Wild Authors: Susan M. Gaines

by Mary Woodbury Comments

This month’s spotlight is on Susan M. Gaines, who wrote Carbon Dreams, her first published novel – and she has just completed another. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, such as the North American Review and the Missouri Review, and in the anthologies Best of the West V and Sacred Ground: Writings About Home. She studied chemistry and oceanography before a love for literature lured her away from the lab, and her book, Echoes of Life: What Fossil Molecules Reveal about Earth History (Oxford University Press, 2009), employs narrative and literary prose to report on research in organic geochemistry. Currently she holds a post as writer-in-residence and co-director of the Fiction Meets Science program at the University of Bremen in Germany. Despite having spent much of her adult life abroad and found homes in Uruguay and Germany, Gaines regularly returns to her roots in northern California.

Carbon Dreams was published in 2001 and is set in the 1980s; it is one of the earliest works in the canon of contemporary novels dealing with climate change. And though the novel is now out of print, it is still available via Amazon from third-party bookstores. As I chatted with Gaines about this novel – and she provided a lot of in-depth thoughts about her writing, for which I’m grateful – she noted that she didn’t set out to write a book about anthropogenic climate change:

In the early 1990s, when I started thinking about the novel that would become Carbon Dreams, I wanted to write about someone for whom science, in particular organic chemistry, is a way of seeing – of understanding, rather than manipulating – nature. I wanted to tell a story about “doing science” as a creative process, about the beauty of deciphering biogeochemical cycles. At the same time, I was interested in altruism – the kind of altruism that makes an environmental activist, for example. Out of that combination of impulses, you get Tina, who is obsessed with esoteric knowledge about the origin of life and the state of the carbon cycle two hundred million years ago. And you get Chip, an organic farmer who is reading the newspapers and worried about the future of the planet.

She went further to say:

Ironically, when I started the book, I didn’t realize how controversial the science of climate change had become. I’d studied at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the mid-1980s, and as far as I knew, the anthropogenic build-up of CO2 was already established science. Revelle and Seuss had shown in 1957 that CO2 exchange between atmosphere and ocean was much slower than previously assumed, so that a greenhouse effect was likely, and Charles Keeling had been documenting the rise in atmospheric CO2 for decades – and they were all Scripps scientists.

When I went to the newspaper archives to see what Chip might be reading on the subject, I was shocked to find that the papers quoted a couple of scientists who cast doubt on what I thought was established knowledge. I tried to track down the scientific studies they referred to and found they had either never been published or had been quickly discredited in the same journals that had originally published them. That’s when this politicization of science, and the problems and responsibilities scientists have in speaking to the media, became the book’s major themes.

I set the story in the mid-eighties, a pivotal point in the history of this politicization, when we might still have done something to change the future we are now irrevocably committed to. Carbon Dreams is just a fiction in which I dramatized these issues, based on a random reading of newspaper archives and scientific papers – I didn’t realize how close I’d come to reality until the book was in press, when I stumbled on Ross Gelbspan’s journalistic exposé The Heat is On, which documented the oil industry’s media campaign to confuse the public’s understanding of climate change science.

It’s interesting to find earlier examples of the topic of climate change in fiction, before the current decade when so many authors have set out to tackle environmental catastrophes. New labels have come about to describe climate change in fiction – some fiction speculative, some literary. But before this time period, a few stories, like Gaines’s, went along with the climate science of the day. (See American Institute of Physics for a timeline of scientific convergence about global warming.) I have spoken with Arthur Herzog’s widow, for instance, who pointed out that when her late husband published Heat in the 1970s, it was after conferring with climate scientists who had been correlating carbon dioxide with global warming.

I have pointed out in this series that if we want to think of a powerful novel (in terms of negative impact, unfortunately) about climate change, we can look no further than to Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which played heavily into the climate denialist movement. The Union of Concerned Scientists debunked the science in the novel. Further, and this is why I say the novel had such impact, Crichton met with President Bush in 2006, two years after the novel was published, and, according to the New York Times:

In his new book about Mr. Bush, Rebel in Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush, Fred Barnes recalls a visit to the White House last year by Michael Crichton, whose 2004 best-selling novel, State of Fear, suggests that global warming is an unproven theory and an overstated threat…fueling a common perception among environmental groups that Mr. Crichton’s dismissal of global warming, coupled with his popularity as a novelist and screenwriter, has undermined efforts to pass legislation intended to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas that leading scientists say causes climate change…Mr. Crichton, whose views in State of Fear helped him win the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ annual journalism award this month, has been a leading doubter of global warming and last September appeared before a Senate committee to argue that the supporting science was mixed, at best.

