Novelists Try Climate Change Story Telling: A Critical Review of Two Recent Entries

Wanted:  Climate change-based novels with a strong dose of story, vivid character development, a strong theme, and setting or atmosphere. Climate change focus alone may not be sufficient.

2045: A Story of Our Future, by Peter Seidel
338 pp. Prometheus Books. Paper, $11.99

Human Scale, by Kitty Beer
327 pp. Plain View Press. Paper, $18.95

In explaining how climate change will remake the world, novelists have some real advantages over journalists. They can play a crucial supporting role, or more, in effective climate communications.

The news media generally confine themselves to the limits of scientific research and to abstract policy issues, painting a future blurred by uncertainties, abstractions, and the distance of time. Novelists, by contrast, may transport their audiences directly to the coming decades. There they can illustrate, with sharp strokes and vivid imaginations, the suffering that climate change may unleash for specific human characters, without the constraints of sound evidence or peer review.

In novelist Peter Seidel’s 2045, we glimpse the future through the eyes of Carl Lauer, a conservative midwestern businessman who fell into a coma in the year 2010. He awakens 35 years later to a startlingly altered America. A changing climate has led to drought and reduced snowpack in the Southwest. Worsening hurricanes and rising seas have forced many people to leave Florida. Millions of people fleeing from scorched and flooded regions are migrating to the Midwest, where resulting population growth has led to widespread unemployment and rampant crime. Lauer learns that declining production in America’s wheat belt had caused bread prices to rise — until the U.S. seized control of Alberta and Saskatchewan. He is bewildered and horrified by the country’s transformation.

It’s a dramatic premise. But unfortunately, after Lauer’s miraculous awakening, the plot falters. The first half of the book is devoted to his journeys to Chicago, La Crosse, Wis., and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Aside from traveling on a futuristic high-speed train system and talking with long-lost friends and family members, Lauer doesn’t really do anything. When he is kidnapped in California — surely a moment for drama — the book zips through the episode in just nine paragraphs.

Knowing Climate Not Adequate on Its Own for Strong Story Telling

While the novel does not always make for engrossing reading, it’s clear that Seidel has diligently reviewed global climate predictions. For example, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program projects that American wheat production will fall as temperatures rise over the next 30 years, a change reflected in Seidel’s book. Meanwhile, snowfall is already declining in the western mountains of the U.S, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. With global average sea levels set to rise between 20 and 40 inches or more by 2100, Florida’s coastlines are in danger. And although scientists are still uncertain about how climate change will affect hurricanes, it is possible that the storms will become stronger.

Seidel’s careful attention to scientific projections and societal trends makes for a plausible account of life in 2045. Yet the book crams in so many facts that the characters are weakly drawn and the dialogue is often stilted. In a typical exchange, Lauer talks with his son Jason and daughter-in-law Laura, who live in California, about the drying Southwest.

Jason looked down at his shoes and began. “I’ll start with California, then it’ll be easier to tell you about us.

“There already was concern about declining snowfall and rain in the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies before you went into your coma. Some people warned that it was an early sign of global warming. Had we listened, and I somehow found some other job, we wouldn’t be here.”

Frowning, Laura looked at Carl and in her grating voice said, “I warned him. I told him he could get a better job. But he wouldn’t listen.”

Ignoring her, Jason continued, “Rivers and reservoirs were often dry. This became an irresolvable problem for cities and agriculture in the Southwest. Serious friction has developed between parts of the southwestern United States and the area east of the Rockies. For years the people in the East have been taking our water from Grand Lake in Colorado and sending it east of the divide through the Adams Tunnel. Besides legal obstructions, the people in eastern Colorado have militias guarding the tunnel so vigilantes from the west slope cannot destroy it.

“Most people complained about the more trivial aspects of our situation. Already years ago, they objected when we weren’t allowed to have lawns or swimming pools. Gradually, people were forced to replace their toilets with composting ones they did not like. With rising electric costs, air conditioning became impossible for anyone but the ultra-rich. We keep our house livable by opening windows at night to cool it down and covering them with shades and insulation during the day.”

