Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Telling It Not Slant

Climate change is not the only kind of disaster that could bring our species to an end (as it already has many of our fellow species), but its special genius is that it can generate other catastrophes—disease, war, starvation, thirst, mass migration, fire. 

I’m sure you’ve read more post-apocalyptic fiction than I have. Not all is modern. Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man, for example, published in 1826 and set in the 21st century, follows well-born refugees who flee from a plague-ridden England to the European continent. But if you’re a science fiction fan—these days it’s often called speculative fiction—I know you’ve read a lot more futuristic tragedy than I have. I’m more interested in the near than the distant future, however. I’m afraid I won’t be strong enough to face it.  If I can write about it, if I can fully imagine characters who do face it, I might be able to locate what so many people, including my classmates in Wales, have found lacking in me, some small measure of hope, or maybe courage.

Firefighters today, 70 miles east of Sacramento, where I was born.*
Here are some thoughts I had during the workshop. We didn’t discuss them—I didn’t have the chance to bring them up--but we talked about plenty of other, slantier things. I’ll get to those.

Climate can function as the setting of a story.  Settings are traditionally about mood. A stormy climate on the one hand or a quietly dying planet on the other (food crops unable to survive, people and animals dropping off) would establish a different intensity of mood than the foggy streets or deep forests of fiction set in the present. Stories like this could be about love affairs, home invasions, the loss of fortunes, or just about anything else, with climate change pushing in around the edges, serving as a reminder, more potent than we’re used to, that life is short.

I can’t think of an example of this kind of book right now—can you?—but I believe it’s the kind I’d like to write.

Climate change can also be the engine of the story. This is the way it’s being used most often, as plot. The action is the characters' attempt to survive.

1)   The story can begin after a definitive catastrophe, as in The Road, Benjamin Percy’s new book, The Dead Lands, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, or James Kunstler’s A World Made by Hand.  A few human survivors must remain; otherwise, no story.

(But pick up The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction book that predicts in detail what the earth might look like and how it would change in our absence if humans died all at once.)

Survivors might be building new communities, as in Kunstler’s upstate New York, or living out their days in struggle, as in The Road.  In Station Eleven, the goal of the Shakespeare company whose exploits we follow is not just maintaining life, but transcending it. Its motto is “survival is insufficient.”

The world before these stories start is sometimes visited in flashback. In Station Eleven, the back story is only a quick hop away, achieved without a lot of explanation, since many of the characters were in the same place the night the epidemic began, at a performance of King Lear in Toronto. We get a sense of the lives they’ve led before the disaster by witnessing how they behave themselves right before trouble comes, and what they do when it strikes. After that they head off in different directions, coming together again, some of them, as fate (and the author) determines.

2)   The story can start now, or even twenty years ago, and move forward steadily into the near future. I’m happy to have an excuse to bring up one of my favorite books of the last few years: Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. Groff sets us down in an American commune formed in the 1960s, as seen through the eyes of one of its children. Over the course of the book, the older generation mostly dies off, and the kids have kids of their own. We see this second group of parents and children a few years from now, living in a city, after the commune has been mostly abandoned and when epidemic illness begins to take its toll. We see the land on the commune change, too.

What we don't see is some huge power struggle, some evil genius who's trying to take over the settlement, as in Kunstler's book and Percy's, even briefly in Mandel's. (Don't ask me about The Road. I've never had the guts to read it.)

The great thing about the strategy of stretching a timeline from now into the future is that when the characters are faced with hardship of a new kind, we already know how they faced previous challenges. We know them deeply.

More later.

Every commune needed one, but my friend Ruth owns one now. She drove me to the hospital in it. I think hers was made by Toyota. 

*Photo credit: International Business Times