‘Cli-fi’ author tests the waters of tomorrow in Alaska-set novel

In a future where fresh water is so scarce as to inspire bloody wars, a teenage apprentice must learn from her father the location and caring of a secret natural spring, one of the last in the world.

A gifted young mathematician in near-future New York crafts worst-case scenarios for a mysterious financial consulting firm, happily profiting until an actual disaster scenario threatens to overtake Manhattan.

The Colorado River has dwindled to a trickle, and a professional Nevada water thief must investigate rumors of a game-changing source deep in the desert.

These are just some of the seminal stories that comprise the fictional sub-genre known as “climate fiction” (cli-fi, think “sci-fi” with an emphasis on climate change and its effects).

See also: “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004), “Snowpiercer” (2013), “Twister” (1996) and “2012” (2009), among others.

Virtually without fail, cli-fi stories echo what actual scientists have been saying for years (albeit with a bit more flair): Climate change is not going to be good for us humans.

Crafting her own take of a cli-fi-type crisis, Alaska-based author Nancy Lord has penned an examination of ocean acidification in her new novel “pH.”

When marine biologist Ray Berringer and his student crew embark on an oceanographic cruise in the Gulf of Alaska, the waters are troubled in more ways than one. Ray’s co-leader, a famed chemist, is abandoning ship just as the ocean’s pH level is becoming a major concern. Something at their university is corrosive too, and it’s going to take more than science to correct.

Lord’s novel is based on real cutting-edge environmental science, but also explores bonds forged among a cast of eccentric characters studying the effects of ocean acidification on sea butterflies.

It is a character-driven literary novel involving marine scientists and a conceptual performance artist in conflict over the reality of ocean warming.

The connections among science, art, and culturally-defined beliefs are all major themes.

Lord will visit downtown Winslow’s Eagle Harbor Book Company to discuss “pH,” cli-fi literature and the science explored in her book at noon on Tuesday, Feb. 20 during a special, free brown bag lunch event.

Visit www.eagleharborbooks.com/event/brown-bag-lunch-ph-nancy-lord to learn more and register to attend.

Lord, of Homer, Alaska, was inspired to write “pH,” she said, by her love of coastal Alaska and her many years of commercial salmon fishing, as well as by her concern over environmental change and destruction. She is the author of several nonfiction books about environmental subjects as well (including “Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-changed North”).

Though “pH” is fiction, Lord said the science depicted in it is certifiably factual.

“I was committed to making sure that the science is accurate,” Lord said.

“My biggest challenge was keeping up with the science. Through the course of writing and revising the book, we were learning more and more about what’s happening in the ocean — and the situation for marine life was becoming increasingly dire.

“I’m lucky to live in a hub of scientific, especially marine, research in Alaska, with access to many scientists.”

It was just as important, however, that readers more interested in story than science find something to interest them in “pH.”

“Initially I was trying to position the book to be just slightly speculative, a little bit in the future,” she said. “But the future kept catching up with me.

“My first draft was a lot heavier on the science and I kept kind of paring it back,” she added.

Even her own sister, Lord said, one of her trusted beta readers, confessed to skipping through some of the heavier scientific elements in her initial version.

“She wanted to find out what happened next,” Lord laughed. “But generally I’ve had good responses from people. They don’t feel it’s too heavy on the science; they found the science really interesting and well integrated.”

Though cli-fi’s a somewhat new label, the actual trend of examining potential consequences of a changing global climate in fiction is an old standby for science-minded scribes. Jules Verne’s 1889 novel “The Purchase of the North Pole” imagined climate change’s effects due to an unexpected tilting of Earth’s axis; British speculative superstar J.G. Ballard wrote a trio of dark climate-related tomes (and many, many short stories) starting with 1961’s “The Wind from Nowhere;” and Susan M. Gaine’s debut novel “Carbon Dreams” (2000) is set in the 1980s and was published before the term was even invented.

Though she’s tackled the topic of climate change before, in a decidedly non-fiction style, Lord said utilizing the narrative tools of fiction had obviously made the issue more real for many, readers who otherwise may shy away from climate change stories out of “bad news fatigue.”

“Writing about climate and ocean issues as nonfiction, people are kind of tired of it,” Lord said. “It’s just all so horrible. That was my goal, to write something a little lighter that had some humor in it, character-based. That’s why I went in this direction.”

The label, she said, has in fact legitimized the threat of the more drastic potential effects of climate change. It “anchors it in people’s mind as a real thing,” Lord said.

“I think it’s a good thing to have a name for it. It’s been getting a lot of attention.”