February 11th, 2015


Editor, Sierra Magazine; Author, Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man

Author, The Ministry for the Future


Novelists and filmmakers have been mining the rich world of science for generations. Throughout the last century, science fiction has turned to real-world threats, such as nuclear war and plague, for its post-apocalyptic scenarios.  More recently, environmental issues have moved to front and center in the narrative, in films such as Interstellar, Snowpiercer, and Wall-E and best-sellers from Margaret Atwood, Nathaniel Rich, and Jennifer Egan.  

H.G. Wells foreshadowed this trend in his 1895 novel The Time Machine. But while the prospect of a devastated earth in a far distant future probably didn’t inspire many Victorians to recycle, today’s readers can clearly visualize a much more immediate threat. Climate change is more than a plot device – the signs are all around us. Can Cli-Fi help rally the troops in our battle to save the planet?

Jason Mark, editor of the Earth Island Journal, recently visited The Commonwealth Club to talk about the role fantasy can play in the climate change story. He was joined by Kim Stanley Robinson, author of several Cli-Fi novels, including Forty Signs of Rain and his latest, 2312.

Mark has taken note of the prevalence of climate change in novels and films. “I just started to notice it popping up more and more,” he told the audience. “Not necessarily always as an explicit theme; often as a plot point, something that [might] launch the novel or launch the story or launch the film…And that’s in some ways more interesting than, you know, a book about climate change.”

Science fiction, explains author Robinson, splits very neatly into two sub-genres, utopias and dystopias, both of which can help readers imagine where civilization might be heading. “Utopia is your hopes,” he continues, “if I do these things, and things go right, I'll get to a good state.

“And dystopia are your fears - if I keep doing these bad things and bad things result, I’ll get to this bad state. So both utopias and dystopias are very, very useful.”

Mark recently published an Op-Ed in The New York Times in which he decries the solution put forth in Interstellar that mankind’s salvation is only a wormhole away. But he’s “cautiously optimistic” that film and literature can move hearts and minds in ways that think tanks and scientific journals may not.  

“A big blockbuster motion picture film, it's just popcorn, right?” Mark suggests. “It’s like people might not have their guard up as much. That would be my hope - that it might be able to come in from a side door and maybe get people to think about things differently.

“It might not move a denier to being James Hansen,” he adds, “but it might take someone who is maybe a little bit skeptical, say about the science of anthropogenic global warming and climate change, and get them to maybe think about things a little differently.”

Robinson credits Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia with kickstarting the environmental movement of the ‘70s.  “It changed people's lives, it changed their thinking,” he remembers. “I think it was the ‘60s generation, growing up in thinking ‘how do I live my ideals, how do I take care of my kids?” While the 80’s brought global changes that might have rendered the ideas in Ecotopia quaint, Robinson believes its message remains strong.

Science fiction – whether in novels, movies or comic books – is usually thought of as an escape. But immersing oneself in a fantasy world can be a powerful experience, as well as a tool for change, says Robinson. “For a while there, you're living other people's lives,” he tells the room. “It's a very emotional business.  And once you get to the emotional level, you begin to process in a different way than you do when you're reading the news in a more cognitive sense.”

Such storytelling can help us identify with the struggles faced by future generations in an eco-dystopia.  “That’s what fiction does,” he continues. “You are in a different world.  It's telepathy, it's time travel. You come back to reality and you have a kind of double vision.

“I believe that if it's done right it can change one's view….And it helps you to make decisions about, what do I do today to help the situation for my grandchildren? So the science-fiction double vision… is really a useful tool for figuring out what to do now.  It's a philosophical tool.”

Here in the 21st century, the planet’s story has yet to be written.  And while climate fiction might lean disproportionately toward doom-and-gloom scenarios, Robinson believes there’s still room for hope.  “Life is robust,” he reminds the audience. “There's many, many reasons for hope.  It's a natural human activity.”


Related Links:

New York Times Op-Ed: What Interstellar and Snowpiercer Got Wrong

The Earth Island Journal

Books by Kim Stanley Robinson

- Anny Celsi
February 11, 2015
The Commonwealth Club of California