A Blog about Literature, Culture and the Environment

“Survival is insufficient”: The cautionary power of speculative fiction

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Image by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash

Current headlines abound with apocalyptic references to the global climate emergency. The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in August 2021 brought into the mainstream what climate scientists already knew – dramatic and life-altering changes to the climate are much closer than many of us expected. The ambiguous language is gone. Where before there were qualifiers about the likelihood of impacts and degrees of certainty regarding human responsibility, now we are told that the situation is unequivocal, unprecedented, indisputable and immediate. The proximity of potentially disastrous and irreversible climate impacts has come as a complete shock for many people. We thought we had more time. Given this accelerated schedule, we wonder how to respond, how to stay hopeful. What can we do when it feels like the precipice is closer than we imagined?

Speculative fiction can provide insights into how people might respond to impending crises at different timescales, and what the consequences of those responses could potentially be. With the shortened timelines expressed in the IPCC report, it appears useful to consider three novels where the characters are confronted with crises that unfold over an extended period and which leave various amounts of time remaining before their version of the end of the world. The novels I have selected to do this are Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Seveneves by Neil Stephensen, and The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. None of these novels have happy endings. In many ways, the authors seem to be warning against certain attitudes and types of responses rather than suggesting solutions.

The characters in Station Eleven, for instance, are the survivors of a highly contagious virus which wiped out ninety-five percent of people. The novel looks back on how individuals processed and responded to the immediate threat posed by the Georgian Flu. Many of them managed to escape infection and the rapid loss of life by barricading themselves in places cut off from the rest of society. Outside their safe havens there was widespread panic, looting and hoarding of supplies, and quarantine of entire cities and countries. One man survived the initial crisis inside an airport terminal, haunted for years by his last phone call. Instead of calling his wife and child, he chose to talk to his business partners. The shallow, empty, professional terminology (circle back, put a pin in that) plays and replays in his memory.

There are clear parallels between these responses and those currently manifesting to climate change. Populist governments across Europe and the United States are already threatening to turn against climate migrants and isolate themselves rather than committing to painful cuts in emissions and consumption that could potentially improve future conditions for vulnerable people. Climate denial persists in some arenas, and even those who believe in climate change may continue their lives as usual. If we trust the lessons of Station Eleven, in hindsight we will be haunted by our failure to act now to cherish and preserve what is important to us.

The novel Seveneves explores humanity’s response to the destruction of the moon and the knowledge that within two years all life on Earth will be extinct. Governments of the world come together to expand the International Space Station and try to preserve humanity in the form of 1,500 randomly selected representatives. Throughout the novel, there are widespread concerns that the governments of the world do not actually believe in their own desperate projects. They simply want to pacify their citizens by being seen doing something. In the meantime, many people continue commuting to work and school and paying their bills on time, although Stephensen does make a point of noting that the home improvement industry has collapsed.

The performative actions of world governments in Seveneves are paralleled by some responses to climate change. Despite growing awareness of threats, the temptation to continue business as usual looms large. Many countries take steps that are just enough to be seen to be doing something, even if they are fully aware that it will not be enough. In addition, a phenomenon called greenwashing has emerged, where any kind of product or activity is claimed to be “green” or “climate friendly”, regardless of its real impacts.

Finally, in The Three-Body Problem a human-instigated crisis likely to lead to the eradication of humanity looms four hundred years in the future. The crisis was caused by people who decided that human civilisation was beyond redemption and invited the destruction of all human life by broadcasting our location to a hostile alien world. The extended timeframe of this novel means that humanity moves through several stages of denial, preparation and hopelessness. At the beginning of the crisis so many resources are poured into defending the Earth that rationing and shortages of basic necessities lead to a period called the “great ravine” where the global population plummets. Later, people decide that technology has advanced enough to save them and become complacent. At the international level, rich governments refuse to share technology and try to manoeuvre so that if anyone survives beyond the crisis they will emerge with more power and control. Low-income countries feel excluded and increasingly desperate, with sometimes violent consequences.

Again these responses are frighteningly similar to what we see unfolding today. The refusal of rich countries to share their technologies or prioritise global concerns over their own reflects responses to climate change (and COVID-19, another urgent problem but beyond the scope of this post). Debates between proponents of degrowth and technological optimists expose a fundamental divide over how much our lifestyles and economies need to shift. Even further, Cixin Liu describes in detail the dangers of pouring resources into saving the future at the expense of the present. The Three-Body Problem poses a stark warning about the loss of democracy and the risk of losing our humanity in a moment of desperation. He causes us to wonder, what if we manage to stop climate change but, in the meantime, a real “great ravine” happens and millions or billions of people lose their lives? Will it have been worth it? What is the alternative?

Even though Station Eleven, Seveneves and The Three-Body Problem present fatalistic doomsday scenarios, these novels seem to suggest that we have some agency in deciding between multiple pathways through catastrophe, not just in technical terms but in terms of what kind of future we want on the other side. In the aftermath of the Georgian Flu in Station Eleven, the remaining people decide that “survival is insufficient”. Survivors prioritize keeping art, music, creativity and beauty alive. The question in Seveneves after the decimation of life on Earth similarly is not just how to stay alive, but what kind of life preserves our humanity and is worth living.

These novels are not optimistic or uplifting stories of how we can prevent climate change or survive the emergency we are already in. Instead, they hold a mirror to our modern society which highlights certain potential flaws in our current tendencies. The authors have each taken an intensified hypothetical scenario and followed it through to its logical conclusion. Such stories provide a source of caution and critique by centring the undesirable consequences of acting in certain ways which parallel responses we are currently seeing to climate change. By making these possibilities visible they give us an opportunity to rethink our own behaviour and perhaps even try to change it.


Elizabeth MacAfee is a PhD candidate in Society, Development and Planning at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). Elizabeth has a master’s degree in International Environmental Studies from NMBU and a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from the University of Puget Sound. The topic of Elizabeth’s dissertation is drinking water quality governance and planning in Kaolack, Senegal. She is interested in the ethical aspects of drinking water quality governance and frames her thesis using concepts from Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage theory. Elizabeth is also a member of a speculative fiction book club in her free time. She read all three books referenced in this post with the book club and the ideas presented here grew out of those discussions.

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