Will novels save the world?

Our guest book reviewer is John Atcheson who has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks (see “Utility decoupling on steroids.”)  He is working on his own novel about climate change.

Sometimes, fiction is the best way to win friends and influence people — H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and George Orwell’s classic, 1984 come to mind.  Each provoked a visceral reaction that galvanized the culture around it, changing forever the way issues such as class and totalitarianism were perceived.  Neville Shute’s On the Beach made the consequences of nuclear war real, and therefore, unthinkable.

In a scientifically illiterate culture such as ours, these kinds of myth-based meta-narratives may be the best way to communicate complex scientific issues like climate change.  Myths, as Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell revealed, are not necessarily false, nor are they automatically at odds with science.  At their best, they provide another way of viscerally experiencing a truth.

A spate of novels and movies that feature climate change as either an overt part of the story-line, or an implicit backdrop against which mythical heroes strive may be creating the critical mass for a cultural awakening that allows climate change to be perceived at that pre-rational level – the kind of limbic awareness that motivates change. Or so we can hope.

Full disclosure – I am at work on a trilogy that tells the story of one man’s struggle to prevent climate change, and to survive it and preserve some small part of nature when he fails. is getting sent a steady stream of books – fiction and non-fiction – centered on global warming.  I’ll be reviewing the best of these from time to time, beginning today with Far North, by Marcel Theroux (yes, he is related to writer Paul Theroux – he is his oldest son), (Farah, Straus, & Geroux), and Primitive by Mark Nykanen (Bell Bridge Books – available online).   These novels are worlds apart in conceit, yet each is thoroughly enjoyable.

Far North, takes place in Siberia in the not too distant future in a world transformed by climate change.  The central character, Makepeace, is among the last surviving members of a Quaker settlement that retreated to Siberia from America to avoid the excesses of a materialistic society and a changing climate. By the time Theroux’s story begins, civilization has collapsed, bands of the lawless and dispossessed roam the land, and Makepeace lives a solitary life with her books and her garden, protecting the remnants of a ghost town against the occasional hoards of criminals that pass by.

Climate change is a backdrop – the setting on the stage in which the story takes place.  It is rarely mentioned, but integral to Makepeace’s existence. An understated leitmotif that runs throughout the novel, but doesn’t dominate it.  Theroux gets the science right.  Winters still snow; Siberia is still cold – though not as cold; and precisely because of that, it has attracted climate refugees.  It is, the Wild West, set in the East.

Against this backdrop, and beset by grief over the death of Ping, a pregnant wanderer  Makepeace  has adopted, Makepeace sets off on a journey that will be familiar to readers and moviegoers.  Like the Father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli Theroux’s protagonist wanders through a post-apocalyptic Hobbesian world where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short — a world in which the apex predator is man.

The resemblance to The Road goes beyond plot. With Far North, Theroux has accomplished what McCarthy has consistently done- he has written a literary novel that has clear commercial potential.  The characters are well wrought, metaphor is wound inextricably into character and plot, and it is clear that Theroux has bigger metaphysical fish to fry than a simple thriller typically offers.

For all that, it has plenty of thrills and surprises.  Three chapters into the novel, for example, Theroux literally pulls the rug out from under the reader, creating a forehead slapping moment akin to The Sixth Sense. Yet once he’s done with it, the novel moves forward relatively seamlessly, with the reader alert to the possibility of more twists and turns.

In the end, despite his ambitions, it is the novel’s story and plot that delights.  If there is a flaw in this novel, it is that coincidence and serendipity have been invoked too often and too obviously to serve Theroux’s literary ambitions.  Yet it remains a good read that renders climate change as a reality and a palpable force to be reckoned with and avoided.

Mark Nykanen’s Primitive makes no literary pretensions.  It is a thriller pure and simple – the reader hops into a rocket sled and holds on for dear life, in a nail chewing ride full of action, gut wrenching fear and genuine terror. There’s no getting off once you’ve boarded.  So leave yourself some time.

Nykanen, who was an investigative reporter for NBC news before becoming a novelist, is adept at weaving plausible conspiracies, and his experience as a counter-culture reporter in his early career is put to good use in Primitive.

The story opens when middle-aged model, Sonya Adams, lands a job for a fashion shoot in Montana.  But almost immediately, she is kidnapped and used as a pawn by eco-terrorists. Sonya – a good hearted but politically clueless protagonist – is thrust into an epic struggle between the government, corporations, and the primitive cult that has kidnapped her and taken her to their secret compound Terra Firma.

