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Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

So Hot Right Now: Has Climate Change Created A New Literary Genre?

by Angela Evancie
Apr 20, 2013 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City last fall, the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, like most everything else, totally shut down. It was a week before power returned to FSG, according to Brian Gittis, a senior publicist. When he got back to his office, he began sorting through galleys — advance copies of books. And one of them caught him off guard.

Its cover had an illustration of the Manhattan skyline half-submerged in water.

"It was definitely sort of a Twilight Zone moment," Gittis recalls.

The book was Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich. Its protagonist is a boy genius who spins out worst-case scenarios and sells his elaborate calculations to corporations. Given what happens next — a disastrous hurricane floods New York City — it's tempting to say that Rich himself predicted Sandy. He didn't, of course. He was as surprised as anyone else.

"I had the very strange experience of editing the final proof of my novel one night, going to sleep, and waking up and essentially seeing it adapted on cable television the next morning," Rich says. "It was eerie. But I think this is the time that we live in now. We live in this time where our worst fears are being realized regularly."

Odds is the latest in what seems to be an emerging literary genre. Over the past decade, more and more writers have begun to set their novels and short stories in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth's systems are noticeably off-kilter. The genre has come to be called climate fiction — "cli-fi," for short.

"I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality," says Rich, "which is that we're headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it's the novelist's job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?"

Of course, science fiction with an environmental bent has been around since the 1960s (think J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World). But while sci-fi usually takes place in a dystopian future, cli-fi happens in a dystopian present.

According to Judith Curry, professor and chair of Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, when novelists tackle climate change in their writing, they reach people in a way that scientists can't.

"You know, scientists and other people are trying to get their message across about various aspects of the climate change issue," says Curry. "And it seems like fiction is an untapped way of doing this — a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness" of readers who may not be following the science.

Curry, who began assembling a list of cli-fi stories a few months ago, says she first saw a renewed interest in climate change fiction with Michael Crichton's 2004 novel, State of Fear, which is about ecoterrorists. Then came such books as Solar by Ian McEwan and Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. When Kingsolver spoke with NPR in November, she said her writing was driven by a simple question: "Why do we believe or disbelieve the evidence we see for climate change?"

"I really wanted to look into how we make those choices and how it's possible to begin a conversation across some of these divides," Kingsolver said, "between scientists and nonscientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative — that when it comes to understanding the scientific truths about the world, there must be another way to bring information to people ... that's beyond simply condescending and saying, 'Well, if only you had the facts. If only you knew what I did, then you would be a smart person.' That gets you nowhere."

Writers can be sneaky in this way. Read all 300 pages of Odds Against Tomorrow, and you won't see the phrase "climate change" once. Rich says that was intentional: "I think the language around climate change is horribly bankrupt and, for the most part, are examples of bad writing, really. And cliche — 'climate change,' as a phrase, is cliche. 'Global warming' is a cliche."

As far as Rich is concerned, climate change itself is a foregone conclusion. The story — the suspense, the romance — is in how we deal with it.

"I don't think that the novelist necessarily has the responsibility to write about global warming or geopolitics or economic despair," he says. "But I do feel that novelists should write about what these things do to the human heart — write about the modern condition, essentially."

Other writers are a little more explicit. Daniel Kramb's 2012 novel From Here is about climate change activists — and Kramb says he wanted it to be overtly political.

"Some people are using climate change as a kind of wider setting," says Kramb, "whereas other people — I, certainly, in my novel — put it at the very heart of the novel."

Kramb says climate fiction is still kind of a niche. But it will make its mark on the world of literature.

"In fact," Kramb says, "I think when [people] look back at this 21st century ... they will definitely see climate change as one of the major themes in literature, if not the major theme."

War and peace ... and climate change?

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A London Cabbie's Summer Reading Picks

Jul 24, 2010 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Solar The Extinction Event A Week In December Brooklyn: A Novel Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth

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Will Grozier, who drives a taxi in London, is no ordinary cabbie. NPR's Scott Simon calls him "the best-read man that I have ever encountered in my life" — which is why NPR occasionally calls Grozier up for reading recommendations.

