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In the face of climate chaos, writers find grief and hope

February 12, 2019

ASU climate-fiction contest and book tackle the human consequences of climate change

In the midst of increasing chaos caused by climate change, from devastating hurricanes to deadly polar vortexes, the literary genre of climate fiction offers stories that capture our anxieties, broaden our scope of empathy to people experiencing disaster in far-flung places and even point the way to hopeful futures where we’ve responded to climate chaos with ingenuity and compassion.

Arizona State University's 2018 Everything Change Climate Fiction Contest challenged writers from around the world to submit stories that provided glimpses of the consequences of climate change on the ground, for actual people in specific places. Climate change is both multifarious and monolithic: It makes itself known differently in different places, but it’s also one big thing that we’re all living through. Fiction can be a powerful way to make climate change and its effects visible and visceral.

The contest’s winner is Barbara Litkowski of Zionsville, Indiana, who wrote “Monarch Blue,” a thrilling story that’s both elegiac about what we’ve lost as a result of environmental degradation and angry about how climate chaos deepens existing inequalities around race, gender, social class and national origin. The story appears in "Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, Volume II," alongside nine other pieces of short fiction, along with a foreword from renowned science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, who served as the lead judge for the contest.

Robinson has referred to the current climate predicament as the “emergency century,” a historical moment that demands decisive, coordinated action to avert a crisis that threatens both human civilization and Earth’s entire biosphere. The editors of "Everything Change," Angie Dell and Joey Eschrich, argue in the anthology’s introduction that stories are a crucial tool in the face of this global challenge: “To achieve the cultural groundswell and political momentum to change ourselves in the face of a changing climate, we need stories.”

Download the anthology, along with an entire list of winners.

Litkowski, who holds an MFA in creative writing from Butler University and has published fiction in a variety of venues, including Subtle Fiction and Blue Lake Review, says that “personalizing abstract issues” like climate change “makes them more relatable and, consequently, more actionable.”

The 2018 contest, ASU’s second, received 540 submissions from more than 60 countries. Winners were selected through a multistage judging process involving a variety of ASU experts, in disciplines ranging from history, political science and creative writing to sustainability and oceanography.

Among the contest’s finalists was Leah Newsom, an MFA candidate in fiction at ASU and outreach coordinator for the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Her story, “Orphan Bird,” considers the effects of environmental pollution and climate change both on California’s Salton Sea and on women’s bodies, through the eyes of a young woman who is pregnant, surveying a mostly forgotten and bleak landscape decimated by human activity and mismanagement.

The contest and the anthology are presented by ASU’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative, a partnership of the Center for Science and the Imagination and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

Barbara Litkowski
Barbara Litkowski, winner of the 2018 Everything Change Climate Fiction Contest, is shown near Chimney Rock.

Litkowski talked more with ASU Now about the inspiration behind “Monarch Blue,” the social and political impact of climate fiction and hope in the face of disaster.

Question: What inspired you to write “Monarch Blue”?

Answer: Ever since Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) began threatening honeybee colonies, I’ve been concerned about the vulnerability of our insect population. One of the first questions I asked when writing “Monarch Blue” was: What would happen if extreme temperatures and changing weather patterns disrupted delicate relationships between plants and pollinators? That question led to many more. How would ordinary people respond to food shortages? How would agricultural production adapt? And so on.

The monarch butterfly image comes from my childhood. My sister was an avid butterfly collector, and she and I would roam the woods behind our house netting skippers, monarchs and, if we got lucky, a swallowtail or two. Monarchs were more common then. Good specimens were sealed in a killing jar that had a cotton ball, drenched in poison, taped to the lid. By morning, the butterflies’ wings and legs were so stiff they needed to be chemically relaxed for mounting.

Q: The story weaves together climate change with issues of gender, immigration and labor. For you, how does climate chaos relate to social inequality?

A: Last year when I was writing “Monarch Blue,” I was also teaching a first-year seminar at Butler University called “Poverty in America.” So naturally, I began to speculate on how climate change might increase social and economic inequality. Two documentaries that highlight the plight of seasonal workers, "Harvest of Shame" and "Food Chain$," had a big impact on the way I portrayed migrant life.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that a disproportionate number of single mothers and minorities live in poverty. It’s also sad but true that single mothers and minorities often work at low-paying, unskilled jobs. Project these statistics into the “Monarch Blue” future and you’ll find “tumbleweed women,” willing to risk carcinogenic contamination and infertility to feed their families. Only Brie, a runaway with affluent, supportive parents, has any chance of upward mobility.

