Climate crisis: how science fiction’s hopes and fears can inspire humanity’s response


David Menidrey/Unsplash, FAL

Chris Pak, Swansea UniversityYou see the forest of cranes before you reach the coast. In the heat’s haze, machinery resounds in the middle distance, shifting and tamping dirt with earth-shattering force. Beyond the construction site, the sea sparkles under the Sun, traversed by ships old and new. It seems the whole city takes its cue from the coast – there is always so much being built, demolished and rebuilt.


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Those in power push ahead with their enduring programme to reshape the world by building new land. This is a society that is being transformed for a particular vision of the future: to build new worlds able to meet the challenges of a soaring population, more space and new modes of living. But what kind of future is being built, and at what cost?

This isn’t science fiction. This is the real story of land reclamation in 1980s-90s Hong Kong, where I grew up. Land reclamation involves the filling of water bodies with soil to extend land or create artificial islands. Housing and infrastructure on the scale seen in Hong Kong is only possible because of how much land – over 70km² of it – was reclaimed. But this has come at a cost to people, biodiversity and the integrity of wildlife habitats alike.

It was during my childhood in this city, part of which was so recently submerged beneath the ocean, that I first began to speculate about the drastic ways we transform space – and the unforeseen impacts this has.

As a child immersed in science fiction classics such as Frank Herbert’s Dune, I quickly realised that fiction can help us consider, imagine, and work through these unforeseen impacts. And so it is no surprise that climate fiction – or “cli-fi” – has quickly become a recognised genre in recent years. From Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour to Omar El Akkad’s American War, people are clearly interested in imagining possible futures as a way of considering how we are going to get ourselves out of this mess.

If there is something that we can be fairly sure of, it is that the future will be radically different to what we had imagined, and that it will demand adjustment. This is why authors of science fiction are consulted by organisations and governments: to help us think about the risks and challenges of the future in ways inaccessible to other disciplines. As COP26, the delayed 2020 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, approaches we urgently need more of this imaginative impulse.

Science fiction has certainly already played a part in this narrative. Harnessing the Sun’s energy has a long history in science fiction, and Arthur C. Clarke is often credited with coming up with the idea of the solar cell-powered geostationary communications satellite. NASA’s satellite system, meanwhile, is crucial for monitoring climate change and can plausibly be traced back, in part, to science fiction’s capacity for thinking about worlds and systems. And of course, spaceships and space stations – indeed, our expansion into space – is an invention of science fiction.


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Inspired by my early days in Hong Kong, I went on to shape a career researching science fiction with a focus on technical systems that transform the planet we live on: the idea of terraforming and geoengineering. If terraforming is the modification of other planets to enable habitation by life on Earth, geoengineering can be defined as the planetary modification of the Earth – such as the deliberate intervention in the climate system.

As the controversial debate about geoengineering becomes increasingly urgent given the catastrophic failure to curb emissions, science fiction about terraforming and geoengineering can help us imagine possible configurations of solutions to the climate crisis and their implications. A closer look at this particular example will also show why embracing this form of thinking is so crucial for the climate crisis more generally too.

The power of storytelling

Proposals for geoengineering and terraforming are informed both by history and by the stories we tell one another. What science fiction can do is imagine and think through the political, as well as the scientific, implications of the technological choices we make. Science fiction stories speculate on, diagnose and illustrate the experiences and the problems wrapped up in global debates about mitigation and adaptation.

The aim of science fiction is not to solve society’s problems (though specific works of science fiction do offer solutions that we as readers are invited to critique, revise, advocate for, and even adopt); nor is science fiction about prediction. We therefore shouldn’t evaluate science fiction according to its success or failure in this regard. Rather, the role of science fiction is to speculate on possibilities.

Giant Earth globe hangs in modern building.
We need to imagine the future before we can get there.
Romain Tordo/Unsplash, FAL

Science fiction, then, shouldn’t be read in isolation. The fictional space is an imaginative realm for testing ideas and values, and for attempting to imagine futures that could inform our societies now. The genre seeks to push beyond the assumptions of a singular time and place by providing a range of alternative ways of conceiving ideas, contexts and relationships. Science fiction asks to be challenged; it asks for us to hold one story up against another, to consider and interrogate the worlds portrayed and what they might tell us about our stances on crucial contemporary issues.

Reading such fiction can help us to think speculatively beyond the technical aspects of adaptation, mitigation and, indeed, intervention, and to understand the stances that we as people and as societies take toward these concerns.

This is the idea behind my book, in which I survey the history of stories about terraforming, geoengineering, space and climate change. What science fiction teaches us is that technologies are not simply technical systems. Science is not simply a theoretical and technical endeavour. Rather, the practice of science and the development of technologies are also fundamentally social and cultural. This is why many researchers use the word “sociotechnical” to describe technological systems.