Our cabbie likes to mix things up by reading both fiction and nonfiction; new releases and older volumes; serious tomes and lighter fare; and, of course, a healthy helping of whatever people leave in the back of his cab. Here's a list of what Will Grozier loves right now, books that captivate whether you're poring over them on the beach or sampling them on a short taxi ride.


Solar

By Ian McEwan, hardcover, 304 pages, Nan A. Talese, list price: $26.95

Grozier calls Solar, the latest novel by Ian McEwan, "an absolute hoot."

"It's completely in a different direction to anything that he's ever done before," Grozier says of the author who's best known for dark, weighty tales like Atonement and On Chesil Beach.

Solar focuses on Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning, five-times-married physicist whose professional success is a dramatic contrast to his messy personal life. Beard's life changes when he inadvertently stumbles upon an amazing technology that can convert solar power into usable electric energy.

"But the way that he comes upon this is germane to the plot," Grozier says, "so I won't spoil it."

Suffice it to say that nothing is the same for Beard after this discovery — and that, according to Grozier, Solar is Ian McEwan "as you've never read him before."

(McEwan discusses what inspired Solar and the challenges of writing about brilliant scientists in this interview with NPR's Lynn Neary.)


The Extinction Event

By David Black, hardcover, 304 pages, Forge Books, list price: $25.99

David Black knows a thing or two about crafting suspenseful, tight, fast-paced stories. The author of 10 novels and works of nonfiction has also dabbled in television — he's penned and produced several episodes of Law & Order.

His latest novel,The Extinction Event, which Grozier calls "a rattling good read for the beach," is a noir mystery about lawyer Jack Slidell, who finds himself a suspect in a murder case after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. As he embarks on a journey to clear his name, Jack discovers that the murder is the least of his worries. More important is it's connection to the governmental cover-up of a potentially apocalyptic event.

Grozier is loathe to reveal any more details — "Again, I don't want to give too much away for your readers." Still, he can say with certainty that The Extinction Event has plenty of twists and turns, as well as a good amount of "sex and drugs and literary rock 'n' roll."


A Week in December

By Sebastian Faulks, hardcover, 400 pages, Doubleday, list price: $27.95

The name of the author behind A Week In December may look familiar to anyone who prefers their martinis shaken, not stirred. Sebastian Faulks is the British novelist who Ian Fleming's estate contracted to write a new James Bond book: Devil May Care, which was released in 2008.

"I don't know how well that went," Grozier says. He recalls seeing the Bond reboot in a secondhand store soon after it was published, a sign that Faulks' work may not have been entirely successful.

A Week In December, though, is another story altogether. While Grozier calls this novel a "little bit deeper, little bit darker than the first two" of his recommendations, it's also "a little more meaty."

Faulks follows seven people over the course of one week in London.

"There's a hedge fund manager, a London Underground train driver, a down-on-his-luck lawyer," Grozier says. "Oh, and he has some potential bombers that have been brainwashed by an Islamic fundamentalist."

Members of this piecemeal party eventually interact with one another over the course of the book, which attacks the greed of the banking industry and the evils of fundamentalism. (Faulks talks about the ideas he explores in A Week In December in this interview.)


Brooklyn: A Novel

By Colm Toibin, paperback, 272 pages, Scribner, list price: $15

Next up is a book that Grozier "will challenge the guys to read."Brooklyn is the story of a young Irish immigrant making her way in the Big Apple.

"Like many of the Irish writers that I've read in recent years," Grozier says, "[Colm Toibin] seems to have a very, very deft touch when it comes to portraying women."

Toibin's heroine, Eilis Lacey, migrates across the Atlantic in the early 1950s to find a better job. The journey has an impact on more than just Eilis's bank account.

"Almost imperceptibly," Grozier says, "[she] undergoes a fundamental change of approach because of her new surroundings, her new environment, her new interaction[s]."

