Where to Place Climate Change in Fiction: Background or Centre Stage?

by Anne Charnock, plus Ele Fountain talks about her new Middle Grade release MELT

During lockdown, I have revised a story-in-progress to take account of our COVID-19 pandemic, and I know I have not been alone in doing so. I have shifted the setting of my novel to a time, post-pandemic, when my characters are resuming their ‘normal’ lives. The pandemic is still in their thoughts, suppressed for the most part, but breaking through at unexpected moments. It struck me, while making these revisions, that the pandemic and climate catastrophe, despite occurring on different timescales, share the key characteristic of being global emergencies, affecting everyone, wherever we live.

Amitav Ghosh states in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and The Unthinkable that climate change evokes a sense of the uncanny. “No other word comes close to expressing the strangeness of what is unfolding around us.” This is exactly how we feel during this pandemic. And in both emergencies, the people worst affected are those with least room for manoeuvre, whose livelihoods are insecure, who cannot spend their way out of a crisis. During today’s manifestations of our climate crisis—from wildfires to floods—we have witnessed that many people cannot adapt to a hotter/wetter/stormier world. They cannot buy a property on higher ground, or afford air-conditioning, or legally emigrate to a kinder climate, or… Well, the list is long. Many people will stay put, for a lack of options, and adapt as best they can.

During lockdown, hoping to gain an insight into how writers respond to extraordinary events, I read The Love-charm of Bombs—Lara Feigel’s account of writers living in London during the Second World War. She describes the war-time experiences that informed Henry Green’s Caught, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. For these authors the cataclysm of war and the blitz took centre stage in these works of fiction, enriched with autobiographical detail. The reader is placed inside the blitz with falling masonry, and incendiary bombs falling in the street.

I also read A Month in the Country by J L Carr, winner of the 1980 Guardian Fiction Prize. This tells the story of a soldier demobbed from the First World War who accepts an art commission to restore a church fresco in rural Yorkshire. The character’s wartime experience stays in the background, but it’s painfully clear to the reader that he is suffering from shell shock, and his world has changed irrevocably.

So, centre-stage or background? Where should we place climate change when we write fiction?

Both, I would say, can work brilliantly. But it’s a choice we make at the outset. I’ve been writing fiction around the subject of climate change for twenty years. In two of my novels, the climate references sit in the background since the novels are tackling other subjects primarily—feminist themes in one case (Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind), and the role of future reproductive technologies (Dreams Before the Start of Time) in the other. Climate had to enter the mix, I decided, because both novels are set in the near-future. How could I inhabit the future without depicting the now-inevitable environmental and ecological changes? I couldn’t, And, more to the point, I would not want to.

By contrast, in my most recent novel, Bridge 108, I imagine a post-Brexit England later in the 21st century, when soaring temperatures and wildfires around the Mediterranean Rim are forcing people to migrate north from southern Europe. This novel is set in the same world as my debut, A Calculated Life, in which the north west of England, known today for its high rainfall and damp climate, has become a region of citrus and olive groves. In Bridge 108, I follow a young climate refugee who leaves Spain, becomes separated from his mother, and is trafficked to England where he works as a modern-day slave. Climate catastrophe is therefore the motor for this novel, but the wildfires and drought happen off-stage, visited in flashbacks.

I chose to focus the storylines in Bridge 108 on how state institutions and unscrupulous citizens are exploiting the refugees, and how the climate catastrophe affects different strata in society. Some people are coping just fine, whereas others at the bottom of the economic pile are struggling. And in order to portray these diverse experiences, I opted for a mosaic form, with multiple voices, which conveys the notion that individuals can be both victim and oppressor.

I am fascinated by the range of literary approaches to our shifting climate. An early classic, which I read many years ago, is J G Ballard’s The Drowned World, which depicts a climate endgame. Sea levels have risen, London has drowned. More recent examples of similarly dystopian endgames include Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which describes the survival spirit of people living in a part-submerged Manhattan. Taking a different tack in The Ministry for the Future, Robinson opens the novel with a visceral depiction of a great Indian heat wave in which 20 million people die. What follows is the story of a new United Nations organisation, The Ministry for the Future, which fights on multiple fronts to reduce carbon emissions.

Climate change takes centre stage in these novels, as it does in John Lanchester’s The Wall, Vicki Jarrett’s Always North, Cynan Jones’ Stillicide and Omar El Akkad’s American War, to name a few.

However, I also find myself drawn to novels that take a more oblique approach. The Inland Sea (2020) by Madeleine Watts is set in 2013 and draws a parallel between the protagonist’s self-destructive tendencies and our self destruction as a species regarding climate catastrophe. The Last Migration (2021) by Charlotte McConaghy merges eco-fiction with a psychological mystery as the protagonist tracks the migration of Arctic terns, paralleled by her own tendency to take flight, to move on, an instinct to leave people behind. And in Ghost Species by James Bradley, we encounter a remote and secretive research centre where scientists are reverse-engineering and resurrecting extinct species, including a Neanderthal child, against a backdrop of encroaching wildfires.

