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Writing Climate Change (17)
Getting Literary – Actually Epic
This is part 17 of a series on writing Climate Change for fiction.
I’ve seen suggestions that Climate Change Epics are a thing now (e.g. in the sense of Everything Everywhere All in One Novel), and at an intuitive level it makes sense. Climate change is big. Epic is big. Therefore... climate change is epic?
A typical one of these climate epics might have three different plot lines each set 500 years apart, or include a menacing message from the actual Sun alongside literally everything everywhere all in one novel (including a plot and characters, somewhere).
While these are definitely big stories, such stories are not epics in the classical sense. They might be considered Modern Epics. Either way, the difference between a work like The Ministry for the Future and The Lord of the Rings is so vast that I’m going to treat them separately (we’ll come back to these new epics another day).
Epic does not merely mean big. Epic is epic.
Here we will look at epic in that classical sense. I’ve yet to stumble across an explicitly Cli-fi classically-epic epic, but I’m sure they must be out there – or, they will be soon enough.
Epic is arguably the oldest and most influential literary tradition we have. The world’s core cultural and religious texts are typically epics: the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyana. Sci-fi and Fantasy are so in love with the epic that it’s easy to think epic and sci-fi/fantasy are the same thing. Staples of writing advice, like the Heroes Journey and pretty much anything about heroes in general, are drawing strongly from epic.
Even if epic turns out to be terrible for writing about climate change, epic is impossible to ignore.
What is Epic?
In brief, epics are about heroes.
Think of all the stories which follow the Hero’s Journey. Vast struggles and battles. That near mythological dimension – the chosen ones saving the universe from the Dark Lord. All those stories are epics, or close enough. A big long story is not necessarily epic. Add in Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader and now it’s epic.
That focus on heroism is about something much deeper than mere spills-n-thrills. Many of these ancient epics became religious texts. Those heroes stood for something.
Epic primarily answers this question: who are we?
For simplicity we’ll focus on three core elements of epic, and explore if epic really can work for a climate change story.
These elements are:
Group Identity Formation
Group Identity Formation
Epics typically occur in the context of a war. A moment of collective self-definition. Us vs Them.
Who are we? And: Who are we not?
The Greeks vs the Trojan’s. The Pandavas vs the Kauravas. The Rebels vs The Empire.
Epic amps you up to fight the good fight, or at least fight for your side.
Often we are bluntly told which side are the good guys and then explore what separates the light from the dark. But even in a moral morass like Game of Thrones – where all sides are ultimately bastards - we still spend time exploring what makes a Lanister (“A Lanister always pays his debts”) different from a Stark (“Winter is coming”). They have irreconcilable differences, and can’t just get along.
It’s worth noting that The Lord of the Rings has recently found a new resonance in Ukraine, to the point where the Russian invaders have been referred to as Orcs. Us vs Them is core to epic.
It’s what epic does.
And… that makes epic super awkward for sophisticated open-minded tolerant kind and caring atomized individualistic modern people.
We might have to say: Those people are my enemy and I hate them. We also might have to say: I am willing to fight my enemy to the death. Then might come this: Death in this battle is glorious!
That’s a brutal level of moral clarity.
That’s also a brutal level of group solidarity.
It’s one thing to write that about Dark Lord Sauron, quite another to write that about right here and right now. Hence why the epic is largely banished to fantasy.
Communing With Your Inner Angry Bigot and/or Epic Hero
Here’s a few exercises to get you into that war-fighting epic spirit. The mere act of having values, the mere fact of being someone from somewhere, puts you in direct conflict with other people.
Some of them are willing to murder you. It’s inescapable. So here we go...
Time for some brutal moral clarity.
1) List 10 people or groups that you are hostile towards, or are hostile towards you or your group. You hate them, or they hate you. You cannot identify with them, or they cannot identify with you. You have attacked them, or they have attacked you. With them, you have little common ground – this conflict cannot simply be resolved.
a) For each one identify what your conflict with them is.
b) Try find the common themes. What unites your enemies?
c) What is the name of their Empire?
d) Who is their Dark Lord?
e) What do They want to do to you? How would that turn out for you?
f) What do you want to do to Them? How would that turn out for Them?
2) List 10 people or groups that you are welcoming towards, or are welcoming towards you or your group. You love them, or they love you. You identify with them, or they identify with you. You have supported them, or they have supported you. With them, you are fundamentally on the same side – if you give up on them, then really there is no one else who’ll fight alongside you.
a) For each one identify what your bond with them is.
b) Try find the common themes. What unites your allies?
c) What is the name of our People?
d) Who is our Heroic Champion?
e) What do We need from you? What will happen if We don’t get that?
f) What do you need from Us? What will happen if you don’t get that?
