Ways of Telling the Future – limits to scientific texts and fiction for describing climate change?

The New York Times recently published a piece where scientists are asked to comment on climate fiction and to assess to what extent these depictions of the future are realistic.

image source: NYTimes / Jordin Isip

The short piece feels strangely inadequate and limited for a variety of reasons, the first reason being, perhaps, that literary fiction is exactly defined by not having truth-value in the referential world. If the starting point of the article is flawed, the researchers interviewed seem to point at that in their own answers, for example when one answers that “Humans are able to probe these issues in ways that are different through the lens of fiction.” What the article does, then, is have scientists tell us what literary fiction can do, by asking of literature what science can do.

The best point of the article comes in the end, when “Dr. Foley [executive director of the California Academy of Sciences] said that if he ever wrote a novel, it would be one in which “we all do the slow, hard muddling work of just pitching in, but no hero rides in on a spaceship to save us all.” It would be a terrible novel, he admitted. “No one would buy it, and Hollywood wouldn’t make a movie, but it’s the one I want, and it would surely save the world.””

The article is enlightening for the most part by the very questions it asks, emphasizing the difficulties we continue to have in imagining futures emanating directly from our current choices, and the way in which different kinds of texts are able to envision different aspects of such futures, from accumulating effects, numbers and figures in scientific data, to the “qualia” of what change feels like in literary fiction. Questions that are at the heart of much current work in the environmental humanities, and also in my current research project “Narratives of the Urban Waterfront in Crisis.

“Folding City” at ENN2017, Prague

Thanks to everyone at ENN2017, Prague, for inspiring presentations and discussions. My own presentation is part of broader research on urban futures, the relationship between imagined and actual cityworlds, and urban (future) crisis. Happy to have had the opportunity to develop ideas ao. with Laura Oulanne, David Rodriguez and Marco Caracciolo, with a view to develop a book project on (ao.) space and non-human presence in literary fiction.

Experiencing the weak house: Modernist interior descriptions beyond domesticity
Laura Oulanne (University of Helsinki)
Folding city: Environmental change, ontological instability, and urban crisis in 21st century literary fiction
Lieven Ameel (University of Tampere)
Aerial description and environmental imagination in narrative landscapes
David Rodriguez (Stony Brook University)

Abstract below:

Folding city: Environmental change, ontological instability, and urban crisis in 21st century literary fiction

This presentation will explore ontological instabil­ity in a range of contemporary New York novels. I am particularly interested in the implications of poten­tially apocalyptic undercurrents in the narrated space for an understanding of how fictional texts come to grips with complex environmental threats and non-human agency. The literary texts are Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (2009), Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014) and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (2013), novels that thematize palimpsestic layers of meaning in urban space, as well as ambiguous temporal structures, and that are informed in particu­lar by an interest in the impact of the future on the present. In these fictional texts, a sense of threat and ontological instability is realized in continuous refer­ences to unusual weather conditions (in all four novels), and, more specifically, in Chronic City, the appearance of a gigantic tiger rummaging underneath New York, and in the novels by Rich and Lerner, by the intimations of coming catastrophic flood. In terms of methodological framework and theoretical approaches, my presentation will draw on Gilles Deleuze’s concept (in his work on Leibniz) of the fold (Deleuze 1993), with reference also to Brian McHale’s “flickering effect” (1987) and Bertrand Westphal’s “heterotopic interference” (Westphal 2005: 101). The fold will be one key conceptualization with which to approach representations of urban space in crisis, enabling a connection – rather than a polariza­tion – between inner and outer, immaterial and mate­rial, possible and present.