwood (see below). The development of the world's population is described in some detail and compared to an explosion (pp. 529-531). In 2038 there are more than ten billions of men living on earth, and all of them must be nourished before they are motivated enough to become environmental fighters (p. 72). For all the writers mentioned so far, it seems impossible to find a definitive solution for the problem of overpopulation on earth.(17) According to Brin, a temporary way out would be to freeze one half of human beings for a considerable period of time and to promise them large riches when they are brought to life again (p. 68). However, it is at least very doubtful if money could be used as a successful method of motivation for so many people. In this context, some eco-radicals argued it would be better if “the destroyer species – Homo sapiens – died out altogether” as men were an “unregulated cancer” on earth (p. 289). And there was a space colonization movement who argued that everything would be fine on Earth if humans just left it. This standpoint would correspond to the obvious conviction that Nature can exist without any support by human beings.

Brin also maintains that social life on earth is full of different conflicts in 2038. There are scientists who think of different ways in order to save the world. Professor Jen(nifer) Wolling is a specialist for macro-ecological management, a field of studies she has invented herself. She also develops a digital model of human cognition which is characterized by the dichotomy of either competition or cooperation. According to her, this is true of any human moral system, any ideology and any economic theory. And each individual is part of a greater community.

Quite a different attitude is taken by a character to the name of Daisy McClennon who wants to save our planet by drastically reducing humankind. It is almost unbelievable but her fantastic plan implies committing genocide in order to save mankind: she wants to kill the many “parasites” so that their number would be reduced from ten billions to roughly 20.000. The remaining people should live as hunters and gatherers of former stone-age individuals: that is that all the achievements in the history of civilization would be destroyed as well. As Ursula K. Heise puts it: „Daisy McClennon tracks down information about the gravity lasers ... appropriates the technology and deviates it to her own fanatic struggle against the global destruction of nature”.(18) At the end of the novel, there is a fight between Daisy McClennon and Jennifer Wolling, in which Alex Lustig, his friends and opponents are involved, too.

This murderous and global battle is very much unlike a traditional war: now digital technologies and weapons technologies play a crucial role. The global struggle is one of general intransparent chaos, its outcome becoming unpredictable. Surprisingly enough, at some point the battle comes to an end. In Heise's words: There is “a fusion between Wolling's own consciousness, a digital model of human cognition …, and the electric currents that the gravity lasers have activated in Earth's core.” By this, an innovative type of artificial intelligence (AI) is generated, which is meant to be understood as a metaphor. And this new AI begins “to shift humankind to a more sustainable way of life”.(19) Mankind, then, can escape destruction, whatever the reasons for the fusion may be like: is it caused by coincidence, by a higher, god-like authority as the protector and driver of the universe? Anyway it seems as if, all of a sudden, mankind, undeservedly, gets a second chance. To quote Heise again: “There emerges a new global ecological consciousness out of a multitude of human minds and societies”.(20) The author seems to say that human problems can be solved if they are tackled by all people. It is lucky for mankind that it happens to be saved by a new AI, which functions as a deus ex machina: this has to be understood as a tour de force in order to avoid a completely global disaster. Climate change first divides and then, surprisingly enough, unites humankind.(21)

Except for the last part, the future state (in 2038) is presented like a futuristic dystopia in which the many different parts are characterized neither by coherence nor by continuity. Rather than that there is a fragmentation of individual chapters and passages. There are some themes which are introduced only to stand by themselves and never to be exploited again. This may refer to the statement that older people are in the majority and that the younger generation feels controlled by them and that therefore they complain of lacking privacy and human dignity. Fragmentation also refers to form: there are fictitious documents inserted in the text of the novel, for example excerpts from newspapers or results achieved by group work (of specialists and experts) – endowed with links to the internet in order to achieve authenticity.(22) There even occur different types of printing within a single paragraph, and italic types are often used to express thoughts and feelings of a character. Thus, on the whole, Daniel Brim is an author who uses many innovative devices of narrative techniques. As a result he has produced a very comprehensive novel, the reading of which calls for a long breath.

