- Introduction: The Rising Tide of Climate Change Fiction
The call for papers for this collection on “The Rising Tide of Climate Change Fiction” arose from concerns about pessimistic assessments, in recent literary criticism, of the novel’s ability to meet the representational challenges posed by the pressing planetary problem of climate change. The contributions to this volume take issue with that pessimism and take stock of the novel’s capabilities.
From the wholesale condemnation of modern literature for the absence of climate change within its pages (Ghosh) to ambivalence about the scalar capacities of the novel (Clark), the pessimistic turn of literary (eco)criticism seems at odds not only with the increasing production of climate change literature itself but also with the expansion of a concomitant critical field. Recent, and much-needed, taxonomic studies of creative and critical practice have registered that proliferation (e.g., Irr; Johns-Putra; Trexler; Trexler and Johns-Putra). Perhaps such critical proclivities—pessimism over the ability of the novel to capture climatic change—stem from problems with the definition of climate change fiction. For example, in his exploration of the literary absence of climate change, Amitav Ghosh deploys a rather nebulous notion of “serious” modern literature to delimit the archive he finds lacking. The vagaries of this definition aside, he may be looking in the wrong places, and sometimes in the wrong times. We called for papers that sought climate change where it would not be expected in literature.
In looking for climate change in different textual places as well as times, we evoked and echoed recent critical calls to be wary of the emergence of a canon of climate change fiction—as a distinct and delimited genre—and to resist its hypostatization (Bracke; Kerridge). In that evocation, we hope to have contributed to a decanonization—or, at least, a widening of the definition—of climate change fiction by soliciting critical engagement across a variety of novelistic genres and modes (Bracke; Kerridge; Mehnert; Trexler). [End Page 1]
As in those recent taxomonic studies (especially Trexler), the editors of and contributors to this collection do not and cannot see climate change outside of the larger context of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene describes a new geological epoch characterized by the primacy of human impact on Earth system processes, including the climate system. The International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Working Group on the Anthropocene voted in 2016 to identify the mid-twentieth century—the beginning of the nuclear age and the Great Acceleration in greenhouse gas emissions—as the official start of the Anthropocene. However, there is still a critical mass of academic research that synchronizes the Anthropocene with industrial capitalism and so points to the onset of the industrial revolution: the late eighteenth century’s inauguration of the large-scale burning of fossil fuels and consequent atmospheric emissions, the cumulative effects of which make climate change the most pronounced Anthropocenic characteristic. Regardless of the epoch’s precise start date, anthropogenic climatic change is representative of the Anthropocene and legible in the geological record that is being left by humanity’s geophysical agency.
For Adam Trexler, the moment of the Anthropocene does not just designate chemical, physical, and biological planetary transformations but inaugurates cultural sea changes brought about by the possibility of contemporaneously seeing and representing (some of) those transformations as we bring them about. For Trexler, the novel lends itself to this cultural moment, given its multivocal and dialogical nature, which makes it approximately akin to the complex networking of ideas needed to make sense of our new epoch (5–7). Just as climate change can only be understood through the relation between disciplines of knowledge and their discourses, so it should not be confined to one particular novelistic genre or mode (Trexler; see also Bracke; Kerridge). For Trexler, the novel is not just an ideational and discursive but also a material assemblage. As a social and cultural formation, the novel has always been enabled by economic and industrial systems of modernity and their resources, from its origins to the present day (LeMenager, Living Oil; Sullivan; Woods; Yaeger). The product of energy regimes as much as intellectual labor, the novel...