A geoengineered planet

In the real – policy – world, fictions inform the imagination. Some imagine a future world covered by machines sucking CO₂ out of the air and pumping it into the porous rock below. Others imagine one powered by a portfolio of vast wind and solar farms, hydroelectric and geothermal plants. Some imagine business largely continuing as usual, with only moderate changes in how we produce and use energy, and little to no change to how we organise our economies and our lives.

And some suggest we send planes into the stratosphere, pumping out particulates that will reflect sunlight back into space and turn the sky white.

It is this last vision, solar radiation management (SRM), that has been the subject of particularly intense debate. SRM involves controlling the amount of sunlight trapped in Earth’s atmosphere. A number of scientists, including Ken Caldeira and David Keith (sometimes referred to as the “geoclique”) advocate for further research into SRM, but they are strongly opposed by various pressure groups.

Bill McGuire, a patron of Scientists for Global Responsibility and Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at UCL, recently wrote a science fiction novel, Skyseed (2020), which imagines the terrifying failure of a nanotech-based approach to solar radiation management. This novel describes the impossibility – given our current state of knowledge – of foreseeing the consequences of this speculative technology.

Proposals for solar radiation management vary enormously, but the most common forms involve brightening marine clouds or injecting particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight away from the Earth. Doing so, it is proposed, would help to cool the Earth, though it would do nothing to remove carbon and other carbon equivalent gases from the atmosphere, nor would it address ocean acidification.




Read more:
Climate repair: three things we must do now to stabilise the planet


More extravagant ideas include building sunshades in space and placing them in various orbital configurations. If this idea sounds like it comes straight out of a science fiction novel, that’s because it does: such orbital mirrors feature in James Oberg’s 1981 work New Earths and Lois McMaster Bujold’s 1998 novel Komarr.

Transforming planets

But what can terraforming tell us about geoengineering and Earth? The idea of transforming places beyond Earth – planets or other spatial bodies – to make them more amenable to human life has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. The necessity of maintaining life support systems in space habitats and spaceships draws on the same science that underpins technologies for addressing climate change. Such stories pose many pertinent questions that we should heed as we consider next steps on Earth – or beyond it.

In its broadest sense, terraforming refers to transforming other planets or cosmic bodies so that life from Earth can live there. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, have brought terraforming and the colonisation of Mars to our imagination through an ambitious project to put people on the planet within the decade. Musk is not alone: other entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origins) are also competing to exploit space and get humankind out there.




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Contemporary visions of terraforming Mars must contend with recent assessments that show it is not possible to terraform the planet with present day technology, given the lack of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that would enable an atmosphere to be created on Mars. But scientific research into terraforming continues to carve out a space for its future possibility.

A man in a spacesuit walks across a Martian landscape.
Will humanity ever terraform Mars?
Nicolas Lobos/Unsplash, FAL

Although it is the subject of current scientific research, the word “terraforming” was in fact coined by science fiction writer Jack Williamson (writing as Will Stewart) in the 1942 short story, Collision Orbit, set on a terraformed asteroid. The story describes terraforming technologies that include a “paragravity installation” sunk into the heart of the asteroid, which provides some gravity. Oxygen and water, meanwhile, are generated from mineral oxides, a process that releases “absorptive gases to trap the feeble heat of the far-off Sun”.

In the story, the greenhouse effect is harnessed to make other cosmic bodies habitable. What makes terraforming possible here are new ways of manipulating atomic matter. But Williamson is also concerned with the unintended consequences of new inventions and new ways of generating energy. New energy systems make terraforming feasible for small groups and large institutions alike, promising a re-configuration of power throughout the solar system by the story’s end.

Lessons from fiction for the future

I’ve focused here on the ideas of geoengineering and terraforming because they represent the most outlandish theories or proposals when it comes to potential “solutions” to the climate crisis. But of course, everything I’ve written applies just as much to thinking about less grandiose proposals.

The questions and speculations offered by science fiction are endless, and it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to outline those that are the most pertinent, or important, or relevant to COP26. So instead I’d like highlighting those books that have stayed with me the most in my time working in this area, and explain why I think they might prove fruitful food for thought for anyone attending, debating, or simply following COP26.

1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972).

This short novel by science fiction heavyweight Ursula K. Le Guin describes a forest world, populated by an indigenous society, that early on in the novel is occupied and aggressively deforested to provide Earth with wood. This is not simply a technical project. It is also social because it involves the complete transformation of the indigenous society, who are violently gang-pressed to provide a freely exploitable labour force. It is also social insofar as this supply chain is oriented to the demands and desires of those on Earth.

We might see echoes of this story in James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009); only, in Avatar the target for extraction is “unobtainium”. In Herbert’s iconic novel Dune, it’s a substance called “geriatric spice mélange”. It’s not important what these resources are, but that they are scarce and valuable in the stories’ worlds.

Portrayals of extensive afforestation and deforestation are a form of terraforming or geoengineering because they transform the planet’s ability to regulate its climate. This isn’t addressed directly in Le Guin’s novel; but Le Guin does explore the issue of terraforming in her 1974 novel The Dispossessed, which focuses on the political and economic relationship between an anarchist state on a moon called Anarres and its historical home planet, Urras. This novel explores what life might look like on a Moon that has long been undergoing terraformation.