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014): an example of post-modern climate fiction

The Bone Clocks is a novel by the British writer David Mitchell which is extremely unusual concerning both its structure and its substance. First of all, it is divided into six sections with five different first-person point-of-view narrators. Only the first and the last sections have got the same narrator: this is Holly Sykes, a sixteen-year-old girl from a village near London, who thus endows the novel with a touch of a cyclical structure. Her experiences cover more or less her whole lifetime, namely from 1984 to 2043. Its different stages are loosely connected by her character, who takes part in every chapter from two to five. She remains “the thread that binds the narrative together”.(23) Basically the novel is chronologically structured: it starts in the past, but once the events have reached September 2019, the focus switches to events in the future without saying anything about the present moment. The novel, then, is a combination of past and future, in which, astonishingly enough, the future looks a lot like the past.

First the events described seem to occur on a realistic level. After a quarrel with her mother, Holly Sykes runs away from home in order to live with her boyfriend only to just find him in bed with her best friend. Yet Holly does not give up and after her first day of hard work as a fruit picker, she has earned enough money to live on her own for some time. When she incidentally learns that her younger brother Jack has disappeared, she returns home nevertheless.

Apart from Holly and her relationships with a variety of other realistic characters, there are two immortal factions. On the one hand, there are the so-called horologists who are naturally able to reincarnate. For these “masters of time” it is possible to put themselves into other persons' shoes, to empathize with them, to recall their past, to imagine their present thinking, to enter their egos, to communicate with them, etc., etc. In other words: some human beings may become a host for horologists, as they act like guests in different human bodies, including even different gender and nationality so that different identities may be merged together. In the course of the novel, Holly's brother Jack is said to be the host for a very famous Chinese philosopher to the name of Xi Lo. Or one horologist is said to live in his 36th body, which is not recognizable for ordinary mortals.

On the other hand, there are the Anchorites who use quite a different method to escape death: they murder other people in order to steal their souls and to live on them. These so-called “soul thieves” are addicted to this behaviour like serial killers: they use their power in order to prey upon the weak. Obviously, these two factions represent good and evil, and the fierce battle between the two represents the kernel of the plot. So, in one sense, The Bone Clocks may be called a fantasy novel: the writer gives free rein to his imagination, so that the novel is full of twists, surprises, climaxes, episodes from all over the world, and of unexpected links as well as loose ends. There are also many speaking names which have got an ironic tinge, since Hugo Lamb and Immaculée Constantin are Anchorites. Such creative features, which are characteristic of post-modern writing, make the novel's reading very enjoyable.

During the first four chapters there are hardly any references to climate change. It is only in the last chapter but one that the major environmental trends are described: “Oil's running out […], Earth's population is eight billion, mass extinctions of flora and fauna are common place, climate change is foreclosing the Holocene Era.”(p. 491) Bradon Smith concludes that the world in the years 2015 to 2020 becomes "synecdochic for the luxury of our 'petromodernity'."(24) The scarcity of resources, overpopulation, loss of biodiversity (extreme reduction of fauna and flora) should be familiar aspects to modern readers. In other words: it is a general law of nature that animals which take too much will perish, and obviously this has turned out to be true for human beings as well. It seems that Nature has been exploited too much.

In the third decade of this century, a number of catastrophes took place: heavy rains, floods, epidemics like Ebola. Climate change as a key theme of the novel occurs only in its final chapter set in 2043, where the reader is confronted with the consequences of global warming and of the climate crisis. After the defeat of evil in the fifth section, there is no happy ending in the last chapter. The world has undergone a period called the “Endarkenment which has brought about the collapse of electricity grids and social structures as well as the rise of militia gangs and religious fanaticism”.(25) This amounts to saying that a future collapse of civilization as a whole is very likely to occur: in large parts of Europe at least, there is lawlessness. The last chapter is clearly dystopian fiction: it focuses on post-apocalyptic life as it takes place on an Irish peninsula. There is food shortage (frequent bottleneck situations), even mass famine, lack of coal for heating, lack of medicine (e.g. insulin), and fear of radioactive emissions: after a nuclear accident in Hinkley Point (England), emissions may also reach Ireland as they depend on the wind direction. Many kinds of mammals have died, such as elephants, tigers, gorillas, and polar bears (p. 571). In Mitchell's view mankind acts as irresponsibly as McEwan's anti-hero Michael Beard. If this behaviour does not mean the extermination of mankind as a whole, it shows at least that the consequences of the climate crisis are very hard to bear. The reason for this is our false belief “we didn't have to change our cosy lifestyles.” (p. 549) (26) On the whole, then, Mitchell does not only combine the past and the future, but he also mixes reality and fantasy in a very convincing way. It is small wonder, then, that he has produced a novel both complex and comprehensive.

