Climatepunk

Shackleton's Man Goes South, paperback in display case. Image: Science Museum

Shackleton’s Man Goes South, paperback in display case. Image: Science Museum

I have had some exciting news about my Science Museum novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South, but I can’t say anything just yet. In the meantime, James Bridle used his Observer column on 9 February to write about Shackleton’s Man Goes South (and my Bristol soundwork Missorts) under the headline ‘The novel: not heading south, any time soon’. Bridle continues:

At heart a book about climate change, it’s also, says White, “a kind of alternative history of publishing in extremis, examples of the apparent human necessity of finding new ways to tell and share stories, and how the future of writing, publishing and reading might need to be as much in the low-tech past as the hi-tech present”.

Visitors to the museum’s Atmosphere gallery can download the novel for free – as can anyone from its website. (Physical copies can be bought from the museum’s shop too.) For White, these collaborations allow him to explore the possibilities of writing further, and see their effects more directly: “As the physical square footage of the traditional book trade diminishes, these commissions have given me the chance to engage directly with readers and to learn from them.”

Elsewhere, publicist and campaigner Dan Bloom, who recently coined the term ‘cli-fi’ (a sci-fi soundalike abbreviation of ‘climate fiction’), is interviewed by David Holmes for Australian journal The Conversation. At one point Holmes asks, ‘What would you rate as the five most influential cli-fi texts to have emerged to date?’ I’m delighted that Bloom’s list of the ‘five most important cli-fi novels’  includes Shackleton’s Man Goes South.

645954Dan Bloom’s coining of the term ‘cli-fi’ echoes K.W. Jeter’s of ‘steampunk’ in 1987. In Jeter’s case this was pragmatic wit, a necessary way of drawing the influential editor of Locus magazine, and its readers’ attention to what he and fellow authors Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock were doing (at a time when ‘cyberpunk’ was all the rage). Bloom’s initial intentions are not dissimilar: to draw the attention of editors, reviewers and readers to new fiction (about climate change), and to make explicit the connection to an existing genre. But there is more at stake, too, as Bloom tells David Holmes that for him,

cli-fi is a fiction genre that might be helpful in waking people up and serving as an alarm bell.

‘Cli-fi’ is now certainly starting to gain a higher profile, but whether the genre will take-off in the way that steampunk has done remains to be seen. It may well do if the indefatigable Dan Bloom has anything to do with it: already it seems that some booksellers are using the term, while a number of emerging authors are identifying themselves as exponents of the genre. Bloom himself is currently seeking to establish a literary prize to raise awareness further, using the success of 1957 anti-nuclear novel On the Beach by Australian author Nevil Shute (1899-1960) as an analogy for the impact he hopes a ‘cli-fi’ novel could make. Mind you, it has taken twenty-seven years for steampunk to become the massive subculture that it is today. If ‘cli-fi’ is to achieve what Bloom hopes, it may need to catch on more quickly than that, since in twenty-seven years from now — if emissions keep rising  — we may already have seen further significant rises in global mean temperature, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Sir George C. Simpson. Photo: K.E. Woodley, courtesy the Met Office.

Sir George C. Simpson.
Photo: K.E. Woodley, courtesy the Met Office.

Shackleton’s Man Goes South was written in ignorance of Bloom’s work of course (since his idea hadn’t yet gone mainstream), but not of Jeter’s, nor the proto-steampunk of Michael Moorcock’s earlier ‘Nomad of the Time Streams’ series. My novel’s opening chapter (originally published as standalone short story ‘Albertololis Disparu’ by the Science Museum in 2009) features such steampunk staples as early telephony, difference engines, airships, steam-powered computing, etc. — plus a Moorcockian ‘sonic attack’ — which prompted one reviewer at the time to write:

Any eight-page story that references Michael Moorcock and ends with a fleet of Zeppelins attacking Imperial College with plasma weapons is a winner with us.

Image: Science Museum

Image: Science Museum

But any steampunk stylings in Shackleton’s Man Goes South are quickly dispatched as the novel deliberately moves from such parodic Edwardiana to the challenges presented by the real thing: an overlooked 1911 science fiction short story about climate change that was written in Antarctica by Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s meteorologist (and a future Met Office director) George Clarke Simpson (1878-1965).

Interestingly, the nadir and historical death-knell of what has come to be steampunk’s defining icon was even directly presided over by Scott-survivor Simpson, whose subsequent directorship of the Met Office encompassed both the establishment of its Airship Division and his penning of an obituary of said Division’s late head — M.A. Giblett — following the latter’s death in the R101 disaster in October 1930. This event prompted the Airship Division’s disbanding, and — seven-years before the Hindenberg disaster of 1937 — led to the abandonment in the UK of the development of the airship as a significant form of civil aviation.

Coincidentally, the aforementioned Australian novelist Nevil Shute also worked on the short-lived UK airship programme. As well as writing many novels, including the one that inspired Dan Bloom, Shute played a leading part in the team that built the R100, a competing airship design which was also scrapped following the R101 disaster.

Airships! Genres! Talking of things taking-off, within the world of Shackleton’s Man Goes South it is suggested that the dominant passenger aircraft of our own time — glimpsed in a refugee camp’s fleamarket — is similarly defunct:

There are relics: here a box of broken calculators and there – trailing wires and hydraulics, partly covered by tarpaulins, bigger than their shelter and recognisable from illustrations in books – the best part of the flight deck of an airliner.

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Download Shackleton’s Man Goes South free and DRM-free from the Science Museum website or from the touchscreen ebook dispenser that is part of the exhibition accompanying the novel in the Science Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery.

Press about Shackleton’s Man Goes South

Listen to or download free audiobook extracts of Shackleton’s Man Goes South on the Science Museum’s Soundcloud page.

Image © Science Museum

Image © Science Museum

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