Imagining green futures
Christopher Brown on climate change, apocalyptic narratives, and eco-fiction
Last month, I published an article on Grist called Pop culture can no longer ignore our climate reality, in which I spoke with a whole bunch of science fiction authors about how they envisioned climate change being portrayed moving forward. I'm pleased with the piece, save for one thing: the draft I turned in was too long, and I had to make some cuts.
One of those cuts was a conversation with author Christopher Brown, who's written a trio of excellent novels: Tropic of Kansas, Rule of Capture, and Failed State, as well as the fantastic newsletter Field Notes, which I highly recommend signing up to receive.
I last spoke with Brown back in October 2020 about his book Failed State, a thriller novel set after the collapse of the United States, and as various parties work to rebuilt a new world, and he's been someone I've kept in touch with when it comes to the intersection of ecology and humans.
I started our conversation by framing my thesis for the article: major, humanity-impacting events like the American Civil War, World War II, the 1918 Flu, Cold War, and 9/11 attacks all leave their impressions on culture, and storytellers will pick up ideas that those incidents have left behind to try and work through them, ranging from things like books by authors like John le Carré, Margaret Mitchell, or shows like Battlestar Galactica, which incorporate elements or themes that were churning around the cultural zeitgeist.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Links to books via Bookshop are affiliates, and any purchases might yield a small commission to Transfer Orbit.
It strikes me that your books cover both of those topics—Rule of Capture deals with a sort of George Bush-era rendition and approach to law enforcement, and Fail State takes a look at climate justice. So what has your approach to this topic been?
It's interesting—I don't know if this is a little afield of your question, but your comment about looking at ways in which 9/11 made its appearances in pop culture.
With Tropic of Kansas, I set out to write something that was much more focused on the post 9/11 issues that persist in all three of the books. And what I realized in the writing of the book, was the possibility for an American spring of a popular uprising in the US to turn the post 9/11 events on their head. What I found in the course of the writing was that trying to depict the economic, and social injustices of the society in which these characters were wrestling with the possibility of finding their way to a better future.
Those problems were really rooted in the damaged relationship that that society (and the real world that I was put a mirror up to) has with the land on which we live, and the contemporary problems are all rooted in things like the Native American genocide, slavery, wealth inequality, and whatnot. We're all tied to the kind of extraction economy and how things like agriculture are structured. So, you can't tackle the social and economic problems without tackling the climate problems.
When you get into trying to tackle the climate problems, you realize how much more challenging the tasks are that you're taking on, because the roots of our climate problems are so much deeper than you realize: they trace back to the origins of agricultural civilization and the first green monocultures, city states, the Fertile Crescent and whatnot. Undoing that, or figuring out a way to get past those deeply rooted traditions, is pretty challenging.
But you see these issues all over, and in particular, fiction and in mainstream literature and in other aspects of popular culture. Over the past year, as research for a novel I've been working on, I've been reading really widely, and watching lots of movies as well, looking for fresh ways to think about climate fiction. I realized how many classic, secondary school or, undergraduate, seminal Anglo-American novels are climate novels! Or they're certainly novels about humanity's relationship with nature. There are obvious ones, like The Grapes of Wrath—it's a straight-up climate refugee novel, and it deals with economic disruptions that come with climate change.
There's Moby Dick, which is about how human nature is a kind of apex predator as expressed through American capitalism. The Pequod is almost like a tech company—all of the sailors have shares in the deal, and they go out, capture the leviathan and there are these prolonged scenes of carving the body of the giant they've killed. Robinson Crusoe; it's one of the original English language novels, and it's like a lab experiment about man and nature, a predecessor to the cozy catastrophe stories so popular in contemporary Anglo-American science fiction.
And then there's contemporary storytelling: things like The Overstory by Richard Powers are fantastic examples of people using the tools of mainstream literary fiction to do similar things to what science fiction writers do. He basically makes the trees characters through the eyes of its human characters.
The story basically follows the story of several families and individuals, all in the US and their relationships with particular trees or forests over generations. Powers doesn't do what a science fiction or fantasy writer might do—write from the point of view of the tree. But he gets really close to it. It's really interesting and extremely effective as something that harnesses a lot of the potencies of nature writing, but it's really following all the rules of a literary novel, and yet transcends them by not being totally trapped in this sort of interiority of one particular human self. Which, to me is the problem with non-speculative literary fiction in terms of its capacity to tackle these tools, because the novel is such an intrinsically anthropocentric medium. Because it's always at its core, it's around the interiority of some human self, that's the essence of point of view, right? So to deal with a problem that's about really about an entire natural system, it's more challenging.
