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Few A-list Novelists Tackling Climate Change in Their Plots

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By Jennifer Weeks, The Daily Climate

Barbara Kingsolver's novel, "Flight Behavior," opens with a scenario that could have been ripped from a Harlequin Romance: Dellarobia Turnbow, a restless young housewife in rural Feathertown, Tenn., is walking into the woods to meet a man who is not her husband. Things take a turn, as they always do in fiction. But this turn is not the usual one. 

High on a mountainside, Dellarobia sees a strange and gorgeous phenomenon: a valley glowing orange, trees seemingly consumed by silent flames. 

From best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver, something rare: A plot built around climate change. Credit: Barbara Kingsolver

At first Dellarobia thinks she has witnessed a miracle – "a vision of glory to stop her in the road." In fact, she learns, an enormous swarm of monarch butterflies has settled on her family's land, far from their usual wintering zones. Ovid Byron, a biologist, arrives to investigate when they have veered off course. He believes climate change is altering the butterflies' migration path and may be steering them toward extinction. 

Doomed by human actions

To others in the novel, the butterflies are a blessing, a headline, a nuisance. Meanwhile, Byron and his graduate students have Dellarobia pondering other ideas: Drowning islands, disappearing coral reefs, an entire species possibly doomed by human actions. 

Few novelists as prominent as Kingsolver have tacked climate change, to some critics' dismay. And much of what exists isn't very good, according to research by Adam Trexler, a post-graduate researcher at the University of Exeter in England. In principle, climate change should be a useful plot line: It has widespread and varied impacts, so stories about it can be set virtually anywhere. There's abundant scientific research to draw from. And the issue raises profound questions about time, the future, and human relationships with nature. 

But although climate change has generated thousands of non-fiction books, it only appears in a handful of novels (some frequently-mentioned titles, such as Cormac McCarthy's 2007 bestseller, "The Road," are set in collapsing future worlds but don't specifically tie those conditions to climate shifts.). 

The problem with climate change as a theme is that good fiction is always about people. So Kingsolver's book, which gets readers to empathize with a believable protagonist trying to understand the topic, may be more persuasive than any number of futuristic stories missing a strong character who can connect readers to the author's detailed, dystopian picture of a warming world. 

Critics' barbs

But even an author of Kingsolver's talents could not build a novel around climate change without attracting some barbs from critics.

Flight Behavior" (HarperCollins, 2012) has received mostly positive reviews, but there are dissenters. The Los Angeles Times called the book "an environmentalist parable," and Slate termed it "fiction that largely serves to deliver information." Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles praised the book but questioned the need for more like it, arguing that "novels aren't particularly effective at articulating political positions or scientific facts."

Those views reflect a longstanding debate among critics and scholars: Should fiction educate readers, or just tell good stories? Kingsolver and other A-list writers who have tackled climate change come down somewhere in the middle: they are passionately concerned about the issue, but say their job is only to raise questions, not serve up answers.

Another example

T.C. Boyle's 2001 novel "A Friend of the Earth," cuts back and forth between the 1980s and a world ravaged by floods and drought in 2025. Credit: T.C. Boyle

An early example, T.C. Boyle's 2001 novel "A Friend of the Earth," cuts back and forth between the 1980s and a world ravaged by floods and drought in 2025. Boyle's hero, Tyrone Tierwater, is an aging former ecoterrorist who asserts that "to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people," but ultimately he doubts that he has accomplished anything.

Boyle has explored environmental themes in many of his novels and short stories. "I am obsessed with our relationship to the world: Why are we here, and what gives us the right to dominate other animals?" he said in an interview. But his goal, he emphasized, was not to educate readers. "I write stories to interpret the world as best I can. Whether it will help raise awareness or not, I can't say," Boyle said. 

Another best-selling author, Ian McEwan, wrote "Solar" (2010) after visiting the Arctic Circle on an expedition organized to educate writers and artists about climate change impacts. His leading character, Michael Beard, is a Nobel laureate in physics who is researching artificial photosynthesis – attempting to make fuel directly from water and sunlight. Beard, although brilliant, is a compulsive womanizer whose personal crises undermine his career.

Human failings

"The best way to tell people about climate change is through non-fiction," McEwan said in a 2010 interview. "But what I wanted to get across [by writing about a highly flawed character] is a sense of how difficult this task is going to be."

"Flight Behavior" is also about human failings that impede progress – in this case, communication gaps. At a reading in Cambridge, Mass., last month, Kingsolver said she wanted to write a book about "the great non-conversation we're having on climate change."

Close-up of Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." Credit: Jen Kim/flickr.

"How do we choose what to believe?" she asked her audience. "Why is it that the more we know, the less we talk across the widening divisions in our society?"

The story does include a healthy dose of science. Kingsolver earned a master's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology and was partway through a dissertation before deciding to become a writer. 

She chose displaced monarch butterflies because the concept was dramatic, evocative and plausible, she said: climate change and deforestation threaten monarchs' ranges in the United States and Mexico. Several academic experts helped Kingsolver develop her scenario and reviewed a draft of the book. 

'Novels can't preach'

But Kingsolver cautioned that she did not set out to sell climate science to readers. "Novels can't preach," she said. "Flight Behavior" describes how scientists work and think – and also how unsatisfying their explanations can be. When Ovid Byron asserts that "Science doesn't tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is," Dellarobia replies, "That must be why people don't like it." 

Kingsolver believes that climate change is happening ("There's no serious doubt," she said in Cambridge), but "Flight Behavior" sympathizes with those who have far more immediate concerns. 

The book shows how alien a concept climate change is to Feathertown's low-income residents. They are caught in "the great slog of effort" to get from one day to the next, battered by the economy and freak weather patterns. "If Ovid Byron was torn up over butterflies, he should see how it felt to look past a child's baby teeth into this future world he claimed was falling apart," Dellarobia reflects. 

In such conditions, climate denial is a logical response.

The Daily Climate is a nonprofit news service covering climate change, and a Climate Central content partner.

Comments

By Charles Foster
on December 28th, 2012

What about Michael Crichton’s “State o Fear”? A highly successful novel related to Climate Change.

Reply to this comment

By john harkness
on December 30th, 2012

I don’t know whether novels can preach or not, but they can certainly inspire action and either reinforce or alter values. And certainly few truly great novels were merely “tell good stories.”

From Harriet Beecher Stowe to Victor Hugo to Dickens, the great writers set out to shape the moral context of their times.

It is time for more of our writers to pick up this mantel and help us, through fiction, to understand the nature of our multiple predicaments around us and of the moral imperatives before us.

Reply to this comment

By dan in illinois
on December 31st, 2012

Charles,

I thought the same thing when I read this.  Of course, Crichton was quite critical of the Climate Change folks, which means that his books are automatically ignored at this website.

Reply to this comment

By dan in illinois
on January 2nd, 2013

john,
Would you have the same comments if the author, like Crichton, is telling the readers that the “moral imperatives” of the Global Warming group is that it is largely a scam?

Reply to this comment

By Mary Woodbury
on January 5th, 2013

My press published a novel in e-book form, which is coming out in print this year, called “Back to the Garden”. Not a preachy novel, it focuses on character relationships and adaption to a new world. I feel that there are more and more novels relating to climate change, and it is a good thing. Facts and figures are needed to provide evidence but are sometimes ignored due to not being that enticing. Literature and art that evoke emotion may help to sway people on this subject. http://www.moonwillowpress.com/?p=2010 for anyone interested.

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