Climate Fiction

Someone told me the other day about climate fiction (cli-fi). I had no idea that it had become a genre. The difficulty with climate change, of course, is that it is slow. Anthropogenic climate change has been going on for more than a century, and is likely to continue for decades to come. The slowness of the process creates challenges for managing it, and also challenges for the novelist. It is a little like tying the hero to the railway tracks, and then having a train head to him at walking pace from miles away. The hero is doomed, but nothing dramatic will happen for a while. How does the reader sustain interest in the hero’s dilemma?

One solution for the novelist is to speed up the process, most commonly through a scenario involving a shutdown of the Gulf Stream. This would cause massive freezing in the US, a huge increase in Arctic ice, a consequent increase in albedo, and hence global cooling. This scenario has been explored in the film The Day After Tomorrow and in a trilogy of novels by Kim Stanley Robinson – Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). There seems to be a flood of recent novels following in Robinson’s footsteps.

More usually, novelists assume that a particular climate change scenario has happened, and set their novel in the aftermath. This literary approach has existed for a while. The novel may be primarily dystopian, as in The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard (1962) or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003).

Alternatively, the effects of climate change can simply be part of the setting, with the plot of the novel concentrating on other things. Much recent science fiction would fall in this category. A good example would be the “Event Horizon” trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton – Mindstar Rising (1993), A Quantum Murder (1994), and The Nano Flower (1995). However, I’m not sure it makes sense to describe such novels as “cli-fi” – they are simply novels in which climate change forms a significant part of the setting. What do my readers think?

Update: see also this 2016 article by Sarah Stankorb and this website with incredibly annoying background music by Dan Bloom (who claims to have coined the term “cli-fi”).


Lotus Blue: a book review

Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks (377 pages, published 2017)

I recently read, with great enjoyment, the hot new post-apocalyptic novel Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks. I’m a sucker for the genre, and this novel has shades of Dune, Mad Max, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and the works of Roger Zelazny – yet is not derivative. As a fan of the trans-Australia World Solar Challenge, I particularly liked the caravan of solar trucks on the cover. The cover also shows the falling satellite which marks the emergent threat to the world of the novel.

While opening with a solar-powered trading caravan, the novel has a few flashbacks to the three centuries of war that created the dystopian world of the story: “Mighty tankers were on the move, travelling in tight formation grids. Working together, not attacking each other. Not something you saw every day. Those mechabeasts had once roamed wild and free, following their own whims, their own flights of fancy. But something had changed. Something had gotten hold of their minds. Synchronous rhythm locked them into step. For Marianthe, the sight brought on a stream of flashbacks: glory days, when command and strategy spiked through her arteries like a virus. Like a drug. A platoon full of hearts beating in syncopation. You could feel your brother and sister soldiers, know they had your back, your breath, your sweat.” I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but of course that savage past collides with the protagonist’s present, and that’s where the adventure begins.

Some readers seem to have found the world, and the range of characters, somewhat confusing; I thought the level of complexity of the novel was just about perfect. I enjoyed both the characters and the world in which they were set. This book has had a fair bit of revision and polishing before hitting the shelves, and it shows (although a plethora of typos suggests some rather poor final editing). My only real complaint was that, although I liked Star, the 17-year-old protagonist, I would have liked to have seen more of her older sister Nene, the healer (why does Nene just vanish from the story?). With luck, this novel will have a sequel or two.

By the way, a blog post I read recently suggested that the protagonist of a young adult (YA) novel should:

  • Be aged between 15 to 18 years old (Star is 17)
  • Be autonomous from his or her parents (Star is an orphan)
  • Embark on a journey which has to do with coming of age or some sort of rite of passage (Yes, she does)
  • Learn something about who he or she is (Yes, in spades)
  • Have a ‘voice’ that readers can relate to (Yes again)

So OK, this is a YA novel, although it has not been specifically marketed as such. What that means is that it suits the age range from 14 up to and including adult (as opposed to, say, Great North Road, which is written for adults only). Having said that, for the benefit of parents of younger readers, I should point out that there is some bad language, but that the only mention of sexuality is 25 words on page 3: “Remy. Star should never have slept with him. He’d been hanging around her ever since, as if she would ever make the same mistake again.” And Star has quite a clear sense of what is, and is not, the right thing to do.

