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Fact or fiction? Using literature to communicate climate change

Dec 19, 2012 by | 17 Comments

In this guest blog post by Dominic Carney, author of the new novel Icarus Rising, he explores the idea that fiction – at least the literary kind – could be just as important as fact for engaging the public on climate change.

We have been storytellers since time immemorial. Fiction has been credited with enhancing empathy, reducing social friction and pulling us together around common values.

Sweeping social change – the birth of the welfare state in the UK, or the ending of slavery in the US – has followed from the works of imagination of authors like Charles Dickens (Little Dorrit, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and their impact on their readership.

But it is now time for the power of fiction to be focused on climate change. As with the great issues of social inequality, the potential for damage is global in its scope, and it can only be stopped by concerted human action.

The problem for writers, though, is that unlike social issues (which possess a certain essential human-ness), the topic of climate change does not engage most readers per se. It is a difficult area even for scientists to communicate about: its processes are obscure and mostly invisible.

Thus, works of fiction that are referenced as being connected to climate change are often simply using the subject as a backdrop – for example Solar by Ian McEwan and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Solar is about people who just happen to be at the North Pole because they are on some kind of research junket; The Road is about many important things such as the love between father and son, but just happens to be set in some apocalyptic future (that may or may not have been the result of climate change).

These tales focus on the minutiae of what it is to be human, the current direction of literary fiction. But for climate change, this is the wrong end of the telescope. We need to be looking at how we can stop humanity from screwing up the planet. What we need is not a navel-gazing literary exposition, but a genre work, something that appeals to a wide audience.

Many literary analysts subscribe to the view that there are seven basic plots – overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth. As a plot template, Overcoming the Monster fits the bill for climate change pretty well. Perhaps most importantly, it implicitly contains the optimism of difficult but victorious endeavour rather than the ‘let it happen and then rebuild’ (Rebirth) pessimism of efforts such as The Day After Tomorrow.

This, and the emphasis on ‘campaigning’ (views must be changed, apathy must be driven out), help to define the type of fiction needed for the job. It needs to be current and immediate for one. There is little use in using Science Fiction as a genre when we want to be direct and of the moment rather than allegorical. An Action Thriller comes to mind as the best way of engaging a large audience and keeping them interested.

What of our main characters? Our protagonist really has to be a scientist. His point of view needs to be clear and articulate and guide us through the complexities of climate change; no job for a layman. Science has not really done a good job in engaging people with climate change to date, so he will have his work cut out. Our bad guy is easier to frame. He is an Oil Executive; power-mad, paranoid, malicious – JR Ewing lives on. Then, because we have conflict, our scientist also has to be tough, a man of action as well as ideas.

Importantly, the earth and its climate also need to be characterised to some degree in order to pull the reader in. This is not easy but can be approached by focusing on the beauty and majesty of its wild places and the uncanny balance and poise of life on earth (that we are now wrecking).

How do narrative and dialogue carry the story? Necessarily there needs to be exposition and detail in order to build the reader’s knowledge of complex processes. This should not be overdone but neither can it be ignored. The reader will gain both information and enjoyment. The respected literary commentator Mary McCarthy wrote this over fifty years ago:

‘The distinctive mark of the novel is its concern with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics. If I point to Jane Austen, Eliot, Tolstoy, Faulkner, it will be admitted, different as they are they have one thing in common: a deep love of fact, of the empiric element in experience.’

Making such an abstract issue something that people will want to read about is a real challenge but is in many ways the core of fiction. As the American critic Edmund Wilson noted:

‘The experience of mankind on the earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena. With each such victory of the human intellect, we experience a deep satisfaction: we have been cured of some ache of disorder, relieved of some oppressive burden of uncomprehended events.’

Not, then, an easy endeavour, all in all. Not many works of fiction have risen to the challenge as yet, although I have attempted to do so in my own Icarus Rising. Take a look, whilst it is still possible for us to be usefully inspired and encouraged.

17 Comments + Add Comment

  • I haven’t read Icarus Rising yet, but from what I’ve seen on Amazon it looks like an exciting read and strikes me as a sort of mirror-universe counterpart to Michael Crichton’s State of Fear – where he has enviro baddies, you have corporate baddies. I say “baddies”, because these are thrillers where – unlike in the real world – things tend to be black and white.

