I recently posted some thoughts about climate fiction on two Reddit forums. The immediate response in both cases was a warning about “preachiness.” As one responder who borrowed from Tolkien put it, “Nobody wants to be interrupted while Frodo‘s struggling up the slopes of Mount Doom to be lectured about the effects of volcanic activity on the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases.”
Obvious, I suppose, but it obscures a real problem. Climate change is happening right now, in front of our eyes, and deliberately avoiding it in near-future speculative fiction—arguably all fiction going forward—ignores a major, albeit subtle, element in readers’ lives. If you write a contemporary or near-future story taking place on an ocean beach, for example, you are committing an act of literary malfeasance by failing to at least mention rising sea levels.
Deliberately avoiding climate change in near-future speculative fiction—arguably all fiction going forward—ignores a major, albeit subtle, element in readers’ lives.
Skeptics of this approach, however, make a good point. Climate activists often rely on apocryphal language and imagery. Growing up and living in the Pacific Northwest, a hotbed of environmental activism, including global warming, I’ve seen and read plenty of “The end is nigh!” rhetoric over the past five decades. It’s tiresome and boring, and it shuts down debate instead of encouraging constructive discussion.
When a writer proclaims his desire to portray climate change in his novel, or simply makes it the backdrop of the story, it’s easy to label him an “alarmist” in the same way fervent believers in a religious tradition are dismissed by non-believers as “fanatics.”
It may be difficult for writers to avoid this kind of stereotyping. Activists and skeptics have badly polarized the discussion of climate change, transforming it from a discussion of scientific evidence into a debate about worldview. In this environment, even the term “climate fiction” gives a story the whiff of a religious tract, wrecking an opportunity for a good writer to present her narrative about love, sex, money, power, or any other universal theme within the context of a warming planet.
The challenge for a climate fiction writer is presenting the context without standing on a soap box. Success comes when a reader or reviewer admires the quality of the writing or the interesting characters while offering an “oh, by the way” comment about global warming or other environmental themes. A good plot, three-dimensional characters, and a clever turn of phrase always trumps polemics. A bit of sleight-of-hand will have far more power than a grand gesture.
Check out my Six Rules for Writing Climate Fiction. How do you feel about “preachiness” in environmental fiction?