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Expert blog: Can New Weird Fiction Help Us Tackle the Climate Crisis?

By Trang Dang, a PhD candidate in English Literature with a focus on ecological awareness and communication

A tree growing inside of a book
Can humanities help tackle the planetary crisis?

Can New Weird Fiction Help Us Tackle the Climate Crisis?

In the race against global warming, the sciences have played a crucial part in confirming human impacts on the planet and identifying solutions to mitigate them. But can the humanities, often relegated to the background, help us tackle our current planetary crisis as well?

The New Weird fiction of American writer Jeff VanderMeer is certainly able to do that. No, you haven’t read that wrong—there is a literary genre called the New Weird.

Living up to its name, the New Weird is…weird. It recombines elements of science fiction, horror, and fantasy and defies any straightforward definition. Emerging from Old Weird fiction, featuring authors such as H. P. Lovecraft and  Edgar Allan Poe, the New Weird movement was founded in the 1980s. According to literary critics Benjamin Noys and Timothy Murphy, it came as a response to the time of the war on terror, global financial crisis, and human-induced climate change.

Amongst other contemporary New Weird writers, like China  Miéville and  Steph Swainston, VanderMeer recognises the potential of this genre. His award-wining novels, including the Southern Reach (2014)and Borne (2017-2020) series, engage extensively with socioecological issues of the present. They ask what’s wrong with our treatment of the planet and attempt to alter it affectively through their unsettling observations about nonhuman worlds and our relationships with them.

Both series describe the intrusion of bizarre nonhuman entities into supposedly normal human worlds and the human characters’ responses to it. This literary technique is called defamiliarisation, which VanderMeer uses to interrogate our growing estrangement from nature. He draws attention to our perception of it as over there, independent of and in service to our lives. For many, humans are deemed superior to nonhumans, thus entitled to control and wipe out whatever they deem unnecessary and unruly.

But VanderMeer’s novels are all about the so-called unnecessary and unruly and their unexpected effects on human lives. Featuring indescribable yet enticing and oddly beautiful monsters, his texts show how the planet is stunning yet monstrous and truly unknowable. The COVID-19 pandemic and other recent disastrous events are sufficient proof. Nonhumans aren’t quite what they seem—docile and harmonious—and reside at the edge of our knowledge.

Through figures of weird and captivating nonhuman characters, VanderMeer points to what most of us have forgotten about: our entanglements with things and beings other than human. His fiction shows them to be not only around us but also within us. Nonhumans are everywhere—in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, these words you are reading, and whichever device you are using to do so. This is not to mention that 90% of the cells in a human body are bacteria and contain nonhuman DNA, making us…more nonhuman than human.

VanderMeer’s novels open our eyes to a planet decimated by humanity. At the same time, they insist that all is not lost—there’s so much to be saved. To convince readers of the urgency and importance of conserving what remains, the texts bring to the fore our inescapable connections with nonhumans. They decentre the human by alerting us to the wonders and miracles of our planet, of which we are only scratching the surface. More importantly, our planet has the power to annihilate us if it chooses to.

The humanities in general and VanderMeer’s New Weird fiction in particular can ask questions that the sciences cannot. They can posit a different perspective, an alternative future—can appeal to one’s emotions, change one’s attitudes, and mobilise individuals and collectives to act in response to climate change.

For VanderMeer, we need to acknowledge our humble position on the planet, to embrace the beauty, darkness, and even inconveniences of nonhumans with whom we coexist. For the Earth, even damaged, gives and sustains all life.

Trang Dang is a PhD candidate in English Literature in the School of Arts and Humanities

Published on 22 March 2023
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Arts and Humanities