    Outside the thriller genre (and indeed in the real world) there are shades of grey. (For instance, a wealthy philanthropist who used his wealth to set up an institute to study climate change, but made his millions investing in Exxon Mobil and the Canadian tar sands – would he be a baddie or a goodie in your book?) However, there are no such nuances in the strict conditions you set for the characters of the hero and villain of the piece. The hero “really has to be” a scientist, clear and articulate, yet tough and a man of action. The villain is an “Oil Executive; power-mad, paranoid, malicious”.

    Clearly these are not real people. This sort of flat characterisation works well in thrillers – also cartoons and computer games, come to that. But outside the genre of bangs and bullets (which, let’s face it, we turn to for purposes of escapism rather than enlightenment), lacking the “minutiae of what it is to be human” is a liability – without the thrills and explosions, both your goodie and your baddie would probably come across as two-dimensional and uninteresting.

    Which leads to the main danger I perceive in all this. For a novel to work and have any kind of impact, it has to be (whether thriller, SF, fantasy or mainstream) good as a novel. It has to be something that people would want to read, whether they believed in catastrophic man-made climate change or not. If the story is clearly nothing but a vehicle for the message – at the expense of plot, characters and everything else that determines whether the book is a good read or not – then it is propaganda, hollow, preachy, shallow and (worst of all!) dull.

    Taking two examples from the world of theatre, why is it that Richard Bean’s The Heretic got better reviews than the National Theatre’s Greenland? The answer: The Heretic was a better play. Whether or not you agree with the message (I would assume you do not), many reviewers described it as intelligently written, funny and entertaining. It worked. Greenland, on the other hand, was described by one reviewer as “unremittingly tedious”. That reviewer went on to write: “The most important part of a theatremaker’s job is to present compelling characters behaving in human ways on stage. In the end it is that, rather than bells or whistles, that lend theatre its power – power which is absent in Greenland.”

    I’m sceptical of catastrophic man-made climate change. But if someone wrote a good – interesting, exciting, thoughtful, etc. – story about it, I would read it and enjoy it, as a story. Likewise, I would enjoy a good work of fiction which presented a sceptical viewpoint (by the way, I recommend Andy West’s story Truth, which does that – you can find it online at

    On the other hand, if the message is all, and you fail to present “compelling characters behaving in human ways”, what you are likely to end up with is mere Greenland.

  • Alex, all you have said above is sensible and reasonable. I would very much value your thoughts on Icarus Rising, especially as you are a sceptic regarding man-made Climate Change.

    Last time I looked it was £1.84 on Kindle.

    I think it avoids the traps that you outline in your blog. I hope you enjoy it.

  • My hat off to you. It is extremely difficult to take an imaginary issue and give it the dressing of the truth by tying it to real issues such as slavery and child labor. Obviously, real science is standing firmly in your way, and you feel, as all good social engineers, that once a “winning position” is articulated, the teeming masses will be unable to use their own sense and your views will carry the day.

    Keep your chin up; science will eventually crumble to dust under the propaganda onslaught.

  • I agree with Alex, when the theme overpowers the story propaganda is the result. State of Fear worked not because of Crichton’s skepticism but because the fanaticism of environmentalists resonated with public experience.

    On the other hand, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a dreadful piece of cheesy propaganda was spectacularly successful because it too resonated with strong public opinion in a way that climate change never will.

    People who write about climate change rarely get it right, they keep stumbling for a narrative and clutching at science to keep themselves from falling. Global Warming, Climate Change, Extreme Weather. It is all the same…. man is changing the world, why don’t you just say that?

    Rachel Carson had it right and her book took off. We need to be better stewards of the earth, what is so difficult to understand about that?

  • Sorry Greg S, I do agree with Crichton’s State of Fear, and especially with his afterword, where he likens the Environmental movement with the Eugenics movement, but Rachel Carson had it totally wrong. Farmers are the true stewards of the earth, look at the history of National park management at Yellowstone, Disaster after good intentioned disaster. And now in Australia our national parks are not being managed, they are being intentionally neglected. Man has always altered his environment, being it with fire or predation. The megafauna disappeared from Australia at the time of the aboriginal migration from SE Asia. Our gum trees have evolved through frequent bush fires. Now, when we have a bushfire in a national park, it is a real biggie.