But when she must travel back to her small home town in Ireland after a devastating tragedy, Eilis finds herself torn between her family and the life she's made for herself in the States.

"Ultimately, the story revolves around the decision that she has to make at the end of that rather tormented period," Grozier says. Of course, he won't spoil just what that decision is. (NPR's Maureen Corrigan calls Brooklyn a "profound story about ordinary limited options" and Jacki Lyden saysToibin writes "with care and precision.")


Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth

By Hilary Spurling, hardcover, 320 pages, Simon & Schuster, list price: $27

As biographer Hilary Spurling notes — and Grozier quotes — Pearl Buck is in a unique position: the Nobel Prize-winning writer best known for penning The Good Earth is "a writer that's admired in the States but not read, and read in China but not admired." Buck finally gets the attention she deserves in Pearl Buck In China, which chronicles the American author's childhood.

The daughter of fervent Christian missionaries, Buck grew up roaming around the Chinese countryside. Her background made her an outcast in China and also alienated her from her classmates in the U.S. when she returned to attend Randolph-Macon College in Virginia.

Grozier says he found himself sympathizing with Buck in a way he hadn't expected when he learned that "what she did to escape this very, very difficult upbringing was to run up a tree and read Dickens." Moments like this endear Buck to modern readers and serve as testimony as to why she deserves to come out of obscurity. (NPR's Maureen Corrigan says that Spurling's biography "rescues Buck and some of her best books from the 'stink' of literary condescension.")

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'Solar' ()

Ian McEwan, Teasing Farce From Flawed Humanity

Apr 2, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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About five years ago, the writer Ian McEwan joined a group of artists and scientists on a weeklong trip to the Arctic. The trip was sponsored by a British-based project called Cape Farewell, and the idea was to inspire artists to think about climate change.

In fact, the trip was partly responsible for inspiring McEwan's latest novel, Solar. In a BBC documentary, McEwan noted that once you get past the cold, the Arctic landscape is unlike any other, full of "extraordinary formations."

It was something far less grand that sparked McEwan's first idea for Solar. Over dinner one night, he told his companions on the expedition that chaos had overtaken the room where all their gear was stowed. In the documentary, McEwan told his companions that the situation seemed to him a perfect metaphor for human frailty: an illustration of how even the best of intentions can go awry when in the hands of human beings.

"All it needs is one mistake, and then there's a domino effect of someone saying, 'Well, dammit,' you know, 'I'll take those boots because someone took my boots.' And you actually have a social contract in total collapse. The boot room now is a scene of total lack of cooperation. Environmentalists who care about the planet can't even get their boots together."

Before going to the Arctic, McEwan had been interested in the issue of climate change, but he couldn't figure out a way to write a novel that wouldn't sound preachy — until something about the disarray in the ship's boot room gave him an idea.

"It seemed to strike a chord with a lot else that I'd understood about climate science, the politics of it and human institutions," McEwan says. "We're very good at making wide and sweeping statements of intent, but once we get down to it, often very little happens. And that, at least, gave me the first suspicion that maybe the route into this was through comedy, a comedy of human nature."

Powerful Egos

That boot room scene eventually made its way into Solar. Like McEwan, the book's main character, Michael Beard, takes a journey to the Arctic. Beard doesn't care much about climate change; he just wants to get away from the chaos of his own life. He falls under the spell of the Arctic and his amiable companions, but he can't put aside minor irritations like the messy boot room.

Beard is invited on the Arctic journey because he is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. McEwan says he knew he had to write about a Nobel winner after being introduced to some of these scientific giants at a conference.

"I've never been in a room bristling with such powerful egos," McEwan says. "I mean, these guys are grand. And it was at that point that I thought, if I ever get around to writing a novel about climate science, I definitely have to award a Nobel Prize to my principal character."

Michael Beard may have the towering ego of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist but he is also a womanizer who has cheated on each of his five wives. He eats too much, drinks too much and has virtually no moral compass. As for his scientific accomplishments, he lives off the laurels of his past glory. His foray into the science of climate change is spurred by a bizarre accident that offers him an opening to steal someone else's ideas.

