Christopher Hitchens night: a review

Stephen Fry, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Sean Penn and others unite to celebrate Hitchens.

"I'm not as I was," Christopher Hitchens poignantly remarked recently. Afflicted by oesophageal cancer and, now, pneumonia, Hitchens, who I interviewed for the New Statesman last year, was too ill to appear in conversation with Stephen Fry at the Royal Festival Hall in London last night. But rather than cancelling the event, the organisers assembled an extraordinary selection of Hitchens's comrades and friends to pay tribute to the great essayist and polemicist.

Richard Dawkins, Hitchens's fellow anti-theist, appeared on stage with Fry in London, and Martin Amis, his dearest friend, appeared via video link from New York, as did James Fenton and Salman Rushdie. The line-up also included actor Sean Penn (who Hitchens enjoys pool games with), former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham and novelist Christopher Buckley, son of the late conservative intellectual (whether there can be such a thing is a subject for another occasion) William F. Buckley, whom Hitchens often debated on US TV show Firing Line. It felt like a hyper-intelligent version of Question Time.

Wreathed in smoke clouds and looking as if he had just climbed out of bed, Penn (beamed in from LA) opened proceedings, discussing the political significance of The Trial of Henry Kissinger - Hitchens's account of the former US Secretary of State's "one-man rolling crime wave" - until the satellite link failed ("God damn you Google!" cried Fry). Regaining his composure, Fry welcomed Dawkins on stage. Dawkins and Hitchens are often spoken of as one entity (Terry Eagleton christened them "Ditchkins" in his 2009 polemic Reason, Faith and Revolution) but the former made an important distinction between their approaches. While Dawkins's hostility to religion is born of his commitment to science and free inquiry, Hitchens's reflects his moral outrage at what Dawkins called "a tyrannical God figure" and what Hitchens has described as a "celestial dictatorship". In this regard, Hitchens's anti-theism is merely an extension of his anti-totalitarianism.

It was Buckley, who spoke recently of how Hitchens composed a Slate column in 20 minutes in his presence (as the late Anthony Howard, a former editor of the NS, told me last year, Hitchens can write at a speed that most people talk), who appeared next, recalling the moment Barbra Streisand "caught fire" at the Vanity Fair party hosted by Hitchens following the White House Correspondents' Dinner. It was a reminder that Hitchens, whose extraordinary output is suggestive of a solitary, bookish figure, is a compulsive socialite and bon vivant. Fenton (introduced by Fry as "the greatest living English poet") , a friend of Hitchens's since Oxford and the dedicatee of his recent memoir Hitch-22, then read his remarkable poem 'The Skip', the first verse of which appears below.

I took my life and threw it on the skip,
Reckoning the next-door neighbors wouldn't mind
If my life hitched a lift to the council tip
With their dry rot and rubble. What you find
With skips is-the whole community joins in.
Old mattresses appear, doors kind of drift
Along with all that won't fit in the bin
And what the bin-men can't be fished to shift.

Lewis Lapham, who appointed Hitchens as the Washington editor of Harper's in 1986, spoke of how he was "the only journalist in Washington that would actually bite the hand that fed him", placing him in the tradition of Twain and Mencken. Rushdie, whom Hitchens defended so brilliantly during the fatwa, was up next, recalling some of the word games the pair used to play, the most uproarious of which is "titles that didn't quite make it", including For Whom The Bell Rings, A Farewell to Weapons, The Catcher In The Wheat, To Kill A Hummingbird, The Big Gatsby and Good Expectations.

It was Amis, now a Brooklyn resident, who appeared last, sagely guiding the audience through old photographs of Hitchens, including the unlikely sight of Hitch, a quintessential urbanite, holding a brace of pheasants on the Rothschild estate. He described his relationship with Hitchens as an "unconsummated gay marriage", adding that "Christopher, certainly some time ago, would have consummated it very happily".

But the most significant and poignant intervention came from Ian McEwan, who was watching the event live with Hitchens in Texas. "I talked until late last night with Hitch, we were discussing the non-communist left of the early 50s," he wrote in an email read out by Fry. "He can't run a mile just now but be reassured his Rolls Royce mind is purring smoothly."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.