Because what Kingsolver lets us see is the way small disruptions to natural cycles alter the world, often without us even being fully aware of it, gradually deranging and unsettling individuals and communities. Likewise it allows the novel to ask a series of fairly pointed questions about the framing of the problem of climate change, and the assumptions underlying much of our discussion of it by introducing a strong class element.
The butterflies appear not in some elegant upstate New York university town or a comfortable Californian community, but in the Appalachians, and to people with extremely limited education and material wealth. For many of the researchers who come to study the butterflies this is unknown territory, and so they blunder condescendingly about, oblivious to their ridiculousness the fact the main researcher, Ovid Byron, is African-American sets up another conflict.
Kingsolver tries to reveal the ways in which these two awarenesses of the world — religious and scientific — are perhaps not as far apart as they seem to be. What does it bring to the literature of climate change and the Anthropocene that you particularly value? Barkskins begins in with the arrival of two young Frenchmen in America, and traces the paths of their descendants as they rise and fall across more than three centuries.
But while the story is told through the lens of the families, its real subject is the destruction of the forests of North America, and the environmental and human cost of that process, especially for the indigenous peoples, whose lives and culture are shattered by the process. Its depiction of the latter is absolutely unflinching. This process allows the novel to focus on the forces underlying the destruction it documents, and the degree to which they can be seen as an inescapable part of our economies and cultures.
The temporal sweep of Barkskins also allows it to break free of a human timescale and glimpse other, larger timescales. This is something you see in a lot of fiction dealing with climate change. That decentering of the individual is one you see paralleled elsewhere by a larger decentering of the human and a focus on other ways of being in the world. This takes the idea of a landscape unsettled by human violence and tells the story of that landscape over 13 years, eliding the distinction between animal, human and landscape in intriguing ways.
But in all of them the movement away from a human perspective makes it possible to break free of our fairly solipsistic and instrumental relationship to the natural world and glimpse other ways of understanding it. Yet despite the wrenching violence of the early sections of Barkskins , I actually find the final sections the most affecting. As the novel enters the present day the legacy of the history it depicts becomes inescapable, refracting out through ruined landscapes, poisoned water, cultural loss in ways that are horrifyingly tangible because they are real and present now.
But as you reach these sections you also feel the narrative itself foundering, unhinged by grief and the weight of this past.
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I find it interesting that you chose this rather than his more recent book New York , which is about life in a city that has been partly flooded as a result of climate change. Aurora is set in a future where missions to colonise other star systems have become a reality. I suppose New York might have been a more obvious choice, not least because it offers such a fascinating example of the way fiction can not only engage with the reality of climate change and indeed the enormous political and economic complexities of it , but also offer a vision of the future that suggests the space for political alternatives.
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To do this the novel takes one of the classic tropes of science fiction — the generation ship — and interrogates it scientifically and politically. The ship in question has spent years travelling from Earth to a planet in the Tau Ceti system a nod to Asimov. As the novel begins arrival is imminent, and for those on the ship it is the culmination of five generations of effort and privation. Yet almost immediately it becomes clear the planet is hostile to human life. Faced with an impossible choice between dying alone and spending another five generations trying to coax their failing ship home, the colonists opt for the latter, and begin an increasingly perilous journey back through deep space.
Drawing on epidemiology and biology rather than physics and engineering Robinson suggests closed environments like generation ships are inherently unsustainable, doomed by the rapid evolution of bacteria and other pathogens, and that even if alien planets do sustain life, that life is unlikely to be compatible with terrestrial biology.
We only have one Earth, Robinson is saying, one place exquisitely designed for us, and to pretend otherwise is an act of the most profound ethical negligence. For the colonists that negligence has immense personal consequences, but the novel also allows us to see the way those fantasies infect our relationship with the natural world. Why have that dream? Because embedded in it is a vision of something that feels genuinely new, and deeply important: an understanding of the complex interdependence of organisms and environments, and of the ways in which our capacity to recognise or resist that understanding will shape not just our future but our present.
