Andrew Dana Hudson’s new novel shows what climate fiction can accomplish.
We don’t really believe in climate change. Even if we follow the science, it’s an abstraction of parts per million CO2 and average temperatures decades in the future. Climate change doesn’t seem real in the same way that your family is real, your job is real, your personal identity is real. This sense of unreality is born out in the polling. According to a recent Gallup survey just 2% of Americans rank climate change as their most important issue.
Despite increasingly strident warnings from climate scientists, the difficult and complex work of dealing with climate change has been pushed off for years. The reality, however, is that the future will happen regardless of our ability to internalize the enormity of its scope or our desire to delay the consequences. Preparing for our climate future, or better yet changing it, requires a sense of real stakes and opportunities.
Making climate change feel real is the primary goal of the emerging genre of climate fiction—speculative fiction that takes the changes in Earth’s environment and corresponding social changes and individual narratives as the primary driver of the 21st century. Unfortunately, most climate fiction is awful. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future trades plot and character for dense infodumps and meditations on finance and atmosphere dynamics. Major works, like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, or the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up are simple deluge fables. Industrial civilization has sinned against the planet and the resultant catastrophe wipes away the sinners, leaving a handful of survivors a chance to redeem the lost and rebuild on ecologically sound lines. Aside from being a re-telling of an old story, these deluge fables carry a deeply pessimist message that it is already too late, and that there is nothing we can do.
Our Shared Storm by Andrew Dana Hudson is a novel that shows what climate fiction can accomplish. First, it is an incredible work of science fiction, a book so compelling I stayed up until 4:00 AM to finish it. Second, it is serious scholarship based on the best available research. Hudson attended the Conference of Parties (COP24) in Katowice, Poland to understand the unique culture of these annual two-week conferences on climate policy. Extensive work with the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways, the five official scenarios prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), inform the worldbuilding. The IPCC postulates two major axes of uncertainty: challenges to mitigation cover efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and challenges to adaptation describe the ways our political institutions and infrastructure cope with the changes.
The scenarios are official, but the literary effort to craft the details, to make the future feel and smell authentic, is all Hudson. In a fabulous narrative conceit, rather than multiple stories, the novel tells one basic plot five ways, with a constant cast. It is 2054 and COP60 in Buenos Aires, which is hit by an unexpected storm coming up the Río de la Plata. Despite the common premise, this is very much not the same story five time over. Each chapter focuses on a new character, each world is unique, the issues at COP60 distinct, and the characters shaped by different lives.
The order of the scenarios creates an arc. Our Shared Storm begins in “Middle of the Road,” with Noah as a US State Department diplomat. “Middle of the Road” as usual looks much like our world, with camps of diplomats, activists, and scientists making the same halting progress towards dealing with climate change, arguing over who should pay and how much should be invested in clean energy as opposed to aiding communities devastated by climate change. As with our current politics, there is no simple solution, just a slow succession of deals that hopefully gets better faster than the circumstances get worse.
In the next scenario, “Fossil-Fueled Development,” Luis is an Argentinian fixer working for Noah, who in this timeline is a tech founder and CEO. COP is now a tradeshow for the thriving disaster recovery industry, a glitzy party full of hustlers and investors trying to stay one deal in the black as atmospheric CO2 shoots up over 600 ppm. This second story is a sharp parody of the entrepreneurial grindset, a triumph of brand-aware commercialism and short-term success in the confident belief that there will always be someone able to kick the can down the road.
The third story is one of “Inequality,” where sustainable development has separated the world into self-contained arcologies fortified against any hazard, and slum refugee camps where human lives are maintained at a level minimizing environmental impacts. COP is a conference for the entities which matter, legacy superpower nation-states, major corporations, and plutocrat families like the Waltons. Saga is a negotiator who clawed her way out of a Swedish refugee camp after the devastation of Thor’s Year, who encounters Luis as a kidnapper looking to save his neighborhood from the expansion of an arcology. The lesson is that when walls go up, it will matter which side you’re on.
If “Inequality” is dark, “Regional Rivalry” is midnight. The United Nations has collapsed completely, and the world is locked into a web of war over remaining natural resources and various ideological grudges. COP is a wake for the planet, held by a handful of scientists trying to track the state of the environment without satellite observations or research grants. Diya presides over a discussion of what was lost and what might be rebuilt in a dive bar besieged by both the weather and Brazilian artillery rockets. There is no solidarity, no sides, only survival for another day.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, “Sustainability” is a future where we get it right, where grassroots political structures rebuild quickly after disasters and inclusive politics of planetary management define a new common good. There’s dignified work to be done by an alliance of peoples broad enough to encompass liberty, community, and ecology. The COP provides a framework to find solutions to planetary problems and convince those who became wealthy by burning the carbon budget in the 20th century to use their inheritance to fix the 21st. Hudson’s vision of “Sustainability” is utopian, but it’s a utopianism that is much needed—a vision of better that still allows for flawed people who will make mistakes.
Our Shared Storm is a serious piece of scholarship, grounded in the best predictions we have, and successfully translates the bland bureaucratese of an IPCC report into the richly textured sensation of the future. It does so without forgetting that stories are about human beings, not planetary systems or teachable moments. Climate change is the ultimate wicked problem, the one which shapes everything else. I think we’ve been sufficiently scolded about the costs of inaction. Our Shared Storm provides worlds to aim for.