Q: “Monarch Blue” takes place in the southwest United States. Have you ever spent any time in this part of the country? Did you do any special research about the geography, climate and culture of the region?

A: Although I was born in San Diego, I grew up in the Midwest. A road trip through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California provided the contrasting visual images I used in my settings: dying towns and flourishing orchards, gritty parking lots and endless rows of fruit and nut trees.

Most of my research involved looking up different types of edible plants and reading about their reproductive habits — I always try to make my stories as realistic as I can. I also collected random information — now in a mental file folder labeled “Things I Hope I Never Need to Know” — on topics like how to operate a bucket truck.

Q: Climate change is a visceral experience in the story: bodies wracked and skin stained by chemical exposure, our agricultural system and food supply under threat. What were you hoping to communicate to readers about the effects of climate change on our bodies and health?

A: I suppose I’m trying to convey what esteemed science fiction writer, Margaret Atwood, calls “everything change,” the idea that climate change affects all aspects of human existence: economies, social relationships and even health and diet. I chose visceral images to illustrate some potential biological risks, specifically contamination and malnutrition. I also used food imagery to highlight potential cultural risks. Brie has vivid memories of holiday feasts and dreams about pies that are no longer possible. Lastly, I used food to show how we relate to other people. Some of us hide our Halloween candy; others, like Brie’s friend Carmen, share their corn tortillas.

Q: Why do you write climate fiction? Do you believe that reading fiction can motivate people to change their thinking about climate change, or become more active on the issue?

A: I write about people struggling to overcome obstacles. In “Monarch Blue” those obstacles arise as a result of climate change.

It’s often said that personalizing abstract issues makes them more relatable and, consequently, more actionable. Two works, "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City" by Matthew Desmond and "$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America" by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, come immediately to mind as excellent examples of narrative nonfiction. Each demonstrates the power of storytelling to influence public opinion and promote political action. In the same way, I think insightful fiction, especially thoughtful science fiction and its subgenre, climate fiction, can change lives by depicting dangerous future scenarios and motivating ordinary people to work together to solve them.

Q: What’s next for you? Do you have any new stories or books in the works?

A: I’m always thinking about stories, writing stories or, as people who know me well often complain, rewriting stories. Some of my ongoing projects include a short-story collection and novel about an 8-year-old cryptozoologist.

Q: Are there reasons to be hopeful, in the face of escalating climate chaos?

A: Recent reports on the state of our global environment are grim, and I find it hard not to feel frustrated and powerless when I read them. However, data collected by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication offer glimmers of hope. More than 70 percent of respondents to Yale’s 2018 survey see global warming as a threat to plants and animals and future generations, and an even greater percentage support selected policies to combat or retard climate change.

One of the best pieces of news I’ve heard so far this year comes from Mexico’s national commissioner for protected natural areas, who reports that the population of monarch butterflies wintering in central Mexico is up 144 percent. So, yes, I trust in a future where clearheaded people, everywhere, join forces to stop environmental degradation.

Top illustration by Matt Phan/Center for Science and the Imagination

Joey Eschrich

program manager , Center for Science and the Imagination

480-442-2682

 
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'Two nerds' on the future of Earth

ASU center announces anthology of brand-new climate fiction stories.
Sci-fi goes hand in hand with climate change, says ASU writing contest winner.
September 29, 2016

ASU writing contest breathes new life into climate-change conversation

Historically, works of fiction dealing with climate change have focused more on visions of the future that include Mad Max-type dystopian societies, starved for resources, on the brink of collapse.

But according to Andrew Hudson, “Disaster situations don’t need to be a nightmare.” For him and collaborator Adam Flynn, it's more creating situations with solvable problems.

That idea carried into their story titled “Sunshine State,” announced today as the winner of ASU’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative fiction contest.

