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Cli-Fi; Climate Change Fiction As Literature's New Frontier?

23/07/2015 09:12 BST | Updated 22/07/2016 10:59 BST

Literature is always a comment on the times in which we live regardless of the period in which it is set. This is potentially politically, economically, socially or now - environmentally. A growing subset within fiction is taking on what is possibly the greatest threat of our age: climate change. This expanding canon is seemingly genre-less, though most closely allied with science fiction, and does not adhere to concepts of high or low brow fiction. Climate fiction encompasses work from literary giants like Margaret Atwood through to Ian McEwan, authors who have produced extraordinary works with a great deal of vitriol about our continued abuse and mistreatment of the planet and our insatiable, unsustainable gluttony of its resources. And it's even got a slick abbreviation: cli-fi.

In our glib, 24-hour-news-cycle world, the unrestrained drip of an iceberg in the Arctic or the slow encroachment of water onto the land of southern hemisphere islands, debated in lengthy terms by austere scientists at dry conferences, doesn't strike us with the immediacy and urgency that it deserves. Perhaps that's where the responsibility of true challenge to an uninformed and inactive audience has fallen, as it always has, to the arts.

This is a sentiment echoed by Harry Manners, an emerging author whose new work Our Fair Eden explores themes of runaway climate change and its social fallout. His novel Our Fair Eden is an electrifying, near-future dystopian thriller about the rebuilding of the world and whether we can truly throw off the shackles of behaviours which destroyed the old. In it, the central protagonist Desh wins a lottery organised by the UN to travel to Eden Prime to remake civilization. Upon arrival, however, there lurks something sinister under the surface of Eden. Manners states that as far as he's concerned, "academics informing the world of impending disasters will never lead to action because people can't engage with them. It's the job of authors and filmmakers and such to translate these into imaginative narratives that people can emote with. Our Fair Eden is motivated by the issues that face us in the here and now, and chief among them is climate change."

Cli-fi, or climate fiction, has expanded in popularity in recent years but has roots in themes explored in fiction for decades. Jules Verne explored climate change and sudden atmospheric temperature drops at the end of the nineteenth century in The Purchase of the North Pole. JG Ballard created early climate dystopia with The Wind From Nowhere (1961) with themes of man-made effects on the atmosphere evident in the majority of his works. Most recently, Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy has considered the outcomes of continuing environmental breakdowns alongside questions about societal collapse and gender relations, tying the threads of social equality into a wider tapestry which demands attention. There are climate change literature classes in universities as geographically diverse as Cambridge to Oregon. A brief Amazon search of "climate fiction" returned over 1800 results which not only reflects the emergence of a more socially aware genre of fiction but also a growing demand by consumers for cultural output which debates environmental issues.

The idea of the arts and sciences as two separate endeavours devoid of a common purpose, (one devoid of creativity, the other of practicality) comprising differing measurable worth to opposing people is a fallacy that is relatively new. Renaissance thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci saw no distinction between scientific theorising and artistic creation. Scientists of the 1800s often presented their findings in poetic verse. These figures include Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) whose work "The Temple of Nature" (originally titled The Origin of Society) presented a precursor to the theory of evolution. Dr Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, stated in a 2002 TED talk that the arts and sciences are the "avatars of human creativity". Therefore, when the arts and sciences combine to address the great issues of today, the result is more than just an engaging knowledge transfer but a glorious exploration of the potential of the individual to enact change and a democratisation of responsibility to do so.

This responsibility of the individual and the potential for turning the tide is one that is expressed very keenly within the genre, and certainly within Harry Manners' work. He is categorically firm as he describes the "numbness of familiarity" we all feel when confronted with the issue of climate change. It's the narrative we've all heard and yet we feel distance from it, either as inevitable or as the responsibility of governments. In Manners' view, "climate change can be staunched by the individual, and the individual only. I want people to realise we have the capability to solve the crisis. It's within our technological capability, given the right funding and dedication, and it's within us to adapt our ways to accommodate the changes we'd have to make. But it's a choice we have to consciously make. We have to want to save the world; it won't come passively."

The different subsets of climate fiction have grown in and around the fringes of science fiction, which historically has had great scope for exploring our ideas of "other" and of ourselves through their degrees of separation from worlds we acknowledge and recognise. Suspension of disbelief within science fiction makes it possible to push the boundaries without the measure of restriction placed on fiction operating in realistic universes. Science fiction has always traditionally aligned with social justice movements, from the political pariahs during 1950s McCarthyism to the 1970s feminist movements and the success of Octavia Black's Nebula award-winning African American female protagonists. That being said, the multitude of works which now incorporate the themes of global warming and changing environmental conditions alongside the growing roster of literary authors utilising these ideas make it logistically difficult to imprison climate change fiction simply as a niche section of science fiction.

Whether climate change exists within or outside of traditional genre limitations which it threatens to outgrow, it retains the ability to present either a dystopian future in which our apocalyptic ends will be a result of our shared responsibility or a utopia in which we can channel our potential into achieving a sustainable, egalitarian equilibrium with our environment. For literature, climate change is merely the new frontier.

Our Fair Eden is published by Raddon Press and is available from Amazon. Stay abreast of Harry Manners' views and upcoming works at www.harrymanners.net and on Twitter at @harry_a_manners