Monday, 4 May 2015

When Writers Try to Predict the Future - David Thorpe

I'm very excited because this month I am to achieve a long-time ambition of being on stage at a literary festival. Not just any literary festival, but Hay, and not just once but twice! I'm not at all nervous, no.

Both events are part of the festival's 'green' strand.

The first will be about my new non-fiction book The One Planet Life where I will be in conversation with Jane Davidson, director of INSPIRE and a fellow patron of the One Planet Council.

The second will be to do with children's writing and climate fiction, where I will be joined by Saci Lloyd, Jane, and climate change campaigner George Marshall. I hope other members of the Facebook group of cli-fi authors will be there, too.

Saci, plus other cli-fi authors, took part in a week of activity on the Guardian's children's books website last month about writing about ecological and environmental matters for children, culminating in a Twitter chat [#GdnEcoChat] on the evening of World Book Night with Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Kate Kelly, Sarah Holding, Tony Bradman and others.  The Guardian's record of it is here.

One of the questions that was asked was: is cli-fi just a passing fad? My answer, which was favourited a few times, was: 'NO! We've only just begun! One day all books will contain an element of cli-fi. They'll have to.'

It's now recognised by almost everybody that climate change is real and happening and caused by human beings burning fossil fuels. Any story that is set in the future which paints a picture of a world that hasn't been affected by climate change in one way or another will just look daft, especially if read in a few years' time.

It doesn't have to have disasters in it, it doesn't have to be a dystopia and it doesn't have to be science fiction. The lives of any characters, whether living 10, 50 or 200 years in the future, will have been affected in one way or another, whether it is how they get about, what the technology is like, what their home is like, or where they live.

I usually write about the near future. Stormteller and Hybrids both take current trends and extrapolate them, but the former is almost exclusively cli-fi and the latter only contains one tiny nod to it: a description of a swollen River Thames in London.

The novel I'm writing now is set in 2089-2104 and, while it is not about climate change at all, I still have to describe the ways that people get about (in their self-driving electric cars, rapid transit buses, or high-speed trains), the buildings that people live and work in (where attempts have been made, successfully or not, to retrofit them to save and/or generate electricity and to bring nature back into cities), the food they eat and where it comes from, the energy they use (all kinds of renewables), where the coastline happens to be (usually not where it is now) and what has happened to former seafronts.

This is a radical reimagining of life. It's neither dystopic nor utopian, just looking at how life and society might have to adapt in one way or another.

In this election there has been little talk of climate change, but all of the main parties (even UKIP, but with the striking exception of the DUP) recognise the huge contribution the low carbon or clean technology sector already makes to the UK economy, employing as it does close to one million people. Inevitably this contribution will continue to rise. Some parties (LibDems, Greens) attach more importance to the way that green jobs can make life better and improve the economy generally. It's a win-win-win scenario.

Yes, predicting the future is notoriously difficult, but the predictions about climate change have, ever since 1993, been consistent in saying that a certain list of impacts is likely to happen; exactly when is less certain.

We also know that human nature tends to leave everything to the last minute, only responding to disasters when they are imminent or actually happening.

Put the two together and you begin to get an idea of the way things might go; except that climate change is not one disaster but a whole succession of transformations with all sorts of ramifications that will continue for the next few centuries.

In the past, quite a few writers who have tried to predict the future have found life imitating art, such as Ray Bradbury's description of “little seashells… thimble radios” that brought an “electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk” in Farenheit 451; John Brunner’s description of electric cars powered by fuel cells and Detroit as an abandoned wasteland in Stand on Zanzibar; tablet computers in Arthur C Clarke's 2001: A Space Oddysey; Google Glass type goggles in Willliam Gibson's Neuromancer; not to mention ubiquitous people watching (CCTV) in Orwell's 1984.

Not written for kids? Actually, almost all of these books I read as a teenager.

I will leave you with two thoughts: encouragement to contemporary writers not to ignore developments that are consistent with a world predicted by climate science, and the infographic below that I discovered, which records many predictions made by writers that have come to pass.

David Thorpe is the author of cli-fi YA fantasy Stormteller and the YA SF Hybrids.


Dawn Finch said...

Great post, and I love the infographic too. I'm a great fan of sci-fi and futuristic writing and the balance between the real and the imagined is so hard to achieve.
Great advice.

David Thorpe said...

Thanks Dawn!