Some literary examples that I could think of, not so contemporary, but they're getting contemporary attention, or the climate novels of George Stewart, who wrote this novel Earth Abides, which gets treated as a genre novel. It kind of is, but he's really a literary writer and classified as such. He has another novel called Storm, which is just a book about a big storm. Those are worth checking out—I've been reading Storm and it's a really interesting book.
One of the things that I've been thinking about is that science fiction as a genre is very problem-oriented. That's a super broad overview, but it seems to me that I don't really think of literary fiction in the same way.
Do you think that's accurate, or do you think there are structural structural weaknesses within the way science fiction is written and as its community supports it, that literary fiction, or non-genre fiction is just better able to tackle?
That's a really great question, and I think a great way to frame it.
I think literary fiction is limited by its singular preoccupation with the exploration of the interior perspective of the human self and the kind of experience of alienation whatever as its core narrative archetype or narrative structure.
What do you say about science fiction is certainly true of probably most science fiction, and certainly would be something that is true of what you'd call hard science fiction. [That's] science fiction as the mode of a literary expression of engineering and the sciences, which is very heavily focused on technology, on toolmaking, on the things you use to tackle a problem. I think that absolutely, it's the fair criticism of most science fiction that tries to deal with the climate: that it's really focused on technological remediation of the problems we create, rather than a deep interrogation or exploration of what caused the problems in the first place.
But, there are exceptions to that, and I think they're most commonly genre-straddling realm of dystopian fiction, which often is much more grounded in humanism in the social sciences than it is in the hard sciences, in terms of what it's trying to explore in its counterfactuals. I think that's where you find a lot of examples that I think do a better job of directly exploring and evoking the kinds of issues that I think you can get after to deal with this. An example would be J.G. Ballard, who's in the "Earth is an alien planet" way of looking at things, especially in the context of people existing in human society and how society exists and turning that cozy catastrophe narrative upside-down. I mean, novels like The Drowned World are really great climate novels without—he's not really trying to deal with the problems, he's dealing with how the middle class, modern human relates with nature.
Ursula K. Le Guin's A World for World is Forest comes to mind.
Le Guin—I mean, she has a number of books where climate isn't the driving, overarching thing, but it's really there in a strong way. Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower is really a masterpiece of climate fiction, but again, that was not her main preoccupation. She's just like putting a mirror up to a real world or seeing the over-quoted Gibsonian aphorism about the future already being here, just unevenly distributed. There's Joanna Ross, in books like The Female Man, I think there's really cool things with different futures that have strong planet visions. Chip Delaney—look at Dhalgren, it feels like a global warming book that doesn't purport to be as such because it's obviously concerned with a lot of other things. But that kind of—I don't know—that giant sun and life in the disaster area. It's sort of, I don't know, there's there's something there.
Something that strikes me here is that there's a maturation in how we understand these complex systems. Science fiction has put technology at its center for ages, and it feels like a lot of those tropes are bleeding through to more mainstream fiction, because we're just more used to those elements in our lives.
Basically, we're just better equipped to tackle that complexity, because having those things in our lives and faces is a good demonstration for us.
Yeah. I think science fiction has a hard time looking squarely at the near term, the 100 years out, near-term climate future. Except in instances when people are willing to borrow from some of the narrative powers and power chords of horror. There's this genre term that's increasingly popular: eco-horror, which is a sort of inapt term in the sense that it's not really horror: the term (I think) mainly comes from stories in which nature is the scary thing. And it's like creature features, like monsters, or animal attack stories, or natural disaster stories, which are all over popular fiction and cinema.
Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation and his other stories feel like they fit into that category.
Totally. But what you find is that a lot of these types of science fiction books that are tackling climate change, they'd like to jump forward to a much farther future to try and find their way to something more optimistic and redemptive narratives. Because I think that there's an expectation that people are looking for more redemptive narratives, to some extent. Things like Matt Bell's Appleseed, or Monica Byrne's The Actual Star. They're this type of book that looks at the past and maybe do some examination, and they'll often do it through the prism of the fantastic like in Appleseed. Then they flash forward to a far future where they're very different kinds of humans living in a very different relationship with nature, but it's just so hard to imagine the between here and there, unless you're like Kim Stanley Robinson, where you can just write a technical manual about "I'll tell you exactly how we get from here to there", the rituals of the Hard Science Fiction writer.
