Literature and the Things of Climate Change

Cover Anthropocene FictionsReview of Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015)

By Tom Idema

The topic of climate change has been on the ecocritical radar for some time now, but its rise has been slow. Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (2015) is the first book-length study to address climate change head on. Trexler’s book maps the terrain of climate fiction since the 1970s, identifying over one-hundred and fifty novels that deal with climate change in one way or another. He contextualizes climate fiction by bringing in public and scientific debates, political controversies, and economic policies. Or perhaps ‘contextualization’ is not the proper term to use, because Trexler wants to disengage his study from textual and media-oriented scholarship, instead forging a connection between literary studies and science studies. Chiefly inspired on the Latourian theory of distributed agency, Trexler wants to show how climate change “emerges from a host of interrelated sources, including natural effects, (solar radiation), industrial processes (car emissions), and scientific practices (climate modelling), but also cultural processes such as popular science writing, policy papers, political speeches, and novels” (24). One of his principle goals is to shed light on how, and to what extent, novels have been able to assemble the multiple agents of climate change, including literature itself, into narrative.

Given Trexler’s investment in the representation of multiplicity, block-buster films such as The Day After Tomorrow receive very little attention, as they reduce climate change to a single spectacular event (a super-storm drowning Manhattan) , rehearsing a common conflation of climate and weather. While such films place agency in the hands of a handful of American heroes, climate novels such as Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012) offer much more intricate, global perspectives on climate change. Trexler singles out science fiction as the genre best equipped to take on the challenge of narrating climate change. As climate change is an inherently emergent event, speculation is the appropriate mode. Moreover, science fiction has been most successful in incorporating scientific practices, which for Trexler are crucial when trying to get to grips with climate change’s complexity. A realist fiction focused on psychological interiority will fail to do justice to the many things of climate change.

A particularly bold statement in Trexler’s provocative study is that the condition of climate change affects the form of the novel to the extent that, in the foreseeable future, all fiction will be climate fiction. This speculative claim is probably too large to substantiate within the scope of one study, but Trexler demonstrates that it is a productive one. For example, he argues that climate fiction, by connecting multiple human and nonhuman agents, poses a challenge to generic conventions: “Chiller fiction becomes wholly implausible when supernatural forces resolve enormous, atmospheric effects. . . . Safe identification with the hero of a suspense novel breaks down when he drives sports cars and exotic yachts, not to mention serves a government that has repeatedly thwarted climate accords. It is even more difficult to condense the distributed, impersonal causes of global warming into a climate villain” (14). Trexler argues that, in response to these challenges, climate fiction emerges as a trans-genre phenomenon that will replace the realist novel as a dominant literary form.

Anthropocene Fictions is an impressively broad and detailed study of climate novels placed within the wider public and academic debates around climate change. Although I missed a consistent engagement with literary and ecocritical theory, the book contributes greatly to the Environmental Humanities through its innovative use of Latourian science studies and its subtle weaving of climate change discourses.  It is also a very enjoyable read and I highly recommend it.

A more elaborate review of Trexler’s book written by myself can be found in the ecocriticism journal Ecozona@, issue 6.2 (Fall 2015). See