We need eye-opening speculative fiction more than ever
Blue Skies by T. C. Boyle. Liveright, 2023. 384 pp., $30.00
In 2015 the novelist and critic Amitav Ghosh gave a series of lectures pleading for people to pay more attention to climate change. These lectures served as the basis for his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. But Ghosh didn’t just highlight the problem, he gave a clarion call—to novelists. He argued that mainline novelists need to train their attention on the planet because the biggest threat to it is our inability to imagine different possibilities for the way we inhabit it. “For if there is one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide. We need, rather, to envision what it might be.”
Since science fiction (SF) has traditionally been the place where “what if” questions are asked, Ghosh is correct to worry about its relegation to the dustbin of genre fiction. In Oryx and Crake and the rest of the MaddAddam trilogy, Margaret Atwood significantly advanced the non-relegation effort by calling her version of SF speculative fiction. Since then, increasing numbers of literary scholars write about and teach some of these essential, usually dystopic novels, from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future to Richard Powers’ The Overstory.
With his chilling 2005 masterpiece The Road, Cormac McCarthy might have done the greatest service to our ability to take eco-fiction seriously. McCarthy’s effort side-stepped the old saw about SF and cli-fi: that it puts issues over people, thereby degenerating into propaganda. In fact, he didn’t just side-step the issue, he leapt over it. By inviting readers into a dystopian future with no identified cause (nuclear? climate change?), he forced us to face our fears and imagine what would happen if we don’t pay attention to the way we live. He did it by making the story about an everyman kind of father and his son that could be any of us. He holds our feet to the fire of a lifeless planet, with no escape.
T.C. Boyle’s novel Blue Skies is the newest attempt to challenge us to pay attention to the world around us by imagining a future substantially changed by our inattentiveness. Set in an unknown future time, it primarily follows the fortunes of Ottilie and her two grown children Cooper and Cat. Ottilie and Cooper live in Santa Barbara and Cat lives in Florida. The world they inhabit is both familiar and unfamiliar. Santa Barbara has become hot and dry, with windstorms so fierce they force an early end to Cat’s outdoor wedding celebration; Florida’s beaches have eroded quickly and unpredictably, leaving everyone susceptible to flooding. Insects sometimes just fall en masse from the sky, and the price of meat and other foodstuffs has gone through the roof. Otherwise, the characters have normal human problems caused by their own idiocy, and Boyle permits us a good laugh at them—and us. Cat chooses to buy a threatened house on the unstable Florida shoreline. “So what if the beach was eroding? At least it was a beach.”
I wish the novel was better than it is. It suffers from characters that feel flat because they are largely static. The environment changes substantially from the beginning to the end of the novel, but the characters never seem to. Perhaps that’s the point: We humans are good at adjusting, but not necessarily at growing up. We meet Ottilie as she is trying to include insects in her diet in part to appease her entomologist son, Cooper, who is convinced the planet is on its way toward certain death. She learns how to make tortillas out of cricket flour, and “she suddenly saw the future in that moment, even as she rolled out the tortillas and a piano piece tinkled from the radio in the corner and the fluorescent light hummed over its chemical load—‘And what would you prefer, señora,’ the waiter at Casa Lorena would ask, ‘tortillas of maiz, harina—or insectos?’ She’d glance up from her margarita and pronounce, very carefully, so there would be no misunderstanding, ‘Insectos, por supuesto’” (“Insects, of course.”).
Boyle gives us several moments in which characters are forced to make even more difficult adjustments to the fact of nature biting back. Floods. Windstorms. Toxic tick bites. The point cannot be missed: We are not in control of nature and never will be. Despite her best efforts, the crickets and bees that Ottilie is raising eventually die—and all at once. Furthermore, the novel’s primary, Updike-like plotline involves a Burmese python that Cat raises as a pet. As we watch Cat with the snake (knowing something bad is going to happen), Boyle knows we will inevitably think about how precarious all life really is, and how interdependent all species are.
Boyle’s choice of the python was no accident. The state of Florida spent a lot of money in 2022 trying to eradicate its Burmese python problem, including funding the Florida Python Challenge, which eventuated in the capture of 231 pythons (twenty-eight of them caught by the contest winner, a nineteen-year-old who took up the challenge). We know that these things are happening all over the U.S., but the point of the novel is to bring them more decisively and personally into our awareness. If our attention settles on the issue for even ten minutes, we are significantly more likely to investigate our own localities, research issues, and act. Reading this book made me look into honeybees and even consider raising them myself. Writ large, expanding people’s awareness this way is not insignificant.
All this explains why the novel’s best argument is in its title and epigraph. “Blue skies / Smiling at me / Nothing but blue skies / Do I see.” I can’t imagine a single American above the age of forty who doesn’t immediately recollect the catchy Irving Berlin tune. Pick up the novel, and the song comes, unwittingly, to make residence in your brain. It’s perfect here because it both reflects American optimism and ironizes it.
Americans see nothing but blue skies because that’s all we want to see. Al Jolson sang the song somewhat creepily in 1927 in The Jazz Singer, the very Al Jolson known for blackface performance of cheery songs in his first film, A Plantation Act, in which life on a slave plantation is evidently hunky-dory. When Blue Skies is at its best, it exposes the tensions behind sunny American optimism, how prone we all are to not take responsibility for our actions, to not think beyond our happiness and our freedom to pursue it. Boyle’s novel proves again that we cannot change our behavior if we remain blissfully unaware of its consequences. If we want blue skies to continue to smile at us, we need to remember that they are a gift whose care has been entrusted to us.
Christina Bieber Lake is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College, and the author of Beyond the Story: American Literary Fiction and the Limits of Materialism.