As the Climate Changes, Climate Fiction Is Changing With It

In his third autobiography, the famed abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass lingered on the impact of a novel that he deemed “a work of marvelous depth and power.” When “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852, Douglass wrote, “nothing could have better suited the moral and humane requirements of the hour. Its effect was amazing, instantaneous and universal.”

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sold 1 million copies, inspired stage adaptations, songs and merchandise, and became wildly popular across the U.S. and the United Kingdom, where it sparked anti-slavery petitions and rallies. Southern writers were so incensed by its contents that they hurried to publish “Anti-Tom” novels defending slavery in response. Estimation of Uncle Tom’s influence hasn’t waned; writing in The New Yorker in 2011, the historian Annette Gordon-Reed called it “one of the most successful feats of persuasion in American history.”

Whether or not Abraham Lincoln really did refer to its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war” hardly matters: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” established a precedent for protest literature, setting the stage for reform-minded books like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and showed what it was possible to achieve with a story, well-told.   

Is it still possible for literature to change the world, or at least to change minds? For today’s writers of climate fiction, it’s a question that has never been more pressing. In 2022, unlike in Stowe’s 19th century, “novels don’t necessarily have the reach of a film or TV show,” said Amy Brady, the executive director at Orion Magazine and co-editor of a new anthology called “The World As We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate.” “But I think that climate fiction can get to people who wouldn’t otherwise think about climate change or want to talk about it.” 

The tools of fiction can be useful for forging connections with audiences who may feel distant from the frontlines of the climate crisis or who have trouble personalizing such a complicated, sprawling topic. “Climate fiction can help readers to be more empathetic,” Brady said, “and to see climate change as a part of larger global systems and a part of history” in a way that scientific studies and news articles may not. 

Fiction can also make threats that might otherwise seem amorphous or far-off feel immediate and visceral, turning the metaphorical into the real, if only on the page. In “Anthem,” which takes place in a dystopian near-future, author Noah Hawley starts a section titled “Now” with this chilling premise: “The summer our children began to kill themselves was the hottest in history.” 

The climate crisis, in “Anthem,” is one of many intractable problems fueling a global conflagration of teenage suicides, so many that society soon collapses into heartsick chaos, with weeping parents marching in the streets, desperate for a cure for their children’s despair. No one seems to realize that despair is born not only of the knowledge of the harm being done to the planet but of the shock that so little is being done by adults to rectify it. “Did grown-ups know this?” one of the protagonists wonders, after first learning about the dangers of global warming. 

The world of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s “How High We Go in the Dark” is somehow even darker than the violent, anarchic America the characters inhabit in “Anthem”; we spend a chapter at an amusement park created for the purpose of quickly and painlessly euthanizing kids. “How High We Go in the Dark” peers centuries into a future wrecked by climate plague, a virus unearthed in melting permafrost which kills children in unfathomable numbers. Both books transform an abstraction (we are making the planet unsafe for future generations) into a nauseating reality that is much harder to shrug off. Like George Orwell’s “1984,” these books offer a warped reflection of our present—and a warning about our future.

“Anthem” and “How High We Go in the Dark” share elements of sci-fi and fantasy, genres that were once the sole province of writers who wanted to explore climate change in fiction. In 2016, the novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh posited that the 2010s could someday be known as “The Great Derangement,” his term for “a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing their plight.” Ghosh lamented the lack of serious engagement with climate change in literature, particularly outside of science fiction and fantasy, and predicted an “imaginative and cultural failure” if more writers did not act to fill the climate silence. 

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Perhaps because the effects of extreme weather have become increasingly hard to ignore, the literary landscape that Ghosh surveyed in 2016 has changed. In fact, climate fiction may someday cease to exist as a genre at all. “I believe that over time, the notion of climate fiction is going to go away,” Brady said. “To write a novel will be to talk about climate change because it’s the world in which we live. It affects every aspect of our lives, and increasingly so.” 

In a 2021 essay titled “Climate Crisis Is Here; So Is Climate Fiction. Don’t You Dare Call It a Genre,” the writer Lydia Millet makes a passionate case for realist climate fiction, intimate stories of ordinary life that unfold in the present day. “The climate crisis can’t and shouldn’t be relegated to the realm of make-believe,” she writes. “Because our literary grappling with that crisis…is a direct engagement with the real.”

Millet’s “Dinosaurs” is one example of this form of climate fiction, a quieter, quotidian story that follows Gil, a brokenhearted man who moves to Arizona and gets entangled in the lives of his neighbors, both human and not. Gil is well aware of what the climate crisis has wrought; he can see and feel its repercussions all around him. Like so many of us, he is still “performing small tasks. Planning his own minor life. As though there were no emergency in sight.” 

Gil’s preoccupation with—and affection for—the birds who live and die in his backyard becomes the reader’s, too. Birds in this novel are a symbol of nature’s fragility and its resilience; after all, birds are descendants of the survivors of the last mass extinction. “Without the last of the dinosaurs,” Gil says to himself, “the sky would be empty.” Near the end of the novel, Gil asks birds for their help, a flight of fantasy as he casts around for answers. “If only the birds would take up the fight,” he thinks, a fight that is about our survival as much as theirs. Eventually, he has to face the truth about the animals he has come to love. They have “no hands to write with. Or hold weapons. And no words at all.”

Fiction can furnish us with possibilities and scenarios and dreams; it can imagine worlds and futures; build hellscapes and utopias; focus our attention and open our eyes; invite speculation and wonderment and horror. It can show us many paths, but it cannot tell us which one to choose; it cannot solve the riddle of our own inaction. In “Companion Piece,” Ali Smith’s strange, beguiling novel, the kind of book, like Millet’s, where the tremors of climate collapse hum in the background of the plot like eerie hold music, the narrator responds to a young girl who is clamoring for solutions. It’s clear that she may also be understood as a stand-in for the author, speaking directly to her anxious readers. “A story is never an answer,” she says, matter-of-factly. “A story is always a question.”

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, and elsewhere.

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