Year of the Floods

Interesting review-feature by Robin McKie in yesterday’s Observer:

Today, in these more strained ecological times, this kind of storytelling has taken on a harder edge and eco-thrillers have become a more robust genre – both on the page and on the screen. Upcoming films such as 2012 and The Book of Eli portray ecological and technological catastrophes like those depicted in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and I Am Legend (2007). At the same time, plays such as Resilience and On the Beach have explored environmental issues with considerable success, while forthcoming novels from William Boyd, Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan will also pursue ecological themes.

In short, environmental fiction is moving away from its roots in science fiction and is becoming part of mainstream literature – as is revealed by some of the most recent novels to tackle themes of climate change and the like.

I have both Cold Earth and The Rapture on my (unwieldy) TBR pile at the moment, and while McKie’s argument isn’t as rigorously argued as perhaps it might be, I do think he’s on to something. I’ve thought for a while that if I had a spare year or two, a project I would like to tackle is an analysis of the development of treatments of climate change — as distinct from disaster stories — in science fiction, both because I think it’s an interesting marker of how genre sf has engaged (or failed to engage) with the future in which we are actually living, and because I think it’s an interesting marker of the relationship between genre sf and mainstream-published sf, as McKie suggests. It seems to me there is are interestingly intertwined stories to be told there, and that the body of work that would need to be covered is not entirely unmanageable. [EDIT: I completely forgot that we’d discussed some of these issues before.]

Also, from the end of the article:

Solar by Ian McEwan. The idea for Solar (working title, due out in 2010) came to McEwan while stuck on a boat in the Arctic. His subject is climate change, considered through a central character who “steadily gets fatter through the novel” and the innate inability of human nature to counter it


9 thoughts on “Year of the Floods

  1. I’m left wondering exactly what McKie means by ‘eco-thrillers have become a more robust genre’. Does he mean that the science is becoming more rigorous? (From some of his descriptions, it doesn’t sound as though it is, at least not across the board.) Does he mean the books are getting better artistically? (Again, probably not, as some of these sound like distinct potboilers.) Is it that ‘eco-lit’ is gaining more of an identity of its own? (If so, I think it’s unfortunate that McKie classifies it as a subspecies of thriller; if ever there were a subject that needs more serious treatment than just thrills ‘n’ spills, it’s climate change.)

    Of the books themselves, Cold Earth sounds interesting, as a novel; Flood, I’ve been meaning to read; I’d need to know more about the Atwood before coming to a conclusion; the rest don’t sound much cop.

  2. Hasn’t apocalyptic literature and film always reflected the concerns of the age? Literature of the apocalypse has always been about, but the nature of the apocalypse changes.

    The Edwardians loved this stuff, there was a vibrant post-apocalypse literary tradition, usually featuring civilisation collapsing after extended total war (the First World War must have seemed to some like their stories coming true).

    Later, we have overpopulation leading to collapse, then nuclear armageddon, then biogical threats and diseases, now the environment.

    Eco thrillers haven’t become a more robust genre, rather the apocalypse/post-apocalypse genre has once again shifted the nature of the apocalypse as it does for every generation, reflecting again the fears of the moment.

    And it’s always flirted with the mainstream, On the Beach for example was widely read in its day. Disaster is always popular. More so in film than literature I grant (apocalyptic cinema has always been pretty mainstream), but literature has always straddled the sf/mainstream divide (to the extent that divide really exists).

    I’m not sure there’s a real phenomenon here, or more precisely not a new one.

  3. Hasn’t apocalyptic literature and film always reflected the concerns of the age?

    (a) Yes, but what interests me is the specifics of how the concerns of our age are reflected in literature and (b) at least in my conception, “treatments of climate change” is not synonymous with “apocalyptic literature”; I wouldn’t describe Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy as apocalyptic, for instance. Nor does the Ian McEwan novel sound apocalyptic (it doesn’t even sound like sf, but it clearly deals with climate change).

    Similarly, while apocalyptic literature has often been popular literature, I think it’s fairly clear that there has been a shift in how speculative novels in general are marketed and received — otherwise how did Michael Chabon end up with a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel? — and I’m interested in how that dovetails about climate change in particular.

