The New Climate Fiction: Grappling with the Weight of Collapse

Emma Dries on the Limitations of Fragmentary Narrative to Portray a Fragmenting World

In the last few weeks of July, a soft orange haze hung in the sky over the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where I live. Out on the road for a walk at midday, I observed the sun as a blurred orb, muted enough that I could look right at it. Swimming laps in the lake in the afternoon, the water tasted acrid; a slight itch spread at the back of my throat.

The haze was smoke, carried nearly 3,000 miles east from the wildfires in Oregon and other western states across the Rockies and the Great Plains and the Midwest before blanketing the northeast in an opaque smog. How strange, we all said to one another and to ourselves, though it was something more than strange, something ineffable and uncanny. What else was there to say? What else was there to do?

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Philosopher Timothy Morton has coined the term “hyperobjects” to refer to things that are “massively distributed in time and space in ways that baffle humans and make interacting with them fascinating, disturbing, problematic, and wondrous.” Global warming, Morton argues, is one such hyperobject, along with planetary objects, the biosphere, even Styrofoam. Hyperobjects present a kind of contradiction: they are “viscous: we can’t shake them off; they are stickier than oil and as heavy as grief. The closer we get, the less we know.”

I was introduced to Morton’s theory first by writer Amitav Ghosh, who in 2017 published The Great Derangement, a brilliant indictment of how and why various disciplines—including storytelling, history and politics—have failed, so far, to appropriately grapple with climate change. The concept of hyperobjects can help us understand not just our relative lack of action on climate change, but also our difficulty comprehending it at all. It is precisely this disconnect that illuminates some of the particular challenges of capturing climate change in fiction.

The Anthropocene, Ghosh wrote, “consists of phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel—forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space.” Because this magnitude conflicts with what we have come to understand as the hallmarks of the modern novel, whose realism relies in part on its distinct setting and “delimited horizon,” climate change became relegated to the land of disaster novels and science fiction, largely ignored by the “serious” literary establishment.

The landscape of climate fiction has changed somewhat in the last few years since Ghosh’s book. While novelists are still churning out compelling and haunting works of “cli-fi” set in the far future, recent treatments have begun to explore the climate crisis through the lens of the recent past, present, and very near future. But the challenges mounted by the concept of the hyperobject and those Ghosh raises in The Great Derangement have not disappeared: what we are now seeing instead are authors attempting to face those challenges, rather than ignoring them altogether.

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In The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, Richard Flanagan’s latest novel published last fall in Australia and earlier this summer in the United States, a woman named Anna and her two brothers contend with the deterioration of their elderly mother’s health as much of Australia burns during an extraordinary wildfire season. If the fires and the grief weren’t enough for Anna to deal with, the novel grows increasingly more surreal as her body parts begin to vanish. At first Anna loses a finger, then a kneecap, then slowly more and more, and soon it is happening to those around her as well. Anna is outraged by the apathy of others, claiming that “the only thing worse than the world not taking note was perversely when it did, making the vanishings a small story buried in some alternative news feed.”

The worse the vanishings get, the “more the essential world vanished the more people needed to fixate on the inessential world.” The allegory to our inaction on climate change is unsubtle. By localizing the loss and ignorance to the body, Flanagan reframes the crises around something much more intimate.

The emerging trends that we are seeing—fragmentation, braided narratives—have their limitations.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams embodies one emerging trend in climate fiction—the tendency for authors to disrupt the narrative structure in macro or micro ways. Richard Powers’ 2018 novel The Overstory is organized according to the parts of the tree, with separate sections for “roots,” “trunk” and “crown.”  Powers made this choice in order to foreground nonhuman actors, specifically the forest. But this structure was deliberate and regimented. Flanagan’s novel, on the other hand, is organized into numerated chapters, with several numerated subchapters that range from a single sentence to several pages, but these delineations often feel intentionally arbitrary, lending the novel a fragmentary and associative quality.

