The Rise of the Climate Change Novel

The protester's sign, which reads "Climate Emergency," takes up the whole frame. The sign includes the shape of the Earth, an orange and red background, and stark black lettering in the foreground.

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016)

These days, when describing the weather, people often resort to the word “unreal.” A cab driver in Chicago recently told me—in light of the week’s below-zero temperatures—that the idea of surpassing 50º F by the close of the week was “unreal.” My father, who lives in Minnesota in the same town where he grew up, says unfrozen ponds in February are “unreal.” Sometimes, this word is intended as slang; the weather seems extraordinary or amazing, it seems unreal. But more often, it contains a trace of the literal: the weather—the actual weather outside the window—now pushes against the parameters of what we understand as plausible. Our current climate feels unrealistic, like something lifted from the pages of a fantasy novel.

The title of the book is superimposed over an aerial photograph of ice flows.

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh reflects on the fate of literary realism—the novels and stories crafted to approximate “real life”—in the context of a rapidly changing climate. Why, Ghosh asks, has serious fiction—by which he means realist fiction—remained largely silent about the warming world? It’s worth noting that Ghosh is only the most recent voice in the chorus of writers bemoaning literature’s tepid response to climate change. “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” Bill McKibben demanded in 2005. He added, “When people someday look back on our moment, the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking temperature. But they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what it meant to us.” The British nature writer Robert Macfarlane, also in 2005, observed: “Cultural absences are always more difficult to document than cultural outpourings. But the deficiency of a creative response to climate change is increasingly visible.”

Ghosh hypothesizes that this lack of realist fiction about the climate is not the result of widespread apathy among authors but instead the result of literary convention. He argues that realist fiction is premised on the highly probable:

the calculus of probability that is deployed within the imaginary world of a novel is not the same as that which obtains outside it; this is why it is commonly said, “If this were in a novel, no one would believe it.” Within the pages of a novel, an event that is only slightly improbable in real life—say, an unexpected encounter with a long-lost childhood friend—may seem wildly unlikely: the writer will have to work hard to make it appear persuasive. If that is true of a small fluke of chance, consider how much harder a writer would have to work to set up a scene that is wildly improbable even in real life?1

The issue, of course, is that anthropogenic climate change is “defined precisely by events that appear, by our current standards of normalcy, highly improbable: flash floods, hundred-year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides, raging torrents pouring down from breached glacial lakes, and, yes, freakish tornadoes.”2 Literary realism, according to Ghosh’s argument, can’t contain the highly improbable climate we now inhabit: our climate has exceeded the capacities of realism as a genre.

An ariel photo of the Polar Ice Rim. A glacier sweeps the right side of the image. The water surrounding the glacier is speckled by icebergs.

Climate catastrophes, like this melting glacier on the Polar Ice Rim in Norway, are difficult to depict in realist fiction, according to Ghosh. Photo by UN Photo/Mark Garten, 2009.

Genres like magical realism and science fiction might be just what we need to navigate an age of shifting climatic probability.

When Ghosh argues that climate change resists “what is now regarded as serious fiction,”3 he means “the mansion house” of realist literature, not “those generic outhouses…called ‘fantasy,’ ‘horror,’ and ‘science fiction.’”4 But the last few years have produced an outpouring of books—magical realism and science fiction and futuristic tales—that tackle climate change head on: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow all come immediately to mind. In fact, in 2009, Bill McKibben amended his statement about the lack of climate change literature, pointing to the new “torrent of art” addressing the changing climate. I wonder, therefore, about Ghosh’s equation of the realist and the serious. He resists the idea of grappling with climate change in genres other than realism, arguing that to portray extreme climatic events “as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling—which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time.”5 But perhaps, like the unreal weather actually happening outside our windows, stories that surpass old boundaries of the real are now the most serious stories of all, regardless of which genre they inhabit. Literature that stretches the bounds of realism can bring elements of “the real world” into relief, allowing us to perceive the many crosscurrents and paradoxes within the narrow category of “the real.” Genres like magical realism and science fiction might be just what we need to navigate an age of shifting climatic probability.

Three book covers include The Windup Girl, Odds Against Tomorrow, and The Healer.

Covers of recent novels that depict climate change. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow.

Even within the confines of realist narrative, climate change may register more readily than Ghosh acknowledges. Dramatic climatic events, like droughts and floods, have certainly graced the pages of realist fiction before: in the parched landscapes of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, families migrate in search of reliable rain, while in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a hurricane decimates the most vulnerable communities on the Florida coast. Moreover, climate change does not always manifest in the kind of sudden, dramatic events like the storms and landslides that Ghosh observes are difficult to incorporate into a sedate work of realist prose. Climate change also manifests through gradual alterations—a tick upwards in a thermometer, an early melt of lake ice, an insect species steadily expanding its range. These gradual changes might easily be incorporated into narratives featuring everyday life. I worry about concluding that realist fiction cannot contain a changed climate, because I suspect this conclusion has less to do with the limitations of literature than with a limited perception of climate change as primarily spectacular weather events. It suggests that we haven’t yet absorbed how climate change also infiltrates the very ordinary, everyday experiences that are the bread and butter of realist novels.

Climate change also manifests through gradual alterations—a tick upwards in a thermometer, an early melt of lake ice, an insect species steadily expanding its range. These gradual changes might easily be incorporated into narratives featuring everyday life.

Amitav Ghosh at the Literati book store in Goa. Photo by Sumit Dayal.

Ghosh astutely argues that “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination,”6 and towards this end, I wonder about interrogating reading practices as well as writing practices. What if we noted each time a novel—one we respect or respond to as a work of art, regardless of genre—references climate change? A few months ago, reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, it struck me that the migrations driving the novel include “people slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields.”7 Exit West is by no means a book about climate change, and yet it contains this fleeting reference to altered weather and the increasing crisis of climate change refugees. I noticed this moment because The Great Derangement primed me to read for the climate—to track the climate’s absence or presence. It’s impossible to read Ghosh’s work without beginning to share his fascination with the climatic imagination, which is a testament to the power of his argument. Perhaps staying alert to climate change’s presence in fictional worlds—whether that presence is subtle or conspicuous—may help us begin to identify the myriad representations of climate change in the “real world” around us.

Featured image: A protester at the People’s Climate March in Melbourne, Australia in 2014. Photo by Takver, 2014.

Sarah Dimick is a Postdoctoral Fellow with a joint appointment in the Department of English and the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University. Her work is located at the intersection of climate science and global Anglophone literatures of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her current project, Climatic Arrhythmias: Global Warming, Literary Form, and Environmental Time, examines how literature both documents and responds to the disrupted temporal ecologies of the Anthropocene. Her last contribution to Edge Effects was an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert (November 2014). Website. Twitter. Contact.

  1. Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 23-24 

  2. Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 24 

  3. Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 9 

  4. Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 24 

  5. Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 27 

  6. Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 9 

  7. Hamid, Exit West, 213 

1 Response

  1. April 18, 2022

    […] the future. And he even argues in his book The Great Derangement – and I’m quoting from Sarah Dimick’s review of the book for Edge Effects – that “literary realism… can’t contain the highly improbable climate we now […]

Leave a Reply