Migration and Narrative Method in American Climate Fiction

From 20/5/2020

By Bryan Yazell

As experts and speculative authors alike attest, the future is migratory. Globalization has turned mobility into an essential component for survival, whether for precarious workers in the so-called gig economy or seasonal laborers moving across international borders. Against this backdrop, climate change accelerates displacement on a planetary scale. So what new social upheavals and political reconfigurations might follow from this unimaginable displacement? Speculative climate fiction (or “cli-fi”) provides glimpses into how this social unrest might unfold by drawing from past and present precedents. Typically set in the future, cli-fi stories provide plausible accounts of everything from submerged cities as a result of rising sea levels to resource wars due to permanent drought conditions. But when it comes to representing the people afflicted by these disasters—as in the case of climate refugees— there is a tendency in popular climate fiction to narrow its imaginative focus to the demographic groups and locations already hyper-visible in mainstream media. For American cli-fi authors, for instance, the US-Mexico borderland looms large even in scenarios where ecological collapse has turned everyone, north and south, into desperate refugees.


But how might taking stock of such imaginative limitations actually do something to improve the way cli-fi readers understand a pressing issue like climate migration? To provide an answer, this talk draws from scholarship at the intersection of sociology and literature in order to better account for the in-text failures evident in popular cli-fi from Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Clare Vaye Watkins. Ultimately, I argue that these texts mark imaginative failure as a problem not only for the characters within their pages, but for their presumed readership as well.


This talk will connect this study of climate fiction to my broader research concerns, which explores how the intersection of literature studies and the social sciences might offer better insight into the way works of fiction impact society.