Outside the room where writer Omar El Akkad video conferenced in to Westminster College's Hancock Symposium, smoke choked out the sun.
Amy Brady, editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books, and El Akkad, a journalist and novelist, discussed climate fiction and El Akkad's 2017 novel "American War," which centers on an imagined future in which the U.S. has been ravaged by climate change, plague and civil war during a livestreamed session Wednesday.
"Yesterday in Mid-Missouri, a plume of smoke covered the sun — smoke from the West Coast where Omar is currently living among the raging fires," panel host and Westminster professor Carolyn Perry said. "This afternoon, Hurricane Sally is crashing down on Alabama with a predicted 30 inches of rain on its way. There is no better time to be discussing the impact of climate change on our world, and there are no better people to lead us in that discussion than Amy and Omar, who have thought so hard and written so well on the subject."
Climate fiction is literature, short stories, prose and poetry that take a serious look at climate change.
"If you're a big book nerd like me, you can look as far back as the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh to see narratives about people who are wrestling with large geological and climatic changes to the planet," Brady said.
But today's climate fiction is focused on unnatural changes to the environment caused by human activity.
"The thing is climate change is not a typical villain," Brady said. "It's not something that can be stopped by a bullet or a magic wand by some hero — it's this phenomenon that is literally planetary in scope and affects every level of our lives."
Frequent themes in works of climate fiction include disasters, displacement, energy crisis and the interconnectedness of climate change with capitalism, consumerism and colonialism.
Brady and El Akkad agreed a work of fiction doesn't have to perfectly predict what will happen — so long as it is written in good faith with science as a consideration, it can have value.
"Are they talking about why we got into this mess in the first place?" she said. "In other words, what is the psychology of the moment or what is the lunacy that kind of drove us to the point where we have sucked so much oil out of the planet that we've destroyed the biosphere — the one thing from which all value is derived?"
El Akkad read a passage from his novel.
"I think this is true with a lot of cli-fi type books or books that fall in that genre — it's read differently as the moment changes," he said. "I read it very differently now when literally outside my window right now, I can't see to the end of my backyard — that's how thick the smoke is in Oregon right now."
The writer said it is the first time he's reread a passage of his book during the current moment of pandemic and wild fires.
"'American War' is about extreme American divisiveness, plague and devastating climate change," Brady said. "My question is, Omar, are you a prophet?"
In response to the joke, El Akkad explained his work is as established on the past as the future.
"By definition, I can't tell you if this is anybody's future," El Akkad said. "I can tell you this is very much based on someone else's present and someone else's past."
El Akkad began writing the book in 2014 with the intention of working against the ease with which Americans can ignore the suffering of others.
"I took the hallmarks of the defining conflicts of my lifetime — so the last 40 years," El Akkad said. "And these are conflicts in which the U.S. involvement has either been indirect or from a great distance, and I recast them in the heart of the empire. The whole point is to say, 'Look, look at this.'"
In his book, set decades in the future, the country is torn apart by a fossil fuel-related civil war. Parts of El Akkad's novel call back to Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan, places he covered as a journalist.
A question from the audience asked whether El Akkad felt any sort of moral strife related to profiting from these real-life tragedies.
"My intentions don't really matter relative to the book as a commercial product, which the day I signed the publishing contract it became," he said. "I've never been able to settle on a personal interpretation of that reality that does right by my conscience."
El Akkad said he felt much the same way as a journalist.
"I would get parachuted in to war zones, I would get parachuted into situations of extreme misery, I would witness what's going on, I would write about it and then I would get out," he said. "I didn't have to stay there. That is the central privilege."
Brady said climate fiction can be powerful — she brought up research indicating the genre encourages readers to discuss climate change with families and friends.
"There's something about a novel in its roughly 300 page form that allows you to just sit with it and its characters over an extended period of time and to see through their eyes what it's like to actually live through the worst climate change effects that can start to have a real impact on its readers," Brady said.
El Akkad spoke about how a work of fiction by Megan Hunter in which a mother escapes a flooded London resonated with him as a father.
"It has resonated more than almost anything else fiction or non-fiction I have read about the current climate moment," he said. "Because what I'm thinking about is not the physical disaster what I'm thinking about is the emotional component of (having) a 10-day-old child."
His second child was born just days before wildfires started near where he lives.
"All I can think about is the kind of world this child is going to have to grow up in and my utter impotence in protecting him," El Akkad said. "There's literally nothing I can do to make any sort of dent in these wildfires that are going on right now. I am utterly stripped of agency in front of the biggest calamity staring me down."
Added to the literal disasters is the weight of the knowledge today's children will have to bear, learning that people knew about the potential dangers of climate change and did not do enough to stop it, he said.
"Those twin things — the amount of suffering that a new generation is going to have to deal with and knowing that it could have been prevented is a kind of overwhelming grief and that novel ('The End We Start From') tackles that in a way that renders the specific of the crisis, the specifics of the physical disaster almost irrelevant," he said. "That is the power of this genre when it is done well, it completely supersedes whether it is a storm or a wildfire or whatever disaster is at the heart of it."
Most people can't do much about natural disasters, Brady recalls Margaret Atwood once saying, but everyone can serve as a witness.
"I often think of novels like 'American War,' (El Akkad's work), as a kind of bearing witness," Brady said. " They capture the mood of what we are all living through right now and what maybe some of our biggest fears are about what is going to happen in the future."
The full discussion can be watched on YouTube at bit.ly/3hxB1Qo.