Nykanen also gets the science right for the most part. The eco-cult is using Sonya’s abduction to orchestrate media attention in a carefully staged campaign to draw attention to a top secret CIA report they’ve obtained.  It details an imminent threat of extreme climate disruption caused by methane releases from the Arctic tundra and near-shore clathrates. The Primitives skillfully issue a series of podcasts featuring Sonya, counting on the presence of a “white woman in distress” to spin up media interest, and soon it does, complete with nonstop coverage of “The Terror at Terra Firma.”

Sonya’s disaffected daughter sets off to find her, followed by the FBI, a truly sinister “contractor” and an anti-terrorist task force.

The novel’s ending, in true thriller fashion, brings all these ingredients together in a harrowing face-off.

One of Nykanen’s best achievements is to allow the reader to experience the way the eco-cult is transformed in Sonya’s eyes.  As she learns what it is they are trying to accomplish and what is at stake, they grow to seem more sane than the society she’s been abducted from.  He also manages to skewer the media, the government, and big bad oil, without too heavy a hand.

While the pace is quick, Primitive does wander into the land of the didactic, and the science, although plausible, drifts into the pedantic on occasion. But there are enough thrills to compensate for that.

Purists and literalists may quibble with some of Nykanen’s portrayal of sudden climate change, but as I was about to accuse him of hyperbole, I was reminded of the last line from Elizabeth Kolbert’s  Field Notes from a Catastrophe:

“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

Given the stakes, one can forgive Nykanen a little hyperbole “¦. if hyperbole it be.

20 Responses to Will novels save the world?

  1. Andrew says:

    Ultimatum, by Mathew Glass, is also worth a review. It gives a really interesting look at the geopolitical world in 20 years if we fail to slow emissions.

  2. Gary says:

    from Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book…”we need to brace ourselves for a
    struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.’

  3. Several novels occur to me. James Miller, here in the UK, will be publishing SUNSHINE STATE, which is an effective, Ballardesque thriller set in the Florida of the near future.

    J.G. Ballard, of course, was writing about climate change fifty years ago, most notably in THE DROWNED WORLD and THE DROUGHT. A science fiction take on similar material – the response of being doomed to rapid glaciation – is at the heart of Doris Lessing’s THE MAKING OF THE REPRESENTATIVE FROM PLANET EIGHT.

    Maggie Gee has written directly and obliquely about climate change in her wonderful novels, THE ICE PEOPLE and THE FLOOD.

    Staying in Britain, one of the best imaginary accounts of the societal consequences is Sarah Hall’s THE CARHULLAN ARMY.

    I, too, have tried to address what seems to me an all-encompassing subject in my novel, SERIOUS THINGS. I didn’t take a futuristic tack. The reality of it is already here, and soon ‘naturalist’ writers will have to wake up to the fact.


    The response of fiction writers to climate change is a matter much discussed by the Dark Mountain Project, a cultural forum starting to make waves in the UK.

  4. prokaryote says:

    My problem with this book story.

    The Siberian Traps oozed up about 250 million years back, close to the Permian-Triassic extinction.
    The coincidence between enormous extinction and excessive eruption may raise a red flag about cause-and-effect, but just because the flood basalt could affect climate doesn’t mean it did.

    Toxic Gases Caused World’s Worst Extinction
    An ancient killer is hiding in the remote forests of Siberia. Scientists are starting to uncover the remnants of a supervolcano, that was walled off from western eyes during the Soviet era and that rained Hell on Earth 250 million years ago, killing 90 percent of all life.

    Researchers have known about the volcano — the Siberian Traps, for years. And they’ve speculated that the volcanic rocks, which cover an area about the size of Alaska, played a role in runaway global warming that led to the end — Permian mass extinction, the worst dying the planet has ever seen.

    Now a team of researchers led by Henrik Svenson of the University of Oslo in Norway have performed a series of experiments, showing the volcano employed an arsenal of deadly weapons during its 200,000-year-long assault on the biosphere.

    4,5 and 6 degree synopsis got removed – don’t have the book.

    Like this book and the movie book of eli, they all asume we can still walk around a few month/years after the initial new climate state established.

  5. Manda Scott says:

    Saci Lloyd’s novels, The Carbon Diaries 2015 and 2017 are both aimed at young adult readers, set in the near future of their respective dates, but both are evocative, intelligent and have engaging characters. Both well worth a read by adults and teenagers alike – with the take home message to both demographics that, when it comes, we’re all going to ask ourselves why we, the baby-boomer generation, didn’t do something sooner.

