In this ongoing series, I provide evidence that serious authors are tackling climate change in fiction. Essayist, editor, novelist, and critic Nathaniel Rich penned the novel Odds Against Tomorrow, which was published in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Rich describes his novel as a literary thriller.
Odds is a realistic tale of what is already happening in the world of insurance and climate change statistics and planning. The main character, Mitchell Zukor, is a mathematician hired by a New York business to develop detailed scenarios and cost analyses in worst case disasters. And during his statistics crunching, Hurricane Tammy hits New York City. The year that Rich’s novel was published, The Globe and Mail headlined an article titled, “No climate-change deniers to be found in the reinsurance business.”
Where there might be insurance against such odds, there is also profit. And this is something that Mitchell must weigh in his head, not just the benefits of it but the morality. The novel also includes a love story and some redemption – you know, the stuff that grounds us when disaster hits and reminds us that we are human.
As the Globe and Mail claimed that there were no climate change deniers among reinsurers, one would hope that disasters would finally convince those who think climate change is a hoax by the Chinese (and similar ideas) to believe in what is happening to this planet. And it seems egregious to think this way, but nothing else, not fact nor fiction based on fact, is working on a broad scale among some populations wherein denial of science is high.
Furthering the notion of reality in fiction, Rich stated in the New York Times:
On Oct. 30 last year , after staying up late to edit the final proofs of my novel, I woke to discover it had already been adapted for television — by CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and every other channel that had interrupted its programming to show images of a flooded New York City. Nature had taken a few liberties with the adaptation. In my novel, New York is hit by Tammy, a Category 3 hurricane; Hurricane Sandy was a Category 1. But the aftermath was largely the same: massive destruction, displacement and despair, modern catastrophe’s dismal triad.
In the same New York Times article, Rich points out:
Certainly the novelist has no obligation to write about climate change. But hasn’t man’s heart changed too? It’s true every generation believes it’s the last, a convenient sentiment that gives urgency and meaning to our brief time on earth.
Rich also notes in the same NYT article that such a dystopian novel should rely not on fantasy but more scrupulously on reality. This brings up an interesting rebuttal to fiction authors who use far-reaching allegory in their climate changes novels – in my opinion, a diversity of authors and genre styles is needed to appeal to a wide audience, with varying levels of reading preferences, whether realistic and literary or metaphorical.
There is no lack among authors writing disaster or cautionary fiction, and there has been wide applause and awards to such attempts. However, it can be a very rough ride to convince others about the reality of global warming, no matter how brilliant the novel, with either realistic or parabolic scenarios.
There’s also the recognition that climate change in fiction should not be preachy or didactic, perhaps not even intrinsically cautionary at all – stories should be simply enjoyed and pondered (which Rich succeeds at) regardless of intent. Interwoven in the climate change novel, usually, is the natural environment, which is a strong character, an unforgettable one – and such is the inherent nature of eco-fiction overall, regardless of intent. Impact is greater than intent, and this may be one of the most important ideas that climate change novelists should keep in mind.
It could very well be that repeated climate data findings in science and nature journals will have some effect on mass populace in the US (where the denial seems to be the strongest), as may documentaries and artistic shows and performance art. Or the tipping point might lie in the motivation to profit from mathematical calculations/blueprints or even green energies that become cheaper and more efficient every year. And, as global warming’s worst effects come about to those countries in denial, national securities will set precedence on what is real and actual. I’d like to think that authors’ imaginations coming alive in fictional worlds will speak more closely to our hearts than profit or data, but, in reality, a combination of all these things may set us on the right path, eventually.
Rich’s novel is important in the tomes of climate change novels because it illustrates how fictional dystopian and apocalyptic events set in the current day or in the near future, which depict what many think of as impossible, are not at all. Warning fiction is now reflective fiction. While the writer sits late night at his or her desk, poring over their novel of foreboding, what is in the novel is already happening outside. This is not just an example of “truth is stranger than fiction,” but a portent of where to go with realistic literary fiction when the disaster is not imminent anymore; it is already happening. The author has more challenges than usual, and Rich succeeds beautifully with Odds Against Tomorrow.
(Photo by Quinn Miller-Bedell.)
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, sites that explore ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.