Friday, August 12, 2016

Curating Cli-fi

 The Sunlight PilgrimsBy Jenni Fagan
(Hogarth; 320 pages; $26)

In the new novel by the acclaimed author of “The Panopticon,” climate change brings to the United Kingdom and Europe what’s predicted to be the worst winter in 200 years. Set in November 2020, “The Sunlight Pilgrims” follows a ragtag band of Scottish villagers as they face a time of melting polar caps, a slowing North Atlantic Drift and dangerously plunging temperatures.
For grieving Londoner Dylan MacRae, the closing of his beloved family cinema gives him an excuse to head north to Clachton Fells, bringing with him the cremains of both his recently departed grandmother and his mother, who owned a caravan (trailer) in the village.
As he settles in among his eccentric new neighbors, Dylan finds himself especially drawn to two: Stella, a 13-year-old girl who once was a boy named Cael, and her mother, Constance, a furniture restorer and survivalist who scandalized the locals by simultaneously taking two lovers without ever marrying either.
“The Sunlight Pilgrims” depicts a quiet apocalypse, treacherous but slow. Although full of physical and emotional drama, it’s not an adventure novel with bombastic action set pieces.
Fagan has a firm handle on her characters and depicts them in all their contradictory humanity as they face the unknown and gradually reveal their deepest secrets and unspoken longings. Much attention is paid to Stella, her moods as changeable as the weather. As her body changes, she must grapple with her feelings of otherness and the bullying it brings.
As she prepares for the encroaching winter, Stella talks about “sun pilgrims,” saying, “I met someone once who told me you can drink energy from the sun, store it in your cells so you grow strong.” Despite the bleakness of the weather, the novel offers up reasons for hope and optimism, a celebration of connection in the most dire circumstances.

An effort to track and (lightly) categorize literary works that could fruitfully be considered as “cli-fi.” Intended primarily as a means to generate syllabi and reading lists for professors and research academics.

Core Texts
Frequently mentioned in essays and courses about cli-fi, the majority of these works fit into the category of “speculative fiction,” the term Margaret Atwood invokes to describe her own work: the future world depicted extends, rather than invents, currently technologies and trends. Many are set in the present or near-future.
  • Margaret Atwood, Maddaddam trilogy
    • Oryx and Crake (2003)
    • The Year of the Flood (2009)
    • Maddaddam (2013)
  • Paolo Bacigalupi
    • The Wind-up Girl (2009)
    • Ship Breaker (2011)
    • The Drowned Cities (2013)
    • The Water Knife (2015)
  • J.G. Ballard
    • The Wind from Nowhere (1961)
    • The Drowned World (1962)
    • The Drought (1965)
    • The Crystal World (1988)
  • T.C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth (2000)
  • Octavia Butler
    • Parable of the Sower (1993)
    • Parable of the Talents (1998)
  • Michael Crichton, State of Fear (2004)
  • Maggie Gee
    • The Ice People (1998)
    • The Flood (2004)
  • Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (2014)
  • Doris Lessing
    • Mara and Dann (1999)
    • The Story of General Dann and Maria’s Daughter and the Snow Dog (2005)
  • Ian McEwan, Solar (2011)
  • Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (2014)
  • Nathaniel Rich, Odds Against Tomorrow (2014)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
    • Science in the Capital trilogy
      • Forty Signs of Rain (2004)
      • Fifty Degrees Below (2005)
      • Sixty Days and Counting (2007)
      • Green Earth (2015) [compressed version of Science in the Capital trilogy]
  • George Turner, The Sea and the Summer (1987)
  • Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus (2015)
Sci-fi Cli-fi
A perhaps unnecessary, perhaps controversial, category, but I find it useful to separate these works from the ones above. Think of them “hard” sci-fi, if that helps.
  • Stephen Baxter
    • Flood (2008)
    • Ark (2009)
  • David Brin, Earth (1990)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
    • Mars trilogy
      • Red Mars (1992)
      • Green Mars (1993)
      • Blue Mars (1996)
    • 2312 (2012)
    • Aurora (2015)
The 1960 cut-off reflects the fact that the conversation about the environment and climate shifted dramatically during the 1960s, in large part due to the publication of works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1965), Charles David Keeling’s carbon measurements at Mauna Loa, the “Keeling curve” (1960), and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968).
  • John Christopher, The End of Grass (1956)
  • E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1909)
  • Richard Jefferies, After London (1885)
  • Olaf Stapledon
    • Last and First Men (1933)
    • Star Maker (1937)
  • George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949)
  • H.G. Wells
    • The Time Machine (1895)
    • The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
Selections from a potentially infinite list — ecological utopias, post-apocalyptic tales, other-earth science fiction, etc — that could be studied alongside works that are more explicitly about climate. For more, see Gerry Canavan’s wonderful annotated list of “SF works (very broadly defined) that stake out some position on on questions of futurity and the environment” at the end of the collection he co-edited with Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Planets (2014).

  • Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)
  • Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)
  • J. M. Ledgard, Submergence (2011)
  • Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (2014)
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
  • China Miéville
    • Railsea (2012)
    • “Three Moments of an Explosion” (2015)
  • Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)
  • Richard Powers, Gain (1998)
  • Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)
  • Will Self, The Book of Dave (2006)

  • Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods (1997)

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