by Jennifer Mills
Published January, 2018
How to Bee
by Bren MacDibble
Allen & Unwin
Published May, 2017
From Armageddon to Ragnarok and the Rapture, humans persist in imagining the end of the world. The religious term is eschatology, and the literary terms are many. Some are jocular (Disaster Porn), or precisely denote a sub-genre (Post-Apocalypse, Solarpunk). Climate change or Anthropocene fiction is the latest variant on the theme, and if we believe our scientists — and woe betide us if we do not — these may be the final words. The end of the world as we know it approacheth, and nobody is feeling fine. Even the denialists feel the heat of the sand around their heads.
For authors, climate change presents a huge technical and emotional challenge, since they are essentially writing about the unknown, or uncertain. The topic is large, complex and urgent, but how to treat it with due respect or even adequately?
Currently those working on the topic in Australia and New Zealand represent a convergence of authors identified with different fields. Some are regarded as literati, others write for the young audience, or are associated with speculative fiction, or are science journalists. All that unites these diverse scribblers is the common theme, which can be expressed in various modes or genres. To confuse matters, writers can hop genres and modes in dealing with the topic. Jane Rawson, for example, has written a climate change novel, Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) and has also written essays and collaborated on the non-fiction The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change (2015) with James Whitmore. James Bradley is perhaps the most transmutable: his writing on climate change includes Clade (2015), a novel for adults, his Change trilogy for younger readers, and various essays on the theme, including ‘An Ocean and an Instant’, for this publication’s New Nature series.
The question arises quickly enough: should we even be writing fiction in the face of such a calamity? Would learning survival skills or undertaking climate activism via lobbying and demonstrating be more useful? One answer: art is a legitimate response to crisis, and apotropaic against despair. Remember that in the Ice Age humans and Neanderthals made art, though they would not have termed it as such. The sacred and magical dominated their lives as much as the quest for food, being intertwined. The changes in their climate came upon them as slowly and inexplicably as the glaciers. They could do nothing about it, except create works of enduring spirit and beauty.
We, in contrast, do know that our earth is changing, and the cause. We might and imperatively should do something about it. And if, as writers, our medium is words, rather than ochre paint on a cave wall, then how do we proceed?
It is, of course, very easy to do nothing, slide into inertia. To take a long and cosmic view, the universe is itself utterly indifferent to the fate of a small and insignificant planet. Entropy awaits, the heat death of the universe as certain as our sun metamorphosing into a red dwarf, which will burn every trace of life from the solar system.
On earth itself life has been mostly nasty, brutal and short. The death of the dinosaurs might have been cataclysmic, but worse has occurred. The Permian Extinction, 251 million years ago, left only 4 per cent of marine life and 30 per cent of terrestrial life alive. These survivors went forth and multiplied, into ever increasing diversity and complexity. Their descendants included humans, which is not necessarily a good thing. Perhaps the cockroaches might argue differently in future millenia, since following the projected Sixth Mass Extinction they could well be the likely inheritors of the earth.
With the previous five mass extinctions, the causes were varied and complex, ranging from volcanism to asteroids. Earth-bound creatures have experienced the greenhouse effect before; in this case the difference is that it is entirely man-made. Our enduring fascination with the end of the world has become a self-inflicted wound.
Another human trait is to claim innocence even when bloody-handed. So we also have climate denialism. Can anyone preach to these unconverted and anticipate success? Expecting a novel to have any effect in the denialist church is like building a dyke around a Pacific island.
These are all dark, despairing things to consider, both in life and in print. For the good of if not our mortal souls then humanity, or even just art, we should at least try. In the era of the cave painters, it was ice that loomed, but now the apocalypse is heat.
To write this doom is nothing new. It has its precursive literature, tales of Nuclear holocaust and post-Apocalypse such as Neville Shute’s On the Beach (1957), a disturbing counter to jingoism. There are imaginative and allusive mid-century novels in which human civilisation comes to an end. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) is one example, and the work of J. G. Ballard provides many elegant, stark, catastrophes, from hurricanes (The Wind from Nowhere (1961) to drought (The Burning World (1964). A dominant trope is that of nature fighting back against humans; feral Australian examples include Russell Braddon’s The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964) and Kenneth Cook’s Pig (1980).
To the tradition of the eco-catastrophe novel can be added more specific works. American novelist Arthur Herzog’s Heat (1977) is often cited as the first climate change novel. Herzog might have been a bestselling writer, but the effect of Heat was brief. Ten years later Australian George Turner produced the well-regarded and prize-winning The Sea and Summer (1987), which I wrote about for this publication only last year. Although in print overseas it has largely been forgotten here. Many other works have been written within genre and failed to reach either the literary or wider audience. Given the human tendency to ignore threats unless absolutely imminent, the coming heat has been as much a deterrent as the threat of hellfire.
