Heidi Cullen and “let’s imagine”

Heidi Cullen’s recent book, The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet seems like it should be required reading for anyone living in this era of global warming (and that would be all of us). I found that it pushed me past my own apocalyptic denial; Cullen writes with such care and authority about the ways global warming would and is already affecting specific places around the globe. She weaves in elements of her own research career, profiles the personalities of the key scientists in the field that might be called “coping with reality.” The book is chock-full of scientific explanations yet eminently readable. And, for the craft nerd commercial, something cool to think about in the land of literary nonfiction: at the end of every chapter, Cullen presents imagined scenarios of what might happen in specific regions in the future. The cue to the reader is simple: a date that hasn’t happened yet. And this is 1) clear to any reader who’s paying attention and 2) eminently helpful. What she does is take the dire and abstract predictions of science and make them REAL and also more specific and human by imagining one scenario of how global warming might affect people, geography, the environment, and the weather. This is a lovely example of genre-bending as well as a clear use of fiction, clearly demarcated, within nonfiction, for the purposes of reader edification. The takeaway: imagination is NOT anathema in the field of literary nonfiction. In fact, I think it’s a no-brainer for good nonfiction. All you have to do is communicate to the reader that you’re stepping into the land of “let’s imagine.”

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