Our Fantastical World

by Joshua Phillip Johnson

In his 1962 novel, The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard foresees many of the more drastic effects of climate change on our environment: rising seas, increased temperatures, mass extinction. And yet, amidst these climate-centric predictions, Ballard also offers a prediction for the changes wrought on the human psyche during times of extreme environmental shifting. Kerans, the crew-cut marine biologist who serves as the protagonist of The Drowned World, has a revelation in which he loses “any division between the real and the super-real in the external world. Phantoms slid imperceptibly from nightmare to reality and back again, the terrestrial and psychic landscapes were now indistinguishable, as they had been at Hiroshima and Auschwitz, Golgotha and Gomorrah” (89). The vision here is one in which our deepest nightmares have manifested in the changing Earth—there is no longer a distinction between the fantastical and the real. The body and the earth have become one, and the imagination is only the extension of reality—and vice versa. This is Ballard’s future, and it is, in many ways, our present.

In this essay, I will suggest that texts like Ballard’s—pieces of imaginative and speculative literature—offer readers and writers necessary tools to combat climate change and prime our cultural minds to take action. It is no overstatement to say climate change and environmental destruction are hugely important issues today: scientific reports regularly show the poles heating, once-in-a-century storms happening far too frequently, and an ever-heightening temperature for the hottest months on record. We are in a crisis, and as the history of the written word shows, literature is one key forum through which people in a crisis express and manage anxiety, hope, and fear. Speculative literature is a necessary part of that discussion, in part because of the scope and importance of its fearless imagination, in part because of the specific craft tools it has long made use of and perfected, and in part because of the fundamental questions at the heart of speculative literature: What if? Why? What’s possible? And who are we in the impossible times?

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A Short Note on Terms, Genres, and Divisions

Much has been written about the distinctions between speculative literature and literature, between fantasy and science fiction, between pulp and Art. Indeed, any conversation about speculative literature seems to unavoidably fall into the ruts of us vs. them in an unending bout of essentialisms and misunderstandings. For the purposes of this essay, I’ve chose to use speculative literature as my designator for the subset of writing referred to as genre, pulp, science fiction, fantasy, Weird fiction, and horror.

I have borrowed slightly from Margaret Atwood in this naming convention. She has pushed against the label of “science fiction” for her own work, preferring “speculative fiction” instead because, as she says, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen” (Atwood, “Light in the Wilderness”). While I respect Atwood’s ability and right to label her writing however she sees fit, it will be my pleasure in this essay to suggest that now, perhaps more than ever, we need the kinds of literature with monsters and spaceships, not only because they could actually happen, but because they are, in some very true ways, already happening. The monsters of fantasy have always been, at their best, physical manifestations of the monsters we fight and try to understand in our lives. As for spaceships, well, Elon Musk’s plans for Mars are the science fictional story-stuff of many novels, pulp or otherwise.

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The Responsibility of Literature in the Anthropocene

Much has been written recently about the responsibilities of authors and fiction in the Anthropocene. Nick Admussen, at The Critical Flame, offers “Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change,” including retiring the heroic individual trope and avoiding the rampant anthropomorphization of the natural world in order to better serve humanity.

Similarly, renowned novelist Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Great Derangement, wonders where the traumatic and powerful literature of climate change is. The dilemma, he believes, is in the modernization of literature. Modern literature, he suggests, has “never been forced to confront the centrality of the improbable,” which is to say the modern literary novel doesn’t have the machinery to accurately record the freak storms and seemingly impossible occurrences that have become regularities in this climate-changing world (23). To court true improbability in this way, according to Ghosh, would risk “eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house—those generic outhouses” (24).

