Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Climate change: would Cli-Fi help?

This novel by Jim Laughter (2011) is mostly forgettable, but at least it may be a start for a new genre.

They say that Americans spend almost three hours per day watching TV, which seems to be the world record. That means that a large fraction of their time while awake is spent into a fictional universe which has little to do with reality (that includes most of what is referred to as "news"). That may be the reason why Americans are the least concerned in the world about the threat of climate change. Apparently, fiction easily trumps reality, at least as long as the hurricane doesn't flood your house or the forest fire vaporizes it.

Apart from extreme cases, indeed, fighting fiction with reality is a hopeless task. Scientists know (or should know) this very well. For decades, they have been trying to convince the public that climate change is a serious problem and they have been doing that by writing incomprehensible papers that nobody even tries to read. No wonder that they had no success facing the fossil fuel lobby, which, instead, as been spinning one fancy tale after another; from the "hide the decline" conspiracy, to the "you forgot to take into account water vapor" accusation. Unless the public is hit hard by the consequence of climate change, they will always prefer a fancy tale to hard facts. And, even then, when reality strikes in the form of the various climate related disasters, they have other priorities rather than worrying about reducing their carbon footprint.

So, it seems that in the clash of fantasy and reality, reality usually succumbs, at least in the short run. Then, can we fight fiction with fiction? Could we transform climate change in a tale? Can we spur action on the basis of a tale? In principle, it should not be impossible: people act on the basis of their worldview and this worldview is normally largely based on narrative; just think about the current predominant vision, the one that says that liberism and the free market will solve all problems. Is it based on hard facts? Not at all, it is pure fiction.

So, a number of attempts at a new literary genre that goes under the name of "Climate Fiction", or "cli-fi" may explore the concept that dramatizing climate change could make it understandable to normal people. Does it work? Well, so far the attempts seen in this field have been less than memorable. One example comes to mind; "the day after tomorrow" of which it was said that "This movie is to climate science as Frankenstein is to heart transplant surgery." In terms of Cli-Fi novels, we seem to be gearing up for something interesting but, so far, the list of recent ones is very short and not especially impressive.

A cli-fi novel that I read recently is "Polar City Red", by Jim Laughter, published in 2009 by Deadly Niche Press. As a novel, it is, ahem....  let's say that it is not among the best novels I can think of. It starts from a reasonable - although not very original - premise; the idea that governments secretly created "polar colored cities" (of which the one of the title is the "Red" one) where a small number of people were to take refuge to escape the disaster created by global warming. But the development of the story is all based on cardboard characters and on a plot which goes nowhere and which has holes as big as a Siberian methane crater. If we really want to find something nice about this novel, let's say that if it is to be a start of a new genre, it is not really worse than the pulp fiction of the 1930s, which gave rise to what was later called "science fiction." After all, you have to start from somewhere!


  1. Have you read much Kim Stanley Robinson? He's been writing popular science fiction about climate change for decades. "Forty Signs of Rain" from 2004 (which I'm just now rereading) and its sequels address the crisis and its intersection with the Washington, D.C., establishment.

    1. No.... I didn't know this author. I am trying to make myself a little culture on the last cli-fi wave. So far, I didn't find anything that I would qualify as good literature, but - who knows? I may try this suggestion from you.

    2. I'd second Tom Allen's recommendation - Robinson has a good grasp of how scientists and politicians work. The "Forty Signs of Rain" trilogy is worth a look.

  2. Hey, I appreciate the comments, even though not all are flattering, all reviews are welcome. In defense of PCR, I didn't write Polar City Red to make a global statement, and I didn't write it to change the world. I wrote Polar City Red the same way I buy a candy bar. I buy candy bars to unwrap them to see what's inside, feel the texture, enjoy the taste, then forget about it, which is what a book should be. Polar City Red is a story, nothing more. It gives a reader a few hours of escape from an otherwise hectic and sometimes dismal existence. The review called the characters in PCR cardboard. I call them an eclectic collection of possibilities. They're the characters we imagine ourselves to be when we escape our reality. If you're looking for a book that answers great global questions, save your $2.99, this isn't the book for you. But if you want to read a story that takes place in one possible future, that introduces you to characters that you can relate to, and that just might open up your eyes to the possible dangers of environmental irresponsibility, then spend the $2.99 and sit back with a cold drink. If not, War and Peace is still available, and I understand The Great Gatsby is still doing well. Jim Laughter, Author, Polar City Red ...

