By Alice Robinson
In recent times, it seems increasingly challenging to parse what used to be more distinct: ‘literature’ and ‘the real world’. As a result, I won’t dwell too profoundly on the specificities of current events—neither the catastrophic bushfires of this past summer, nor the global sweep of COVID-19 and its associated panic—except to suggest that if we want to prepare ourselves and our society emotionally and logistically for the future, we could do worse than read speculative literature written by women.
In the United States, Margaret Atwood is widely venerated for seemingly predicting the most extreme conclusions of Trump’s powerful impacts on the country when she outlined them in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Closer to home, a recent spate of books by women writers on climate change appear to foretell and describe imagined end-times, which increasingly and disturbingly resemble our present time in Australia.
Given the incredible prescience of climate fiction, national and global leaders might do well to develop their imaginations as a concerted governance strategy. But perhaps it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that we simply hand the reins of power to the arts; to the women writers currently foreshadowing in their books the ostensibly outlandish circumstances we are living through.
It may be that speculative works on climate change now feel radically prophetic, but it doesn’t take an impossible leap of the imagination to conjure systemic and societal breakdowns on the basis of fire, climate catastrophe or pandemic. Without having to dig too deep for recent examples, Australian women writers such as Alice Bishop (A Constant Hum), Lucy Treloar (Wolfe Island), Jennifer Mills (Dyschronia) and Meg Mundell (The Trespassers) have done this, as have I (The Glad Shout). Leaving aside for a moment the specialities inherent in the artistic skill required to construct a novel or story collection, I know from my own experience that thinking through speculative scenarios doesn’t actually require esoteric knowledge or special insight. To do what I and these other writers have done in constructing fictional narratives that appear so eerily to foretell current and near-future events and conditions requires, in the first instance, the ability to pay attention.
Closer to home, a recent spate of books by women writers on climate change appear to foretell and describe imagined end-times, which increasingly and disturbingly resemble ourpresenttime in Australia.
Climate fiction grows from lived experience of the now, as well as attuning oneself to what has come before. Its seemingly ‘prophetic’ insight is developed from an understanding of both disaster and place: from honing a keen eye towards historic events, from drawing connections between scenarios and ideas that other disciplines, including science, are forbidden from conflating (though they may sometimes wish to). As such, it is only natural that climate fiction grows from asking questions of oneself and the world—and often it seeks to ask, ‘What if this and that happened here?’
What’s most powerful and disturbing is that the recent work of the aforementioned women writers seem born of our current times. They demonstrate the ability to project ever so slightly forward in their thinking, presenting the question that fiction writers most commonly want readers to ask of their narratives regardless of genre: ‘What happens next?’
When I was speaking to Treloar at Adelaide Writers’ Week this year, she said something in passing that I found utterly heartbreaking and horrifying for what it indicates about the times we are living in. To paraphrase her: if we want to write realist, contemporary fiction then we must write about climate change. And as Mills has pointed out about climate change in The Adelaide Review: ‘It’s already here, people are already adapting … It’s not something that’s in the future anymore.’
As a culture, we have grown used to the notion of climate change as a human issue—one caused by the impact of human lives and industries on the planet, and which has culminated in the destabilisation and foreshortening of those lives. Consequently, it is a predictable fact that environmental or nature writing have become forerunners of writing about climate change in their privileging of non-human concerns (land, flora, fauna).
But unlike these forms, fiction is primarily a mode of storytelling focused on humans. This poses many generic and craft-based issues for writers of climate fiction who set out to write about environmental collapse; the drama of such an event must often background seemingly small human concerns. This fundamental constraint—or actuality, depending on the view—of fiction as a form, forces a focus on the intimate, the personal and the domestic in all their intricacy, pain and beauty. These must somehow be managed alongside, overlaid with or underpinned by the huge, sweeping global grandiosity of environmental catastrophe. Perhaps the extent to which the resultant work is an artistic success or not resides in the writer’s ability to manage the finely calibrated balance between these two opposing domains, and how they interact with one another.
To paraphrase her: if we want to write realist, contemporary fiction then we must write about climate change.
After all, apocalyptic, dystopian, speculative and future-centred narratives all inescapably explore the impact of environmental changes on characters—in experiencing fallout firstly as an inconvenience or danger to humanity, we potentially lose sight of the inherent tragedy that is environmental degradation in its own right.
The ability to observe and record everyday lives and times is something that has historically undermined the standing of women’s literature. Novels written by women have too often been dismissed as being ‘only’ about domestic concerns, a criticism that pits the domestic, the private and the interpersonal against the political and the public in a way that inherently casts a value judgement over the former in favour of the latter.
As the feminist novelist Meg Wolitzer writes in an essay titled “The Second Shelf” in the New York Times, we
have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women ‘Women’s Fiction’, as if men should have nothing to do with them … Look at some of the jackets of novels by women. Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.
In other words, our culture privileges the political and the public because they are seen to be—and have historically been—purely masculine domains. So it follows that writing done by men, in particular writing that speaks to these domains directly, is seen to be of a superior quality than its gendered counterpart, because its subject matter is regarded as more important, more illuminating of the human condition, more sweepingly literary. Conversely, even when women are writing about the political and the public, when their writing has little to do with the concerns of family, love or the home, the gender of the author seems to obscure the inherent value, artistry and impact of the writing—or it has done, at least. Perhaps things are slowly changing now.
In the context of climate fiction, I wonder if the gendered assumptions forever dogging women’s writing—where the small dramas of human lives are understood to reside at the forefront of the stories, often to their detriment—might actually constitute not only a strength of these stories, but a fundamental requirement of the genre. If, as I’ve argued above, writing fiction requires a focus on the human; and if writing realistically and powerfully about our current times necessitates the inclusion of climate change in the narrative; and if women have historically been seen to be masterful observers of everyday life; then it seems to me to follow that women writers are best placed to convey the emotional, ecological and psychological impacts of climate change on our day-to-day lives.
In the works of climate fiction by the Australian women writers I’ve mentioned, it is women who largely hold things together even when their labours are invisible and/or unappreciated by the families and societies they are attempting to survive in. For these characters, life goes on even when everything is different. To me, there is great comfort in many of these narratives. Their very construction tells us about the world we are living in and will inherit: that women writers will continue to observe and narrate the minutiae of our everyday lives, even as these lives are shifting rapidly in response to catastrophic changes of our own making. To me, there is great power and beauty in that.
Alice Robinson is the author of two novels, both published by Affirm Press: Anchor Point, longlisted for the Stella Prize and the Indie Book Awards in 2015 and The Glad Shout, which won the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction in 2019 and was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award in 2020. Alice has a PhD by Research in Creative Writing from Victoria University, where she was the recipient of the Vice Chancellor’s Peak Award for Research.