Atwood, Margaret, The MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013)

It should be remembered that in A Handmaid's Tale, there are some references to environmental problems, e.g. water pollution as a consequence of nuclear accidents. In The Heart Goes Last, the plot is founded on a global economic collapse. These examples already show that Margaret Atwood has an eye both for economic and ecological problems. The first volume of The MaddAddam trilogy, namely Orynx and Crake, deals with the failures of modern man and provides the reader with the necessary basis of her fictional universe. The Year of the Flood is about “God's Gardeners” who are both ecological pacifists and a religious sect. The third novel MaddAddam, which is also the title of the trilogy as a whole, deals with the adventures of the titular character, who is an environmental rebel. In the very last scene of this volume, characters from each novel, transgenic humans as well as hybrid pigs, unite to defeat a band of murderous ex-convicts.

As it occurs in many other novels discussed so far, the trilogy is characterized by social inequality: there are rich privileged people who live in compounds of their own, where they are protected by strong security forces. Next comes a group of poor people called pleebands living in segregation in their ghetto-like homes, where their daily lives are determined by a lack of food and hygiene as well as by continuous struggles for survival. And there are criminals condemned to death to live in the so-called painballs from which they are given the possibility of escaping by fighting for their lives. And these fights are shown on TV as a public amusement. All three novels may be read independently of each other, although there are many cross-references between the three. There are many plots and sub-plots, present episodes and flashbacks, which are parts of a puzzle and which represent a fragmented story rather than a coherent whole. Without any doubt, the demands put upon the reader by the trilogy, are rather high. The following remarks will concentrate on Snowman/Jimmy, his friend Glenn/Crake, his creatures, the genetically changed Crakers, and post-apocalyptic future life.(27)

At the beginning of the novel a large catastrophe must have taken place as Snowman (whose real name is Jimmy) seems to have survived as the only human being. Strictly speaking in terms of chronology it is the last scene but one. In it there are presented hybrid pigoons, rakunks, wolvogs and bobkittens. All of them were created by genetic engineering: transplantations of organs from animals to humans but also from humans to animals are frequently practised,(28) which will eventually lead to an amalgamation of human and animal lives. However, transplantation of human and animal organs very soon degenerated into money making: this is why Jimmy's mother gave up her work and left her husband as well as her family.

At the beginning of the novel, Jimmy is surrounded by genetically modified people. They have been left in his care by their creator and his former friend Crake, who is certainly the trilogy's arch-villain. Although the Crakers are affectionate creatures, their humanity is limited, and therefore Jimmy feels very lonely. The Crakers are perfectly adapted to their environment: in spite of the fact that the ozone layer has been severely damaged, they sleep in the open air, they do not need clothes, they are able to eat and digest leaves. And they develop rapidly: their adolescence starts at the age of four, and their life-expectancy is about 30 years only. The BlyssPluss Pill invented by Crake made the Crakers look younger but it did not make them live longer.

The Crakers were designed in a laboratory by Crake and meant to replace the human beings now living on earth. Before this process may start, a catastrophic pandemic breaks out caused by the mood-altering drug BlyssPluss because Crake infected it by a virus: with the help of his friend Oryx, it was introduced simultaneously in the capitals of all continents and almost led to the extinction of mankind: this is the state of affairs at the beginning of the trilogy. In other words: Crake follows a radically Darwinian world view. Atwood never suggests that he is wrong, however great the mishaps he causes.(29). The trilogy, then, deals with a post-apocalyptic world.

