I Spy Cli-Fi

Climate Fiction is big business. There’s even a website devoted to academic research in the subject with its own Research Tool (Dan Bloom is his name. He’s a 1971 graduate of Tufts University in Boston where he majored in post-modern European literature.)

Most of it seems to be rough, tough American stuff, but I’m sure a more genteel version could be created for the British market:

Kathy looked up from the HADCRUT GISTEMP4 Northern Hemisphere Land temperature graph she’d been poring over and stared out over the rolling hills of Surrey where a herd of skeletal goats were feeding on the scant tufts of pampas grass, while vultures wheeled overhead. “We can’t leave it any longer, Damian,” she whispered. “Thank Gaia for the cottage in Cornwall. If we go now we’ll arrive in time for the monsoons.”

You’re right darling,” Damian replied brightly. “I’ll pack the kids and the Perrier in the e-Golf straight away.”

No, not the e-Golf,” said Kathy. “According to today’s Guardian there’s no charging point working between Reading and Exeter, not unless the wind picks up.” It’ll have to be the Land Rover.”

OK darling. I’ll tie the bikes on the back. It’ll look better, and if it comes to the worst and the petrol runs out…”

He was interrupted by the sound of machinegun fire from the direction of Weybridge, where a gang of pro-Brexit Climate Denialists were holed up…

I once wasted a chunk of my life reading Ian McEwan’s “Solar” which was billed as an intelligent climate change novel. It isn’t. McEwan can write novels which, while not exactly enjoyable in the normal sense, are at least thoughtful and well-written, but Solar isn’t one of them. It’s awful, terrible, worse than you thought possible. There’s a laboured joke about the hero, a Nobel prize-winning scientist, nearly losing his penis pissing outdoors in the Arctic. The joke takes about ten pages to tell, and the only amusement comes from the fact that the physical description of the hero bears a striking resemblance to Sir Paul Nurse, which gave me a certain frisson of pleasure. Then there’s the hero’s wife’s lover who dies suddenly, slipping on a polar bearskin rug – another sideslapper. And the hero’s wife’s other lover who chucks rocks at the Nobel hero’s solar panels at the opening ceremony of his groundbreaking project, thus putting paid to his efforts to save the planet.

For actual references to climate science, there’s just one paragraph in which the hero moans about sceptics, and that’s it. So bored is the author with the whole idea of climate science that he doesn’t even bother giving names to the team of young geniuses who are saving the planet, merely referring to them as “the ponytails.” The fact that McEwan was clearly bored, and no doubt bored his readers, is a plus from our point of view, but that doesn’t compensate me for a wasted weekend.

This weekend I read an old John le Carré spy thriller, “Absolute Friends” – something completely different, except it wasn’t.

A large part of the pleasure of le Carré comes from the tensions between his socialist convictions and his descriptions of the upperclass, almost Kiplingesque atmosphere of the British spying establishment. At his best, as in “the Little Drummer Girl,” you get a subtle feeling for the complexity of the background to the world’s woes; at his worst, you get wooden, unbelievable characters, particularly of the female genus. I know one of his themes is the difficulty British public school chaps have empathising with other chaps, particularly the XX chromosome variety, but still – after twenty novels you’d have thought he’d have sorted that one out. The Girl Guides and Podgy Pig’s sister in my Rupert annuals were more rounded characters than anything in a skirt in a le Carré novel.

Absolute Friends,” published in 2003, blazes with the author’s anger at the Iraq war, and covers far left activism in some detail from Berlin in the sixties to the stop the war movement during the Iraq invasion. The careers of the two friends take some pretty weird and unbelievable turns, but that’s par for le Carré. Criticising the opening scenes where an aging British ex-spy with a taste for Goethe is shacked up with a Turkish ex-prostitute on a Munich housing estate while acting as a bowler-hatted tour guide at mad King Ludwig’s palace is missing the point, like criticising a Salvador Dali painting because giraffes are not inflammable. But all is satisfyingly complex and riveting until near the end when the final revolutionary leftwing plot is revealed: a plan by a shady billionaire to finance a scheme to overthrow capitalist society once and for all: by opening a series of anti-universities with libraries full of leftwing books.