The result is a book that is rich in possibility but also deeply aware of the depth of time and the transience of life. In New York , Robinson describes a world in which capitalism as we know it is replaced by what he portrays as a better system. But in a way this debate also misses the way science fiction at the moment is leaking out into the mainstream. Obviously technology will have to be a big part of fixing it, but as Aurora reminds us, those assumptions about our capacity to out-engineer nature are part of the problem. What Aurora offers is a way to see both things at work at once: an optimism about the future and technology, and an awareness of the cost of failing to recognise the degree to which we are expressions of our environment, and temporary expressions at that.
Coupled with his insistence our current economic and social conditions are neither natural nor the end of history makes for a very potent mix.
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This is set about a hundred years in the future in world devastated by climate change. It starts with a teenage Aboriginal girl who is mute after a gang rape, and is hiding inside a giant tree. She is rescued by a refugee from northern Europe who names her Oblivia Ethelyne, and who takes her to live in a polluted swamp that is fenced off from the rest of the world by the army.
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What kind of world are we entering here? The Swan Book exists in an incredibly heightened kind of reality, both in terms of the world itself, which is rich and beautiful as well as violent and profoundly disturbed, and the language, which is vivid and raw and repetitive in ways that sometimes seem almost incantatory. This is especially true of the way the novel blurs time and time frames. That sense of connectedness — and the derangement of disconnection — is written deep into the novel.
Yet at the same time the book is an intensely political document that grapples directly with the present day. That last seems the obvious way in, not least because in a very real sense Australia is a laboratory for what climate change is going to be like. The south-east of the continent is warming fast, and although fire and flood have always been integral to the Australian environment the fires and floods of recent years have become increasingly destructive, and that process looks like it will accelerate in coming years. But what The Swan Book forces us to see is that this transformation is just the end point of a longer process that began when Europeans arrived here just over two centuries ago, and that it and the dispossession and murder of the Aboriginal peoples are really just two sides of the same coin in the starkest possible terms.
How do you see the future of fiction about climate change and the Anthropocene?
Are you confident novels still have a role? The disturbances and convulsions of climate change increasingly touch every aspect of our lives, disturbing our social relations, bleeding into our psyches by demanding we recognise the cost of our privilege, the way it depends upon the exploitation of the natural world and those less fortunate than us, even unsettling our capacity to believe in the existence of some kind of consensual reality.
Doing that requires fiction to take on new shapes and find new ways of addressing and representing not just our lives but reality itself. Nor that there are so many novels around at the moment that blur the boundary between the human and the non-human, or that grapple with ideas of time and deep time.
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Fiction also has an important part to play in resisting the weird amnesia of capitalism, the perpetual Year Zero of a culture which seeks to hide not just its origins, but the violence at its heart. Those processes are at the heart of novels like Barkskins and The Swan Book , both of which grapple with the slow violence of climate change and the fact that violence has a history and a logic, in which all of us are implicated.
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'The Gulf' Is A Climate Change Novel For A Changed World
Literature has always been a humanist endeavor: it intrinsically and helplessly affirms the value of the species; its intimations of meaning energize and comfort. But what if there is scant succor to be had, and our true natures are not noble but necrotic, pestilential? We have un-earthed ourselves.
They both confront and gently transfigure the incomprehensible realities of climate change. The collection starts in the near future and marches forward chronologically. The sheer selfish stupidity of bringing a child into the beginning of the end of the world as humans know it. One must give up on such beauty—one must not have children—and yet the tranquilizing pleasure of the world forbids it. Here, work from Jesse Kellerman, Edan Lepucki, and Sonya Larson conjures the oppressiveness of the heat, the desperate thrill of opening a freezer at the store. Shiver was a word you could use.
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The stories think through details. What would the billionaires do? Start a space colony. And they feel through specific emotional textures, asking us to empathize with the generations we are now cursing through inaction. In an Op-Ed for the Times , Michelle Alexander wondered whether Americans would approach the climate crisis differently if they believed in reincarnation.
Several authors foresee deep demographic rifts; hardened young people regard adults with contempt, confusion, and bitterness. Where would the money come from? Where would the cold weather come from? The same story unfolds three times, on the same January day, but at different temperatures. He might yet bend her to his will. We metaphorize nature endlessly, converting its phenomena into reflections of ourselves.