Catherine Bush

Climate Science/Climate Culture

Possibilities for Bio-Empathetic Fiction

Talk delivered at Fiction Meets Science: Narrating Science Conference, Toronto, Thursday May 25, 2017.


1.) Provocations

In thinking about fiction’s possibilities at a time of crisis in the biosphere, I’ve recently been challenged by two writers: the Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton and Indo-American novelist Amitav Ghosh.

In a recent excerpt from his new book Defiant Earth, due out in North America in June, Hamilton writes: Bookshops are regularly replenished with tomes about world futures … as if climate scientists do not exist.”

He goes on to note: “Many intellectuals in the social sciences and humanities do not concede that Earth scientists have anything to say that could impinge on their understanding of the world, because the “world” consists only of humans engaging with humans, with nature no more than a passive backdrop to draw on as we please.” (quotes taken from excerpt in The Guardian, May 5, 2017)

Cue Amitav Ghosh from the section entitled “Stories” in his 2016 nonfiction work, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which tackles our cultural inability to imaginatively respond to or confront the scale and potential destructions of climate change.

“If the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over – and this I think is very far from being the case. But why?

 There can be no doubt that this challenge arises in part from the complexities of the technical language that serves as our primary window on climate change. But neither can there be any doubt that the challenge derives also from the practices and assumptions that guide the arts and humanities.” (The Great Derangement, University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Both these quotations are excerpts from books, whose production timelines mean that the words themselves were written at least a few years ago. And things are beginning to change in our literature or literatures, which is my area of interest here. Both Ghosh and Hamilton are speaking about literary fiction, which exists largely in a realist mode. I, too, will be focusing my comments to address literary fiction, my area of expertise. There are a growing number of works of literary fiction that touch on climate change in some way. Literary works themselves take time to create: the process of assimilating complex and difficult subject matter and transforming it into art can be slow. Nevertheless, the words of Hamilton and Ghosh are provocative, useful and gesture in essential and troubling directions.


2.) Where are all the climate scientists?

There’s Michael Beard, the comic and utterly cynical anti-hero of Ian McEwan’s 2010 novel Solar, who steals his graduate student’s ideas on climate change. Alas, this is a novel in which idealism is pretty literally killed off and the climate scientist fails to embody any real complexity. The sympathetic and sexy entomologist in Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behaviour breaks down in one extended scene, furious at his interviewer’s failure to take climate change seriously as a factor in the disturbance of monarch butterfly migration patterns. At this moment in the novel, he becomes simultaneously a conduit for scientific information and for an outrage that may well echo the author’s own. The scene is potent yet underscores how difficult it is to pull off these two registers (the informational and the angry) within a fictional narrative. There’s also Tina, the geochemist in Susan Gaines’s Carbon Dreams (2000), a novel set in the early 80s that I haven’t yet read: she’s forced to confront the climatic implications of her research into the geological past. No doubt I’m overlooking others but I can’t think of many. I will mention that I’m working on a novel in which a climate scientist is one of the protagonists, though not the narrator. His career destroyed by climate change deniers, he retreats a la Shakespeare’s Prospero to a remote island where, bereft at the speed of melting Arctic ice, he and those around him contemplate and wrestle with the implications of a potential geoengineering field experiment.

So, a lack of climate scientists in fiction.


3) What else is missing?

Ghosh, and others, make the point that until recently climate change came to us largely through scientific projections based on data rather than through lived experience. Change was occurring or would occur at a scale and on a timeline that is difficult for most people to conceive. This itself is changing. The increasing unpredictability of the weather and the seasons are now experienced in an ongoing way by increasing numbers of people. In my pocket of eastern Ontario fifty-year droughts are followed months later by torrential rains and flooding not seen for the last twenty five years. In response to the recent floods, our Prime Minster, a pipeline advocate, says that we’ll have to get used to such extremes and links them to climate change. Yet most contemporary realist literary fiction still fails to register climate change as lived experience. If weather extremes do enter a fictional world they enter as metaphor or symbol, backdrop to the human drama rather than, say, intimately connected to it.

