Adrian Graham

Annual global temperatures from 1850-2017

Speculative fiction: climate change, and future dystopias

Novels about climate change already have their own snappy sounding genre – cli-fi. It’s usually a sub-genre of an existing genre like the crime thriller, or speculative fiction. It’s difficult to find any recent speculative fiction that doesn’t have some reference to rising sea levels, desertification, pollution, or global warming. There’s nothing more that speculative fiction writers like than some kind of grim ecological disaster, especially a post-apocalyptic or dystopian context.

While the term cli-fi was only invented in 2013, fiction about devastating climate change has been around for a while: in Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole climate change occurs when the Earth tilts on its axis. More recently, J G Ballard’s novels The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962), and The Burning World (AKA The Drought) (1964) have dealt with environmental disaster. It’s been big in movies, for decades, with films like Soylent Green (1973), Quintet (1979), Waterworld (1995), The Core (2003), 2012 (2005), WALL-E (2008), Interstellar (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), fusing the disaster movie with climate change, and speculative fiction.

Cultures rise and fall, sometimes because of natural phenomenon, sometimes though conflict. The actual pattern of change may be a more intricate combination of factors. They may go through a rebirth process, for example, to stem the decline, and start rising again. While the cycle may take a long time to occur in ‘real time’, in fiction-time its likely to be dramatically condensed.

I’ve written about societies in speculative fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy being representations of heaven or hell. Even though writers go out of their way to tell more nuanced variations on these two simplistic extremes, they do still provide a basic template for understanding societies in speculative fiction, even if the imagines society had positive and negative traits.

The heaven-like society is a paradise world, an aspiration perhaps. The hellish world is a warning, or an exaggerated version of our world’s shortcomings. Either way, societies in speculative fiction are conversations about the world we live in now. They are today’s hopes and fears about tomorrow.

Ideology quickly turns to dogma in speculative worlds. Marxist thinking inevitably becomes repressive as its revolutionary zeal rapidly resembles the imperial power it has replaced, one repressive state police system replaces another. A new elite replaces an old one. For every revolution, there is a counter revolution. In dogmatic cultures everything is perceived in binary terms (rich and poor, oppressor or victim), conflict breeds further conflict, which breeds further polarisation.

The result, which 1984 explores so well, is a never-ending hate-war, a continual desire to reclassify anything and everyone into one of those categories. Capitalism, in speculative fiction, is likely to become increasingly exploitative, sliding into cronyism and corruption. It operates for the benefit of the large corporations. In theory, the advantage of Democracy is that it gives the population a way of voting out the old administration, and ushering in a new one. In the speculative future that link is broken.

A common scenario inherent in dystopian speculative fiction is that an elite – the military, or corporate interests, a political or theocratic ideology – have taken power. In The Handmaid’s Tale, a ruthless and religious elite dominates America, trashing democratic values and instilling its repressive and hateful theocratic-inspired dogma.

In speculative fiction there aren’t many examples of smoothly running societies populated with happy smiling people. And when they are, they’re likely to be walked all over by some malign force and used as motivation for the protagonist to take out his or her revenge. When these societies are depicted the reader or viewer learns remarkably little about them. The human world depicted in Battlestar Galactica (2003 – 2009), for example, is destroyed by the Cylons (a hostile, cybernetic race) very shortly after the opening of the story.

In some speculative fiction, soft science, science fiction, and fantasy, the world building is focused on the society itself and the behaviour of the people who live in it. This is the case with Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1959).

Hard science, science fiction like 1951s Foundation stresses the positive aspects of technology. It presents an optimistic vision of the future where anything is achievable. The benefits to society of harnessing technology outweigh the disadvantages. The positive outlook of 1950s hard sci-fi echoes the bright future that personified America’s view of the world at that time, the perception it had of itself, and of its capability. That ‘we can achieve anything’ self-belief feels a lot less familiar today – tellingly, it’s more likely to come from a Chinese science fiction writer than an American one.


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