Authors on Climate Change: The Purchase of the North Pole and Cli-Fi
In the final instalment of this series, I wanted to change gears and focus on climate change in fiction, specifically in the “climate fiction” (or “cli-fi”) genre. The term is believed to have been coined in 2007 by journalist Dan Bloom, and describes sci-fi narratives with specific focus on climate change and its effects on human life. Cli-fi is often dystopian and speculative in nature, and is believed to have its origins in the 19th century, most notably in Jules Verne’s 1899 adventure novel, The Purchase of the North Pole.
The Purchase of the North Pole
Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole tells of an auction for the sovereign rights of the North Pole, which are won by an anonymous buyer from the United States — the identity of which is revealed to be a company which aims to remove the tilt of Earth’s axis by firing a large cannon at it, the recoil of which would make Earth’s axis perpendicular to its orbit. The intent of this endeavour is to alter the latitude of the surrounding lands by 67 degrees, in order to make the ample coal deposits accessible to the proud new owners of the North Pole, to be mined and sold for profit. However, a byproduct of this change is global climate change — with the Earth no longer sitting on a tilted axis, seasons would no longer exist, day and night would become equal, and the climate would always remain the same. Due to a mathematical error (humorously caused by the accidental erasure of three zeroes on a chalk board by a mathematician who is struck by lightning), when fired, the cannon does not succeed in impacting the Earth’s axis, and the mathematician vows to never make another calculation again. Ultimately, the Americans’ plan is foiled, and thus, mass, global climate change does not take place.
While Verne’s adventure novel does not possess great philosophical wisdom or scientific fact about climate change, it does introduce the concept of climate change into literary spheres. In writing The Purchase of the North Pole, Verne not only provided an entertaining adventure narrative to his readers, but also pioneered the now-ubiquitous cli-fi genre.
Some literary critics believe that the cli-fi genre has encouraged “radical empathy” from its readers, and a greater overall awareness of climate-related issues. With catastrophic natural disasters occurring globally every day as a result of climate change, it is only natural to begin seeing these patterns begin to appear in fiction, too. Further, by placing emphasis on how climate change affects the human experience, readers can identify and empathize with protagonists battling climate-related natural disasters and begin to see parallels to the ongoing climate crisis the Earth is facing. Thus, like Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole, while these works of fiction offer entertainment, they simultaneously act as a call to action to readers to look beyond fictionalized depictions and act on real climate change issues that are affecting human life on Earth.
Beyond Verne, if you are looking to identify with fictional characters battling climate crisis, just as we are, my modern cli-fi recommendations are as follows:
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
American War by Omar El Akkad
The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King
Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich