Review of Climate Fictions


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Nonfiction Reviews


Review of Climate Fictions

Bruce Lindsley Rockwood

Alison Sperling, ed. Climate Fictions: Paradoxa #31. Paradoxa, 2019-20. Print, 451 pg. $48.00, ISBN: 9781929512416. PDF $42.00. Available for order at https://paradoxa.com/no-30-climate-fictions-2020/.

Climate Fictions is an interdisciplinary collection of 30 short essays, offering critical interpretation and exploration of the role of art, performance, music, digital games, and stories in understanding the climate challenge and possible responses from diverse perspectives. In an introductory essay, editor Alison Sperling reviews the various terms for the genre, whether “Climate-change fiction, climate fiction, cli-fi, or in this introduction also denoted as CF” that she notes “was coined (and since championed, now policed) by blogger Dan Bloom in 2007, and popularized by a retweet from speculative fiction author Margaret Atwood in 2012” (9). The volume is divided into three parts: Part I: Simulation, Part II: Narration, and Part III: Speculation. Each part is further divided into Dialogues and Essays. Each contribution is documented by footnotes or lists of sources, and many include photographs or other illustrations of the work discussed.

The collection offers contributions that reflect “crucial insights that reveal the many ways in which climate change is bound to innumerable forms of oppression due to colonialism and extractivism, environmental racism, homophobia, and ableism” (17).

Sperling notes at the conclusion of her introduction, “Schneider-Mayerson has recently written that ‘in the very near future, almost all literature will become a form of what we now think of as climate change fiction, defined broadly’ (Schneider-Mayerson, “Climate Change Fiction” 318). It is possible that the more climate change comes to dominate the fictions and imaginative realms in the future, the already unstable category of cli-fi may prove to be overly capacious. [. . .] But the issue as a whole worries less about cli-fi as a category and more about the ways that climate fictional works interrogate inter-related histories and systems at work in a changing climate, as well as about how the fictions we tell ourselves also shape the climate” (18-19).

Cli-Fi’s importance is illustrated by a link showing 291 books under the term: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/36205.Cli_Fi_Climate_Change_Fiction, and numerous reviews on the subject, e.g., “Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre,” by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Dissent (Summer, 2013), and resources at  http://www.asjournal.org/62-2017/cli-fi-american-studies-research-bibliography/. This volume recognizes and responds to that reality while opening it up to new and wider perspectives.

The visual and performance arts center the first four dialogues in the collection. In “Tomorrow You Are a Cactus,” Simon(e) van Saarloos and Paula Chaves Bonilla discuss the role of performance in presenting their reality “[a]s queer people, as racialized artists,” (28) and explain “Omni Toxica [2019] is inspired by a myth about the message of the coca plant” (27). Chaves Bonilla affirms, “Speaking about climate change, marica, it’s important to say: the end of the world already happened a thousand times for marginalised communities, habibi. It’s been more than five hundred years of ongoing fight against the complete erasure of our peoples. More than five hundred years since the white Europeans came and the fight against the extraction and colonisation of our lands started. The end of the world already happened” (24).

In “Balance is Possible,” Stina Attebery carries on a conversation with Elizabeth LaPensée, “an award-winning artist who both creates and researches Indigenous Futurisms in media. She is Anishinaabe with family from Bay Mills, Métis, and Irish” (31). LaPensée’s work includes computer games Coyote Quest (2017) and Thunderbird Strike (2017), and the comic Deer Woman: A Vignette (2017) (32-33). They explore the role these pieces play in reaching young people. LaPensée notes, “My greatest hope is to reflect the importance of the land and waters as they are, to facilitate reciprocity, and to give space for people to make their own meaning” (36).

In “The Future was Yesterday,” Dehlia Hannah interviews Charles Stankievech to discuss his installations and video work projects, including “The Drowned World” (2019)  (based on J. G. Ballard’s novel) for the Toronto Biennial (38), and the video installation LOVELAND (2009-2011) and its relationship to M. P. Shiel’s 1901 novel The Purple Cloud (40-41). Stankievech asserts that “Good science fiction at its core is always conceptual, and some of the earliest pieces were more impressive as conceptual ponderings than written craft” (42).

In “Sun & Sea (Marina) Performing Climate Change,” Alison Sperling explores with creators Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Rugilé Barzdžiukaitė their work which “took place as an opera-performance in the Lithuanian Pavilion [. . .] as an adapted durational work in English at the 2019 La Biennale di Venezia.” It “took place on a constructed beach inside of a warehouse off-site from the main grounds of the Venice Biennale, where performers in beachwear and reclining on beach towels sang their respective parts of an ecological-libretto lasting about one hour” (47). The performers are largely white, “vacationers sipping planetary resources as a Pina Colada” (50).   

