Scorchers: A climate fiction anthology, edited by Paul Mountfort and Rosslyn Prosser (Eunoia Publishing, 2020), 280pp., $29
At the time of writing, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released its report on the physical science basis of climate change, including the role of human influence and the state of knowledge about possible climate futures. The findings are terrifying, sobering, devastating. They are also entirely unsurprising. Beyond the realms of climate research and science communication (although often with considerable overlap), fiction writers are among those who have long been grappling with eco-anxiety, futility and the overwhelming question of how on earth to compel people to care, and to act.
Art as call to action, as science communication, as therapy, as igniting a fire under yourself and others: ‘a call to witness … and to face the future as staunchly as we are able’. This is Scorchers, to a tee. A wide-ranging anthology from sixteen Australasian contributors, this edited collection brings together some of the most revered voices in antipodean fiction—Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Sean Williams—alongside emerging writers, to probe the following editorial provocation:
How can writers—and by implication literature—respond within the short fiction format to the overwhelming reality of the climate crisis […]?
Deceptively simple, as the editors admit. Mercifully, Paul Mountfort and Rosslyn Prosser decline to ‘exhaustively footnote the scientific arguments supporting the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGM) “hypothesis”’, noting that ‘these arguments have been so widely established as to need little justification’. Thus, they launch right into the why of cli fi (climate fiction): combatting the despair of the climate emergency. Through the ‘aesthetic, philosophical and moral responses’ possible through literature, they see literature as impetus to action; writers as change-makers, ‘lead[ing] the way in activating our imaginative responses’ to this overwhelming reality, in ways that refuse naïve optimism or reliance on geoengineering. They are confident that ‘even in imagining the worst of all possible worlds, we [writers] are activating a faculty that is equally capable of imagining better worlds’. Against the background of voluminous climate data, the editors warn, the stories offered are ‘arguably only quasi-speculative’: in other words, we know what’s happening, what’s coming—and how to identify the bifurcating paths of intervention and least resistance. In other other words, ‘all fiction is now climate-fiction’, and so-called ‘“regular” fiction’ is now a “historical overhang”’: passé, vacuous, ‘with its false comforts of suburban melodrama … penned for the lotus-eating middle classes of a sunset generation’.
The anthology’s structure is non-deceptively simple: the pieces are organised alphabetically by author surname, with a friendly glossary for unfamiliar terms—both in te reo Māori and the idiosyncratic slang from both sides of the Tasman. Expect to be catapulted from small-town Aotearoa to outback Australia to post-apocalyptic mega-cityscapes (Bladerunner is a predictably frequent reference); from the ‘quasi-present’ to the twenty-third century; from reworked Māori pūrākau (mythology) to nightmares of socio-economic and ethnic stratification, where Pasifika ‘serfs’ put their lives on the line for the obscenely wealthy.
In pitching literature as a way of confronting the climate crisis, ‘this collective demon of our own making’, the editors remain silent as to differentiated responsibility for climate change. In many texts on the Anthropocene—a new, post-Holocene geological epoch, in which humankind is exerting profound, unprecedented effects on the earth’s ecosystems, biodiversity and atmosphere—this false universalism has been rightly criticised for masking the greater responsibility of early industrialised countries and their elites in fuelling climate change. Indeed, Pasifika scholars have described this inattention to differentiated climate burdens and historical responsibility as comparable to ‘former colonies in Oceania being colonised a second time’.1 The authors, however, are switched on to local and global inequities. James George, Tulia Thompson and Renee Liang write powerfully on health and socioeconomic disparities. Liang’s work, ‘The Waterfall’, blisters with state surveillance and misinformation, atrocious labour rights and segregated healthcare, corrupt mentors and the shattered ozone, but is also a balm infused with kawakawa, professional ethics and unconditional love. A heart-rending intergenerational story of loss of one’s vanua (homeland) in the Pacific Islands, Thompson’s ‘Serf’ is frank about the indelible divisions between rich and poor. In Thompson’s world, the ‘serfs’ are the ‘massive population … serving the landowning elites’, comprising ‘diverse Indigenous people displaced by climate change, who didn’t own anything’ except their truncated life expectancies. Meanwhile, ‘lowners’ are the wealthy leisure class with private air-providers and land-holdings. Like Thompson’s nonfiction, ‘Serf’ is a jolting read on poverty, alienation, emotions, Indigenous history and vanua. It leaves you wanting more.
Both keystone contributions are retellings of foundational Māori legend, with Grace and Ihimaera retrofitting the pūrākau of Rona, Tāwhaki and Māui for a dystopian age. Both kaituhi (writers) are, of course, the big-name drawcards of this anthology, but it is the less-established writers whose stories really shine. One of the successes of this pan-Australasian anthology is its intersectionality. In selecting contributors and narratives, Mountfort and Prosser have been adamant about the urgent need for cross-cultural representation, ‘especially from identities, communities and worldviews’ often neglected in ‘the dominant, even phallogocentric discourses of science, technology and the economy’. Thus, they foreground the stories and epistemologies of Indigenous peoples from throughout Oceania, women’s writing, queer/takatāpui fiction and the voices of Asian Australasians.
