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fact, fiction, and the inbetween (draft)

hannah's picture

The Sixth Extinction and The Collapse of Western Civilization both have ominous sounding names – and true to expectations, they both foretell a somewhat dark future. They both delve into historical fact, base the majority of their claims on current events and research, and study the impact of humans in the environment. However, one of them is true. The other one isn’t.

What exactly defines “fiction” in today’s world? Merriam-Webster Online defines fiction as “written stories about people and events that are not real: literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer: something that is not true”. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is “writing that is about facts or real events: all writing that is not fiction”. In other words, truth here, finds the basis of its definition as anything that is not untrue.

Kolbert’s work is a clear example of creative non-fiction. It’s written in a style reminiscent of investigative journalism— smart-sounding, informative, with touches of wry humor and sentences that pack a punch. The Sixth Extinction explores the impacts of human civilization on the environment through past examples and current sciences. It speculates on the future of mankind and the earth, it challenges commonly held assumptions, and it suggests new ideas for the reader to contemplate and reexamine.

However, as is important in any informative report, it tempers its own bias by providing other perspectives and arguments. Yes, Kolbert believes that humans should take action to prevent the Sixth Extinction, or at least accept the responsibility that they’ve brought this upon themselves, and she says so. But she’s unclear as to what the future holds, because current-day scientists are too. It’s obvious that the people she interviewed hold varying different beliefs, and it’s also apparent that discoveries are still being made. She criticizes the various actions that people are taking, and she makes it apparent that the present is in process. The Sixth Extinction notes all of this, attempting to persuade the reader but also attempting to provide them with truth.

In other words, it’s something we’re used to.

Oreskes’ and Conway’s work, on the other hand, is a unique form of storytelling in that it’s written almost like a textbook– although it professes to be fiction, it presents otherwise. Purposed to be “a view from the future”, The Collapse of Western Civilization jumps nearly 400 years from the current-day and speculates on possible history as chronicled by a fictional historian in 2393. There’s no love triangle, no hand-to-hand combat with laser blasters, no deep reflection on life and the purpose of humanity—in short, The Collapse lacks the personal narrative that dystopian novels normally carry. The style of writing is similar to that of any history textbook, and although heavily biased, it appears to be an internally consistent and reliable source. In fact, other than the clearly obvious reason that the publication date precedes the histories within, the novel presents itself as fact.

Perhaps that means that it isn’t, by all traditional definitions, simply a work of fiction: The Encyclopedia Britannica defines fiction as “literature created from the imagination, not presented as fact, though it may be based on a true story or situation”. But then what is it?

One might say that it’s fiction written to be more effective than a simple novella. After all, the threat of a destroyed ecosystem—and a more-easily-imagined future, thanks to the matter-of-fact way that Oreskes and Conway relay their “facts”—is a quick and powerful way to disturb the reader. Effectiveness isn’t to be discounted, either; according to several students in our class, The Collapse of Western Civilization was a bit of a wakeup call, if delivered in an unorthodox way. It’s an artful use of untruth to help us imagine what a world where these things were true would look like. But is it ethical to use this form of deception masquerading as reality, and/or is it even a good idea? Such a “science-based fiction” has the potential to come across as alarmist, heavily biased, and presenting a very skewed version of the world to come.

Then again, perhaps it should be biased. The nature of the text, as a “view from the future” is meant to present things from a specific perspective: namely, that of an already demoralized “sadder but wiser” generation on Earth. By presenting other perspectives and contrasting viewpoints, The Collapse would lose an integral part of its nature – and possibly render itself pointless in the process.


jccohen's picture


A tricky word in this piece (and more generally!) is “truth.”  And at some level the point or question of the paper seems to me to be just that most difficult and important of questions:  what is truth?

You do a nice job with Kolbert, but the paper seems to me to really heat up when you get to Oreskes and Conway.  I love this transition:  “In other words, it’s something we’re used to.”  It signals the reader that to some extent you’re now about to turn what you’ve said on its head, and thus provokes us to read on.  In this sense, “professes to be fiction” is also an evocative phrase that draws us further into your thinking, and later you note that in a sense, “the novel presents itself as fact.”  Your last two paragraphs seem to me a space where you’re really taking the opportunity to think out loud, so to speak, on the page.  So where does this thinking take you? 

To consider:  I think you either need to do more with Kolbert (mostly flesh out with examples and quotes) or do less or perhaps nothing with her.  I’m inclining toward doing Kolbert just briefly, to set up O & C.  And you might return at the end to the question of “truth” and how it’s relevant (or not) to the questions/concerns that drive this text.