For me, this novel ended with a “Planet of the Apes” moment, since Cat Sparks has set part of the novel in the vicinity of her home town of Canberra, Australia. Calling one of the fortress cities “Nisn” was a clue I missed first time around – but I could hardly miss the reference to the Brindabella Range. I also finished this book with a strong sense of wanting to read more from this author. Lotus Blue was one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks: 4 stars

The Three-Body Problem trilogy: a book review

The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin

I recently read (in translation, of course) the popular The Three-Body Problem science fiction trilogy by Liu Cixin. These books explore the idea of first contact, and touch on several topics that I have posted about before (such as the Fermi paradox and the 3-body problem itself). I enjoyed reading them (the first two books more than the third). It was fascinating to read a Chinese view on some of the issues explored.

The novels are somewhat darker than classic Western science fiction, largely due to the shadow cast by the Cultural Revolution. But given the possibility of aliens like the Borg, the Daleks, and the Vang, perhaps interstellar optimism is just naive. And apparently, most contemporary Chinese science fiction is even more pessimistic than that of Liu (one of the characters in the first novel comments on this).

It seemed a little strange that Liu accepts the speed-of-light limit on space travel, but allows faster-than-light communication (which other authors have called an ansible). After all, both relativity and quantum mechanics forbid such a technology. Still, any depiction of truly advanced technology is going to read like fantasy, and the plot did require an ansible (although partway through the trilogy, the speed-of-light limit seemed to vanish even for ordinary communication).

These books (at least the first two) are well worth a read. Wired magazine also posted a review last year, and Nature had an interview with the author.

The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin: 3.5 stars

Stories of the Past and Future

Inspired by a classic XKCD cartoon, the infographic above shows the year of publication and of setting for several novels, plays, and films.

They fall into four groups. The top (white) section is literature set in our future. The upper grey section contains obsolete predictions – literature (like the book 1984) set in the future when it was written, but now set in our past. The centre grey section contains what XKCD calls “former period pieces” – literature (like Shakespeare’s Richard III) set in the past, but written closer to the setting than to our day. He points out that modern audiences may not realise “which parts were supposed to sound old.” The lower grey section contains literature (like Ivanhoe) set in the more distant past.

Ecological literacy and Frank Herbert’s Dune, half a century on

Dune by Frank Herbert

The year 1965 saw the appearance of what has been called “the first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale.” Frank Herbert’s Dune explored a plethora of interesting themes, notably that of ecology. The novel speaks of “… teaching [the children] ecological literacy, creating a new language with symbols that arm the mind to manipulate an entire landscape, its climate, seasonal limits, and finally to break through all ideas of force into the dazzling awareness of order.

The use of food webs, like the one for waterbirds of Chesapeake Bay above, was fairly standard by 1965, and Herbert seems to be hinting at a graphical language for ecology going beyond that. Exactly what he was referring to is unclear.

But are we teaching the kind of ecological literacy Herbert refers to? A 2013 survey indicated that, out of 145 US tertiary institutions ranked for “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology” and “Integrative Biology,” only 47% taught a course in ecosystem ecology or biogeochemistry, and only 22% of the courses included field experiences. A 1993 survey of UK secondary teaching (A-levels and GCSE) showed that students only studied a median of 2 or 3 different habitats:

So how many children actually understand, say, trophic cascades in the wolf–elk ecosystem? How many adults, for that matter? The evidence suggests that it’s not very many, judging by the resistance to sensible management of National Parks. If we do not wish to recreate the desert planet Arrakis, we might like to work on that.

On children’s novels

Having previously mentioned children’s fantasy literature, I thought I might follow up the theme a little more. In one kind of children’s novel, a group of child protagonists resolve some serious dilemma with little or no adult assistance (generally, the plot involves adventure of some kind). Such a story prompts the child reader to ask: “How would I handle a problem like that?” Of course, such a story also requires a reason for the lack of adult help. There appear to be four main possibilities, which I list below. Can my readers think of any others?

1: Complicit Adults

One common reason for the children to act independently is that the adults are complicit in an evil that the protagonists struggle against. A classic example is The White Mountains by John Christopher (1967). Thirteen-year-old Will is looking forward to his coming-of-age ceremony, until he discovers that this involves a mind-control device being implanted in his brain by the aliens who control the Earth. This kind of novel inevitably focuses on escape – in Will’s case, a dramatic journey on foot from England to the “White Mountains” of the title.

