Climate Fiction Rules
Flood, famine, storms, methane, species extinction, humanity at risk ...these are the tools of writers everywhere now. If you're not writing about the climate, you're not living in the real world.
Let’s face it, science fiction writers worry about our future. It is perhaps like crime fiction, one of the few genres actually examining what is shaping our lives rather than our navels. You can go all the way back to H G Wells, a socialist thinker who caught the public angst of his time such as endless war (The Shape of Things to Come, 1933) - A decades-long second world war results in plague and anarchy, then a rational state rebuilds civilization and tries space travel. Filmed as ‘Things to Come’ in 1936. I suspect you wouldn’t want to try to go into space in the huge ‘gun’ they used to fire off the brave aeronauts, but endless war made a lot of sense given the slaughter of the First World War. He died at the outbreak of WW2.
Aldous Huxley wrote his dystopian ‘Brave New World’ in 1932 about a future society ruled by dispassionate science. Everybody is happy – just take your Soma pills. Monogamy, privacy, money, and history are all prohibited to produce a harmonious happy society. We are still on our way to that happy nirvana in 2021. Who would have guessed we would be keen to surrender all our privacy to Facebook and Google or invest all our savings in Bitcoin that could be worthless at a moment’s notice.
Post war we got Brian Aldiss, Philip K Dick, Ray Bradbury, Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, J G Ballard, Isaac Asimov with his laws:
1: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein were examining the pitfalls of space exploration and Clarke’s elevator to the sky is still in consideration. Philip K Dick's paranoid fiction so closely mirrors our own time it is often disturbing and his alternate history of the outcome of WW2 ‘The Man in the High Castle’ got the big budget treatment on TV just recently with all its horrible fascist logic played out.
The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth about a consumerism dystopia was extraordinarily prescient for 1953 when there was very little to actually buy. The most amazing thing of course is many these authors are still in print. Fear of nuclear war, robots that will take our jobs, or fight our wars for us, fear of AI (Aldiss influenced Spielberg’s 2001 film AI: Artificial Intelligence) for example have not diminished.
Now we are all afraid of the climate.
Earth Abides (1949) by George R Stewart was a bleak look at Earth without people by a seemingly lone survivor of a pandemic who seems to lose all motivation to survive, as do his indifferent children who come along later. I read this after I had published Another Place to Die: Endtime Chronicles (2006/2015) and was struck by his nihilism in contrast to my own characters determination to survive and make plans for a future in a similarly devasted world after a pandemic.
We have had sci-fi authors who have been warning us about the consequences of climate change for many years already. Now called Cli-Fi apparently.
There’s Memory of Water (2012) by Emmi Itaranta – a Finnish author dealing with the most precious of commodities in 2030, water. This was also the theme of Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015) - this is a very realistic approach to explaining the consequences of who owns the water you drink or irrigate your crops with. It assumes that the law will still be applied, even though the whole continent is lawless. Water rights are the ticket to ride, worth more than gold, and without them whole cities will die. You may well want to sell your home in the sunshine states after reading this…
The importance of trees to our planet’s survival was the topic of The Overstory by Richard Powers (Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2019). A slow and emotional study that is well researched.
|But what impressed me most was Carrie Mac’s ‘The Droughtlanders’ (2007) – One state controls the weather and has stolen the rain from the rest and impoverished millions.
A YA novel that gets to grip with climate, revolutionary politics, regime change, circuses, cowardice and the terrible price of jealousy and revenge. Carrie Mac must have once had an awful time with a brother or sister to understand just how competitive and harsh brothers and sisters, especially twins can be to each other.
Here we have twin brothers Seth and Eli, one all gung-ho for violence, guided by an evil father who rules the Keylanders with an iron fist, the other brother is painted as a coward who deplores violence, worships his scientist mother, who works on crops and making things grow. Little do either brother realise that their mother is in fact working for a Droughtlander terror organisation that wants to bring down this cruel regime. Outside the city walls a disfiguring disease runs rampant and anyone who has it is shunned.