  6. adrian says:

    Thanks for this post.

    As an active member of Quaker Earthcare Witness and the Illinois Yearly Meeting Environmental Concerns Committee, I look forward to reading Far North. It seems fitting that the protagonist should be a Quaker.

    Anyone interested in the Quaker approach to care of the environment may go here:

    Quakers–or Friends, as we often call ourselves–do not hold that science and religion are incompatible. I know many scientists and science educators who are also Quakers. We have been working to help create productive responses to environmental problems, including global climate disruption and environmental justice issues, for many years.

  7. david g swanger says:

    Straight science fiction has been dealing with global warming longer than any other set of fiction writers; one of the earliest examples would be a fairly benign warming of Canada in 1954’s A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn (who won the International Fantasy Award the next year). It was a background element, rather than front-and-center, as it would be in most books in which it featured. Ballard’s work (mentioned above) focused on catastrophe, but not the science, to which he was relatively indifferent (as evidenced by The Crystal World in which African forests become crystallized by disturbances in time), shuffling through different disasters which his entropic protagonists learned to accept. Like Dick or Bradbury, he was a great artist, but his work was not what’s called “hard science fiction”, which strives to be scientifically informed.

    In the late Sixties and Seventies, the theme cropped up more persistently (usually in the background as in Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!), and perhaps most notably in Philip Wylie’s litany of ecocatastrophes, The End of the Dream, in which the melting of Antarctic icecaps by coal mining there is the climactic blow, seeing sea levels rise hundreds of feet. But perhaps the first (and finest) novel written whose main theme is global warming, written in awareness of the science, was 1987’s The Sea And Summer, by the Australian sf writer George Turner. Retitled Drowning Towers for its American publication in 1988, it’s a story within a frame set in the far future during a new ice age, in which a character reads an account from the near future greenhouse world of the title. It shows life, not in a postcollapse wilderness, but a crowded city beseiged by a higher ocean, where you’re either one of the elite Sweet, or the far more numerous Swill. It is a novel of character in a savage time, with the backgrounds all too plausible sociologically and climatologically, and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1998.

    I would have to give second place to the only climate change trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days And Counting… Robinson is determinedly optimistic, but even he has to leave things open-ended in a story focused on scientists in Washington trying to make the right things happen. I should also mention David Brin’ Earth (an ambitious kitchen-sink novel with debts to John Dos Passos in its structure, much like John Brunner’s similar Stand On Zanzibar) and the tighter but still-sprawling future thriller Mother of Storms; however, I should say that both of these have to resort to (almost literal) deus ex machinas to make things end well. Also, props to Bruce Sterling, whose novel Heavy Weather features megatornados caused by warming, and whose most recent book, The Caryatids, follows three (clone)sisters around the world, variously engaged in managing or repairing the damage done by the climate shift Earth is suffering from. He has also steadily used greenhouse problems, with increasing prominence, as part of the background of his otherwise unrelated novels about the 21st Century, and has been warning about the road ahead in his nonfiction since at least the Eighties.

    So the field offers quite a few books in which global warming is central, should anyone care to sample them. At least those whose professional concern is the future (among other things) have not been idle or quiet on the subject.

  8. mike roddy says:

    I have deep respect for the Quakers, but fear that if we don’t act soon, and things get out of control, violent warlords will be the order of the day.

    I love to read, but what we really need is a movie. Bob Pool, a screenwriter friend (Outbreak, Armageddon) once told me that a movie that goes straight to video is seen by more people than a bestselling novel. Movies not only reach much larger audiences, the effects are more visceral and transformative. If one of the books above becomes a bestseller, it could become this movie, but the media are different enough that you can’t make assumptions here.

    This movie will have to attract independent financing from the beginning. Blockbuster movies- required for high production values- cost at least $150 million to make and market. It will need to be on this scale because the setting is likely to be grand, as in Siberia or the Arabian Desert.

    There are currently eight major studios, and all have deep ties to banking and industrial interests, including fossil fuel companies. That means they won’t fund anything that is too revolutionary, and explains why movies with these themes appear as allegories, such as The Road and Avatar. People aren’t aware of this change in the last 25 years or so because they remember transformative movies, and haven’t noticed that they would not be made now. Examples are Dr. Strangelove and The China Syndrome.

