FROM HERE by Daniel Kramb – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
As some of you may know I am currently undertaking a creative writing PhD with the catchy title Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.
This involves reading and watching a lot of climate change fiction (cli-fi) and the Fantasy-Hive have kindly given me space for a (very) occasional series of articles where I can share my thoughts and observations.
They want the burning to stop. She wants hers to begin. And the political assistant sitting opposite her has it in his mysterious green eyes, doesn’t he? The promise… But are they for real? And where is that group of climate change “activists” leading her she has just joined? Is something that used to be other people, elsewhere, really becoming so personal action is the only option? Is she prepared to find out?
From Here (2012) by Daniel Kramb is a short (168 page), idiosyncratically written and rather obscure Climate change fiction (cli-fi) novel that nonetheless addresses some interesting questions about how literature can best respond to the growing climate crisis.
Following the trajectory of cli-fi from a subgenre within science fiction in the 1980s through to a genre-transcending theme by the start of the 21st century, From Here entangles the tropes of the Romance genre with the issues of climate change. Our protagonist, whose name we don’t learn until the last page of the book, is Anna – a young woman settling in London after a decade of travelling. When not at work as an editorial assistant (general lackey) at an energy magazine, Anna attends weekly ranty meetings of a small group of climate activists in a ‘bare room’ above a pub, and gets involved in the dating scene.
The book opens with her on a date which seems to be going well. I saw recently on Twitter a regretful tweet by someone who had been enjoying a date right up to the point that she discovered her date was a conservative; in the current era of political polarisation it is difficult for relationships to thrive where personal politics or even fundamental values are in opposition. At the close of From Here’s opening chapter Anna decides to stress test her dating experience with the simple question.
“So, what do you think about climate change?” (p. 12)
The story then follows the entwined threads of their love story and their interactions with the small cabal of climate activists against a backdrop of increasing civil protest fuelled by social media hashtags. The first is #coalchain as ordinary people protest by forming a ring around a power station, attracting some media attention. Then #blockingparliament where tag teams of protesters chain themselves together in a sit-down protest blocking the vehicular access to the houses of parliament. Although written in 2012, Kramb is sadly prescient in his prediction of the government’s use of draconian powers to outlaw “inconvenient protest” as Anna observes,
“The government has managed to spin our coming-together into an expensive disruption of what really matters – as though it was them standing in classrooms, breaking up fights, cleaning up the vomit in hospital rooms. As though they couldn’t just walk into the parliament building, instead of taking their cars.” (p. 87)
Kramb’s writing style, following Anna in a very close first-person perspective, is a bit unsettling. Terse clipped dialogue without any attribution of speaker can be a little hard to follow, short breathy chapters sometimes appear to over-indulge Anna’s inner monologue, and the fact that no other character is named could feel like a bit of an affectation. The cell of climate change activists are identified by their roles or handles, ‘the brain,’ ‘the leader,’ ‘the fashionista’ and ‘the ex-banker.’ Anna’s two climate-disinterested flatmates are simply ‘the quite flatmate’ and ‘the outspoken flatmate.’ However, I soon settled into this nameless narrative and found it did actually enhance my reading experience, not least because the characters do get intriguing physical descriptions and distinct personalities that add a degree of depth and texture to the simple labels. My best comparator for the prose is it’s like a cross between Muriel Spark in The Driving Seat and Deborah Kay Davies in True Things About Me.
The prose does have some nice lines and images
Anna in mid-reverie on a hillside beauty spot
“A gust from below reminds me that it’s still only April, still colder than expected at night. Almost tenderly, it plays with my fringe, ruffling it, as though that was its sole intention.” (p. 57)
Or bolted together head down outside the houses of parliament
“In front of me the concrete is turning police-light blue.” (p. 72)
Or in the midst of a pub-based girl-talk moment
“It was the fashionista’s idea to drink; it’s my fault we’re drunk. And the rum’s.” (p. 92)
The other point of reference I would mention is the film Don’t Look Up because with From Here also found ways to express, albeit somewhat bluntly both the reality of the climate change crisis and the difficulty in conveying that with sufficient urgency to energise wider popular opinion and action. From Here is littered with lines that are simple blunt truths about the predicament our world is in.
