Brenda Cooper and Joey Eschrich Guest Post–“From Guilt To Hope: Why We Write Climate Fiction”

In the shadow of several years of climate chaos, from devastating hurricanes and unforeseen droughts to migrant crises, climate fiction is experiencing a surge of popularity in speculative and other literature. There is an emerging global consciousness that climate change is present and urgent, and that it affects all of us even if its impacts vary wildly depending on who and where you are.

Climate fiction often depicts people who feel powerless, disenfranchised, or ignored by their elected leaders and the powerful. It can help readers grapple with the effects of climate chaos. It can help us retain hope, break our current cultural and political deadlock, and understand the levers of power and change. It illuminates the “why” of our current situation, what we might lose along the way, and what possible futures might look like. 

Climate fiction offers hope and despair. Both emotions are crucial to coming to terms with our guilt, confusion, and anger about climate. Both emotions help us seek the best future possible.

Stories about hope, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent New York 2140 (2017) and the emerging subgenre of solarpunk, illuminate key decision points and shine light on tools that could allow us to survive the crisis. After all, we have at least most of the technology we need to limit climate change and keep our planet livable for humans and other species. In 2140, in Annalee Newitz’s “Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy” (2014), and in the visions of the future in the solarpunk anthology Glass and Gardens (2018), we see how careful deployments of clean-energy and low-carbon technology, biomimicry, urban design, and environmental policy could shape futures that are bracingly different but not mired in catastrophe.

Despair stories, of course, promise to shock us into attention and action. Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, and other foundational works of climate fiction not only explore the weird, wild, and tragic consequences of climate chaos, but also emphasize how climate change is poised to exacerbate existing inequalities around gender, race, class, national origin, and more. Bearing in mind that climate change promises to reshape all of our environments differently—melting glaciers, bleaching coral reefs, burning mountain forests, flooding coastal cities—these stories are also acts of love. They are, as Robinson has argued, elegies for places that will be irrevocably transformed or destroyed. Bacigalupi’s Water Knife imagines his home, the U.S. southwest, parched by drought and torn apart by intra-state and intra-city conflicts over scarce water supplies. Richard Powers’ The Overstory mourns the impending doom of California’s magisterial giant redwood trees, ravaged by human overexploitation and droughts supercharged by climate change. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior tackles what some activists are calling “global weirding” in Appalachia, where the miraculous arrival of millions of monarch butterflies presages an era of instability, a world in flux.

These stories rouse us to action, but importantly, they also give us an opportunity to process our grief about living on a planet in which extinction and environmental devastation have become commonplace. Grieving through stories and other forms of creative tribute, acknowledging what we’ve lost in the fire, is necessary as we forge a new livable human future on Earth.

Columbia Books on Architecture and the City (James Graham) just published A Year Without a Winter, a unique climate fiction book which uses short science fiction, essays, and visual art together to begin imagining new relationships between humans and the environment in the wake of planetary cataclysm. We (Joey Eschrich and Brenda Cooper, with help from Cynthia Selin) acted as the fiction editors. Inspired by project editor Dehlia Hannah’s vision, we took inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, sometimes considered the first science fiction novel. Shelley originally conceived her story in 1816, “The Year Without a Summer,” a climate crisis caused by a volcanic eruption in modern-day Indonesia that led to crop failures, floods, and famine. Two hundred years later, with climbing global temperatures threatening to unleash a Year Without a Winter, we convened science fiction authors and experts on climate science, environmental history, and public policy in Arizona to imagine human futures shaped by climate change.

The project was supported by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and School for the Future of Innovation in Society. These sponsors provided access to the experts, space for a workshop, and funding for an overnight sojourn to Arcosanti, an experimental city in the desert built by visionary architect Paolo Soleri as a living embodiment of practical hope, a test bed for new ways that humans might dwell in harmony with, rather than at the expense of, the natural world.

A Year Without a Winter has a unique structure, with a fiction section printed on different paper, with distinct design and typography, sandwiched in the middle of nonfiction, art, and excerpts from Frankenstein. The book features four original short stories, by Tobias S. Buckell, Nancy Kress, Nnedi Okorafor, and Vandana Singh. Each story is built around a struggle for survival: a band of time-hopping brigands searching for a timeline spared from climate devastation; a curious but wary journalist trailing a billionaire with world-saving ambitions; an expectant mother struggling with misogyny, corporate governance, and inscrutable technology in an environmentally transformed Nigeria; a network of interconnected people coping with creeping anomie and cynicism in a future filled with monsters both mechanical and otherwise. All of collection’s protagonists are conflicted, wrestling with engulfing despair and stubborn bouts of hopefulness. They reflect back to us a fight we all have to restage every day with ourselves, as we try to stay connected and informed, to catalyze change when it seems remote, too enormous to confront.

We are very proud of this work. The physical connection of the writers and editors to each other and to the scientists in Arizona created a shared experience that birthed four fabulous stories. Three of the four stories earned spots on the Locus Recommended Reading List. We hope that this unique book will bring speculative fiction stories to readers who might not have otherwise been exposed to them, and that people in the SF community will sink into the rich essays, interviews, and art that were born of the same conversation that started these stories.

Brenda Cooper is a writer, a futurist, and a technology professional. She often writes about technology and the environment. Her recent novels include Keepers (Pyr, 2018), Wilders (Pyr, 2017), POST (Espec Books, 2016), and Spear of Light (Pyr, 2016). She is the winner of the 2007 and 2016 Endeavor Awards for “a distinguished science fiction or fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author or authors.” Her work has also been nominated for the Philip K. Dick and Canopus awards. She lives in Woodinville, Washington with her family and four dogs.

Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager for the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, and an assistant director for Future Tense, a partnership between ASU, New America, and Slate magazine that explores emerging technologies and their effects on society and public policy. He has coedited several books of fiction and nonfiction, including the climate fiction anthologies Everything Change (2016) and Everything Change, Volume II (2018) and Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities (2017), which was supported by a grant from NASA.

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