Leaving aside the frustratingly misinformed and insulting characterization of genre literature as unserious and the stuff of outhouses, Ghosh’s larger point is surprisingly accurate: modern literary fiction is too dependent on a reality that could only happen in novels, in a world in which everything has great meaning and importance, in which setting works to unveil character and happenstance is always part of the larger machinations of theme and metaphor. He wants literature to stare the impossible in the eye and record it, and yet he seems afraid to besmirch literature with anything so gauche as genre. However, with a better understanding of what speculative literature can offer and a less exclusive, elitist vision of what can and can’t be literature, Ghosh and other writers can find precisely the tools they seek, the impossibility and improbability they desire.

Meanwhile, we are already living in a speculative world if the reports are to be believed—Ballard’s world, the one in which reality and our speculative imaginings are blending together, eliding in both wonderful and terrifying ways. For instance, Pulitzer-Prize-winning naturalist and author E. O. Wilson writes in Half-Earth that we need to dedicate half of the Earth’s surface to nature as a way to stave off the huge extinction rates and save what little of nature’s complexity remains.[1] And I’ll be damned if that doesn’t sound like the premise of a science fiction novel being discussed by a serious environmental thinker in a serious non-fiction text.

These kinds of arguments and revelations about the natural world are everywhere: stories about trees communicating with one another that are reminiscent of the trees of Narnia that might be on the White Witch’s side, or Alice’s wish for a flower that could talk in Through the Looking Glass. Desertification expands the edges of known deserts and our world looks more and more like that of Mad Max. Oceans rise and threaten the Maldives with becoming a modern-day Atlantis. All over we see an elision of the real world and events so often consigned to the outhouses of speculation and imagination. Indeed, it’s time we start seeing speculative literature as the work of reality.

But how specifically does speculation and imagination recover the reality of our climate and world? How do these often-marginalized genres deal in Truth even while they eschew truth?

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Surviving in a Science Fictional World

Science fiction has long been the easier sell to convince audiences that a book has Serious and Important Value. Science fiction, after all, is based in science, right? It’s an extrapolation of what already exists to what could, to varying degrees of conceivability, exist in 50 or 100 years. It’s a creative hypothesis.  As Ann and Jeff VanderMeer say in their introduction to The Big Book of Science Fiction, “Science fiction lives in the future” (xvi). And yet, just as truthfully, science fiction lives in the present, which is very often influenced by our creative and speculative hypotheses about the future. Take, for instance, the recent attempts by Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, to create a program to travel to and colonize Mars. Not only is this the story-stuff of so many science fiction novels, the ethics behind it—the processes and decisions we weigh and deliberate over—are much more importantly the stuff of science fiction stories. Robert Heinlein’s famous Stranger in a Strange Land discusses precisely the kind of cultural chasm that might open if we split the human population between Earth and Mars. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy explores the terraforming, colonization, and cultural settling of Mars over several generations—a process humanity may be going through very soon. These stories may have begun as interesting thought experiments, but they have become cultural and ethical touchstones as our technology offers us the opportunity to follow in science fiction’s footsteps.

Along with these ethical questions, science fiction offers narratives of who we might be in those possible futures. J.G. Ballard gets the causes for climate change wrong, the effects of it eerily right, but he’s most interested in examining what people look and act like in this future. Ballard extrapolates a humanity that, when faced with an ever-warming climate and monsoon-created lagoons filled with giant lizards, humanity will revert—existentially and biologically—back down the food chain to where we began as relatively inefficient mammals. Certainly we don’t have the huge lizards yet and yes the weather is still clement enough to support civilization and social structures, but Ballard’s deeper point showcases the predictive power of science fiction: that we are inextricably linked to our environment, and any fundamental change in nature will result in a fundamental change (or reversion) in us.

The case for science fiction has been made before and will continue to be made by better-equipped people than me (Le Guin, for instance, in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, makes a wonderful case for science fiction as not (just) predictive but descriptive). The tools of fantasy, though, are another story. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent much of my life in academia, but I so often hear fantasy described as the often-pejorative “escapist” literature for many, an opportunity to avoid the real perils of the world in favor of simpler lives and simpler environments. Dragons over taxes, magic over mortgages.

