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Climate Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Science Fiction

Climate Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Science Fiction

Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.

Climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” carries certain connotations among readers and critics alike. Most associate the genre with science fiction, and therefore sci-fi’s most recognizable tropes: post-apocalyptic worlds, non-human (or once-human) characters, and futuristic technology. But what if we expand the genre’s definition to works that address issues of climate change in the here-and-now, in worlds that aren’t speculative or futuristic at all, but rather, unnervingly familiar?

What we would find are some of the most urgent, funny, and beautifully written works in contemporary fiction. Case in point: Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station. This touching and at times laugh-out-loud funny novel introduces us to Cooper Gosling, a painter who’s struggling in the aftermath of family tragedy. She grew up listening to her father tell stories about Antarctica’s greatest explorers, and now that she’s thirty and uncertain what to do with her life, she decides to set out on an adventure of her own. She signs up with an artist colony that piggy-backs on a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research team’s trip to South Pole, and proceeds to spend a dark and freezing year among not only fellow artists, but climate scientists.

Much to everyone’s chagrin, a climate change denier is in the mix, and as Cooper’s story unfolds, so does a rivalry between the believers and the non-believer. The novel is rife with fascinating and piercingly funny dialogue about the meaning of the scientific method, the importance of NSF funding, and how both art and science can lend insight into the workings of the universe. Much of the book was informed by Shelby’s own research—she is also a journalist who covered the Exxon Valdez litigation for the Nation and the author of a work of nonfiction about a devastating flood in 1997 in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

In this interview, we discussed what she learned as an environmental journalist, her thoughts on writers’ ability to get people thinking about climate change, and what it was like to spend so much time in the heads of climate change deniers as she wrote her latest novel.

Amy Brady: I’m not usually a fan of questions about inspiration, but South Pole Station defies so many literary hallmarks with its stark setting, lack of thriller plot (despite being set in Antarctica), and passages about the NSF’s funding priorities that somehow manage to be both funny and fascnating. So I have to ask, where in the heck did this novel come from?  

Ashley Shelby (photo by Erica Hanna)

Ashley Shelby: My younger sister spent a full year at South Pole Station in 2002-2003 as a production cook, one of a handful of women who have ever spent both the summer and winter seasons at South Pole. She sent a series of letters to me during that time, when I was a starving young editor in New York, and the world those letters described was like Catch-22 on powerful stimulants.

The details were vague—identifying information was never included—because there is an important ethic among the people who work at South Pole, which is that what happens on the ice stays on the ice. But she sketched out just enough to make me wonder about, and then later grow obsessed with, the idea that people would voluntarily live at the most remote point of human civilization for months on end, where you get two-minute showers twice a week, have to pee in a can, and where some of the most important, world-changing science is being conducted alongside some of the most dangerous support activities on earth. I’m deeply fascinated by the liminal spaces where extreme environments and civilization meet, and Antarctica is certainly one of those places.

Amy Brady: You achieved something remarkable with this book: you humanized, and in at least a couple moments even made sympathetic, a climate change denying scientist and the congressmen who support him. What was it like to get inside the heads of these men?

Ashley Shelby: I so appreciate that observation. You know, in many ways, I think I was working things out for myself. As someone deeply concerned about climate change and, more specifically, climate change denial, I have grappled with the reasons why a few individuals—especially otherwise highly educated scientists—have chosen denial. Like many, I have demonized them. I’ve been filled with rage. It seems such a waste of resources when we have a scarcity of time.

Having written about oil companies as a journalist, I also knew from my reporting that there was a Big Oil playbook when it came to handling climate change science; this industry has a history of manufacturing its own science. For example, in the years following the Exxon Valdez disaster, Alaska-based scientists were finding pockets of oil on the beaches of Prince William Sound. In fact, I went to Cordova in 2004, a fishing village that was decimated by the spill, and visited one of these beaches with a scientist named Jeff Short, who had been defamed and harassed by Exxon for years because his research showed a great deal of residual oil in the Sound, even decades after the spill. I’ll never forget getting on my knees on that beach with him and watching as he shoveled out two spadesful of sand and seeing the crude bubble up.

