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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 wearenarrative.wordpress.com).

    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:

    http://thinkexist.com/quotes/joseph_goebbels/

    http://www.psywarrior.com/Goebbels.html

  • 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.
    Best
    Dominic

  • 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 […]

  • Have you heard of the CLI FI genre yet? see CLIFIBOOKS.com and my CLI FI CENTRAL blog

    danny bloom

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