Great authors imagine a world transformed by climate change

Illustration for article titled Great authors imagine a world transformed by climate change

What kind of world are we leaving to our grandchildren? Can we even imagine a world after climate change? Some of the world's greatest authors, including David Mitchell and Kim Stanley Robinson, grapple with climate change and our future in a new story collection. Here's a review by Pauline Masurel from Green Prophet.

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Bill McKibben was arrested in August this year while protesting against TransCanada's proposed plans to build a pipeline that would carry oil from the Alberta tar sands to Texas. McKibben has written: "This is really really important. Jim Hansen, the world's most important climatologist, has said that if we burn these tar sands in a big way it will be ‘essentially game over for the climate.' That's worth reading again. The oil companies and the Koch Bros are willing to take a few years of big profits in return for cratering the planet's climate system."

You might think that the facts would speak loudly enough for themselves, but McKibben has also written an introduction to this collection of short stories which aims to show that fiction can speak as persuasively as fact in making the point about the wounds we are inflicting upon our own planet. The book's title is taken from a quote attributed to the environmentalist John Muir, "When it comes to a war between the races, I'm with the bears."

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Not-too-preachy

There are ten stories from an impressive array of internationally acclaimed authors who write, for the most part, either literary or science fiction. When I picked it up to read I was truly hoping it wouldn't be too ‘preachy' and offputting in its approach to telling tales from a ‘damaged planet'. Of course, since these stories are essentially intended to be environmental parables for our age, it would be surprising if there weren't a certain amount of implicit preaching involved. But luckily, I also found a lot of variety in tone and subject matter and the authors' approach to the topic

The collection begins with T.C. Boyle's story of eco-activists fighting against deforestation. Kim Stanley Robinson's Sacred Space looks at the environmental changes facing the Sierra Nevada region. As expected, these stories are clearly directly connected to the effects of human environmental destruction.

Oblique twists

But my favourite stories in the book take a more oblique angle on the theme. In Lydia Millet's Zoogoing there is no immediate, overt environmental angle. Initially this seems to be the story of someone who likes getting too close for most people's comfort to animals in zoos. But the story goes on to consider a very human angle on what it means to be endangered and waiting for extinction.

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Similarly, Nathaniel Rich's Hermie uses humour, featuring a talking hermit crab. Like so many of these stories it has a tinge of sadness despite the humorous style. But there are plenty of smiles to be found too, with creations like Toby Litt's ‘Tescocommunists' and ‘Walmarxists' in a story which kookily conflates the blitz of the second world war with the blitz club of the 1980s London dance scene, aping the postmodern way that most nostalgic reruns of historic trends manage to make a mash up of time. Even the title of the story, Newromancer, is a pun on the classic William Gibson cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.

Future planet earth

There are two stories set in 2040. Helen Simpson's contribution is a diary account and possibly the most terrifying vision of societal breakdown to go with climate destruction. David Mitchell's, The Siphoners is also a scarey vision of the future, featuring a story within a story, reminiscent of the complexity of his novel Cloud Atlas. But it also involves a sobering reflection upon the possibilities and implications of population control.

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One of the impressive features of this collection is the variety of different approaches to the topic, including reflections upon the numerous different ways in which we have trashed our planet, or at least exploited it, and may one day be called to account. For example The Tamarisk Hunter considers the importance of water supply as a vital resource and extrapolates upon the lengths that people will go to to obtain supplies.

Even the stories that have speculative or predictive elements to them are firmly rooted within the past and the present. Margaret Atwood's short-short story ends the book with a creation myth that turns into a destruction myth. She writes, In the fourth age we created deserts. Our deserts were of several kinds, but they had one thing in common: nothing grew there. Some were made of cement, some were made of various poisons, some of baked earth. We made these deserts from the desire for more money and from despair at the lack of it.

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This collection may not persuade everyone to side with the bears, and that's fair enough, but it does present some of the possible reasons to do so in interesting and entertaining short-fictional ways. Royalties from the sale of this book go to 350.org, an international grassroots movement to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

This book review by Pauline Masurel originally appeared at Green Prophet and The Short Review. More Book Reviews on Green Prophet: Plastiki: Across the Pacific on Plastic, The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, and A No Nonsense Guide to Climate Change

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DISCUSSION

Corpore Metal

I guess I'm in a weird place on this, I've never been a fan of Bill McKibben (He seems so defeatist and reflexively anti-technological.), yet I consider myself definitely in the same group of "bright greens" as the World Changing site (www.worldchanging.com) and people like Alex Steffen, Jamais Cascio and Bruce Sterling. We are changing our planet, global warming is happening and science fiction needs to acknowledge it.

But at the same time, science fiction (and I mean the hard stuff.) might actually show us futures where we wise up and start trying to repair the damage we've done and are doing. That's the kind of environmentalism I want to ally myself with—an environmentalism that isn't just merely afraid, resigned and defeated. I want to see an environmentalism that isn't afraid of science and technology but instead sees it as a opportunity to help solve old and current problems, a movement that demands the social changes needed to implement those new technologies. Frankly I want an environmentalism that not only demands and embraces solar energy, wind and tidal but also nuclear as well.

I want a movement that rejects the apocalyptic visions of old school environmentalism and provides us with hard but workable and optimist alternatives.

From what I've read of McKibben's past actions and statements, I don't think he's really part of that. He's more an old school, defeated and fearful environmentalist.

Anyway, having said that, perhaps this collection isn't all gloom and doom and might be worth checking out.