Interview with Edward L. Rubin, author of The Heatstroke Line
Edward Rubin is University Professor of Law and Political Science at Vanderbilt University. He specializes in administrative law, constitutional law and legal theory. He is the author of Soul, Self and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State (Oxford, 2015); Beyond Camelot: Rethinking Politics and Law for the Modern State (Princeton, 2005) and two books with Malcolm Feeley, Federalism: Political Identity and Tragic Compromise (Michigan, 2011) and Judicial Policy Making and the Modern State: How the Courts Reformed America’s Prisons (Cambridge, 1998). In addition, he is the author of two casebooks, The Regulatory State (with Lisa Bressman and Kevin Stack) (2nd ed., 2013); The Payments System (with Robert Cooter) (West, 1990), three edited volumes (one forthcoming) and The Heatstroke Line (Sunbury, 2015) a science fiction novel about the fate of the United States if climate change is not brought under control. Professor Rubin joined Vanderbilt Law School as Dean and the first John Wade–Kent Syverud Professor of Law in July 2005, serving a four-year term that ended in June 2009. Previously, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1998 to 2005, and at the Berkeley School of Law from 1982 to 1998, where he served as an associate dean. Professor Rubin has been chair of the Association of American Law Schools’ sections on Administrative Law and Socioeconomics and of its Committee on the Curriculum. He has served as a consultant to the People’s Republic of China on administrative law and to the Russian Federation on payments law. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton and his law degree from Yale.
He has published four books, three edited volumes, two casebooks, and more than one hundred articles about various aspects of law and political theory. The Heatstroke Line is his first novel.
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About the Book:
Title: THE HEATSTROKE LINE
Author: Edward L. Rubin
Publisher: Sunbury Press
Genre: Scifi/Cli-Fi (Climate Change Science Fiction)
Nothing has been done to prevent climate change, and the United States has spun into decline. Storm surges have made coastal cities uninhabitable, blistering heat waves afflict the interior and, in the South (below the Heatstroke Line), life is barely possible. Under the stress of these events and an ensuing civil war, the nation has broken up into three smaller successor states and tens of tiny principalities. When the flesh-eating bugs that inhabit the South show up in one of the successor states, Daniel Danten is assigned to venture below the Heatstroke Line and investigate the source of the invasion. The bizarre and brutal people he encounters, and the disasters that they trigger, reveal the real horror climate change has inflicted on America.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Ed! Can you tell us where you are from?
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York.
Q: How did you come up with your title?
The basic purpose of the book is to envision the future of the United States if we fail to take action to slow down global warming. A number of books about disastrous futures have addressed this issue, but none, so far as I’m aware, depict the basic problem, which is simply the increasing heat levels. In my book, average temperatures have increased to the point where the southern part of the U.S. is virtually uninhabitable. That area is described by the characters in the book as being “below the heatstroke line” because people suffer from heatstroke there if they are outside for any extended period. This in fact happens to the main character during the climax of the story. The original title was “Under the Heatstroke Line,” which is where most of the action takes place. But I decided that the book should have a shorter title.
Q: They say you can judge a book by its cover. Can you tell us a little about your cover and who designed it?
The cover depicts part of the book’s climax, where the main character has to walk over a mile in the part of the U.S. “below the heatstroke line” and in fact suffers from heatstroke. He is walking alongside young girl with a blood-covered leg, but I won’t give away that part of the story. What I can tell you is that the reason the buildings along the street where they are walking look so dilapidated is that this part of the country (it’s Birmingham, in the former state of Alabama) has become so hot that only a fraction of its former population remains, and they have been reduced to poverty. The drawing was done by Emma Podietz, a highly talented friend. She had already done the cover for an academic book I edited, and was about to do a second; both designs received raves from my co-editors and from the publisher, Cambridge University Press. I came up with the basic idea for The Heatstroke Line cover and Emma did a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Just before the book went to press, I traveled down to Birmingham to make sure my descriptions of the setting were accurate. I called Emma from the street where I envisioned the scene on the cover taking place and described it to her over the phone. She got it exactly right.
Q: Can you tell us something about your book that would make me run out and buy it?
Everyone who has read the book has enjoyed it. People who know me in my professional capacity, which is a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University, were surprised that I was able to write a work of fiction with a well-constructed plot and convincing characters. They were also surprised, since I have a generally affable disposition, that the book contained a number of violent and horrific scenes. But that’s part of the message and it sustains the action.
Q: Are there any messages in this book that you want the reader to know about?
The book is centered around a message, which is that our country will suffer catastrophe if we fail to take action to slow down global warming. I think many of the climate change deniers, who now include the President of the United States and a majority of the U.S. Congress, think that increased temperatures will only cause suffering in remote tropical places. They are tragically wrong; if the process continues at its present pace, our coastal cities will experience repeated inundations due to storm surges, average temperatures during the summer months will render the southern part of the country (where climate change denial is currently most prevalent) nearly uninhabitable, and droughts will devastate our agricultural production. The resulting population dislocations, economic decline and disaster-related fatalities will subject our political system to enormous stress. I doubt it will be able to survive in its present form, and that is what I depict in the book. If there are any nations that will benefit from increased temperatures, it isn’t the U.S. but more northerly ones, such as Canada, Greenland, and Russia. I also depict this in the book. The U.S. has broken up into small, warring principalities and it is dominated by a more populous Canadian nation, which has taken Alaska away from us. The book was written to confront people with the reality of the oncoming disaster, and to induce them to take action to prevent it.
Q: What was your most favorite chapter to write and why?
