Cli-Fi: Fiction about climate change

I have just discovered a new genre: cli-fi, or climate change fiction. Set in the present or near future, these novels imagine a changed world once the effects of climate change are really beginning to be felt.

It’s not such a new genre to me, after all. I read David Brin’s Earth and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain quite some time ago, and science fiction writers have been speculating about climate change for a long time now. Cli-fi now seems to be gaining some literary legitimacy, though, with writers like Ian McEwan (Solar), Margaret Atwood (the Oryx and Crake trilogy) and David Mitchell (The Bone Clockstackling the subject.

If you are interested in this sub-genre, I highly recommend you start with Rivers by Michael Farris Smith. Set in the near future on the Mississippi coast, which is ravaged by perpetual storms and has been abandoned by the US government, this is a beautifully written and powerful novel.

For further reading, here’s my cli-fi list on LibraryThing.

The end of the world as we know it…

On Quora, there are a lot of interesting responses to this question: Pandemics: If society started collapsing due to a global pandemic killing more than half of the world’s population within a year or two, what would you do when you realized what was really happening? – Quora. There are a number of detailed, well-thought-out answers that represent a gamut of responses to a cataclysmic event.

With all the apocalyptic literature I read, I of course have thought about what I would do if society started collapsing around me. I have seen many scenarios presented in books, most of them not at all appealing. Women, in particular, have a tough time in these situations. Very few of these books show people cooperating to try to rebuild society, or at least help each other get through the crisis. Although that may be the most likely scenario, it doesn’t make for a very exciting story.

One aspect I think we overlook about post-collapse survival is how much work it would be. We really don’t have any idea anymore how much labor is involved just in producing enough food to sustain us through a year, for instance. The last post-apocalyptic book I read, Into the Forest by Jean Hegland, gave a good accounting of the work involved in raising a garden, canning food, keeping out pests and gathering wild plants. Sometimes people seem to fantasize about the collapse of society enabling them to live a simpler life and return to the land, but I don’t think they take into account the never-ending drudgery of it. That’s why we invented all these machines and systems in the first place.

I personally think society would only collapse in an absolute worst-case scenario, such as all-out nuclear war. Based on history, people tend to pick up the pieces and keep progressing. The Black Death, for instance, was a major catastrophic event, but Europe survived it and even thrived afterward.

Today, I think we would turn to the very things that we fear oppress us in order to save us: science and technology. We have the ability to use science to understand the world around us and develop technological solutions to fill our needs. We won’t lose that if there were a global pandemic or some other catastrophe. There may be a period of chaos, but I believe it would be temporary. Unless we somehow wipe ourselves out completely, I think we humans will continue to move forward.

Read what other people think on Quora.

What Would You Do?

Filmmakers sought to implement bleak scenery a...

Image via Wikipedia

In most post-apocalyptic stories, there comes a time when one or more of the characters — usually minor ones — opt to take the “easy way out.” Suicide, in other words. This seems only natural. When faced with an uncertain future filled with terror, hunger and the constant possibility of a violent, painful death, suicide seems like a viable option. Except in the stories, it’s not intended to be one. The characters who opt for suicide are not the ones we’re supposed to identify with.

But I do. When I read The Road, the character I most identified with was the wife, who took a gun and walked off into the woods rather than continue to live in the charred cinder that was once her world. In The Passage, a couple waits until their children are old enough to take care of themselves before opting out of their brutal lives spent worrying about vampire invasions every second. And on the season 1 finale of The Walking Dead television series, the characters are given a choice: quick, painless death by explosion or go back into the zombie-infested wasteland with only the things they are carrying. I know what I’d pick.

But then again, I am not a survivalist. I don’t stock up on toilet paper or spend my weekends practicing my crossbow skills. I freely admit that I enjoy the creature comforts of the 21st century. Who knows what any of us would choose to do when thrust into extreme circumstances like that? We haven’t really had to test our ingrained survival instinct.

Or our sense of hope. For that’s what the characters who choose to go on represent: hope. What was left in Pandora’s box after the ills of the world escape. Hope that there is something better ahead — if not for us, then at least for those who come after us — is what motivates us to keep on struggling even in the most extraordinary situations. Hope is what inspires us that no matter how bad things get, we can find a way. Hope is our humanity.

And hope is the essence of what many of these post-apocalyptic stories we tell ourselves are really all about.

The Cycle of Collapse

Diamond says Easter Island provides the best h...

Image via Wikipedia

The “apocalypse” can refer to the end of the natural world, but it usually doesn’t — at least, not in the stories we are constantly telling about it. After the world literally ends, there’s not much left to say, is there? In fact, I can only think of two examples off the top of my head of this kind of “last days” story in fiction, when all life ceases to be: On the Beach by Nevil Shute, in which radioactive fallout from a devastating nuclear war kills all animal life on Earth; and Last Night, a film about the Earth’s last six hours before it is destroyed by either a meteor or the sun going supernova (the movie doesn’t specify). In both cases, the story is about how the characters, who know the end is coming, deal with that knowledge and live out their last days. (There is a whole sub-genre of “dying Earth” stories, as well, but these are typically set far in the future and depict a gradual end, rather than an abrupt one.)

More often, apocalyptic stories assume there will be at least a few survivors.  The apocalyptic event is not “the end of the world,” as the cliche goes, but rather the collapse of human civilization due to some catastrophe. Those who do survive must start all over again from zero. Usually, this struggle for survival is what the story is actually about, and the apocalypse is just the means to getting there.

We’ve seen these collapses of civilizations in our history. Examples include the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Indus civilization, the Mayan civilization and the extremely isolated society on Easter Island. This last example serves as a microcosm of societal collapse due to environmental destruction. Over time, the islanders cut down all the trees on Easter Island. This led to soil erosion, making agriculture more difficult, and with no wood, the islanders could not build boats for fishing. The population plummeted: a mini-apocalypse. (For more on this subject, see the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.)