With all this in mind, let us consider recent Australian climate change novels. The initial editorial assignment was to review one, Dystopia, by Jennifer Mills, but surveying a growing field, it became difficult to separate this novel from its ilk. Some common tendencies can be noted: Australian novels about climate change have mostly been written by new or early-career writers. They have not topped best-seller lists, and they have tended to be shortlisted for literary prizes rather than win them. Yet the books have gained attention. Jane Rawson’s Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists won the Most Underrated Book Award in 2014 — which indicated an awareness that something was going on.
It is not easy to discern a set of norms of Australian climate change fiction, simply because the works are so different. Turner wrote socialist realism extrapolated into the future; Bradley’s Clade was a family saga moving through time; Rawson’s a multi-genre work presenting a lived-in future with associated fantasy and time travel. I ended an unpublished short story by destroying Melbourne via bushfire; and so did Alice Robinson in her novel Anchor Point (2015). Briohny Doyle, in contrast, in her spirited and idiosyncratic The Island Will Sink (2016) has a tsunami as the apocalyptic conclusion. Clade features a cyclone in London and so does New York 2140 by American writer Kim Stanley Robinson.
For some, climate change is only an aspect of the whole project of a novel, a metaphor for change that does not dominate the subject matter — see the work of Alice Robinson again. Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us (2015) (which broke the trend by winning a Victorian Premier’s Award in 2016) deals similarly with frail human relationships. It considers the crumbling world of the Anthropocene but that is not the major focus of the novel. Climate change is a means of inscribing human grief, as is also the case in Alexis Wright’s densely layered and deeply poetic The Swan Book (2013), where the eco-destruction arrived with European settlement, and escalates until even the swans of the title die out. Others eschew beautiful despair for insouciance (Rawson), anger, and even a glimpse of hope, where in an altered world people still have a chance at happiness (Turner, Bradley). There is even a new sub-genre for such optimism: solarpunk.
Wright apart, writing on climate change has rarely been the choice of Australia’s most lauded writers (I do not say best). In part this may be due to a persistent privileging of solipsism, for the subject reaches outwards, rather than inwards, the realm of the self-absorbed. Peter Carey, who dips in and out of genre almost as often as Margaret Atwood, certainly has the range and ability to tackle the theme successfully. So could Richard Flanagan, or Tim Winton at his most eco-warrior. Peter Temple would have been capable of a coruscating novel starting with the low life and encompassing fossil fuel conspiracies.
To write the Anthropocene seems atrociously difficult, requiring a marriage of art and science at a high level. Writing the future convincingly is something for which few novelists are fully equipped in terms of research skills, scientific knowledge and literary imagination. The dominance of the realist mode has had its price, although as writer Cat Sparks has commented, if we wait long enough ‘it’s possible that all non-historical realistic fiction might be classifiable as forms of climate fiction as the world continues to warm.’
While I was writing this essay, a book not from left-field, but certainly under the radar of many adult readers suddenly became the most awarded Australian Anthropocene novel. Turner and Wright have won two awards each, and so far Bren McDibble’s 2017 How To Bee has won three, for younger readers at the New South Wales Premier’s Awards, the Children’s Book Council Awards and the New Zealand Book Awards. The novel has also international right sales and is performing well in the British market.
When I contributed a short reviews column to the Fairfax papers (up to six books a week), I very quickly learnt both to read and evaluate outside my comfort zone. A key question was how well did the work succeed within the context of its genre and intended audience. Crossing genre was quite common; less common was transcending the genre readership, as when the Harry Potter books went viral. Why a book might do so could be often something quite ineffable: in reviews we are frequently told that a book is good, with less consideration of why, or who might enjoy it apart from the reviewer. On the whole climate change books are admired rather than liked, because the topic is so confronting. Yet on social media How to Bee is liked many times a day.
How to Bee is a book which shows every sign of transcending the young reader audience, for an adult can read it on its own terms. This novel is both futuristic and realistic. It is grounded in the experience of growing up in a family of itinerant New Zealand farmworkers, extrapolated into a future where bee colonies have collapsed due to pesticides. Peony, the central character, a child of verve and attitude, works to pollinate fruit crops. The novel is also political, examining both the world of the rich and the poor.
What works in How To Bee? McDibble concentrates on a single aspect of climate change, showing how it affects Peony and her family. The novel is extremely focused via its child narrator, and because in fiction for the younger audience narrative is important, it moves like a train through its short length. The book engages the attention, holds it, and powers to its conclusion. As an example of how to write the Anthropocene it is exemplary.
With these notable precursors in mind, let us examine Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia. The novel is her third, a debut with Picador, her previous works being published with UQP, including books of poetry and short stories. She has won one major award for short fiction. Her bio lists the accepted stepping stones for a literary career: residencies, festivals, fellowships, grants, and so on. Her blog is updated regularly, engaging with the wider readership. She is currently a teacher of creative writing and the fiction editor of Overland. Reading her three novels, a structural pattern is evident: ‘If I could draw a map of this story, it would be made of rough circles. I come back to the present, only to find that it is still full of the past.’