The longest one, Chapter 18. It would be hard for me to single out any other chapter; the book tells a continuous story and each chapter follows from the previous one. Chapter 18 is the exception. It consists of the first part of a novel written by one of the characters in my book, a teenage girl named Deborah, who lives “under the heatstroke line” (see “Deep Dark Secret” below). I noticed that most books that predict a disastrous future (a genre often called post-apocalyptic science fiction) use the disaster to clear away all the governmental control and technological complexity of modern existence and tell an adventure story. I wanted to confront people with the reality of a world where global warming hasn’t been forestalled, so I don’t do that. My characters have to deal with all the problems of modern life; the change is that those problems are much worse, and their capacity to deal with much reduced. But Deborah’s novel is a piece of typical post-apocalyptic fiction, envisioning a world where small groups of people live inside an enormous underground computer that controlled the previous society, while the surface of the planet has returned to being a primitive jungle. It was huge fun to write something that made use of all the tropes of post-apocalyptic science fiction, and to write it in a narrative voice that wasn’t my own, but rather the voice of a character who’s completely different from me.
Q: Why did you feel you had to write this book?
I find it hard to believe that so many people in this country deny the fact that climate change is occurring and that it will have such disastrous consequences. If a doctor told you that your child would suffer a debilitating disease unless gave the child a preventive medicine, and nineteen out of twenty other doctors that you consulted agreed with that same diagnosis, would you even consider ignoring their advice? The only possible explanation for our failure to join together and take some sort of decisive action is that we believe other countries will suffer, but not the United States. My book is designed to bring the reality of climate change home to Americans. We Americans are the main impediment in the world today to the creation of a responsible, international effort to rescue our planet. If we continue to play this role, there will be a world-wide catastrophe and it will destroy our way of life as well as the lives of people in other countries.
Q: Now, some fun questions – What deep dark secret would you like to share with us?
In the book, the main character is a professor of entomology who travels to the American South (below the heatstroke line) to combat an infestation of two-inch long flesh eating insects. Once there, he is captured, forced to work in a laboratory, and placed in the private home of a family with two daughters. The older one, Deborah (her younger sister is the girl on the cover), is an enigmatic, astonishingly perceptive person who is able to make the main character realize things about himself that he never knew. To his surprise (she is plain-looking and much younger than he is) he falls in love with her. To my surprise, I fell in love with her as well. I found myself engaged in imaginary conversations with Deborah, I dreamt about her at night, and I felt a sense of desolation whenever I reminded myself that I would never meet her. But I realized that Deborah had done something for me that was similar to what she did for my main character. In writing this book, and struggling to create an engaging story filled with real people, I realized things about myself that I never knew before.
Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I am fortunate enough to have the time and money to travel wherever I want. If I am traveling by wish, rather than in reality, I guess I would pick a place that is currently closed to me for political reasons. Since that’s no longer true of Cuba, and I don’t really want to go to North Korea, here’s a less-than-obvious choice. The city of Norilsk, in northern Siberia, appears on nearly all the lists of the world’s most polluted places. The reason is that it was built around a gigantic nickel smelting plant and the Soviet Union never bothered with environmental controls (nor does Putin, so far as I can tell). Most of the other places on the most polluted lists are in warm climates, but Norilsk is brutally cold. No one would live there if it weren’t for the nickel mines and the smelting plant. So picture this: Norilsk is so far north that the sun never rises during the winter months, the daily temperatures often run around minus twenty or thirty degrees Fahrenheit and the air is filled with deadly nickel fumes that have killed all the vegetation (such as it is) for miles around. I would like to see how people manage in this miserable place and what they think of it. But, for obvious reasons, the Russian government doesn’t want me to know that.
Q: Are you a morning person or a night person?
I am night person. This book, like most of my academic scholarship (I’m a law professor), was written during the hours of ten in the evening to three in the morning. I chafe against the “early to bed, early to rise” American schedule. I much prefer Italy, where dinner is at nine or ten and the streets are filled with people past midnight.
Q: Are there any members in your family who also like to write?
My daughter, now studying to be a biologist, also writes fiction. She gave me excellent advice about the novel, and also about a follow-up short story that I wrote for an anthology on climate change by the same publisher.
Q: As a child, were you a dreamer?
I was, and I still am. Wordsworth says: “My heart leaps up when I behold, A
Rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a Man; So be it when I shall grow old; Or let me die!” That’s the way I feel.
Q: Last but not least, the magic genie has granted you one wish. What would that be?
Our nation is facing many problems. I would like to see us united around serious and conscientious efforts to solve these problems. Climate change is real. We should work together to save our environment in ways that don’t decrease our prosperity. Automation will eliminate millions of low-level jobs in the coming decades. We need a much better education system if we are to find work for people in a high-tech world. Too many people in our prosperous society lack basic needs such as food, housing and health care. Even if you think that people should earn what they need, can there be any justification for denying these necessities to innocent children? That is unfair, and it breeds social problems such as dependency and crime. We need to find ways to give every person born into this society a fair chance of succeeding in it. An insanely high number of our citizens are in prison or otherwise under the control of the criminal justice system. We need to find alternative ways to change undesirable behavior that don’t ruin people’s lives, put enormous stress on government budgets, and create social hostility that probably increases rather than decreasing crime. I could ask the magic genie to simply solve these problems for us, but I don’t need such a powerful genie. We can solve these problems ourselves. All we need is the will and the commitment to do so.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview! Do you have any final words?
Although my day job is as a university professor writing factual work (at least I hope it’s factual), I believe fiction can be a powerful force for good. It can encourage people to sympathize with those who are different from them, alert them to dangers that they may not recognize, and impel them to take beneficial action. I hope my book can serve that function.