How would King Arthur’s knights cope with a climate-changed world?

King Arthur painting

James Archer painted The Death of Arthur in 1861. King Arthur lays mortally wounded after his final battle. He waits for a ship to take him to the Isle of Avalon.

My wife and I drove from Seattle to Powell’s Books in Portland a couple of weeks ago to satisfy an itch. At this point, I’ve written three novels and eight shorts in the world of Carbon Run, but the project has run its course. Is there another way to explore the idea of a post-global warming world in which protecting the environment is the society’s single most important value?

For a variety of reasons, my mind turned to fantasy, which is odd, because I’ve never been attracted to epic fantasy, or high fantasy. I found Tolkien too dense and I shrugged at most other dragons-and-magic stories. Having said that, I enjoyed the early novels in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”). He plays down the wand-waving and flying lizards shtick in favor of character development and relationships.

This led to a realization: I do enjoy at least one fantasy tradition: the Arthurian legends. It’s easy to forget that these romances were the literary fiction of the High Middle Ages, and they’re full of magic objects, fabulous beasts, and so on. The stories of King Arthur are as much about greed, lust, pride, loyalty, bravery, and family drama as they are about enchantments and floating castles. Merlin, as an archetype, gets a lot of play in modern fantasy, but his role is relatively limited, though important, in the Arthurian stories. I like that. Continue reading

Overheated: A weak narrative undercuts the urgency of climate change

Overheated cover

Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change

Climate change is one of the most difficult subjects to tackle, and I admire any writer who attempts it. Though the reality of climate change is not in doubt—repeat, NOT in doubt—so much of its impact is speculative. Scientists can predict the rise of sea levels, the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice, more powerful hurricanes, and so on, but no one can say with certainty how these will affect humanity in any detail.

In Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, Andrew Guzman takes his best shot. The University of California, Berkeley law professor tries to show how global warming will change the lives of practically everyone on the planet. Clearly worried about the power of denialists, led by President Donald Trump (though the book was written before his election), he answers each of the counter-arguments with unassailable rigor. If this were an argument before a judge and jury, he’d win going away.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem with this 2013 book, and many books like it. With a couple of notable exceptions, he offers few anecdotes or detailed speculations on climate change effects you and I might experience. The best story concerns the Chacaltaya Glacier, which disappeared from a Bolivian mountain in 2009. He also offers an alarming scenario involving disputes over water between two nuclear powers: India and Pakistan. Beyond these, however, much of the future impact of warming is theoretical. Writing about the potential for water wars, he says, “[C]limate change threatens to magnify existing risks, perhaps making the difference between an uncomfortable peace and a shooting war.” It’s hard for average folks to get excited about these unseen margins. Continue reading

Despite Trump’s denialism, 2017 could be a bright spot in the fight for planet Earth

global warming illustration

2017 may be a bad year for climate change policy. Or maybe not. Image courtesy Earth.com.

I’ve taken inspiration from climate change. As a writer who loves speculative fiction, everything from Star Trek’s optimism to Margaret Atwood’s dark literary visions, I see global warming as fertile ground for storytelling. You might even say I’m taking advantage of the worst crisis to hit planet Earth in three million years.

That only counts in fiction.

When it comes to real life, it’s hard to be optimistic about the fight to fix the crisis, especially after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. He is a denialist of the first order, calling climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. The claim is ludicrous, resembling a post-truth, fake news story.

Virtually all his major picks for high-level posts in his administration reflect a similar view. Scott Pruitt, tapped to head the EPA, uses the three percent of scientists who question climate science as a reason to ignore the 97 percent who know it’s human-caused. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State designate, while acknowledging increasing CO2 in the atmosphere, says its impact is “very hard for anyone to predict,” despite the solid record of predictions going back decades. Of all Trump’s selections, Rick Perry is the worst. “I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects,” he said. That’s simply a lie.

As president, Trump will have a powerful voice. Thankfully, because of America’s diffused political structure, he’s not the only voice.

As president, Trump will have a powerful voice. Thankfully, because of America’s diffused political structure, he’s not the only voice. When you look at what states and localities are doing, I come away with hope that all is not lost. Continue reading

Dammit. Now we have to deal with the “alt-climate.” And they’re going to be in the White House.

