Durham Book Festival Book Review – Ecothrillers

Is this what Chicago will look like in 2025? How will we cope? Can novelists Liz Jenson and Maggie Gee tell us more about the future than scientists?

A small but environmentally engaged audience gathered at Palace Green on Sunday night to hear Liz Jensen and Maggie Gee read from their work and discuss the notion of the eco-thriller, weighing the responsibilities and opportunities of fiction against those of science. But extracting the former’s The Rapture and the latter’s The Ice People and The Flood for consideration proved a rather artificial exercise: it was clear both wanted to talk about their respective eco-thrillers in the context of their wider work, rather than confine themselves to the “science” theme of the Book Festival’s branding.

The resulting discussion demonstrated what the three works have in common with the authors’ others. Jensen has written seven novels and Gee twelve, and the climate catastrophes depicted in the headline books were shown to reflect other abiding concerns, such as religious fundamentalism or racism, drawing them into each novelist’s own canon. Nevertheless, there was a commonality between the two writers’ approach to writing eco-thrillers: The Rapture, The Ice People and The Flood are all set “five minutes into the future” (an acknowledged reference to J. G. Ballard), as satirical or cautionary takes on today’s world. Both writers were clear that they worked this way to explore and reflect on a particular scenario. What both renounced was the novel’s responsibility to tell us how to live now; they saw their main duties being to their characters and the world they inhabit.

That is not to say they eschewed any personal commitment to the environment. Jensen may have joked about the size of her carbon footprint (research for The Rapture involved a spell in Florida) but she has pledged to do something about it, working with green NGOs for instance. Neither author regarded the novel as a campaigning tool, believing that to use it as such would limit its potential to explore the created world. But they could see the necessity of being scientifically plausible in their projections – just as, in their historical novels, the backgrounds are thoroughly researched and the fiction woven into the fact.

The idea of an “eco-thriller” constrains one to telling a particular apocalyptic story about our future – indeed, both novelists relished the dramatic opportunities this presented. But how much does talk of climate cataclysm and rising sea levels, however much it is a skewed view of today, put us off thinking about our future? How far are we waiting for an apocalypse when the climate is already changing, gradually but persistently?

Although catastrophism smacks of Hollywood spectacle, Gee and Jensen agreed that prose presented more and broader opportunities for exploring characters’ interiority and the nature of their reaction to changed worlds than film affords. The readings from The Rapture and The Ice People showcased the potential of such writing: there was a wry characterisation and dark gentle calm in Jensen’s dialogue, while Gee’s prose was positively poetic in its depiction of migrants moving out of an expansively frozen north towards the equator.

Certainly by committing to their fictional worlds rather than to environmental advocacy, novelists will give themselves scope to find out more than by adhering to any particular environmentalist party line. But it’s then up to us to respond imaginatively to this as readers, and to entertain the implications that a changing climate spells for our world – today and tomorrow.

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