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[GUEST POST] Sharman Apt Russell (KNOCKING ON HEAVEN’S DOOR) on Science Fiction Meets Henry David Thoreau

This spring, Sharman is the Bill Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Montana in Missoula. Her award-winning books include the recent Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World. She is the recipient of a Rockefeller Fellowship. WILLA, and Pushcart Prize, among other awards. Her debut science fiction Knocking on Heaven’s Door (Yucca Publishing, 2016) begins in a Paleoterrific utopia and spirals out to some very strange places. Knocking on Heaven’s Door is available now in audible as well as print and digital. For more information on Sharman’s other fictions and nonfictions, go to or Like her author’s Facebook page.”

On Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, and Their Different Approaches to Climate Change

by Sharman Apt Russell

For most of my writing life, I have been categorized as a nature or environmental writer. And I am quite happy about that, perfectly happy to be writing nonfiction about the extinction of species and migration of monarchs and beauty of rivers and badness of pollution. But I also love science fiction, and I am also impressed with how science fiction can make environmental issues come alive in ways that nonfiction cannot. Recently, for example, I read Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, two novels about climate change, each taking a very different approach.

Green Earth is an updated, mashed-up version of previous books Robinson had written in a series he called Science in the Capitol. Although I hadn’t read the earlier novels, I could see the “seams” where material had been patched together, with plots condensed and the development of some plots dropped completely. That didn’t bother me. The story is still coherent and full of good information about what could happen in our oceans and at our ice caps to cause sudden or “abrupt” climate change and what the consequences of that might look like. This is global warming in the developed world. In Green Earth, we enter the lives of men and women who are healthy, smart, powerful, and privileged–kayakers paddling on the National Mall as Washington DC floods, hikers in California documenting the loss of favorite alpine meadows, home-owners mourning their expensive beach-front property. And these recognizable and supremely likeable characters, this recognizable and privileged world, is what makes the reality of something so dramatic, so planet-altering, so inconceivable as climate change accessible to many of Robinson’s readers. We read this book while traveling in an airplane, or at home surrounded by our own middle-class stuff, and we think—yes, this could really happen.

Green Earth is a deeply, weirdly, refreshingly hopeful book. Its most science-fictiony leap may be the “thought experiment” of American politicians and scientists putting shoulders to the wheel and trying to save the world together.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is at the other extreme—a charismatic Dr. Jekyll to the staid and pleasant Mr. Hyde. In the bleak and broken city of Phoenix, Arizona, in the not-so-very-distant future, the United States has fallen apart into warring states, with refugees from the south desperately trying to reach the north. Bacigalupi draws heavily on scientific research about what extreme drought will look like in the American Southwest, mixes into that the brutal and horrific violence of the drug cartels happening along the border now, adds everything we know and feel about corrupt politics and amoral multinational corporations—and the result also feels frighteningly and utterly real. Absolutely scary. Yes, we think. Oh my God. Get the family in the car! We need a plan!

This is powerful nature writing. Arctic winters sweeping through the Northeast. Coastal cities flooded. Governments bankrupted. The refugees of Texas and New Mexico fighting over plastic bags of urine-recycled water. The grit of dust storms and smoke of fires blowing out the lungs of the have-nots while the haves build hermetically-sealed towers protected by private armies…all based on the news we are reading today.

What we do next with this information—that human-caused climate change is going to have enormous consequences, perhaps for you and me personally, perhaps in our lifetimes—is up to us. And I won’t argue that fiction is better at prompting people to action than nonfiction. But I do believe that books like Green Earth and The Water Knife create vivid scenes and images that live in our psyche in a way that the numbers and facts of global warming do not.

American nature writing–and the environmental movement–began serendipitously with a handful of nineteenth-century thinkers and writers: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, John Muir. And if they had been writing instead in the 21rst century? Who knows? Perhaps they’d be writing science fiction.

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