Commander-In-Chief, Denier-In-Chief Meme

President-elect Donald Trump has picked Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. Pruitt is a climate change skeptic and part of what I call the “alt-climate.”

Donald Trump believes that climate change is a “hoax” perpetuated by China, and his pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, will be his hatchet man. Oklahoma’s attorney general has pooh-poohed climate science, arguing that the lack of 100 percent agreement among scientists that climate change is human-caused is evidence that they might all be wrong. It’s not only twisted logic, but it’s scientifically ignorant. Disagreement is how science moves forward; it doesn’t indicate a failure to understand what’s happening.

First we had to deal with the “alt-right.” Now we have to deal with what you could call the “alt-climate,” deniers who’ll roll back desperately needed efforts to combat climate change, the biggest existential threat to humanity since… never.

Alt-climate, a noun referring to a group of delusional idiots in loose agreement that climate change is a hoax, unreal, or false.

Pruitt’s friendliness toward the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma is probably the best indication of how he’ll treat climate change. He’s one of the leaders of a lawsuit aimed at rolling back regulations meant to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. Whether the regs might “kill” jobs is irrelevant if we reach a point where having a job is a luxury because the earth is toasted by global warming.

Scott Pruitt isn’t the only Trump pick who’s skeptical of climate change. The “alt-climate” cabal in Trump’s cabinet, according to an excellent analysis by independent news site Climate Central, includes Stephen Bannon, who views climate change as a “con,” Reince Priebus, who has slammed the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Jeff Sessions, who repeats debunked research denying increases in global temperatures, and Mike Pompeo, who has called the Paris Agreement a “radical climate change deal.”

I don’t mean to suggest that deniers are racists like those in the “alt-right.” However, they exhibit a similar post-truth attitude toward the fact of rising global temperatures and its impact on the planet. No one wants white supremacists in government, but we’re getting deniers instead.

Worse, apologists for Team Trump have already tried to wrap their reactionary threats with environmentally friendly rhetoric, saying Trump wants to keep the nation’s air and water clean, just not so much. Their real targets are activists on the “environmental left,” presumably bomb throwers such as the Sierra Club and Ducks Unlimited. Don’t be fooled. The greens will soon be under attack by policy-makers who prefer black gold to a healthy planet.

Update: Trump has named Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke as his Secretary of Interior. Zinke’s stand on human-caused climate change is unclear, or even on climate change in general, saying that “something is going on.” However, he is not well-liked by climate activists.

Earlier reports said Trump wanted Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, also a Republican, as his nominee. However, she will stay in the House of Representatives. McMorris Rodgers is opposed to greenhouse gas regulations, and she has denied humans have anything to with climate change. “Scientific reports are inconclusive at best on human culpability of global warming,” McMorris told a newspaper in her Washington State district.

What do you think of the idea of an “alt-climate?”

Review: Augments of Change salient in a time of racial tension

Augments of Change cover

Augments of Change

America is going through another paroxysm of racially tinged violence, reminding everyone of our failure to reconcile our history with our ideals. In my own lifetime, the country has experienced urban riots (e.g, Watts in Los Angeles), violence after the Rodney King verdict, and last week, two more in a long string of deaths of black men at the hands of police, followed by the mass murder of five Dallas policemen by a African-American assailant with a military-style assault rifle. It’s as if a murderous virus is spreading through the culture.

The news has left the country morose and pessimistic. People feel that the issues of race, as well as related issues of immigration and income inequality, will never be resolved or mitigated. As citizens of a democracy, we’ve entered a time of madness when everyone whom we don’t know and don’t agree with is The Other. We’ve lost the ability to listen to and respect other views. Demagogues such as Donald Trump say out loud what many people feel, forgetting that civilized behavior in the public sphere requires a certain suppression of thought and feeling in order to get along without fearing someone will strike back in anger. Respect and tolerance are out of style.

