A post on Andrew Revkin’s NY Times blog Dot Earth introduced me to the New Earth Archive, a project of students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology whose goal is “inspiring student-led innovation and solutions for the future.”
Their first project is compiling a list of 25 books “that have the power to inspire college readers to change the world.” They’ve put up a list of 70 works “on topics like climate change, sociology, economics, politics, technology, philosophy, and many, many other areas,” and seek public votes to narrow that to 25.
There are some fine books on the list. I’ve read some of them and even reviewed them on this blog. But in going down the list, I found one major omission:
There’s no fiction.
It’s not like there isn’t plenty of fiction, especially science fiction, dead on point. Without even thinking hard I can come up with three recent series of books (they’re looking for books published in 2003 or after) that have inspired me to think about innovation and solutions:
- Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting.
- Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love, Castles Made of Sand, Midnight Lamp, Band of Gypsies, and Rainbow Bridge.
- L. Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle (also five books).
I was still living in Washington, D.C., when I read Forty Signs of Rain. In that book, there’s a massive flood in D.C., the result of extreme weather caused by climate change. While reading the book, I kept saying to myself, “Thank God I live so far uphill from the mall and Rock Creek. When the flood hits, I’ll be OK.”
Part of that was good storytelling. But most of it was telling the truth through fiction. And because I was living there and could see how such a flood could happn, it made me sit up and take notice of what was going on. (In the second book, D.C. gets a winter like nothing you ever saw. The winter of 2009-10 wasn’t quite as bad as the one in Fifty Degrees Below, but it came damn close.)
In a recent essay on writing utopian fiction, Robinson wrote, “I felt the reason we read novels, indeed the reason we love all art, is that it gives us the real.” His books may be science fiction, set in the near future, but they give us the real. So do the books by Jones and Duchamp.
Now I don’t mean real in the sense of accurate prediction or recitation of facts. In fact, I really hope some of the things in these books never happen. But all these books are grounded in a knowledge of human beings, our political and economic systems, and the problems we create for ourselves.
Will they inspire people to come up with innovative ideas to change the world? Sure. And they’ll also give readers enough context so that they won’t believe one narrow idea is enough.
Here’s something else Robinson says in that essay:
While I support science as the best name for our species’ life-support system, I also recognize that many scientists are like the character Beaker in The Muppets, geeking their way through life, their education deep but narrow, making them often naively unphilosophical, to the point where they think that what they do is straightforward and non-political. It’s the humanities’ job to disabuse them of that mistaken notion, by way of fully supportive lessons in history, philosophy, political theory, rhetoric and literature.
One of the reasons I pay a lot of attention to environmental issues these days is that 30 years ago I read a novel by John Brunner — I think it was The Sheep Look Up. In that book, he took every problem currently facing the world and made it about 10 percent worse: Air pollution, water availability, traffic, overpopulation, political unrest, small wars, you name it. Only 10 percent worse, but that was enough to tip the world into a miserable place.
That image has stayed with me and affected what I do in the world.
Yes, people should read some of those fine nonfiction books on the New Earth Archive list. But they better read some fiction, too, and put it all into context.
We don’t just need to know the facts; we need to feel the truth in our guts. That’s one of the things fiction is good for.
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.