Exxon paid scientists to discredit Short’s research because it threatened their bottom line. They did the same thing with climate change research, as we’ve seen in the court cases against Exxon currently working their way through the legal system. But what about the scientists who said yes to Exxon—who agreed to manipulate the science so the data appeared to absolve the company of wrongdoing? Were they all venal? What was in it for them, besides money? In the book, the climate change-denying scientist funded by an oil consortium has a backstory that provides one perspective. The same is true with the two conservative congressmen. We learn that one of these men, facing a difficult reelection bid back home, has been tied to this climate denial issue and is fighting for his electoral life. But he’s conflicted. In that case—and frankly in the case of most of the characters in this book—I was examining what it means to be a flawed, complicated human being, as we all are.

We dismiss one another so easily when our views conflict, especially when it comes to issues that seem black and white—and I am as guilty of this as anyone. Probably more. But as I wrote these characters, I came to realize that there was more than met the eye in all of them; humans are complex psychological ecosystems. It’s something that, in the heat of a debate with a climate denier, can be lost on someone. God knows it was lost on me for a long time. And James Inhofe still fills me with rage, by the way. I simply cannot give a pass to a man who holds up a snowball on the floor of the Senate as proof that the earth is not warming.

Amy Brady: Your original reporting for the Nation on the Exxon Valdez litigation was indeed eye-opening. You showed the lengths that corporations will go to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. How did that investigation inform your thinking about environmental disaster, or climate change more broadly?

Ashley Shelby: In many ways. It was actually a life-changing experience. In addition to the heart-wrenching stories of the fishers of Cordova, who had lost their livelihood the day the Valdez hit Bligh Reef, I also got a glimpse into the dark heart of the oil industry. I remember crouching down in my cubicle at Penguin, as a twenty-five-year-old, and taking a call from Tom Cirigliano, Exxon’s head PR guy. He berated me for a good five minutes, informing me that my reporting would be biased and that I was lucky that he had even returned my call. In fact, he hung up on me, before calling back again. It was clear almost from the start just how much this company felt it had at stake when it came to acknowledging its role in massive environmental disasters, such as the Valdez spill.

Remember that this is a multi-billion-dollar company that refused for more than twenty years to pay court-ordered punitive damages to the fishers of Cordova, Alaska, whose industry had been crippled by their spill. When it became clear that the company was now hiring scientists to challenge the science of climate change itself, I wasn’t surprised at all. I also wasn’t surprised to learn that at the same time the company was paying a handful of university scientists to deny that climate change was either real or, if real, caused by human activity, they also had their own company scientists telling them that, yes, climate change was real and yes, oil was playing a role in that change. In South Pole Station, Frank Pavano is a bought scientist, just a cog in the machinery of obfuscation and denial that has been in the manual for large polluters for decades.

Amy Brady: Trauma seems to be an overlapping theme in this book. There’s Cooper’s emotional and physical traumas, and then there’s Earth’s trauma, which hovers over everything in the novel. Is it useful, as a writer or an activist, to think in these terms?

Ashley Shelby: I think it’s unavoidable to think in these terms, at least some of the time. We recently saw climate scientists up in arms over David Wallace-Wells’ piece in New York magazine about what the planet could look like if we do nothing to address the looming climate crisis. It was a stark, terrifying, brilliant piece of writing, and I think it was absolutely necessary. However, climate scientists like Michael Mann and planetary futurists like Alex Steffens feel that scaring people and leaving them bereft of hope actually allows paralysis to set in and is deeply unhelpful. I understand that, and I agree.

But I also don’t think all communication about climate change has to be couched in hope and gentle persuasion. I think there is a place for the frank statement, especially when so much is at stake. We need to have the courage to experience moments of deep understanding of our role in the trauma humans have caused and are continuing to cause our planet and the future generations of humans who will live on this planet. Just like glossing over personal trauma or refusing to look into the void in which it resides and leave a person unable to move forward and live fully, I believe that failure to look at the consequences of runaway climate change because it’s scary does everyone a disservice. It allows us to pretend it’s not as bad as it is.