Speculative fiction writers have long tried to tell stories of race. In an genre dominated until recently by white men, only a few black voices have stood out, among them Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and N.K. Jemisin. Less well-known in the sci-fi mainstream is Kelvin Christopher James, whose most recent novel, Augments of Change, takes the myth of race, as well as it taboos and tropes, and turns it on its head. His unique voice brings a new clarity to race as an illusion that influences daily thought. Continue reading

Review: A faux-paleo world with email stumbles on its contradictions

Knocking on Heaven's Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

A strain of environmentalism sees civilization as a mistake, a wrong turn in history taken 10,000 years ago at the invention of agriculture. The error sparked a chain of events taking us down the path to global warming and if you extend the trendline, global apocalypse. It would’ve been better if the first seeds sown by humans had fallen on rocky ground or were choked by weeds, goes the logic.

That civilization might be an intelligent adaptation to a harsh, dangerous, and above all unpredictable environment (Will I find game this week? Are enough berries ripening this season?) doesn’t figure in this thinking. The success of farming and the resulting rise of urbanization has meant a paradise lost. Fiction writers in particular are prone to view our hunter-gatherer past with envy, seeing our ancient ancestors as “in harmony” with the earth. Continue reading

Two thoughts about the future U.S. Supreme Court

We come in peace to replace Antonin Scalia with Gort.

We come in peace to replace Antonin Scalia with Gort.

meme

Humans get justice at the Supreme Court. How about some justice for me?

The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia last weekend turned national politics on its head. Not only will Americans elect a new president, but the Senate will debate the future direction of the highest court in the land. The situation makes me wake up in the middle of the night with meme ideas. What fun! Here’s what comes to mind.

How a flu shot got me thinking about memes

meme

For the love of God, Fred. No one wants to see your Angela Merkel impressions.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of ways to make my blog more “likeable,” which is a way of saying “less boring.” It’s a well-established fact of online life that outrageous gets attention and traffic, but my posts tend to be on the ponderous side, mostly because I’m not very good at provoking reactions or ranting about every little thing. My writing voice isn’t suited to it. When I do write a rant, I feel that I just look angry, which doesn’t win friends or followers.

I’ve also got an instinctive aversion to self-promotion, a vital skill for a self-published author. My reluctance comes from a very old-fashioned value that regards ostentatious emotional displays as unseemly and distasteful. Talking about yourself too much is a sign of an ego out of control. It’s fine for politicians and celebrities, but not for ordinary people. None of this works to my benefit in a media environment where ego rules, and one has to shout like a maniac to be heard. Continue reading

What is the role of a writer as climate change creeps up on us?

Conference

People in suits gather in Paris to decide the fate of a climate-change world.

It’s a ripe scene for satire. Twenty-five thousand bureaucrats and another 25,000 hangers-on are gathered in Paris at COP21 to exchange climate change jargon over sustainable wine and cheese. It’s hard, however, to ignore the seriousness of their effort, especially as a pall lingers over the city three weeks after the November 13 terror attacks. The spectacle of so many people in sensible shoes working as one reminds me that most problems are solvable with elbow grease and cooperation. Best to leave them alone to do their jobs.

Maybe I’m a little jealous. It must be exciting to be part of an effort that could save the planet while exchanging tips on the best places in France for glamping. Instead, my head is buried in my laptop as I try to tell stories about survival in a future that no one can predict with any certainty. Even if COP21 is wildly successful, the planet will still warm by a couple of degrees, and millions of mostly poor people will have to cope with the changes. Continue reading

How writers can read The Grapes of Wrath as climate fiction

Farmer and sons during a dust storm.

John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath serves as a model for speculative fiction writers interested in portraying the effects of climate change. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Great fiction dramatizes times, places and attitudes it was never meant to illuminate. Shakespeare’s plays are loved today, despite the sometimes impenetrable language and unacceptable sexism and racism, because they reveal the universal. For several years, I’ve been interested in how fiction authors deal with climate change, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of the better attempts, if you choose to interpret it this way.

In case you skipped your American Literature class, or forgot to watch John Ford’s film adaptation, the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the Joad family from the loss of their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s through their migration to California’s Central Valley. They descend from a life of gentile poverty to one of desperate survival. Continue reading