The novelist David Mitchell. Photo: Mary Andrews/Guardian/IDS
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Stitches in time: Olivia Laing on “The Bone Clocks” by David Mitchell

The pleasure for the reader of David Mitchell’s novels lies in the comforting sense that there might after all be a pattern to the random data of the everyday.

The Bone Clocks 
David Mitchell
Sceptre, 608pp, £20

What is a “bone clock”? You are – tick-tocking your way into obsolescence. But not all human beings suffer the irritations of mortality, at least not in the topsy-turvy, not-quite-familiar world of David Mitchell’s sixth novel. Some seemingly ordinary people are eternal beings, destined to return to life in perpetuity, while other jealous but genuine mortals have worked out a knack of cheating death, securing eternal youth by draining children of their essence as casually as you or I might sink a glass of wine.

The blueprint of a David Mitchell novel is by now distinct: slick exercises in pastiche, mystical or paranormal elements, a polyphonic, complex structure that hinges on junction and coincidence. In short, a highly sophisticated narrative machine. What’s more, the books are interlinked. Characters recur and plots intersect, producing the illusion that one has entered not so much the usual closed house of fiction as an alternate universe, an enormously ambitious exercise in world-building.

This novel begins in Gravesend, an appropriate location both for a work so obsessed with mortality and for a writer so bent on finding the strange in the irredeemably pedestrian. In her bedroom in the Captain Marlow pub (flickers of Heart of Darkness), Holly Sykes is waking up. It’s a baking morning in the summer of 1984 and she has just told a boy that she loves him. Over the next 24 hours, she will run away with not much more than a Talking Heads record in her duffel bag – walking into the Kent marshes and encountering the elements from which her future will be formed.

Frustrated, dogged, furious, naive, Holly is an ideal teenage heroine. Mitchell has a flair for period furniture, for the loving accumulation of details that make the near as well as distant past luminous. Holly’s life is a slippery montage of the 1980s. “It’s a scientific fact that virgins can’t get pregnant,” she says; she smokes £1.40 packets of Rothmans and slips out of Chatham Roller Disco to shoplift a No 7 lippy.

These ordinary snippets of ordinary girlhood quickly become entangled with something far weirder: a science-fiction conspiracy, replete with capitalised neologisms and rents in the fabric of time. Control of the narrative passes on to other characters, in whose lives Holly is sometimes glimpsed, each time a little older, a little more careworn. Among the revolving cast are a sociopathic undergrad, a war reporter in Iraq and a former wild-child novelist in perpetual migration through the literary festivals of the world.

Each of these segments is a pastiche of some established form, or rather pastiches of pastiches. Take the handsome Hugo Lamb, a clever, amoral social climber who was previously encountered in Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. A slippery parasite preying off his moronically titled and entitled friends, Hugo isn’t so much a riff on Waugh as on Waugh passed through the digestive tract of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

Sometimes, Mitchell does the process in reverse, taking existing caricatures and adding depth and shading. Thus Crispin Hershey, the author of Desiccated Embryos, toiling though the dwindling signing queues at the Hay and Cartagena festivals, begins as a fairly tedious cartoon of a novelist in the Amis mould (his agent, natch, is Hal the Hyena, a dead ringer for Andrew “the Jackal” Wylie). But slowly – and largely as a result of his encounters with Holly Sykes – Hershey gains in emotional weight, stepping beyond the confines of satire.

There’s something very satisfying about spotting familiar people through the lens of a strange consciousness, in recognising characters who have strayed in from a previous novel, in seeing how lives interconnect. Mitchell’s work is obsessed with coincidence and with producing a perspective that is never available to a mortal, stitched into time, but only to the roving, lofty eye of a novelist or God.

The pleasure for the reader lies in the comforting sense that there might after all be a pattern to the random data of the everyday. The risk, however, is of feeling manipulated, the novel’s formal slickness and dexterity undermining effect even as it strives to generate it.

The final section of the book, occurring as a coda to an absurd and hurried denouement of the immortals storyline, returns to Holly, now an old woman living on the west coast of Ireland in 2043. Oil has almost run out, mass extinctions are under way and the world has returned to a medieval nightmare of violence and struggle. Reliable electricity, tissue paper, air travel: all these are painful memories, replaced by the looming threats of starvation, radiation, “Ratflu” and a raider’s bullet.

This sequence is terrifying and feels as if it could also be genuinely prophetic. I can well believe that in 2043, I will have cause to remember it ruefully, to experience exactly the sort of telescoping of one’s position in time that Mitchell so loves to describe. Yet it has its emotional charge defused by the author’s decision to wrestle it into an increasingly irritating edifice of plot. That’s the problem with making everything connected. In the end, there’s no freedom to roam, no room to move. 

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking” (Canongate, £10.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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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.