    Soros or Berkle needs to step up here, and hire someone to strictly read and develop scripts on this topic. If it’s good enough, and it comes from the heart, the movie will get made with support from a wealthy philanthropist. The fact that Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon feel passionately about this issue will help things along. I would guess that both are looking for the right script on this topic as I write. Unfortunately, they get hundreds of scripts tossed at them all the time, and hacks from the crappy movie industry we see today get a front row seat for meetings.

    A great movie will have more of an effect than all of the print talk put together. The fact that so many people feel passionately about this subject, including Climate Progress contributors, is a good start. The best movies are the ones whose stories have obviously inspired everyone on the set. That should be easy to accomplish here, with the right script.

    Disclosure: I wrote one myself, but would be more than happy to see a better one appear.

  9. david g swanger says:

    I forgot to add above the new writer Paolo Bacigalupi, but I shouldn’t have; no one’s work, in any branch of fiction, is more ecologically aware or urgent.

  10. prokaryote says:

    “Straight science fiction has been dealing with global warming longer than any other set of fiction writers”

    Our Angry Earth: A Ticking Ecological Bomb, (1991) is a non-fiction book and polemic against the effects humankind is having on the environment by the science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl. In his last non-fiction book, Asimov co-writes with his long-time friend science fiction author Frederik Pohl, and deals with elements of the environmental crisis such as global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer.

    It suggests monumental disasters are threatening to destroy humankind and argues that “it is too late to save our planet from harm”. The book has four sections: “The Background”, “The Problems”, “The Technocures” and “The Way to Go”.

  11. adrian says:

    This is great! Am looking forward to a powerful lot of reading.

    And a big shout out to Margaret Atwood and William Gibson. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Ursula LeGuin, whose Always Coming Home years ago addressed many climate/enviro issues, as did The Word for World is Forest. Not to mention the novels currently being produced by the peak oil folks such as James Howard Kunstler and John Michael Greer, who include global warming as an important element in their post-collapse scenarios.

    I don’t think speculative fiction has to include “hard science” to fruitfully address the social consequences of human society’s anthropocentric refusal to live within planetary systems limits. After all, we are really talking about the results of human traits that the Greeks labeled hubristic and which every culture’s myth cycles and belief systems warn against indulging.

  12. Robert says:

    A savvy, intelligent, eco-thriller with a misleading title is The Rapture by Liz Jensen, a current best seller in the UK but virtually unheard of in the US.

    The novel is set in the near future and the earth is plagued by dangerous levels of global warming and related natural disasters, which Bethany, a very troubled teen, has the ability to foresee. Bethany is under the psychiatric care of Gabrielle, a wheelchair-bound social worker who also has her own demons to wrestle with.

    The science is well-grounded, the writing is taut, and the main characters are three-dimensional people we grow to care about. The Rapture deserves a wide audience, especially here in the States.

  13. GFW says:

    I agree with Mike Roddy that it will require movies to reach a truly mass audience. (And any such movies must be a lot better than that silly piece of crap, “The Day After Tomorrow”)

  14. Duncan Crary says:

    James Howard Kunstler also has a new eBook titled “Big Slide” which tells the story of a family living through the collapse of the U.S. It’s not meant to be a prequel to “World Made By Hand.” But it definitely covers related ground.

  15. Chris Winter says:

    Joe Romm asks, “Will novels save the world?”

    I know this is a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer it anyway.

    Ralph Nader apparently thinks they can — or at least that his can save the USA. I haven’t read his novel Only the Rich Can Save Us, and I’m not likely to; with rare exceptions, my reading time goes to non-fiction these days. (But some of the novels listed in this thread may become exceptions.)

    But, certainly, it can be compellingly argued that the answer is “Quite possibly.” It was Herbert George Wells, after all, who observed that “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.” His novel War of the Worlds influenced Robert Goddard, America’s rocketry pioneer, to choose his career, and Wells’s novels remain influential incentives for professional careers — as do science-fiction (and fantasy) novels in general.

    Carl Sagan cited Edgar Rice Burroughs as his inspiration. Donna Shirley, manager of some Mars Rover projects at JPL (and now head of a Seattle museum) named The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke. Many engineers and scientists credit early reading of science fiction as at least part of the reason they chose their careers.

    So in the sense that SF leads to involvement in technical work, and technical work leads to inventions that change the world, the answer is almost certainly yes. I have no doubt that the novels based on climate-change scenarios listed in this thread will inspire a fresh cohort of scientists and engineers.

