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How to turn an economic forecast into a Cli-Fi novel
Stories about climate change have been around for longer than you might realise. Jules Verne wrote a tale about a sudden change in temperate at the North Pole over one hundred years ago. JG Ballard penned a novel about rising sea levels more than fifty years ago. But recently such stories have managed to claim their own label: cli-fi. It rhymes with Sci-Fi in meaning as well as sound, but authors like myself who write about planet Earth in the near future feel uncomfortable giving their books a Sci-Fi label, since this often implies tales of the far future in galaxies far, far away.
In my previous role as chief economist at an international fund, it was my job to think about future trends and their effects on financial markets. While I was researching the prospects for commodity prices, it was clear that one vital resource had no tradeable market but the potential to become a new source of global conflict as shortages loomed: water. I became fascinated by the topic and dug deeper with my research.
At the time, I had no idea that I was destined to become an author or that Cli-Fi was even a genre. But an image stuck in my head: the opening scene of a story. It took me a couple of years to flesh out that initial idea into a rounded plot. The ending of the novel was quick to come, but joining the dots and thinking about what the world might look like fifteen years into the future was hard work. As nearly every author will tell you: especially when you are trying to hold down a full-time job. At least my daughter's bedtime routine at that time - when she would often ask me to make up a story - helped keep the creative juices flowing. Blue Gold, my debut novel, was on its way.
Why are water shortages becoming worse? To boil down a complex issue into two broad components: demographics and climate change. Over the next twenty years the global population is expected to rise by 20%, that's 11/2 billion people who will need food and water. Unfortunately, most of those extra people are likely to be born in regions of the world already stressed by water shortages: Africa, the Middle East and Asia. And while climate change does not alter the amount of water on the planet, extreme weather conditions such as drought and flooding are becoming more common and they make water supplies harder to manage.
When the price of oil shot up after 2004, people economized by driving fewer miles and buying smaller autos. What would happen if the price of water followed a similar trajectory? While most households in the western world can probably think of ways to use less water, families elsewhere - already down to a bare minimum of water - would struggle to economize and would struggle even more to pay higher prices.
It was probably no coincidence that the Arab Spring of 2010-12 occurred during a period of rapid increases in the price of flour and bread. People like to grumble when luxury items become more expensive. People riot when basic, essential items become unaffordable. Sadly, a much higher price for water may be needed to get industry to innovate and a crisis may be required to get governments to take the issue seriously. For now, we are simply tapping into vast underground reservoirs known as aquifers and hoping that the taps never run dry.
Back to my story. I knew that I wanted it set in the near future, to make people sit up and take notice. This is not a far-future dystopia that we have plenty of time to avoid. I had to find a way to make the story exciting. A World War for Water became the backdrop to my novel, in which two British agents get sent on a dangerous mission. I attended the London-based Faber Academy writing course to help avoid some of the pitfalls of writing, such as showing off all my research in the novel and preaching to the reader.
Finally, my novel was ready to share with the world. Just one snag: who was going to publish it?! As other writers will testify, that's a pretty big hurdle. The Cli-Fi moniker is still not widely accepted as a mainstream genre. So, what was I trying to sell? Blue Gold is part spy story, part action adventure and part political thriller. All set in the future. Anecdote: this latter point closed at least one door to me. A very famous literary agent said he liked my writing but never got involved in stories set in the future.
But at last, I hooked up with Urbane Publications - an independent house based in England that is willing to take risks with new authors and with stories that do not always fall neatly into standard categories. It's been an amazing experience and a delight to see my book in stores and to hear readers' reactions. During my author events over the past 3-4 months, I have been raising awareness about water shortages. And raising funds for some of the excellent work that charities such as Water Aid do in this sector. If you want to know more about any of the subjects covered by this article, please feel free to reach out to me at the website listed below.
David Barker lives in Berkshire, UK with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Blue Gold, was published in May 2017 by Urbane and the sequel, Rose Gold, is due out in May 2018. He attended the Faber Academy novel writing course in 2014 whilst working in the financial industry and recently gave up his economist's job to become a full-time writer.
He is a panellist on Radio Berkshire's monthly book show Radio Reads. And he is passionate about our planet and love playing sports.
You can find out more about him on his website: www.davidbarkerauthor.co.uk and follow him on twitter: @BlueGold201
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