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Journal ArticleDOI

A Sociology of Failure: Migration and Narrative Method in US Climate Fiction

01 Jan 2020-Configurations (TheJohns Hopkins University Press)-Vol. 28, Iss: 2, pp 155-180

AboutThis article is published in Configurations.The article was published on 2020-01-01 and is currently open access. It has received 1 citation(s) till now. The article focuses on the topic(s): Narrative.

Topics: Narrative (62%)

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University of Southern Denmark
A Sociology of Failure: Migration and Narrative Method in US Climate Fiction
Yazell, Bryan
Published in:
Configurations
DOI:
10.1353/con.2020.0009
Publication date:
2020
Document version:
Accepted manuscript
Citation for pulished version (APA):
Yazell, B. (2020). A Sociology of Failure: Migration and Narrative Method in US Climate Fiction.
Configurations
,
28
(2), 155-180. https://doi.org/10.1353/con.2020.0009
Go to publication entry in University of Southern Denmark's Research Portal
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Postprint version. For published article, see Configurations
Volume 28, Number 2, Spring 2020 (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/755037)
1
A Sociology of Failure: Migration and Narrative Method in US Climate Fiction
As experts and speculative authors alike attest, the future is migratory. Globalization has
turned mobility into an essential component for survival, whether for precarious workers in the so-
called gig economy or seasonal laborers moving across international borders. Against this
backdrop, climate change accelerates displacement on a planetary scale. Indeed, international
agencies have warned since at least 1990 that large-scale “human migration” may be “the single
greatest impact of climate change.”
1
So what new social upheavals and political reconfigurations
might follow from this unimaginable displacement? Speculative climate fiction (or “cli-fi”) in the
United States provides glimpses into how this social unrest might unfold by drawing from past and
present precedents. For example, Clare Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus (2015) features a
permanent drought that has destroyed the entire ecosystem of California and left its population
desperate refugees. In addition to describing ecological devastation, the text spends considerable
time on the specific population of people displaced (and, in effect, created) by the drought: the
“Mojav,” a term intended to recall the Dust Bowl-era “Okie” farmers from the time of the Great
Depression.
2
But if the Mojav is indicative of the historical parallels that inform cli-fi like
Watkins’s novel, it also raises questions about how the genre imagines the future and the people in
it. When considering the consequences of climate-induced migration, a phenomenon that is
currently unfolding at a dramatic scale in the Global South, the text recalls a precedent grounded in
the domestic context of the United States.
Alongside Watkins, cases of this narrative tactic are evident in cli-fi novels that make
climate-induced migration an extended topic of concern: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife
(2015)
3
and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017).
4
Taken together, these sources
represent something of the generational spectrum of popular cli-fi published in the United States.
Gold Fame Citrus is Watkins’s first novel, which garnered critical praise in outlets such as NPR and

Postprint version. For published article, see Configurations
Volume 28, Number 2, Spring 2020 (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/755037)
2
Vogue. Bacigalupi’s body of work has become synonymous with cli-fi itself, owing to the critical
success from his novels The Windup Girl (2009) and Ship Breaker (2010). Finally, Robinson is
among the most preeminent speculative authors in the United States today and has won praise for
his explicit consideration of climate change across his recent work.
5
Although these three texts
constitute a small segment of all cli-fi, they together reflect a prevailing trend in popular examples
of the genre: rather than enlarge their imaginative scope geographically and demographically, they
narrow it. While cli-fi has of late been the subject of considerable popular and critical attention, this
imaginative reduction has been undertheorized as it relates to the subject of climate-induced
migration.
Indeed, many accounts stress instead the power of speculative fiction—an umbrella term
encompassing cli-fi as well as related imaginative genres
6
—to produce more radical imaginaries
around migration by representing and forecasting diverse populations into the future. The challenge
for speculative authors, Aimee Bahng claims in Migrant Futures, is to push back against the linear
narrative of capitalist “normativity” to affirm the future as a “multiply occupied space”—namely,
by decentering the geopolitical imaginary of the United States and focusing instead on diasporic
movements and far-flung geographical locales.
7
Along similar lines, Shelley Streeby points to
works by Indigenous authors and authors of color as cases where speculative writing can “help us
think critically about the present and connect climate change to social movements.”
8
In these
critical accounts, cli-fi is most effective when it draws from the marginalized histories and
traditions in order to imagine more diverse futures. Moreover, these sources affirm cli-fi’s capacity
to staunchly reject the social forms inherited from settler colonialism and capitalism.
9
Such a
project is undoubtedly critical at a time of political recalcitrance on the one hand and a growing
transnational climate activism on the other.

