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

Review: Giving the Cold Shoulder to Antarctica

Antarctica cover

Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’ve been a fan of master science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson ever since the Mars Trilogy, which dealt with terraforming the Red Planet. Now that humanity is engaged in an accidental terraforming experiment on its own world, it was the right time for me to read Antarctica, one of Robinson’s lesser-known novels. I was curious how he treated the changes sure to come to the South Pole, because I’m looking at a similar scenario in my own current project, The Princes of Antarctica.

Published in 1997, Robinson’s story takes place more than 50 years later, just after the expiration of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The treaty and several other agreements set aside the entire continent as a nature and science reserve. But the politics of preservation versus wealth creation stalls renewal of the treaty, and a series of unexplained incidents sparks an informal investigation by an aide of an influential senator with progressive leanings. Robinson weaves his trademark mix of science, history, politics, and human aspiration into a sprawling narrative. Climate change overhangs the novel, making it an early example of the climate fiction / nature fiction genre. Continue reading

A New Heritage Area in Washington State?

Maritime Heritage Area announcement

Congressman Derek Kilmer of Washington State discusses a proposal to create a Washington Maritime National Heritage Area on Puget Sound and nearby waters.

I’ve been monitoring efforts to create a maritime heritage area in Washington State that would cover Puget Sound (including Seattle), the Strait of Juan de Fuca between the U.S. and Canada, and the Pacific Coast of Washington State. This week, two Washington State congressmen, Derek Kilmer of the 6th district and Denny Heck of the 10th district, announced their intent to introduce a bill to designate the region’s shoreline as the Washington Maritime National Heritage Area. During an event at the Foss Waterway Seaport museum in Tacoma, Washington State’s historic preservation officer, Allyson Brooks, said Sen. Maria Cantwell would sponsor a version of the bill in the U.S. Senate.

Maritime heritage enthusiasts and scholars have pushed the idea of a national heritage area in western Washington for about 10 years. If enacted, the area would fall under the National Park Service’s Heritage Area program, which oversees 49 similar areas across the U.S., mostly east of the Mississippi River. The areas promote local economic growth and preserve sites and landmarks with cultural and historical significance. Each area is managed by local officials, with no new regulatory authority over management or preservation given to the National Park Service. Washington State supporters see a heritage area as a major tourism draw, especially to rural counties. A small amount of money for promoting the area comes with the designation.

The Kilmer/Heck/Cantwell proposal raises the profile of a heritage area in Washington State, but the legislation’s immediate prospects in Congress are dim. The Republican-controlled House opposes any new law perceived as an extension of federal power, no matter how benign. A heritage area is mostly an honorific, and as Brooks pointed out several times, carries no new regulatory authority.

Opponents have prevailed so far. For example, a proposal to create a similar area around the mouth of the Columbia River failed after conservative local residents used the weak, but effective “slippery slope” argument: If you let the feds declare a heritage area, what’s to stop them from confiscating your land, taking your guns, making you sign up for Obamacare, and similar silliness. The GOP wants to reform the law governing heritage areas, but a bill to do just that is stuck in committee, and the website gives that measure an 11 percent chance of passage. Even state lawmakers are leery of the idea of a heritage area; A measure in the Washington Legislature to designate a state version died in the state senate earlier this year.

Despite the good a maritime heritage area would do for local communities, DC politics will likely keep the idea on the back-burner for a long time. Cantwell might be able to push a bill through the Senate, but the House is another matter entirely. Kilmer and Heck are Democratic newcomers to Congress, and their influence is limited. It’s going to be a case of introducing legislation every year until the Congress moves left or the supporters get lucky enough to find a majority.

Disclosure: I’m communications director for Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, which could benefit from a maritime heritage area. Opinions expressed here are my own.