Mercifully, the pace picks up in the second half of the book, as Lauer grows alarmed by the magnitude of human troubles caused by disregard for the environment. But by that point, many readers will have abandoned poor Lauer.

Boston Under Water … and ‘Zorians’

More compelling characters populate Human Scale, the second novel in a planned trilogy by Kitty Beer. In Beer’s version of the future, Boston in 2062 is under water. The changing climate has led to frequent weather extremes, such as droughts followed by devastating floods. Meanwhile, religious extremists, called Zorians, have seized control of the government.

In this world, the great masses — including refugees from southern latitudes — live in hunger and fear while elites retain access to perks such as air conditioners, good food, and bus passes.

Vita Gordon, a resident of new Boston, lives among the elites. Her husband, Drake, is a high-ranking official in the Zorian theocracy. But a new law will require the couple to relinquish their 13-year-old daughter, Lorna, to temple priests, who rape her. So Gordon flees with Lorna to a farm in western Massachusetts. There, she finds herself falling for a diplomat and double agent working with the shadowy Credos to overthrow the government.

In this novel, as in 2045, the damaged world of the future is vividly imagined. But at times, overwrought prose weakens the story. After a tiff with her daughter, Gordon doesn’t merely feel alone. Instead, “a deep and panicked sense of loneliness engulfs her. It’s as if her spine and brain have disappeared, leaving her swollen helpless heart to dangle pointlessly.” After Gordon embraces her new lover, he reflects that “he has never experienced a kiss like that before. A voodoo vortex where he ceased to be.”

The plot also suffers from uneven pacing. For instance, the Credos spend much of the book planning an elaborate, multi-target assault on the Zorians, but little action results.

Keys: Story, Characters, Theme … and Atmosphere

Part of the trouble is that climate change or other social issues by themselves don’t make for page-turning copy. Reporters and others wanting to focus on fictional climate change story-telling might do well to recall the counsel of Salon.com senior writer and author Laura Miller, who writes that the elements of a novel that compel an audience to keep reading are, in order: story, characters, theme, and the atmosphere or setting. So while climate change can be an important element of the setting, a novel without a good story or characters is unlikely to engage readers.

One controversial technique for engaging readers is to exaggerate the speed at which climate change is likely to unfold in coming decades, as in the disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Another approach is to relegate climate change to the background. Indeed, in a number of memorable books, such as Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), climate change provides an element of the setting. But the characters — fully realized, compelling human beings — ultimately drive the action.

The Memorable Novels, Plays, Operas … Missing?

Are there other ways that climate change can make for good reading? It’s a question more than a few hope to see answered in the affirmative. As Bill McKibben wrote in 2005, climate change still lacks resonance in American culture. “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” he asked. “Compare it to, say, the horror of AIDS in the last two decades, which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect.”

Climate change writers and story tellers: Take your marks. The challenge lies before you.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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3 Responses to Novelists Try Climate Change Story Telling: A Critical Review of Two Recent Entries

  1. For a really compelling novel set in a climate-disrupted world, check out Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula last year.

  2. Fascinating piece, Sara. You make the most excellent point that a focus on climate science ain’t enough.

    I’d also point out, for budding novelists, the four devices Thomas Wolfe suggests every writer – including journalists – needs to get to the “emotional heart” of a story: 1) constructing scenes; 2) dialogue; 3) careful noting of social status details; and 4) point of view.

    Finally, let’s not forget the action/political thriller as an intriguing outlet for climate-related fiction. “Melting Down,” by Harvey Stone, is a promising example of the potential for blending high drama w/ hard science. Not out yet, but expected in April: http://www.meltingdownnovel.com

  3. Russell Seitz says:

    Some dark and stormy night, a Bulwer-Lytton Bad Climate Writing award should be established to go with the Booker Worst Sex Scene prize and the Waterworld Oscars