I heard an NPR review of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior while I was in the middle of reading it, and the reviewer said something that caught me up short -- that the book took place in the “near future.” I’ve been reading science fiction since, well, forever, and I was pretty sure I knew the protocols a writer uses to indicate that a book takes place in the near future -- the little nudges, the brand names that don’t exist, the events that haven’t happened. Flight Behavior, as far as I could tell, was set in the present day. Either that, or I was reading it very wrong.
So I started paying closer attention while I was reading. A black man is president in Kingsolver’s world (page 356), and since the 2012 election hadn’t happened yet when the book came out that sets it pretty firmly somewhere between 2008 - 2012. (Or in an even further future, but there was no indication of that.) There’s also this: “The radio had churned all morning with strange accounts, regardless of station. Flood and weather warnings, disasters. Something beyond terrible in Japan, fire and flood.” This sounds apocalyptic, and it is, but it’s also an accurate account of the tsunami and disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011.
So how did Brian Kimberling, the NPR reviewer, get it so wrong? Partly because Kingsolver’s language is this apocalyptic throughout, and we’re used to that language describing the future, not the present. But it’s also partly because Kingsolver is dealing with climate change, and that’s a very difficult subject to talk about. No one wants to believe climate change is happening right now -- the apologists for the oil and gas companies don’t, of course, but also people living their day to day lives, like Dellarobia Turnbow, the main character in Flight Behavior. The subject is too big, and too terrifying, to fit in our brains. And Kingsolver shows this, shows how the reality gradually creeps up on the people in the book, the horror and sadness they feel once they understand what’s happening.
Kingsolver also references the website 350.org, quoting them as saying that 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the safe limit for humanity, and that we are now at about 390. You can look this stuff up -- I just did, in fact. And here’s Brian Kimberling, a reviewer for a major radio show, someone who would have to be fairly smart and literate to get as far as he did, presuming that this is in the future, that if we’d gotten to that horrifying point someone would have surely told us.
This is what makes me crazy. It’s happening now. What do you have to do to get people to understand this? Do you have to run around in circles with your hair on fire, screaming at people? When someone on NPR, supposedly part of the “liberal media,” fails to get this, what hope is there for anyone else?
Anyway. [Deep breath] Flight Behavior is a great book, and not nearly as preachy as I’ve made it sound. It’s about Dellarobia, a housewife in Tennessee, who finds literally millions of monarch butterflies in a valley behind her house, and how this changes her life and the lives of everyone in her small community. (Kimberling says that the butterflies “make Flight Behavior somewhat speculative, hypothetical – with a suggestion that ecological catastrophe is still around the corner somewhere” -- and yet Kingsolver, in her Author’s Note, says that it is true that “unprecedented rainfall” destroyed the town in Mexico where the butterflies usually land, that it’s happening now... okay. Deep breath.) It’s about Dellarobia’s husband and two children, her in-laws, the day-to-day life of a sheep-farming family. It’s about what it’s like to be poor. (There’s a bitterly funny section where someone asks Dellarobia to take a pledge not to harm the environment and discovers that she doesn’t do any of the damaging behaviors to begin with, from eating out to flying, not because of the pledge but because she can’t afford to.) It’s about what happens when something new happens, and someone’s life changes completely, for both good and ill.