“Aren’t those who contributed least to our current situation suffering most?…Isn’t our inaction already deepening poverty, spreading disease, fuelling conflict elsewhere.” (p. 130)
I suddenly see the ex-banker’s face: My former colleagues are the real lawmakers now, he used to shout across the bare room. Isn’t that obvious. (p. 123)
You know, sometimes I think all we have learned is how to behave as consumers. (p. 123)
So many solutions have been known for years and yet: We have ignored them. Knowingly. We have chosen the part of least resistance, because politically that’s the best way to go. (p. 65)
However, just as Anna and her colleagues and lover are helpfully articulating for themselves the contradictions and calumnies of the climate crisis, From Here also recognises dissenting points of view – or rather apathetic points of view. For example, in the disengagement of her flatmates.
Your getting on my nerves. I mean, your … thing is. I’m tired of being told by people like you how I’m supposed to live my life, okay? I have other issues… more important issues. (p. 56)
My flatmates were right, too, when they told me I was snobbish about this: We will keep buying more cars every year because they embody everything we stand for and no one – no one! – has the right to deny that to anyone, anywhere. (p. 97)
Or in the draconian crackdowns of government
For a moment, it really looked as though the majority of the population was applauding the bravery of those that were holding their elected leaders to account (p. 87)
As for the media – they have fallen back into their old ways the moment the heavy-handed crack-down gave them a chance to, obsessing about the alleged extremism of our actions. (p. 88)
In short, the book wrestles explicitly with the conundrum of how to shift the dials of energised public opinion and effective political action in a story which is rooted in the contemporary struggle rather than offering a forecast, or an allegory, or an exemplar for climate inaction.
From Here has some similarities to The Earth Party (2008) by George Marshall which I reviewed on Goodreads here. Both are rather obscure climate change novels (At the time of writing they have just four Goodreads reviews between them and two of those are mine), and I only came across both of them because they were the subject of analyses by two researchers I’ve been following. There they jostled alongside more distinguished and popular books. In Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in the Time of Climate Change (2015) Adam Trexler gave The Earth Party quite a lot of air time alongside books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012) and T.C.Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2001). In Matthew Schneider-Mayerson’s paper The Slightest Bit of Difference: Regret and Radicalism in Climate Futures (2014), the humble From Here is held up alongside Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer (2013) and (again) T.C.Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth.
While Trexler used The Earth Party to illustrate the limited effectiveness and ultimate authoritarianism of a collective eco-social movement, Schneider-Mayerson’s interest in From Here is about what makes cli-fi effective, even inspiring, in offering guidance rather than simply a warning.
The protagonist in The Earth Party finds his gently ineffective environmental movement is captured by a kind of eco-fascist force – like Hitler’s 1920 takeover of the NDSAP, swinging that novel in one direction. In From Here Anna’s activist friends are not so much taken over by a different leadership as swept along in a tide of collective commitment and action fuelled by #hastags. Change is affected through ,on the one hand, small conversations – such as Anna has with her flatmates
The polar bears, my outspoken flatmate said when I pushed her earlier…I always though this was only about the polar bears. (p. 115)
What you’re saying is that we must stop using the atmosphere as our rubbish bin. Did I get that right? A rubbish bin for our business-as-usual. (p. 115)
And on the other hand, eye-catching protests and widespread collective action
The usual suspects are being joined –“by people like us” (p. 124)
What we need is a movement that lives up to how complex the world has become, (p. 125)
While less distinguished than A Friend of the Earth and The Healer, From Here evades some of the classic cli-fi pitfalls that those two books fall into. Schneider-Mayerson highlights the disappointingly “familiar script” of A Friend of the Earth in “presenting non-normative political claims only to satirise them.” (2014). While The Healer explores culpability for the climate crisis, it is fundamentally a dystopian novel depicting the inevitable societal collapse in the outrun of irreversible climate change. Toumainen’s protagonists scratch out what normal existence they can but the novel belongs in the “warning of dire consequences category,” a kind that Adeline Johns-Putra noted described much of early cli-fi where “overwhelmingly climate change appears in novels as part of a futuristic dystopian and/or apocalyptic setting [where] often the difficulty of survival becomes a dominant theme” (2016, p. 269) and which Kim Stanley-Robinson described as “a kind of pornography of despair” (2017). Toumainen alludes to the process by which climate change has become irreversible but offers neither hope nor guidance as to how this fate could have been avoided. Where Boyle offers ineffective action, Toumainen offers inaction.
While Schneider-Mayerson acknowledged that “From Here’s no-nonsense idealism and pedestrian construction have won it few readers, let alone admirers, outside of the relatively small circle of eco-critics interested in this topic” he praises the book’s offering of “something beyond an apocalyptic cautionary tale” (2014).
