The fight against entropy

It all begins with a hard line against Eucryl Tooth Powder.

I suppose it all started when I learned about the Second Law of Thermodynamics at school. There you are, bumbling along in your safe little world, blandly assured that things will go on getting better, that everything will become more prosperous and ordered, and then – wham! – you see that simple little equation, Δ > 0, absorb the implications of the fact that heat cannot pass from a colder to a warmer body, and not only do you understand that eventually the universe will die in a uniform chill of something not much cosier than absolute zero, or something roughly around -700°C, but you also understand how hard it is to keep your room tidy.
Since then, I have fought only the most desperate rearguard actions against entropy. “You can’t fart against thunder,” as my Great-Uncle Cecil used to say, when faced with a superior hand at poker – and things don’t come much more thunderous than the heat-death of the universe.
Women, though, in my experience, do not see it this way. And in case you think that’s sexist, I should add that most men don’t see it my way, either. Men, though, are more slobby; there are women who are messier than me but they are so spectacularly messy that they get featured on television. The key words here are “in my experience”, and last week, after a few months of Putting Up With Things, the Beloved decided to take a rare day off work, roll her sleeves up and get cracking against the entropy. So that I can help her with this, instead of just lying in bed deeply sensing the futility of all human endeavour to a slightly more intense pitch than I did yesterday, she invents a game called “Keep or Chuck?”, complete with theme tune. The game – and it really is quite clever of her to realise that to get me to help, a game must be made of it; no one else has worked that out before – is played to a strict time limit of ten minutes at a stretch, and the object is to make as many decisions about what to keep or chuck within that time. No overt reward is given for chucking as opposed to keeping something but a little something in the games master’s demeanour suggests that chucking manky redundant things will be rewarded later and keeping manky redundant things will not be so much.
So: title music, please. And, bearing in mind I have been living in the Hovel for only six years . . . bathroom cabinet first. Nyrelex for Chesty Coughs (expiry date, 1998): chuck. Night Nurse (now virtually crystallised, best before 1997): chuck. Peppermint foot lotion “of the most extraordinary consistency”: chuck. Brush-on facial hair remover: chuck. Haemorrhoid cream (b b 2004): chuck. Clarins Honey-Tinted Moisturiser (no best before date, but only the letters “ARIN” of “Clarins” remain visible): chuck. Rinstead sugar-free pastilles (b b 2005): chuck. “Soothing and cooling” moist haemorrhoid tissues (b b 2004): chuck. (I begin to sense a pattern here and feel a pang of pity for whoever lived here before me.) Eucryl Tooth Powder – or, as the Beloved calls it, “Eucryl Tooth Powder???? What the fuck’s that???” – keep: I bought it myself. I then have to explain it. Explaining Eucryl Tooth Powder to pretty much anyone under 50 is harder than you might think. Mitchum roll-on deodorant (“so strong you can even skip a day”): keep – the name and slogan are hilarious. No, on second thoughts, chuck. It pre-dates me. (Later inspection shows that it has actually been kept.) Ibis Mosquito Re-Impregnation Kit (no date): keep. Unless climate change gallops along even faster than in the most pessimistic scientist’s nightmares, I won’t be needing this in the Hovel, but how cool is a re-impregnation kit? Even cooler than an impregnation kit, surely.
And so on. In the ten minutes allotted to “Keep or Chuck?”, the Beloved has managed to show me an enormous array of redundant products which, despite having been kept in a cabinet for years, have not so much accrued a layer of dust as actually grown beards; and I wonder, not for the first time, what kink it is in my psyche that prevents me, or people like me, from performing this perfectly simple and reasonable act. It is possible that the childhood loss of a loved family member made me reluctant to throw things away, that it’s a reaction against rejection, death being the greatest rejection of all; but then again I know people with similar events in their backgrounds and they’re not untidy at all. Search me. Or not. You don’t know what you’ll find.
Sorting through entropy is notoriously difficult. Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.