The reason climate fiction is not a subset of science fiction = you do not need a speculative element to write climate fiction. This should be obvious.
— Jeff VanderMeer on Facebook, September 23, 2017
“CLI-FI,” AS IT’S been dubbed — a genre of fiction that extrapolates the consequences of catastrophic climate change on Earth — is never only about the climate. In climate fiction narratives, the weather is generally one of many overlapping factors that create an inhospitable world. Or rather, such works show that we, humanity, have created a world that is inhospitable for ourselves, by our own carelessness. Cli-fi highlights how the climate is something over which our scientific interventions have very little control, especially in contrast to our industrial and petrochemical impact, and explores how we have been wantonly destructive toward the natural environment without thoughts of mitigation — or, in the case of the current administration of the world’s most powerful country, even recognition that there is a problem to be mitigated.
As VanderMeer says, cli-fi is not science fiction in any traditional sense. It extrapolates, but its predictions do not point toward things that are unlikely or improbable. Instead, it explores how the dominoes are already falling. We cannot, at this point, save ourselves from the damage we have done, but we can look ahead to consider where our already-chosen path is taking us.
In the wake of the success of his Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer published his subsequent novel, Borne, in mid-2017. It is set in a nameless post-apocalyptic city poisoned by pollutants, ravaged by violence, and terrorized by a giant flying bear who is both sustenance and threat to the scavengers, like narrator Rachel, who survive by adapting technologies left behind by the Company (which poisoned the land in the first place).
Borne is about the need for connection among the ruins of the lives we thought we were living. It is a metaphor for the disjunction of living in the Anthropocene era: the world is changing much more rapidly than we can comprehend. The quotidian things that Rachel needs in order to survive are dull and dirty: her shoes, the food she scavenges, the crumbling Balcony Cliffs where she lives with her lithe, waxy partner Wick. Dangerous things are beautiful: the moss and lichen in Wick’s laboratory pool full of monsters, green and gold, mingle “with the sun’s rays and [are] transformed in some fundamental way”; the river near Balcony Cliffs, “splashing in lavender, gold, and orange,” is corrosive and deadly.
Many things in Borne are characterized by weird states of multiplicity. Their meanings overlap and bleed into each other like palimpsests; symbols inhabit each other like ghosts. VanderMeer has explored the instability of the identity of things in his earlier works; in the Southern Reach trilogy, for example, the tunnel/tower, the creatures who are and are not each other, the lighthouse-keeper/Crawler, and Area X itself (which both is and is not an environment) are each radically unstable entities. In Borne, this instability finds its purest expression in Borne itself: a shapeshifting object that is at once invention, child, friend, student, and weapon. It is liminality made multicolored, multivalent flesh.
Rachel finds Borne on one of her expeditions out of the Balcony Cliffs to scavenge from Mord, the giant, deadly flying bear that alternatively terrifies and supplies the remaining inhabitants of the former company town where Rachel lives. She finds Borne, at first a rubbery, sea-anemone-like object, tangled in Mord’s fur: her first impulse is not that Borne is valuable, but that he is “defenseless.” She brings him home to the Balcony Cliffs, where Wick immediately objects to her “keeping” him; Borne becomes a constant source of tension in their relationship (one that any parent who has brought a squalling baby into a formerly peaceful, well-slept home will recognize).
Rachel’s relationship with Borne, in many ways, echoes precisely the relationship between a parent and their child: the initial curiosity and wonder combined with keen understanding of the child’s defenselessness; the foundational love that becomes overwhelming when the child sees the world as beautiful and does not yet understand that the beauty of the world is also mortally dangerous. Early in the novel, Rachel shows Borne the tainted river that runs outside the Balcony Cliffs. Having just learned the word “disgusting,” a word he uses to describe the creatures in Wick’s swimming pool, Borne is instead taken with its beauty, calling it “beautiful beautiful beautiful”:
Borne didn’t know it was all deadly poisonous, truly disgusting. Maybe it wasn’t, to him. Maybe he could have swum in that river and come out unscathed. Maybe, too, I realized right then in that moment that I’d begun to love him. Because he didn’t see the world like I saw the world. He didn’t see the traps. Because he made me rethink even simple words like disgusting or beautiful.
Borne is, however, also dangerous; he has a voracious appetite, and after he eats all of the bugs in the Balcony Cliffs, he goes hunting for larger prey: humans. Eventually Rachel finds a diary Borne has kept, in which he expresses existential despair: “BORNE MUST STOP KILLING. BORNE MUST STOP TASTING. BORNE MUST STOP BEING BORNE.” His name, given to him by Rachel, he ruefully identifies as “something you don’t want to carry.”
