The New York Times recently published a piece where scientists are asked to comment on climate fiction and to assess to what extent these depictions of the future are realistic.
image source: NYTimes / Jordin Isip
The short piece feels strangely inadequate and limited for a variety of reasons, the first reason being, perhaps, that literary fiction is exactly defined by not having truth-value in the referential world. If the starting point of the article is flawed, the researchers interviewed seem to point at that in their own answers, for example when one answers that “Humans are able to probe these issues in ways that are different through the lens of fiction.” What the article does, then, is have scientists tell us what literary fiction can do, by asking of literature what science can do.
The best point of the article comes in the end, when “Dr. Foley [executive director of the California Academy of Sciences] said that if he ever wrote a novel, it would be one in which “we all do the slow, hard muddling work of just pitching in, but no hero rides in on a spaceship to save us all.” It would be a terrible novel, he admitted. “No one would buy it, and Hollywood wouldn’t make a movie, but it’s the one I want, and it would surely save the world.””
The article is enlightening for the most part by the very questions it asks, emphasizing the difficulties we continue to have in imagining futures emanating directly from our current choices, and the way in which different kinds of texts are able to envision different aspects of such futures, from accumulating effects, numbers and figures in scientific data, to the “qualia” of what change feels like in literary fiction. Questions that are at the heart of much current work in the environmental humanities, and also in my current research project “Narratives of the Urban Waterfront in Crisis“.