More Skirmishes in the Genre Wars

Real sad puppy

Oh god, not another genre. When will it end?

I find the genre wars incredibly entertaining, mostly because they’re pointless, and the participants waste an amazing amount of time making their points when they could be writing good stories. The kerfuffle everyone in the scifi universe talks about these days concerns the definition of “science fiction.” Traditionalists, who call themselves the Sad Puppies, have a stereotyped, populist view of science fiction, defined as technology-driven dramas and masculine adventure stories. On the other side are the “inclusives,” as I like to call them, which have an expansive, sociological view of speculative storytelling. This scifi is more about societies than gizmos and evil aliens. Both sides, particularly the Puppy partisans, behave like a two-year-old having a meltdown in the supermarket’s cereal aisle.

Any close examination of genre shows its meaninglessness. I’ve completed another draft of my novel Carbon Run, and although I’ve pitched it as science fiction, my editor suggested I call it a dystopian thriller. I’m in the midst of reading Kindred by Octavia Butler, widely regarded as a master science fiction writer. Though I’m in the early going, Kindred is closer to fantasy or possibly magical realism than scifi. Amazon, however, classifies it as African-American women’s fiction. I’ve just finished The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfield, described in its blurb as a “dystopian parody.” Amazon classifies it as dark humor. Continue reading

Review: The Water Knife is bleak, but uncomfortably possible

Water Knife cover

The Water Knife is a noir-ish thriller set in a water-starved Southwest.

The western drought has forced everyone to know their rights. From San Diego to Seattle, talk shows, newspapers, and blogs overflow with debates over senior water rights versus junior water rights, who is abusing their rights to water by wasting it, and how much government is trampling on those rights. A year ago, water was something that came out of the tap. Today, it’s a way to shame your neighbor into environmental responsibility. How long before shots are fired?

In his new speculative novel, The Water Knife, released today, Paolo Bacigalupi imagines a low-intensity shooting war over water. The battles are fought by paramilitary hirelings of water districts, who take what other districts, cities, or states won’t sell, and send agents to investigate rumors of water and rights thereto. That’s the task of Angel Velasquez, a gang banger turned water knife, a semi-legitimate employee of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA, or “sin-wah,” as I liked to pronounce it in my head) and its leader, Catherine Case, an empire-building Las Vegas water manager. Continue reading

Review: Why aren’t ‘serious’ writers writing about climate change?

Cover for Anthropocene Fictions

Why aren’t more literary realists getting real about climate change?

Policy wonks, eco-alarmists, and right-wing denialists dominate the climate change conversation with boring reports, deafening polemics, and forgettable op-eds. The mound of non-fiction reaches to the moon, and we’re no closer to a collective response to a warming world. In contrast, the number of novels written with climate change themes might not reach the top shelf in your living room.

Where are the novelists, author Adam Trexler asks? Where are the imagineers using story to organize, illustrate, and give emotional meaning to the nearly invisible fact of a heating planet? They’re out there, he says, but they’re lurking among the paperback thrillers in airport newsstands and on science fiction shelves in mega-bookstores. With a few exceptions, the “serious” literary world is completely ignoring the most important challenge to Homo Sapiens in 10,000 years.

Trexler builds the title of his book, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, published the University of Virginia Press, on a relatively new argument: humanity is the most potent geological and ecological force on the planet since the last Ice Age. The Anthropocene Era started with the invention of agriculture, but it picked up steam in the 18th century with the burning of coal to fuel industry, which turned the atmosphere into a dump for waste carbon. When a real-life “greenhouse effect” was first identified by science in the mid-20th century, intrepid sci-fi and thriller writers found fertile ground for storytelling. Continue reading

Review: Nature’s Confession is an impressive sci-fi epic

Nature's Confession is a sci-fi epic.

Nature’s Confession is a sci-fi epic.

Nature’s Confession is an impressive sci-fi epic with a multi-versal scope. On the one hand, it’s a young adult romance featuring a mixed-race boy named “Boy” and his infatuation with Valentine, a red-haired beauty with a talent for particle physics. On the other, it’s a speculative story of a family falling on hard emotional times as the father takes up with a female android, which leads the mother to pursue a career in interplanetary politics. Much of the action happens on an earth sickened by pollution and climate change. There’s so much going on that it’ll take two or three reads to take it all in.

The author, J.L. Morin, is fearless. She’s unafraid to cram teen love, the origin of the universe, time travel, and an unrelenting satire of modern life into 277 pages, hanging the text with digressions and neologisms like Christmas tree ornaments. My personal favorite new word is “busywork,” referring to the purposeless drudgery forced upon those of us droning along in cubicles by organizations whose leaders may acknowledge us once a year, if we’re lucky. The tone is a combination of Alice in Wonderland (complete with rabbit hole) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a dash of Gulliver’s Travels. Continue reading

Is fiction about climate change for real?

Still from Interstellar

Climate change is a driving force in Interstellar’s plot. Still courtesy Warner Bros.

The movie Interstellar opens on November 7 and climate change drives the story. Stills and leaked reports about its plot point to an agriculture irreparably damaged by global warming, forcing the protagonist to leave Earth in search of greener pastures. Commentators are lumping Interstellar into the current crop of post-apocalyptic thrillers, which include Hunger Games and Divergent. A few writers and activists are pegging it as “climate fiction,” though others say such genre thinking trivializes a disaster unfolding in real time.

Hollywood embraced global warming as a theme only recently. Young Ones, released on October 9, posits a future with little fresh water, and Into the Storm, which opened August 8, shows a small town devastated by a series of climate-driven super-tornadoes. Science fiction writers, however, have imagined a climate-ravaged world since the early 1960s. One of the most prescient early books is George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, published in 1987. His vision of an Australia flooded by rising seas is echoed by Paolo Bacigalupi’s Bangkok in his 2010 novel The Windup Girl. The Thai capital is kept alive by dikes and gates reminiscent of the Thames Barrier in London. Continue reading

Review: Peak oil fuels this dystopian survivalist novel

Cover image for In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, by Jennifer Ellis

Scientists, pundits, and self-appointed prophets paint the impact of climate change with brushstrokes of extreme weather, upended economies, and pandemic disease. It’s up to writers and artists to imagine the effects of these changes on human relationships. More and more writers are examining the possibilities and dangers of life in a warming world, including Jennifer Ellis, author of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, a dystopian survivalist novel that explores how people who grow up in a world of abundance cope with instantaneous privation.

Ellis’ imagined future may be happening right now. Economists say that we may have found all the oil that’s economically feasible to extract. From this moment of “peak oil” forward, further extraction costs more and more money. Production falls sharply, disrupting advanced economies. Natalie and Richard, a Vancouver, BC power couple before the peak, move with a select group of friends to a isolated farm in the British Columbia interior. Over the next few years, society collapses around them, and when we meet the couple and their tiny, self-sufficient community, slaving gangs roam the empty roads and overgrown countryside attacking isolated homes and towns. The farm’s inmates greet each stranger with suspicion, and guns settle arguments as often as words. Continue reading

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

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: 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