Science Fiction and Global Warming

I’ve yet to read any science fiction extrapolating stories about the effects of global warming.  The Road by Cormac McCarthy could be about global warming but it could also be about anything that brings on the collapse of civilization.  So I jumped over to Google and searched on [“science fiction” “global warming“] and discovered there are a few books to read, and it appears Kim Stanley Robinson is out in the forefront with Forty Signs of Rain, the first in a trilogy.  And damn, wouldn’t you know it, I already own it in hardback.  I often buy books and then forget about them since I have hundreds waiting to be read.

I shall move this volume up my waiting list but sadly it hasn’t gotten good reviews.  Science Fiction Book Reviews at only gave it a C+.  There are sixty reader reviews over at but only 22 are five and four stars.  It appears to be more cerebral than action packed.  But that’s a depressing fact about the topic of global warming anyway.  It would be hard to make the subject into a techno thriller.  The apparent way to make the subject exciting is to assume the ice caps go down the drain and we all become barbarians like in Waterwold.

Still you’d think global warming would be a big topic for science fiction.  This crisis will determine just how intelligent of a species we are.  Global warming could be our dinosaur killer asteroid.  Most people ignore the topic writing it off as some old Al Gore issue that’s just plain boring.  But in reality it’s a hot scientific topic that has rocketed forward so its no longer just a minor political issue.  Most people think Inconvenient Truth, whereas new data is flooding in all the time.  The new researchers never talk about Al Gore anymore.

Try and catch Dimming the Sun on PBS’s Nova.  Scientists now think pollution has been significantly dimming the sun and masking the effects of global warming for years.  Things are much worse than anything Al Gore discussed in his dog and pony show.  Now that whole legions of scientists are studying the subject the topic seems to have fallen out of favor with the public.  Public interest peaked much too soon.

Science fiction writers have a unique opportunity to bridge real science with speculation.  Unfortunately science fiction has never been good at subtle drama and the impact of global warming is more suited for quiet literary fiction.  Whether humanity succeeds or fails at facing this issue will not be due to a few heroes who save the world but how we all choose to act in our personal lives.  Think about the relocation of the victims of Katrina on a massive scale.  Global warming isn’t about adjusting to heat and rising shorelines but in our lifetimes its about living with drought and mass relocations.  Nature is about to get downright Biblical on us.

Over at Grist, a blog for Environmental News & Commentary they have interview with Paolo Bacigalupi about science fiction and environmentalism called “Stranger than Fiction.”  He mentions one of his stories, “The Tamarisk Hunter” about drought and a bounty hunter who kills tamarisk trees, a rather unique bit of speculation predicting the need for water is so great that the government will pay to kill off parasitic trees that take too much.  It’s another grim future, positive only in that it says people will survive one way or another.  A telling paragraph:

When California put its first calls on the river, no one really worried. A couple of towns went begging for water. Some idiot newcomers with bad water rights stopped grazing their horses, and that was it. A few years later, people started showering real fast. And a few after that, they showered once a week. And then people started using the buckets. By then, everyone had stopped joking about how “hot” it was. It didn’t really matter how “hot” it was. The problem wasn’t lack of water or an excess of heat, not really. The problem was that 4.4 million acre-feet of water were supposed to go down the river to California. There was water; they just couldn’t touch it.

I think in the United States most people for the next few decades will face global warming over issues about water and drought and not anything as dramatic as rising oceans stealing land from the coasts.  Look at Georgia, the state is trying to redraw the Tennessee state line so they can have access to the Tennessee River.  “The Tamarisk Hunter” shows one personal story of our possible future.  I’d think there would be millions of stories to tell.

One vital purpose of science fiction is to warn us away from futures we don’t want to find ourselves living in.  If you caught Six Degrees Could Change the World then you know millions of people are already living in stories like “The Tamarisk Hunter.”  It’s no longer science fiction to them.

Science fiction can be escapist fiction that thrills us while we try to ignore our real lives, or it can influence us to change our lives, inspiring us to alter our future.  At work I’ve become a boring nag about global warming.  Most people want to brush the topic aside as soon as they hear it.  Others bristle and want to attack Al Gore.  Scientists have played Chicken Little too many times and cried the sky is falling so often that people just don’t believe them anymore.  Science fiction writers have an opportunity to paint realistic views of the future that may convince more people to return to this topic.

Read “The Tamarisk Hunter” and see what you think.  Don’t you think Paolo Bacigalupi has set up complex image of the future in very few words?  Would you have preferred escaping into a military SF story that’s a cross between Starship Troopers and Halo?   I’m asking for a bit of naval gazing here, a bit of self-analysis.  This little Rorschach test tells whether you seek deeper understanding of reality, or whether you prefer to escape it.


Update 2/28/8:  Jason Sanford reviews Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigalupi new book and says its the best speculative fiction collection since Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life.  That’s very high praise indeed.  Another a review focusing on its econological aspects can be found at Locus Magazine.  This book includes “The Tamarisk Hunter” that I discuss above plus ten other stories.


9 thoughts on “Science Fiction and Global Warming”

  1. Thanks I will. Interestingly, T. C. Boyle is a literary guy, and I like I said the literary people may do a better job than the science fiction writers for this topic. And hot dog, it’s available as an unabridged audio book at, my favorite way to read.


  2. Made me think I should write a good fantasy/science fiction book on global warming one day. I’ll need to work on my punctuation first, though, hehe.

  3. Thanks for the comment at VoP. I immediately checked out your blog and was fascinated with your comments on global warming. I too have FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN unread in my collection, but only because I am waiting to buy the rest of the trilogy. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite sf writers, and I strongly recommend his RED MARS / GREEN MARS / BLUE MARS trilogy.

    After checking your profile, I was surprised to realize that I have been to your “Classics of SF” website before and like it a lot. Now it’s my turn to thank you for all your hard work.


  4. James,

    An intersting, smart blog. I’ve got you bookmarked.

    To answer your question though, try “Gaea: Beyond the Son”. It’s a bit of an adventure/thriller SF but the central premise revolves around global warming.


  5. I’m looking for a fiction novel I read a few years ago, it was about the climate changing and people were having to move from certain parts of the country to others as areas became unlivable. People had tons of plants inside their homes for air purifying and there was a main character who was picked as the man that the world would listen to to make the kind of changes necessary to save the planet, i.e., stop driving, shut down factories, go back to basices, major changes. I know that is not much to go on but if it rings a bell with anyone I’d appreciate it!! thanks

  6. I am an oceanographer working for a climate science and policy group by day and a newbie fiction writer by night. I’ve recently decided to turn my keyboard to writing science fiction about global warming. My interest is in the subtle and personal and societal decisions that will make or break life as we know it in the next 20 years. (No, not 100, not 50 – 20!) I fear that my approach is too literary as you put it and will not be appreciated but I am encouraged nonetheless by your post – thanks!

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