Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Can Imagination Change the World for the Better? – David Thorpe

Ever since 1962 when both Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and JG Ballard's The Drowned World (number one in his 'disaster quartet') were published, tens of thousands of non-fiction but perhaps only scores of fiction titles have addressed environmental and, specifically, climate change-related issues.

Ballard's quartet has been cited as an early example of 'climate fiction' or 'clifi', identified as a new label by the journalist Dan Bloom.  Climate fiction specifically contains references to climate change. I interview Dan about it here.

I would say that there are perhaps more clifi books for children/teens than adults.

Ian McEwan's Solar or Margaret Atwood's Madaddam trilogy are examples of clifi for adults.
Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block, Saci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries 2015, The Ward  by Jordana Frankel, After the Snow by S. D. Crockett and Georgia Clark’s Parched are examples of clifi books for older children. More are here.

But can fiction ever change minds? Or does it merely confirm existing attitudes in the mind of the reader who chooses to read a book of that nature?

And are more clifi titles aimed at children because their enquiring minds are supposed to be more open?

These questions are thrown into relief by research showing that logic and reason count for little in debates about the reality of climate change among adults.

Much clifi has concentrated on the destructive aspects of climate change, being variants of dystopian or disaster novels. New writer Paulo Bacigalupi, author of The Water Knife, has even coined a new term: "accidental future" novels, i.e. novels that describe an unintended consequence of present human activity.

There is a greater challenge, however, that fewer writers are engaging in with fiction – although plenty have in non-fiction – and that is to create stories in which people successfully tackle climate change, devising solutions that rise to the challenges.

There are a few, beginning with Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975) and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.   But can you think of any for children?

I believe it is essential that children are given hope that the future will not be necessarily full of catastrophe.

We should be empowering them. After all, so many children's books are supposed to do this, aren't they? "You can fulfil your dream. You can beat the bully. You can defeat the enemy."

But climate change is not something tangible or immediate, it is a vast and vague. It's scary and discouraging.
If we are to stimulate the imagination of the world's children so they do not feel hopeless and disempowered by the overwhelming scale and prospects of climate change, fiction must play a vital role in helping them envisage how they can successfully live in the future.

The winner of the Guardian Children's Book Prize 2014, Piers Torday's The Last Wild is a good example of an environmental fable that gives hope, but it is not about climate change.

Such fiction might show children what a successful future could be like and even paint a picture of a good place to be in that is realistic and possible. A future where not only are children given a full part to play in society, but society itself is structured in a way that works with, not against, nature.

There are plenty of non-fiction books that do this but non-fiction is for specialists (planners, politicians, engineers, architects), and fiction, especially if translated into film, can be for the masses.

Fiction reaches places that non-fiction can never reach.

So, writers, how about it? David Thorpe is the author of clifi YA fantasy Stormteller and the SF dystopia Hybrids.


Sue Bursztynski said...

For adult "clifi" I recommend George Turner's The Sea And Summer, which is set in the Dandenongs after rising seas have drowned Melbourne. The overseas edition might have a different title.

taiwan77 said...

very good and thoughtful blog post David Sensei! PS -- footnote: PAOLO BACIGALUPI embraces #clifi slowly, sort of, see his edited Q and A on cli-fi -

David Thorpe said...

Thanks Sue, will check out Turner's book.

Nick Green said...

My Firebird trilogy is this genre. Sort of. That's not a plug, though. This is a plug: =D

Stroppy Author said...

I was with you until 'non-fiction is for specialists (planners, politicians, engineers, architects), and fiction, especially if translated into film, can be for the masses.' That's astonishing! More people read non-fiction than read fiction and they read it for pleasure, not because they are planners, politician etc. That is a very particular type of non-fiction. There are very obvious examples of people who write non-fiction for 'the masses', from George Monbiot to David Attenborough. Oh, and, er, Rachel Carson. The whole concern with the environment amongst ordinary people began with Silent Spring, which is a non-fiction book. They are both needed, and together can reach a broader market.

David Thorpe said...

OK, yeah, you're right of course but there is only a small degree of overlapping of the audiences, is what I was clumsily trying to say, and I was thinking of my own technical writing on energy management or renewable energy, the practical how-to stuff for engineers and architects, and the academic stuff, the professional development or course material stuff for project managers and policymakers, public administrators and builders, of which there are hundreds of thousands of titles, not the likes of Monbiot and Naomi Klein whom I agree are the cheerleaders for the movement.

David Thorpe said...

@Nick - great, will check it out. This article has BTW attracted much attention on Twitter and as a result a few of us authors mentioned in the piece have formed a Facebook group called Clifi.authors. Do look for it and sign up everyone.