BOOK REVIEW: Cli-fi — coming soon to a planet near you
Two new science-fiction books hope to wake us up to the frightening reality of what climate change means
The awful attraction of climate-based science fiction, or “cli-fi”, is that it’s only borderline fiction. In real time we are witnesses to the formative aspects of the story, though we don’t want to believe what we see. Good cli-fi serves a vital purpose: literature may help to shake us from ignorance, indifference or inaction.
Two new novels do that, potently. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, set just a few years from now, imagines a UN-affiliated body that starts to take matters into its own hands to mitigate the ruinous behaviours of wealthier nations and the global elite. The 2084 Report by James Lawrence Powell projects further ahead on the assumption that most governments and citizens scorned the science until it was too late, and then their 21st-century efforts at alleviation were utterly inadequate.
Robinson, hailed by The New Yorker as “one of the greatest living science-fiction writers”, has dedicated much of his life and literary career to raising awareness of the Anthropocene. He knows how to compel interest: The Ministry for the Future has a horrifying opening 10-page chapter in which global warming crescendos as a hellish scenario in provincial India, killing 20-million people.
The sole survivor is an aid worker, Frank May. In a menacing manifestation of his severe post-traumatic stress disorder, May invades the home of the ministry’s chief, middle-aged Irishwoman Mary Murphy, to confront her. Murphy is scared and shocked into the realisation that, as the supposed present-day representative of all future generations, she has to do more. Sensible strategies and political lobbying have proven futile.
Subsequently, the thriller-mystery aspect of the book lies in grappling with whether it’s the ministry that is engaging in a black-ops fightback against climate abusers, or whether escalating terrorist attacks are being perpetrated by groundswell, Yellow Vest-like citizens’ groupings. In parallel, scientific intrigue is provided by the ministry’s specialist climate scientists and geologists who, in a race against time, are trying to geo-engineer the globe back to some semblance of balance. The novel has other themes and dimensions: capitalism’s failures, the unravelling of norms in the face of technology and socio-economic turmoil, the fracturing of geopolitical alignments.
The two novels have a clear commonality and focal point: a powerful tinge of anger and a damning judgment of our collectively culpable generation
May as catalyst and Murphy as protagonist are two unlikely possible saviours of the planet. Using multiple narrative perspectives and literary forms such as news reports, op-ed commentaries, meeting minutes, lectures and brainteasers posed by what are apparently celestial bodies, Robinson conveys a spectrum of astounding ideas as to what could be done, ranging from the creation of a new political economy that forces the greed out of capitalism, the full-scale harnessing of technology for good, and transformational tax regimes to reduce income inequalities. Reasonably informed readers will know of many of these concepts and proposals, but not in the complex detail provided by Robinson, nor unleashed in a narrative arc that ties them to the welfare of the planet.
The 2084 Report is markedly different. In the style of eyewitness accounts or interview transcripts collated by the historian-narrator, a near-apocalyptic world is revealed. Almost everywhere, civilisation is on the brink: ecosystems have been destroyed, making Earth uninhabitable; climate refugees have inundated the few remaining areas where water and food is available; survival-related crime is rampant. Unlike Ministry for the Future, the chroniclers in The 2084 Report know the battle has been lost; ideas mooted 60-70 years earlier were never tried, so the Report’s only objective is to catalogue the death rattles as humankind nears its last generation.
Powell’s litany of projected disasters is entirely credible, rooted in today’s science and empirical evidence. One is that coastal cities will no longer exist, soon to be drowned by the dramatically rising seas. Think Rotterdam, by 2084 long lost despite the legendary, 700-year triumph of Dutch engineering that kept the North Sea at bay. A quarter of a million people have drowned in the Netherlands, the country is halved in land size, the economy ruined and its citizens must face up to voluntary absorption into either France or Germany.
The destruction of the Amazon rainforests is another calamity with permanent consequences. “The Metyktire, the Kayopo, the Yanomami — we’re all nearly gone now,” records the last living Amazonian tribesman. This is mortifying in its plausibility: “Amazon tribes in danger of extinction,” warned a 2017 Al-Jazeera documentary.
These distillations of devastation make The 2084 Report the more shocking book. Its allusion to George Orwell’s 1984 — and alignment with the climate doomsdayism of University of Cumbria Professor Jem Bendell’s 2018 “Deep Adaptation” paper — draws global warming to its frightening, dystopian conclusion.
The Ministry for the Future is more hopeful, dovetailing with the climate justice stance of organisations such as UK-based political website openDemocracy and the Extinction Rebellion movement, which demand drastic action to counter fatalistic attitudes in the belief that we haven’t quite reached the tipping point. Still, it too is deeply disturbing, and in its scale, structure, scope of ideas and provocation — the necessity of radical measures, even an embrace of violent ecoterrorism — it may be considered a revolutionary work.
Ultimately, though, the two novels have a clear commonality and focal point: a powerful tinge of anger and a damning judgment of our collectively culpable generation. “Murderers of children unborn,” is how one of Powell’s interviewees describes leaders of the early 21st century. Robinson cajoles, fractionally less starkly. “I am blood in the streets, the catastrophe you can never forget,” poses one of the riddles in The Ministry for the Future. “You know what I am. I am History. Now make me good.”
The skill of both books is to simultaneously intrigue and infuriate. If writers — representing Everyman — can see the urgent necessity for humanity to respect the planet, why can’t our leaders?
Taken together, then, they present a vision of our current crossroads. Unless we act now, in a manner something akin to forming a dynamic Ministry for the Future, can we be sure catastrophe isn’t a matter of two generations hence?
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