Postprint version. For published article, see Configurations
Volume 28, Number 2, Spring 2020 (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/755037)
3
At the same time, to approach the genre only in terms of its success at representation
overlooks the large extent to which many narratives in this area—as I explain at length below—
actually fail to represent the diverse peoples already displaced by climate change. Recent criticism
has set the groundwork for this intervention. Stephanie LeMenager notes the lingering
ethnocentrism in climate change narratives by authors from “Europe, white America, Britain, and
Scandinavia,”
10
and Matthew Schneider-Mayerson decries an abiding focus on “white, wealthy,
educated Americans” in the content of prominent cli-fi texts.
11
Such work casts into relief the Dust
Bowl typology embedded in Watkins’s novel, which hinges on a domestic parallel for future
climate migrancy. This foreshortening of the demographic scale of climate migration is evident in
both the form and the content of the novel. Luz and her partner, Ray, are initially content to live in
the ruins of Los Angeles in part because it was “more and more impossible to conceive of a time”
when things had been better.
12
They are soon prompted to dream bigger when they rescue a child
from the wastes and attempt to raise her as their own. The family immediately falls apart, however,
when they fail to escape California and Ray goes missing. By the novel’s conclusion, Luz decides
to leave the child behind in an act marking the final dissolution of Luz’s dreams for a more secure
life. Returning to the terms above, Luz tries and fails to imagine herself as part of a larger
community, whether it be in the case of her makeshift family or her fellow Mojav refugees.
But how might taking stock of such imaginative failures actually do something to improve
the way cli-fi readers understand a pressing issue like climate migration? To provide an answer, this
paper draws from scholarship at the intersection of sociology and literature in order to better
account for the in-text failures evident in Watkins as well as Bacigalupi and Robinson. To be sure,
the social imaginary is familiar terrain to literary critics, one developed on work from social
scientists such as Benedict Anderson and Jürgen Habermas. The references to the sociological in
this essay are an attempt to expand the critical capacity of the term to address social issues related

Postprint version. For published article, see Configurations
Volume 28, Number 2, Spring 2020 (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/755037)
4
to climate change by turning to questions of methodology within literature. To this end, I draw from
C. Wright Mills’s foundational work in The Sociological Imagination to offer an affirmative
account of how failure operates in both the form and content of cli-fi narratives such as Watkins’s.
13
This “sociology of failure” comes into clearer view when reading the novel’s depiction of the
Mojavs alongside individual instances of failure dramatized within the narrative itself. This
dynamic is also evident in Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, which similarly takes place in the US
West and involves a cast of characters struggling to adapt to the new society that climate change has
wrought. Here, individual US states militarize their borders to keep out a “flood” of desperate
domestic refugees, who in turn hire “professional coyotes” to make dangerous border crossings.
14
In
both novels, matters of plot and character development cast into relief the novels’ presentation of
familiar geography and historical precedents.
Robinson explains how these sociohistorical features shape his own cli-fi novel, New York
2140. Specifically, the narrative explains its reliance on the “ease of representation” in order to
make its tableau of environmental crisis and population displacement palatable to its readers.
15
According to this reasoning, audiences are more likely to respond to stories that cater, at least in
part, to their preexisting worldview. In Robinson’s case, all population displacement and extreme
weather events take place within the bounds of New York City, a space that is hyperfamiliar to his
presumed US readership and, hence, more likely to generate concern among these readers than
would a story about Beijing “buried in forty feet of loess dust.”
16
Robinson shrinks the scale of
climate migration as well as climate change more generally in order to address directly the
underlying, limited imaginary around these issues. Ease of representation assists in reevaluating the
structure of a novel like Gold Fame Citrus, wherein imaginative failures extend from text and
audience: Luz’s inability to imagine herself as part of a larger community of precarious migrants
provides a point of reflection where readers may see their own imaginative failings. In short, these

Citations
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01 Jan 2011
Abstract: www.migrantscontribute.com In early September, IOM Director General William Lacy Swing and Deputy Director General Laura Thompson brought together all Chiefs of Missions around the world for the Global Chief of Mission Meeting. During three days of presentations, meetings and exchange including a reception with keynote speaker Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations the Director General laid out the achievements already made and declared his intention to pursue three additional strategic objectives for the future: continuity, coherence and change. These guideposts are reflected in many of our new policy and management initiatives. Among others, a migration governance framework will be developed, which sets out clear objectives for migration governance; a migration data analysis unit will be established with the aim to foster better analysis, use and presentation of IOM data; and the role of IOM with regards to the rights of migrants and protecting these should be further looked at in the near future. In this context, it is important to mention that a widespread external perception exists that IOM is not mandated or able to contribute to protection through its work. To review the IOM policy on protection and update the last institutional document from 2007 towards meeting international standards and circumstances, we have established a Protection Policy Working Group. We think that protecting and assisting migrants is the most fundamental responsibility entrusted to IOM, especially with regards to the humanitarian work IOM implements worldwide. To highlight and strengthen IOM ́s humanitarian role, including through policy developments and implementing procedures, is therefore a high priority. In the Austrian context, we are looking forward to putting into practice as many of the new initiatives as possible and to properly updating you on new developments on our new website to be released in October.

