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When 'Everything' Is Changing, Stories Have A Role To Play

Someday soon, the rains will come and they will wash away everything and everyone you love.

Someday soon, the seas will rise. The temperatures will rise. The plants will die and the animals will die and we will die.

Where once we obsessed over nuclear annihilation or zombies or rogue AI or technological civilizations slipping back into barbarism in our scifi — where once we used these things to describe, at one remove, the wars and nightmares of our collective present — now we have a much more present future, a much more close and frightening end to consider. Climate change is a slow apocalypse. An end that comes by degrees (literally). And it is hard to write science fiction about climate change because if you wait long enough, all the stories become fact. They become accidental histories, memorials to the worst things we could imagine — before the imaginings all became true.

It's also a little bit ridiculous, right? I mean, if you go into it thinking that your stories are going to change anything or do any good. If you mean it, or expect anything more than to tell a good tale, entertain a little, etch a little space for yourself in the memories of a few readers. To attempt more than that is vanity. Is hubris. Trying to cure climate change with stories is like dancing against poverty or writing poetry to dissuade the hurricanes.


I think I found Everything Change on Twitter first — some splashy ad for a free book. A collection of short stories, all about the effects of climate change. Near-to-moderate term futurism. Disasters upon disasters.

And I like a good flood story. A good post-apocalyptic romp. This one, though, was a project — a collection being put out by Arizona State University's Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative. It's their second volume, actually — the winners of a short story contest judged (primarily) by Kim Stanley Robinson (who writes a brief foreword), being distributed free by ASU and the ICFI. And while you might think that universities ought to be using their resources to build a better windmill or save some endangered slug or something, editors Angie Dell and Joey Eschrich confront that thought head-on.

"Since launching the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative in 2014 ... it's become increasingly apparent to us that this struggle is about stories," they write in their introduction.

We need stories, the editors say, and that is absolutely true. We need to personalize these crises, to give faces and names to the victims of potential disasters looming just over our horizon.

And okay, I could debate us having all the necessary tools and knowledge, but the idea of persuasion? Of fostering empathy and altering modes of thought? That's tougher to argue with, because that what stories are built to do.

And so Everything Change offers us stories of lakes gone dry and rivers overflowing their banks; of babies born into a world where they will never know the sun, the feel of grass or the touch of dry land. Vajra Chandrasekera's "Half-Eaten Cities" is almost surrealist absurdism — a future where the rising waters are repelled only by true, vast wealth, where the waters drown the poor but part willingly for the 1%. "Tuolumne River Days" by Rebecca Lawton is "Casey At The Bat" re-done with cli-fi dread and a chaser of emergent disease chic. Mitch Sullivan does the 24-hour news cycle, weather reporting and the official climate denying in "The Office Of Climate Facts" — which is perhaps the first of these stories to already have been lapped by events and read like documentary, but will not be the last.

We need stories, the editors say, and that is absolutely true. We need to personalize these crises, to give faces and names to the victims of potential disasters looming just over our horizon. We need heroes. We need worlds that are both recognizable and shockingly alien. We're faced with the data every day that our planet is changing. That we are (and historically have been) the cause. But hearing about a 77 millimeter mean sea level rise or a 1.6 degree average global surface temperature increase will never mean as much as watching the last orca move out to deeper water in search of survival (in "Luna" by David Samuel Hudson) or witnessing the night sky for the first time, through the eyes of a child who has lived an entire lifetime in the ocean's Midnight Zone ("Darkness Full Of Light" by Tony Dietz): "Adrift, I cry for my sisters to take my hand because I am small and scared and drowning in this infinite sea of stars, this darkness full of light."

Stories will never be enough, of course. Can't be. Or anyway, not stories alone. But a problem this large — a million, interlinked problems, all this large — requires diverse solutions, coming from a hundred different angles. It needs scientists and engineers, mechanics and lawyers, tinkerers and geniuses. It needs everyone.

And stories that serve to remind people of that might, if nothing else, be a good place to start.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

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