Er, well, yes. There used to be a couple of hundred bookshops like that on my beat round Camden Town. Maybe a few still survive. Many of the books ended up in the possession of Professor Lewandowsky, as you can see by blowing up some of the videos of his fireside chats on Youtube and looking past his face to the bookshelves behind him. There’s some interesting reading there, and some of it may have helped to turned parts of North London into hives of Corbynism. But as to overthrowing Capitalism by reading about how horrid it is…

But there’s worse: a list of some of the authors which le Carré’s aging revolutionaries are going to press on the unsuspecting young in order to change their lives, and eventually the entire world. They include Susan George, Naomi Klein, and – wait for it – George Monbiot.

(To be fair, Monbiot in 2003 wasn’t the dribbling idiot he later became. He was a decent investigative journalist who had risked his life exposing the foul horrors inflicted on East Timor by the Indonesian invaders with British complicity. He didn’t come on Heat until 2007, but he stayed on the boil until Phil Jones lanced it for him with Climategate in late 2009, when he lost interest in the coming climate Armageddon and took up badger bothering.)

Le Carré doesn’t mention climate in his diatribe against the world his heroes wanted to turn upside down. There are a several mentions of how capitalism is destroying the planet, but no details on how that destruction is manifesting itself. Every leftwing writer knew in 2003 that the planet was being raped by capitalism and industrialisation, they just hadn’t worked out exactly how. Poverty and disease were declining, life expectation was rising, but that wasn’t so well understood at the time either. It took a lot of hard work by the likes of Monbiot to explain how the thermometer was the weapon of choice for the modern revolutionary. If le Carré were writing the book nowadays, you can bet climate destruction would be the principal accusation against our Western Way of Life, and George Marshall and the Cook / Lewandowsky Debunker’s Handbook would be on the revolutionary reading list.

Le Carré might have been more convincing (and more entertaining) if he’d put the memoirs of some real nineteenth or early twentieth century revolutionaries on his red reading list. When Alexander Herzen was sent to Siberia for singing an anti-Czarist song he wasn’t bundled into a train to the Gulag. He was given a sending off ceremony at which the Czar kissed him on the forehead. But then he was a nob, like so many of le Carré’s characters, and so many of Herzen’s fellow revolutionaries. One rebel prince arrived at his Siberian exile in a horse-drawn carriage with his mistress, two greyhounds, and a couple of dozen parrots. The welcome he got from the local governor displeased him for some reason, so he invited the governor and his family to a meal, at which he served an enormous pie. All went well until the governor noticed the absence of the greyhounds…

Real revolutionaries didn’t read the 19th century equivalents of Monbiot; they read the likes of Hegel and Goethe, who were reactionaries, but at least they were reactionary geniuses who might just inspire a bright young idealist to revolutionary ideas of his own. I’m not sure what reading George Marshall might inspire you to, except to find a cushy job at some climate NGO financed by the European Environment Foundation, churning out pie charts about the coming end of the world until retirement.

Cli-Fi is back in the news with the programming, after a delay of a few years, of David Finnigan’s play “Kill Climate Deniers” from 23rd February at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney, Australia. Details are at WattsUpWithThat, including links to a spoof interview and an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which summarises the plot:

The provocative play centres on a militant cell of eco-activists who take the audience hostage during a concert at Parliament House. Led by charismatic spokeswoman Catch, they demand Australia immediately cease all carbon emissions and coal exports – or they’ll start executing their 1700 hostages. The embattled Environment Minister has no choice but to pick up a gun and stand up for her ideals.

The short trailer at the theatre’s website


is actually quite funny, since it’s mocking a green-rinsed environment minister for her ignorance of the imminent climate catastrophe. They don’t say, but I’m guessing that the play ends with the Environment minister gunning down the eco-militants. If I’m right, it’s quite clever, since the audience get to have their carbon fruitcake and eat it. They can share the psychotic fantasy implied in the title, while revelling in the underdog victimhood which is their natural state. And since the confrontation is between the true belief of the activists and the hypocritical pretence of belief of the politicians, denialism doesn’t get a look in, and no-one gets hurt by a confrontation of ideas. This is climate political science raised to a level of ineffable abstraction where it is entirely without content. Is it a coincidence that the Griffin Theatre’s following performance is entitled: “Good Cook. Friendly, Clean”?

26 thoughts on “I Spy Cli-Fi

  1. Thanks GLOBAL CLYFY NEWS for pointing out the Spanish site. (I should have mentioned that Dan Bloom’s site is available in eleven languages.)
    The Spanish article mentions Michael Crichton’s State of Fear as well as McEwan and Atwood. Could it be that there’s more openness to discussion of varying viewpoints among fiction fans than among those who rely uniquely on “the science”?