What these examples tell us is that, in some contexts, afforestation or deforestation that transforms societies and their environments function as a form of terraforming or geoengineering. We must recognise prior claims to the land and work with communities to develop an ethics of care for these environments that resist aggressive exploitation.

2. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-1996)

Perhaps the author who has most consistently explored contemporary debates about climate change is Kim Stanley Robinson.

Named the 2008 TIME “Hero of the Environment”, Robinson addresses climate change politics in works set on Earth and the solar system. I’ve written extensively about Robinson’s work, which speculates on a portfolio of sciences and technologies to supplement the creation of new ways of living centred on social and ecological justice. Most importantly, Robinson ties these technologies to the communities being portrayed, and traces the struggles and injustices that such developments risk.

Robinson imagines the terraformation of Mars in his trilogy Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996). A host of technologies appear, including orbital mirrors, referred to as solettas, technologies for engineering soil and biologically engineered lichens to transform the atmosphere, among many others.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Mars trilogy is the consistent reflection on the vision for transformation: for whom is the planet being transformed? Corporate interests on Earth, or the entirety of the Martian population? And what relationship does the transformation of Mars bear for the peoples on Earth?

As one of the key members of the terraforming project on Mars, the scientist Sax Russell’s technocratic, top-down approach to the terraformation of Mars undergoes a sea change after a traumatic brain injury during a Martian revolution. This injury prompts him to reflect on language and communication and leads him to understand that the technical approach that he had thus far adopted — an approach that erases the perspectives and experiences of his fellow Martians — is insufficient for building a truly open society. In his own imperfect way, he begins to move toward an understanding of science as a firmly sociotechnical system, and to realise that the human element cannot be ignored.

The fictional adventures of Russell might as well inform our own response to climate change. By hearing only the voices of specialists and politicians, other avenues for addressing climate change might be overlooked. Worse, we may inadvertently lock ourselves into a technological system that cannot hope to address the effects of climate change, or which may exacerbate the precariousness of many peoples across the globe.

Science fiction offers ways to discuss speculative technologies without presenting them as ready made technological fixes, enabling wider public deliberation about our approach to climate change. Fiction asks crucial questions, revises and reconsiders aspects of science and society in relation to their contemporary moment. But it also transmits a way of thinking – it identifies our assumptions about the worlds we want to live in and challenges dominant narratives about climate change. Most importantly, it offers a range of possible technological solutions, which could and should inform our response to the climate crisis.

3. Ian McDonald’s Luna Trilogy (2015-2019)

McDonald considers the exploitation of resources and people, along with the extension of financial speculation to all aspects of life on the colonised Moon in his trilogy Luna: New Moon (2015), Luna: Wolf Moon (2017) and Luna: Moon Rising (2019).

In this story of power and the exploitation of the Moon’s resources, families who control key industries on the Moon struggle for dominance against the backdrop of an Earth that is adapting to climate change. The trilogy imagines and interrogates the extension of the logic of development outward to the solar system and encourages readers to think about the inevitable economic and political clashes this will bring.

Science fiction can help us think about our own stories of climate mitigation and adaptation. Such stories are experiments in envisioning future possibilities and creating solutions to future problems. Central to many of these visions is an emphasis on social and ecological justice, and an awareness of the dangers of erasing populations from the story.

It is true that attempts to imagine the future are the product of utopian thinking – but don’t imagine for a moment that utopian in this sense equates to a naive idealism. Rather, utopian thinking is a commitment to working through the difficulties and impasses of our contemporary moment without losing sight of the possible futures that we imagine and would like to create.

What makes science fiction valuable in our efforts against climate change is that it does not offer us a final word, but rather invites an open ended exploration and experimentation with stories and ideas. Science fiction encourages us to build worlds and to question the worlds that we are building. It asks us to choose a future from a range of possibilities and to put in the work to create it. Science fiction was crucial in helping me make sense of the radical transformations of 20th century Hong Kong and the UK, and it led to my engagement with the politics of climate change. This is precisely the work of public deliberation and engagement that is crucial as we move toward and beyond COP26.


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Chris Pak, Lecturer in English Literature, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Foundation: an introduction to five major themes in the work of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov


Mike Ryder, Lancaster UniversityBased on the award-winning novels by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, the new Apple TV series Foundation follows a band of exiles on a mission to rebuild civilisation after the fall of a galactic empire.

Asimov, for the uninitiated, is one of the most important figures in science fiction and is often regarded as one of the “big three” authors, along with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Together they helped bring about the so-called “golden age” of science fiction in the mid-20th century.

As a writer, Asimov was remarkably prolific over his 50-year career. In that time he wrote 40 novels, 383 short stories and 280 non-fiction books. Once you finish watching Foundation you might want to delve into some of these. With such a vast body of work, it’s hard to capture it all in a single short article. So instead, here are some of the most important themes in his work to look out for when Foundation has given you the itch to discover more of his stories.

