Friday, November 25, 2016

Something out there: if we don't have a narrative of the future, we will have no future

This post was inspired by the recent cli-fi novel by Bruno Arpaia "Something out there" ("Qualcosa là fuori," in Italian). It is the story of a group of people desperately seeking a refuge in the North of Europe, running away from the Mediterranean lands devastated by climate change. Not an easy novel, but that does what literature should do: describing a possible future and helping us understand it.

Do you remember the great season of science fiction, mid 20th century? It was not just entertainment, it was a narrative about science, about the marvels of the future: spaceships, robots, flying cars, and all the rest. It was not just about technological marvels, it could be harsh, dystopic, difficult, and it didn't shy away from describing nuclear wars, political oppression, planetary catastrophes, and more. But it was the soul of an age: without that season of science fiction, nobody would have imagined of sending men to the moon.

Science fiction withered as a literary genre with the late 20th century, together with its twin: science. Today, science fiction themes in movies are reduced to little more than a tired repetition of the idea of exploring space ("The Martian") while scientists, then, have reduced themselves to the role of ridiculous priests of a dead deity called "technological progress." They are still engaged in their kludgy incantations that should save the world and that never do. They seem unable to realize that if so many people say that the exploration of the Moon  was a hoax, there is a reason. And it is not that it was a hoax.

So, what are we left with that tells us of our future? Not much. During the 20th century, there was another great literature season that had to do with social justice and change. In the US, think of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) and, in the Soviet Union, think of Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago". (1973). But all that is gone, as remote to us as the Sumerian hymns to the Goddess Inanna of three thousand years ago. What has survived of the 20th-century literature is, mostly, the genre we call "Epic Fantasy", with endless filmic versions of the Trilogy of the Ring by Tolkien. On the screen, we keep seeing hordes of orcs, goblins, trolls, and assorted monsters battling shiny heroes; all full of sound and fury and signifying only that we are terribly afraid of what we don't understand.

Yet, the future is there; looming upon us, and we cannot ignore it. And we have an instrument to understand it: it is narrative. Only by means of a story our brains can come to terms with our future. Think of Dante's "Comedy", not a novel in the modern sense of the term, but a story that encapsulates a whole vision of the universe. The "Comedy" was not entertainment, it was a roadmap for the future; a story that starts with despair, goes through redemption, and ends with enlightenment. The Comedy is literature at its best, in a nearly pure form. A vision of the universe and a vision of hope. 

So, in this difficult moment, we are seeing something moving, out there. A new form of literature that embodies our future, makes it real, tells us about it. And it is not a good future. It is a terrible future. It is a future that most of us refuse to contemplate, even though we know that it is there, even though we refuse to admit it. This new literary genre takes sometimes the name of "climate fiction" or "Cli-Fi", in reference to science fiction, of which it is in some ways the continuation.  

It is still an embryonic genre that reminds in many cases the early, naive, science fiction of the 1930s. And yet, it is growing and turning into literature. Bruno Arpaia has written a harsh and unforgiving cli-fi book titled "Something out There", the story of a group of dispossessed migrants who try to reach Northern Europe, leaving an Italy devastated by climate change. Only a few will make it. Surely not an optimistic book, although it has elements of hope. But it is a book that does the work that a literary piece must do: showing to you the change ahead.

It is not by chance that I cited Dante; a book like Arpaia's one is comparable to the comedy's first cantica, the one about Hell. It sounds like the very first lines of the Comedy, where Dante tells of having been lost in a "dark wood," which is a typical cli-fi theme: people desperately looking to escape from the climate disaster. And it is our situation: we are completely lost; unable to find our way out. Someone still has to write the cli-fi equivalents of the other two canticas of the Comedy, the one about Purgatory and the one about Paradise, and that will make it possible for us to understand what is in store for us. Can narrative take us out of Hell? Hard to say, but it is certain that without a narrative of the future, we can have no future.

"Qualcosa là fuori" is written by a professional novelist who creates a fast moving story with well-designed characters and impressive mastery of the scenery. Although he is not a scientists, Arpaia understands the science of climate and he describes a scenario that may be somewhat extreme, but well within what the current models indicate as possible. Personally, I found that the many flashbacks that interrupt the main story are distracting and sometimes overlong and over-dramatized. But flashbacks add a scientific background to the main story and contain a number of fascinating remarks about how the human minds work. In these sections, we follow the work of the protagonist, an active neuroscientist in the early novel-time, who studies how the mind continuously creates narratives in order to understand reality.


  1. I completely agree with your premise. I watched a new Australian movie at the cinema last night which was visually sumptuous but spiritually adolescent, and on the way home my wife and I discussed how often modern stories are so trite. I'm writing a novel at the moment which is semi-science fiction and hopefully will rip the veil from our current fantasies of progress and modernity. We'll see! I see it as a transitional piece of literature but we are the transitional generation. No point in writing for some audience yet unborn when we're still struggling to understand ourselves.


  2. The article focuses on the psychological dimensions of readers’ engagements with dystopian young adult climate fiction, arguing that the mental simulation of a fictional climate-changed world can offer much more than simple entertainment or escapism. Instead, it might impact teenagers’ understanding of the social, economic and ecological risks associated with climate change. The article builds on research in the psychology of fiction in its examination of the narrative strategies of Paolo Bacigalupi’s YA cli-fi novel Ship Breaker. It demonstrates how the novel invites young readers to an imaginary and yet embodied experience of a dystopian future world that may wish to avoid.

    (forthcoming in a special issue of Textual Practice on ““Fiction in the Age of Risk,” edited by. Golnar Nabizadeh and Tony Hughes-D’Aeth)