The Windup Girl read as eco-fiction

Cover for The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

It’s too bad more science fiction writers don’t address changes to Earth’s environment. Most are interested in the environment of other planets, while our home world’s atmosphere and biosphere grow more alien every day. Thank God for writers such as Margaret Atwood, with her Maddaddam Trilogy, Emmi Itäranta, author of The Memory of Water, and the late George Turner, whose The Sea and Summer anticipated the emerging eco-fiction genre by a generation.

Add to these Paolo Bacigalupi and The Windup Girl, which won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Critics and marketers who insist on genre-izing everything have labeled it “biopunk,” a story taking humanity’s ten-thousand-year-old penchant for tinkering with biology to logical, if not absurd, commercial and scientific extremes. Writers fiddling with stories about climate change or GMO foods ought to look to The Windup Girl for lessons in how to approach these issues. Continue reading

Review: To get at The Truth, dig deeper

Cover image for The Truth

The Truth, by Michael Palin

You can read a book through different lenses. Most reviewers of The Truth, the second novel by ex-Monty Python comic Michael Palin, read it as mainstream literature. I read it through a narrower lens, as a writer interested in how fiction makers work with environmental themes. Seen in this way, Palin’s book is about hero-worship, and how emotional closeness to a subject can obscure the truth.

Protagonist Keith Mabbut is a divorced, middle-aged writer personally and professionally adrift. In his youth, he won an award for an investigative piece exposing an industrial polluter, but his career stalled out, and now he’s writing histories of oil companies to make ends meet. Mabbut is an intelligent, if easily manipulated man naive despite his years, and when he’s offered a chance to revive his journalism career, he falls into the trap of believing he’s found the truth when, in fact, he asked the wrong questions. Continue reading

Review: The Adjacent Is Confusing, Maybe Unfinished

Cover image for The Adjacent

The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest

Cosmologists are embracing the idea of parallel universes or the multiverse, which writers of science fiction and fantasy have portrayed as mirrors or different versions of our own universe, with passageways between them. Other sciences have noticed that the laws of nature often lead to repeat, parallel performances, such as adaptations in unrelated creatures to similar environments. It’s said that eye of the octopus has a complicated structure comparable to the human eye, but the two species could not inhabit more unlike worlds. And we humans in middle-class societies think each of us lives in a world separate from our neighbors, when in fact all are on parallel tracks, with only minor differences among them. When we visit each other across the fence, it’s as if our separate, but parallel universes touch. Christopher Priest’s 2013 novel The Adjacent explores the next-ness of things, taking the reader down paths at once exciting and confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying, even frustrating.

Priest is probably best known for his award-winning 1995 novel The Prestige, adapted as a motion picture in 2006. In The Adjacent, Priest presents three stories in different times but with protagonists whose names all start with the letter “T.” The opening story begins with a photographer who has lost his wife to an attack with a new weapon of terrifying power that has baffled the security forces of a mid-21st century Islamic Republic of Great Britain. One aspect of this world is the shift of hurricane-style storms to higher latitudes as a result of climate change, but the devastating weather is tame compared to the annihilating effects of “the adjacency field.” Priest riffs on the gymnastics of quantum particles, which perform disappearing acts worthy of Las Vegas, without the smoke and mirrors. The characters are often unsure which reality they inhabit, leaving them, and sometimes the reader, disoriented. Continue reading

Is climate fiction a genre, a theme, a motif, or what?

Protoplantary Disk

Climate fiction is like a protoplanetary disk. Image courtesy NASA.

The activist and public relations man Dan Bloom, who originated the term “cli-fi” in 2008, recently posed the question to me in an email: Is climate fiction a genre, a theme, or a motif? I laughed, because these are the kinds of questions that resemble the old saw about debating the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. But if the small cadre of writers and editors interested in building a new form of literature called “climate fiction” hope to have any success, they’ll need an answer, just in case a burned-out academic or a newspaper intern calls.