A common denominator between most pieces is the sense of irrepressible life: of animals, roots and humans thrusting their insistent energy through cracks of concrete, metal and socio-economic structures to survive (if not flourish) in inhospitable surrounds. Opening the anthology, Emma Ashmere’s ‘The Foreseeable’ centres lesbian relationships (refreshingly, just as disappointing as their heteronormative counterparts) and queer networks of activist artists. Ashmere’s bittersweet, capacious love-story is a gripping narrative of romantic, but also ecological, love: for seasons, art, seeds, plants, life.
Throughout this collection, most of the writing is a jarring mix of hard data, the long arc of history, and intense emotion: the classic, heady cocktail of cli fi. Each story is also vivid with place: torn up by, and with, specific local ecologies. George’s ‘Whenua to Whenua’ is riven with place, with being stuck between responsibilities to whānau and whenua. Masterfully building suspense, George recounts failed attempts to protect the whenua from the sea, and, after centuries of loss and resilience, the ultimate betrayal: ‘through the proclamations and land confiscations … fly-by-nighters, developers, and politicians. And then their own sea came for them.’ There are echoes of Grace’s Potiki here: which is to say, amplification of the relentless, real-life pressures on tangata whenua to give up, cash up, move on.
In ‘Porosity’, Deborah Wardle assumes the amphibian position: her narrator, ‘Froggie’ Pankhurst, is an undergraduate biologist fascinated by groundwater, frogs, drought, ecological destruction and a watery consilience: the connection between all forms of water, from human cells to aquifers. Plagued by intellectual self-doubt, fearing she’s not knowledgeable enough to speak about what she knows to be true, about getting ‘to the limits of [her] knowledge’, Pankhurst’s uncertainty is manifest in social, professional and activist settings. We get climate wars boiling over in homes, pub banter and town hall meetings, a lesson on effective science communications (clarity, clarity, clarity), and a sense of what can be changed through ecological literacy, confidence and action. Wardle’s work is perhaps the strongest in conveying how science/climate fiction can function as what the artist Susanne Winterling calls imaginative training for alliances and solidarities with non-human entities, as a means of non-hierarchical world-making.2
Here in these pages, hope streams through cracks, except when it doesn’t. Mike Johnson’s ‘The Coming of the Grey Ghost’ narrates the despairing life of a climate scientist, suffering solastalgia-induced writer’s block.3 Thompson documents the skyrocketing suicide rates of climate scientists, and in Mountfort’s ‘Trigger’, a single father rapidly resorts to double-murder-suicide. This is no tale of redemption but of weakness and despair. Echoing Owen Everitt’s ‘Menindee’, we are confronted with excessive sexual imagery and gendered objectification. In Mountfort’s story the following images stand out: ‘folded like a wet dream into the Waitakere Ranges’; ‘Queen Street up to her thighs in muck’; a vase’s ‘open mouth … smeared like a local rent-girl’s lipstick’. What, precisely, or even vaguely, does this imagery add? It’s some kind of hyper-masculine antithesis to Extinction Rebellion’s latest posters: ‘Climate Justice is Gender/Trans Justice’. Maybe that’s the point? Or maybe it’s just obscene.
A diverse range of kaitiaki/guardians have inspired this anthology: dedications range from Io, the supreme being in Māori cosmogony, to J.G. Ballard, ‘the grandfather of eco-fiction’. Still, in comparison with some of the longer-form cli fi, Scorchers occasionally verges on the clunky. Read alongside the works of Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Kim Stanley Robinson or Octavia E. Butler, it is awkward, unprofessional, sometimes desperate. The editing is regrettably light in places, with abundant typos allowed through to publication (something which would mar any scientific work on the subject). There’s clumsy phrasing, repetition, awkward syntax, the dragging weight of over-explanation, and continuity errors in time-travel sequences. When we read of ‘Pheonix’ and ‘cocatoos’, I’m unsure whether literature should get a free pass. Rushing to publication, propelled by a very real sense of urgency, is understandable. But so, too, is doing the work properly. So, too, is naming birds properly, particularly when they are central to the story.
One thing all these stories do is follow Wardle’s advice: ‘When a person wants to say something for justice’s sake, for the sake of a thing that can’t speak for itself, you have to speak, or write, in simple sentences … words that mean something for the everyday person to read, listen to, be moved by.’ Although tepid in places, this anthology rages with heat in others. Scorchers has done its best to light a fire under a wide readership: for us, now, to respond.
- Vilsoni Hereniko, ‘The Human Face of Climate Change: Notes from Rotuma and Tuvalu’, in W. Rollason (ed.), Pacific Futures: Projects, politics, and interests (New York: Berghahn Books: 2014).
- Susanne Winterling, ‘Solidarities and Alliances in Times of Toxic Sovereignties’, in Stephanie Hessler (ed.), Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic worldview through art and science (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2018), 177–79.
- As theorised by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, solastalgia is essentially the deep distress caused by environmental change.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is working on a PhD in New Zealand history at the University of Cambridge, and is a research fellow for Te Takarangi at the University of Otago Faculty of Law. Twitter: @adjectivallyEMG