It is true that many people live lives in which climate change remains a silent and unacknowledged backdrop. They may know the science and the long-term peril but don’t talk about it or think about it or think about how their own actions, the flights for business or vacation to London or Peru or Thailand, have agency in relationship to it. We live within a culturally sanctioned fiction that maintains climate change as a largely unspoken absence. Our silence likely derives in part from a mixture of terror and shame and from our psychological dependence on comfort and myths of continuity and capitalist-derived notions of progress. In literary fiction, this absence is itself an unacknowledged absence or evasion.

One of literature’s powerful effects, on the page and culturally, is to gesture to what cannot be spoken. It’s thus useful to speak of present absences and absent absences in works of fiction. The writer makes the reader aware of the present absence: it has presence, in other words. Clive Hamilton cites the example of Kazuo Ishiguro summoning the horror of the bombing of Nagasaki without ever mentioning it directly. Ishiguro is a consummate artist of the present absence in novels such as An Artist of the Floating World (1986) and Never Let Me Go (2005). But in most contemporary fiction, as in the wider culture, climate change remains an absent absence, un-invoked, not gestured to.

Also absent are climate change narratives that aren’t disaster sagas or ones in which climate change is a catastrophic backdrop to a conventional human story of love or survival against the odds. In most disaster narratives, the human story of desire and survival undercuts the thematic threat of human extinction.


4) Let’s turn now to some possibilities

When it comes to integrating actual climate science into a novel, it can be difficult to determine how much science a novel can hold. The reader’s investment in a novel is strongly emotional. Information reaches us usually through what characters know and perceive and respond to. Otherwise information risks becoming ideology or advocacy or inert fact. Or the writer is Herman Melville.

A climate scientist protagonist can be a psychological and embodied delivery vehicle for science. And there is enormous dramatic potential in the circumstances of many contemporary climate scientists: the attacks by deniers, email hackings, even death threats, the internal conflict between the practice of letting data and evidence speak versus the desire to speak out in warning as James Hansen has done; Kevin Anderson, the British climate scientist, refuses to fly and will only travel by train and boat, as he did to reach China; members of the Dark Snow project are now attempting to conduct their research on the Greenland ice sheets using solar power and a wind-driven sled; the debates over geoengineering.

Interestingly, when I told the head of Cape Farewell, the British cultural organization committed to creating cultural responses to climate change, that I wanted to write about geoengineering in my novel, he told me adamantly that I shouldn’t. This is the man who organized tours for select famous artists and writers, including Ian McEwan, bringing them to the Arctic by boat to experience its climatic upheavals firsthand.

Let’s stop and define geoengineering: the intentional human tampering with the planetary climate in an attempt to offset some of the consequences of our reliance on fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-based industries, such as rising atmospheric carbon levels, which are helping to warm the global climate.

One of the perceived perils of even talking about the possibilities of geoengineering is that its lure of a tech fix takes attention away from what we should really be doing: radically reducing our global carbon footprint. Emotionally, I understood this man’s desire not to give geoengineering any artistic space, because of its moral and actual dangers. Yet he was also invoking censorship of a subject that was increasingly being discussed in the real world. Literary art can be a potent way to give voice to the complexity of such debates, and to the emotional forces that shape them.

More and more novels are making climate change present as lived experience. Sometimes the gestures are small and indirect, perhaps necessarily so. There is the risk always that directly invoking climate change will seem over-determined and too directly invoke end-times and human hubris. Nathaniel Rich has spoken of not wanting to use the words at all in his novel, Odds Against Tomorrow (2013). In Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (2014), the anticipated Hurricane-Sandy-like hurricane never actually arrives. In Alix Ohlin’s story Quarantine (2017), the young adult characters vow to “tread lightly on the earth,” and later, as an older woman Bridget finds herself thinking of “an article about a scientist who had proved that trees could form a kind of friendship.” There is thus a quiet invocation of an altering world and a just-registered awareness of the world beyond the human, which also stands to face radical damage. “On the warm days, it feels wrong,” is a description of the month of October in Ali Smith’s novel Autumn (2016); the novel’s repeated and rhythmic descriptions of weather and seasonal change and their incremental, sometimes barely noticeable alterations are interleaved with other personal and social disruptions in immediate post-Brexit England.