  16. prokaryote says:

    “my reading time goes to non-fiction these days”

    And there are many audiobooks for those who like to listen to asimov, segan etc.

    Currently i listen to science in antiquity by lawrence principe and several asimov books. I listen to it on my mobile phone or when surfing the internet and even while i sleep ;)

  17. Wit's End says:

    mike roddy, as you know I agree with you completely. I would add that I think a movie set in contemporary times is critical, and a screenplay from “Primitive” might be perfect as a way to convey the science in the setting of a thriller that would appeal to a broad audience. The problem with “The Road” and “Eli’s Book” and “Avatar” is they are science fiction, and easily dismissed as fantasy.

    Eco-terrorists (or petrified MIT students perhaps) staging a kidnapping of a model, or some energy corporation CEO’s – and demanding that coal plants be shut down for their release, could lead to some very exciting suspense and explosions (which appear to be essential to attracting large audiences). And the real science could be incorporated at the same time.

  18. david g swanger says:

    To follow up a few other posters…

    Prokaryote: of course, I was focusing on fiction, but you’re right, both Asimov and Pohl sounded clarion calls on environmental issues both in fiction & nonfiction for decades. Our Angry Earth is a fine, passionate book, marred only by a slight datedness, due to the velocity of the changes in the science & the climate.

    Adrian: LeGuin, Gibson & Atwood all deserve mentions, too. But I was trying to focus on books in which climate change was the main focus or key concern, which didn’t, to my mind, quite describe anything by those particular writers. Though they’re certainly all deeply environmentally aware, warming tends to be one of many elements or in the background in their works, whereas John Barnes, say, starts Mother of Storms with a “clathrate gun” going off, creating the titular storm, a hypercane which impinges on every other plot. If one wants to read general environmental sf, there’s quite a lot out there, and one might look up “Ecology” in Nicholls & Clute’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction for suggestions (though nothing more recent than 1994, when it came out).

    As for “hard science fiction”, I’m trying to think of things valuable didactically as well as artistically, with some potential as agitprop, which is bolstered by sticking to the facts. Ballard says interesting things about the odd human love of destruction & self-destruction, but often in surrealist terms which I think is easier to blow off than more realistic work. Of course, realism can pose its own problems when the science changes, as it did with Stan Robinson’s work cited above, which pivoted on the Gulf Stream cutting off due to warming, which now seems much more unlikely than it did a few years back.

    Mike Roddy & Wit’s End: I agree, sadly, that movies will have more impact than books, no matter how great or best-selling the latter. I think Turner’s Drowning Towers would make a splendid film in the vein of something like Children of Men, and as a character-oriented novel, has some juicy roles for actors. It could easily be filmed mostly in the more dismal sections of Sidney, say, with the towers of the title & the seawall being the only major special effects. And Australia seems to be taking climate change more seriously these days than we are, and I think might be more receptive to the project than Hollywood, especially since it’s a home-grown book. It might also more easily attract one of several fine Australian directors, such as George Miller (of The Road Warrior & Happy Feet) or Peter Weir (of The Last Wave & The Truman Show).

    However, a movie featuring the archetypal Man (or Woman) Who Learns Better & joins the other side (such as Avatar) seems really unlikely to work to me, at least if it adapts Primitive. I can’t be the only one to think that a movie that features ecoterrorists as heroes is suicidal; it feeds the worst fears some have about Greens. Look at the flak Avatar has received from the right about its ecomessage & perceived endorsement of military traitors. A movie in which a hostage learns the truth from her captors seems far too dismissible as cinematic Stockholm Syndrome to me, and seems like a terrible idea no matter how exciting and action-packed a thriller it might be. I’d prefer something that shows the end result we’re heading for and makes it as plausible as possible.

  19. david g swanger says:

    Forgot to mention Solar, the new novel by Ian McEwan that’s coming out soon, about solar power & global warming. The only review I’ve read (in Publisher’s Weekly) wasn’t encouraging, but McEwan is often regarded as one of the best novelists Britain has, and can write literary novels of the highest quality that are also best sellers, too (such as Atonement).
    He’s fascinated by science and knows his stuff, and has also been adapted for movies at least twice (Atonement & Enduring Love). I’m still hoping for great things from this one.

  20. prokaryote says:

    Considering the date of this book …

    I listen to Our Angry Earth now and it is like reading current news.
    Some numbers would need updates but basicly i can recommend this as a must read.