Sometimes, the rules don’t work

Asimov is perhaps most famous for his book I, Robot (1950), a collection of short stories that introduce us to Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”. These are a set of rules designed to protect humans from harm and ensure peaceful coexistence between humans and machines:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Plus the zeroth law: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

Picture of Asimov.
Issac Asimov was a scientist and one of the greatest science fiction writers of his age.
Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

These laws have become so ubiquitous in science fiction over the years, you may have heard of them without realising where they came from.

However, as the I, Robot stories go to show us, the Three Laws of Robotics don’t actually work. This is because any rule, when applied fully and to the letter, cannot ever work as intended in all cases.

A blurring of genres

One of the things that makes science fiction so compelling for its fans is the way that it can so seamlessly shift between genres, and incorporate many different ideas in a single form. Asimov was one of the first great proponents of this blurring of genres. This can be seen in early works such as The Caves of Steel (1953), which blends science fiction with the detective story.

Book cover of The Caves of Steel.
The caves of steel doubleday cover.
Wikimedia

Many of our most loved science fiction TV series owe a great deal to Asimov and his pioneering work blending genres. It’s thanks to him that we can now enjoy such madcap concepts as wild-west-in-space (Firefly) and the isolating madness of being trapped three million years in the future with only a robot, a hologram and a creature descended from a domestic cat for company (Red Dwarf).

Science is important

It may seem a strange thing to say about a science fiction writer, but Isaac Asimov did place great weight on the importance of science in his work. When he wasn’t writing award-winning short stories and novels, he published widely in the non-fiction scene, including the likes of Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Earth and Space (1991).

Of course, all this work in the realm of science fed into his fiction work too. His books abound with talk of quasars and quarks, and ponderings on the nature of the strong nuclear force. You’re also likely to find thinking about how such developments might impact upon society and what effect new technologies might have on the way we live our lives.

Sustainability, the environment and other problems

Asimov is perhaps underrated for his work in this area, but his 1974 Nebula Prize-winning novel The Gods Themselves gives a fascinating insight into a world of over-consumption, where the solution to the energy “problem” is to simply pump it in from elsewhere using a device known as an Electron Pump.

Unfortunately, the “elsewhere” in this case happens to be another dimension where a race of intelligent beings starts to suffer the consequences of a cooling universe. Meanwhile, it transpires that the device used to pump in the so-called “free” energy is also altering the laws of physics in our world as well – with the inevitable consequence that it will soon cause the sun to explode – and destroy Earth with it.

This is but one example of many in Asimov’s work where he warns against the dangers of hubris, and extrapolates real-world problems – and their perceived solutions – and takes them to their absurd and often terrifying conclusion.

Where next for humanity?

Of course, no discussion of Asimov would be complete without mention of his famous Foundation series, which features some of his most ambitious and important novels.

The series follows mathematician Hari Seldon and his followers as a galaxy-spanning empire goes into decline. Seldon has developed a theory of psychohistory, a mixture of history, sociology, and mathematical statistics, which he uses to make general predictions about the fate of future populations. While the decline of civilisation is impossible to stop, Seldon devises a plan to deflect the onrushing events with incremental changes in the present which have big effects in the future, lessening the impact of the worse parts of his prediction.

What makes Foundation so compelling is just how familiar some of the themes feel even today, some 70 years after the first novel’s publication. Partly, this is due to Asimov’s deep understanding of science and the potential consequences of where certain technologies, and certain ideas, might lead. And, as you’ll discover as you delve into his vast back catalogue, in an age of climate crisis, global pandemics and sinister corporations, his warnings about the future of humanity are as pertinent as ever.The Conversation

Mike Ryder, Teaching Fellow in Marketing, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change novels allow us to imagine possible futures – read these crucial seven


Hitoshi Suzuki/Unsplash, FAL

Adeline Johns-Putra, University of SurreyEvery day brings fresh and ever more alarming news about the state of the global environment. To speak of mere “climate change” is inadequate now, for we are in a “climate emergency”. It seems as though we are tripping over more tipping points than we knew existed.

But our awareness is at last catching up with the planet’s climate catastrophes. Climate anxiety, climate trauma, and climate strikes are now all part of many people’s mental landscape and daily lives. This is almost four decades after scientists first began to warn of accelerated global warming from carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere.

And so, unsurprisingly, climate fiction, climate change fiction, “cli-fi” – whatever you want to call it – has emerged as a literary trend that’s gained astonishing traction over the past ten years.

Just a decade ago, when I first began reading and researching literary representations of climate change, there was a curious dearth of fiction on the subject. In 2005, the environmental writer Robert Macfarlane had asked plaintively: “Where is the literature of climate change?”. When I went to work in 2009 on one of the first research projects to attempt to answer this question, I found that some climate change novels were only beginning to emerge. Ten years later, the ubiquity of cli-fi means that the question of how many cli-fi novels there are seems irrelevant. Equally irrelevant is any doubt about the urgency of the climate emergency.