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Fantasy, Weirdness, Misdirection, and Metaphor

When applying for MFA programs, I wrote a personal statement that tried to get at the question of what fantasy (and science fiction to a lesser extent) was for me as a writer and reader. I wrote about how my “formative reading experiences taught me that these genres, though often marginalized in academic and literary circles, can and do offer tools that are both provocative and powerful.” But honesty, I don’t know that I had any concrete idea what those specific tools were when I wrote that sentence. It sounded nice and academic-y, so I threw it in and moved on.

Like a lot of readers of fantasy, I have an intuition that the stuff I read is important and useful beyond simple escapism—though I do also believe strongly that escape is no small or silly benefit. But what does importance look like? What does fantasy do? Neil Gaiman, in his review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, suggests fantasy “is a way of making our metaphors concrete, and it shades into myth in one direction, allegory in another[2]” (Gaiman, “Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’). Jim C. Hines, over at Uncanny Magazine, points out that “Politics have always been an intrinsic part of our genre,” especially the politics of power (Hines, “The Politics of Comfort”). These two are talking about the ways in which fantasy is, at its heart, a genre just as focused on the real world as any other kind of fiction. Any escapism fantasy provides is simply one half of the equation; the other half is to turn around from a new vantage point and better see and understand your world, your reality. We can even see Shakespeare hip to this particular technique; in Hamlet, he has Polonius say:

Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth;
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out. (2.1.63–66)

Of course, this moment is one of scheming and not-so-altruistic motivations, but the idea holds: we lie a little to better understand the Truth. We talk about things that aren’t in order to better see the things that are. We read and write fantasies to better understand reality.

I’m someone who often thinks almost exclusively in simile, probably thanks to reading The Chronicles of Prydain so much as a kid and wanting desperately to be as smart or as cool or as self-assured as Eilonwy, Princess of Llyr and purveyor of fine similes. Similes, I learned from that young age, are the creation of connections where they didn’t always exist, and fantasy literature is damn good at bringing them into being. We might read Harry Potter, which features characters dealing with seemingly irrelevant and unrealistic (in the sense that we don’t have this in the real world) discrimination based on being muggle or wizard-born, and we can say, “Hey, that really subtle system of discrimination that asks us to think differently about these two groups of people based on a completely arbitrary set of criteria is just like the whole Pureblood vs. Half-blood vs. Mudblood thing in Harry Potter.” That kind of rhetorical move is important—for a younger audience, yes, but the same framework, the same technique, is used by and is important for adults as well. This is how we begin to understand complex, scientific ideas if we’re not scientists. We make up a simile to crack into understanding, to jumpstart the process.

This is precisely what Larry Niven does with his first-short-story-then-novella The Magic Goes Away, in which magic is imagined as a finite resource. The appearance of the short story only three years after the 1973 oil crisis is certainly not an accident. Of course, the question we might ask is this: why not just talk about the very real problem of the oil crisis without the layer of metaphor? Why distract readers with talk of The Warlock and mana?

One answer, of course, is Shakespeare’s: we can better discern the truth of the situation by indirect approaches. Perhaps this is because the baggage (political, social, cultural) we often bring to important discussions is gone—or at least distant—when we use metaphor. We don’t have to be Democrats or Republicans talking about oil prices or rising sea levels; we have the sheer freedom of being readers swept up in another character’s life in another world, and any connections we can make to our world—probably the most important and deeply impactful connections—are seeded for a later bloom. So when we’re reading the report about another stretch of rainforest turned into suburban homes or listening to the news of the novel and spectacular ways California has managed to mishandle and destroy its water resources, Niven’s text allows us to understand and respond to that news in complex ways that have already pulled us out of our political torpor and inertia, at least a little bit.