Amy Brady: In addition to your journalism, you’ve also written Red River Rising, a work of non-fiction about a devastating flood in North Dakota. Why did you decide to turn to fiction to explore your concerns about the environment?

Ashley Shelby: In some ways, the decision was practical. Journalism, as a practice, is time-intensive. Research is one thing; interviews and traveling to chase stories is another thing entirely. As the parent of two very young children, it was no longer in the cards for me to write another work of journalism. But I was still fixated on these crossroads where humans and disaster met, those traumas you mentioned earlier, where the personal and the environmental begin to tangle. To me, climate change is a disaster that is going to cause some level of trauma on both the personal and the planetary levels.

But when I started South Pole Station, it wasn’t necessarily going to be about climate change. In fact, earlier drafts featured a Creationist, not a climate denier. I wanted to explore what happens when people are forced to live in close proximity with individuals whose views are anathema to their own—especially when there’s literally no escape. As the book progressed, however, all those old interests wormed their way into the composition of the narrative—science, landscape, environmental threats, political wrangling, bought research—and even seem to gain new relevance as current events unfolded.

The writing of this book was just as research-intensive as Red River Rising (which included a FOIA dump); I was able to practice journalism, in some ways, in the way I studied climate science, cosmology, logistics, military contracting, visual art, and so on. So, the process of writing a novel as opposed to narrative nonfiction wasn’t entirely alien to me, though I know not all novelists write this way. I also want to add that fiction allows for the artistic element as well; there were themes I wanted to explore, including the roles of art and science, faith and pragmatism, isolation and community. Shoehorning themes onto nonfiction accounts can sometimes render a story inauthentic. There is much more leeway in a novel.

Amy Brady: Many works of climate fiction are set in futuristic dystopias. But with South Pole Station, you address climate change issues as they’re unfolding in the present—and with a brilliant sense of humor. Its impressive literary merit aside, will South Pole Station be effective, do you think, in getting people to understand the gravity and urgency of climate change?

Ashley Shelby: This will sound overly pessimistic, but I’m not sanguine about any work of art or journalism helping individuals understand either the profundity of the potential impacts or the urgency. Nothing has yet. Again, the reaction to David Wallace Wells’ piece in New York is pretty typical. People wanted to turn away from it. I had very smart writer friends who told me they couldn’t finish the piece because it was too distressing. Someone else has called it “disaster porn.” Other pieces about climate change, which use a lighter touch, are quickly read and forgotten. What’s the middle ground that might make a dent in our collective consciousness? And I’m beginning to wonder if we can even afford a middle ground at this point?

Like others, I’m fearful, but I grapple with my own worries about climate change by using humor. I recently published a short story that was basically a series of Craig’s List ads set in a post-climate impact America. People are still looking for Missed Connections, but it might be the National Guardsman who rescued you from your roof during a flood. They’re looking for roommates, but “no environmental migrants, please.” I need to be able to find the light, and for me, humor provides that light. That’s why South Pole Station has been described as a comic novel, even though it touches on a number of so-called “serious issues.” Humans remain reassuringly human; and as we all know, humans are, if nothing else, funny as hell, even or especially when they don’t mean to be.

I do have faith in the inventive minds all over the world that are working feverishly on this problem. I have tremendous optimism that a small group of individuals will find a way to get us out of this mess by inventing a technology or some large-scale approach to mitigation that can be easily adopted by large populations. We are endlessly inventive—both in ways to damage this planet, and, I’m hopeful, in ways to heal it.

South Pole Station
By Ashley Shelby
Published July 3, 2017

Ashley Shelby is the author of one novel Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City, a narrative nonfiction account of a devastating flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She is also a prize-winning writer and journalist who covered the Exxon Valdez litigation for the Nation. She received her MFA from Columbia University. South Pole Station is her first novel.

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