The question of what makes effective climate change fiction has vexed me for much of the last three years and Schneider-Mayerson for considerably longer. After an analysis of some unintended responses to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015), Schneider-Mayerson concluded
“Authors ought to consider their narrative choices carefully, and ecocritics and book reviewers ought to think carefully before proclaiming that a work of climate fiction—or art, theatre, or film—will automatically lead to more awareness, or that this awareness will automatically lead to progressive ecopolitical attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors” (2020, p. 357).
Schneider-Mayerson subsequently dissected one climate relevant and effective episode of the show Ted Lasso highlighting how – in addressing an exploitative fossil fuel company in one of the player’s home countries – the show depicted characters “moving from ignorance to action” with the action being seen as “collective and joyful” and the action being “effective largely because it is collective and public.” (2021, pp. 2-4) .
From Here depicts some similar actions and journeys, from the #coalchain and #blockingparliament group activities to the dawning of understanding in Anna’s flatmates. There is still ultimately a naivite in the plot’s reliance on just one pair of individuals to generate the instantaneous and widespread raising of awareness that makes political action inevitable. As George Marshall (no relation to the author of The Earth Party) identifies in Don’t Even Think About It, why are brains are wired to ignore climate change (Marshall, 2014), it is not enough to simply be shown the truth. Even less likely is the premise that the few hero protagonists of Kim Stanley-Robinson’s ouvre will deliver the necessary change. Much as literature is fond of its protagonists who are literally the heroes of the story, such characters have as much in common with the realities of political change as the conflict overloaded storylines of TV soap operas have with our real-life aversion to argument. What we need, and what climate change fiction needs to show us, is people taking responsibility to drive change. Just as Jon Raymond’s Denial (2022) set in 2052 alludes to a 2030 social movement of the Upheavals that finally brought fossil fuel executives to account, so too Kramb’s fashionista hungers for “the Great Turnaround [that would] be a spectacular return of our collective willpower.” (p. 54)
As Anna’s leader asserts in describing her activist motivation
“It was my belief that it had to be ordinary working people, fighting this. That this wasn’t against us, but a hundred percent for us. About us” (pp. 160-1)
From Here doesn’t quite capture, still less address, the relentless campaigns of misinformation, climate denial, climate inactivism and fear-mongering about net-zero that the increasingly strident fossil fuel and libertarian lobbies are indulging in. The Brain tells Anna about “the wave… the direction that everyone (journalists) are writing in” (p. 28) and argues that we need to have journalists writing “against the wave” (p. 153), However, he understates how far the journalists in right-wing funded newspapers supportive of the fossil fuel industry are actually creating and driving the wave rather than being swept along by it.
Nonetheless, From Here makes an engaging and resonant climate-change love story in which widespread collective action takes centre stage. Each story may only be one trickle of water trying to weather away the granite resistance to effective climate action but they all help, and – to end with an apposite quote,
“Stories do change things, my quiet flatmate said, don’t they?” (p. 122)
Bacigalupi, P. (2015). The Water Knife. New York: Knopf.
Boyle, T. (2001). A Friend of the Earth. London: Bloomsbury.
Johns-Putra, A. (2016, March/April). Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli-fi, climate change theatre and eco-poetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism. (M. Hulme, Ed.) WIREs Climate Change,, 7, 266-282. doi: 10.1002/wcc.385
Kingsolver, B. (2012). Flight Behaviour. New York: HarperCollins.
Kramb, D. (2012). From Here. London: Lonely Coot.
Marshall, G. (2008). The Earth Party: Love and Revolution at a time of Climate Change. Brighton: Pen Press.
Marshall, G. (2014). Don’t Even Think About It; why are brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York: Bloomsbury.
Raymond, J. (2022). Denial. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Robinson, K. S. (2017, July &). Mr. On The Media. (B. Gladstone, Interviewer) Retrieved from https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/on-the-media-2017-07-07
Schneider-Mayerson, M. (2014). The Slightest Bit of Difference: Regret and Radicalism in Climate Futures. American Comparative Literature Association’s meeting. New York.
Schneider-Mayerson, M. (2020, June 10). “Just as in the Book”? The Influence of Literature on Readers’ Awareness of Climate Injustices and Perception of Climate Migrants. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 27(2), 337-364.
Schneider-Mayerson, M. (2021, September 17). Ted Lasso Is an Unexpected Masterclass in Environmental Storytelling. Retrieved from gzimodo.com: https://gizmodo.com/ted-lasso-is-an-unexpected-masterclass-in-environmental-1847695754
Trexler, A. (2015). Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change. Charlottes Ville and London: University of Virgina Press.
Tuomainen, A. (2013). The Healer. (L. Rogers, Trans.) New York: Henry Holt & Company.