One of the most successful instances of climate change invoked as a present absence occurs in Martha Baillie’s wonderful novel, The Search for Heinrich Schlogel (2014). A young German man treks across Baffin Island in the 1980s and returns to the town of Pangnirtung only to discover that he’s experiencing the extreme and unexplained discontinuity of being transported to the year 2010. The novel, which never explains how this occurs, is narrated by an archivist who notes in a footnote her own failure to think much about climate change. Heinrich himself is troubled by a mysterious sound in his ears, a form of tinnitus, identified as the rush of melt water growing persistently louder and louder. The reader, too, is not allowed to forget this sound. I find this a haunting and memorable way to invoke the background presence of climate change, perhaps out of sight but to which we are all intimately, constantly connected.


5) What beyond disaster narratives?

Fiction is a mode of imaginative thought that allows for the empathetic and embodied entering of other beings. Its DNA is metaphoric: one thing, words, becomes another, the representation of a world and the creatures in it. It is an art of transformation, of crossing over. Change lies in a story’s beating heart.

The novel as we know it in contemporary North America came into its own alongside the industrial revolution in 18th and 19th-century Europe and the United Kingdom. The form attracted middle-class readers, which may explain the literary novel’s continued emphasis on largely middle-class people and its focus on the largely domestic, romantic and psychological problems of individuals. Much contemporary literary fiction thus registers as an outgrowth and symptom of market capitalism, its desires shaped by this cultural economy. Its resolute focus on the human and the dramas of the private self, at least in the West, follows a parallel trajectory with capitalism’s own obsession with self-aggrandizement and the primacy of the human over the rest of the living world.

It’s a fine line, these days, between the anthropo-focused and the anthropo-obscene.


6) Further provocations

Clive Hamilton, the Australian philosopher of climate change, goes on to say, in the same excerpt quote above: “grasping the scale of what is happening requires not only breaking the bubble but also making the cognitive leap to “Earth system thinking” – that is, conceiving of the Earth as a single, complex, dynamic system.”

This bears some relation to James Lovelock’s Gaia theory and his ideas about a self-regulating, interconnected biosphere.

And to the ways in which many indigenous peoples conceive of the earth and our interconnected relationship to the rest of the living world.

My question is this: Can contemporary literary fiction make its own cognitive and imaginative leap to “Earth-system thinking” and what would it look like?

Hamilton’s demand finds an echo in the manifesto of the UK-based Dark Mountain Project, which is committed to the creation of a new literature called Uncivilized Writing. In the words of the manifesto, written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine:

“The shifting of emphasis from man to not-man: this is the aim of Uncivilized writing. …This is not a rejection of our humanity – it is an affirmation of the wonder of what it means to be truly human.” The Dark Mountain Manifesto

The manifesto’s words echo those of 20th-century American poet Robinson Jeffers, whose work provides a deep inspiration for Kingsnorth and Hine as they re-imagine a relationship to the more-than-human world.

The shift that they call for invites a rebalancing of elements: narratives in which nonhuman presences have agency, even sentience, and occupy potentially as much space as the human. Clouds, wind, trees, birds, water. Everything is alive and connected. Perhaps system isn’t the right word after all. The reader is invited to reach towards this complex world with bio-empathy, to enter the more-than-human as we do the human.


7) Bio-empathy

Of course examples of this fiction already exist. They simply have to be looked for.

Here are a couple of examples.

In Hill, the first novel of French writer Jean Giono, originally published in 1929 and recently re-translated into English with an introduction by eco-philosopher David Abram, the world is sentient and alive: plants, animals, stones, hills, clouds. While Giono’s narrative voice insists on sentience and through rampant metaphor continually connects every kind of aliveness to every other kind, the humans in the novel, French peasants, are terrified when forced to confront the living world and transform it into a menacing presence which they can then attack. This becomes the drama of the novel.

Giono himself writes: “All man’s errors arise because he imagines that he walks upon an inert thing when really his footsteps press themselves upon a flesh full of life.”

His later novel, Melville, also about to be reissued in English, offers a more optimistic vision: the central figure, an amalgam of Melville and Giono himself, invokes an interconnected, animate world in order to seduce another character and allow her to re-see and re-imagine the world in turn.

“He took hold of the tree with its sticky sap, its sound, its smell, its shape, its leaves, its four seasons, and…there was no telling how he did it, but she felt the tree in her heart and, at the same time, she could touch the bark.” (from Melville, translated by Paul Eprile, New York Review of Books, 2017.)

