Young Adult Cli-Fi -A Comparative Case Study

Focusing on Ship Breakers by Paolo Bacigalupi, Carbon Diaries; Book 1 by Saci Lloyd & Solstice by PJ Hoover

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction utilises adolescent anxieties and curiosities about the future, allowing the reader to negotiate those anxieties in speculative future spaces. As a coming of age narrative, the dystopian novel often creates a reality in which challenges such as- parental relationships, class, sexuality and managing new responsibilities- are heightened by extreme circumstances. In this exploration of the dystopian in young adult fiction I will be focusing on climate change fiction or cli-fi. Intersecting with environmental fiction, cli-fi directly engages with the eco-anxiety felt by many young people. This eco-anxiety is demonstrated by the recent school strikes and youth protests urging politicians to act on climate change (Climate change strikes across Australia…, 2019). Despite the often-bleak outlook of the dystopian narrative, these novels immerse the reader in fictional settings by engaging in coming of age narratives and themes that will be familiar to young adult audiences. The three cli-fi young adult novels I will examine are The Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (2011), The Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd (2011) and Solstice by PJ Hoover (2018).

Dystopian young adult narratives, as demonstrated by these three books, are tales of resilience and overcoming adversity. They explore many coming of age issues against the dramatic backdrop of an uncertain future and a world ravaged by the poor choices of past generations. Young readers are invited to engage and relate to characters also negotiating the transition to adulthood and to enter ‘virtual storyworlds’ that explore the same anxieties they may be facing, mediated through science fiction constructs. These narratives give voice and weight to a young reader’s concerns about the precarious state of the planet, relationships, sexuality and their changing role within society as they reach adulthood.

Cart asserts that dystopian fiction is usually set in post-apocalyptic futures that feature ‘nightmarish repression, ruin, corruption, squalor, darkness or devolution to a woeful, preindustrial agrarian society’ (2016, p. 123).

In addition to this speculative future-world setting these texts feature key preoccupations of the YA dystopian subgenre, including:

  • class struggle,
  • family conflict,
  • the monstrous,
  • the looming spectre of adulthood,
  • unfamiliar socioeconomic constructs

Dystopian climate change fiction also features dramatic and catastrophic weather patterns and the inheritance of a dying world. Whilst these last two elements are not exclusive to climate change narratives they are consistently present within the subgenre.

Ship Breaker takes place decades after the ‘Accelerated Age’ which is the in-narrative term for our contemporary age of unsustainable consumerism, in which reliance on oil and other non-sustainable practices has caused the collapse of civilisation. Only the very wealthy are able to live above the poverty line, and others are forced into scavenger roles, picking apart and breaking down the industrial ruins, such as old tankers, to salvage valuable resources. Nailer, the 15-year-old protagonist lives in a world in which teenagers and children live a life of uncertainty and hard labour. Only this young workforce can carry out some of the salvaging operations, in fact, the looming prospect of adulthood and growing too large to carry out the work causes some of the most heightened tension. Becoming an adult could literally mean intense, unpredictable hardship or even death.  The text directly engages with issues such as domestic violence, poverty and class. It is a world in which the myth of safety of the family unit is directly challenged with Nailer’s abusive father causing him to look for safe spaces in the homes of others, a situation that will be familiar to many adolescents.

The Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd is a 2011 book set in the then near future of 2015 London. The UK is implementing carbon rationing after a catastrophic storm brings the reality of climate change into full focus. Laura lives with her Mum, Dad and antisocial older sister Kim. It is through first person diary-fiction that we are drawn into a world not too dissimilar from our own in which society is “addicted to oil and gas” (Lloyd 2011, pp. 25). Laura tries to go through the motions of everyday life, negotiating family conflict, changing friendships, sexuality and education, but her life is frequently disrupted by extremely volatile weather patterns. The clippings and images throughout the book enhance the immersion of the reader and lend credence to the diary as a fictional found artefact. The novel introduces the new world order of environmental awareness and resource austerity with the idea of carbon rations. This system of rationing restricts the luxuries of the inhabitants of London and forces them to pay attention to their carbon consumption, balancing their use of energy and resources. The young people in the narrative experience a period of adjustment which causes them to confront how they define youth and necessity. As the novel progresses the response to the carbon restrictions begins to normalise and the storms and droughts highlight the need for extreme action on climate change.

Solstice by PJ Hoover is a young adult fantasy romance novel set in a dystopian future. Piper is 18 and lives an extremely sheltered existence protected by her hyper-competent and overbearing mother. Piper lives a privileged existence within post-apocalyptic society; not only does she have more resources and social capital than most, but it becomes gradually apparent that her real identity is tied up with magic and mythology. Unlike Ship Breaker and The Carbon Diaries in which the dystopia is the primary source of distance from the reader, in Solstice the protagonist is further set apart from the readers experience by her supernatural qualities. In fact, Piper is so exceptional that she is actually the new form of Persephone, the queen of the underworld in Ancient Greek mythology. Not an immediately relatable personal narrative for a young reader. Despite this distance from the reader, the anxiety surrounding an uncertain future and the daunting agency and freedom of adulthood are likely to be relevant contemporary. The romance plot, which is perhaps the most central part of the narrative is aspirational and fantastical rather than relatable and tethered to reality. It is another dimension to Piper’s supernatural exceptionalism in which she has two Greek gods, Aries and Hades, in the form of two attractive young men, vying for her attention.