Everything Change cover

The 2016 Climate Fiction Short Story Contest challenged writers around the world to create short stories that imagined possible futures for Earth and humanity transformed by climate change. Twelve of those stories are collected in the ICF’s new anthology, “Everything Change,” with a foreword from sci-fi legend Kim Stanley Robinson and an interview with New York Times best-selling author of climate fiction novels Paolo Bacigalupi.

Find a free download of the anthology, along with the entire list of winners, at climateimagination.asu.edu/everything-change.

Hudson, who works in communications for a health-care nonprofit, and Flynn, a freelance design strategist, both hail from Oakland, California. Their story centers on a group of misfits, hackers and artists working together on a gonzo ecological project in the Florida Everglades to combat sea-level rise, preserve biodiversity, sequester carbon and naturally filter and desalinate seawater.

The narrative straddles the line between hope and despair, leaning more toward the former.

“My interest is in how to tell new stories of the future that get people to address the idea of climate change without shutting down,” said Flynn. “It’s very easy to tip over into a world of gloom and doom.”

Contest runner-up is Matt Henry, an English lit grad at ASU, whose story “Victor and the Fish” tells the tale of a retired ecology professor and fishing guide in a future Montana beset by wildfires, who attempts to secretly revive the native cutthroat trout population out of sight of the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“Talking about climate change through fiction is very important to me because it allows me to share my experience with others,” said Henry, who grew up fishing the rivers of his native Montana. “I think that is a route to collective action, being able to empathize with one another.” (See a video of Henry at the end of this story.)

More than 700 submissions were received from 67 countries, and winners were selected through a careful three-round judging process involving Robinson and a diverse panel of expert judges from ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, School of Life Sciences, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Department of History, Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and the Center for Science and the Imagination.

In the end, though, Flynn thinks of himself and Hudson as “just two nerds writing some ideas about the way things might be.”

They spoke more about that with ASU Now:

Question: Your story “Sunshine State” falls into a newer subgenre of sci-fi, known as “solarpunk.” How did you get into that?

Adam Flynn

Flynn: Four years ago I was talking with a friend of mine, [young adult novelist Avery Williams]. We were talking about what to write stories about in 2012. That was at a time when the whole Mayan apocalypse prediction was big news, and everybody was concerned with end-of-the-world stuff. And I realized how fed up and bored I was with stories in which it’s the end of the world; these post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk dystopias. And in my conversation with my friend, she said the phrase “solarpunk,” and I was like, “Whoa, that’s interesting.” So I started collecting news stories and reading about renewable energy, and I wrote a piece for ASU’s Project Hieroglyph advocating for solar punk, and it caught fire.

Hudson: I’ve long been a sci-fi fan, and have spent time thinking about the future and how to tell stories about the future. I read Adam’s manifesto, and we started talking about solarpunk. I sort of took my own spin on it and wrote an essay about it. I was thinking about things like how is climate change affecting demographics and politics? What are the struggles that have to happen along the way before we can get to the part where we all live in this happy solarpunk world?

Q: Your story seems very “real” in that it’s neither overly pessimistic nor optimistic. How did you find a balance?

Andrew Hudson

Hudson: We wanted to tell a story about a more authentic future, as opposed to a utopian one. Because what is the conflict in a utopian situation? What’s the struggle? There isn’t one. So for our story, negotiation was the struggle.

Flynn: Building consensus.

Hudson: Yes, getting people on board with big ideas, and building big, impressive, beautiful things.

Flynn: And not doing so in a “heroic architect” way. Not as one lone genius trying to make something happen. Because we have lots of stories like that. So it was about how to make coalition building into a heroic act, without seeming too self-serious.

Q: Why is climate change important to you, personally?

Hudson: I feel like it’s a struggle I share with everyone else that I can talk about really authentically. It’s something that affects everyone. I am a straight cis white man, and there are a lot of causes I care deeply about but I don’t want to drown out other voices on those issues. But I can talk about climate change.