Then we have Paulo Bacigalupi again who, in my opinion, is the most prescient cli-fi writer. From his first novel ‘The Windup Girl’ 2010 (Winner of the Hugo Ward) which is climate - biogenetic noir. Bacigalupi assumes the oil economy will crash and there will be a huge contraction of population and available power, meaning energy and calories will be rationed. Sensibly he doesn’t deal with the crash itself. He looks forward to the re-establishment of humanity (the expansion) after this cataclysm and his book is centred on Thailand where all the action takes place. The Windup Girl is a New Person. A genetically modified human, beautiful with incredible skin, designed for an air-conditioned Japan, not a steamy sweaty Thailand. She has been stranded by her owner who didn’t value her enough to take her back to Japan. Windups are treated with respect in Japan and are trained to do remarkable things, but in Thailand they are hated. This is a vision of a very possible and frightening future, beautifully crafted by someone who has thought long and hard about the consequences of the way we live now and where it will lead us. That he goes so far forward to think about a world ravaged by new made-man viruses that wipe out billions is illuminating.
||Bacigalupi doesn’t stop there. His ‘Ship Breaker’ trilogy (Drowned Worlds and Tool of War) 2011 – 2018 – are set in our post-oil future in an impoverished and mostly illiterate America. Great white sail hi-tech clippers reign on the high seas but they aren’t America but Indian or Chinese – wealth and power has shifted globally, and the post-industrial US is an economic backwater with little influence in the world. The rich are different now and human rights are not exactly a priority. If you don’t belong to the new clans running the world you are truly worthless and expendable. It so happens freighters with sails are in the design stage right now.
Of course there are countless other books dealing with the consequences of climate change. Most often it’s the trope of the survivors getting off the planet before it becomes impossible to live here. See ‘The Midnight Sky’ directed by George Clooney based on the novel ‘Good Morning, Midnight’. In the aftermath of a global catastrophe a lone scientist in the Arctic races to contact a crew of astronauts with a warning not to return to earth. Personally, I felt the film could have been better without the space stuff and just concentrate on Clooney’s character and the child left behind.
Interstellar (2014) directed by Christopher Nolan was a better movie to watch as it dealt with a dying planet suffering from drought and blight, but it also offered at least a pathway to a solution if a tad pie in the sky.
Jeff Vandemeer’s ‘Annihilation’ 2014 has recently been made into a movie with Natalie Portman. The story follows an expedition of four women who are known only by their professions: The Psychologist, the Surveyor, the Anthropologist, and the Biologist-- tasked with exploring a mysterious coastal territory called Area X. It owes a debt to H G Wells’s ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’, but perhaps without the tension.
Kim Stanley Robinson also delves deep into climate fiction with ‘Aurora’ a story told by a colony ships AI computer on a 150-year journey from Earth. It’s a bleak look at how incompatible we are with other worlds from the perspective of bacteria and biology. He also, like Ballard before him, explores drowned worlds in his ‘New York 2140’.
Which neatly brings me to my own effort cli-fi novel -
Mission Longshot: How far would you go to save one life?’
Hammer & Tong - May 2021
If we are going to leave earth and start again someplace else - we're going to need faster ships. The man challenged to design this light speed vessel has already blown up eight billion dollar prototypes. Would you like to volunteer for number nine?
This is that story.
Curiously I began this in 2013, sadly after a five-hour coffee inspired marathon plotting session in a Montreal coffee shop someone stole my coat and notebook. I was bereft. (And cold) Only during Covid lockdown could I face trying to retrieve the story from my memory. It helped writing the screenplay first under the supervision of Euroscript. But a screenplay is a compromise, all those discarded scenes to keep it around 120 pages is so tough. Frustrated I began the novel immediately after finishing the script.
We all know earth is dying, that realistically you aren’t going to stop China from building those coal-fired power stations and if everyone drives electric cars, we’re going to need three times as much electricity as we use now. As the population reaches 9 Billion this decade, tensions around clean water, food, energy security, and biosecurity will multiply. The trope is, build that spaceship, follow Elon Musk to that colony on Mars. Well of course not everything will go to plan, right?
Written for children (11 and up, adults too) I wanted a story with the background of climate disaster, but I have a little fun with light-speed spaceships, an ancient alien civilization and of course, three teens plucked out of time to help rescue one person at the far side of the Universe. In reality, once you are lost in space, you will stay lost, but it’s story about hope, resilience, friendship and learning about climate and, of course, whether you can make waffles in space. I hope you get on board real soon.
© Sam Hawksmoor June 2021
You can download Mission Longshot or order the print version
More about the background to Mission Longshot here