From “Drought Town” to “Blue Karma”: 25 Years of Cli-Fi

Last month, book blogger Alex at ScribblesAndStories posted a delightful retrospective of her childhood writing projects. Her unflinching but affectionate review hits all the classic points in a writer’s early evolution, from those first forays into fiction starring ourselves and our friends, to the imitative works inspired by a favorite story, to the more deliberate efforts of adolescence (and if Alex’s writing has developed that rapidly in less than 20 years, I can’t wait to see how far she goes.) The study also revealed that she’s always displayed a penchant for science fiction. A literary nature-nurture debate arose in my mind: are our writing preferences determined by what we read and learn, or do writers have some innate proclivities from the start? Curious, I undertook research in my own authorial annals…and discovered something uncanny enough to merit a sci-fi explanation of its own.

I’d rolled my eyes a few months ago when my mom gave me several boxes of my archived schoolwork she’d saved—what was I going to do with crayon artwork and amateur science reports?—but now the binders full of construction paper presented a trove of artifacts. A few pages into my first grade collection, I found the short story I’d written for my local library’s “Captain Planet” creative writing contest. (It won first place, my only short fiction submission to be accepted anywhere until the Baltimore Science Fiction Society contest last year.) Scrawled on recycled paper, that prototypical bit of climate fiction recounts the lesson of a “rude dude” who learns the virtues of environmental stewardship. For an instant I was back behind the rickety wooden podium in the library event room, pushing my favorite Alice band off my forehead as I prepared to read the story aloud. The memory made me smile. Even then, my proclivity for performance was evident. But what about my genre choices?

Drout Town
A story I wrote in second grade forecasted my debut novel

Opening the second-grade portfolio stopped my breath. Pixellated block print from an early 90s kiddie word processor stamped me in the eyes: “The Story of Drout Town”. Seven-year-old me had yet to grasp the silent -gh conundrum of English, but maybe her concept was sounder than her spelling. I gingerly turned the pages in disbelief. Written in the American “tall tale” style I vaguely remember learning about at that time, the story describes a town so desperate for water that the mayor recruits a pair of local strongmen to ascend a ladder into the sky and wring rain from the reticent clouds. Okay, so it doesn’t meet my current standards for scientific plausibility. But tingles ran down my spine like cold raindrops as I read it. I’d written a childhood cli-fi story about a water crisis, completely forgotten about it, then twenty years later published my debut novel on the same premise. Eerier still, Blue Karma relaunched in print around the same time I unearthed “Drought Town” in my old albums.

 

Either there’s some very frivolous time travel afoot, or I’ve always had an inclination for environmental themes in writing. Nature or nurture? In my case, both: I was nurtured on nature. My parents raised me as much outdoors as in, and taught me to cherish the natural world. “Save the Earth” campaigns of the 90s also left a strong imprint on me. Realizing that the trees I climbed, the ocean I swam in, the animals I adored could all disappear—victims of carelessness and greed—made my child heart ache. I cried the day bulldozers razed the beautiful slender pine trees across the street to build new housing developments. The binders retain a poem I wrote about it. Even then, words seemed the only medium that could channel my fierce love for my home planet, and my horror at its abuse.

That’s one reason I still write environmental science fiction, as a form of awareness and activism. But I also write it because those themes still move me as deeply as they did 25 years ago. Planet Earth is the spinning heart of science fiction: our species’ spaceship, bearing us through the stars. (And as in so many space operas, traitors among the crew are sabotaging the ship.) Seen in that imaginative light, we are all astronauts, and every day is Earth Day.

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