Environmental Hazards: Five Challenges of Writing Climate Fiction (Part 2)

This post is part two of a seven-part series discussing my experience writing climate fiction in my novel, Blue Karma.

Challenge #1: Packaging Prophecy

Sometimes I think “science fiction writer” is a euphemism for “hack prophet”. We see the future in our mind’s eye and set down the vision before it comes to pass. But a setting is not a story. Readers need more than a guided tour of our alternate reality: they need engaging characters and a sufficiently compelling narrative to keep them turning pages.

Glass globe with an upside-down tree reflected inside.

The cli-fi crystal ball can show how our environment has been turned upside-down…but a good story needs more than a vision.

Imagine if Hugh Howey’s blockbuster novella Wool spent whole chapters describing the silo and its workings in excruciating detail. It wouldn’t be a story so much as a technical manual. Few readers would get excited about that. Howey’s story worked because he populated his silo with dynamic characters who acted upon relatable motives. He wove the ambient realities of his imagined world into their experiences.

Character placement is the best way I’ve found to showcase a cli-fi “vision” organically. In Blue Karma, each of the three protagonists occupies a position where the cli-fi landscape impacts their daily lives; however, I let their simple human motives drive the plot. Amaya steals water to provide for herself and her sister, the only family she has left after a freak weather event destroyed her country. Logan’s deployment to guard water reserves seems wasted when he discovers his hometown on the verge of desertification. Paul, whose water company controls the fate of millions, feels torn between winning his mother’s approval and acting ethically. Placing my narrators at ground zero allowed me to explore an imagined water crisis without ever leaving the storyline.

See what I mean? Wool: Part I is really about a man devastated by the loss of his wife. Blue Karma is really about three teenagers struggling with issues of survival, responsibility, and love. Never forget that a fiction author’s primary objective is to tell a story. If you get too caught up describing the workings of your predicted future, you risk losing the plot—literally. This is true of science fiction in general, but I think it’s especially applicable to cli-fi. Because cli-fi is a sort of environmental “prophecy”, you want to maximize its impact on readers. Nothing accomplishes this better than introducing a character readers will root for (or against) and showing how ecological problems affect that character’s goals.

A second tactic for making your “prophecy” effective is to ensure your cli-fi world is still recognizable as our own. I’ll discuss this in part three of Environmental Hazards.

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