Decentring the Human in Climate Fiction by Piers Torday

In the month of COP26, there is no doubt that we are at a pivotal moment for humanity. The decisions made, good or bad, will have profound and long-reaching implications for everyone on this planet. But I guess a human would say that, wouldn’t they?

Because it’s not just the future of humanity at stake, of course, but the millions of other species we share the planet with. It’s quite possible that should our efforts fail, and that we cannot stop an average global temperature rising by more than 1.5°c, that some form of life will prevail on earth for many living things. But many will pay the price for our destructiveness and failure to act.

A lot of climate fiction seeks to engage and educate (as well as entertain). It’s often seen necessary to place humans in peril for this to be effective or emotionally powerful. Humans will be wiped out by a great flood, humans will die from a deadly plague, humans will go to war over a shortage of natural resources. But by placing humans at the centre of our stories about the planet’s predicament, are we helping or hindering our response to it?

A recent study in People and Nature claimed that animals were being written out of novels at a similar rate to their extinction in the real world. This included a decline not just in mentions of specific different animal species (other than pets or ’threat’ animals like lions and bears), but taxonomical labelling for plants and trees, so ‘oak’ is replaced by ‘tree’ and so on. Professor Christian Wirth, the study’s senior author, argued  that this has implications for our response to the climate crisis, “that we can only halt the loss of biodiversity by a radical change in awareness.”

Biodiversity is just one piece of the climate jigsaw, but ecosystems we rely on will collapse without it. In the human sphere, the literary response to chronic, structural inequality has finally led to a discussion of social justice both on the page and off it, decentring the dominant white male gaze, giving marginalised voices space and agency.  To protect this wonderful human diversity we also need to protect biodiversity. It’s not either but both. So is it time for climate fiction to actively decentre the human? After all, if climate change is the result of centuries of anthropocentric behaviour, can any story which still places human desires and needs at their heart ever move the conversation on?

Honouring biodiversity in fiction is not as straight forward as honouring other forms of human diversity. There are no “own voices” writing books about trees or animals, still just us humans – whether the trees and animals like it or not.  But we have imagination, scientific knowledge, a literary form with a large capacity for reinvention, and –  I would argue – a responsibility to at least try.

That doesn’t mean stories without any humans in, necessarily, more just told from a different perspective, humans set in a new context. Richard Powers, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Overstory, has suggested that to “truly tell the human story, you need to put non-human stories front and centre.” And Helen Macdonald (author of H is for Hawk) said recently that “Maybe the only way to save the world is to re-enchant it. To love things, and to feel that they have some kind of greater presence or power.”

It’s a challenge. In my latest middle grade children’s book, The Wild Before, I deliberately chose an all animal cast, from hares to waxwings. Now I can’t pretend that in the way they spoke to one another, using human figures of speech and displaying human character traits like pride or jealousy, that I was really decentring the human. Anthropomorphism is simply anthropocentrism in disguise after all. 

And yet.

 I did make strenuous efforts to avoid any imagery, similes or metaphors not drawn from their natural environment. I also found that by denying myself a human protagonist, and seeing the drama of the story through a hare’s eyes, I found myself brought closer and closer to them.  Every day I started writing, I began by thinking where they were in the fields, what they could see or hear, what threats they faced, what food or rest they required. I never thought about what they were wearing, what drink they might order in a bar, or where they might go on holiday.

My preoccupations became entirely to do with the natural world.  The seasons dictated the story as much as characters’ objectives. I found myself wondering how certain roots and weeds tasted to a hare, how the fear of a chase from a predatory bird might consume their whole body, how the changing light affected their actions.

As the book was a prequel to a pre-existing fictional universe with its own parameters and conventions, I could only go so far.  I also introduced some magical and fantasy elements, which also complicate the picture. But I began to understand something of what Powers was alluding to. The sense that there are so many greater forces at play in our world than the human.  It is the ancient, mysterious, complex and interwoven sentience of trees that drive the plot in The Overstory, sweeping up many compelling human characters along the way.

It’s not a new idea to recentre nature, of course. The Romantic poets strove to, in Macdonald’s words, “re -enchant” the natural world, with a sense of awe at the sublime mystery of it. In part, this was a response to their experience of sudden and enveloping industrialisation.

That was a pivotal moment in our history, and now we are at another. And this time, we know so much more than them. Hundreds of years of scientific research have given us insight into the secret lives of animals, plants and trees that the Romantics could only have dreamed of.  For me, the more I learn about how trees communicate with one another, or the vital role that fungi play in so much of our lives, I realise there is so much untapped opportunity in areas of nature we are only just beginning to understand.

There is a whole world of dramatic potential that has scarcely been touched by novelists. We may never be able to completely speak authentically for other species, but we now know enough to write about them with some actual facts, and a little less guesswork. If we can start making humans part of the planet’s story, rather than the other way around, perhaps we can begin to change the narrative for us all.

You can find out more about The Wild Before here.

Piers Torday began his career in theatre and then television as a producer and writer. His first book for children, The Last Wild, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award and nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. The sequel, The Dark Wild, won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Other books include The Wild Beyond and The Death of an Owl (with Paul Torday.) His adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights opened at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2017. He lives in London with his husband and a very naughty dog.

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the End of the World. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League. Her upcoming release is Green Rising, a climate change thriller. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into five languages and shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. The Last Beginning was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for young adults by the Independent. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2021. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers programme.

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