Climate Change and Young Adult Fiction: A Reading of Francesca Lia Block’s ‘Love in the Time of Global Warming’
By Sarbani Mohapatra
Inception of a Genre
“Any story about the future that’s at least a century out has to include a dramatic picture of climate change.” – Annalee Newitz
Literature cannot remain insulated from contemporary concerns and developments. Climate change, the phenomenon that has become the biggest survival challenge for humanity, was bound to confront extant literary sensibilities and cultural discourse. The decade beginning from 2005 has witnessed the emergence of literature premised on apocalyptic, dystopian and ontological engagements with the threat of climate change. A new literary genre encompassing these engagements has gradually come into being. Climate change fiction or ‘cli fi’, a term coined by Dan Bloom, not only holds up the ecological exigencies of a menace rapidly spiralling out of hand but also the ways in which it is perceived and expressed by coeval literature.
There have been some objections raised at the term ‘cli fi ‘for being a reductive derivative of ‘sci fi’. Carolin Kormann argues that linguistic proximity to ‘sci-fi’ “makes the genre sound marginal, when, in fact, climate change is moving to the centre of human experience” (41). There have also been divergent views on the association of climate change fiction with apocalyptic imagination. While Robert MacFarlane insisted that it “steer determinedly away from apocalyptic scenarios, because of the slow and incremental nature of climate change itself”, Rowland Hughes and Pat Wheeler underline the aptness of ‘eco-dystopias’ as artistic interventions into climate change due to their potential to jolt readers out of their ensconced apathy. Any definitive labelling would however jeopardise climate change fiction’s identity based on the blurring of genres. It has to constantly rise above the speculative propensities of sci-fi to carve for itself a distinct yet fluid space within the larger domain of eco-fiction. One of the most robust engagements with the genre has been that of young adult fiction.
Francesca Lia Block’s Love in the Time of Global Warming (2013) is one such work. It tells the story of a teenaged girl Penelope whose ordinary happy life suddenly collapses following a massive environmental catastrophe referred to as the ‘Earth Shaker’. She finds herself alone in her house and her family nowhere around. A dangerous saga of search for her lost family and friends ensues. Her journey takes her through the ruins of places she was familiar with before calamity struck. After an eventful journey, she is able to unite with only her brother, Venice. The novel combines climate realism with climate fiction employing the discursive devices of both cli fi and sci-fi. It provides useful insights into the role of the ‘tipping point’ in climate change fiction and the ensuing existential angst. The formation of teenage sexual identity and the restorative power of love in a post-apocalyptic world is also evinced in the novel.
The Young Adult Novel and Climate Change
Clare Bradford argues that the adolescent or young adult books with environmental themes “carry significances over and above those involved in the narrative processes, because they represent various versions of our environmental future” (22). Alice Currie notes that “in novels in which a single moment of crisis is held responsible for planetary decline, the crisis, as tipping point, is discursively formulated to dramatize the linear inevitability of environmental crisis, and is couched in a discourse of ethical responsibility directed towards the reflexive reader” (22). In Love in the Time of Global Warming, that tipping point is the ‘Earth Shaker’. Fire and flood in the wake of a massive earthquake engulf the young protagonist’s family and the fantastical city of Los Angeles. This tipping point marks the rupture of hitherto usual ways of being and knowing. In her foreword to a collection of climate change short stories, Elizabeth Kolbert defends the use of science fiction in dealing with climate change: “The characters in these stories are made up and the situations invented. The events haven’t happened and, in a strict sense, never will. But the science behind these tales is all too real” (9). The same can be said of Block’s novel. The single moment of crisis in Love in the Time of Global Warming might have been sudden in its occurrence but the protagonist hints at the tell-tale signs leading up to it which argue against complacency and corresponding inaction. She says, “They kept saying global warming wasn’t going to be the end of us, that it was just threats from the fanatics, that we didn’t have to make changes. But every year there were more earthquakes and floods and hurricanes and fires—every element expressing the earth’s imbalance. Every year the temperatures soared and the ice melted and no one did anything” (24).
Currie argues that an ecofeminist approach towards young adult fiction “enables an exploration of the ways in which young adult novels attempt to develop a sustainable ethic of care that can encompass such ‘feminised’ peoples and spatialities, including nonhumans and the environment. It is especially apt for engaging with the construction of young adult subjectivity in novels in which radically ruptured post-apocalyptic societies struggle to create new—more caring—world orders based on the dismantling of social and biosocial inequalities” (1). Penelope’s protective feeling towards Ez and her instinct to preserve the butterfly which sits on her windowsill embodies this ‘ethic of care’. When she agrees to bring along Ez despite the dwindling supplies, she justifies it by saying, “And if we start living as every man for himself, what does that say about us, the state of our souls?” (69) By making her narrator empathetic towards the need for survival of other beings, Block posits the power of hope and solidarity even in the wake of doom.