Jump forward to the contemporary. This is from a recent review by Wai Chee Dimmock in the New York Times Book Review of Borne, American Jeff Vandermeer’s newest novel. I’m quoting it at length because it feels so useful to my argument:

“Jeff VanderMeer likes to imagine nonhuman life-forms. In one sense this is nothing new; it’s the pride and glory of science fiction. But most sci-fi nonhumans tend to be human in appearance, resembling us in size, anatomy and general disposition, and departing from us only in one or two highlighted traits: the ears and super-rationality of the Vulcans in “Star Trek,” say, or the supposed lack of empathy in Philip K. Dick’s androids. VanderMeer turns that differential ratio on its head. His nonhumans are genre bending and taxonomy defying. They have unclassifiable shapes, complicated smells and inexplicable behavior. Especially in their fungal forms, they can be both plant and animal, their alienness at once unabashedly fictive yet almost empirically cataloged. The golden green and highly infectious nodules in the Southern Reach trilogy (2014) show up as English words and sentences — literally, the writing on the wall. The gray caps in “Finch” (2009), new rulers of Ambergris, spend their nights building fungus-draped towers that look “shaggy, almost as if they had fur, were flesh and blood,” while emitting a “smell like oil and sawdust and frying meat.” The mushrooms in “City of Saints and Madmen” (2001) are blue-tinged, four or five feet tall, with a stem as thick as an oak; the locals nickname them “white whales.” VanderMeer is that rare novelist who turns to nonhumans not to make them approximate us as much as possible but to make such approximation impossible.” The New York Times Book Review, May 5, 2017

Offering the rest of the world presence and sentience and agency in fiction doesn’t have to lead to the anthropomorphic. It’s beginning to strike me as extremely odd and symptomatically revealing than when, as a culture, we wish to write about alien intelligences, we do not turn to the other intelligences in our midst – whales, elephants, even trees – but to creatures who are both more like us and not from this planet. We evade the encounter with the close intelligences perhaps because they are too threatening and interfere with an ongoing cultural narrative of human exceptionalism, one that isn’t troubled by little green men. Ted Chiang makes this point in fiction in his brief, beautiful story narrated by a parrot, The Great Silence, (2015), which has also been given filmic life in an installation by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadillo.

Science fiction, as a genre, often leaves our own world inert in order to look elsewhere for intelligent life and the encounter with the other. It tends to prioritize the technical and the other-than-here rather than, say, opening to the interconnected multi-species societies in which we actually live. These become an absent absence.


8) Science

Science, as a scholarly and professional endeavour, values the analytical and evidence-based knowledge gathered from data. This data has revealed to us the ongoing and cumulating effects of anthropogenic climate change: rising carbon levels, the acidification of the oceans, melting of arctic ice. The rise of science as a discipline has occurred concurrently with the rise of industrial capitalism. Both depend on a view of the world as material, not part of us, something that can be objectified and exists to be of use to us. Human knowledge has been valued to the exclusion of nonhuman knowledge and ways of perceiving the world. This kind of thinking, which objectifies and materializes the world and conceptualizes and analyses it in terms of its utility, is often described as having roots in the left hemisphere of the brain. Most contemporary neuroscience acknowledges how intertwined the workings of the two hemispheres are. Still, when an individual has a right-hemispheric stroke and is left with only a functioning left brain hemisphere, this hemisphere can only perceive one side of the body, the right. Yet the damaged brain insists that this is all there is and refuses to believe there is anything else beyond it.


9) The Beginning

Literary fiction may be an increasingly marginalized or refined art form but the cultural narratives that surround and shape it still hold extraordinary power. We are the stories that we tell about ourselves. The story of human exceptionalism in an objectified world is a dangerous one that may destroy us. Our certainties are dangerous. Our insistence on thinking in the short-term and only of ourselves are traits that make us more inherently animal rather than uniquely human. Can we turn this ambivalent recognition of ourselves on its head and use it to embrace our animal nature?

Can the narrative of what science is change? A generative story acknowledges all that we don’t know and places us, animal, mammal, in relation to and within a web of other sentiences who are also agents and protagonists. We must evolve to be relational noticers: to pay attention to the world beyond the human and to the way it notices us. This act of reimagining ourselves is profound and necessary. We need to alter our brains. Let’s call the stories that we tell as we transform sentient fiction.

“Fairy tales are almost always the stories of the powerless, of youngest sons, abandoned children, orphans.... Fairy tales are children's stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one.”

— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby