Review: “After Water” Radio Stories Put Climate Change In a New Light

After Water graphic

WBEZ-FM’s After Water series tells climate change stories centered on the Great Lakes.

Science fiction has a long, glorious history on radio, beginning in the medium’s golden age with Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Sci-fi dropped off radio’s radar as television took over, but the genre occasionally reappears in special projects. Chicago-based WBEZ-FM, one of the country’s leading public radio stations (This American Life; Serial), has produced a thoughtful anthology of stories titled After Water. The producers avoid the term “science fiction,” preferring to “contemplate the future from a dual lens of science and art.” That’s puzzling, because science fiction is at the point where storytelling art and science intersect. Never mind the reluctance. After Water is excellent, whatever you call it, genre-wise.

Purists might prefer the term “speculative fiction,” because all nine radio stories in the series assume a world altered by climate change, and they imagine its impact on the meaning and uses of fresh water. Only fools deny the science of climate change. Today’s question is: How will the phenomenon affect our children and grandchildren? Most of the settings are on Lake Michigan or the Great Lakes, the main source of drinking water for the city of Chicago.

Every story presents climate change as a disruptive force, mostly in a negative way, but with some interesting twists. “Show Me The Well” puts climate change in the context of urban poverty. It’s just one more barrier to overcome for African-Americans in poor neighborhoods. They fight everything from indifferent water bureaucracies to lefty NGOs which promise to pay the underclass’s water bill if they’ll only go vegan. The humor is dark, but the story’s hip-hop sensibility is rare and refreshing in a genre dominated by graying white men.

I’m not a fan of epistolary fiction, because the letters and diary entries too often seem forced to conform to a narrative. One After Water story, however, “Water Men,” told as a letter by a future Chicago mayor to his newborn daughter, captivated me. Most writers present global warming as a disaster resulting in dystopia, but Water Men imagines a Great Lakes basin where the population takes matters in its own hands as legacy political systems fail to cope with the changes. The utopian viewpoint of the narrator has dark undertones; utopias almost always imply reprehensible choices, but he believes that these choices mean a bright, just, and prosperous future for the young one. That hope is at the core of utopian literature.

Other stories in the series examine the political and social impacts of climate change, with environmental exploitation or degradation as the backdrop. In “Straws,” a shadowy group of eco-vigilantes perform a terrorist act in the name of rescuing Lake Michigan from bugaboo corporations. “The Floating City of New Chicago” and “World After Water” explore inequality through the lens of safe drinking water. Naturally, the rich have healthier options. The characters in “Poison Fish” rail against the one percent who can afford bottled and filtered water. As well as resting at the intersection of science and art, these stories pinpoint social and economic costs of an earth whose climate has gone haywire.

Radio and audio storytelling never gets the respect it deserves for firing the imagination in ways visual storytelling cannot. Climate change, as well, hasn’t received the attention it deserves as a subject for narrative. In After Water, the power of voice and sound, combined with the promise and threat of a changed climate, offers an exciting new dimension to speculative stories about our future.

Do you know of any other audio stories on climate change?

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