There are some literary novels that do like maybe a better job of looking the scary stuff right in the face. There's a recent book called Migrations by an Australian novelist named Charlotte McConaughey.
It's beautiful and—you're familiar with it?
I've seen the cover and I've begun to read it. It's an example that's come up while doing some background on this.
It's about this woman following the last flock of birds across the planet. That sense of loss that carries novel; I think it's a lot easier to deal with in a literary novel, but I don't know how much appetite people have for stories about the world ending and all the animals are dying and where there's nothing we can do about it. Gibson does a good job of it with The Peripheral and Agency.
With The Peripheral, it's set in these two near futures, one that's basically a slightly twisted version of what rural America looks like right now—kinda apocalyptic, with people in the shanty towns around the rural Walmart or whatever. And then the further future is like, early 22nd century, and it's the people who survived the so-called Jackpot, in which there's a multi-factor apocalypse with climate change at the core that decimates the human population, and then everybody who survives (or their descendants) get to enjoy the bounty of a kind less crowded planet.
Migrations popped up as an example, and it struck me as the type of literary take on this: the type of book that takes a climate apocalypse in stride, and puts it in the background as a fact of life rather than a problem to be fixed.
Yeah, absolutely. That's a great distinction. That's a genre-bound distinction, for sure.
[*Currently reading it, and this this impression seems to be holding up for me now.]
How do you how see climate change being portrayed moving forward in popular culture?
I think we'll see a lot more uses borrowing from the strengths of horror to deal with it. But instead of the horror being the savage animal like a the giant grizzly or a giant ant, or whatever giant animal, it's more about the danger of human civilization, or of humans in terms of what they do to the world around them. I'd like to think—I hope we'll see a fresh take on the apocalyptic narrative of the catastrophe story. That's something that I'm trying to do in my own new book in terms of looking at the end of the world story—the survivors of the disaster and their realization that the end in those stories aren't really the end, but the beginning of something better.
I always go back to like the the Logan's Run adaptation, the 70s movie with Michael York and Jennifer Agutter, where people are all trapped in a giant domed wall and they're told that they can't go outside; it's not safe, and they're living in this environmentally, hermetically sealed reality. And then they escape, because they become fugitives, and when they get outside, they find like the ruins of American civilization, totally rewilded and regreened. It's presented on one level as a disaster, but also as like a new Eden, right?
One writer that I think is interesting on this that I was just thinking of is Brian Eveson: he's a fantastic horror short story writer, but a lot of his stuff deals with like weird climate, post-climate disaster aesthetics in a way that's got those weird qualities of horror, but it's really cool. And he's been getting all this like, kind of literary buzz.
I think we'll see more stories like that, because I think for these kinds of stories to succeed, they have to give people some kernel of hope and really try to tackle the problem. That instrumentalist approach of hard science fiction, I don't know that it's up to the task: I think it needs to be more ecologically grounded and maybe needs to borrow a bit from the aesthetics of fantasy to get back to a greener version of the world, which can be, science fiction at the same time. It's not that hard to imagine. Rewilded, green cities. I think we'll see a lot of that.
As always, thanks for reading, and thanks to Chris for chatting with me for the Grist article, even if he didn't end up making the final cut. That's what the newsletter is for!
If you'd like to read other interviews, here are a couple that you might enjoy:
- Destroying Empires: Brian Staveley on his latest epic fantasy, The Empire's Ruin, taking risks, and throwing away an entire book to write a better one
- Imagining different histories: P. Djèlí Clark on history, fantasy, and how racism creates monsters
- A decade of The Expanse: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck look back on their epic space opera series, writing for television, and what they hope its impact will be a decade from now
- "Space belongs to you": Becky Chambers on optimistic sci-fi and ending her Wayfarers series
- Wild Things' Laura Krantz about exploring the unknown
These sorts of interviews are important insights into the world of speculative fiction, and they're time consuming to put together: interviews require quite a bit of prep work, the actual act of interviewing a subject themselves, all of which needs to be transcribed and edited into the final product.
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