Science Fiction Writers Target Global Warming

Debates over global warming are not confined to scientists and policymakers. They're showing up in science fiction. Rick Keffel of member station KUSP looks at how writers Michael Crichton, Kim Stanley Robinson and others treat the subject.

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Our ideas about science, the environment and even the end of the world are informed, in part, by science fiction. In the worlds they create, authors portray societies and events that reflect their beliefs. Two popular authors, Michael Crichton and Kim Stanley Robinson, have approached global warming with vastly different visions of what happens when political decisions collide with scientific research. From member station KUSP, Rick Kleffel reports.

Mr. RICK KLEFFEL (Reporter, KUSP): Read a newspaper and you'll learn that global warming is implicated in everything from flooding to fires. In Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below, the nation's capital is first submerged by the Potomac River, then it's subjected to a deep freeze. Two of Robinson's characters, administrator Diane Chang and scientist Frank Vanderwal, both employed by the National Science Foundation or NSF, find themselves forced to battle politics from within the system that resists change.

MR. KIM STANLEY ROBINSON (Science Fiction Author): (Reading) 'And trying to hack her way through this wilderness was beginning to get Diane both results and resistance. She spent about 14 hours a day, Frank reckoned, in meetings up on the 11th floor at NSF and elsewhere in the area. Many of these meetings he did not attend and only heard about, usually from Edgardo, who as, director of the math division and a long time colleague of Diane's, took part in quite a few. Some agencies were interested in joining the cause, Edgardo reported, and others resented the suggestion that things be done differently, considering it an attack on turf. In general, the farther removed from making policy, the more interested they were to help.'

KLEFFEL: Robinson's science fiction novel, set in the near future, doesn't venture into space or extrapolate new technologies to create this literary portrait.

Mr. ROBINSON: It is a kind of bad science fiction scenario that we live in right now, so in some senses, it becomes easy for a science fiction writer. You just write what you see in the newspapers and it already is science fiction.

KLEFFEL: Robinson believes that science fiction is essentially political because it describes societies and the collective decisions that bring them into being. It is a means, he says of discussing ideas in public.

Mr. ROBINSON: There's been an ongoing dialogue in American science fiction since the early thirties at least where anybody's idea about how things work is gonna be contradicted by somebody with a different point of view and it creates another story.

Mr. MICHAEL CRICHTON (Bestselling Science Fiction Author): In my view, our approach to global warning exemplifies everything that is wrong with our approach to the environment. We are basing our decisions on speculations, not evidence.

KLEFFEL: That's Michael Crichton, bestselling author of State of Fear, speaking at the National Press Club. In State of Fear, he characterizes environmentalists as lawyers, bureaucrats, and evildoers who use the latest technology to create fake natural disasters. In this passage from the audio book, a skeptical government spy engages in a debate with a gullible actor about global warming.

ACTOR (Excerpt from audiobook, State of Fear): Are you sure of your facts?

SPY (Excerpt from audiobook, State of Fear): Of course.

ACTOR (Excerpt from audiobook, State of Fear): You can back your claims with references to the scientific literature.

SPY (Excerpt from audiobook, State of Fear): Well, I can't personally, but scientists can.

ACTOR (Excerpt from audiobook, State of Fear): Actually, scientific studies do not support your claims if, for example, crop failure, if anything increased carbon dioxide, stimulates plant growth. There is some evidence that this is happening. And the most recent satellite studies show the Sahara has shrunk since 1980.

KLEFFEL: Crichton, who declined to be interviewed for this report, makes his perspective clear in State of Fear, which is studded with footnotes, references and graphs that back up his premise. He followed up the novel with an extensive tour of lectures and appearances and even testified before the United States Senate. In his speech to the National Press Club, he expressed surprise at the reception his contrarian views have received.

Mr. CRICHTON: When I step back from my book, I find it really ironic that what's, in fact, most controversial about what I'm saying is that I'm saying you can't predict the future.

Mr. BILL MCKIBBEN (Visiting Scholar, Middlebury College): To some degree, as we try to forsee that future, one of the tools we have at hand are the imaginations of science fiction writers.

KLEFFEL: Bill McKibben is a scholar and resident at Middlebury College and the author of the end of nature, one of the first works of non-fiction to describe the potential consequences of global warming.

Mr. MCKIBBEN: Science fiction has coped with that in a few ways. One of them is the utter denial of someone like Michael Crichton, unable to face the implications of what we've created.

KLEFFEL: McKibben believes that science fiction helps us understand what happens when technology is applied to real human beings. He finds Kim Stanley Robinson's characters to be credible as well as compelling.

Mr. MCKIBBEN: They're wonderful examples of writing about how science is actually done. The great science fiction writing will help us understand what may be coming, understand why we might wanna try to head it off as much as we can, and understand too, that we're gonna need to change in, perhaps, fairly profound ways in order to cope with what we've unleashed.

KLEFFEL: But according to Neilson BookScan, nearly one million readers have bought Crichton's State of Fear, which suggests that the public is not as certain about the reality or the danger of global warming.

Dr. BRUCE AMES (Professor, University of California Berkeley, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology): All of this (unintelligible) scientists, have fervently believed in something and then realized it was wrong.

KLEFFEL: Dr. Bruce Ames is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California Berkeley. He recently appeared with Crichton in forum on science, politics and Crichton's novel. Dr. Ames understands the appeal of Crichton's contrarian views.

Mr. AMES: There are a lot of people who are skeptical about environmentalist premises and so maybe they thought they'd look at the other side and maybe they just wanted to read a novel from Crichton. All his books sell very well.

KLEFFEL: Those strong sales reflect an abiding interest in seeing scientific concepts, combined with human narratives, which is the enduring appeal of the science fiction genre. Kim Stanley Robinson hopes that readers will examine all science fiction with a critical eye.

Mr. ROBINSON: I would want people to compare science fiction's visions of the near future to their sense of their reality principle. Could this happen, does it fit with your notion of the reality that you see with your own eyes or not? If I give them that one development, then I can see how all of the rest of it logically follows. And that's what's traditionally been defined as good science fiction.

KLEFFEL: And given the increasing importance of science in our lives, its easy to see that science fiction could play a bigger role as we try to understand the world around us. For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.

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