Lost in India: passengers on an Indian railway platform. Photo: Getty
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Why did a man wake up on an Indian train platform with no idea who he was?

When David Stuart MacLean woke up in India with amnesia he assumed he was an addict who had overdosed. In fact, the only chemical he’d been taking was the prescribed antimalarial drug Lariam.  

On 17 October 2002, David Stuart MacLean woke up on a train platform in India with no idea who he was. “There, there,” a man dressed like a police officer said. “I have seen this many times before. You foreigners come to my country and do your drugs . . . It will be all right, my friend.”

David followed the man to a safe house for troubled foreigners, run by a Chinese woman whose son had overdosed in Singapore. “You have no idea what you do to your mother when you put these drugs into your body,” she said, crying as she told her story. David cried, too.

Later, he was taken to a neuropsychiatry centre in Hyderabad where a doctor administered antipsychotic drugs to stop the hallucinations that were keeping him awake at night. He managed to remember his parents’ phone number. “I’m so sorry,” he wept down the line. “I’ve been a terrible person. An awful son.” An Indian friend rounded up every American he knew in the city and brought them to the hospital. They arrived with newspapers and cigarettes, which David began to chain-smoke, despite never having touched a cigarette in his life.

As far as he knew, he was a junkie who had got himself into trouble. “I assembled a working self out of the behaviour of others,” he recalls in his memoir The Answer to the Riddle Is Me. In reality, he was a bright American student on a Fulbright scholarship suffering from amnesia, insomnia and convulsions. The only drug he had been taking was the antimalarial Lariam.

Lariam was developed by the US army with the Swiss pharmaceutical company F Hoffman-La Roche in the 1970s. It was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1989. When a randomised double-blind study was conducted in 2001 – a study that should have been completed years earlier – researchers found 67 per cent of patients suffered at least one adverse affect; 6 per cent required medical treatment. If this data had been available, the drug may not have been approved.

Between 2002 and 2004 the journalists Mark Benjamin and Dan Olmsted filed more than 40 reports on US soldiers who had returned from malarial countries such as Rwanda, Liberia and Afghanistan and killed themselves. Sometimes they killed their wives and children, too. The murder of 16 Afghan civilians by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales in 2012 has been linked to Lariam. For those with susceptible brain chemistry (or who have suffered brain injuries, as in the case of Bales), the drug can pool in the brain, inflicting irreversible damage.

When David returned to Ohio, he was confronted by photographs of a stranger bearing his name. He met a woman named Anne, who told him they had been in love. He couldn’t picture the two of them together and ended the relationship. Over time, most of David’s memories returned but he still lives with the threat of relapse, unable to prove that Lariam caused his condition.

The US military stopped the procedural use of Lariam in 2009. Roche has ceased marketing it in the US (though it is still available to British soldiers and on the NHS). An army epidemiologist told the US Senate that it was the Agent Orange of our generation. In 1994, a Roche safety report noted that Lariam could cause depression, which may involve suicidal ideation in a few cases. That it could lead to suicide was harder to prove. The cause was more likely “the progressive breakdown of traditional values”, the company wrote. It had nothing to do with its drug.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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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.