Issue 16

Will the new DUNE get the older SF fan and the younger cli-fi film buff to act on climate change? Studies so far, say no

Meera Anand

A look at the second movie on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel to understand cognitive responses to an ever-emerging genre, be it sci-fi or cli-fi.

As the closing credits rolled at the world premiere of Dune, the 600 ticket-holders at the Venice Film Festival clapped for almost eight minutes. Until the cast politely gestured it was time to leave. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve looked beyond pleased at the reaction. 

Following a history of notoriously poor adaptations, had he successfully managed to film the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert? One, considered a classic by science fiction fans and a piece of literature he certainly regarded as important. At the press conference held before the screening, he explained why,“When Frank Herbert wrote Dune in the 60s, he was making a portrait of the 20th century, but through time, it became more of a prediction of the 21st.

Set very far into the future, the novel presents a story ahead of its time as Villeneuve sees it. A nearly uninhabitable planet, almost entirely covered in sand. Where water is scarce but there is one thing it has. A precious spice wanted on many planets. This piece of science fiction, with its striking eco-centric theme, may fall into what is known as cli fi or climate fiction today, a growing literary subgenre of narrative fiction or a type of science fiction about our environmental future. 

While the category lacked a formal name, before its coinage in 2007 by Taiwan-based teacher and journalist Dan Bloom, science fiction and dystopian thrillers have always reflected on ecological change, The phenomenon of seeing what the earth would look like in the future began as early as the 19th century. With works like Gabriel De Tarde’s Underground Man in 1896 and M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud in 1901. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993–1996) tells a story about making Mars livable for human life and asking if that was okay to do.

While none of these works were necessarily scientifically accurate, Environmental Humanities scholar, Julia Leyda in her 2016 paper, The Cultural Affordances of Cli Fi uses such works to reveal how people imagined their future. She applies the concept of structures of feeling devised by cultural theorist Raymond Williams, to “signify as a set of shared sensibilities and values held in a particular time and place, most often articulated in artistic forms and conventions such as the novel or the cinema.” She concludes that it is in fact prevailing structures of feeling that inform pop culture, not the other way around

If this is true, a question around Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling remains unanswered. If science fiction written in a particular period can influence cultural perception in its own era, surely, engaging with such fiction must impact a reader in some way? For instance, will climate fiction in 2021 make the reader more aware of the climate crisis?  

Singapore’s Yale-NUS College conducted a survey of 161 American readers in 2018 to understand the influence of climate fiction. They found a surprisingly wide range of ratings for most works of climate fiction, concluding that readers do not experience literature the same way. Life experiences, age, political beliefs, all count. However, the readers of cli fi themselves were found to be younger. (Almost 40 % between 18-34), liberal and already invested in climate change, compared to non-readers. The empirical study implied that climate fiction does not perhaps have the power to sway the opinion of climate deniers, since they aren’t reading this genre anyway. Cli fi can certainly stir one’s imagination though.

“He was previously cognizant of the science of climate change, but said that it “was more theoretical before. Now, while fiction, the book has made me more aware of what our planet could become”, the Yale-NUS study reports about a participant’s experience of reading Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization. Similarly, many participants feel that they were able to picture potential futures better, a typical example of a shift in what the study calls the psychological construal level from “abstract and vague” to “detailed and concrete”. 

The University of East Anglia did a study on the UK filmgoer in 2006, wanting to see if the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, influenced public understanding of climate change. They found that viewers felt a strong urge to act but did not know what to do. The drama did not help separate scientific fact from the story’s fiction, anxiety went up for some, but many thought like this participant, “I don’t know enough about it to know if that is really going to happen.”

The difference in results between the two studies may be a result of the number of sub-genres the topic of climate change figures in, across film and book. Many 20th and 21st-century works fall into both realistic and speculative forms of narrative fiction as Literary Studies scholar Juha Raipola describes in What is Speculative Climate Fiction? Memory of Water (Emmi Itäranta’s 2014 novel) or even Dune, for instance, is set in a fictional world where “speculative visions of flooding cities, melting glaciers, catastrophic storms, or drought-suffering environments demonstrate the potentially disastrous effects of climate change”.

On the other hand, the genre of realistic climate fiction, set in a more believable near-future is certainly more scientifically accurate. So, Juha Raipola believes that owing to the large variety of climate storytelling, it is impossible to truly assess what kind of psychological impact reading the ever-emerging genre will have on a reader’s mind. Unless we develop a deeper understanding of every sub-genre of cli fi. But the rider in his essay also wonders, can it offer a “cognitive and emotional toolbox for adapting to life on a warming planet.”

Perhaps with the new DUNE out, the time is ripe for older sf-speculative fiction readers and younger cli-fi readers and film buffs to be studied together,  in how they see it?

Meera Anand is a third year undergraduate student pursuing a Major in Economics and a Minor in Media Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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