    Sorry about the rambling route march. My interest as always is in how we got from: “Here’s something that might be a problem: let’s worry/write a book about it” to: “let’s kill the people who aren’t worried.”


  2. I was planning to cite Crichton’s State of Fear. It was after reading this, IMHO mediocre novel, or rather the factual material at the end of it, that I became a sceptic. After reading most of recommended reading I realized that I was being deflected away from much of the evidence and so was being presented with a very biased viewpoint. After reading about Yellowstone in the same novel, I also became very suspicious that ecologists knew what they were doing.


  3. Nicely brought together threds of the cli-fi issue Geoff.

    Cli-Fi authors/film makers are limited by the unpalatable nature of solving climate. There is no magic wand.

    ‘Tell me Daddy, tell me again how you and Mummy saved the planet’
    ‘Well son, we aborted your sister; we drowned the dog; we walk everywhere and eat a lot of locally sourced vegetables. Next week I’m being euthanised because I’ve used up my allotted CO2 and other warming gases. Your Mummy went first because she reacted badly to the high cabbage diet.’
    ‘Wow Daddy, when I grow up I want to be like you and Mummy’….

    This might make a good comedy but wouldn’t really make the case for climate hysteria.

    The classic Cli-Fi movie, The Day After Tomorrow, body swerved the solution issue by flipping global warming into global ice age. Snow and ice are much more exciting than slightly hotter winters. Ultimately the heroes are left in limbo. Are we to assume that all the northern countries had to move to the latitude of Mexico? What? Even Miami was under snow? How are they going to feed the millions that survived the ice storm? Where did the CO2 go? The heroes aren’t those who solve the unsolvable but the ones with the best polar gear. Lucky that didn’t fall into the ice shelf they were pointlessly drilling in Antarctica. Hell, did science get abused in that movie. There are rumours it’s a leading figure in the #MeToo movement. But the movie worked. By making it a dumb old action movie instead of a Cli-Fi movie, it grabbed the audience.

    However The Day After Tomorrow movie was a reverse firing gun. Climate Porn is just like the sexual variety, bound to raise impossible expectations. The science could neither deliver the drama of the movie nor solve the problem with a reasonably priced but terribly clever device. They can’t even solve it with a cripplingly expensive blanket of devices. How… tedious.

    If there’s one thing that will kill a light entertainment movie, it’s tedium.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: I Spy Cli-Fi | The Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF)

  5. I quite enjoyed Solar. It was a change from his usual serious style – more like a David Lodge satire on disreputable academics. There was a section taking the piss out of a group of “Climate change artists” taking a trip (fossil-fueled of course) to the Arctic that I would have thought Geoff might have enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ALAN
    I agree about Crichton’s “State of Fear.” It’s an airport novel, with no claims to being great literature. The best part was the intro (or was it the appendix?) about the way attempts to solve ecological problems often (always?) make them worse. The point was (no doubt co-incidentally) repeated almost verbatim by Jordan Peterson in his RSA interview

    I’ve never really understood this term “Climate Porn.” What’s wrong with raising impossible expectations?

    Before I read the account of the artists’ trip to the Arctic in the novel, I’d already read McEwan’s factual account in the Guardian of the same trip. It was practically identical except for the peeing incident. These trips were peculiar affairs, resembling organised visits for Western intellectuals to the Soviet Union in the thirties, with melting glaciers standing in for Collective Farms. What on earth was the point of nearly freezing the extremities off our best minds in order to persuade them of the dangers of Warming? Is it some kind of Lewandowsky inoculation programme? Lysenkoian reverse rebunking? There’s one good point made, about how after a short time these earnest people, supposedly concerned about survival of the human race, were mislaying their shoes and socks in the melee of scout camp conditions, again reinforcing a point well made by Jordan Peterson.


  7. Peter Hamilton’s Greg Mandel trilogy is set in an England affected by global warming and sea-level rise, with Peterborough a coastal city. However, this is not really material to the stories.


  8. Kathy and Damian get to within 20 miles of the Eden Project and are held up by the start of the queue for the Antarctic exhibition there. Do the Weybridge PBCD4 get away to fight another day?


  9. And Geoff, re your comment above, reply, my comment YES i am deep greem climate activist but also deep openminded human being, and sure Michael Crichton’s State of Fear from 2004 is also part of the Cli-Fi Canon, or as some pundits spell it the Cli-fi Cannon. The Cli-Fi Tent is open to everyone from all sides of the aisles. I am interested in novels and movies, from all POV.