241 citations


References
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Book
01 Jan 1974
Abstract: This article described three heuristics that are employed in making judgements under uncertainty: (i) representativeness, which is usually employed when people are asked to judge the probability that an object or event A belongs to class or process B; (ii) availability of instances or scenarios, which is often employed when people are asked to assess the frequency of a class or the plausibility of a particular development; and (iii) adjustment from an anchor, which is usually employed in numerical prediction when a relevant value is available. These heuristics are highly economical and usually effective, but they lead to systematic and predictable errors. A better understanding of these heuristics and of the biases to which they lead could improve judgements and decisions in situations of uncertainty.

30,770 citations


01 Jan 2011
Abstract: www.migrantscontribute.com In early September, IOM Director General William Lacy Swing and Deputy Director General Laura Thompson brought together all Chiefs of Missions around the world for the Global Chief of Mission Meeting. During three days of presentations, meetings and exchange including a reception with keynote speaker Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations the Director General laid out the achievements already made and declared his intention to pursue three additional strategic objectives for the future: continuity, coherence and change. These guideposts are reflected in many of our new policy and management initiatives. Among others, a migration governance framework will be developed, which sets out clear objectives for migration governance; a migration data analysis unit will be established with the aim to foster better analysis, use and presentation of IOM data; and the role of IOM with regards to the rights of migrants and protecting these should be further looked at in the near future. In this context, it is important to mention that a widespread external perception exists that IOM is not mandated or able to contribute to protection through its work. To review the IOM policy on protection and update the last institutional document from 2007 towards meeting international standards and circumstances, we have established a Protection Policy Working Group. We think that protecting and assisting migrants is the most fundamental responsibility entrusted to IOM, especially with regards to the humanitarian work IOM implements worldwide. To highlight and strengthen IOM ́s humanitarian role, including through policy developments and implementing procedures, is therefore a high priority. In the Austrian context, we are looking forward to putting into practice as many of the new initiatives as possible and to properly updating you on new developments on our new website to be released in October.

241 citations



Journal ArticleDOI
Abstract: This article provides an overview of climate change in literature, focusing on the representation of climate change in Anglophone fiction. It then evaluates the way in which these fictional representations are critiqued in literary studies, and considers the extent to which the methods and tools that are currently employed are adequate to this new critical task. We explore how the complexity of climate change as both scientific and cultural phenomenon demands a corresponding degree of complexity in fictional representation. For example, when authors represent climate change as a global, networked, and controversial phenomenon, they move beyond simply employing the environment as a setting and begin to explore its impact on plot and character, producing unconventional narrative trajectories and innovations in characterization. Then, such creative complexity asks of literary scholars a reassessment of methods and approaches. For one thing, it may require a shift in emphasis from literary fiction to genre fiction. It also particularly demands that environmental criticism, or ecocriticism, moves beyond its long-standing interest in concepts of 'nature' and 'place', to embrace a new understanding of the local in relation to the global. We suggest, too, that there are synergies to be forged between these revisionary moves in ecocriticism and developments in literary critical theory and historicism, as these critical modes begin to deal with climate change and reimagine themselves in turn. © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

108 citations


Journal ArticleDOI
01 Jan 2017
Abstract: Climate change places major transformational demands on modern societies. Transformations require the capacity to collectively envision and meaningfully debate realistic and desirable futures. Without such a collective imagination capacity and active deliberation processes, societies lack both the motivation for change and guidance for decision-making in a certain direction of change. Recent arguments that science fiction can play a role in societal transformation processes is not yet supported by theory or empirical evidence. Advancing the argument that fiction can support sustainability transformations, this paper makes four contributions. First, building on the imaginary concept, I introduce and define the idea of socio-climatic imaginaries. Second, I develop a theory of imagination as linked cognitive-social processes that enable the creation of collectively shared visions of future states of the world. This theory addresses the dynamics that bridge imagination processes in the individual mind and collective imagining that informs social and political decision-making. Third, emphasizing the political nature of creating and contesting imaginaries in a society, I introduce the role of power and agency in this theory of collective imagination. I argue that both ideational and structural power concepts are relevant for understanding the potential societal influence of climate fiction. Finally, the paper illuminates these different forms of transformational power and agency with two brief case studies: two climate fiction novels. I contrast a dystopian and utopian science fiction novel – Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015) and Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Earth (2015). The two books are very similar in their power/agency profile, but the comparison provides initial insights into the different roles of optimistic and pessimistic future visions.

52 citations