Environment

Running out of daylight

How a fiction novelist has chosen optimism when writing about climate change

July 4, 2018
“You might say the environment itself was the antagonist,” William Liggett says of his climate fiction novel set on Washington’s Blue Glacier. [Credit: Lowell Brady | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

A couple of years ago, William Liggett strapped on his backpack, grabbed his audio recorder and headed up the Hoh River Trail in Washington State. With his brother-in-law, Stan, and Stan’s son, Matthew, alongside him, he pushed steadily upward. The goal: to plant his feet on the Blue Glacier for the first time in over 50 years.

He’d spent a lot of time on the glacier when he was much younger. Fresh out of high school, he landed a gig with the Blue Glacier Project, a geological research effort led by prominent glaciologist Ed LaChapelle. The job entailed three epic months scaling the glacier’s icy terrain and taking measurements to track its changing mass.

He had some dangerously close calls. “As a teenager, you take all kinds of risks,” he said of the venture. Once he slipped into a crevasse, a narrow crack in the ice. A fellow hiker held onto the rope he was attached to, and the young Liggett managed to climb out.

Remembering those close scrapes years later, Liggett realized the Blue Glacier was the perfect setting for an adventure novel and decided to hike it once more. As he climbed the Hoh River Trail, he described the green, mossy forest in his voice recorder — details he’d put in his novel.

The three hikers began in the morning and walked for hours. “The darn trail got steeper and steeper the higher you got,” he said. “We were all running out of gas and actually running out of daylight.”

His family dropped off while Liggett continued on his own for a couple more hours, racing dusk to the base of the glacier. It got so dim that he lost sight of the trail, and finally decided to bail out, responding perhaps more sensibly than his teenaged self would have. He found the trail and began his descent. Then he went home and wrote.

The completed novel, “Watermelon Snow,” published in 2017, follows a band of Blue Glacier researchers who are struck by a strange illness unearthed by the melting glacier. It’s a prevalent fear in the real world as climate change melts Earth’s glaciers. And in taking on this subject, Liggett established himself as the latest practitioner of a booming literary genre: climate fiction, or cli-fi, which focuses on the challenges of coping with a changing climate.

“This new literary genre is now becoming part of our communal storytelling culture, imparting new ideas and insights about the future humanity might face not only in 10 years, but in 100 or 500 years as well,” wrote freelance writer Dan Bloom, who coined the term cli-fi, in a Medium post.

Bloom found Liggett while digging around online and reached out to interview him — one of over 100 cli-fi author interviews he’s conducted for his blog since 2011. Since then, the two have kept in touch as fellow promoters of a certain subgenre of cli-fi: One rooted in optimism.

“Cli-fi is for the hopeful,” Bloom says.

It’s certainly easy to find gloomy climate fiction, including works by famous authors such as Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” For Bloom, titles like these can be entertaining, but they don’t provide the hope that optimistic narratives do.

Liggett kept bumping into doomsayer writers while researching his own book. “You almost think they’re trying to scare people about what the future’s going to be if they don’t take some action,” he said. “I just didn’t want my stories to be dark and dystopian like that.”

Instead, he focuses on solutions. “I have these characters who are really struggling in a changing environment,” he said. “But they’re really doing it in a way to try to accommodate to it, to understand it, to be able to help people cope.” The characters in “Watermelon Snow” include scientists who frequently lament having to race against rising global temperatures to conduct their research before the glacier is transformed. At the same time, they express their growing dedication to scientific research — for them, it’s an increasingly vital and fulfilling pursuit.

Focusing on the solutions — the ways people might effectively respond to a world altered by climate change — is to choose a side in a debate much bigger than Liggett’s book and even bigger than the cli-fi genre. The journalist David Wallace-Wells energized both sides when he veered away from optimism in his 2017 New York Magazine cover story “The Uninhabitable Earth.” His piece describes the worst-case scenarios of climate change: the disasters that may come in food production, ocean and air pollution and wars, to name a few. While some lauded Wallace-Wells’ approach, others called it alarmist, including a group of prominent scientists who criticized it in an analysis published online.

“I really think that fiction has a way of engaging people in a subject, and that just pure factual information may not have the same impact,” Liggett says. For readers put off by learning about climate science because it’s so highly politicized, climate fiction can be an in, he believes. Liggett writes with the hope that once people are engaged, they’ll continue to envision how climate change may play out and what solutions may be possible. Dystopian cli-fi could instead lead readers toward fatalism, he believes.

Some research on the subject backs up Liggett’s approach. A 2010 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that “dire messaging” about climate change can cause audiences to become more skeptical of climate science and less likely to adopt sustainable behaviors. These effects are mitigated, however, when the message includes solutions.

“It’s not mystical. It’s not magical,” Liggett says. “It’s just real people coping with the real world as it’s changing.”

He’s not done with cli-fi. In fact, he’s now conducting research to dive into even more contentious terrain: “geoengineering,” efforts to use new technologies to slow global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or reflecting sunlight before it can reach Earth.

“The thing people are really worried about is somebody going off and trying [geoengineering] without knowing what they’re doing,” he says. And that’s exactly what he plans for his story’s villain to do. True to his optimistic approach, Liggett is exploring geoengineering not as a terrifying dystopian possibility but as a potential solution — if it’s used carefully.

“I didn’t set out to save the planet by writing a novel,” he wrote on his blog. Short of saving the planet, he may be helping bridge the gap between climate skeptics and climate activists.

One reviewer of Liggett’s book, Rebecca McNutt, wrote on Goodreads.com that she’s “never been much of a fan of environmental-themed books,” nor “a supporter of everyone jumping on the trendy eco bandwagon.” She proceeds to commend the novel, giving it four out of five stars. At least for her, it seems, Liggett’s optimistic approach has worked exactly as he’d hoped.

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About the Author

Jen Monnier is a journalist who likes writing about underwater critters, technology and science policy.

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