And perhaps a less obvious example of climate change fiction is Sarah Moss’s Summerwater set in a Scottish holiday park, with rain lashing throughout the novel, with the suggestion that even for Scotland the rain is worse than it ought to be.

These novels add to a growing body of fiction that relates to climate—from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, and Richard Powers’ The Overstory,  Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, and Helen Marshall’s The Migration (which brings together both climate change and a pandemic).

There’s no right or wrong here. Each writer assesses their writing strengths and deploys them to best use, as we each embrace the responsibility of addressing this existential threat in our own small way, while also attempting to engage and entertain the reader.

You can find out more about Bridge 108 here.

Anne Charnock is the author of Dreams Before the Start of Time, winner of the 2018 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle award. The Guardian featured Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind in “Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015.” Anne’s novella, The Enclave, won the 2017 British Science Fiction Association Award for Short Fiction. And her latest novel is Bridge 108 (2020). Anne’s writing career began in journalism, and her articles appeared in The Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune and Geographical. She studied environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, and holds an MA in fine art from The Manchester School of Art. She was active for over ten years in the Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral Project in Cheshire, before moving to the Isle of Bute in Scotland.

New Release

Ele Fountain talks about her new Middle Grade release Melt, which is out now with Pushkin Press.

Melt is an Arctic adventure. It’s the story of two teenagers from very different backgrounds. When their worlds collide on the melting ice, friendship, courage, and ancient knowledge are what they must rely on to survive. 

How does climate change play into the plot?

The moods and power of the weather in Melt, almost transform it into the role of ‘character’ within the story. It is also holds the key to a major ‘twist’!

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

I researched seasonal sea ice, Inuit stories and traditions, Arctic flora and fauna. I also became briefly expert in how far a snowmobile can travel on a single tank of fuel, and how to fly a light aircraft – and the best way to cook Bannock bread.

What approach did you take to talking about complicated topics, either political or scientific, for younger readers?

Kids notice everything – far more than we often prefer to acknowledge. They know something about most big, complicated topics. Books can help to piece those fragments of information together. They can offer a safe framework within which to explore and question big topics, something solid which can be revisited or discussed with others if they choose.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change?

Breathe by Sarah Crossan and The Last Wild by Piers Torday

Can you remember when your journey with environmental activism started?

When I moved to Ethiopia, the country was experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades, followed by some of the worst flooding. The human cost, the failed crops, the loss of livestock and wildlife were evident in both country and city. The nature of climate change – not just as global warming, but as climate chaos – truly hit me for the first time.

Why is it so important for you personally to see the environment discussed in fiction?

Fiction can provide a context and a narrative for subjects which may otherwise feel more abstract.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

The bonds which connect people and nature are beginning to fray. Something precious beyond imagining, is coming apart.

What message do you hope your young readers will take away from your work? What steps would you like them to take to be more involved in environmental activism?

That you’re never too young to have opinions about big issues. You’re never too young to make a difference. That the small actions of many can achieve more than a few grand gestures by those in power.

You can find out more about Melt here.

Ele Fountain worked as an editor in children’s publishing where she was responsible for launching and nurturing the careers of many prize-winning and bestselling authors. She lived in Addis Ababa for several years, where she wrote Boy 87, her debut novel. It won four awards and was nominated for nine more, including Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. Her second novel LOST published to critical acclaim earlier this year.

Climate Change in the News

Climate Change and Fiction Zoom panel with League members Julie Carrick Dalton  and Angie Hockman - 6th May with Books and Books @ the Studios

Jury acquits Extinction Rebellion protesters [The Guardian] - Six Extinction Rebellion protesters have been cleared of causing criminal damage to Shell’s London headquarters despite the judge directing jurors that they had no defence in law, and even if they thought the protesters were “morally justified”, it did not provide them with a lawful excuse to commit criminal damage. But the jury of seven women and five men took seven hours and four minutes to acquit them of both charges. Before reaching their verdicts, the jury had asked to see a copy of the oath they took when they were sworn in. Thanking jurors for their “care and attention”, the judge said: “This has been an unusual case.”

MI6 'green spying' on biggest polluters to ensure nations keep climate change promises [Sky News]

Wealthy nations ‘failing to help developing world tackle climate crisis’ [The Guardian]

Climate change: Net-zero cannot be achieved by planting a few trees or keeping lights switched off a bit more [Sky News]

In an effort to encourage more sustainable cooking, we won’t be publishing new beef recipes on Epicurious [Epicurious]

Barbara Kingsolver & Kim Stanley Robinson video panel [Youtube]

Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, Volume III released