"He's somewhat lazy, rather greedy, full of resolutions to give up eating junk food and lose weight and get fit." Beard, McEwan says, "sort of believes in climate change but skeptically, can't be bothered to get too interested in it, until an opportunity presents itself and then he sees a chance to both save the world, make his name and to make some money."

McEwan says this farcical portrayal of a scientist loaded down with bad habits is his way of depicting how difficult it is for spoiled, lazy, self-centered human beings to take on the challenges required to reverse the effects of climate change. And despite, or maybe even because of his many flaws, Beard was a fun character to create.

"It's interesting to have such a wildly erroneous guy at the center of things," McEwan says. "I could get him to say and do things that maybe I wouldn't if I was trying to make a climate science novel and have a paragon of virtue at its center. ... It gave me a sort of freedom to just lash out a bit."

Though McEwan is probably best known for his novel Atonement, which was set mostly in the past, both Solar and his recent novel, Saturday, take place in the present and explore the anxieties of a rapidly changing world where threats come from humans and nature.

"The present is always noisy and contentious," McEwan says. "We all have a very different view of the present and a slightly more coherent and generally more settled view of the past. So when you write about the present and in the present, you get your hands a little more dirty, and you find that people disagree with your take."

McEwan says he has no idea whether his next book will be set in the past, the present or the future. Nor does he know what it will be about. And that, he says, is part of the pleasure of being a novelist: never knowing what will inspire you next.

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'Solar' ()

'Solar': McEwan's Coldhearted Scientist Melts Down

Apr 1, 2010

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Ian McEwan has shown, in novels such as Atonement, Saturday, Amsterdam and Enduring Love, that he's a master of turbocharged fiction that explores ethical issues in both the domestic and the global realms. His 14th book, Solar, driven by the debate on global warming, concerns a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who's been coasting for decades in both his personal and professional lives, "a solipsist at heart, and his heart was a nugget of ice."

Michael Beard, whose fifth marriage has melted in the heat of tit-for-tat adultery, becomes convinced that both his and the world's EZPass to renewal is artificial photosynthesis through solar energy. He throws himself into its development for nine years, lining up funding and racking up 17 patents. By novel's end in 2009, he's poised to reap the rewards, when his past and present converge like an interstate pileup.

The problem is, Beard's ideas have been filched without attribution from a dead man. Worse, that dead man was his last wife's lover, a junior colleague at the British National Centre for Renewable Energy, where Beard, courtesy of his Nobel Prize, was nominal director. Worse still, that dead man died in an accident witnessed and abhorrently covered up by Beard.

Sound wild? McEwan guns his narrative engine in the first section, set in 2000. But there are curious detours throughout Solar. There's a riotous story about an expedition to the North Pole with artists, performers and scientists concerned with climate change. It's a trip Beard takes to escape his woes at home — inspired by a similar expedition made by McEwan. Like the lovely long back story about Beard's childhood and first marriage — first published in The New Yorker as "The Use of Poetry" — it feels oddly spliced into the novel.

McEwan has employed sudden narrative shifts before — most dramatically in Atonement, where he jumped from a Merchant-Ivory-worthy country estate to Dunkirk — but the middle of Solar feels in parts like he's either lost his way or run out of gas.

Beard, however, is a noteworthy addition to literature's catalog of self-deluding morally myopic monsters. He's short, fat, bald, obscenely gluttonous, chronically unfaithful, "bristling with academic grandeur" and yet somehow "unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women." Among his sins is inattentiveness, which McEwan nails with the memorable observation that he's "lost patience with the small print of human contact."

Perhaps appropriate for someone so interested in solar energy, Beard is aggressively passive, repeatedly absolving himself of responsibility for his chicanery, his unlivable apartment, his tangled relationships, even his health: he invariably sees decisions as "out of his hands."