But the question of how to deal with such a complex challenge is paramount. The climate emergency demands us to think about our responsibilities on a global scale rather than as individuals, to think about our effects not just on fellow humans but on all the species that call this planet home, and to think about changing the resource-focused, profit-seeking behaviours that have been part of human activity for centuries.

Novels allow us to imagine possible futures from the comfort of the present.
Maria Cassagne/Unsplash, FAL

This is where literature comes in. It affords us the headspace in which to think through these difficult and pressing questions.

Cli-fi has a central role in allowing us to do the psychological work necessary to deal with climate change. I am often asked to identify the climate novel that is the most powerful and effective and, just as often, I reply that no one novel can do this. The phenomenon of cli-fi as a whole offers us different ways and a multitude of spaces in which to consider climate change and how we address it.

Here, then, is my list of a range of novels that offer just such a diverse set of perspectives. These books provide readers with a range of thought (and feeling) experiments, from dystopian despair to glimmers of hope, from an awareness of climate change impacts on generations to come to vivid reminders of how we are destroying the many other species that share our planet.

1. The Sea and Summer, 1987

Australian novelist George Turner’s book is one of the earliest examples of cli-fi and is prescient in more ways than one. Set in Melbourne in the 2030s, skyscrapers are drowning due to sea-level rise: a setting for a stark division between the rich and the poor. Like many cli-fi novels, this novel’s dystopian future provides a sophisticated thought experiment on the effects of climate change on our already divided society. Turner’s book deserves to be reread — and reissued — as classic and still relevant cli-fi.


HarperVoyager

2. Memory of Water, 2012

Water has become a precious commodity in this cli-fi dystopia by Finnish author Emmi Itäranta. In Nordic Europe in the distant future, a young girl must decide whether to share her family’s precious water supply with her friends and fellow villagers and risk being accused of “water crime”, punishable by death. This tender coming-of-age narrative is thus also a meditation on the value of resources taken entirely for granted by the contemporary, westernised reader.

3. The Wall, 2019

At first glance, John Lanchester’s novel could be a comment on the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in Britain. In a not-so-distant future, every inch of British shoreline is guarded by an immense wall, a bulwark against illegal migrants as well as rising sea levels. But through the experiences of a young border guard, the novel shows us how this national obsession with borders not only distracts from the climate emergency at hand; it diminishes our responsibility to fellow humans around the world, whose lives are threatened by climate change and for whom migration is a desperate solution.


Titan Books (UK)

4. Clade, 2015

Australian author James Bradley’s novel chronicles several generations of one family in an increasingly devastated world. The day-to-day detail of their lives, as relationships hold together or break apart, unfolds against the backdrop of environmental and thus societal breakdown. The novel contrasts the mundane miscommunications that characterise human relations with the big issue of global warming that could rob future generations of the opportunity to lead meaningful lives.

5. The Stone Gods, 2007

Jeanette Winterson’s stab at cli-fi offers, like Bradley’s novel, a long view. The novel ranges over three vastly different timeframes: a dystopian, future civilisation that is fast ruining its planet and must seek another; 18th-century Easter Island on the verge of destroying its last tree; and a near-future Earth facing global environmental devastation. As readers time travel between these stories, we find, again and again, the damage wrought by human hubris. Yet, the novel reminds us, too, of the power of love. In the novel, love signifies an openness to other humans and other species, to new ideas, and to better ways of living on this planet.


Constable

6. The Swan Book, 2013

This novel by indigenous Australian author Alexis Wright is unconventional, fable-like cli-fi. Its protagonist is a young indigenous girl whose life is devastated by climate change but most of all by the Australian government’s mistreatment of its indigenous populations. Weaving indigenous belief with biting satire, Wright’s novel is a celebration of her people’s knowledge of how to live with nature, rather than in exploitation of it.

7. Flight Behaviour, 2012

Unlike the other novels on this list, this one, by Barbara Kingsolver, is a realist novel set entirely in the present day. A young woman from Tennessee stumbles upon thousands of monarch butterflies roosting on her in-laws’ land, the insects having been thrown off course by extreme weather events brought about by climate change.

From the scientists who come to study the problem, she learns of the delicate balance that is needed to keep the butterflies on course. Kingsolver’s rich descriptions of an impoverished Appalachian community are combined with her biologist’s training, so that reader empathy is eventually shifted from the likeable heroine to the natural wonder that is the butterflies. We are reminded of how climate change risks not simply human comfort but the planet’s ecological complexity.The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2021 New Australian Fiction Prize Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the shortlist for the 2021 New Australian Fiction Shortlist.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/09/01/192333/readings-announces-2021-new-australian-fiction-prize-shortlist/

New Kiswahili science fiction award charts a path for African languages


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Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Cornell University and Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International University

The 6th edition of The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is back. Founded in 2014, the prize recognises writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages. Kiswahili is widely spoken across the east coast of Africa. This year’s prize also offers a special award designed to promote and popularise a Kiswahili vocabulary for technology and digital rights. We spoke to the prize founders – literary academic Lizzy Attree, also of Short Story Day Africa, and literature professor and celebrated author Mukoma Wa Ngugi – on the challenges of growing literature in African languages.