3) Compare your Enemies and your Allies.
a) What is the most important point of conflict?
b) What happens if your Enemies win?
c) What happens if your Allies win?
d) What are your Enemies willing to do for victory?
e) What are your Allies willing to do for victory?
f) Which side is winning?
g) What would turn the tide of battle?
And there is your own personal epic war. Congratulations?
The Climate War
Climate change can also be seen as battle for the ages, an heroic struggle between good and evil. The consequences of unchecked climate change are so unambiguously bad that it’s safe to call the outcome evil.
Again, “evil” is not a word sophisticated modern people like throwing around – that brutal moral clarity – but certain things can be agreed on as evil. The holocaust. Torturing children. Likewise: killing coral reefs, rendering entire countries uninhabitable, turning millions into refugees – that does sounds a wee bit evil. Therefore, if you are in power and that’s the consequences...? Hmmmm. Dark Lord much?
Climate change is a fight. A fight for the future. A fight about who we are.
True, climate change is a complicated fight. It’s a systemic issue, but it’s not unique in that. The closest historical analogy is the abolition of slavery. That was systemic in the same way, but we don’t find slavery confusing. Slavery is evil.
(In fact many of the arguments used to delay climate action today are the same ones that were used to delay the abolition of slavery e.g. Slaves are essential to the economy. If we stop slavery then other countries will just fill the gap. Slavery makes the world better for everyone. etc etc)
Climate change is a war. There are sides. One of them is right.
...Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil...
...And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.
– Greta Thunberg, speech to the UN
Climate change pits all kinds of groups against one another. That sure sounds like ample scope for a good-old fashioned epic.
Now that we know who we are, we need some way of symbolizing that identity. Enter the hero.
The hero represents the best of us, and fights on our side against our enemy. Thus also enter the villain, or at least some kind of counter-point. We need someone to symbolize who we are not. Someone for our hero to be better than.
Our hero need not be perfect.
Our hero might be flawed, like Achilles refusing to join battle, but our hero is flawed in his virtue. He is flawed in that extremeness that makes him heroic. He’s our kind of asshole. Likewise the villain might be noble, a worthy opponent, but he’s not on our side. He’s their kind of saint. The villain exists to be overcome in a demonstration of our hero’s power. And the hero’s power is our power.
In ancient epics these heroes were semi-divine superheroes. These were the kind of figures that were once subject to literal hero-worship with actual blood sacrifices. They are one-dimensional characters. Extreme. Unchanging. They are ideal embodiment of our values. Worthy of worship.
In that worship, the question “Who are we?” goes beyond mere tribalism. The hero embodies our mortality, our humanity. In their great battle, the hero is highly likely to die. Their death takes on the quality of a sacrifice.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
The Hero is our mediator between life and death. Immortalized in their Heroic death. Our defender. Our Hero.
And all this, once again, is why epic is banished to fantasy. Take any real world hero and do this internet search:
The problem with... Ghandi... with Martin Luther King.. with Mother Teresa... with...
...watch your moral clarity turn to mud. Feel instead the rage... the despair... the confusion... the isolation... of anti-epic modern society.
Mr Robot, Season 1 Episode 1:
Krista – What is it about society that disappoints you so much?
Elliot - Oh I don't know, is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children?
Or maybe it's that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit; the world itself's just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our burning commentary of bullshit masquerading as insight, our social media faking as intimacy.
Or is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money.
I'm not saying anything new. We all know why we do this, not because Hunger Games books makes us happy but because we wanna be sedated. Because it's painful not to pretend, because we're cowards.
We don’t do heroes. But we wish we could.
The Problem with Epic Heroes
Epic is born from the glorification of warrior aristocrats.
Therefore epic tends towards a celebration of the ability to gain and maintain power through brute force violence. The logic of epic is always drifting back to those roots, to the glorification of violent men and hereditary bloodlines where our rulers are the symbolic embodiment of our society.
This is a serious problem for a climate story. The world’s “aristocrats” are so often the problem. Any climate hero must consciously push back against these origins of epic heroism.
And it really is pervasive.
Modern fantasy might give us a Frodo, who feels like an every-man, but loyal Samwise is not just Frodo’s friend, but Frodo’s servant. A class divide exists between them. The entire genre of Epic Fantasy is obsessed with royalty. Star War’s is obsessed with bloodlines. Let’s not forget that the superheroes Batman and Ironman are straight-up billionaires. Epic longs for its heroes to be special, to be better than the rest of us, to be demi-gods and kings, and to have a place in a vast epic genealogy. It’s an inherent impulse of the form.