  • Ian, we are not in disagreement on Crichton’s book. He said something that needed to be said about the environmental movement.

    As for Rachel Carson, she was right about DDT. I can see it out my window as bald eagles and turkeys return to our region in massive numbers, despite the continued loss of habitat. You cannot explain their disappearance and subsequent return to any other factor than changes in pesticides. Even the farmers will tell you that.

    However, you have a point about the futility of controlling nature. One of the best book written on the subject was by John McPhee and not surprisingly named The Control of Nature.

  • You have taken on a difficult task, but there are many people in history who have striven like you to get an entire nation to follow a chosen path. Luckily, some of the most persuasive people have left a legacy of quotes and instructions – I include a couple from one of the greatest which I think you will find of great value in your chosen struggle:

  • Hi Dodgy Geezer and Happy New Year.

    Where does all your raging bitterness come from? Do you know?

  • Dodgy Geezer is at least on-topic raging bitterness, although resorting immediately to Nazi comparisons is a bizarre and unhelpful way to kick off a conversation…but there is plenty of off-topic raging bitterness that didn’t make it through the filters over Christmas!

  • Your quote from Mary McCarthy contradicts the Marxist literary theorist, Terry Eagleton who, convincingly in my opinion, describes the emergence of literature as both a response to and escape from the world of facts, empiricism and efficiency that characterised the increasing dominance of capitalism and industrial society in the 19th century.
    If correct, this would pose a challenge to the hope that literature which is bound to the facts and equations of climate change can offer the experience sought by novel readers.

  • Hi Chris,

    he (Eagleton) would, wouldn’t he? To a man with a hammer, everything’s a nail. McCarthy provides many examples to support her statement, mostly from, or close to, the 19th Century.
    Did you mean the emergence of the novel rather than literature? if not, what of The Odyssey, Beowulf, Don Quixote?
    I think it is simpler thing than you propose. Some readers like their novels with facts and figures,some don’t. I do think that they can help, definitely with complex phenomena such as Climate Change, in helping to relieve “the oppressive burden of uncom­pre­hended events.”
    Please take a look. The book is the message, not the blog.

  • Hi Dominic, just to say I’m reading and enjoying Icarus Rising; so far I’m finding it at least as good as anything I’ve read by many a bestselling author. That being said, I’m still not entirely sold on the idea of the thriller genre as a way of changing hearts and minds, in general, for the reason that I think we tend to suspend disbelief very readily but temporarily when reading thrillers. I found the Da Vinci Code, for instance, an entertaining read, even though I believed none of it. Hastening to add that your writing is better than Dan Brown’s! I’m still only a few chapters in, and should really reserve judgement until later; at any rate, though, so far so good.

  • Hi Alex. Many thanks for your very generous comments. You’ve brightened up a wet and windy day no end.
    You’re on the money about the temporary suspension of disbelief needed to read thrillers of any kind and I do not really expect a wholesale conversion of hearts and minds. I’m just hoping that maybe some young genius will ask himself could I do that, or even better, could I come up with something like it that would really work? I think Arthur C Clarke was a fan of Jules Verne as a kid and way before he came up with the idea for satellite communications.
    I hope you continue to enjoy the read.

  • Just to add that I finished Icarus Rising and found it a really good read – as well as being enjoyable in itself as a thriller (and a thriller about climate change, my current obsession) it involves geoengineering and also touches on cryptozoology even, both interests of mine as well. Plus it has a fine baddie who provides strong motivation to keep turning the pages just to see what heinous thing he does next! Great stuff – and looking forward to your next book.

    Thinking about it, I suppose the bottom line would be – for me as a sceptic and someone basically very interested in the whole climate topic – that a work of fiction which involved climate change (no matter which point of view the story was written from), which was interesting and which helped to provoke critical thought about the subject (and explore new ideas too, as you point out), would have to be a good thing. And Icarus Rising fits the bill, handily.

  • many thanks to Alex for such a warm and generous postscript (from my perspective) to this debate. Truly marvelous that his intelligent scepticism is demonstrated to be totally different to the spit-in-your-eye prejudice with which it is so often conflated.

  • […] any different in the world of literature and storytelling. While there are a handful of examples of climate change-oriented novels, it does not seem to have fired the imagination of authors. But while the potential for […]

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