So far it has not become clear why Atwood's trilogy has been classified as climate fiction. Yet there is textual evidence of this in its second volume. In The Year of the Flood (2009) the temperature of oceans is higher, the percentage of salt in them has been reduced,(30) and many seas are dead, for example the Gulf of Mexico, or the Black Sea or the Great Barrier Reef. The flood mentioned in the title, however, has to be understood as a metaphor: it is a “waterless flood” which refers to the worldwide pandemic already mentioned. In the third volume we learn that because of the melting of Arctic ice, many snow-bears die, while others go South in order to unite with grizzlies. So there is sufficient evidence of climate change.

And it may be derived from the novel's text that in Texas there must have been serious weather anomalies, probably tempests, heavy rains and droughts so that natural resources were ever dwindling and that, as a consequence, people having lived there had to leave home and to go North if they wanted to escape starvation: thus they became climate refugees. Still there is another aspect which hardly has been mentioned so far and which must have been of much concern to Crake: this is overpopulation. This may also be a reason for the fact that natural resources are no longer sufficient to provide all people with food to live on: it would practically mean that nature has been exploited too much. In order to reduce and control the number of human beings Crake invented a pill, the so-called BlyssPluss pill. His intention may be motivated by the deplorable situation of mankind, but the results achieved by this invention are terrible. The final catastrophe, then, is not brought about by the consequences of the climate crisis but by a human scoundrel who is both extremely arrogant and incredibly naïve.

In the second part of The Year of the Flood, the group of “God's Gardeners” is introduced, who make a very careful use of Nature, which may be called “stewardship”: they are ecological pacifists. They believe that mankind is threatened by extinction which they hope to survive in order to create a better world. It is MaddAddam who separates from them, forms his own group and thus becomes an economical rebel. Certainly the Gardeners are much more attractive than Maggie Glee's “One Way Believers” since they are tolerant in contrast to the religious sect's fanaticism.

But in this volume the reader also learns quite a lot about Glenn: from the statements scattered across the text, the following picture may be derived. Glenn's nick name is Crake. It soon becomes obvious that he is a fatuous man of genius (a “brainiac”). On the one hand, he is extremely intelligent, he is studying transgenics as there is a special research in the compound how to replace human organs. Even when he was a boy he often said that he would like to play God in order to improve the human situation. On the other hand, his experiments are highly questionable. Pigs for example are endowed with human brain, which makes them more intelligent. For this purpose DNA codes are frozen in order to create a better human race one day. According to Crake too many babies “make a huge carbon footprint” (p. 290) which ultimately would lead to chaos on our planet. Therefore his plan is to overcome this deplorable state of affairs by having recourse to what he calls a “rearrangement.”

The ultimate stage, then, was to be provided by a “paradise project” by which he was going to make man perfect.(31) Crake was trying to programme parts of the human brain, eliminating human weaknesses such as racism, hierarchic tendencies or craving for animal protein. And with the help of the BlyssPlus Pill, he also tried to suppress man's life-preserving instinct, his fear of death, his religious sensitivity, any thirst for knowledge, and possessiveness. In reality sex became a bodily exercise without any emotions, and as there was absolute liberty (promiscuity), there were neither jealousy nor conflicts. These new creatures called Crakers in accordance with their creator were to replace the homo sapiens. It is another paradigm of irony that Crake used the BlyssPluss Pill to wipe out human life on earth almost completely by poisoning the pill. What was originally intended as a solution to all sexual and many other human problems, eventually became a tool for almost annihilating mankind. Unfortunately the creator of these people escaped from his responsibility by taking his own life.

The MaddAddam volume also deals with Glenn/Crake and the creatures produced by him. The reader has to realize that the Crakers are very peaceful people but also unable to fight for their lives: they do no know any aggressiveness, and therefore they do not know any techniques of self-defence. Their feeling and thinking is very much reduced: they resemble little children who want a clear guidance and education since they are unable of self-determination. They do neither know abstract thinking nor responsibility, neither moral categories nor self-reflection. They are very eager but also very slow learners, so that their educational development as a race is likely to last many centuries. There are so many things they are completely lacking, e.g. texts and tradition, culture and the Fine Arts. On the other hand, they eat leaves: as a consequence, they do not need domestic farm animals. So from now on, there is less exploitation of Nature, which would definitely reduce CO2 emissions. This state of affairs reminds the reader of Aldous Huxleys Brave New World: there is no lack of food, no fear of the future, there is no war, and an apparent stability (as there is no progress possible any longer, it would be better to speak of stagnation).

