Why did you choose to write fiction, when reality seems to be surpassing many of our worst predictions? That’s a common question I get at my book tour events. There are several ideas loaded into a question like that, so my answers aren’t short. Then again, maybe I’m still trying to figure out the real answer for myself.
There’s a simple answer, of course: I wrote fiction for a complete change. I wanted to see if I could, and I wanted to try something new. To go into a different place. To create a different place, that is, or at least a place in my head where I could imagine the characters and scenarios. I found very quickly that I enjoyed the process. I was drawn in, and although I was the one typing every word, my characters began to take over the writing and lead me along as the story evolved along with them.
I had another strong, maybe even a stronger, motivation though. Perhaps even a motive. My life and career have been about trying to motivate positive social change for the benefit of humans, civilization and our only environment. I have tried many avenues; many media. Government, private and non-profit sector work. Policy, international negotiations, consulting, speaking, documentary film and non-fiction writing. I’ve used facts, logic and stories of inspiring people doing inspiring things. I have learned that you do not move people by fact, guilt or fear. Or at least never by these alone. You must connect with people through their heart, their values, their fears and their dreams. People need to want to change if they are going to do it, or at least to feel some stronger pull or push than just “Al Gore, David Suzuki or Justin Trudeau told me I should.”
Enter fiction. How better to make that kind of connection than through story—through characters that make people care, and cheer or even jeer. Theatre, music and the spoken word have explored challenging issues and communicated important messages for many centuries. Millenia even. Then came the written word and film. We know fiction works. How else to explain our attraction to it? Why, when the end of the novel has been predicted a thousand times are people reading them as much as ever. OK, not always in print. But ebooks and now audio books combined with good old-fashioned paper have as large a following as ever. And all that binge-watching on Netflix? What greater evidence is there for the power of story. Not all those stories have positive, or uplifting messages, that is true. Not all are even trying to impart a message or morality at all. And that’s not a bad thing. But some are. As some should be. Indeed, some must be. Which takes me back to my own choice to use fiction.
When handled well, fiction can bring the reader along to a greater understanding of the world we live in now and the challenges and choices in front of us for the present and future. When presented artfully, fiction can deliver to us important facts (be it human history, scientific information, politics or psychology), and do it without us even noticing. Or barely noticing. When done less artfully, even clumsily, this can be a turn-off. Who wants to pick up a book, go to the theatre, see a movie or even listen to a song and be whacked over the head with a lecture. We know a polemic and a diatribe when we see it, and we resent being sold one pretending to be a story.
Look at Michael Crichton, my editor Ginger Pharand suggested to me after reading my first draft. See how he packs so much science into his stories, often delivered as part of dialogue, without the reader even noticing. You get a great, dramatic story, but you come out having learned so much about DNA and dinosaurs without really noticing. And certainly without resenting it.
Look at Margaret Atwood. Note how she presents futuristic scenarios that all seem so plausible. Why? Because they are anchored in enough fact and fundamental truths about the world we live in, and the trends we are now seeing that we can easily imagine our “real world” going to, spiralling down into the ones she creates.
As I cross Canada on my Electric Burning Souls Road Trip, I’ve been discovering audio books. I’ve just finished listening to an amazing one: Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered. I was quickly drawn into her story—parallel stories that take place in the same community 150 years apart—and took little notice at first of what she was doing. But by the half-way point I was smiling and sometimes laughing at how cleverly she had woven together the past (anti-Darwinisn, religious fundamentalism, denial of science, precarious conditions for the working class, the entitlement and abuses of the privileged, populism and xenophobia, to name just a few) with the story that takes place in the present. There it all was: the rise of Trump, the lack of affordable housing and healthcare, the preference for fantasy over fact—only presented in such an artful way that at first I didn’t notice. And then, when I did, not only did I not resent being presented with some stark economic, environmental and moral “lessons,” I actually appreciated her crafty approach. I was led to make my own judgements and conclusions, not told what they should be.
So here we are in a time where fiction may be the post powerful tool yet for exploring ecological and social collapse, disinformation in business and politics, and of course climate breakdown. There is even a new term for the growing genre of climate crisis fiction: “cli-fi”. With the threats to society so grave and the urgency so great, let’s hope that today’s fiction writers, musicians and filmmakers will find a way to bring the public over to that urgency as artfully as the Atwoods, Crichtons and Kingsolvers. Whether it’s climate, the growing imposition of control over women’s bodies and reproductive rights, the manipulation of DNA or the runaway threat of artificial intelligence, it’s the telling of the story that counts!