In Offill’s Weather, a sublime blend of hilarity, warmth and existential despair that’s far more entertaining than it has any right to be, given its subject matter, protagonist Lizzie is buckling as she tries to fulfil the roles of both Chris and Emma, prepper and pragmatist. It’s what Offill describes as a “pre-apocalyptic” novel. “I wanted to write about how disorienting it is to live now when you are thinking about buying tin foil one minute and about flooded cities the next,” she explains. She more than succeeds and yet there’s a sustaining thread of optimism. As she puts it, “By the end of the novel Lizzie is starting to understand that she should not live alone in her silo of dread. The movement from individual action to collective is an important one, I think.” It also leaves the reader feeling less lonely by the end.
There is a necessary limit to the succour that cli-fi can offer. While it shows us that even in the midst of a global pandemic, things could always be much worse, the problem is that our being distracted from it hasn’t made looming environmental collapse go away. For Rankin-Gee, there’s a worry that a genre that eyes humanity’s extinction risks “normalising” climate breakdown, painting pictures so bleak that we’re left with an unintended – and wholly false – sense of reassurance. “Then I remember the climate deniers, and the fact that a basic normalisation is still a crucial part of confronting the problem,” she says.
Optimism is a different matter. As Alam insists, “I have to find optimism, you’ve no choice but to go on.” He finds it in the next generation, in the ability of children to see with clarity rather than turning away, to act decisively rather than pretend that buying the recycled coffee filters will have an impact. That same belief in the future is embedded in his novel, a book that – like so many other excellent examples of not only this genre, but of literature in general – reminds us of something else, just as vital to survival: there is always a place for art, no matter how grave the crisis.
Love books? Join BBC Culture Book Club on Facebook, a community for literature fanatics all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.