Flanagan’s fragmented structure more clearly recalls Jenny Offills’ 2020 novel, Weather; it’s a style Offill has become known for, and it seems fitting for two novels that deal with the disorienting dread of climate change. Flanagan takes this fragmentation a step farther, by disrupting the language itself in two distinct ways: first, Anna’s brother Tommy speaks with a stutter and second, each time Anna logs on to social media to check the wildfire news, the punctuation disappears from her sentences: “She looked at her phone she checked Instagram she read professors of health were calling for cities to be readied for mass evacuation,” Flanagan writes. And later: “She would scroll the country would burn she would watch a video shot by firefighters inside a firetruck.” Confronted with the onslaught of relentless environmental catastrophe, Anna’s narration effectively breaks down and time itself collapses: “Things that happened yesterday were things happening today and things that hadn’t happened tomorrow were old news several months ago. Was it only just yesterday was it the future now?”

Here we see the effect of the hyperobject, pressing down and buckling rules of language and sentence construction. In fact, Ghosh himself argues that the “perhaps most intransigent way the Anthropocene resists literary fiction lies ultimately in its resistance to language itself.” But rather than try to circumvent or overcome that resistance, Flanagan has embraced it. Anna even addresses this directly: “It wasn’t that these things were fragments, thought Anna. The world was fragments.”

The fires, the species loss, the refugee migration—all of it hangs over the novel, omnipresent.  But the inclusion of the wildfires reads at first like a strange narrative move, if only because at no point do they shape the plot of the novel. We are not quite used to extreme weather or natural disasters occurring in fiction as anything other than a plot device, or without having significant bearing on a character’s immediate fate. Anna often turns to her bleak social media feeds immediately after she’s received bad news about her mother; unable to cope with the private, familial loss, she submerges herself in the dying world. Perhaps paradoxically, she feels a level of control over that grander devastation because “when the first famines began, they were elsewhere, and the growing number of wars were elsewhere, the atrocities and horrors were elsewhere, and elsewhere is always the fault of others.”

It is in these moments that Flanagan best highlights a particular kind of asymmetry: Anna can choose when to tune in and out. Climate change, once thought of as having the potential to be a great equalizer, is rapidly affecting vulnerable populations and developing countries at a much quicker rate than the affluent classes, particularly those of the global North. Though the fires may bring Anna marginally closer to a specific local threat than Lizzie, the narrator in Weather,both have the privilege of grappling with a more amorphous climate anxiety rather than structural climate displacement. This may not remain the case forever: terrible wildfires have already leveled wealthy neighborhoods and rising waters will flatten coastal estates, but the upwardly mobile will always have the deck stacked in their favor—better prepared, better equipped, better positioned to meet the rising tides. As Ghosh writes, “those at the margins are now the first to experience the future that awaits all of us.”

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Also published late this spring was Claire Boyles’ debut short story collection, Site Fidelity. Notably, all of the short stories in the collection are set in the American West, in a climate very similar to that of Flanagan’s Australia—semi-arid, prone to drought and wildfires. Boyles has used place as the constant in this collection, allowing the stories to unspool over several decades.

Boyles’ stories are character and plot-driven, with traditional narrative arcs and all the trappings of realistic modern fiction, even in the final story that projects into the near future. However, even without the fragmentary elements or experimental prose, we see some of the effects of the hyperobject in that the stories resist containment: connective tissue appears, with characters recurring in multiple stories at different stages in their lives. This choice by Boyles could be read as an effort to mitigate part of what Morton would call the “nonlocalityof the hyperobject, particularly the difficulty for a single human to reasonably observe the entirety of climate change at a fixed point in time. Novelists such as David Mitchell, in both Cloud Atlas (2004) and The Bone Clocks (2014) and, more recently, Matt Bell in Appleseed (2021), have used multi-timeline braided narratives to attempt to conquer this nonlocality, blending historical, realist, sci-fi and post-apocalyptic narratives. Boyles is working on a much more modest time scale in the grand scheme of things—no more than 70 years or so—but that makes the observable rate of change over such a short span all the more alarming.

Unlike the more upwardly mobile characters in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, Boyles’ protagonists are by and large more directly tied to their environment, economically and socially; in this collection we witness the complexities faced by stewards of the land, including battles over land rights, resource management and conservation. Often, Boyles juxtaposes the industrialized and natural world in a single sentence, be it “the combined smell of engine grease, animal offal, wet clay—the bowels of the earth and the chemicals that strip them wafting together after the burn” or “at the junkyard off Highway 34, the one with the observation tower he’d paid a buck to climb with DJ so the boy could marvel at the view of the Rockies on the western horizon.”

