Could novels about climate change shake us to our senses?
Cross-posted from Climate Progress.
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.
Climate Progress 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) and Primitive by Mark Nykanen. 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 — written a literary novel that has clear commercial potential. The characters are well wrought, metaphor is wound inextricably into character and plot, and it’s 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 that in 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, it’s the novel’s story and plot that delight. If there is a flaw, 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 counterculture 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. Nykanen 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.
Get Grist in your inbox