In this way, Borne throws into stark relief a central, fundamental challenge of the Anthropocene: parenting a child who may experience — and may bring about — the end of the world as we know it. This is a constant tension in Borne: at various times, Borne is a child, a weapon, or both. As he is growing, he kills people without understanding that he is doing it — as do the children of the Global North and East, as they consume the world’s resources in a way that kills children elsewhere. Borne eats people and wears their eyes or their skin like a disguise, an apt metaphor for the contemporary neocolonial appropriation of cultures that consumes the lifeworlds of others without bothering to understanding them.
At the end of the novel, Borne confronts Mord, the flying bear, who threatens to end Rachel’s life. The two battle in the sky; then, with a great clap of something like thunder, they both disappear. Borne is lost. The environment in and around the city begins to recover: fragile community ties begin to be rebuild, and Mord’s “proxies,” ravenous and aggressive semi-sentient bears, become calm and build their own communities. The losses of Mord and Borne create a peace of sorts.
It is here that the parenting metaphor breaks down: who would accept the loss of their child to save themselves? But it seems to me that it is not the child itself, but rather unthinking, unbridled consumption, that is the greater threat. Our children can kill us, or they can save us. We need them to see the beauty in what is, and we need them to see how necessary it is to understand the danger in beauty without thought or function. Our children are born, but we have borne them; in doing so, they have borne the consequences of our actions. They will save us — or they will destroy us.
From Noah’s biblical flood to J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), a worryingly plausible scenario of polar ice melt, to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and its two sequels The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), to Madeline Ashby’s Canada Reads–finalist Company Town (2016), science fiction has always been preoccupied by what may happen if the world we know turns on us. When it comes to stories of ecological disaster, SF cinema and other media have been a mass-market space of engagement: SF video games in particular have provided immersive experiences of human-made disaster. It is no coincidence that most games about the near future foreground survival-horror narratives. The Fallout series (1997–2015), for example, is set in the aftermath of a human-driven nuclear apocalypse, with its postmodern, retrofuturist, at-times-ironic appeal to cultural landmarks of the 1940s and ’50s. A popular in-game radio station in Fallout 4 plays tracks like “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” by the Ink Spots and “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis as your character either shoots mutant monsters or perishes against a blasted hellscape. Similarly, Hinterland Games’s The Long Dark is set in the post-eco-disaster Canadian wilderness, illuminated eerily and beautifully by an uncanny aurora borealis, which provides almost all of the game’s light; electricity is rare. The game’s popular trailer is overdubbed by Agnes Obel’s “The Curse”: the perfect accompaniment to slow, cold, inexorable demise. We seem determined to make our own slouch toward ecological Bethlehem beautiful; and if not beautiful, then meaningful; and if not meaningful, then full of gallows humor, to the tune of Atomic Age swing.
The Japanese writer Shinichi Hoshi’s deceptively simple story “He-y, Come on Ou-t! [Oi, detekoi!]” (1957) is perhaps the most on-the-nose metaphor for human-made climate change in science fiction: it centers around a mysterious hole in the ground that seems bottomless, into which villagers throw all of their garbage, until one day, the garbage tossed into the hole begins to fall from the sky.
We are living in a not-so-metaphorical version of “Oi, detekoi”: the destruction we’ve wreaked on our environment is coming back to hurt us. In the summer of 2017, back-to-back major hurricanes devastated Texas, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico. The island of Barbuda is no longer habitable. Many of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million American citizens have been without electricity for months. The American president denies that climate change is a significant threat, preferring to deliver tax breaks to millionaires than to address the figurative, and literal, gathering storms. This is not the opening to an epistolary novel of impending apocalypse: this is a factual accounting of the news.
It is here — in the worst-case climate scenario we are living in every moment like the slowest-motion car crash in the world — where the speculation of 20th-century science fiction meets its hyperbolic approach to the world in which we live.
The science fiction of this century is one in which great existential threats are known: they are real, and terrible. Something is terribly wrong.
Will we listen?
This essay is dedicated to my colleague and friend, the late Dr. Anthony Carrigan, whose sheer brilliance was matched only by his kindness, humor, and generosity of spirit. It was a conversation with Anthony, about alienness and alienation, that provided the seed from which almost all of my subsequent work on science fiction has grown.
He made the world better, and we all miss him very much.
Jessica Langer is a professor at Centennial College in Toronto, Canada and is the author of Postcolonialism and Science Fiction (London and NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); she holds a PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London.