Anthropocene Realism: Fiction in the Age of Climate Change

By | September 6, 2023

This book originated out of my desire to reclaim climate change fiction (cli-fi) from the view that it is primarily concerned with future disasters and written in modes that go beyond realism to encompass the horrors of the looming apocalypse. Brilliant though novels of this kind can be, they seemed to me to run the risk of ignoring the present effects of the climate crisis and pushing the task of addressing it onto the back burner. The underlying narrative seemed to be ‘This is what lies in store, if we don’t change our ways before it’s too late’. Engagement with the here and now was in short supply. Then in 2016, Amitav Ghosh’s stimulating book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable appeared and this helped me to crystalize my thinking about the modes in which cli-fi is written. Much though I admired The Great Derangement, I had reservations about some of its central tenets, and wrestling with these, I realized I had the nucleus of the book I wanted to write in my head. The detail would follow. I set out to consider a cross-section of climate novels from around the world (South and North; East and West). The only parameters determining my choice were that they should be the long present (a term I used to cover the actual present, the near future and an historic past that interacts with the present) and written in various forms of realism.  As I wrote the book, I found that I was increasingly seeing climate change as part of a larger phenomenon, the unparalleled exploitation of the planet in the Age of the Anthropocene. In Margaret Atwood’s words, ‘Everything change’, and by the time I had finished writing, I had come to the conclusion that a new realism might be necessary to represent the situation of the planet in the Anthropocene era.  Realism has traditionally been associated with depicting social worlds and in its most characteristic iterations, when the complications of its plots are resolved, the social order is reaffirmed. Cli-fi can offer no such solace, but, I argue, it demands realistic representation

In The Great Derangement, Ghosh offers a powerful indictment of the carbon economy and other anthropogenic interventions that have contributed to global warming. This is convincingly conveyed, but his study also engages with the poetics of representing climate change, with what Ghosh sees as fiction’s limitations when it comes to depicting the meteorological shifts that threaten the planet’s future. In an early passage, he maintains that the genre is built on a ‘scaffolding’ that prevents it from ‘confront[ing] the centrality of the improbable’ in the form of sudden disasters that stretch the bounds of credulity by contradicting gradualist notions of meteorological change. I take the view that realist fiction is not only capable, but ideally suited to representing the supposed improbability of climate change and Anthropocene activity more generally, particularly since these are the new normal.

So I set out to dispute Ghosh’s view by demonstrating realist fiction’s ability to represent climate change. I began by offering a brief genealogy of realism, with a particular focus on the eighteenth-century English and the nineteenth-century French novel and I located these two bodies of writing against some of the critical commentary that it has elicited. Much of the best of this criticism came from the late twentieth century, when, with poststructuralism in the ascendancy, realism was seen to be a constructed assemblage of a series of signs that provide an illusion of a transcribed real world. Yet, the reality of climate change seemed to demand a realist praxis and so, to acknowledge and to overcome this distrust of realism, by analogy with Gayatri Spivak’s term ‘strategic essentialism’, I introduced the notion of strategic realism.

What followed saw me looking at realism in numerous guises, ranging from the fairly straightforward mode of Barbara Kingsolver’s superb novel, Flight Behaviour to the complex juxtaposition of a realistic narrative and metafiction in Wu Ming-yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes. Most of the novels discussed in the book illustrate the local consequences of global warming. Two of them, Helon Habila’ Oil on Water, which shows the catastrophic effects of oil excavation and extraction in the Niger Delta, and Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, which sets its action in the aftermath of a chemical disaster, similar to the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, may appear to be different in that they deal with locally caused disasters. However, both foreground the role that multinational capitalism is playing in the Anthropocene despoliation of the planet, a subject that is touched upon in several of the other novels that I discuss, and as I wrote this became an important part of my book’s argument.

In conclusion: I discuss a dozen novels, which can be very different from one another, but share a commonality of purpose in their use of forms of realism to depict anthropogenic climate change and the deleterious effects of the Anthropocene order more generally. For me, eleven of these twelve novels, are both compulsive reading and texts that promote engagement with the crisis that is engulfing the planet. The twelfth novel also deals with climate issues and is very readable in some ways, but, well… please read my book to find out which novel it is, and why I feel it fails to take environmental issues seriously.

John Thieme, author of Anthropocene Realism, is currently Senior Fellow at the University of East Anglia, UK. He previously held Chairs at the University of Hull and London South Bank University and his previous books include Postcolonial Con-Texts: Writing Back to the Canon, Postcolonial Literary Geographies, and studies of Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul and R.K. Narayan.

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