Beacons – stories for our not so distant future is a collection of twenty-one original stories by some of the UK’s best known writers. The stories are inspired by, and will be sold for the benefit of, the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, an umbrella organisation representing a supporter base of eleven million people.
Edited by Gregory Norminton, Beacons will be published in Climate Week in March 2013.
There will be much more information about the book in the coming months.
For now, here is my introduction to the book, to give you an idea of its content and purpose.
The window of opportunity for averting climate chaos is narrow, but this book looking through it was a long time coming.
It began at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, where early in 2007 I attended a public lecture about the impacts of manmade climate change on Scotland’s wildlife. After a display of alarming graphs and hair-raising statistics, my head was in my hands. It takes a strong mental constitution to look into the abyss, and I found myself wondering how on earth, as a novelist, I could hope to approach a topic so enormous, so daunting and inescapable.
Thankfully Mike Robinson, then chairman of Stop Climate Chaos-Scotland, stood up to speak my mind. Mike is a lean, wry and tenacious man, a straight-talker who isn’t embarrassed to show his passion. The science is clear, he said, the stories that accompany it less so. When a society faces upheaval, it looks for fresh narratives to help makes sense of events. Statistics cannot motivate us as stories can, yet where are the George Orwells, the Aldous Huxleys and William Morrises of the ecological crisis?
Since Mike asked this question, a growing number of genre and ‘literary’ authors have written about, or around, the issue. Sarah Hall and James Miller have given us compelling dystopias in The Carhullan Army and Sunshine State; Helen Simpson has written a brilliant set of stories; Liz Jensen has thrilled us with The Rapture and Ian McEwan’s Solar has examined the cognitive dissonance that keeps us from changing those habits that hurt us. As the symptoms of climate change begin to hit home, more and more writers feel compelled to engage in some way with the new reality. Back in 2007, things seemed very different.
I stopped Mike after the event and introduced myself. How about a book of specially commissioned short stories – a charity project to raise funds for, and awareness of, the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition? It would be, I said, a metaphorical gauntlet thrown down to challenge authors to imagine our worst and best possible futures.
The book you hold in your hands is the slow-grown fruit of our efforts – and the efforts of scientific advisers, community activists and, above all, the writers who have given of their time and talent. Every story
was written specially for this collection. In making their contributions, the writers have had to find ways of approaching a seemingly forbidding brief. How do we write fiction about the ecological crisis without lapsing into cliché? Is it possible to do so without becoming hectoring or portentous? We must tell the truth but is that done best when, in Emily Dickinson’s words, we tell it slant? How, indeed, can prose fiction, which is rooted in psychology and social drama, encompass planetary change? For global warming is a predicament,
not a story. Narrative only comes into our response to that predicament. Yet the truth of the crisis almost defies comprehension. The scientists, working their way through the scepticism of their systems, give us their best guesses on our likely fate – and we shy away from their findings.
Lord Stern has called climate change “the greatest market failure the world has seen”. It is also a failure of the imagination. Because we do not want to look at what we’re doing, we retreat into various forms of denial, we cling to hopes of a technofix or minimise the dangers of exceeding our planetary limits. In Britain it remains difficult – hosepipe bans and summer floods notwithstanding – to wrap the mind around the consequences of runaway climate change. Inuit on collapsing headlands haven’t this trouble; nor do the people of Kiribati, the first nation likely to disappear as a result of sea-level rise. But it is still possible, for urbanised westerners, to disbelieve or ignore predictions of a depleted world, of mega droughts and firestorms, acidified oceans, mass famine and migration, wars over water and, at home, the distressing experience of watching familiar landscapes warp out of recognition.
Perhaps our primary task is to break through the protective caul of our incredulity. We have a collective duty to imagine what we fear to look at, for in looking away we fail, not only to avert the worst for our children, but also to create the happier and more just society in which we should wish them to live. More than ever we need stories that tell us where we stand, that help us imagine our predicament. Let them serve as beacons to warn of approaching danger, to unite us against adversity, to celebrate what we have and, perhaps, to show a path away from harm.
This book is not polemical; nor is it a policy document or a lifestyle guide. It is, rather, a meeting place for new stories that recognise where we are and where we might be heading, a forum in which contemporary authors try out different ways of encompassing what so often puzzles the mind and paralyses the will: thinking and feeling a path through dislocation and dismay.
In the following pages, you will find dystopian satire, speculative and historical fiction, metaphorical flights of fancy, domestic naturalism, quiet tragedy and farcical comedy. Some of the stories have a pervasive sadness; others pack an angry punch. Yet none, it seems to me, is that editorially dreaded thing, ‘depressing’. Hope, in the words of Seamus Heaney, glossing Václav Havel, “is a state of the soul rather than a response to the evidence. It is not the expectation that things will turn out successfully but the conviction that something is worth working for, however it turns out. Its deepest roots are in the transcendental, beyond the horizon.”
If hope is a moral imperative, telling stories may be one way of obeying it.
You can preorder your copy of Beacons here.