Writing Climate Fiction Just Got (More) Personal

The protagonist in my upcoming novel, Compass Rose, takes a rather blasé approach to hurricanes. She would, since I equipped her with the technology to simply slip below the waves, barring technical difficulties, at the first sign of a storm. Throughout the novel, hurricanes are mentioned in passing the way most of us talk about normal weather.

“There’s a storm coming, we need to sub,” reads a lot like, “it’s raining, we should grab an umbrella.” The urgency is there, but that’s just normal life. It rains. It ‘canes.

There was nothing relaxed or normal about the fact that in my real life, my wife just weathered Irma, one of the strongest category 5 hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic, on a Caribbean island. The eye just missed her. Delirious with fear, I told her it was like the Eye of Sauron skimming right over the top of Frodo’s head, only I was not there to play Sam. Then she lost power, and no amount of Lord of the Rings jokes could make me feel better.

As of this morning she is fine, our friends are fine, and the island itself seems to be relatively fine — even the woman who got hit by a wave trying to take a video for Instagram (thank you, social media, for providing on the ground footage of what actually happens around the world). It was a long night, and there are long nights to come for those still in the path of the storm. I hope to never experience that feeling of helpless, wordless fear again. I still have not spoken to her in person, and so I am doing the only thing I can do. Write.

Harvey, Irma, Jose and Katia — now that I am no longer totally awash in panic, I cannot help but notice that this year’s Atlantic hurricane season might as well have been ripped from the pages of my novel, give or take a few pirates and giant squid.

Part of me wants to segway here into a long and technical discussion about warmer oceans, stronger storms, and climate change, but that information has been covered in length and in detail by most scientific journals and media outlets around the globe. You can find it there.

Instead, I want to talk about normality.

Storms like this are not normal, at least not for most of us, and even if you are used to hurricanes, these storms are expanding our definition of normal to include bigger, meaner, and more catastrophic weather events than ever before. (Don’t even get me started on the forest fires on the west coast, or on the horrific flooding happening right now in Southeast Asia.)

But what is normal?

One of the ideas I wanted to explore in my book is the fluidity of normalcy. I never felt comfortable with stories, especially post apocalyptic stories, that spent pages and pages reminding us just how abnormal things were in that story world. In reality, people adjust, and we adjust quickly. Normal changes. You could get used to zombies, if you had to. Our brains make things familiar to keep us from losing our shit.

Part of this normalizing of the abnormal is healthy, but it also provides an easy way out. Storms like these are the new normal. That does not make them any less dangerous, or our part in their creation any less implicit.  In fact, it makes them more dangerous.

Normalcy and complacency go hand in hand, and we can’t afford that. If the news scares you, it should, but if this is going to become ‘the new normal’ then we need to start working harder to find ways to minimize the loss of human life and suffering. I’m not suggesting we form underwater ocean nations (…or am I?), but it might be a good time to start voting for people willing to think creatively, or at least willing to listen to scientists. The only sand that is useful to have your head stuck in right now is the kind filling sandbags, and that better only be because you are stacking them as high as you can to keep out the rising tide.

I got lucky, today. My wife is safe, but I am still shaking with the knowledge that things could have been catastrophically different for my family.

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