  10. Geoff, Yes, I have always from the very beginning to be completely open to all POV on climate issues, and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear from 2004 has always been on my list of recommended novels. I am deep green but I am also deep open minded gadfly. Btw, here’s an interview with me that I think you missed and you might want to put in your Danny Bloom files:


    Quote from interview scroll down to see but read it all. Where I tell the reporter: “Oh, that was Joe in Seattle. No, I’m not a force of nature, far from it. More like
    a fart of nature.”
    Quote unquote. Humor is important here too. So, onward. Cheers, Danny Dan Daniel


  11. It’s mathematically impossible that I’m the first to tell this joke, but I’ll take those odds (because I’m stupid):

    I hear the UN has a whole Intergovernmental Panel devoted to the production of climate fiction.


  12. More Cli-Fi from Paul Williams comes via Fred Pearce who once managed to write a history of the 2035 Glacier claim in the third person without once mentioning that he was that third person. A bit like if Hitler had written the history of WW2, except Hitler lost and was dead, whereas Pearce only embarrassed his third person rather than started a war, which is what climate change does according to a third person.


    I have to admit, I don’t know where cli-sci ends and cli-fi begins. Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees must be such a candidate. Meanwhile, Christopher Booker has some insight into what might be going on on the actively cli-fi camp.



  13. I started reading sci-fi and fantasy as a kid, long before it was fashionable. Those genres are peppered with moral messages. Mankind destroying everything was a common theme. I’m sure all genres have it but the best sci-fi/fantasy was just a great adventure. Sure, there are good people and bad people but the reader isn’t the baddy. Morallising literature is a form of self harm. I loathed high brow books to the point where I completely faked a book review in school of one I’d never read and never wanted to. Ironically I got the best mark I’d ever earned for a review. The Booker Prize has always been a ‘must avoid’ for me when it comes to choosing something to read. I refuse to put the effort in to reading a book only to have it pass judgement on me and find me wanting.

    Movies were much the same. If Barry Norman panned a movie as light weight, there was a fighting chance I’d love it. That’s assuming he hadn’t passed on to Jonathan Ross. Wossy loved the B movies and lavished on them an enthusiasm that Norman could only muster for some grim, pointless whine fest. Ross had a flair for knowing what entertained. Pity he lost that positive attitude over the years and became the spiteful, bitching guy who got himself fired. Now it seems that all the movies wallow in telling audiences how horrible they are… or would be unless they agree with the solutions and viewpoint of the movie makers. Sod off.

    Cli-fi is all about lecturing the audience and by and large it fails to even draw in the crowds to watch it, never mind be converted. Those that do attract a following, merely fool the audience into thinking that someone else is guilty (oil companies, the Koch Brother, the government, deniers….) which of course we know is bunkum. Either we’re all guilty or we’re not and the climate scientists aren’t informed enough to answer that question.

    So now I’m bored of sci-fi too.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Tiny, I am on a sci-fi watching binge right now. I agree with you on the rampant moralising. In Star Trek, culprits were Star Trek Voyager and even much of TNG in the Trek series. Surprisingly, the Original Series holds up quite well. Somewhat like Cheers – there are a lot of sexist jokes and stereotyping but there is less preaching.


  15. Red Dwarf is a classic. It lost its way a bit in the middle and the movie was dire but the new series have been reasonably back to form. The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (TV + Radio, not the film) was also brilliant. It was a bit preachy but the humour made up for it. Star Trek was ok until Deep Space Nine but I’m not a regular watcher. The the opener for the first series should have been ‘to boldly go to find someone Jim can bonk, shoot or wrestle with.’ Mork and Mindy was essential childhood watching and the clangers is still magical, even with recycling as a central theme. I’m not averse to recycling if it works. I remember Saphire and Steel as being good but it’s such a long time ago.


  16. A typical Cli-fi movie is The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s based on a flawed concept. If there is life out there, abundent enough and advanced enough for another species to arrive in our galaxy, they’re not going to give a sod what we have done or might do to our own world. The rarest, most precious creature on the planet is mankind. That’s not some religious, man kind superior thing, it’s just a reflection of how rare intelligence is. There would have to be countless planets with all the other stages of development and only a few would have spawned a species able to invent the toaster. After the millionth planet with herbivores and carnivores, it would be very interesting the find one that eats Pot Noodle. Instead of tutting over fossil fuels and nuclear weapons, they’d be rolling about laughing and saying ‘yes, we did that too’.


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