By Randal Eldon Greene
We read fiction to escape from reality, right? So why would one want to write about such a controversial, hot-button topic as the environment in their fiction?
Fiction can explore many things—many topics, issues, and instances of life. A novel like Frazen’s The
Corrections explores middle-class lives in the midst of a changing economy; Truong’s The Book of Salt explores Vietnamese identity and diaspora; DeLillo’s White Noise explores the quotidian ephemeral of distraction and white noise of daily life.
With so many potential topics to write about, why am I advocating one above the others?
Well—it’s important. In fact, it may be the most important issue of our time.
The environmental health of our planet both transcends and unites humanity together. That’s right, we’re all in this together and it’s bigger than us.
But why fiction?
Fiction is a forming and shaping of mindstuff through the sieve of imagination. Mindstuff, as I term it, is the material we use when we write fiction. Our stories aren’t creatio ex nihilo, but from something.
Certainly the environment, conservation, global warming, and green energy are topics which—even if we
were to actively try ignoring them—come up again and again. Environmental news is all around us. To think about the world today means thinking about the environment. Ergo, to write about the world today means writing about climate change.
Not that there aren’t other worthy topics. There are. And those should be explored too. But it could be argued that it is only climate change and the environment that are universal to all peoples of all nations.
Fiction also gives us a story. It allows us to explore the themes of human impact and human reaction to a damaged ecosystem. Stories can move us. Stories can tell deeper truths about humanity and its relationship with the Earth—the adage fiction tells truth with lies applies here. And, done well, it can tell truth in a deep and insightful way without climbing up on the proverbial soapbox.
That’s why we need fiction that talks about climate change. That’s why we need fiction to explore the complicated history of humanity and environment. That’s why we need fiction to imagine a future for us. We need these stories to compel us to look around at our world now and help us realize our own part in the reality that drives the story.
Yes, we need fiction—books, short stories, tales—to run imaginatively with the issues of our day. Because fiction can effect change, can help us look closely at the complicated issues of our day, and help integrate these topics into the social mindset without the divisiveness that even the best journalism and news headlines inevitably and instantly generate.
This isn’t to say that journalism and non-fiction about environmental issues aren’t important—they are. They are, in fact, the stuff we wrench from reality to make our fiction. Non-fiction is the number one source of our eco-topical mindstuff. We need that research to fuel our fiction as much as we need it for our activism: statistics, photographs, interviews. Fiction, using all of these, works in tandem with activism. Fiction adds to the equation its ability to touch a deeper psychological part of our brains. Make these concerns come through with the books and stories we write and we will help reach more people with a love for the Earth and a worry for what is happening to the Earth.
That’s why I wrote Descriptions of Heaven; rather, I let my concerns about the environment express itself
in my book. Yes—it’s a book about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death. But it’s also about the Earth and ecological catastrophe. How far can we go before there’s no going back? And what if we do go too far—what do we, as humans, believe will follow when all is ruined? Can we really give up and let it get to this point? These are the questions my novel poses. But these aren’t the only questions or only environmental topics that can be explored. There’s so much more yet to be written.
We need more quality fiction about the environment. The environment needs more quality fiction. We the writers need to let our worries, our anger, and our love for the Earth find its way into our words.