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Lit Reading fiction in the face of environmental collapse

Jan. 27, 2021
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Growing up as an avid reader in the Evergreen State, it’s not surprising that I’m often drawn to a book or poem about trees. I’m always looking for something new to read, and in the past year especially, my favorite books have been about the environment, spanning memoir and journalism to the most fantastical of green worlds. Many of the books I’ve picked up have come from the recommendation of a friend, a teacher, a podcast—or a book list. 

Book lists promise to curate a cohesive narrative or to propel you toward a new interest, but, like any other art form, books don’t serve a single purpose. One of the most pressing issues of our time is the climate crisis, so you’ve probably seen a few book lists under titles like science fiction, realist fiction, or speculative fiction. These are among many terms used to describe literature that responds to and depicts a changing climate, yet their use often distances the content of such writing from the real climate stories that authors are trying to tell, even through fictional narratives. 

Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019 for The Overstory, which Barbara Kingsolver—a climate writer in her own right—calls a “gigantic fable of genuine truths held together by a connective tissue of tender exchange between fictional friends, lovers, parents, and children.” This represents, in part, a growing recognition of fiction as a serious means of raising public consciousness about environmentalism. 

This kind of “green writing” has long existed, as artists have tried to reason with nature and their relationships with it, often suggesting ways humans should act or predicting what might be in store for the future. We’re still 100 years away from the world-altering flood of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, but the flood myth—think Noah’s Ark—actually spans time and geography, from the stories of Mesopotamia to Hinduism to Norse mythology. We all share stories about what we’ve seen, what we predict, and what we understand about the world.

These independently originating stories across the world record similar philosophical and ethical ideas, but we still need to read widely in order to really learn about something as fundamental as our environment. Although these stories rest on many shared foundations, the perspectives and experiences at the individual and community levels are where we can most distinctly see the effects of environmental devastation, and how they vary. We must read and listen to the stories of environmental collapse across language, culture, and geography.

Even though younger people are increasingly vocal about climate change, it can still be hard to digest scientific jargon and endless statistics, or to use them as persuasive tools. It’s fair to assume most living writers are informed about climate change, yet so much of the writing about it occurs in the realm of nonfiction. As a complement—not a replacement for scientific research—books can be a great way to better understand and therefore become more invested in combating climate change. Yet, as Indian writer Amitav Ghosh recognizes in The Great Derangement—a book in which he discusses our ostensible inability to grasp the scale and severity of climate change through literature, history, and politics—there has been a lack of fiction regarding climate change, with respect to the vast and growing body of nonfiction writing. 

Fiction writing in the face of environmental collapse can mean the realist fiction that depicts the destruction emblematic of our Anthropocene, but it can also be exemplified by the works of someone like Margaret Atwood, which take place far in the future, set in a world so dystopian we can’t imagine experiencing it. This variation defies many classifications of genre and purpose, such as a term like science fiction. There is no one novel on climate change that best encapsulates the crisis—a phenomenon like “cli-fi” as a whole offers us different ways to consider climate change and how we address it.

Even after taking a course dedicated to this kind of writing, I’m not sure how or why I should categorize what I read as it relates to climate change. One of the biggest things we discussed in this class, entitled “The Color of Green Literature,” was temporal scale. The Overstory can show us change across generations, physically and in ideology. This can push us beyond an individual time scale, on which we might struggle to see change. As Ghosh argues, many novels operate along narrow timelines, rarely allowing a changing climate to disturb quotidian beliefs and concerns, which is integral to convincing us to actually respond to this crisis.

Environmental devastation permeates all facets of our lives, so I don’t think we need to lump all books that address it together. All the different forms of green fiction can help us love and understand the environment in new ways. Regardless of the genre, reading fiction about the changing climate can help us think about our relationships with the environment and the ways we want to live. Here are a few works of fiction I’ve enjoyed that reflect this sentiment:

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

As with her entire body of work, Butler uses this book to conceptualize a complex future while broadening the traditional understanding of science fiction—one she often resisted—by centering the intersections of race, gender, and class. Set in 2025, an 18-year-old protagonist with “hyperempathy” feels the pain of those around her as she runs north along the West Coast, fleeing the desperation and violence—which stem from climate change and capitalist greed—that have overrun her community.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

This aforementioned Pulitzer-winning epic explores the stories of people who learn to see the world across centuries and generations, uncovering the invisible but interconnected world of forests, which prompts them to fight, in their own ways, for the future of trees.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Ward describes the struggles of a working-class African-American family in Mississippi as they prepare for and endure Hurricane Katrina, which she, too, experienced. She illuminates the systemic issues and stories she argues have gone unnoticed in public perceptions of the hurricane in the years since. 

The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-yi

Translated from Taiwanese, this novel merges the stories of a young boy from an isolated, mythical island in the Pacific and inhabitants of the coastal town of Haven as they experience a rapidly changing climate and the effects of the growing trash vortex, from vastly different environmental perspectives.

Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Though only a few refer explicitly to climate change, all eight of Russell’s stories are permeated by the effects of a changing world, reflected in both the physical and mental lives of her characters. Russell, often through supernatural means, considers our anxieties and confusion about the place of humans in the environment. Her characters are possessed by cacti and live in underwater worlds, all reconciling personal challenges with the shared global crisis.