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How speculative fiction thinks about social change
by Andrew Dana Hudson
This essay was originally published in Imaginary Papers, January 2019.
Today the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative released Everything Change, Volume II, a short story anthology collecting the finalists of their 2018 Climate Fiction Contest. I had the honor of having my story “Sunshine State,” cowritten with Adam Flynn, included in the first Everything Change collection. These texts crack open the ominous cloudbank of our coming planetary storm, so that we may feel, just a bit ahead of schedule, the driving rain on our face or the sun, hot through the greenhouse air.
But what is climate fiction? Many stories set in the future are classified as science fiction, or sci-fi. Doesn’t that make climate fiction, or cli-fi, just a form of sci-fi? And since climate change is definitely going to be in our future one way or another, shouldn’t all science fiction also be climate fiction? Genre distinctions like this are always contested. For example, sci-fi can be “hard” or “soft” in its approach to physics and realism and can be bucketed into subgenres, such as space opera or various -punk movements.
How do we untangle these categories, while also making room for contributions to the growing body of climate fiction that don’t come out of the traditional quarters of science fiction? The past few years have seen a boomlet of literary takes on climate change, most recently Amazon’s Warmer, a collection featuring contributions from literary luminaries like Jane Smiley and Lauren Groff.
I propose that science fiction has embedded in it a particular theory of social change. In most science fiction, social change is driven by advancements in science and technology. It’s fiction about science. The average sci-fi story imagines brilliant discoveries, inventions, or technological transformations — say, the virtual reality world of Ready Player One — and plays out the ramifications on other spheres of society.
This is where climate fiction becomes a useful term, because it lets us pick up a different theory: that the biggest driver of social change in the coming century or more will be climate change.
Consider the pictures above. The first is Yorktown space station from the movie Star Trek Beyond, and the second is Lower Manhattan from the cover of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140. In their own way, each of these images is an aesthetically compelling vision of the future, but one is sci-fi and one is cli-fi.
In Star Trek most people eat from replicators and travel via starship or transporter. The architecture of Yorktown is made possible by artificial gravity. Those inventions do much to define the social structures and material conditions of people living in the Star Trek universe. Even some of the most dramatic events in Star Trek lore are sparked by technological discovery, such as first contact with aliens taking place only after humans successfully invent faster-than-light travel.
In contrast, very little in the second picture requires us to invent anything new. Rather, the canals in New York’s avenues and the boats docked at the entrances of familiar skyscrapers suggest that the big difference in New York between now and 2140 will be substantial sea level rise — 50-foot-higher seas turn the city into a “SuperVenice,” submerging the boroughs and Manhattan up to 46th Street. That’s what cli-fi thinks will determine where and how people live, along with a litany of concomitant issues: flood rot, mandatory evacuation orders, the price of water, crop failures, asthma rates, and whether it’s too hot to go outside.
The climate fiction theory of social change highlights how much our lives will be reshaped by climate change. In periods of relative global stability, a new gadget or media format might seem transformative. In times of planetary upheaval we are forced to remember that we are fragile, living beings on a turbulent, living world.
Andrew Dana Hudson is a speculative fiction writer, sustainability researcher, editor and futurist. He is the author of Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures, published 2022 by Fordham University Press. He has also published over twenty short stories, which have appeared in Slate Future Tense, Lightspeed Magazine, Vice Terraform, MIT Technology Review, Grist, and many more. Find his stories on his website www.andrewdanahudson.com and follow his work via his newsletter solarshades.club.
In this extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Anne Morddel shares an extract from the picture book The Big Field: A Child's Year Under the Southern Cross which illustrates a grandmother's reforesting efforts on a farm at the edge of the South American Atlantic Rainforest. It’s set in February, which is the peak of summer in the Atlantic Rainforest:
Early, early every day, "Before the heat
knocks me flat," Granny takes her trug and
crosses the big field to the forest, where she
gathers all sorts of seeds.
I stay home and climb trees. The kapok is
the tallest, with pink flowers. But the kapok
trunk has sharp spikes, so you can't climb
that! I climb the umbrella tree, where
Granny and I built a bench on a branch.
On the ground below me, the leaf-cutter ants
carry away bits of plants. Granny says it's their
job to tidy the whole forest.
High in my tree, I can see her come back from
the forest with her trug full of seeds. When the
sun goes down and it is cooler, we scatter the
seeds all around the big field she always
forgets to pough.
The organisation Iracambi is a community of people around the world whose vision is to see the beautiful Brazilian Atlantic Forest restored, with prosperous communities living in a flourishing landscape.
Climate Fiction podcast
Climate Vision 2050 transports us 30 years into the future to show how the world radically reduced carbon emissions and saved itself from climate catastrophe. This show offers a creative approach to talking about climate, getting into technical solutions without losing the beauty of engaging, immersive narrative.
In the first three episodes, we are transported to the future and hear what it would be like:
The storytelling truly paints a picture of a bright and promising future, but this work of imagination is not fantasy. The stories told and the progress described in the show are achievable within the next 30 years. This is a show of hope and possibility where you get to learn about actual solutions that could make meaningful and sustainable progress against an existential threat.