In fiction, one of the most memorable portrayals of civilization collapse is in The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In this case, the civilization is alien, not human. The collapse was always caused by war, brought about by the pressures of overpopulation, and always resulted in total decimation. Survivors rebuilt society, which inevitably led to another collapse. Because the cycle continually repeated itself despite all efforts to prevent it, the aliens became fatalistic and even developed a class of worker whose sole job was to ensure the survival of all knowledge so that civilization could be rebuilt after the next collapse.

The natural world seems to operate on cycles. Day and night, the seasons, the “circle of life,” in which death and decay lead to birth and growth, are all familiar to us. Even the universe itself may be caught in a continual cycle of destruction and rebirth. In human history, we can see how a pattern in how civilizations grow rapidly, reach a zenith, and then either decline or collapse. If an apocalypse does occur, but there are survivors left to start all over again, it seems logical to assume that the cycle would begin again as well, leading to yet another apocalypse. And another. And another. Unless we can find some way to break the cycle, which may mean changing our basic human nature.

Themed reading lists: Reading about the apocalypse and immortality

I have been having fun writing and posting themed reading lists on my book review blog, Books Worth Reading, and they have proved to be popular. Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations has reprinted a couple of the lists, which I am now sharing with you: These Books Will Help You Survive After an Apocalypse and I Want to Live Forever: An Immortality Reading List

Also see:  The endless quest to live forever

The post-apocalypse fantasy…

Why do we enjoy imagining such a horrific event as the demise of most of humankind? We never seem to tire of books, movies, TV shows and music about the post-apocalypse. While not many of us would like actually experiencing the apocalypse, imagining it is a cathartic fantasy.

Who hasn’t fantasized about starting all over again from a completely clean slate? Walking away from your family, friends and stuff, moving to a new place, perhaps even changing your identity. Just starting from zero. The post-apocalypse is that fantasy writ large. It’s not just you starting over, it’s the whole human race.

Also, the apocalypse provides a neat solution to the overwhelming problems that face us today. Such issues as climate change, overpopulation, scarce resources, poverty, epidemics and never-ending violence are overwhelming to us as individuals, when we feel we can’t do much about these global problems. The apocalypse — usually caused in some way by these problems — is also the universal solution to them. In one fell swoop, the number of people is reduced to a manageable number. No more climate change because no more pollution. And unless they were destroyed in the event, resources become plentiful. Depending on who is killed off, such pervasive problems as violence and even disease might be ended. Humanity gets the chance to start over and not make the same mistakes this time.

Finally, the post-apocalypse is an individual fantasy of the ultimate challenge. What would I do if the world ended and I survived? How would I react? How would I deal with the new problems I would have? Would raising my own food be a better deal than having to go to a soul-sucking job at an office every day? (Perhaps.) It’s the greatest “what if” situation, one we may never get tired of contemplating.

As is the norm, I’m sure that if the apocalypse actually did occur, it would be both nothing like and very similar to what we’ve already imagined it to be.

The Boston Globe also has an article wondering why we are so fascinated with the apocalypse in books and movies. It gives a bit of a retrospective of the apocalypse envisioned in film over the years.

Hell is repetition: The theme of cycles in science fiction

Recently, I have become fascinated with the notion of cycles. We humans tend to regard everything linearly, with a beginning and an end, because that is our individual experience. But taking a wider view, we can see that events tend to happen in cycles, that an end leads inexorably to another beginning. It’s easiest to see this in nature, with our regular seasonal cycles and the cycle of growth to death to fertilizer to new life again. In physics, the concept of eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times. According to Eastern religions, we are all caught up in the Wheel of Life, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, until we can escape via enlightenment.

Post-apocalyptic literature, a favorite of mine, is obsessed with endings, an interesting mind game in itself. What would happen if everything, as we know it, just stopped? But the concept of repeating patterns, of endless cycles, is even more of a mind bender. Recently, a couple of favorite TV shows have explored this theme.

**Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica and Lost follow, so stop reading now if you don’t want to know.**

Battlestar Galactica‘s controversial finale, seen as a happy ending by some and as a silly warning to be nice to your robots by others, was, in my view, highly pessimistic. Despite all their efforts to break the cycle of Cylon uprising and mutual destruction, even to the point of sacrificing their technological advantages, the surviving characters only managed to put the inevitable off for a few thousand years. But all this has happened before, and will happen again — and the cycle begins anew on modern-day Earth.

Lost is exploring similar themes, although it is not clear yet whether the pattern can actually be broken. Still, last night’s excellent season finale asks the question: If the pattern is destined to keep repeating, why take action at all? Why not just opt out? In my opinion, the show has not taken a side. We’ve seen characters opt out (Bernard and Rose), and they seem perfectly happy. We’ve seen other characters take action to try to change the pattern, break the cycle, but we don’t know if they will be successful. Even if they are unable to change the pattern, will just trying be enough for some kind of personal salvation or redemption? Is what matters making a choice and doing something, rather than the effects of that action? These are great questions to ponder on a sleepless night.

I am now getting interested in science fiction novels that explore similar themes. Here are a few that I could think of (ahoy, there may be spoilers ahead):

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is structured in a cyclical manner progressing forward and then back through time.
  • The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, in which Roland seems doomed to relive the events of his quest for the Dark Tower until he can find a way to break the cycle of repetition.
  • The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which an alien civilization is doomed to cause its own apocalypse and then rise from the ashes over and over.
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood, in which a man relives his life again and again (I haven’t read this).

Does anyone have other suggestions? I would love to hear them.