  3. Hello, Jim, nice that you came here to comment! Sorry for having been a little harsh with your novel - in any case it is part of the game. I know how difficult it is to write a novel - I'm trying my hand at writing a cli-fi novel myself, right now, and if I ever succeed at publishing it, I am sure I'll get plenty of criticism. Novels are a different kind of game than non-fiction books: whereas you can at least be exact with a non fiction book, with a novel it is 100% guaranteed that you won't satisfy everyone!

    Anyhow, yes, a comparison with "The Great Gatsby" is a bit of a challenge for any novel! Scott Fitzgerald was a true genius - really another category! It is not a criticism that anyone can't reach that level. "War and Peace", instead, in my modest opinion, ahem....... See? Not even Tolstoy can satisfy everyone.

    1. Hello Dr Bardi and Mr Laughter: i need to chime in here too, Ugo, as I am responsibile for Polar City Red. And I must say first of all, I love Jim's novel! In fact, I commissioned the novel from Jim, and he agreed to write it, all under his own name, all his words, the only thing i contributed was the title POLAR CITY RED and the setting of a near future polar city in Alaska. I originally wanted 2600 AD or so but Jim rightfully suggested bringing down to 2070 or so. And in my POV, since the polar city idea came from my longtime POLAR CITIES RESEARCH PROJECT and my interest in cli fi, Jim was kind enough to take on the challegen of writing this novel. All money from profits go to him, and he wrote every word of the novel. He also came up with the great idea of a sex lottery to keep the people there reproducing. And he also came up with the methane explosion at the lake. If you read his novel on paper slowly, rathan than on a screen, as I did, chapter by chapter, i have the print version of the novel, it is really a good novel. The newspaper in Alaska, Fairbanks Daily News Miner, reviwed by Libbie Martin, google it, she wrote a very positive review. I will send it to you later Ugo. Btw, I used to live in Firenze, winter of 1971 when i was 22. We gotta talk. I know Lazlo Toth the Hungarian man who took a hammer and cut off the nose of the Pieta. Best to email me Dr G at danbloom AT gmail DOT COM. -- and i coined and created the CLI FI genre term and Danilo Taino at Corrier Della Sera knows me too. He plans to do a big article about cli fi in Italy soon. Do you know him? he is at twitter, @danilotaino and i am at titter at @clificentral and Margaret Atwood was the first person to tweet about POLAR CITY RED novel being a cli fi novel. i can send you links. and his book was published in 2012 not 2009. he wrote in it 2011. I did the PR for the book calling it a cli fi novel, first time this genre term was used for a book marketing idea. My idea. ASk me why. Bonjiorno Firenze! I used to wash dishes at Restaurant LA STRELLA about 15 km outside Florence ! SMILE, now old man at 65.

    2. Hello, Daniel. nice to meet you here. You sent me plenty of messages! Thanks for the interest and I see with pleasure that Jim's novel has plenty of fans. I am sorry that I found it a bit unsatisfactory (BTW, I read a paper copy) but so is life and if one could please everybody else, then life would be different in this world. We'll keep in touch,

    3. SHE also writes: ''What hurts this book is the first chapter. Laughter “buries his lede,” as we say in the news biz. The first chapter is a shrill diatribe/lecture on our wickedness and ignorance, a recounting in strident tones of our sins against the planet. By the time we’ve slogged through the “idiot lecture,” even though it’s only a few pages, we aren’t really inclined to forgive anything.

      No reader wants to be lectured or preached to. And this book is filled with lectures, long blocks of narrative and paragraphs of back story, all necessary to the story, of course — but information that should be revealed in bits and pieces as part of the story, not as set-up before we get to the story. It takes too long to get to the point where we actually care if humanity — or some small part of it — survives.

      And that’s too bad, because dystopia novels have always been my favorite. But what can I say? I’m a pessimist and cynic.

      Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks.

  4. Dr. Bardi:
    I work in the process industries (chemicals, oil refining, offshore platforms). The industry puts an enormous emphasis on safety so there are very many learned papers on a wide range of topics such as vapor dispersion, safety instrumented systems and management of change. And, yes, these papers are usually rather dull (I know because I’ve written quite a few of them).

    We are getting better at telling non-fiction stories (case studies), in spite of the grumbling from our lawyers. And there a few good docudramas. For example, the most important offshore incident was not Deepwater Horizon/Macondo — it was Piper Alpha (North Sea, 1988, 167 fatalities). The BBC created a great movie that reproduced the accident using professional actors.

