From a best-selling novelist, something rare: A plot built around climate change
Good novels often focus on people, not themes, making climate change a challenging issue to represent in fiction.
Thu, Dec 20 2012 at 1:11 PM
By Jennifer Weeks for 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.
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 whey 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.
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.
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.
"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."
"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.
Jennifer Weeks is a freelance reporter based near Boston.
This story was originally written for The Daily Climate and was republished with permission here. DailyClimate.org, published daily, is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change.
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