Climate fiction is like the protoplanetary disc of dust and gas surrounding a young star. Something’s happening, but the system of planets, moons, and comets has yet to emerge. Awhile back, I posted my Six Rules for Writing Climate Fiction as an attempt to help the new writer understand the emerging genre’s place in the universe of accepted genres. With a bit of tweaking, a reader or editor could use the rules to label a novel or story “cli-fi.” Using this framework, a book lover could argue, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said in a case about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Continue reading

Is this book the prototype for the climate fiction novel?

Cover image for the Sea and Summer

The Sea and Summer, by George Turner

Who wrote the first climate fiction novel? The small cadre of writers and editors interested in this new branch of science fiction cite J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World as one of the first, if not the first, novels to explore how humanity copes with a warming world. But Ballard’s novel was published long before human-caused climate change was identified in the 1980s. In his world, an uptick in solar radiation melts the ice caps and floods the coasts. People are merely victims of an uncontrollable solar cycle.

But who published the first fictionalized speculation on the impact of human-caused climate change on the planet and human civilization? That mantle falls on Australian George Turner, author of The Sea and Summer, published in 1987 before the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” hit the popular culture. For writers who want to tackle climate change in fiction, Turner’s novel is the prototype for showing the possible interplay of rising sea levels, destructive droughts, and dying ecosystems with other long-term cultural trends on the course of human history. All climate fiction writers should read this novel. Continue reading

Review: Lydia Millet’s Pills and Starships

Pills and Starships cover

Pills and Starships, by Lydia Millet

One of the great problems with discussions of climate change is the bleak future they tend to paint. In the worst cases, the ice caps melt, rising seas flood coastal cities, diseases mutate and run rampant, institutions value people by their carbon footprint, and mega-storms wreak havoc on what’s left. Add to this rising economic inequality and the domination of the poor by the rich and you have a pretty depressing mix. It’s no wonder most people would rather talk about the latest celebrity meltdown. Unless you’re a writer. In that case, climate change is a setup for a perfect dystopia.

That’s what debut author Lydia Millet gives us in Pills and Starships, an engaging epistolary novel that’s part science fiction and part cautionary tale. It features Nat, a bright if detached 17-year-old girl living as one of the privileged few a couple of decades after the “tipping point,” when global warming finally pushes the earth over the edge. For the first half of Pills and Starships, Nat appears to take her world in stride, aware that things have gone to hell, compared to what the earth was like according to her elderly parents, but accepting things as they are. Don’t all old people claim that things were better in the past? All a young person knows is what they know. History is bunk. Continue reading

Review: Homer’s Odyssey As An LGBT Road Trip

Love in the Time of Global Warming cover

Love in the Time of Global Warming, by Francesca Lia Block

Love in the Time of Global Warming, a short novel by Francesa Lia Block, author of the controversial Dangerous Angels (Weetzie Bat) series for teens, has almost nothing to do with global warming. But it has everything to do with a teenage girl whose world has lost its shape and whose idea of love has yet to take shape. The dystopian world in which she lives is in the same jumble as her emotions, and it takes an epic road trip to clarify who she is and what’s important. For the adult reader familiar with the literary references to Homer’s Odyssey, it’s a fun way to pass a weekend. For the young adult reader, it’s a typical fantasy with LGBT overtones that a daring high school lit teacher could use as a companion to the classic story.

The narrative concerns Pen, short for Penelope, a geeky, art-loving, wisp of a girl whose mother, father, and little brother are feared dead after an enormous earthquake and follow-on tsunami that destroys Los Angeles and points inland. Pen likes nothing better than to immerse herself in the fantasies of the classical age, and her life soon mirrors Odysseus’ voyage from shipwreck to Ithaca. Sent on a journey in a VW bus that burns vegetable oil, Pen meets up with the requisite crew of other teenage misfits. They encounter their share of mythical creatures and magical humans, all straight from Homer, including 21st-century versions of Cyclops, Circe the witch, the Sirens, and the drugged-out Lotus Eaters. Continue reading