    But with regard to fiction — sadly there is almost none.

    However, you seem to be equating fiction with untruth, which would be very misleading. For example, you state,

    . . .think about the current predominant vision, the one that says that liberism and the free market will solve all problems. Is it based on hard facts? Not at all, it is pure fiction.

    This statement is jumbled. A “vision” is not a narrative (although a good narrative can create a vision). And I don’t think that anyone would claim that “liberism” would solve all problems. These views may be correct or incorrect (or, more likely, a bit of both) but they are absolutely not fiction.

    Mr. Laughter:
    Congratulations on writing Polar City Red. I felt that the review comments were rather harsh. I can think of only one author who hit a hole in one with his first novel, and that was Charles Dickens and his Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club published in 1836. That was a long time ago.

    I have written many books, mostly to do with process safety, and I find the writing process not all that difficult. But when I try fiction I suffer from immediate and severe writer’s block. Writing fiction is tough.

    I hope that you and others are are indeed starting a new literary genre. After all, Dickens’ novels had a major impact on correcting the abuses of the early industrial revolution.

  5. Hey, I LIKED "The Day After Tomorrow". Roland "Master of Disaster" Emmerich at his CGI BEST! LOL.

    I also stole the Tag Line, "Save As Many As You Can" from the Ad Campaign for that film. :)

    A couple of the Diner Bloggers have started Doomer Porn Novels. We will be at the Cutting Edge of the New Genre!


    1. Me too! Actually, I have completed my cli-fi novel (97,000 words....)

  6. If you're interested in cli-fi, here's a link to a Facebook cli-fi group!/groups/320538704765997/

  7. I erased this comment by mistake, so I am pasting it here

    Hello Ugo, yes, glad we met here and I hope to reach you later by email too but if you prefer here, that is fine. I was in Florence washing dishes to pay for my hotel room in the winter of 1971, when I was 22 and you were 19, so i consider us same generation colleagues, sort of, although you have PHD and I have nada. SMILE. still, lets keep in touch. I want to know MORE about your own cli fi novel, the title and is in Italian or English or both, and when published? And why did you choose the cli fi genre and how did you first hear about it. As for your review of JIM's novel, no bad feelings, even Jim understands, he did his best to tell a good story and he did it, but like many novels, not every reader likes it. and that is fine. I loved the book because I was the person who commissioned it so of course I love it. But i also see the limitations too. Here is what one reviewer in Alaska, said of the book in 2013 - both good and bad RE: Whether you agree climate change is caused by man or is naturally occurring, the fact that the climate is changing cannot be denied. Glaciers and ice at the poles continue to melt faster than ever; destructive species are moving up into latitudes that used to be too cold for them; and 100-year floods, droughts and superstorms are now almost yearly occurrences.

    Author Jim Laughter has taken this current-event scenario and extrapolated into the future, assuming we continue to ignore the evidence before our eyes and keep our heads in the sand while pulling fossil fuels from it. In his novel “Polar City Red,” Laughter envisions a world a few decades into the future, where temperatures have risen to the point that “island nations that stood only a few feet above sea level were affected ... their coastlines disappearing under a surge of tidal encroachment, eventually to be buried beneath an infringing ocean.”

    Superstorms pummeled the surviving coasts several to hundreds of times yearly, drowning those who could not evacuate. Starvation killed off more, as low-lying agricultural areas were destroyed by salt water, and drought parched those areas lucky enough not to be flooded.

    Entire ecosystems went extinct, and with them, their flora and fauna. People fell from civilization into barbarianism, with survival being the only goal.

    “Disease, pestilence and famine were the natural steps that followed the breakdown of human control. Hunger ruled the day; violence the night. Nature turned against man, and man turned against nature in a desperate attempt to survive ... ”

    But up in the North, in Canada and Alaska, the frozen wonderland had become tropical rainforest, and a few hardy survivors built cities; cities which, with clever prescience, were stocked with the most current technology and machinery, stockpiled with years of food and populated with the most brilliant minds available. These cities became the Shangri-la of the downtrodden, mirages of survival and peace, a nurturing oasis in the desert humanity had come to inhabit.

    One such city is Polar City Red.

    Carsen and Louellen Moore have taken a huge gamble; they left the overcrowded jungle the cities had become for one of the fabled tundra cities, bringing along their children, and having another on the way. The journey is fraught with danger, but staying in the city was no safer. The Moores wanted more for their kids.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)