What’s the idea behind the special Nyabola prize?

Lizzy Attree: The Nyabola prize gives us the opportunity to work in a new area that is really exciting for us. Nanjala Nyabola, the Kenyan writer and activist, approached us with the idea and the funding to target vocabulary for technology and digital rights. This was particularly interesting to us for two reasons. Firstly, we have long wanted to offer a short story prize, but have stuck with longer works because of the opportunity it gives us to focus on Kiswahili literature as a fully mastered form. But we are aware that a short story prize is a good place to start for those who are only beginning to write. Secondly, Kiswahili is often considered to be steeped in archaic, or historically poetic technical words and forms. These must be updated to accommodate the modern language of science and technology. It has been an interesting adventure to find out which words can be adapted or amended to fit with modern digital and technological advancement.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: There is also the idea that African languages are social languages, emotive and cannot carry science. Most definitely not true. All languages can convey the most complex ideas but we have to let them. There is something beautiful about African languages carrying science, fictionalised of course, into imagined futures.

Mukoma, you also write speculative fiction; what is its power?

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: At the height of dictatorship in Kenya under president Daniel arap Moi, when writers and intellectuals were being detained and exiled, and their books banned, it was the genre writers who kept the politics alive. In fact I dedicated my detective novel Nairobi Heat to two such Kenyan writers, David Mailu and Meja Mwangi. We inherited a hierarchy of what counts as serious literature from colonialism, the division between minor and major literatures. It is important for us to blur the lines between literary and genre fiction – they are both doing serious work but in different styles. And the same goes between written literature and orature (spoken literature). Orature is seen lesser-than but, as writers and scholars have argued, orature has its own discipline and aesthetics.

How has African language publishing changed since the prize began?

Lizzy Attree: Sadly I don’t think African language publishing has advanced very much in the last seven years or that there are enough academic studies focusing on this area. The demise of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa was part of the decline, or indicative of it. However, book festivals are growing, and we hope that in time this will lead to more awards and more publishing in African languages. Mukoma’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is a pioneer in this area, and it’s been wonderful to see his novel shortlisted for the International Booker Prize recently. Although there are many other good examples of where changes are happening, considering the size of the continent and the number of languages, there is still a huge gap.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: Jalada Journal is a good example of how attitudes to writing in African languages have changed for the better. In 2015 Jalada took a short story written by Ngugi in Gikuyu and self-translated into English and had it translated to close to 100 languages. This made it the most translated African short story. But the genius of their initiative was that most of the translations were between African languages. The Jalada example is important for two reasons – it shows that innovation can happen when African languages talk to each other. And that for the younger writers, African languages do not carry the same sense of inferiority – English is just another language. All in all I don’t think the Nyabola prize, for example, would have been possible 10 years ago. A lot has changed where it matters the most; the ideology around African languages is shifting.

Do awards work and why are there so few major literary prizes in Africa?

Lizzy Attree: I think awards certainly work in raising the profile of writers and their work, but it is difficult to find funding for these kinds of projects.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: It is all about setting up a viable and thriving literary ecosystem for writing in African languages. Literary agents, publishers, readership, critics, literary prizes and so on. Prizes are just one aspect. We realised that from the onset so our winners, in addition to the monetary awards, have also been published by Mkuki na Nyota Press in Tanzania. We have been trying to get them translated into English but as Lizzy points out, funding is a huge problem. We were lucky to partner with Mabati Rolling Mills and the Safal Group. We have a de facto slogan: African philanthropy for African cultural development. But all the living parts of the African literary ecosystem have to be thriving. In this, we all have work to do.

Why is African language literature so important?

Lizzy Attree: It’s been clearly demonstrated that learning in one’s mother tongue brings huge advantages to students. And where else must we find ourselves reflected if not in our own literature, in our own languages?

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: You can think of language as the sum total of a people’s history and knowledge. We store history and knowledge in language. To speak only English is to be alienated from your past, present and future. It is a pain we should all feel deeply. In my book, The Rise of the African Novel: Language, Identity and Ownership, I give the example of how early writing in South African languages remains outside our literary tradition. I talk about how that leads to truncated imaginations. We write within literary traditions, but what happens to your imagination when you cannot access your literary tradition?

The shortlist will be announced in October/November 2021, with the winners announced in Dar es Salaam in December 2021.The Conversation

Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Associate Professor of literatures in English, Cornell University and Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

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Walter Scott at 250: so much more than a great historical novelist


shutterstock.
Ulmus Media/Shutterstock

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee

Wander through Edinburgh and you will find glimpses of Scotland’s most famous novelist, Walter Scott, everywhere: pubs named after characters or places in his books, his walking cane and slippers in The Writers’ Museum, and snippets of his work adorning the walkways of Waverley train station – named after his first and most famous novel. And just outside, towering over Princes Street Gardens, his statue stands beneath an elaborate monument affectionately dubbed the “Gothic Rocket”.

