The study of climate-change fiction, or cli-fi, has had profound impacts on both critics and readers, forcing us to confront our fears for the future, but also to accept the destabilising existence of deep time, and to come to terms with the marginality of humanity in the greater scheme of things.
The novels discussed in my book, The Noah Myth in 21st-Century Cli-fi Novels: Rereadings from a Drowning World, are all “about” climate change in that they take it as a given, affecting plot structure, background, and the lives and outlook of the characters. At times, the characters discuss climate change, and in a few cases, they are scientists trying to future-proof humanity in various ways. However, in most of the novels I chose to analyse, the characters are simply people living in the new world of the Anthropocene and attempting to come to terms with its new realities.
My book project began as a contribution to the currents of cli-fi criticism and, specifically, flood-fiction criticism, which have become important in literary studies today. But what became clear to me as I went on is that it is difficult, and counter-productive, to separate climate change from the other challenges facing humanity in the Anthropocene. This line of thought led me to coin the term “Anthropocene anxiety.” The term I propose covers not only climate change but the nuclear threat (civil and military), bio-engineered pandemics, terrorism, financial meltdown, and so on. The generalised threats with which we are obliged to live, whether we ignore them (like the characters in Maggie Gee’s The Flood, who simply go about their business by boat once the rising water in their city reaches a certain level) or become crushed by them (like Mitchell Zukor in Odds Against Tomorrow, whose mental health is severely affected), constitute a “riskscape” – from which there is no escape.
My feeling is, then, that climate change cannot be separated from these other threats, and that it is not even possible to establish a hierarchy: nuclear war, a pandemic with an 80% death rate – these things would wipe out humanity as we know it and climate change would have little meaning in such a context. All six of the novels analysed foreground issues like this. For example, Margaret Atwood’s trilogy opens on a scene in which Jimmy/Snowman believes he is the last human survivor of a pandemic, while Gee’s The Flood echoes in various ways her well-known work on nuclear war. These things cannot be ignored or passed over, so although the respective topoi of these works are very much bound up with climate change, but it is by no means an exclusive threat.
Literature deals not only with societal “issues” but also, and indeed mainly, with the profound experiences and motivations of the human psyche. For this reason, my work also explores and analyses those aspects of the experience of the characters which are often overlooked. Rather than passing over Mitchell Zukor’s intergenerational trauma, or ignoring those biblical references deployed in Clare Morrall’s flood novel which seem to have no relevance to the Noah myth, my book unpacks and analyses these hitherto neglected aspects, and in so doing proposes more global, and more humanist, readings than those generally found today.
To sum up, my view was that certain texts tend to be too easily classified as cli-fi and, for that reason, to be critiqued very selectively, with climate change being understood as central, with other questions relegated to the margins. My aim was to recalibrate the emphasis on climate change in criticism today, not to deny it or minimise its importance, but to place it in a context of multiple risk. After all, human beings are complex and protean, and our concerns cannot be limited to one area to the exclusion of all others. I wanted to redefine centrality, by showing that Anthropocene anxiety is now utterly ingrained in our experience of being-in-the-world.
This guest post was written by HELEN E. MUNDLER, who is Associate Professor of English Studies at Université Paris-Est Créteil, France (UPEC).