But metaphor isn’t the only speculative tool we can use to understand the environment and our relationship with it. Weird fiction (and it’s modern, marketed iteration, New Weird fiction), a progeny of Lovecraft’s strangeness, provides a compelling tool for further exploring the natural world in fiction. Put simply, Weird fiction contends with the unknown to both suggest a fundamental unknowability within the world and demonstrate a way to live in such conditions. Let’s take as evidence Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer’s novel about an expedition team exploring a pristine wilderness that simply appeared on an unspecified coast in, presumably, North America. This book was written after the BP gulf oil spill but VanderMeer transplants that real-world terror into a different environment that, while aesthetically pleasing, operates on an impossible and illogical system of logic.[3] A great tower built in the ground—sunken below but still recognizably a tower—is filled with strange writing on the walls made up of tiny, unidentifiable fungi. Evidence of weird creatures is everywhere, trails of what seem to be sloughed off human faces move through a swampy area, and a lighthouse near the shore holds horrible secrets. All of this weirdness works to capture the haunting fear of the oil spill while simultaneously providing a clean, clear space through which to break down our changing relationship with nature, with ourselves, and with any sense of nature we have left. VanderMeer settles on tension and calmly maintains illogic and lack of meaning, and this, I argue, is one of the tools speculative fiction can offer: the ability to tell a story, get wrapped up in the world and in systems that support that world without the need to narrativize everything, give it meaning and character purpose and symbolic value. Trees can simply be trees in VanderMeer’s world, and somehow, the weirder he makes them, the more they seem to reclaim their own value. This kind of speculative fiction—focusing less on the world working to unpack character and more on the character working to unpack the world—is precisely what we need today.

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But speculative fiction isn’t just good for helping us begin to understand environmental issues; it’s also an important ingredient in generating possible solutions. That might be nuts if we didn’t live in a speculative world already where we scour the universe for possible planets to support us and have technology so advanced it might as well be magic for how much the average person truly understands how it works.

In her article about the effects of rising sea levels around southern Florida, Elizabeth Kolbert spends some time with Bruce Mowry, who is Miami Beach’s city engineer—the person, as she says, who, if “Miami Beach is on a gurney, then Mowry might be said to be thumping its chest” (49). Kolbert details the terrible effects of Miami Beach’s very real flooding/rising sea level problem, and then, curiously, she quotes Mowry’s whimsical wishes for his fixes to this problem: a resin that could somehow be injected into limestone (on which Miami Beach is built and through which water floods up) that would seal the holes, a requirement for builders of the city to lay down a waterproof shield beneath all new houses (like a tarp under a tent), or a kind of clay that could be pumped into the ground and seal up the gaps. Kolbert finds herself thinking “of Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities,’ where such fantastical engineering schemes are the norm” (50). Kolbert’s invocation of Calvino as a way to understand Mowry’s fantastical suggestions is apt: no such resins or policies or strategies yet exist, but the people of Miami Beach (and many other ocean-adjacent places—China, Bangladesh, Indonesia) don’t have the luxury of not dreaming and imagining wildly anymore. Mowry is thinking fantastically because the problems he faces are the wild, fantastical, impossible things.

This, I believe, is exactly the thinking we need today. Our world is going through huge, often-unknown or not-fully-understood changes, and many of our current expectations for and assumptions about how to live and how to interact with the environment need to be fundamentally changed. Maybe we don’t fly anymore. Maybe we don’t drive anymore. Maybe we don’t eat meat anymore. Maybe we don’t have jobs anymore but simply train to tend and support trees or waterways or grasslands. Probably ridiculous, but we’re at a point where big, fundamental changes need to be made with modal shifts in our thinking, and this is what worldbuilding in fantasy is all about. We ask what if questions that challenge the status quo. Yes, we all know trees release oxygen, but what if they didn’t? Yes, we all know animals can be for eating, but what if they weren’t?

