In his third autobiography, noted abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass noted the impact of a novel he considered “a work of amazing depth and power”. When “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852, Douglas wrote, “Nothing could have been better suited to the moral and human needs of the time. Its effect was wonderful, immediate and universal.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sold 1 million copies, inspired stage adaptations, songs and merchandise, and became wildly popular throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, where it incited anti-slavery petitions and rallies. Southern writers were so impressed by its content that they hurried to publish “anti-Tom” novels defending slavery in response. Uncle Tom’s influence has not diminished in estimation; Writing in The New Yorker in 2011, historian Annette Gordon-Reid called it “one of the most successful feats of persuasion in American history”.
Whether or not Abraham Lincoln actually referred to its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war” hardly matters: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” served as the epitome of protest literature. It set a precedent for reform-minded books like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and showed what could be accomplished with a story well told.
Is it still possible for literature to change the world, or at least change ideas? For writers of today’s climate fiction, this is a question that has never been more pressing. In 2022, unlike Stowe’s 19th century, “novels don’t necessarily have access to a movie or TV show,” said Amy Brady, executive director of Orion Magazine and co-editor of a new anthology titled “The World As We”. Know It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate. “But I think climate fiction can reach people who might not otherwise think about climate change or want to talk about it.”
The tools of imagery can be useful for making connections with audiences who may feel distant from the climate crisis spotlight or who have trouble personalizing such a complex, vast topic. Climate fiction can help readers be more empathetic, Brady said, and to see climate change as a part of larger global systems and history “in a way that scientific studies and news articles can’t.” .
Fiction can also make threats that might otherwise seem amorphous or far-fetched feel immediate and intimate, turning metaphor into real, if only on the page. In “Anthem,” which takes place in a dystopian near future, writer Noah Hawley begins a section titled “Now,” with this chilling premise: “The summer our kids started killing themselves. It was the hottest in history.”
The climate crisis, in “Anthem,” is one of many intractable problems fueling a global conflagration of teen suicides, so many that society soon collapses into heartbreaking chaos, crying parents march through the streets, Desperate to cure their children’s despair. What one doesn’t realize is that the despair stems not only from the knowledge of the damage being done to the planet but also from the shock that little is being done by adults to fix it. “Did the adults know this?” Learning firsthand about the dangers of global warming, one of the protagonists wonders.
The world of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s “How High We Go in the Dark” is somehow darker than the violent, chaotic America that is present in “Anthem”; We spend a chapter at an amusement park built for the purpose of quickly and painlessly euthanizing children. “How High We Go in the Dark” is set in a future ravaged by a centuries-long climate plague, a virus detected in thawing permafrost that kills children in unfathomable numbers. Both books transform an abstraction (We are making the planet unsafe for future generations) in a boring reality that is very difficult to break away from. Like George Orwell’s “1984,” these books offer a distorted reflection of our present—and warnings about our future.
“Anthem” and “How High We Go in the Dark” share elements of sci-fi and fantasy, which were once the sole province of writers seeking to explore climate change in fiction. In 2016, novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh said that 2010 may someday be known as “The Great Derangement”, “for the time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into methods of concealment that Used to prevent people from recognizing. Word.” Ghosh lamented the lack of serious engagement with climate change in literature, particularly outside of science fiction and fantasy, and predicted an “imaginative and cultural failure” if more writers did not act to fill the gap. Climate silence.
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Perhaps because the effects of extreme weather have become harder to ignore, the literary landscape that Ghosh surveyed in 2016 has changed. In fact, climate fiction may someday cease to exist as a genre. “I do believe that over time, the notion of climate fiction is going away,” Brady said. “Writing a novel would be about talking about climate change because it is the world we live in. It affects every aspect of our lives, and continues to grow.
In 2021 “Climate Crisis Is Here; So what is climate fiction? Don’t You Dare Call It a Genre,” author Lydia Millett makes a passionate case for realistic climate fiction, intimate stories of ordinary lives that unfold in the present day. She writes, “The climate crisis has not been relegated to the realm of belief “Because that’s the crisis our literature is grappling with … direct engagement with the real.”
Millet’s “Dinosaurs” is an example of this form of climactic narrative, a quiet, quotidian tale that follows Gil, a heartbroken man who moves to Arizona and becomes embroiled in the lives of his neighbors, both human. No more. Gill is well aware of what the climate crisis has done; He can see and feel its consequences all around him. Like many of us, he is still “doing little things. planning his teenage life. As if there was no emergency in sight. ,
Along with Gill, the affection for the birds that live and die in his backyard becomes that of the reader. The birds in this novel symbolize the fragility and resilience of nature; After all, birds are the descendants of survivors of previous mass extinctions. “Without the last of the dinosaurs,” Gill tells himself, “the sky would be empty.” Near the end of the novel, Gil asks the birds for their help, a flight of fancy as he looks around for answers. “If only the birds would put up a fight,” he thinks, a fight that is as much for our survival as theirs. Eventually, he has to face the truth about the animals he loves. They don’t have hands to write. Or bear arms. And no words.
Fiction can furnish us with possibilities and scenarios and dreams; It can visualize the world and the future; Build Hellscape and Utopia; focus our attention and open our eyes; Invite speculation and wonder and horror. It can show us many paths, but it cannot tell which one to choose; It cannot solve the puzzle of our own inaction. In “Companion Piece,” Ali Smith’s Strange, Confusing The novel, the kind of book, like Millett’s, where climactic shocks hum into the background of the plot like eerie hold music, the narrator giving answers to a young girl who is struggling for a solution. It is clear that she can also be understood as a stand-in for the author, speaking directly to her concerned readers. “A story is never an answer,” she says. “A story is always a question.”
Kelly Banes is a writer and journalist whose work has previously appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Believer and elsewhere.