Climate fiction: Waking us up as we sleep walk to disaster

“Thanks for believing in these engines of empathy, they will change the world”. said Barbara Kingsolver, at the Hay Arts and Literature Festival in Wales.

The “engines” are of course novels, “the only form of art that lets you look through the eyes of someone else, that moves you inside another person,” she said, even allowing you to experience different genders or social classes.

They’re so effective, she said, because they present information on a “human scale” that we can absorb.

I’ve written about how fiction changes us, and how I think it’s been under-used as a way of communicating about the environment.

So when she said that her new novel, Flight Behaviour, focussed on climate change, her new  “passion” (her words, not mine), I practically had to stop myself from squealing aloud from my seat.

“There’s nothing I could care about more,” she said. “I live in a place where I see lives being lost in this great unwinnable war,” she said.

The novel aims to answer a key question: “What happens when one person decides to tell the truth [about climate change]?”

It’s easy to think “let’s let the scientists think about this,” Kingsolver said. As a result she’s purposefully written a novel that shows that anyone can think about its implications. Through the novel’s unlikely protagonist, a young mother called Dellarobia from a poor family from the Southern Appalachians in America, she tackles the misconception that “environmentalism doesn’t apply to people who are poor.”

Dellarobia sees an unlikely event and decides to tell others about it. That event is a huge gathering of monarch butterflies, which normally winter in Mexico, but which have settled north for the first time in thousands of years on trees on a tract of mountainous land in the Appalachians. They are a sign of climate change: a “symptom of something huge”.

This is how Dellarobia describes her first sighting of the butterflies:

“The view out across the valley was puzzling and unreal, like a sci-fi movie. From this overlook she could see the whole mountainside that lay opposite, from top to bottom, and the full stand of that forest was thickly loaded with these bristly things. The fir trees in the hazy distance were like nothing she’d ever seen, their branches droopy and bulbous. The trunks and boughs were speckled and scaly like trees covered with corn flakes. She had small children, she’d seen things covered with corn flakes.”

Kingsolver’s ability to use domestic language to describe the environment is refreshing. I have small kids, aged seven and five, and can attest that it all rings very true. (Having just had my jeans covered in smoothie last night by my child, I should know. I had to strip my jeans off at the dining room table or avoid my thigh freezing over.)

In fact Kingsolver manages to tackle two subjects that many novelists steer shy of: climate change and children.

She pointed out that “children are almost never characters of fiction” because so many authors aren’t near children, likely because it’s not easy to raise children and find time to write. But Kingsolver is a mum and has been during her entire writing career – and that makes the novel’s domestic portraits so real, cornflakes and all.

Kingsolver said her favourite character is Preston, Dellarobia’s five-year old son in the novel. He’s smart and earnest: “He looked up at her with such a sorrowful, anxious face she felt awful. Five and a half years of age, and already he had a worry line between his eyebrows.” In story writing terms, Preston’s crucial because he “demonstrates the stakes of climate change,” Kingsolver said.

Cli-fi anyone?

Crucially she has written about climate change at a time when, according to this blog anyway, few authors are. “It’s an unpleasant conversation to have, no doubt about it – and maybe that’s why it’s not really taking place in fiction, at least not centre-stage,” says Daniel Kramb.

This NPR Books article paints a different picture citing novels such as Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow and Kingsolver’s as a sign that writers: “have begun to set their novels and short stories in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth’s systems are noticeably off-kilter”.

This literary “genre” has even got a name: climate fiction or cli-fi for short. But for now that remains a cute term known by the literary crowd (whoever they are); time will tell whether it becomes an important theme.

Kingsolver thought many novelists avoided tackling climate change because it’s a contentious “can of worms”. Also if they’re not trained scientists they might feel it’s out of their depth, she said. Kingsolver has a degree in biology and worked as a science journalist before becoming a writer, so has none of those hang-ups.

She’s definitely a novelist with a social conscience, having established the PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction in 2000 for a work of fiction that addresses an issue of “social justice”. Kingsolver funds the prize.

Kingsolver seems happily able weave the science facts into the fiction. The trick, she said, was to pack “little physics and science lessons” so they don’t “intrude upon your reading experience”.

The result, she hopes, is a novel that “can wake us up from our sleep walk”.

Have you read the book? Do you think she succeeds? What other novelists do you think have tackled climate change or any other environmental topic successfully?