These words come from her first novel, The Diamond Anchor (2009), about the life, love and regrets of two women growing up in a small coastal town. They part, but decades later one seeks a reconnection. The prose is poetic, lucid, precise, with images carefully chosen, unforced and lacking hothouse pretension. It is realist, an intense study of character, but not exactly a fast mover, in narrative terms. Gone (2011), the second, read as a book that was written to test the writer’s limits, and it succeeded. This time the central character was an Australian male, setting out on a road trip across the continent from east to west. Prison is in his recent past, also mental illness and childhood trauma. Here the past/present patterning was again evident, but the road trip, as narrated by a series of engagements from people met hitchhiking, gave the narrative a trajectory.
Dyschronia for the first time moves away from pure realism, while retaining the characteristic interleaving of present and past. It returns to the coast so closely observed in The Diamond Anchor, this time in South Australia, and to relations between women. Ivy is a single mother, bringing up Sam, a child afflicted with a mysterious illness, apparently migraine, but with a twist: Sam appears to have visions of a dark future.
Central to this story is the Delphic oracle, the women of the ancient world consulted for their prophecies, which had varying degrees of intelligibility. Some have interpreted the oracle as a shamanic process, the oracle entering an altered state, stoned on fumes or oleander. A different writer might have chosen Cassandra, who like a climate change scientist, was disbelieved. In Sam’s case the migraine is the crossover point, which leads to the novel’s key motif: the squid. Mills has said on her blog that the changing patterns on a squid’s skin remind her of the visuals seen during a migraine attack.
That Sam can apparently move back in forth in time is nothing new; even if the genuine last narrative innovation in this area was Wells’ The Time Machine. The motif has been revived in bestsellers such as The Time Traveller’s Wife, to name only one recent instance. Besides the forward/backward motion of the novel, Mills uses another device reminiscent of the Greeks, intermittent chapters of chorus from anonymous citizens of Clapstone, Sam and Ivy’s home. It is an intriguing choice, technically, and in terms of viewpoint. The chorus moves the perspective of the novel beyond the domestic circle of mother and daughter, but with a caveat: these are people whose fatal flaw is that they cannot see beyond their immediate limits. In that they are ordinary, and typical.
The chorus make their appearance with the initial disaster to strike the small town. One day the sea retreats, leaving behind sand, and a mass of decomposing squid. It is not, as in Doyle, an apocalyptic tsunami, rather a sign of slow, creeping, entropic change, like the rising mercury levels on a thermometer. Nor is it the consequence of an earthquake forcing up the sea floor, as occurred recently in New Zealand on the Kaikoura coast. The change is inexplicable and the sea remains distant.
Strictly speaking, this change is less scientific than poetic. Climate change in the twenty-first century melts ice and raises the seas. Only when the glaciers reigned did the volume of water frozen actually lower the seas, permitting migration to Australia and other places. The retreating sea signals that the book’s concern is more with the metaphorical, than with the If-this-goes-on mode of extrapolation favoured by more strictly futuristic writers, such as Turner.
Yet, like Turner, Mills draws on the arsenal of social realism, as what follows is a finely drawn study of a small town struggling to survive. Various get-rich schemes are proposed to draw tourists, and so is a revival of the closed asphalt plant, which has poisoned the environs and ecosystem. Yet Clapstone manages to hang on throughout the years of Sam coming to adulthood, though ever-sinking towards entropy. The characters may try to change, but are too limited, or else prone to languid passivity. Also hanging on is the relationship between Sam and Ivy, loving yet continuously fraught. Until one day the earth has had enough.
The grief that runs through Dyschronia as heartfelt as The Swan Book. What this book recalled to me more immediately, however, were the moody disasters of J. G. Ballard’s early novels, though without his cool detachment and relish of entropy; he never wrings his hands at encroaching chaos, quite the reverse. Ballard was only a temporary inhabitant of genre, and similarly Mills is less a writer of scientific method than one who imports generic tropes into her work. Dyschronia also brings to mind the 1980s television series, Edge of Darkness, written by Troy Kennedy Martin at a time when the major apocalyptic fear was of nuclear holocaust. The television series and Dyschronia show the influence of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, in both extended to the notion of a genocide of these pesky humans by mother earth. In Edge of Darkness black flowers appear, to melt polar ice and destroy humanity. For Mills, the earth cracks open, releasing a lethal white dust:
He won’t have to explain a thing. Because the sun will flicker and die. Sam will turn her head, look up at the sky, and the sky will spell it out for her in black and white.
