ReaderCon Panel Recap: “Global Warming and Science Fiction”

The “Global Warming and Science Fiction” panel, hosted Gayle Surrette, with Paolo Bacigalupi, Paul Di Filippo, Alexander Jablokov and Steve Popkes, was one of the Friday ReaderCon panels that I was really looking forward to. When it comes to territory that seems ripe for the science fiction genre, global warming is an element that really seems to be in its infancy, with only a couple of really notable works published to date. Although this is something that is likely to change.

The panel blurb stated the following: “The dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear war were common themes in mid-twentieth century science fiction, even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The nearest comparable danger today is anthropogenic global warming. It’s our impression that SF has not given to AGW the same level of attention that it gave to nuclear matters in the past, and has more often treated the issue as world-building background than placed it at the center of stories…” This set up an interesting level of discussion, looking at just how nuclear and global warming styles of stories differed from one another.

There are some major differences that were noted between the two; nuclear warfare was generally regarded as an event that was outside of the general population’s control, removed by several levels of authority, while the nature of global warming is something that is really the cumulative result of the general population. Where one is a wholly dramatic, singular (or limited) event with massive consequences at the onset, global warming is something that has arisen slowly, with little attention paid to it and with the general population not likely to take any major steps to change until there are catastrophic results.

This mentality has begun to bleed into fiction. One of the panel members, Paolo Bacigalupi, penned the fantastic novel The Windup Girl, which takes the impact of global warming to its heart. Where the panel looked at world-building as a lesser element to a central story element, I think the opposite is true. World-building is something that impacts characters on every level, informing their actions throughout—this resonates with the “Citizens of the World, Citizens of the Universe” talk that I attended—and oftentimes it’s the impact of said event that allows for compelling stories. In this instance, global warming is a difficult subject to really tackle in fiction because the effects are still being realized and felt across the world, whereas something such as a nuclear explosion is felt right away.

This delay in response also goes to highlight some of the problems in bringing attention to the issue of global warming, of which there is still a considerable amount of doubt about in the general population. Because there are both numerous factors and outcomes that contribute to rising temperatures, it’s harder to observe the entire event, whereas with a nuclear bomb, there is a singular event who’s outcome is not questionable by any reasonable audience. As someone noted on the panel: there would be no doubt that nuclear war was happening, while there seems to be doubt about AGW. That seems to carry the reluctance from the academic circles into the literary ones, where it was noted that it’s very difficult to market such fiction.

Bacigalupi noted that dystopic fiction seems to be the big buzz word for this sort of storytelling, taking in the results of the global warming and utilizing it in the worldbuilding that goes into each story. Like with real people, characters in these stories will have to deal with the impact of global warming as it affects them, which brings the element into the narrative like it should. Any science fiction novel “about” global warming or nuclear war probably wouldn’t be worth reading: the actions of the characters in light of those issues, however, are what will bring in readers.


Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer, historian and longtime science fiction fan. He currently holds a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University, and has written for SF Signal and io9, as well as for his personal site, Worlds in a Grain of Sand. He currently lives in the green (or white, for most of the year) mountains of Vermont with a growing library of books and a girlfriend who tolerates them.

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