Epic lends itself to a Great Man Theory of history with a politics of Great Men. Heroes seldom deal with systemic issues. They blow $#%^ up, then go home. Epic is waiting for the terrifying Ubermensch who will save us in glorious battle. Is it Elon Musk in an electro-mecha-suit? Maybe Rambo can machine-gun climate change to death?
(For a more in depth look at why standard heroic writing advice is problematic for climate change, check out Toby Litt’s series with Extinction Rebellion.)
So then: we are often too cynical to believe in real heroes, and much traditional heroism is part of the problem anyway.
What are do we do?
Can we even have Epic Climate Heroes?
Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! Heart!
With your powers combined I am Captain Planet!
Captain Planet, he's our hero,
Gonna take pollution down to zero,
He's our powers magnified,
And he's fighting on the planet's side...
Climate change is so vast and complicated it would almost seem anti-heroic. How do you get heroic about urban transport re-design without descending into Captain Planet levels of goofiness?
The vast majority of climate actions are too mundane to be of much interest. Likewise with climate disasters – it’s mostly a million small stories of misery. That epic clarity would seem hard to find.
Even so, the world has in fact already chosen its one and only designated climate hero. It’s worth considering why we chose her…
This Swedish school girl is by far the most famous climate activist in the world. But why?
She’s hardly the world’s first climate activist. We could’ve chosen anyone. People have being campaigning long before Greta was born.
Greta, as a character, seems to have acquired some of the necessary trappings of epic heroism in the way that a James Hansen or Bill McKibben simply never could.
1) She is Extreme
Any good hero is extreme to the point of being somewhat crazy and terrifying. Greta is diagnosably extreme in just this way.
Single-minded, obsessive, and uncompromising. Greta and the climate fight are symbolically merged. Greta cannot be confused for someone else, or some other fight.
Greta is climate fight.
Her flaws, such as they are, come precisely in her extremeness. Even if Greta’s (less unhinged) critics are right, it just doesn’t matter – she’s the right kind of asshole.
She’s our kind of asshole.
2) The Fight
A hero must fight and fight well.
Greta does the verbal equivalent of running over politicians in a chariot. She is entertainingly blunt. Her bluntness makes a mockery of the weak waffling political double-speaking obfuscation and bullshit which she battles.
Anger is the emotion of attack and defense. The hero is anger. And Greta sure looks pissed off.
Greta is climate fight. Greta is angry.
“How dare you.”
3) The Battlefield
We could have chosen to glorify any kind of activism (say, monkey-wrenching pipelines or assassinating Archdukes).
Greta speaks truth to power.
People recognize this as a valid arena, reflecting the commonplace (and likely somewhat false) idea that climate change is a battle over truth.
4) Connections to Context & Power
Greta has showed up at all the key places with all the other big characters.
You can see Greta sneering at Trump, berating rich people at Davos, or talking with famous scientists. All the villains and all the good guys know her name. Therefore she fills the role of pulling the chaos into a single epic narrative. Just follow Greta’s on her quests and you get to see it all.
And fittingly, she didn’t just catch a flight to these fights either. In true epic quest fashion, Greta sailed in a special eco-yacht.
5) Symbolic Character Arc: Discovery-Despair-Action
Greta’s reaction to climate change was almost archetypal - a symbolic enactment of what many people feel, only pushed up to the maximum possible.
Not only did Greta feel hopeless, she became devastatingly obsessively hopeless. Then not only did she emerge to new-found action, she pushed that to the extreme too.
6) Symbolic Embodiment: Age
Climate change is marked by two major divides: rich vs poor, and old vs young. The rich and old have benefited and are blocking action. The young and poor are being harmed and want change.
Greta, by being a child, was able to symbolize one of these divides (perhaps the more easily weaponizable given how resoundingly the poor get crushed). By being young Greta becomes the symbol of every daughter and granddaughter, and a living symbol of her generation.
Their voice is her voice. She is their hero.
7) Binary Opposite of the Climate Villainy
If we wanted to imagine an anti-Greta, we would likely have someone like the Koch brothers: a pair of ultra-rich old men making money out of fossil fuels, corrupting the political process from the shadows, spreading deceptions and lies, and selling out the future of little Swedish girls for reasons of self-interest and ideology. If Greta’s life really were an epic fantasy, then after fighting her way through hordes of minor politicians her story would end in a lightsaber duel in the palace of Dark Lord Charles Koch.
