Dystopian Realism and Climate Fiction

Lily Brooks-Dalton, Lauren Groff, and Jeff VanderMeer: photo credit: Nick Doll

by Luke Fredland


On Friday, Craig Pittman moderated Lily Brooks-Dalton, Lauren Groff, and Jeff VanderMeer in a wide-ranging and eloquent discussion of the difficulties, tactics, and responsibilities of fiction that addresses the climate crisis. In approaching such a monumental and urgent subject, the writers stressed the importance of using all the tools and genres of fiction, which in their own work includes everything from surrealistic science fiction novels, contemporary realist short stories, and near-future dystopias that at times can feel uncomfortably close to this week’s headlines.

Groff said she feels a strong responsibility as a writer to confront the most important issue of the day, but she has often felt “blasted with anguish and angst” when trying to read nonfiction books about climate change. In fiction, she finds an arena that allows her to tackle the subject indirectly while showing the effects of the crisis on her present-day characters or tracing its growth through historical narratives.

Brooks-Dalton said it can be difficult to strike a balance between telling the truth about the dire reality of the situation and offering a sense of hope to her readers, but she finds comfort in “engaging with the monster under the bed.” She described connecting with readers who said they wouldn’t normally read post-apocalyptic fiction but were drawn to her work, which she ascribed to the opportunity it gives them to explore issues that provoke collective anxiety.

VanderMeer discussed the importance of humor in his work—“Even triage nurses make darkly humorous jokes about their job because it’s a way of coping”—and observed that different writers and readers have different concepts of hope when imagining the future. As an example, he contrasted some of his readers’ responses to the bleak setting of his novel Borne with his own sense of it as a hopeful book because of the characters’ perseverance in finding community “amid the ruins of our civilization.”

In response to a question about the origins of their deep engagement with environmental issues, each writer shared a story about a formative childhood experience that intertwined their love of storytelling with their love for the natural world. When Brooks-Dalton asked the other two how they take care of their mental health while writing about such troubling material, VanderMeer described the satisfaction he gets from rewilding his yard, and Groff discussed the importance of creating a “citadel” of time in which her writing practice is sequestered from the rest of her life. Prompted to answer her own question, Brooks-Dalton said she wished she had a yard to rewild, which led VanderMeer to say she was welcome to do some planting at his house—an invitation she was eager to accept.

If the conversation had one overarching theme, it was that many ecological catastrophes once considered fodder for science fiction are now happening in real time—and the urgency of dealing with the crisis has never been greater.

As Brooks-Dalton said when discussing her near-future novel, The Light Pirate, “Maybe it’s today and not tomorrow.”


Luke Fredland is a writer and educator who lives in Pittsburgh, PA.

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