Fact or fiction? Using literature to communicate climate change
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.
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