As a narrative vehicle Solar suffers from some of the problems with braking and acceleration that have been plaguing Toyota hybrids. But even though not McEwan's best, it still outperforms many competitors in both moral reach and linguistic flair.

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'Solar' ()

Tina Brown's Must-Reads About ... This Working Life

Apr 1, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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For Morning Edition's monthly feature "Word of Mouth," Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown joins NPR to talk about what she's been reading — and what's made an impression. This month, Brown has been reading about work: how to keep a job, how to lose a job and how to make it all meaningful.

'The Acceleration Trap'

At the top of Brown's list: What happens when companies "take on more than they can handle." In "The Acceleration Trap," Harvard Business Review writers Heike Bruch and Jochen I. Menges explore the destructive nature of badly executed corporate expansion. When companies grow too quickly and take on too many initiatives, they write, it often leads to worker burnout.

Brown says this study is particularly resonant in the current down economy.

"What you have is a situation where people are so worried about the economy, they're kind of biting off initiatives, thinking 'That sounds like a great initiative; I can't be left behind.' But they go after it with fewer people than they had in the company before, so everybody feels extremely overloaded, and nothing is being digested well."

The bottom line: Sometimes it's better for companies to observe a moratorium on new projects rather than spreading themselves too thin.

'The Case, And The Plan, For The Virtual Company'

Brown's next recommendation is an account of what happened when the staff of Inc. magazine tried to put an entire issue together from their living rooms.

In "The Case, and the Plan, for the Virtual Company," writer Max Chafkin provides "the why, the how, and the why not of going virtual." Chafkin delves into the role of the office in people's lives, noting that while workers can still be productive at home, there's something about keeping up a routine that directly contributes to keeping your sanity.

"He says taking a walk to buy lunch, or leaving work at 6:30, are effective buffers against stress, frustration and all manner of instability," Brown tells Morning Edition.

"I know that when my magazine Talk folded, it was very hard for me to get readjusted to not flying out the door in the morning and having my little routine: stopping at that coffee shop on the corner, picking up the paper. You think of them as chores, but actually when you're not doing them you feel somewhat at a loss. And of course a lot of people are going through that at the moment."

'Losing It'

Brown's third recommendation takes the experience of losing an office from experiment to reality. "Losing It," an excerpt from the upcoming book Slow Love, appeared in The New York Times Magazine.

Author Dominique Browning recounts what happened after she lost her job as a high-powered editor at House & Garden — and with it the desire to get out of bed in the morning. She also talks about re-engaging with the parts of her life she had never had time for before being laid off.

"It's a very interesting exploration of a soul in rebound from an overstressed lifestyle," Brown says. Browning details "what she misses from that lifestyle — which is profound — but also some of the things about her character and about her goals that she has to confront for the first time."

It's an uncomfortable but authentic read, Brown says, and another story that she can completely relate to, given her own experiences with Talk.

"I just became a sort of cheese-aholic, and I used to go downstairs have enormous slices of cheese, telling myself that this was instead of lunch," Brown says. "And you know, it never was."

Brown frankly admits that despite the possibilities that come with being home all day — picking up her daughter from school, rebonding with her cat — an interrupted career is still a difficult experience.

"It's a great sense of mourning when you can't do the thing you're really good at, and do it with satisfaction — and you suddenly fear that you may never do it again," Brown says. "This extract certainly whetted my appetite for more of this kind of reflection on who we are when the music stops."

'Solar'

Finally, Brown recommends Ian McEwan's new novel Solar, whose hero is an overweight, pompous Nobel laureate who hasn't had a new idea in 20 years. He gets by in life by securing a number of prestigious gigs that don't actually require him to do any work.

"It's a beautiful portrait of that kind of blowhard, who McEwan wonderfully skewers," Brown says.

But Solar also speaks to "The Acceleration Trap," in a way. McEwan's hero is one of those bosses who start vanity projects — and then refuse to kill them off, even when they prove to be a total waste of time.

"It's a delicious satire on so many of the themes that we've been talking about," Brown says. "Awful guy, but a very good read."

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