Built in 1840, eight years after his death at the age of 61, the Scott Monument captures the immense regard in which Scotland held this international bestselling writer and son of Edinburgh. Scott’s adventurous historical stories, set against a dramatic backdrop of brooding mountains, dark lochs and lush glens, brought a vision of Scotland to the world that captured the popular imagination. The gripping tale of the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy has never been out of print since it was published in 1817.

As his friendly rival Jane Austen once quipped, Scott had two careers in literature. He quickly became Europe’s most famous poet in 1805 with the immediate success of his first narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the tale of two lovers on opposite sides of a clad feud.

A 1810 book-length versification of King James V’s struggles with the powerful clan Douglas, The Lady of the Lake would have secured his legacy on its own. Selling 25,000 copies in eight months, it broke records for poetry sales and brought its setting, the picturesque Loch Katrine and the Trossachs, to the attention of a fledgling tourism industry.

Stunning winter view of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs from the summit of Ben A'an
Scott’s most famous poem Lady of the Lake is set around Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, and drew people to the area.
Maybelmaleo/Shutterstock

Big fat novels

Scott also wrote songs and collected ballads for posterity, but after the success of his poetry, he turned to novel writing in his 40s. For nearly 20 years he produced a series of fat novels, which spread his reputation around the globe further still. Although dabbling in the gothic and picaresque styles popular at the time, Scott favoured historical themes, not only set in Scotland but also England, France, Syria and elsewhere, as far back as the 11th century.

Nobody before Scott had devoted so much space to Scottish characters and interests, on such a massive scale – not even 18th-century novelist and poet Tobias Smollett. Scott traversed the Scotland of 14th-century Perthshire and the Highlands of 1745, and gave a voice to the lairds and rustics alike.

Picture of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh under a bright blue winter's sky.
Edinburgh’s Scott Monument.
PrakichTreetasayuth/Shutterstock

These days, Scott’s writing has fallen out of fashion thanks in part to the sheer length of the novels. Arguably his best, The Heart of Midlothian still packs an emotional punch: Jeanie Deans walks from Edinburgh to London to obtain a royal pardon for her sister awaiting execution for the alleged murder of her baby. But, in keeping with the drawn-out journey, the story does suffer from slow pacing.

Waverley, Scott’s exploration of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, lends itself to political as much as literary analysis. And while it delivers stunning set pieces, some of them featuring Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, its first few chapters drag a little. But Scott rewards loyal readers with rich historical detail and sublime settings.

Master of the short story

Fortunately for the casual reader, Scott was more than a novelist. He was also a master of the short story, and wrote 17 or so shorter fictions, many of which have been all but ignored by scholars who prioritise the major novels. Five of his best short pieces can now be read for free online.

Scott contributed at least two stories to Blackwood’s Magazine, the leading literary periodical in Edinburgh: The Alarming Increase of Depravity Among Animals and Phantasmagoria. The first is a sort of true-crime animal fable in which animals are complicit in wrongdoing; the second, a bizarre Gothic pastiche in which the narrator (a sentient shadow) is far more interesting than the benign story it offers.

Another, Wandering Willie’s Tale, is delivered by a blind piper, revolving around the grisly death of a despotic laird and some missing money. A hellish underworld, a demonic monkey, a blatantly biased narrator: such things make the story wildly unpredictable – and far removed from the grand jousts and royal intrigues found in his historical novels.

The Tapestried Chamber is an ingenious ghost story in which the ghost barely features, but it still sends shivers down the spine, such is Scott’s gift for building atmosphere through dialogue. Where novels seek closure, typically with happy endings, short stories can leave plotlines unresolved. Novels comfort us, short stories can confront.

Although Scott is rarely thought of as a short story writer today, in 1827 he did produce a collection of short fiction, Chronicles of the Canongate, in which two standout pieces merit a wide audience: The Two Drovers and The Highland Widow. Here, Scott is perhaps at his most political, in the real sense: focused not on battles and courts but on everyday life.

The first follows a Highlander and a Yorkshireman on their journey south into an increasingly hostile environment. Initially their cultural differences are countered by a mutual love of music. But, tired of the casual xenophobia thrown at him, the Highlander kills his colleague. The suddenness of the act startles the reader, especially those used to the slower pacing of the novels.

The Highland Widow captures the conflicted mood of a young lad who, seeking better fortune, enlists in the Black Watch to the fury of his staunchly Gaelic mother. Drugging her son so he misses his appointment, she dooms him to military execution, and herself to a hermit-like existence. Although written in a sentimental style popular at the time, the story finds much to say about national tensions, military occupation, and cultural conflict in the lives of post-Union Scots.