Only very few people are able to survive the global pandemic: the extinction of the human race is almost complete. The question arises whether in the long run a new race of mortals will develop. At first sight, the fusion and reproduction of Crakers and human beings seem to be successful. According to Atwood, the future inhabitants of our planet will be hybrid. Before the trilogy ends, one Craker boy called Blackbeard has learned how to read and to write. This idea expresses some hope for the survival of human and non-human beings. There will be the naked Crakers who have one skin only, and there will be people with a second skin (human beings), who will be wearing clothes. It is clear from the text that these surviving people will use solar panels for producing energy. (p. 459) So there is some hope left that this new generation of mankind will take better care of the world. There can be no doubt that, in this context, Atwood's trilogy is the most imaginative paradigm of climate fiction.


Of course, my discussion cannot be complete: it provides just a few steps to a taxonomy of climate fiction. However, it should have become quite clear that in the field of the modern novel, climate fiction is represented by a large variety of examples (activist, cautionary, satirical, denialist, apocalyptic ...). The pictures developed by many paradigms come very close to an apocalyptic state of affairs, yet civilization is not wiped out altogether. As a consequence, the final catastrophe, that is, the radical extermination of mankind, has not been fictionalized. The present situation, then, has not been deprived of any hope: our planet has not become uninhabitable.

Cli-fi often depicts problems of the rise and falls of civilization in the present and/or in the (near) future: thus many of them deal with the first decades in the 21st century. More often than not, they are speculative works of futuristic fiction (Boyle, Kingsolver, Robinson, McEwan, Gee) expressing a warning in the hope that the worst-case scenario can still be avoided. And there are at least three post-modern paradigms (Brin, Mitchell, Atwood) which are so highly imaginative, using unconventional and innovative literary techniques that they defy easy classification. In Brin's Earth, the final battle is stopped against all expectations, and mankind gets a second chance without really deserving one. In Mitchell's work, mankind behaves irresponsibly, but a likely collapse of civilization does not imply the end of men's existence. And Atwood's vision certainly is the most far-reaching one: only a group of homo-sapiens representatives survive in order to practise mixing with a new race of creatures, the Crakers, who are once called “half-men” (Oryx and Crake, p. 123) by the authoress herself but who will perhaps take better care of this planet. Yet this development is not caused by men's irresponsibility towards the climate crisis: rather than that, it is the work of a megalomaniac villain.

Reading any of these paradigms may increase our environmental awareness. This may help us to overcome any complacency as a possible reaction to the threats of the climate crisis. Besides, it may encourage readers to become convinced environmentalists and engaged fighters who may contribute to strategies for global survival. The analyses in the volume under consideration are highly informative, very stimulating and strongly convincing in argumentative respect. Hopefully they will reach a large audience.


(1) The reader is informed about this on the back cover of Cli-Fi and on p. 17 in the volume itself. In the following text this companion is referred to as "CLI-FI".

(2) CLI-FI, p. 102.

(3) As can be verified with the help of Wikepedia, these scientists were members of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

(4) “Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capitol Trilogy (2004-2007) – Science and Politics in Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 103-109.

(5) Cf. Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, a 2006 book about global warming, released in conjunction with a film of that title; cf. the German translation Eine unbequeme Wahrheit (München: Rieman, 6. Auflage, 2006), p. 251. Since 2006 the situation has changed in so far as China causes more CO2 emissions than the USA.

(6) Sylvia Mayer, in: CLI-FI, p. 114.

(7) Sylvia Mayer, in: CLI-FI, p. 115.

(8) There are also some aspects of Buddhism depicted in Robinson's trilogy.

(9) Greg Garrard, in: CLI-FI, p. 139.

(10) Greg Garrard, in: CLI-FI, p. 140.

(11) Greg Garrard, p. 145.

(12) Greg Garrard, in: CLI-FI, p. 145.

(13) The Collapse of Western Civilization. A View from the Future (New York: Columbia Press, 2014), p. 2.

(14) Richard Kerridge, in: CLI-FI, p. 159.

(15) Richard Kerridge, in: CLI-Fi, p. 161f.