The Symbolism of Butterflies and Planetary Interconnectedness
Butterflies are perceived as beacons of hope, a symbol of life amidst death in the novel. When it flies off with a mutilated wing Penelope feels that it is signalling something that she is supposed to interpret. Time and again the butterfly would recur as the carrier of good tidings and reinforcement of right decisions. When Penelope escapes the marauders at her house, she follows the butterfly which darts before her face and flies in the direction of the van Merk asks her to escape with. While they are fleeing the Lotus Hotel, Penelope and Hex stop before a swamp. The girls in it beckon them to hide under the mud so the Giants cannot smell them out. But with no butterfly in sight, Penelope is wary of not giving in to the girls’ enticing calls. She says “I’m starting to imagine them (the butterflies) as guides and I don’t think they want me to be here” (48). The butterfly also has the function of “a synecdoche for a globally connected world” (68), according to Antonia Merhnert who says so in the context of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behaviour (2012). Merhnert writes how the butterflies in the novel act as ‘global players’ and demonstrate that centering on a ‘sense of place’ might be counterproductive for environmental awareness when climate change is a planetary phenomenon. Block’s novel likewise, though containing real places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas that are fictionalised, posits what John Tomlinson calls ‘ethical glocalism’ (68). This is premised on the understanding that in an interconnected globalized world, identity cannot be merely defined on the basis of local affiliations. Ethical glocalism thereby “embraces a sense of what unites us as human beings, of common risks and possibilities, of mutual responsibilities” (68).
Teenage Sexual Identity in a Post-apocalyptic Scenario
The young adult genre of fiction also opens up the space for an interrogation into the socio-cultural ramifications of sexuality in a post-apocalyptic world. “I had forgotten what I thought about sexuality, except that I liked to be near Hex, that I liked to be near his voice, to watch him hunkered down, staring out at the ruined horizon, black steel-toed motorcycle boots kicking at the dirt like he was trying to find something buried there. His gender seemed irrelevant” (91). Sexual identity is obfuscated, rendered amorphous in the post-apocalyptic world of Block’s conception. At one juncture in the novel Penelope remembers her attraction towards Moira, their momentary kiss from a time prior to the Earth Shaker. She recalls that ‘electroshock nanosecond’ as something of an epiphany: “I wanted to kiss girls. And it was no joke” (68). The character of Beatrix the witch represents the inversion of the Mother Earth figure. Her propensity for destruction through black arts can be read as the reclamation of agency by the feminine in a desperate attempt at self-preservation, albeit in a sadomasochistic way. She keeps Ez and the giant Frakk chained by a dog leash. Her desire to “reign over the ruin” (61) renders her the feminist literary nemesis of Doctor Faustus and Victor Frankenstein, both of whom had tried to usurp the divine prerogative of creation and forces of nature. The novel also evinces an ironic indictment of the ‘homo scientificus’ or scientific man whose knowledge, used to anthropocentric ends, is unable to save the Earth. When Penelope and Hex enter the Graystone Mansion, Penelope recites the parts of plants she has learnt from the encyclopaedia as if it was “an incantation to return the flora to life” (58).
Choice of Protagonist and Narrative Voice
The authorial rationale behind choosing Penelope as the narrator of the novel assumes relevance in the light of the text’s location within the genre of young adult climate change fiction. It also becomes important in the dismantling of conventional gender roles that forms a vital part of the novel’s discursive designs. Penelope is not only the protagonist of her novel but also the survivor of its climatic apocalypse. She survives to tell her story and those of other survivors. Mary Quattlebaum in her review of the novel writes that “as Penelope connects with a new love and strives to protect her friends, Block asks readers to rethink the role of hero. Penelope grows to become not just a skilled sword-wielder, but also a talented weaver of stories that warn, chronicle and save.” Her artistic sensibility conditions her response to the Earth Shaker. She insists on visiting the Museum of Angels once before she leaves Los Angeles, being afraid as well as curious about the fate of the art works following the Earth Shaker. Being a student of art Penelope is able to find signifiers of the ruin that Earth Shaker wrecked on art works she had encountered earlier. On the way to Vegas, they stop at Salton Sea and the landscape of crushed fish bones, debris and rusted cars with the rotten-egg stench reminding her of a Hieronymus Bosch painting she used to have nightmares about. Later at the café with the three Giants, “the creatures, with their shadowed eyes and sunken mouths, and the slabs of raw meat hanging from hooks” remind her of the Francis Bacon painting she used to observe obsessively. Perhaps the choice of protagonist expresses the author’s own angst regarding the survivability of art in a world riven by climate change and its catastrophic fallouts. The existentialist tension is articulated by Penelope when she wonders “who, if anyone, will find our remains and trace them back to a civilization that self-destructs.”