Flynn: I came of age in Yuma, Arizona, at the far end of the Colorado River. My family has had the good fortune to do what’s called a Diamond down-river trip, in which you go from Diamond Creek downward until you hit the end of the Grand Canyon. The first time we did it in 2002, the last day of the trip was entirely motoring across the lake to pack out. The next time we did it, there was less water running. At another point in 2008, I could see a giant bathtub ring where water used to be. It really affected me. You can’t help but appreciate the fact that nature moves at a different timescale than humans. And when it moves, you better be ready for what’s coming. We need to prepare the future now so that when what every scientist says is coming down the pike comes, we’re ready. We still have a lot of agency as a civilization over how bad this is going to be.

Q: Where does the focus need to be in the current climate-change discussion?

Hudson: We need to start thinking about how do we roll back what we’ve already done? How do we walk back from the cliff of climate change? Not just stop, but come back? We build a habitat that is long-term. That’s where New Wetland comes in, the project we imagined and wrote about in the story.

Flynn: There are a lot of ideas being tossed around right now, things like re-wilding. Somebody has even proposed the idea of bringing back the woolly mammoth to tamp down grass in the Great Plains.

Hudson: Things that would naturally reinvigorate the environment. We live in the Anthropocenerelating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, we’re going to be in that age forever, that won’t change. So we need to make the Anthropocene one we can actually live in.

Flynn: Right. How can we as humbly as possible mitigate the damage and recognize where we fit into the ecosystem?

Q: How does the topic of climate change fit into the genre of sci-fi?

Hudson: There’s no way you can do sci-fi without talking about climate change.

Flynn: Not even in like, 1993.

Hudson: You can’t tell these stories about people in spaceships and all that without climate change. You gotta explain to me what happened to Earth.

Flynn: And there are people who’ve done that well. There’s Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin.

Hudson: There are also things coming out of social-justice perspectives. I’m a big fan of Bruce Sterling and Margaret Atwood, though her work is pessimistic; she doesn’t tell stories in which there’s much redemption. Sci-fi can do a couple of things: It can show you places you don’t want to go, and it can show you places you do want to go, and ways to get there. That’s more what we’re trying to do while staying in the reality of the 21st century.

Flynn: It’s interesting when you look at the late 1800s. There wasn’t a big division between subjects people were writing about. People wrote about the future, science, politics, and it was all kind of mixed together. You had Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, who had a very strong political point of view. You had William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, who wrote the book “News from Nowhere,” a tale of a utopian future. What we need is more ideas and not fewer. We need to flex our imaginations and read about climate change, read about anthropology, read about history. We need to get a broader perspective, instead of just focusing on the time and place we’re in right now.

Q: The anthology is titled “Everything Change.” How does your story address that?

Hudson: That theme is really coming to the fore right now; everyone is trying to express this. For us, it’s a matter of trying to show the details of what material reality is like when you have airport runways underwater and you have to build runways on things that float.

Flynn: And there’s people wearing mosquito nets waiting to get into clubs. That was written way before the Zika outbreak.

Hudson: Reality very quickly outpaces sci-fi and what we can imagine. All this stuff is happening so quickly.

Q: Are you hopeful about climate change when you look to the future?

Flynn: We had the Paris Peace Accords, which were not perfect, and not an entire solution. But it’s our first agreement among every nation to try and do something about climate change. California passed some really impressive goals aimed at emissions targets. They’re aiming by 2050 to be 80 percent below 1990 emissions levels. That’s thinking big. But I have a feeling that there’s going to be a period of slow-moving inaction followed by a rapid, almost WWII-style mobilization. And I just hope it’s in time.

Hudson: Yeah. I think a big difference between younger generations and older ones is that climate change was always a political issue for the older generations. It’s really hard to get out of the mind-set of thinking about climate change in terms of politics. This is something that is literally happening to us. We’re gonna be here, it’s gonna happen. Things are changing already.

Flynn: You can steer the boat, but we’re already on the river.

Hudson: This is gonna be something that is a part of every consideration, every policy, on the whole planet. Everybody is going to have to deal with the reality that the sky is scary-looking now.

Flynn: There’s a Naomi Klein book called “This Changes Everything,” which looks at capitalism’s effect on climate change. It’s an excellent book for someone wanting to start learning more about climate change but who may also be asking, “So what?”

Hudson: Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We gotta prove that wrong. If we don’t break that particular axiom, we’re in big trouble.

 

Runner-up and ASU English student Matt Henry on writing and his story

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now