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Can sci-fi help dream our way out of disaster?


Creative Time Reports has published a think piece by Claire L. Evans on the rise of cli-fi, and how transforming it into something called Anthropocene fiction might aid climate action efforts. (See our related conversation, “Why climate action needs the arts”). The piece in partial below, in full here.

Build an imaginary world in your mind, hanging in space. Spin it around a bit; kick the tires. Now change one thing about that world. Throw a bug of your choice into the machine. What if the oceans reclaim your coastal cities? What if you can’t support life? What if the life you bear can’t support you?

Ponder the answer, and you’ll create what the critic Robert Scholes calls “radical discontinuity,” the cognitive dissonance that allows science fiction to explore the most pressing concerns of its age. For our age – the Anthropocene, the proposed geologic epoch defined by human impact – the discontinuities are clear. The question is not if we will change the planet but when, and how existing changes will render it unrecognizable.

The stories we tell ourselves can help us understand, and maybe even adapt, to this new world. But the dour dystopias and escapist fantasies of our current science fiction diet just won’t do. We need something new: a form of science fiction that tackles the radical changes of our pressing and strange reality. We need Anthropocene fiction.

The mechanics of science fiction function at every level, from granular observations of everyday life to speculations on the cosmos, all while maintaining the human thread; it may be the only genre capable of such monumental shifts in scale. And the Anthropocene requires scale: a geologic period with no end in sight, it will affect our lives and those of our distant descendants.

It can be difficult to conceive of something so enormous through facts alone. But the right fiction can be a mirror, a map and a crystal ball, helping us to see ourselves in the world, negotiate our way out of disaster and imagine how we might live differently.

Science fiction can be read as a form of theory, a “realism of the possible,” helping us think through the world as it is and as it may be.
When today’s sci-fi blockbusters address ecological issues, they tend toward the dystopian. Mad Max: Fury Road is an unflinching portrait of the world after water; the frozen tundra of Snowpiercer is the consequence of a failed climate-control experiment; even Godzilla rises from a warming sea. But purely apocalyptic stories don’t help us reckon with reality’s slower, but equally devastating, emergencies – forests that vanish acre by acre, sea levels that rise a few millimeters each year, demand for consumer goods that gradually leech the planet’s resources.

Sci-fi has always mirrored the time of its writing. The themes of Star Trek – race relations, Cold War fears, American imperialism – were rooted in the politics of the 1960s. And when the modern environmental movement began in the early 1970s, a generation of sci-fi writers authored its myths. Some were hopeful. In Ernest Callenbach’s seminal 1975 novel Ecotopia, the Pacific Northwest runs happily on green energy and liberal cannabis use. Others issued warnings. In Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! – adapted into the film Soylent Green – the global population is sardined in overcrowded cities, living hand-to-mouth on scarce resources. Such myths formed the poles of the movement’s worldview, expressing its highest ideals and deepest fears.

In recent years the term climate fiction, or cli-fi, has emerged to refer to works dealing explicitly with climate change. Margaret Atwood has championed the term, which has since been applied broadly, and even retroactively, to writers like JG Ballard and Jules Verne. Cli-fi, with its emphasis on global warming and its attendant anxieties, goes some of the way toward the ideal of Anthropocene fiction, but it’s too narrow a designation. Even the books most often cited as examples of cli-fi – Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake – address issues beyond climate change. They envision futures dictated by human recklessness: as Atwood said this year in an interview with Slate, it’s not climate change, it’s “the everything change.”


On September 2nd 2014 I read two articles in the New York Times - one about yet another urgent warning of climate change and another about Christopher Nolan’s movie “Interstellar”. From my point of view the movie makes use of a current existential crisis without raising any critical consciousness about it, but rather exploiting it solely for the use of entertainment. When I think of Science-Fiction I always perceived it as a way of storytelling, which albeit based in popular culture, offers serious implications for current societal problems.

I think of Hollywood-Clichés (e.g. the Hero) that make the spectator passive, and uninvolved in any thought process about real problems that a movie might bring to question (and how e.g. Neo-Realism tried to work against these clichés). I also think of how Aldous Huxley describes cinema in “Brave New World” (1932). Our cinema-experience doesn’t resemble his vision in all the details, but observing the audience while watching a film like “Prometheus” or “Batman - The Dark Knight Rises” (both 2012), left me pondering for some time, about the sheer immenseness, and cold brutality of the images and sound that people get knocked over by. In a movie like Robocop (1989), which is generously violent, the violence comes across as a gesture that works as a form of criticism - against the mass-media, corporational power and technology/ the outlook of a cyborg-future. The movies formerly mentioned however I perceived as presenting a different kind of violence, that maybe I could describe as structural. I.e. the violence comes to effect through the spectacle as a whole, in contrast to (“only”) depicting explicitly violent actions. It also felt more like a kind of negative or dark cartharsis, functioning either as a way of escapism or anesthesia, although I don’t want to say that for the whole Batman trilogy. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that while Robocop is rather gore-spilling, in Batman 3 (as I remember it) the antagonists scarcely bleed, if at all. To me this reinforces the surreal-ness of the movie, which in general offers less implications to real circumstances than its predecessor “The Dark Knight”.

Another thing I’d like to share is the J.G. Ballard’s introduction to his novel “Crash” (orig. publ. 1973), where he, amongst other things, writes about how fiction and reality, in fact, reverse and what consequences follow for writer’s [authors]. I think this text relates to the topic here in a very interesting way.


While reading the whole article I somehow remembered a novel I read. The article puts emphasis on Anthropocene Fiction and Cli-Fi so I assume it doesn’t matter that the book has nothing to do with Science-Fiction. I like a lot how the author conceived of the causes for our problems and gets to a number of surprising conclusions (like us enlightend people believing in a myth and enacting a story). You should think twice before reading the full article on wikipedia, as it gives away almost everything. I think it is a good example of how to mingle fiction, philosophy and actual, environmental and societal problems (!) , although maybe there are some stretches which didn’t quite hold up to the pristine quality of the rest of the book.


Just thought about this again. Here’s just a quick patchwork of quotes. Again it’s not science fiction, but fiction it is.

About “Ishmael” (source wikipedia):

“The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the pinnacle of biological evolution. It posits that anthropocentrism and several other widely accepted modern ideas are actually cultural myths and that global civilization is enacting these myths with catastrophic consequences.”

I really like the idea laid out in this novel that we actually “enact [a story] to strive to make [it] come true”. And further [quoted from the novel]:

“Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world.”