Should Climate Fiction Be Scary?

Good climate fiction, in my mind, should enchant you. Draw you in. And then scare the shit out of you. With a little hope, there will be enough scared readers out there to protest, take up public office, boycott fossil fuels, demand change in ways that cannot be hushed. Do I have any hope that climate fiction alone will be enough to fix things? No, not really. But it’s one tool out of many (one that I am partial to).

Are Tragic Art Forms Actually Comforting?

Head to a theater.

Watch a tragedy.

The ancient kind or Shakespeare’s. We both know more or less what’s about to happen, and usually that’s the point of it. When these stories were written, their plots were already common knowledge. No twists or unpredictable plots. Brutus will always murder Caesar. Oedipus will always blind himself in disgrace.

You could argue that’s the power of tragedy as an art form. That you see inevitable misery coming and you get to experience every little decision, every justified thought, every wrong word leading up to it without being able to change the outcome. And ponder. Given the human flaws of the story’s characters, could it have ever been any different?

There is a very real tragedy taking place right now and, instead of sitting in the audience, we’re very much part of the story. We know how it ends.

Climate Change Happens Slowly… Then All At Once

Climate scientists have been predicting how this narrative will play out for years.

Consider this.

Villages in Vanuatu, a string of islands between Australia and Fiji, are being relocated right now as part of a two-year initiative to save the population from rising sea levels.

Consider this.

In March 2023, millions of carp and herring washed up dead in a river in Australia, when extreme heat choked the oxygen out of it.

Consider this.

Lytton, a town in British Columbia, burned down in a wildfire caused by a record 49.7C (121F).

I could go on. These tragedies certainly will.

These aren’t freak once-in-a-century perfect-storm events that people must refer to with historical reverence because of their rarity. They happen with increasing frequency and severity as time goes by. If you had described this situation to someone in the 70’s, they would have thought you were talking about the latest post-apocalyptic novel, one that was maybe a bit too on the nose with its tree-hugging agenda.

I got some first-hand experience of such events.

The Sudden Effects of Climate Change

There’s an island across Ulysses’ Ithaca, called Cephallonia. Gorgeous. Not famous for much. I got caught in a forest fire there at the tail-end of summer a few years back. Never did I imagine that a forest fire sounded like an animal bellow, full-throated and predatory. When it’s windy, when it’s particularly hot, I swear I can still hear that bellow behind me. We’re told that the sort of conditions that triggered Canada’s apocalyptic forest fires in 2023 will become more common with time. No. Not more common. Commonplace. And it conjures images of that beast, mad with anger, just growing and growing.

The following year, I got caught in the open on a small forest road during a once-in-400-years flood, fighting my way through downed trees and hoping the car engine wouldn’t stall. We’re told that such floods will become more common as time goes by.

Fires. Floods. Language fit for an apocalypse. 

But I’m using a lot of sentiment to get my point across. One needs to have a cold hard look at the numbers to get a better understanding of just how big the problem really is. We’re past the point of no return. We know that much. The inevitable outcome is more of what’s happening right now, more extreme, more damaging, more more more, with parts of the world becoming unsuitable for human life. Cold hard truths.

We’re getting to the point where post-apocalyptic fiction is starting to look like current events. We know how this story ends.

And, on particularly dark nights, it keeps me awake. It’s the groaning realization that, as Johnny Rotten once said, there is no future. And what are you going to do about it? What is anyone doing about it? Outside, it’s windy and warm and I think I can hear an animal bellow.

Consider this.

Why Are Climate Activists So Desperate?

Ask a human whether they would take the chance of being hit by a bullet sometime within the next 20 years or die from cancer in the same time period and they will always take the cancer. We’re conditioned to detest sudden violent events and be alright with a slow decline. Like a frog in boiling water. It’s the reason why everyone is scared of planes falling out of the sky, which is statistically insignificant compared to, say, choking on a chicken bone from your Friday-night take-away. There is no sudden death with climate change and maybe that’s the problem. A descent into biblical imagery is fine, the world insists through its actions. As long as it doesn’t happen all at once. As long as it’s not abrupt. Then, it’s just okay.

And so, we’re seeing the strange phenomenon of scientists blocking roads and chaining themselves up in protest. It’s gotten to that. The people least likely to protest (but, let’s remember, the people who first warned us) are pulling off some drastic measures. What, you didn’t see that on the news? For all the vitriol that is directed at the website formerly known as Twitter, it does allow for voices from the ground to be heard. These sorts of protests were constantly reported there, but never on mainstream media.

Even then, when people think of climate protests, they think of Greta Thunberg memes and art vandalism. Not absolute desperation.

But the game is broken. As we hit new heat records every year, we’re also seeing record oil subsidies.

Where’s the point where despair sets in for good? I grew up reading post-apocalyptic sci-fi, daydreaming about what I would do in those situations. I don’t exactly feel foolish now. But I do feel a certain sense of urgency from seeing scenes taken out of Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower (hellish forest fires are now an annual thing in California), and desperation will visit me if I dwell on it too much.

How I Deal With Climate Despair

So, I write. And I recycle and I take my bicycle wherever I can and I wear a sweater instead of turning on the heat. But, primarily, I write. Because I figured some time ago that writing is a form of exorcism and because I’ll burst if I don’t write about things that keep me up at night.

Dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction has always been about the anxieties and concerns of its time. About atomic annihilation and fascism and communist take-overs and subjugation and extremism in all its forms.

Writing a tragedy to make a point; this is how the narrative ends if we’re not careful. Logical extrapolations or exaggerations to get the message across. So, take heed.

True, we’re past the point-of-no-return as far as climate change is concerned, but, as Camus once wrote, even when the mind rejects all hope, the flesh will still rebel and cling on. We don’t have it in us as a species to lay down and die. And we still have the chance to minimize the impact.

As the fight becomes more urgent, I find this despair bleeding into my work. My debut novel, The Hush, takes place against a background of agricultural failure and global warming. A Dustbowl 2.0. Bad news for one of the main characters, who is a farmer. The book I am working on now leans even more into this despair. But I don’t want to spoil things for you.

Climate Fiction Reading List Suggestions

If you’re interested, here’s a couple of lists of climate fiction I hope you find both enchanting and scary; climate fiction reads that take place five minutes into the future and climate fiction with a more speculative slant.

  1. Near-Future Climate Fiction Reading List
  2. Speculative Climate Fiction Reading List

Some of them touch upon this urgency, this anxiety to take action. Albeit in a non-preachy way. Above all, it’s good art, even if/because it scratches that post-apocalyptic itch.

Wrapping Up

So, grab one those books. Get scared. Then, if you feel the need to do something, the UN Environment Programme put together a list of things common people like you and I can do.

Or, you could even write a book.

Make it a tragedy.

EA Mylonas

Evangelos is a photographer, writer and author of the speculative fiction novel “The Hush”. An environmental scientist by training, he is an advocate for the climate cause, sustainable living and anti-corporatism, which inspire his unique brand of literary sci-fi set in the near future.

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