Part I’s essay section begins with Bogna Konior’s “Modeling Realism: Digital Media, Climate Simulations and Climate Fictions,” which argues that climate change is “a phenomenon that we know only through computerized simulation and statistical probability” (57). We can’t observe it except through elaborate computer models, which help us talk about the future in ways we can use to address the present. “Climate models are like petri dishes for growing fictional Earths so that we can learn about our real Earth” (66). Given the heat dome in the North American west in 2021, which is highly visible to all, this claim that climate change can only be observed through models is open to question. See, for example: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jun/28/portland-seattle-heatwave-heat-dome-temperatures.

Péter Kristóf Makai then addresses the role of board games in talking about climate change, in “Climate Change on Cardboard: Ecological Eurogames,” to clarify the abstract nature of climate change to lay audiences (77). “The four board games presented here—20th Century, Rescue Polar Bears, Keep Cool and CO2—all work based on the assumption that humans make a difference; it’s also what makes the process adaptable to the board game medium” (82). He discusses the difference in American and European board game design traditions, and notes the emergence of cooperative games which play a role in some of those he reviews (84-89). He concludes that games “may also provide our best method for consciousness-raising, because they place human agency at the center of their rule-defined mechanics” (97).

In contrast, Cameron Kunzelman brings a skeptical eye (105) to “Video Games as Interventions in the Climate Disaster,” proposing that “modeling, affect, and direct intervention are modes of innervation that tie into distinct ways of politicizing play and generating some kind of player response around questions of climate” (107). Games reviewed to illustrate modeling and affect include Civilization IV (2005) and VI (2016), Frostpunk (2018), Fate of the World (2011), Subnautica (2018), and Gathering Storm (2019) (107-115). Kunzelman concludes by arguing that the third approach, direct intervention, by combining elements of modeling and the affective relationship with climate, is the best way for games to make a significant “ideological impact on players who might be either neutral or hostile to arguments about the necessity of addressing climate change. I see both Eco (Strange Loop Games, 2018) and the Minecraft (Mojang, 2011) mod GlobalWarming (Porillo, 2018) as emblematic of this synthetic mode that place [sic] players within a subject position within a broader system that models climate change” (116).

In “Nodding Off from the Anthropocene: Picnolepsy and Rehearsing Disappearance in Space Exotic,” Andrew Wenaus reviews a post-World War II musical subgenre, space exotica, “an eccentric take on popular mood music” that “at once prioritizes an optimistic escape from Earth while intimating a need to leave the planet” (123). The world may end but we can ignore this as the music “offers at once picnoleptic blips of escape from the anxieties of global catastrophe” (125).   

The concluding essay in Part I is “The Legend of Zelda in the Anthropocene,” by Gerry Canavan (143-167), which contains a detailed and thoughtful examination of the entire Zelda/Link/Ganon franchise story line framed as an examination as well of the deeply pessimistic Anthropocene worldview that the current generation of game players  face. ”The game’s breathtaking visuals and acclaimed open-world gameplay are thus part and parcel of what I will argue here is its sourly dyspeptic vision of climate crisis in the  Anthropocene  [. . .]; Wild’s Hyrule is no longer a site for wish-fulfillment and juvenile power fantasies but a grim premediation of a depopulated and (multiply) destroyed civilization, whose inevitable, always-already ruined future can only be partially and provisionally mitigated, not prevented or saved. In a twisted version of Jameson’s famous ‘nostalgia for the present’ (279 and passim), then, we therefore see registered within Hyrule’s collapse our culture’s anticipation of its own coming disruption by the climate crisis” (145-146).

Parts II and III similarly address important themes in climate fiction’s place in the diverse and cross-cultural world of the 21st century. The dialogs in Part II include “Stories of Where We Come From” by Viola Lasmana  and Khairani Barokka, a conversation “where we spoke about the possibilities of language and imagination (what Okka expresses as ‘cosmologies within languages’), the fictions already embedded in what one might think of as facts, and the inextricable links between capitalism, the environment, climate change, colonial violence, disability justice, and indigenous cultures” (169-174). Stef Craps follows with “Last Aboriginal Person Standing in a Climate-Changed Australia: A Conversation with Alexis Wright” (175-181).  Jim Clarke converses with SF scholar and author Adam Roberts in “The Malign Flipside of Fluke,” including a discussion of Roberts’s novel The Black Prince (2018) (183-187). In “Dear Environment: Dialog with Anna Zett,” we explore Zett’s on-going “project Deponie (Dump), which includes video works as well as sculptural installations deploying piles of gravel and remnant ashes from industrially incinerated household waste” (190-195). Callum Copley concludes with “Documenting Fictions” in conversation with Federico Barni, discussing his work on “how climate operates at the intersection of fiction and fact in literature and filmmaking” (196-202).

