A few weeks ago Barnes and Noble published a blogpost entitled “Does Science Fiction Have a Moral Imperative to Address Climate Change?” This is an interesting, if leading question – this post ended up being more of a survey of the small subgenre of “cli-fi” – climate change driven science fiction. It’s a subgenre near and dear to my heart, and several of the books mentioned are ones I often recommend to folks looking for near future reads.
But there was something really lacking from this post and I want to address it here. Climate change isn’t just a near future issue. It’s a contemporary issue, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is actively changing our lives right now. What I think is most interesting is not the moral imperative to address climate change, but the craft imperative. Especially for writers of contemporary fantasy and science fiction.
I’ve been reading the book The Uninhabitable Earth on the recommendation of Kameron Hurley, who cited it as a must-read for folks writing near-future science fiction on her Twitter. One of the things that the author, David Wallace-Wells, repeats often is how we are already seeing the affects of climate change in little and big ways, and how big and almost inconceivable that change is. As he writes, “The climate system that raised us….is now, like a parent, dead.” This book is looking towards the future, but recognizes that we are already stepping into this new world.
Setting is an important element of any narrative, and one of the most commonly used settings in many forms of literature is our own time, our own world. This is especially true in contemporary science fiction and fantasy, where cutting edge scientific improbabilities become real and werewolves own cellphones. Increasingly, I question whether stories set in our time, in our world, can seem realistic without, if not addressing the moral and political aspects of climate change, addressing the real effects. If there is no recycling, are no electric vehicles, no bike lanes or pressures for better cycling infrastructure, no Meatless Mondays and local food movements and paper straws, does the book really feel contemporary? Or is it similar to reading a story published in the 90s and the sense of disorientation you, the reader, feel when someone reaches for their beeper?
The world continues to change. We see Harvey and Maria and Katrina, Sandy and Florence, the Paradise fires. We see solar panels and Teslas, Zika and the emerald ash borer. This is our new reality.
If you’re writing contemporary fiction, you’d better be paying attention.