A key element of all three books is the disconnect between generations and this is particularly heightened during periods of rapid transition as in The Carbon Diaries.  Laura is often disgusted and angered by her parents’ inability to adapt and cope with change. She blames their generation and generations before them for putting the climate in such a precarious situation. It was their inability to come to terms with the consequences of decades worth of reckless consumption that cost Laura’s generation much of their freedom. The tension in Laura’s house pales in comparison to the dynamic between father and son in Ship Breaker. Nailer’s father, Richard, is violent and frequently impaired by drugs and alcohol. He is a threatening presence throughout the novel driven by greed and anger. Richard’s substance abuse renders him incompetent at the most critical of times in the early narrative; when the great storm hits he is passed out and insensible. Nailer, despite the dangerous flaws of his father, puts Pima’s mother Sadna at risk by asking for her help to revive and rescue him. Richard then becomes the stories antagonist, transforming into a malicious and menacing threat to the lives of those around him. The emotional conflict comes to a head in a physical fight in which Nailer must overcome his abuser. If we remove Solstice from its mythological context we can see that Piper is dealing with two different parental conflicts surprisingly grounded in potential real-world experiences, with her mother suffocatingly close and her estranged father as a mysterious and distant figure. This differing manifestations of generational disconnect and tension reflect the wide range of adolescent experiences with parental figures. While transgenerational relationships in cli-fi often have a loving and nurturing side, the inheritance of a dying Earth and the destabilising of societal norms puts additional stress on already fraught young adult/adult relationships.

Kennon explores the place that gender and feminism play in young adult dystopian novels, highlighting the competency, leadership and strength of young women in the genre (Kennon 2005, pp. 50). We see this play out in Ship Breakers with Pima, the pragmatic, protective and gifted leader of Nailer’s crew, playing a key role in early sections of the narrative. In Solstice, Piper is not as intrinsically independent as Pima and takes some time to break free from her protective mother as begins to realise her own supernatural exceptionalism and power. A more complex portrait of a strong young woman in a speculative climate setting is given in The Carbon Diaries (if we are to believe Laura’s diary, and she is not the most reliable narrator). Laura is clever, resilient and kind, gradually finding increased agency, assertiveness and self-worth as she overcomes various challenges. This use of young women as empowered agents has the ability to ‘illustrate the possibilities’ to young readers and equip them with the confidence and motivation to overcome the hurdles of their own ‘coming of age’ narrative (Fox 2010, pp. 74).

Reading these texts from a feminist Marxist perspective we can see that the patriarchal socioeconomic constructs of the past have put in place systems and societal structures that have lead us to this point, but in a post-apocalypse environment we find the effects are two-fold;

1) Strong powerful women rise to positions of power

2) Women with little social capital, are often rendered vulnerable with an absence of protective systems such as welfare or police to aid them.

We have already dealt with this first manifestation of the post-apocalyptic female experience, with the second manifesting clearly in the case of Sloth, who after betraying Nailer is cast out of her crew and is left to fend for herself with allusions being made to her finding a “sugar daddy”, and implications that sex work or sexual violence is likely to play a part in her new future (Bacigaulpi 2011). Despite their privilege and social capital both Piper of Solstice and Nita, the rich girl rescued by Nailer in Ship Breaker, are being fought over by patriarchal figures who are attempting to use the young women for their own purposes. In this way the young adult dystopian novel can functions like a fairy tale warning innocent young women to beware the dangers of sexuality, adulthood and the machinations of powerful men (Fox 2010, pp. 75). This similarity to fairy tales does not end with the woes of fallen women and damsels in distress but can extend to the monstrous threat of the very world itself. Where fairy tales heighten the consequences of certain actions with magic and monsters- the dystopian young adult novel utilises the extremes of the climate apocalypse and the fall of society to produce different monsters.

Fairy tales and cautionary tales bring us to the monstrous, and the role that the monster in dystopian cli-fi narratives. In the Gothic, monsters, hybrids and the non-human (or unhuman) are often manifestations of societal anxieties (Halberstam, 1995). Frankenstein’s creature, for example, is the fear of science and the hubris of man-made manifest, similarly, the ‘half men’ of Ship Breaker are creatures of science and distinctly other. Nailer expects monstrous behaviour from them but is eventually confronted with the complexity individuality of these hybrid entities when a ‘half man’ named Tool provides aide to him. In the end, it is the humans like Nailer’s father who are proved to be monstrous, rather than the abject other. The monstrous nature of humanity ties in with real-world anxieties about hidden threats and betrayal by those closest to them. In The Carbon Diaries the weather and the biosphere are rendered monstrous, acting with their own agency and causing immense destruction and death. As a result, The Carbon Diaries features a very literal manifestation of anxieties about climate change and an uncertain future. Whereas Solstice uses the conventions of myths and fairy tales to express adolescent anxieties about adulthood and sexuality; with monsters and evil deities preying on Piper while she plays out her predetermined destiny.