One of the fundamental questions asked by The Drowned World, for instance, is what if the environment were no longer perfectly suited to maintaining our place at the top of the food chain? N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-winning novel The Fifth Season asks what if we had control over and a deep connection to a tumultuous and potentially violent part of our environment (and then, of course, what if we lost that control). These kinds of questions challenge fundamental assumptions we have about how the world works, and given our rapidly changing world, I’d say it’s high time for them.

In fantasy parlance, we’re circling around the term “worldbuilding,” which is the writer’s attempt to create a system of logical consequences, rules, and structures following what Suvin Darko called a novum—the novelty or innovation wrapped up in the “what if?” question of the text. And yet, “worldbuilding” is also an invitation for readers to be participants in the creation and understanding of the fantasy world—authors can never give every effect of a novum, can never trace out each logical quirk to its end, and so part of the joy of reading a fantasy book is engaging in one’s own flights of fancy (and fantasy), and in this way readers build the world, too. We exercise the muscle that allows us to both consider a fantastical novum that we don’t truly understand and still find working understandings of the world based on it. And here we are, in a world where the novum is climate change—a vast, shifting, sometimes-known, fickle thing that still must be acted around, that must have logical and thoughtful strategies drawn from it. Here in the Anthropocene, when rising sea levels and mass extinctions have become the norm, we worldbuild every day.

One of the truisms often talked about in regards to fantastical stories is that they begin with something amiss in the land and are only finished when the land is returned to status quo—a mechanic that, while great for quest narratives, is less than great for anyone not thrilled with the often-monolithically normative status quo, i.e., people of color, disabled people, women, queer people. Writers of fantasy have been pushing back against stories in which we arbitrarily and automatically reassert the status quo for some time, which is hopeful for all sorts of reasons, the relevant one here, though, being the existence of stories in which part of saving the land is in ridding ourselves of dusty, problematic, and irrelevant modes of thought and action. Climate change is a threat to our land, and those working to reestablish the status quo when it comes to our relationship with the environment (and our waste practices, the kind of “nature” we can have nearby or purchase, etc.) have to disabuse themselves of those expectations. This new land requires a new status quo, one in which the abused and mistreated world cannot go back to being abused and mistreated. Speculative fiction has already begun exploring these kinds of narratives; the rest of the world just needs to catch up.

We are long past the point when serious writers and readers can be allowed to casually cast off speculative literature as work befitting outhouses, not allowed in to the mansion of Serious Literature. Perhaps it’s time we left the mansion; it’s not at all energy efficient and it wastes too much space.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Magician’s Land recently, the last book in Lev Grossman’s trilogy. Those books have always been exceedingly meta, featuring a protagonist who reads fantasy novels suddenly finding himself in what could be a clichéd fantasy story, and the final book in the series is the one, perhaps, that gets closest to picking up a megaphone and yelling at the reader, “You’re reading a fantasy novel about people who read fantasy novels and then try to live their lives according to them. Pay attention!” Near the end, after the main character Quentin has helped to defeat the bad guys and almost save the day in the land of Fillory—the magical fantasy world he used to read about as a kid (and then still as an adult)—Grossman gives us this amazing scene where Quentin is granted god-like (and temporary) powers to save the crumbling, dying land of Fillory. Quentin “was no longer Fillory’s reader; he had become its author.” Quentin’s magical skill, we find out in this book, is the mending of small objects, and he sets about mending the magical world as its once-reader and now-author, an implicit call for Grossman’s readers, we who have also spent much of our lives reading and understanding the world through fantasy novels, to set about mending our own world, to go from reader to writer, to go from understanding the world to beginning to help fix it.

These tools I have discussed—extrapolative engineering/ethics, worldbuilding, metaphor—do not, by their very inclusion in a work make it speculative fiction. I’ll let cooler heads with more idle time discuss the varying and fine limits of this or that genre. The good news for Amitav Ghosh and other literary writers wringing their hands about the relegation of work to the dirty and darkened slums of genre fiction is that these tools are adaptable for any kind of work—one can worldbuild in a poem or exercise extrapolation in a realist short story. I merely suggest they are stitched into the fabric of speculative literature—indeed, written into its very DNA, and it’s time writers, regardless of perceived genre, form, medium, or persuasion, began looking to speculative fiction for the tools and methods to contend with climate change. The future is here, and it’s a magical one.

