Review: Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions

Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015).

In September of 2005, Senator James Inhofe, who has referred to anthropogenic global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” made Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear required reading for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. In Crichton’s novel, an ecoterrorist organization blows up an iceberg, induces a flash flood, and generates a tsunami in order to convince the public that global warming is real. When Crichton appeared to testify before the committee, Senator Barbara Boxer insisted that “we have to focus on facts, not fiction.”

But the distinction between fact and fiction is sometimes difficult to maintain. In October of 2012, the writer Nathaniel Rich was proofreading Odds Against Tomorrow, his novel featuring a disastrous flood in New York City, when Superstorm Sandy hit the east coast. “I had the very strange experience of editing the final proof of my novel one night, going to sleep, and waking up and essentially seeing it adapted on cable television the next morning,” Rich said. “It was eerie. But I think this is the time we live in now.”

Both of these stories raise questions about the powers and capacities of fiction during an era of climate change. What does fiction have the ability to illuminate and what doesn’t it? As the climate shifts, what types of stories feel increasingly resonant? What alternative futures have been imagined within the emerging genre of “cli-fi”? And in the midst of all these speculative futures, how can the present be brought into focus and clarified?

Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change

Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change

To grapple with these questions, Adam Trexler compiled a working bibliography of over 150 novels “about climate change, in one sense or another” (7). He tracked down works suggested by friends-of-friends, sifted through book reviews in newspapers, and conducted a lengthy archival search of booksellers’ trade publications. Trexler’s bibliography ranges from midcentury novels about nuclear winter and terraforming to futuristic science fiction like Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. It encompasses young adult fiction, like Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries, as well as high-brow literary works, like Ian McEwan’s Solar. The resulting analysis, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, is the most comprehensive study yet conducted of cli-fi’s challenges, tendencies, and possibilities.

Trexler argues that in an era characterized by global warming skepticism, “the novel maintains a problematic relationship with the truth of climate change” (29). Timescales are condensed to increase narrative drama, and scenarios are intensified to amplify the force of a jeremiad. As a form, the novel is simply not designed to mirror scientific realism. And yet, to fictionalize climate change is “not about falsifying it, or making it imaginary, but rather about using narrative to heighten its reality” (75). In fact, many authors carefully embed scientific facts in their texts, weaving carbon dioxide levels, temperature readings, and extinction rates into their characters’ dialogues. As Ovid Brown, a lepidopterist in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, explains to a rural farming community in Tennessee how the climate has altered monarch migrations, Kingsolver depicts the complex circuits of climatic knowledge, tracing the ways in which our political identities and economic circumstances repress or attract scientific ideas. Novels might be best understood not as mirrors of laboratory data but as portraits of the anxieties and hopes enmeshed in scientific findings.

If truth is a challenge, so is location. As a global phenomenon, climate change cannot be fully portrayed in a single setting. Therefore, authors eager to provide their characters with tangible experiences of climate change employ a handful of scenarios: extreme heat, catastrophic floods, and polar calamities. These three hallmarks of climate fiction come with their own limitations. Chronic heat often fails to generate a convincing narrative crisis. Flood stories are as ancient as literature itself and “neither the terror nor the telling is changed by a footnote to increased global temperature” (80). Polar narratives tend to depict global warming as a remote threat, unconnected to urban centers and more populated areas of the globe. Additionally, Trexler observes that many of these scenarios also involve a chronological regression, the world imagined after a storm or flood often eerily resembling the world of the 18th or 19th century. It is difficult to imagine the future as anything other than the past.

Despite these challenges, cli-fi novels can serve as “experimental investigations of social structures responding to climate change” (122). They can model alternative political configurations and climate policies, imagining the futures that particular distributions of power may produce. Trexler divides political climate change novels into three primary categories: conflicts between two states, clashes between radical environmentalist groups and the capitalist establishment, and thrillers featuring a rogue team of expert bureaucrats or scientists that eventually saves the world. It is worth noting the thread of environmental authoritarianism running through some of these novels, celebrating scientists and politicians “more concerned with shaping the public than bringing it into democratic processes” (169). In Trexler’s estimation, books relying on threats of annihilation or single-handed heroism are less politically inventive then those imagining fresh alliances.

Books from the library of the Oak Grove Luthern School are rescued from a flood of the Red River in April 2009. Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA.

Books from the library of the Oak Grove Luthern School are rescued from a flood of the Red River in April 2009. Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA.

While cli-fi from the 20th century is preoccupied with forecasting the future, novels in the 21st century have become increasingly focused on the present, “sensitizing the reader to what is before us, rather than demanding we turn away in revulsion or ‘solution’” (170). These novels, which Trexler terms “eco-nomic,” examine contemporary domesticity and political ecology: our air conditioning, shopping habits, and food systems. They weave species loss through stories of human romance or place rising seas in a coming-of-age tale. In these novels, it becomes possible to see how cli-fi is beginning to merge into realist fiction. “The rise of realist fiction about the Anthropocene,” Trexler argues, “shows a wider transformation of human culture….a profound shift in the understanding of climate change itself, from something that ought not to exist to something that already does” (233).

Although Trexler conflates the Anthropocene with climate change—paying minimal attention to fictional representations of nuclear fallout, increased mining and construction, and the rapid spread of species in a period of international travel—this is a timely and necessary study. Anthropocene Fictions brilliantly interjects questions of literary form into discussions of global warming, reminding us of the novel’s unique “capacity to interrogate the emotional, aesthetic, and living experience” of life in a changing climate (6). Novels allow us to gauge the changing climate not through parts per million or rising temperatures but instead through an aesthetic reckoning of what feels real and what feels imagined, what feels feasible and what feels foregone. As the corpus of climate change fiction continues to expand, Trexler’s anatomization will serve as a useful outline of the early inclinations and potentials of this genre.

Featured image: Globes displayed at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, 2012. Photo by Girish Kulkarni and Nishita Desai. 

Sarah Dimick is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her interests span contemporary American and global literature, concentrating on environmental writing of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her research explores representations of climate change and the Anthropocene. Contact.

10 Responses

  1. Jed Hopkins says:

    Nice review Sarah! I feel like I really need to read this book and grapple with this this fascinating issue of how novels do their truth telling. Thank you for featuring this.

  2. Annis Pratt says:

    This is a tremendously useful article for those of us who, having discovered that we are writing it, are trying to get our minds around eco-fiction. Annis Pratt,

  3. Sarah Dimick says:

    I’m so glad this review is proving useful. People often ask which cli-fi novel I’d recommend picking up first, and I think Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is an interesting entry into the genre. Trexler covers Bacigalupi’s work in great depth, so it’s now possible to read it in tandem with a critical analysis!

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