The essays in Part II explore the “Stories We Tell About the End of the World: (Post)Apocalyptic Climate Fiction Working Towards Climate Justice” by Julia D. Gibson (204-228), “Tracking Climate Change from Ancient Times” (230-245 ), an essay on J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (246-266), and an examination of the Australian author James Edmond’s 1911 short story, “The Fool and His Inheritance” (267-288). The concluding essay explores climate change and “Cosmic Horror in John Langan’s The Fisherman” (289-304).

Part III’s Speculations include the dialogues “Ruins and Erosion: Reflections on the CaseDuna Project” in Brazil (305-313); an exploration of the art of Janet Laurence in “Through the Portal” (315-323); “Architectures of Seed Banking” (323-331); a conversation with the educator, author, editor, and public speaker Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015), in “There Are No Givens” (333-339); and M. Ty’s interview with artist and filmmaker Shu Lea Cheang in “Uncertain Harvest” (341-351), including a discussion of Cheang’s 1994 film Fresh Kill, about an “outbreak of radioactive fish lips” in a New York restaurant (341). Cheang discusses her 2017 film Fluidø, and concludes by commenting, “To invite people for a dinner these days involves a survey of dietary situations, and certainly this takes us back to environmental and health issues, to ethical beliefs, body natures, and the demise of immune systems. Food is political. Sex is political. Being is political” (351).

In the concluding essays in Part III, Suzanne F. Boswell in “The Four Tourists of the Apocalypse” addresses “Figures of the Anthropocene in Caribbean Climate Fiction” (353-371). Alexander Popov and Konstantin Georgiev explore Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) in “Crises  of Water and the New Maps to Utopia” (373-395), while Conrad Scott examines “Ecocritical Dystopianism and Climate Fiction,” including the works of Atwood, Butler, Erdrich, Jemisin, Kingsolver, and others, and the criticism of Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek. Tyler Austin Harper examines the “Climate Fiction, Paranoid Anthropocentrism, and the Politics of Existential Risk,” discussing Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men, and a  British tradition of “paranoid anthropocentrism” (420) seen in such works as J.B.S. Haldane’s The Last Judgment (1927) and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007). Harper argues ”that paranoid anthropocentrism is intimately bound up with a disavowal, not of the possibility of utopia—paranoid anthropocentric depictions of the struggle for human survival are often deeply (and perversely) utopian—but of specifically emancipatory utopias in which responsibility for the survival of the human race would be democratically distributed” (427). Harper cites Kathryn Yusoff in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018), who he says “argues that whiteness functions as a place of power from which to organize and administer the dispensation of environmental risk in an age of climatic crisis” (428). Glyn Morgan concludes the volume with “Economies of Scale: Environmental Plastics, SF and Graphic Narratives.”  He cites Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016) for the claim that climate change “defies both literary fiction and contemporary common sense” (436) and offers to “examine comic book forms of SF to reinsert them into our discourse around climate change and genre fiction” (437), including a discussion of the Great Pacific (2013-2015) comic book series, William Gibson’s The Peripheral (2014), and Richard McGuire’s Here (2014). No review can do justice to every contribution to this fascinating and stimulating volume. It introduces the reader to specialist texts and insights that one would not otherwise encounter, while providing comprehensive critical essays on a range of SF texts that fall within the broad scope of Cli-Fi or Climate Fiction. It is a useful reference tool for researchers in the field and should be in any academic library collection.

Bruce Lindsley Rockwood, Emeritus Professor of Legal Studies at Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania, is a long-time member of SFRA, having served as Vice President (2005-2006), and regularly writes reviews for SFRA Review from his retirement home in Midcoast Maine. He edited a symposium “Law, Literature and Science Fiction” for the Legal Studies Forum (XXIII #3, 1999), has taught and published on law, literature and science fiction, and attends SFRA and WorldCon with his wife Susan when possible (most recently in Montreal and Spokane, and the June, 2021 virtual SFRA). A fan of all things Terry Pratchett. Since retirement he has taught Environmental Law and Ethics for Coastal Senior College, https://coastalseniorcollege.org/ and serves on the land use advisory committee for the town of Damariscotta.


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