  4. Treatments of climate change aren’t necessarily apocalyptic, that’s true, though they do tend to be.

    I’ve only read the first of Robinson’s trilogy so far, so can’t speak to where that goes. I thought the most interesting part of it the treatment of the scientific process, which was fascinating, but then Robinson is always strong on that sort of detail.

    I’m not so sure about the general shift point, Chabon is a bit of an unusual case, otherwise though it seems that literary sf simply gets the sf element ignored as ever. The Road is almost never written up as a post-apocalypse novel, Atwood still writes “speculative fiction”, Jeanette Winterson writes about spaceships, alien planets and robots and yet claims not to write sf and isn’t universally ridiculed of what is plainly an absurd claim.

    The gap between literary and science fiction has always been a bit porous, as with all genres, but I think it’s still true that where it’s packaged and marketed as literary fiction any speculative elements tend to be played down in the quality press, and those praising say an Atwood novel will still be happy to say they don’t read SF.

    I guess I think the shift may be more in people’s desires, than in reality. I just wrote up Consider Phlebas the other day, one of the curiosities with Banks is that those who’d read an Iain Banks with interest will frequently not consider an Iain M. Banks, yet Banks has been walking the Chabon road a long time now, with no noticeable impact even on how he’s treated let alone how sf generally is.

  5. Well, at least I now know you’re not the ideal reviewer for this

    More seriously:

    otherwise though it seems that literary sf simply gets the sf element ignored as ever

    But there’s a question of who here. You’re arguing that “literary sf” has the literary element ignored as often as ever by the “literary establishment” — well, I’m not sure that’s true to start with, and surely it’s at least as significant that when it comes to Chabon’s “literary sf”, fandom managed for once to get past the “literary” element?

  6. Either that or I’m the ideal person to review it. But it’s hardly news surely that sf elements pop up outside what is traditionally viewed as sf?

    Regarding Chabon, SF fandom has always been more open to getting past the “literary” element than litfic fandom has been to getting past the sf element. I’d guess more people go on from reading Iain M. Banks to Iain Banks than vice versa.

    I didn’t refer though to a literary establishment, there is one but I’m not persuaded it’s relevant to much of anything. Rather, I think that newspaper reviews, bookshops and general readers still hold genre distinctions hard and fast in mind – even where those distinctions may have little resemblance to what’s actually being written and may be very artificial.

    I also think that many people who might read a book which is by any reasonable measure sf will only read and enjoy it as long as it’s not packaged as such, because their perception of sf is essentially derogatory, I think that’s been true for many years. Recent examples include The Gone Away World, Cloud Atlas, Sputnik Caledonia, further back we have Midnight’s Children or The Famished Road (fantasy rather than sf obviously, but the same point applies).

    The more thoughtful elements of sf fandom are generally aware of what is happening in litfic, at least to a degree, it’s hard not to be as it gets the mainstream news coverage (such as there is of books anyway). I don’t think general and literary readers are actually that aware of what is going on in sf, I think to most people sf is still fiction about spaceships and robots, or HG Wells and Isaac Asimov.

    That’s in part why I don’t think there’s a coming together, not resistance from a literary establishment, but a continuing and largely unchanged lack of awareness of the diversity and relevance of sf which leads to the best sf simply being recategorised. After all, if it’s not about robots and rayguns, it’s not sf…

    Now, if Alastair Reynolds were nominated for the Booker, that would certainly change my view (as long as he didn’t get the reaction Child 44 received anyway), but I think right now to most people that would be as much of a non-sequiture as it would have been ten years ago.

    Interesting blog entry by the way, thanks.

  7. Oh, in case it’s not clear, I am absolutely not arguing for a superiority of litfic to sf, I don’t think they’re converging particularly (though I’d be pleased to be wrong as it happens) but that doesn’t mean I regard one as superior to the other.

    Going further, if we compare the output of the current British sf establishment to that of the current British literary establishment, I think an excellent case can be made that the sf stuff is simply better, but then the British literary establishment is pretty moribund at the moment which is why I read a lot of stuff in translation.

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