Provided we resist the urge to turn this all into a Great Man Theory Epic where Charles is Greta’s father… and she alone can solve climate change… and she dies in the process of bringing salvation to humanity, then in characters such as these it does appear that we really can embody the heroic epic world struggle that is the fight for the climate.
And besides, who doesn’t want to see Greta Thunberg fight Charles Koch with a lightsaber?
How do you do literary justice to an event that originated 500 years ago and will last for over 100 000 years?
Epic has been dealing with that question for a long time. Epic allows us to get at something much deeper than merely “Wow this is big”. Epic allows us to go deeper too. “Wow this is big, and meaningful, and gives a context to my life.” Epics were often treated as religious texts for this reason.
Likewise, climate change is more than merely big. The transformation of our world is epic in terms of its meaning and implications. That is, in terms of ultimate questions.
Who are we?
What is this world of ours?
Traditional epics deal with the gods, national origins, the values and virtues of society. Fantasy epics can ask abstract question about Good vs Evil, or at least let us vicariously experience what brutal moral clarity would feel like if we weren’t such depressed atomized cynics. A climate epic could confront a range of ultimate questions.
What does it mean for one species to have planetary power?
Why is humanity so different than all that has come before?
Why is modern society so destructive?
How did we get here?
Where is this all going?
How should one live in such a moment?
Is a new global identity emerging right now? If so, who are we?
The Everything Everywhere All in One Novel version of epic is a somewhat obvious way to bring a cosmic context into a story. Set one plot line at the Big Bang, set another one at the Heat Death of the Universe. Done. Got it all. Cosmic-ed the %#% out of it!
It’s worth noting that traditional epics don’t necessarily do this.
Epics do have expansive settings. However this does not mean that setting always appears on the page. The Iliad is set in the context of the Trojan War, with its long history, vast cast, and wide reaching implications. But the story itself is very tightly focused – one location for a few days.
Epic makes us aware of this cosmic context without necessarily needing to shift the entire story onto a distant planet a long time ago and far far away. Consider how the Iliad handles the deaths of characters:
“In blooming youth fair Simoisius fell,
Sent by great Ajax to the shades of hell;
Fair Simoisius, whom his mother bore
Amid the flocks on silver Simois’ shore:
The nymph descending from the hills of Ide,
To seek her parents on his flowery side,
Brought forth the babe, their common care and joy,
And thence from Simois named the lovely boy.
Short was his date! by dreadful Ajax slain,
He falls, and renders all their cares in vain!
So falls a poplar, that in watery ground
Raised high the head, with stately branches crown’d,
(Fell’d by some artist with his shining steel,
To shape the circle of the bending wheel,)
Cut down it lies, tall, smooth, and largely spread,
With all its beauteous honours on its head
There, left a subject to the wind and rain,
And scorch’d by suns, it withers on the plain
Thus pierced by Ajax, Simoisius lies
Stretch’d on the shore, and thus neglected dies.”
The Iliad does not need to be set in “silver Simois’ shore” at the moment of Simoisius’ birth to achieve this epic scale, it just makes mention of the connection and context, and thereby gives cosmic meaning and scale to every death in the Trojan War.
Any mundane item or event can be lifted to cosmic proportions simply by placing it in context. When you think about it, any story potentially has an epic setting. The sitcom Friends takes place in a galaxy billions of years in age. Their apartment exists in a city overflowing with history, they just never bother to mention it.
Anything that takes climate seriously will quickly find itself ramped up to epic cosmic proportions. A snowstorm is no longer just a snowstorm, but a signifier of the history and future of all humanity.
Monica: (Putting down her phone) Well, the club lost its power.
Joey: Yeah according to the news, most of the city did.
Rachel: Since when do you watch the news?
Joey: Uh, for your information, since they hired a very hot weather girl.
Ross: (To Phoebe and Mike) I can't believe you guys aren't going to be able to get married today.
Phoebe: I know.
Rachel: Wow, you know, it's so beautiful out there. You always wanted to get married outside. Why don't you guys just do it on the street?
Rachel: Well, look, it's hardly snowing anymore. Climate change and all that...
Epic is more than just big. Epic is a tradition of immense power and influence, one we won’t be shaking free of anytime soon. Despite epic’s heroic problems the sheer scale, conflict, and depth of significance that is the climate crisis makes any climate story just a little bit epic.
Next time we’ll look at that other kind of “epic”, as this series continues its slow on-wards march of progress towards infinite growth.
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