There [MKP1] is always a risk that the bleak and dangerous wastelands and dystopias of climate change fiction may prove overwhelming, creating emotional distance and detachment in the reader. If all is lost, then what is the point in investing in the story or its characters? Von Mossner in her examination of The Carbon Diaries highlights the importance of hope in dystopian narratives, a hope capable of engaging the imagination and encouraging mobilisation (Von Mossner 2013, pp.71-74). This kind of imaginative thinking motivates the reader to envision a way through the harsh dystopia to a time when things could be different through positive action. The ability of these fictional young people to shape their own narrative similarly empowers the reader to create change and conceptualise a better future for themselves and their generation.

One reason that dystopian fiction delves into these political issues is put forth by Cart, that is that adults writing Young Adult literature feel a certain level of guilt and anxiety about the troubled legacy they will leave for future generations (Cart 2016, pp. 124). Cli-fi is a poignant manifestation of this guilt about the planet we will leave behind for generations to come. In Ship Breakers,we see a world in which children are no longer able to be children. This world mirrors early industrialisation in the UK before the 1833 Factory Act (Nardinelli 1980). This devolution of society, as alluded to by Cart, highlights the precarious nature of modern life, lying on an unsustainable foundation of non-renewable resources that will one day run out.

The cognitive processes of a reader whilst ‘engaging in virtual storyworlds’ is like those that result from real-world experiences, making speculative dystopian climate fiction inherently useful in conveying the fragile state of the planet (Von Mossner 2017, pp. 556). The visceral reaction to immersive descriptive sequences such as Nailer’s struggle to escape from the oil in Ship Breaker (Bacigalupi 2011, pp. 23), the biting cold of Laura’s home in The Carbon Diaries (Lloyd 2011 pp. 20-21) and Piper’s fiery hallucination in Solstice (Hoover 2018, pp. 348) draw in the reader, allowing them to experience a simulation of the ‘storyworld’ (Von Mossner 2017, pp. 556-557). Young adults may be able to identify with the intense hardship of a post-apocalyptic wasteland because they feel overwhelmed by hardship in the present day. The contrast between the world of the reader and the ‘storyworld’ of the dystopia conveys the urgency of change and vulnerability of social order (Von Mossner 2017, pp. 556).

The urgency for change is expressed most keenly in the realisation that we are from The Ship Breaker’s irresponsible ‘accelerated age’, generations able to take action but unwilling to do so to save the Earth from future suffering, lest our quality of life be compromised.

References

  • Bacigalupi, P 2011, Ship Breaker, Atom, USA, retrieved 12th March 2019, Kindle.
  • Cart, M 2016, Young Adult Literature, Third Edition: From Romance to Realism,American Library Association, retrieved 27th March 2019,  <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/deakin/detail.action?docID=5109511>.
  • Climate change strikes across Australia see student protesters defy calls to stay in school 2019, ABC Online, retrieved 7th April 2019, < https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-15/students-walk-out-of-class-to-protest-climate-change/10901978&gt;.
  • Fox, AJ 2010, ‘Girls coming of age: possibilities and potentials within young adult literature’, College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations, vol. 34, De Paul University, retrieved 1st April 2019, <https://via.library.depaul.edu/etd/34>.
  • Fox, AJ 2010, ‘Girls coming of age: possibilities and potentials within young adult literature’ College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations, vol. 34,  De Paul University, retrieved 10th April, <https://via.library.depaul.edu/etd/3>.
  • Halberstam, J 1995, Skin shows: Gothic horror and the technology of monsters, Duke University Press, USA.
  • Hoover, PJ 2018, Solstice, Roots in Myth, USA retrieved 28th March, Google Play Books.
  • Kennon, P 2005, ‘“Belonging” in young adult dystopian fiction: new communities created by children’, Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 40-49.
  • Lloyd, S 2011, The Carbon Diaries; Book 1, Hachette UK, United Kingdom, retrieved 20th March 2019, Google Play Books.
  • Nardinelli, C 1980, ‘Child Labour and the Factory Acts, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 739-755, retrieved 8th April 2019, <www.jstor.org/stable/2119999>.
  • Von Mossner, AW 2013, ‘Hope in Dark Times: Climate Change and the World Risk Society in Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries 2015 and 2017’, Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults, pp. 81-96.
  • Von Mossner, AW 2017, ‘Vulnerable lives: the affective dimensions of risk in young adult cli-fi’, Textual Practice, vol. 31, no. 3, pp.553-566.

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