Crichton’s State of Fear sold 1.5 million copies and reached number one on Amazon.com and number two on the New York Times Best-Seller List in 2005. It significantly helped to put into motion the climate denialist movement. Now that most people have come around to realize that climate change is a fact on the ground, there are numerous authors writing about it in fiction. Gaines was among the pioneers of this fiction, and I think that those of us hoping for another impactful novel – but one that reflects real science – could help turn the world away from fossil fuels. However, according to Gaines:

I think we need to be careful when we start thinking of the novel as an overt tool for activism. First, we run the danger of perverting the art and we get bad literature. And second, a novel is not transparent. It’s supposed to make you feel that it is true – it may even be true, if not real – but it’s fiction and has no responsibility to be real, or true. By definition.

There’s a natural tension between our responsibility to our subject matter – our duty to reveal the world as it is or may be – and our mandate as storytellers, as artists who use facts to make meaning however we see fit. I run a program that supports novelists who are writing about scientific concepts and issues, the idea being to give them access to the scientific worlds they are writing about so that they can balance those tensions responsibly and consciously. But the moment we lose track of that balancing act and start using our novels as polemics or educational devices as Michael Crichton did in his latter works, we are in trouble.

When Crichton started framing his thrillers as carefully researched works of investigative journalism by an expert – not as a metafictional literary trick, but as a literal background – readers started relying on them for information about scientific issues. He effectively turned his imaginative speculative fictions into powerful lies, as we saw when Congress invited him to give an “expert opinion” on climate change research, about which he was entirely unqualified to comment.

T.C. Boyle’s raging environmental novels, on the other hand, don’t masquerade as anything other than the artfully told tall tales they are. They invite readers to think about environmental issues in new ways precisely because they were not written, or framed, or presented as polemics. In A Friend of the Earth we simply empathize with this crazy old environmental activist who finds himself surviving in the world he’s failed to save from itself – and we can’t help but think about what we might do differently.

As we move into the era of actual climate change, struggling through the mayhem and trying to keep step with the ludicrous out-of-control experiment we’ve wrought on the earth’s biogeochemical systems – to paraphrase the final lines of Carbon Dreams â€“ novelists can’t help but write about climate change even if they are not writing about climate change. The novel I just completed, The Last Naturalist and the Terrorists’ Daughter, is not about climate change. It is set in the recent past, not speculative. But it is narrated by a 22-year-old at the turn of the millennium, and climate change and biodiversity loss inform his character on every level: his perception of nature, his relationships with his parents and grandparents, his hopes for the future and his emerging understanding of the many ways in which history shadows and limits it.

As climate change becomes our daily reality, one might think that this whole discussion about a genre of fiction about it would become moot. And yet, even as I write this, the American media reports the devastation wrought by the latest rounds of weather mayhem without addressing climate change, and I have to marvel at our capacity to ignore it. So perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this discussion about the novelist’s role in reflecting on climate change is not moot at all. Perhaps we should all be heeding Amitav Ghosh’s highly visible but somewhat belated call to arms.

I have to agree with Gaines here, that it’s good for authors to pay attention to our world – specifically to injustice and neglect and abuse, whether economic, social, or environmental. Climate change is a condition of crisis in which we find ourselves, and authors will rise to the occasion to meet this reality in fiction. But good fiction is not preachy or didactic. I am reminded once more of a great piece in Slate Magazine, by John Luther Adams, a Pulitzer Prize (and Grammy) winning composer. He writes, in Making Music in the Anthropocene, that nature compels him to make art – in his case music:

As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself.


“Gaines, who has degrees in chemistry and oceanography, has boldly built the novel around challenging scientific theories…her use of complex concepts and true-to-life practice is inspired.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] story about the devastatingly serious issue of human-induced climate change…. A remarkable job of conveying what it’s really like to be a scientist, and to make scientific discoveries – not in the blink of an eye, as television or movies would have it, but with gradually shifting insight.” —C&E News

“When the heroine is a Latina organic chemist doing research that leads her inexorably into the politics of global climate change and the hero is an organic farmer who happens to be a Sierra Club member…it is difficult to resist.” —The Southern Sierran, Sierra Club Newsletter

“This remarkable book rewards us with a deeper appreciation of geology and oceanography at the same time that we’re engaged with a young woman scientist’s personal and ethical dilemmas…. With this particular blend of fiction and science Susan Gaines comes thrillingly close to inventing a fascinating new genre.” —Jean Hegland, author of Into the Forest

“At last, a book that integrates authentic scientific inquiry with the character-driven magic of good literary fiction….  A captivating story that places romantic love side-by-side with the love of sublime ideas.” —Frederick Reiken, author of The Odd Sea and Lost Legends of New Jersey

“Carbon Dreams is more than a novel, it’s also a profound education in earth science. To read it is to be carried deep into the mind of a young scientist, and just as deep into the mysteries of global warming phenomena past and future.” —Louis B. Jones, author of Particles and Luckand California’s Over.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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