(16) Richard Kerridge, in: CLI-Fi, p. 164.

(17) More topical information about overpopulation may be found in: https://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/klimakrise-die-bevoelkerungsexplosion-faellt-aus-a-1273492.html (23.06.2019); cf. also https://www.spiegel.de/gesundheit/schwangerschaft/warum-waechst-die-weltbevoelkerung-bei-sinkender-geburtenquote-a-1292974.html (13.11.2019)

(18) Ursula K. Heise, in: CLI-FI, p. 196.

(19) Ib.

(20) Ib., p. 196.

(21) Ursula K. Heise, in: CLI-FI, p. 201.

(22) The internet is still called the “net” by Brin; yet it is astonishing that the two resemble each other very much.

(23) Cf. Bradon Smith, in: CLI-FI, p. 203.

(24 Cf. Bradon Smith, in: CLI-FI, p. 206.

(25) Cf. Bradon Smith, in: CLI-FI, p. 205.

(26) This is a passage from the primary source which is also quoted by Bradon Smith, in: CLI-FI, p. 205.

(27) Dana Phillips' article focuses on Oryx and Crake; cf. CLI-FI, pp. 49-54,

(28) Dana Phillips, in: CLI-FI, p. 54.

(29) A similar attitude is taken by Jennifer Wolling in David Brin's Earth. Some ideas on transplantation are also to be found in Boyle's A Friend of the Earth.

(30) This idea also occurs in Robinson's Green Earth.

(31) Cf. Daisy McClennon's plans to eliminate “parasites”; this plan is also reminiscent of the topical project of planning“designer babies”.


Primary Sources

Atwood, Margaret: Oryx and Crake. New York: Doubleday, 2003. [Page references to primary sources are given in ( ...)]

Atwood, Margaret: The Year of the Flood. London: Virago Press, 2010.

Atwood, Margaret: MaddAddam. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Boyle, T.C.: A Friend of the Earth. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

Brin, David: Earth. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

Crichton, Michael: State of Fear. New York: Harper, 2004.

Gee, Maggie:The Ice People. London: TELEGRAM, 1998.

Gee Maggie: The Flood. London: Saqi, 2004.

Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (1932). Stuttgart: Klett, 2007.

Kingsolver, Barbara: Flight Behaviour. London: Faber and Faber, 2012.

McEwan, Ian: Machines Like Me. London: Jonathan Cape, 2019.

McEwan, Ian: Solar. London: Vintage Books, 2010.

Mitchell, David: The Bone Clocks. London: Sceptre, 2014.

Orwell, George: 1984 (1949). Penguin Books, 1967.

Robinson, Kim Stanley: The Science in the Capitol Trilogy (2004-2007), reprinted in different form as Green Earth, London: Harper/Collins, 2015.

Secondary Sources

Conway, Erik M./Naomi Oreskes: The Collapse of Western Civilization. A View from the Future. New York: Columbia Press, 2014.

Garrard, Greg, “Michael Crichton's State of Fear (2004) – Denialist Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 139-145.

Goodbody, Axel/Adeline Johns-Putra (Eds.). CLI-FI. A Companion. Berlin: Lang, 2019 (generally referred to as CLI-FI).

Heise, Ursula K., “David Brin's Earth (1990) – Epic Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 195-201.

Johns-Putra, Adeline, “Maggie Gee's The Ice People (1998) and The Flood (2004) – State of the Nation Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 91-95.

Kerridge, Richard, “Ian McEwan's Solar (2010) – British Comic Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 159-164.

Mayer, Sylvia, “Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour (2012) – Class and Religion in Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 111-116.

Pak, Chris, “Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capitol Trilogy (2004-2007) – Science and Politics in Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 103-109.

Phillips, Dana, “Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam Trilogy (2003-2013) – Post-Apocalyptic Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 49-54.

Smith, Bradon, “David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks (2014) – Genre Pluralism in Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 203-209.

Trexler, Adam, “T.C. Boyle's A Friend of the Earth (2000) – Activism in Cli-Fi”, in: CLI-FI, pp. 97-102.

Uploaded by Dr. Willi Real on Tuesday, 3 March 2020, at 11:00 AM.

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