Because of the intricate connections these characters have to the land, Boyles concerns herself less with global negligence than localized threats, even if said threats are wrapped up in the greater failures of capitalism: in one story, The Army Corps of Engineers raises alarm bells about a weak dam, but without funding to repair it, an entire community is left in the path of a major flood. In another, a progressive nun tries to halt the construction of more fracking rigs in her town. Boyles’ characters are allowed moments of active rebellion and occasional small victories against bad actors in a manner that, while sometime feeling a bit too neat or symbolic, might in fact mirror our real-world successes against climate change—Band-Aids covering the bullet hole.

We may be approaching a point where fiction that does not in some way incorporate climate will feel as lacking or incomplete as fiction without any sense of character or plot.

In fiction, the endangerment of one species—the sage grouse in Site Fidelity; the orange-bellied parrot in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams; the redwood in The Overstory; the Arctic tern in Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations is often used as a stand-in for the immeasurable and relentless losses incurred by climate change. But rather than consider this an oversimplification for the sake of narrative, we might reframe it as a pattern that reflects the limits of our consciousness, even outside of fiction: small losses are how humans digest and process the hyperobject when we are unable to observe it in its totality.

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Where does climate fiction go from here? In fact, that may be too broad of a question—Lydia Millet has astutely argued that to call climate fiction a genre “is a patronizing act of containment.” (In Millet’s 2020 novel, The Children’s Bible, about an apocalyptic flood, it is notably the adults that lose all capacity for language and lucid thought, while the children approach the mounting crisis with courage and rationale.) But our instinct to do so may simply reflect yet another attempt to wrest some control over a hyperobject whose power transcends and resists any sort of human interference, but which is, at the same time, our own creation.

The emerging trends that we are seeing—fragmentation, braided narratives—have their limitations, but these may be limitations imposed by fiction itself. Inasmuch as literature is meant to stoke empathy, it is still largely an individualistic and humanist endeavor. As readers and writers of fiction, it is painful to think that there may be something that the form is not equipped to fully explain, without a radical overhaul or redefinition. Ghosh suggests that “new, hybrid forms” may develop to overcome this problem; it could be that these trends mark a very early phase of this process.

What these new works do, at the very least, is indicate is an active reckoning and engagement with narrative structure and a refusal to ignore the omnipresence of climate change. We may be approaching a point where fiction that does not in some way incorporate climate will feel as lacking or incomplete as fiction without any sense of character or plot. Perhaps we approached that point some time ago; by nearly all accounts, the Anthropocene did not begin this year or last, or even this century or last, but only recently have we begun to conceive of it.

Because the rate of climate change is accelerating and becoming more observable every day, using the near future—rather than the distant—as a narrative setting has taken on greater significance. In these stories, apocalypse hasn’t yet arrived: society has not collapsed entirely, nor does the geopolitical structure of the world look vastly different than our own. Yet, life has shifted in marked and unnerving ways. In Alexandra Kleeman’s new novel, Something New Under the Sun, set in drought-ravaged Los Angeles, water has become so scarce that a synthetic product, WAT-R, is sold in its place. In Charlotte McConaghy’s 2020 novel Migrations, species extinction has wiped out much of the remaining wildlife on the planet and commercial fishing is on the verge of being outlawed.

And in Richard Powers’ Bewilderment, out this month, a Trumpian president scales back environmental regulations, blames trees themselves for rampant wildfires, and orders thousands of acres of forest to be cut down. A Publishers Weekly interview with Powers noted that the novel reads “at times like a near-future narrative, and at other times like an alternate version of very recent history.” Powers responded by saying that the setting “is like a near present.” By projecting a vision of the world that retains many connections to our own, these novels seem all the more plausible and uncanny in their closeness—just around the corner, and yet somehow already here. 

Emma Dries
Emma Dries
Emma Dries is a writer, editor and teacher. She has an MFA in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University. You can find her on Twitter @emmadries.





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