Amazon describes Singles as a vehicle for presenting “”¦ compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.”
It’s about time.
Historically, authors had two choices when writing a piece – magazine articles of less than 10,000 words, or book-worthy tomes exceeding 50,000 words.
A few outlets, such as The New York Review of Books, Harpers, or the Atlantic Monthly will publish pieces longer than 10,000 words, but even in these magazines, the novella and long-form journalism are constrained or ignored completely.
Conversely, many important topics are routinely expanded into full-length books by repetition and over-explanation, rendering exciting ideas stale and boring.
This situation hurt both authors and readers – the options were to give short shrift to important ideas, or explore them to death.
Enter Singles. Authors now have a choice of lengths, and journalism and literature are the better for it, and so are readers.
Amazon has made it convenient and affordable to purchase Singles titles, which can be easily downloaded on a Kindle or a variety of other platforms, for a price that ranges from 99 cents to a few dollars.
Powell’s 2084 – a piece of fictional journalism modeled on Studs Terkel’s interview technique — was made for Singles. Much shorter, and it wouldn’t have covered the ground it needed to cover, much longer and we’d be itching for the end. But at 91 pages (print equivalent) it is a compelling and absorbing work.
Powell clearly hopes that fiction can save the world. The book is a retroactive history of the toll global warming has taken on the Earth as told through the eyes of eighteen observers in the year 2084 – an obvious homage to another future history, George Orwell’s 1984.
The sense of regret and loss permeates the book, and at their best, the individual interviews evoke a righteous anger as well.
For example, the interview with Tavau Toafa – in 2084, the last person alive to have been born on the island of Tuvalu – recounts his grandfather’s (who was Tuvalu’s last Prime Minister) poignant observation as he leaves the island for the last time:
As our islands sank beneath the horizon, soon to sink beneath the waves, he knew that he would never return and that our flag would never fly again. To have to abandon your homeland is one thing; to have it vanish entirely is another.
An interview entitled “The Fall of Rotterdam” chronicles the final chapter in the Netherland’s struggle against the sea. It’s not giving away the story to say they lost.
Powell is a scientist, and he puts his considerable knowledge of global warming and feedbacks to good use. Floods, fires, storms, rising seas, disease, famine, refuges and warfare – including a war between the US and Canada – are the leitmotif for nearly every interview. He weaves repeating major events into several of the interviews which helps establish a certain verisimilitude to the chronicle, rendering it all the more chilling.
He also does a good job of forecasting the kind of political horrors the challenges embedded in global warming are likely to ignite. A chapter entitled America First looks chillingly like the logical conclusion of the fascistic right wing leanings we see in today’s politics. He is equally convincing in describing how global warming-induced water shortages combine with ethnic and religious hatred to ignite a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or how water shortages inevitably lead to yet another tragic war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The one thing missing from this work of fiction is the personal. For many, the cavalcade of disaster may start to feel like a litany – oft repeated, but rarely heard.
In the end, what I’ll call “social action” dystopic fiction’s most powerful aspect may be to make us see the consequences of our actions through the eyes of characters we’ve come to know, trust and care about, and to appeal to our emotions as much as our reason. In On the Beach, when we watch Peter Homes plant a garden he knows he will never harvest, it speaks louder than a thousand essays. When Winston Smith and Julia defy Big Brother and engage in a love affair in 1984 we cheer their defiance, fear for their well-being, and curse their betrayal of each other. The totalitarian presence is not something we know in the abstract, it is visceral and personal, and we hate it at every level.
Powell’s choice of format didn’t allow for this kind of connection between reader and character, but it did enable him to give a realistic portrait of the world that awaits us – perhaps inevitably now.
John Atcheson 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.