The White Mountains by John Christopher (1967).

2: The Desert Island

Another option involves stranding the protagonists in a location without helpful adults. The journey to this location can be undertaken through either physical or magical means, and the focus of the novel is on achieving some goal(s) and then returning home. A famous example is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900).

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900).

The “desert island” option can be combined with option #1 – that is, there are adults on the island, but they are pirates (or evil in some other way). An example would be the planet Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963).

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963).

3: The Unbelievable Story

Another way of ruling out adult help is by making the dilemma completely unbelievable, as in Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962). “‘The Chief of Police,’ Will said. ‘He’d listen to us—’ ‘Yeah,’ said Jim. ‘He’d wake just long enough to send for the butterfly net. Hell, William, hell, even I don’t believe what’s happened the last twenty-four hours.’

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962).

A somewhat less satisfactory variation of this option is simply to make the adults too busy to pay attention. Alternatively, the “unbelievable story” option can be combined with the first two. For example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) combines elements of all three options.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950).

4: The All-Out War

Finally, the dilemma can involve a conflict which is so serious that it forces the recruitment of what are essentially child soldiers. The City of Gold and Lead (John Christopher, 1968) and The Pool of Fire (John Christopher, 1968), the sequels to The White Mountains, are two examples.

The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher (1968).

Other examples of this option include Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card, 1985) and Tomorrow, When the War Began (John Marsden, 1993).

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985).

Of course, there are many other kinds of children’s literature, and protagonists may also be adults, talking animals, hobbits, or other creatures. But exploring those is out of scope for this post, which is already an odd one for a science blog.

Aliens, C. S. Lewis, and the Fermi paradox

A blog post on the Fermi paradox someone linked me to reminded me of an essay by C. S. Lewis entitled “Religion and Rocketry.” In that essay, Lewis gives an interesting analysis of the possibilities for non-vegetable alien life, and the religious implications that such life might have. For example, such aliens (if they exist) might be simply animals.

The xenomorphs of the Alien film series are not evil – they are simply (very) dangerous animals.

Alternatively, the aliens might have “the power to mean by ‘good’ something more than ‘good for me’ or even ‘good for my species.’” Of course, knowing about good does not mean that the aliens are good. They might be irredeemably evil, in which case it is better if we never meet them.

Orcs in the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien are irredeemably evil (artwork: Antoine Glédel).

On the other extreme, there may be alien species that have never turned from good to evil. C. S. Lewis’ own novel Out of the Silent Planet describes three such species, and in “Religion and Rocketry,” he describes the rather sad results that our contact with such species could have: “We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.

C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet describes three fictional alien species living on Mars: the hrossa, the séroni, and the pfifltriggi. All are free from evil.

The most interesting option is that of aliens who, like us, have tasted both good and evil. Writers of fiction have concentrated on this kind of alien, because they often lead to more interesting storylines, and because they hold up a mirror in which we can see some part of ourselves. However, that does not mean that such aliens exist. And if they do exist, the final resolution of evil in their species, Lewis suggests, may or may not be related to that in ours.

Underneath the makeup, Klingons are creatures much like ourselves. A little too much like ourselves to be truly plausible.

Of course, if we ever meet aliens like ourselves, and those aliens are stronger than we are, things might go as badly for the human race as they did for the Native Americans. One might dream of the opportunity “to interchange thoughts with beings whose thinking had an organic background wholly different from ours (other senses, other appetites), to be unenviously humbled by intellects possibly superior to our own yet able for that very reason to descend to our level, … to exchange with the inhabitants of other worlds that especially keen and rich affection which exists between unlikes.” But perhaps it’s best if that remains merely a dream, and that any (hypothetical) aliens remain far, far away.

The novel Footfall, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, presents a slightly more plausible alternative – aliens that have evolved from herd animals. However, things go badly for the human race when they decide to “stomp” us.

Avoiding any aliens that might be out there is particularly sensible if reality resembles some of the nastier fictional alien scenarios, such as those involving the Borg, Daleks, Berserkers, or Vang. Indeed, some people have suggested that the presence of powerful implacably hostile aliens might explain the failure of SETI to find any extraterrestrial intelligent life. On the other hand, silence might just mean that there’s nobody out there.

If “resistance is futile,” it might be safer to stay very, very quiet.