Amitav Ghosh, Uncanny and Improbable Events

Amitav Ghosh, Uncanny and Improbable Events. London: Penguin, 2016

In Uncanny and Improbable Events Amitav Ghosh, novelist and critic, reflects on the relationship between literature and the environment. Ghosh’s novels focus on the nature of both national and personal identity and the influence of the environment on daily life, particularly in India and South-East Asia. His seminal work on the environment, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), explores our ‘deranged’ modes of political and socio-economic organisation via three themes: literature, history and politics.

When Ghosh writes in Uncanny and Improbable Events that the mere mention of climate change in a work of literature is sufficient to prevent it being reviewed in major literary journals, the assumption is that such literature is, by definition, science fiction. ‘It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel’ (pp. 6-7). If urgency is a criterion of its seriousness, argues Ghosh, then the main concern of writers of literature today should be climate change, in all its bizarre and incomprehensible forms and expressions.

For Ghosh, the climate crisis is above all ‘a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination’ (Uncanny and Improbable Events, p.9). Fiction is all about imagination, which enables us to understand the improbable. Our world today is replete with far-fetched, unthinkable events caused by climate change.
In the era of global warming, many events are improbable. Violent storms, flooding, forest fires, melting glaciers: they have all become part of the ‘normal’ world. Such events can, and indeed should be the stuff of serious prose fiction, argues Ghosh. He calls these events ‘uncanny’. A weird cyclone, for example, which is out of place and massive, is uncanny. At the same time, it is painfully and shockingly real, as indeed are all such events.

‘The Earth of the Anthropocene,’ Ghosh writes, ‘is precisely a world of insistent, inescapable continuities, animated by forces that are nothing if not inconceivably vast’ (p. 71). We cannot run from cyclones, forest fires, or freak waves. These ‘forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space’ (p. 72) are what literature must be about at this critical time. Will literature have to change to accommodate such events? Will the act of reading also need to change? While Ghosh does not have the answers to these questions, he raises them so that we may understand why climate fiction is, and must be, increasingly concerned with the uncanny.

My trilogy, ‘Katja’s World Game’, incorporates the uncanny, the unexpected, and the unbelievable. At the same time, it presents a world which is strangely familiar – all too familiar. It is the task of fiction to reflect the key concerns of the age, and the problems facing us, in order that we can understand and, hopefully, cope with them. Because urgency is a criterion of seriousness, climate change must be one of its most important concerns.

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