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[1] Wilson’s vision echoes, in spirit if not in specifics, that of Roderick Nash’s book Wilderness and the American Mind. Both authors discuss the future of wilderness and both argue for a fundamental shift toward a valuation of nature that has little to nothing to do with mankind’s desires. The world is not for us, they might say; we are for it.

[2] The furor surrounding Ishiguro’s novel merits note in an essay like this one. Ishiguro, a serious and much-lauded author of literary fiction, wrote The Buried Giant and freely admitted—with no shame and much pride—the book to be a work of fantasy, filled with dragons and ogres and a memory-prohibiting mist. Much of the discussion surrounding the book never moved past the question of its label: Is it fantasy because of its content? Literature because of its author? Serious because of its focus on characters? Silly because of dragons? As I have tried to suggest early on in this essay, these label-focused discussions often detract from the literature itself and often serve to articulate the critic in much more clarity than the book or work being critiqued. Fantasy, literature, seriousness, fun—all of these are non-exclusive and, in the right hands, mutually beneficial.

[3] Curiously, VanderMeer does nearly the same thing as Niven here: both authors take a recognizable and immediate environmental crisis and filter it through fantastical fiction. Niven, however, creates a rather clear, simplistic metaphor to understand and contend with the crisis. His is a one-for-one exchange rate. VanderMeer, though, perhaps demonstrating the way in which the fantastical novel has undergone a similar process of modernization as the literary novel that Ghosh discusses, filters not the event itself through his fantastical lens but rather the underlying ghost of the event, what VanderMeer would call the hyperobject—the larger problem at work in a crisis that everyone instinctually glimpses but no one can understand fully. This is the wilderness of Annihilation: hints of logic, bits of understanding, but only in the service of a deeper, haunting unknown.

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Works Cited

Admussen, Nick. “Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change.” The Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature and Culture. 9 May 2016.

Alexander, Lloyd. The Chronicles of Prydain. Square Fish, 2011.

Atwood, Margaret. Interviewed by Robert Potts. “Light in the Wilderness.” The Guardian. 26 Apr. 2003.

Ballard, J.G. The Drowned World. Liveright, 1962.

Carrol, Lewis. Through the Looking Glass. Dover Thrift Editions. Dover, 1999.

Gaiman, Neil. “Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant.’” The New York Times. 25 Feb. 2015.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangment: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago University Press, 2016.

Grossman, Lev. The Magician’s Land. Penguin, 2015.

Heinlein, Robert. Stranger in a Strange Land. 10th edition. Ace, 1987.

Hines, Jim C. “The Politics of Comfort.” Uncanny Magazine. Issue 2. 6 Jan. 2015.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “The Siege of Miami.” The New Yorker. 21 and 28 Dec. 2015, pp. 42–51.

Le Guin, Ursula. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace Books, 1987.

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Reprint edition. HarperCollins, 2008.

Miller, George. Mad Max: Fury Road. WarnerBrothers, 2015.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. 5th edition. Yale University Press, 2015.

Niven, Larry. The Magic Goes Away. Ace Books, 1978.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Red Mars. Reprint edition. Spectra, 1993.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic, 1998.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Simon & Schuster, 1992.

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, eds. The Big Book of Science Fiction. Vintage, 2016.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Annihilation. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014.

Wilson, E.O. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Liveright, 2016.

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Joshua Phillip Johnson lives in the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States with his partner, daughter, and grey cat. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and trusts the work of scientists.

“Our Fantastical World” (© Lane Waldman) was published in Issue 8 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.