In forcing a rethinking of the traditional hero figure, Block models her protagonist loosely on Homer’s Odysseus. There is a direct reference to the epic quite a few times in the novel starting with the very epigraph which quotes Homer. Thus the naming of the narrator is deliberate. In Homer’s epic, it is Odysseus who undertakes the long arduous journey. But in Block’s novel, the hero is a frail, teenage girl named after his wife. Like Odysseus, Penelope has to negotiate a journey full of trials and tribulations. But her subverted ‘nostos’ (the theme of a hero’s journey home by sea after heroic adventures in ancient Greek literature) does not hold out the promise of a glorious homecoming. When Hex reads out the chapter from The Odyssey wherein Odysseus ventures to the Underworld, it both frightens and reassures Penelope. She says, “If we really are on a modern-day odyssey, as the parallels with the book seem to confirm, we may have the hope of returning ‘home’ as Odysseus did. But what is home now and what if we can’t ‘restrain’ ourselves? What more will we have to endure? What do we have to prove? And to whom?” (101). Thus the destination they are trying to move towards does not harbinger closure for Penelope and her fellow travellers. During the combat with her mortal enemy Kronen, a genetically engineered giant, she says “I am not a hero, I am not Odysseus, and there are no gods or goddesses guiding me. All I have is myself. And Hex’s sword” (143). There is no epic glory in this mortal war. The chances of finding her family and her two friends appear thin. She triumphs ultimately and is able to retrieve only her brother Venice. Her story becomes the realisation of her innocent story-telling at slumber parties with her friends. “Sometimes I made Odysseus, Aeneas and Achilles into heroines instead. My friends liked that twist, although it wasn’t always easy for me to do since the original stories were so male-oriented, the women in them often so passive or cruel” (17).
Love as Antidote to Catastrophic Devastation
Francesca Lia Block in an interview talks about love being a constant theme in her writings. Love in the Time of Global Warming is no different in this regard. In a world brought to ruins by a climatic catastrophe, love alone holds out hope, albeit the pain of loss. In young adult fiction love is often one of the major thematic concerns. In Block’s novel, love becomes a healing force that protects, preserves and sustains in the face of unprecedented calamity. When Penelope finds love amidst disaster, she feels like hundreds of butterflies, symbols of goodness throughout the novel, are fluttering their orange wings: “I can see the fire tearing over the planet, not a force of destruction but of renewal, a prescribed fire like farmers sometimes used, wiping out all the debris and waste and death so that something new can grow” (92). The author does take recourse to magic real and fantasy to tell her story but there is a certain degree of consensus among commentators that climate change fiction can no longer be considered limited to the realm of speculation or phantasmagoria. As Sana Goyal contends in her article on climate change fiction: “All these books push the boundaries of genre and geography—beyond the doomsday, dystopian variety of climate change fiction. They encompass and evade our ideas of the environment and its literature” (n.p.).
Climate change is an unfolding crisis of the Anthropocene, no longer an event anticipated in the distant future. It has warranted rethinking the modes of literary and cultural representations and the niche genre of young adult climate change fiction has come up with its own tools for responding to it. Authors like Francesca Lia Block seem to have arrived at a partial answer to MacFarlane’s anxious exclamation, “where is the literature of climate change? Where is the creative response to the most severe problem faced by the world?” and Bill Kibben’s vexed wonderment “where are the books? The plays? The goddamn operas? Young adult climate change fiction like Love in the Time of Global Warming can be an apt conduit to take the conversation on one of the gravest calamities of our times to the generation that would bear the worst of its ramifications.
Block, Francesca Lia (2013). Love in the Time of Global Warming. New York, USA: Henry Holt and Company.
Curry, Alice (2013). Environmental Crisis in Young Adult Fiction: A Poetics of Earth. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gelder, Gordon Van (2011). Welcome to the Greenhouse: New Science Fiction on Climate Change. New York, USA: OR Books.
Goyal, Sana (2019). “Climate Change Fiction: In Search of Brave New Worlds.” Livemint, 1 November 2019.
Hughes, Rowland, and Wheeler, Pat. “Introduction Eco-dystopias: Nature and the Dystopian Imagination”.Critical Survey, Vol. 25, no.2, 2013, pp.1-6.
“An Interview with Francesca Lia Block about Magick, Obsession and Being a Woman”. 15 October 2015.
Mehnert, Antonia (2016). Climate Change Fictions: Representations of Global Warming in American Literature. Munich, Germany: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sarbani Mohapatra is an independent scholar. She has completed her M.A in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata and her B.A in English from Presidency University, Kolkata. Her areas of interest include climate change fiction, diaspora literature and indigenous writings. Her research articles have been published in Jadavpur University Essays and Studies and Sanglap: Journal of Literary and Cultural Enquiry; poems in the Madras Courier and Visual Verse.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.