Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library scratches a lot of itches—speculative fiction, reckoning with life choices, learning how to human. But amongst those threads, I propose that The Midnight Library functions as low-key cli-fi, a.k.a. “climate fiction,” a narrative exploring the impacts of global warming.
*barely spoilery spoilers for The Midnight Library and mild content warning for discussions of suicide*
The Midnight Library tells the story of Nora, a 35-year-old who decides to opt herself out of living after a particularly depressing day in her increasingly dreary life. Nora could have been anything—an Olympic swimmer, a scientist, a wife and mother—and instead she finds herself living in a sad apartment, in the sad town where she grew up, living a sad life. But instead of dying immediately, Nora finds herself in a vast library full of all the lives she could have lived. She has the chance to examine her regrets and try out versions of her life when she made different choices.
The Midnight Library takes Nora on a tour of her possibilities and she finds many of these lives untenable for various reasons. It’s a novel that asks Nora, and by association the reader, to question what brings meaning to a life. Simultaneously, the warming planet appears as a throughline in most iterations of Nora’s life. Early in the novel, she hears a knock at the door and feels “self-conscious about her over-sized ECO WORRIER T-shirt and her tartan pajama bottoms.” In one of her lives, she has accepted her best friend’s invitation to move to Australia. Walking out into a beautiful coastal morning, “she noted a piece of graffiti on a low wall which said THE WORLD IS ON FIRE and another that said ONE EARTH = ONE CHANCE and her smile faded. After all, a different life didn’t mean a different planet.” In one life, Nora is a rockstar and she muses that this must be the life where she has the highest carbon footprint. In another, Nora awakes on ship as a glaciologist, a scientist among scientists studying the effects of the climate crisis in the Arctic in hope of doing something about it.
Most cli-fi falls under the genre of science fiction, generally set in the future—sometimes near, sometimes far—and often feels like a prophetic warning: do something or else this terrible future may happen! Some stellar examples include Octavia Butlers Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood (we do not speak of MaddAddam on this blog). Walking the line with something that feels more like it falls in the vague “speculative fiction” camp, or possibly even “future history” or “future realism” (if those could be things) is Omar El Akkad’s American War.
Midnight Library, on the other hand, focuses on the here-and-now where climate change hums as one of the worries that preoccupies Nora. It is not the only thing that concerns or depresses her but rather one of a host of overwhelming items that makes life feel untenable. It therefore mirrors the experience of many of us living now, increasingly adding weight to the climate crisis among our worries even as most of us do not devote our primary energy or concern to it. With this element of realism and present-day setting, The Midnight Library slots into an interesting space within the cli-fi ecosystem.
Prepping for next year’s group of first year students (plus just being me) means I have been digging into some new resources for teaching, thinking about, and engaging around global warming. Some recommendations:
- Britt Wray of GenDread interviewed a Nigerian climate activist on how eco-anxiety and climate grief are manifesting for her and her compatriots in a “global South” context. An important addition to the conversation.
- Related, recently Sarah Jaquette Ray caused a stir with an article in Scientific American called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Climate Anxiety” where she cautions against letting strong emotions around the climate crisis tip white people into eco-fascism. Eric Holthaus wrote a thoughtful response, saying, “It’s OK to have climate anxiety. The real question is, what will do you do about it?”
- I also liked this Existential Toolkit for Climate Educators as well as the site Artists and Climate Change, both of them showcasing how crucial the Arts and Humanities are for this work.
- Last, check out the game Climate Oasis and consider contributing to their Kickstarter!
Finally, 16-year-old me would 100% be here for the heightened emotional state of Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, which has major teenager energy. Hell, the part of me that’s forever a teenager can still thrum to the wavelength of album opener “brutal.” It’s a ragey palate cleanser for all this climate change talk.