For the modern reader Scott’s short stories are far bleaker than you might imagine, and they are all the more riveting for it. Gothic rocket indeed.The Conversation

Daniel Cook, Reader in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature, University of Dundee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

American climate fiction is fuelling outdated ideas about modern migration


Wild fires on the US’s West Coast displaced many from their homes, making them climate change migrants.
Ringo Chiu/Shutterstock

Bryan Yazell, University of Southern Denmark

Typically set in the future, climate fiction (or “cli-fi”) showcases the disastrous consequences of climate change and anticipates the dramatic transformations to come. Among the various scenarios cli-fi considers is unprecedented population displacement due to droughts and disappearing coastlines. These stories echo assessments from the International Organization for Migration, which warned as early as 1990 that migration would perhaps be the “single greatest impact of climate change”.

The scale of climate change, which has unfolded over generations and across the planet, is notoriously difficult to represent in fiction. Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh elaborated on this problem in The Great Derangement. According to Ghosh, the political failure to combat climate change is a symptom of a deeper failure in the cultural imagination. Simply put, how can people be expected to care about something (or someone) they can’t adequately visualise?

When it comes to representing climate migration, prominent US cli-fi takes on this imaginative problem by returning to familiar templates. These ideas operate under assumptions about what drives migration and depends upon prejudices about who migrants are. For example, in some of these stories characters will be noticeably shaped by the stereotype of “illegal” immigrants from Latin America.

Employing such well-known ideas can help get points across about a potential future but there is a more compelling way to represent climate migration. Stories can be grounded in reality without entrenching harmful stereotypes or
disregarding the very real climate migrants who currently exist in the US today.

Precedents for climate migration

Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel, The Water Knife, is set around the US-Mexico border. Permanent drought in the Southwest has turned the region’s population into refugees who desperately seek passage into neighbouring states and — most optimistically — north into Canada.

Book cover for the Water Knife featuring futuristic trees

Orbit

The novel’s borderland setting is heavy with political subtext. The southern border looms large in anti-immigration campaigns, which perpetuate misleading claims that the region is under siege from migrant groups. However, the novel is less interested in dispelling these myths than in redirecting their emotional power.

Asking readers to imagine themselves in the shoes of Latin American migrants today is an effective tool in literature. For example, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath famously asked readers to sympathise with Dust Bowl migrants at a time when so-called “Okies” were subject to disdain. But Steinbeck’s novel also helped readers imagine these migrants’ plight by stressing how thoroughly American (and white) they were.

However, The Water Knife tasks readers with imagining the whole of the US becoming a country like Mexico. Angel, a central character in the novel, remarks that the violence he sees in Arizona reminds him of “how it had been down in Mexico before the Cartel States took control completely.” The book suggests here that the problems that drive large scale migration are not unique to any single part of the world, which is good. But at the same time, it also imagines a scenario where the societal violence associated with Mexico moves into the US. The warning is “change your behaviour now, lest you make the US like Mexico”. This doesn’t serve to help readers understand Mexico or the plight of migrants but reinforces ideas that both are bad realities we would rather avoid – to become Mexico and a refugee is to fail but if you act now you can avoid becoming like them.

The Water Knife demonstrates how narratives that wish to raise awareness about the plight of climate migrants must tread carefully. Hoards of desperate migrants are a common motif in apocalyptic science fiction, but they are also familiar subjects in xenophobic political campaigns.

So long as people believe that climate migration will only become a problem for wealthy countries in the future, they might also believe that they can simply close their borders to the climate migrants when they come. In the meantime, dehumanising stereotypes about refugee armies obscure the very real harm facing migrants in the US today. So, while these stories want to encourage a more sympathetic view of migrants, they can have the opposite effect.

A contemporary American problem

But climate migration isn’t just a problem for less affluent countries in the future. It is well underway in the US.

Two people walk through a flooded street.
Flooded streets in Louisiana after Hurricane Laura in 2020.
ccpixx photography/Shutterstock

From catastrophic wildfires on the West Coast to mega-hurricanes along the Gulf, environmental disasters already afflict large segments of the population. The effects of forced migration due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, are apparent in the lower rate of return of New Orleans’s Black population.

To highlight cli-fi’s shortfalls is not to undermine its important contributions to environmental activism. These are stories that want to do more than raise the alarm. They want us to think more proactively about responding to disaster and caring for others now. This sense of urgency might explain why much of cli-fi depends upon pre-existing (and flawed) migrant stereotypes rather than ones more in step with climate migration today. Perhaps it’s quicker to push people to action by mobilising old ideas than constructing new ones.

However, these stories need not look to foreign cases or draw outdated parallels to make climate migration a compelling scenario. Rather, they can look inward to the ongoing climate crises afflicting Americans today. That these affected groups are disproportionately Indigenous and people of colour should remind us that the dystopian elements of many cli-fi stories (widespread corruption, targeted violence, and structural inequality) are facts of everyday life for many in this country. People should be shocked that these things are happening under their noses, enough to inspire action now rather than later for problems in the distant future.The Conversation

Bryan Yazell, Assistant Professor in the Department for the Study of Culture, University of Southern Denmark

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.