Up there, in that patient permanence, a strange oracle will appear. Sam will touch her finger to her temple just to feel the blood there. Because at first it will seem like a cloud, and then like a drone. And then there will be birds again, a miracle of birds returning.
Thousands of crows will fill the air. Wheeling. And they will make the sign of deliverance.
It is an impressive finale, for a book which takes some technical (and intriguing) risks in dealing with the Anthropocene, but whose bent is ultimately fatalistic and elegiac, even if humanity has fully deserved its whimpering end.
In 2016 Nick Admussen, an American scholar of Chinese literature, brought an entirely fresh perspective to the Anthropocene genre. He recalled writer and critic Hu Shi, who a century previously had called for a revolution in Chinese writing, away from stultifying traditional modes. The result was influential upon Modern standard Chinese (Mandarin), the modern Chinese state, and created the space eventually for such writers as Qui Xialong, Yang Jiang and Liu Cixin, whose collective range is from realism to detective and technologically-based science fiction. This is Hu Shi’s 8-point plan, laid out in his 1916 ‘A Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform’:
I believe that literary reform at the present time must begin with these eight items:
(1) Write with substance.
(2) Do not imitate the ancients.
(3) Emphasize grammar.
(4) Reject melancholy.
(5) Eliminate old clichés.
(6) Do not use allusions.
(7) Do not use couplets and parallelisms.
(8) Do not avoid popular expressions or popular forms of characters.
The rejection of melancholy is a particularly good point, since in 1916 it was rife among Chinese writers, who felt they could do nothing to change their lot. Similar despair can be seen in the current tendency to passive, depressive dystopia, overladen with hopelessness, as observed in 2017 by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. Hu Shi’s Point 8 is also valuable, since eschewing popularity is surely the last thing a novelist of the Anthropocene needs.
Admussen, drawing on Hu Shi, was inspired similarly to kick out the jams. He writes:
we lack the ability to visualize these problems, to locate their source in our own actions and lives, to tell and transform the stories of the interactions between our behavior and our biome.
This is not a failing of science, the science is quite clear: it is a failing of culture […] To change this, we need to break with our existing traditions of art and media.
In response to Hu Shi’s eight proposals, Admussen modestly provides six for authors seeking to tackle climate change. These are: reject progress narratives (for the notion of progress is inextricable from capitalism); retire the portrait of the single soul (write the environment, not the individual); stop yelling over the biomes (avoid anthropomorphism); the poor cannot always be with us (write equality); choose systems over objects (write interactivity and interconnectivity); literature can no longer hang outside the world (in his words ‘literature must become more than an exercise in personal fulfillment, ambition, or hunger for change’).
I bring the number of proposals, following Hu Shi, up to eight, with two of my own. Firstly, be vital, for how else can we resist the forces of entropy? And secondly: Follow science, embrace it, for it will richly inform your fiction. The Two Cultures is a furphy, for even without a science degree it is not hard to keep up to date. Some of the best writers in the world are working to make science comprehensible to a wider audience. Read science journalism, and discover how almost every day significant discoveries are made. Take joy from the efforts of scientists, and learn from them.
I have not time nor space to apply Admussen’s rules (let alone my personal addenda) to the books discussed in this essay. Rather I offer them as something informative, which the future writers of the Anthropocene would do well to consider in their practice. Admussen finishes his polemic thusly: ‘I want to speak to those who feel an intense responsibility for our shared future on earth, those casting around for means and methods by which that future might be improved.’ To which I can only say: Amen to that!
Nick Admussen, ‘Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change.’
G. Ballard, The Wind from Nowhere (Berkeley, 1961)
The Burning World (Berkeley, 1964)
Russell Braddon, The Year of the Angry Rabbit (Heineman, 1964)
James Bradley, Clade (Penguin, 2015)
The Silent Invasion (Pan-Macmillan, 2017)
The Buried Ark (Pan-Macmillan, 2018)
Kenneth Cook, Pig (Schwartz, 1980).
Briohny Doyle, The Island Will Sink (Lifted Brow, 2016)
Edge of Darkness, dir. Martin Campbell, script Troy Kennedy Martin, 1985
Mireille Juchau, The World Within Us (Bloomsbury, 2015)
Jill Lepore, ‘A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.’ New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/06/05/a-golden-age-for-dystopian-fiction
Bren McDibble, How to Bee (Allen and Unwin, 2017)
Jennifer Mills, The Diamond Anchor (UQP, 2009)
Gone (UQP, 2011)
Fins, masks, and podcasts Tuesday, May 1, 2018
Jane Rawson and James Whitmore, The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change (Transit Lounge, 2015)
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (Transit Lounge, 2013)
Alice Richardson, Anchor Point (Affirm, 2015).
Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140 (Orbit, 2017)
Hu Shih, ‘A Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform’.
Neville Shute, On the Beach (Heineman, 1957)
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (Michael Joseph, 1951)
Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo, 2013)