Gallowglass by S J Morden was published this month by Gollancz. I talk to the author of the adult sci-fi novel about his new release, and his motivations for writing about climate change.
Tell us about your new book.
Gallowglass is a standalone near-future SF thriller about commercial asteroid mining – if you want an elevator pitch, think “Treasure Island in Space” – and while it’s set in the same timeline as my previous books One Way and No Way, there’s only a couple oblique mentions to events in those books.
We’ve moved into the second half of the 21st century, and private corporations are slowly colonising Cis-lunar space: it’s a real gold rush scenario, with fortunes to be made but often on the back of some terrible working conditions that can and do kill people. Regulation is almost non-existent and what there is tends to be ignored if it gets in the way of profits. Throw in a multi-trillion dollar asteroid, a crew of blue-collar miners with dubious pasts and a captain who is far from what he seems, and there’s ripe conditions for a lot more than shenanigans.
How does climate change play into the plot?
In two main ways. Firstly, it provides a backdrop to what’s happening out in space – whole populations (mainly poor, mainly brown or black) are being shifted north or south by increasingly intolerable summer temperatures, while rich northern and southern countries are desperately trying to preserve what they have by throwing up barriers at their borders and mitigating climate effects within them. Secondly, it gives motivation to the more mercenary-minded crew that if they can just hit one big payday, then they can sit above the chaos on their pile of money. Some of the characters are a lot more altruistic than that, but there’s a core belief in all of them that cold hard cash in their own hands is better than it being in someone else’s.
What kind of research did you do when writing it?
As with all my books, but this series especially, I’ve left no stone unturned in my search for scientific veracity: hard SF uses science to force the characters to make choices that otherwise they wouldn’t if the background was a little more flexible. There’s no hand-waving away problems – this is Macguyer or die territory. My spaceships are, while fictional, the kind of thing that we can either build now, or are looking to build in the future, and I’ve spreadsheets and plans and delta-v calculations and everything: orbital mechanics can be singularly unforgiving.
Asteroid microgravity is something that I’ve theoretically known about, but when coming to actually write about it, is the most terrifying thing ever. Not enough gravity to help, but just enough to really ruin your day. And that’s before the cohesiveness of the asteroid itself is considered. The whole place is a deathtrap waiting for a mistake.
But most relevant here is that at the start of every chapter is a quote – all taken from primary sources, all cited – about climate change: the science, the opinions, and the way private briefings within the petrochemical industry contrasted with their public press releases. You’d almost think there was a deliberate covering up of the problem, from back in the 1950s and onwards.
What are some of your favourite books about climate change?
I think the first book I read that had what could be described as environmental themes was probably Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). Arrakis is a desert planet whose indigenous people dream of a wet, fertile world, but the rest of galaxy relies on to remaining dry as it is the only source of the drug Spice.
There were other early books too: JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) and John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes (1953). What’s striking are their publication dates: climate change and people’s reactions to it have always been a topic for fiction – it’s far from a new thing. I suppose it’s only over the last decade that it’s become politicised, although that’s not the fault of the science, nor of those who follow it.
Can you remember when your journey with climate activism started?
I studied geology at university: that conditions on Earth were always in flux was simply a given, but it was taught that the climate changed only gradually, over millions and tens of millions of years. Overlaid on that was the newer idea that volcanic events and meteorite strikes could disrupt the climate in a very short time and that those effects would last for thousands and tens of thousands of years.
The realisation that human activity could fit between those two timescales, that over the course of two to three hundred years produce not just a measurable effect, but an existential and global threat, was just coming into view while I was studying for a PhD in the late 1980s. A speaker from the UK Meteorological Office came to the department to give a lecture, laying out the foundational science and trying to extrapolate trends into the future. Those early predictions are now seen as rather optimistic and generous, but I still remember the sense of disquiet I had afterwards. Then as the 90s progressed I kept up with the science. Honestly, it’s not looking good, is it?
Why is it so important for you personally to see climate change discussed in fiction?
It’s problematic. People tend to react to the crisis in front of them. If there’s an earthquake or a fire or an industrial accident, then it’s much more straightforward to plan and then behave appropriately. Climate change is a slow-motion disaster, and it’s almost impossible to comprehend its seriousness because of its decades-long timescale. Even when we accept its scientific validity, it remains in an emotionally-distant future.
Which is where fiction comes in. By telling stories that are set in that future, our emotions are engaged – the theoretical becomes a vicarious reality, and it helps us re-orientate ourselves and our expectations. When we feel it in our bones, that tomorrow is not going to be the same as today, we can start making long-term decisions.
Of course, all this is moot to those who are already in crisis: in poverty, in precarious employment and housing, struggling to keep food on the table and the lights on. Too many people are rightly distracted by their current conditions to worry about what might happen in ten years or twenty years.
What message do you hope readers will take away from your work? What steps would you like them to take to be more involved in climate activism?
Oh, this is hard, because I don’t want them to take away a ‘message’: novels are for entertainment, and if I wanted to preach, I’d find myself a pulpit. But the idea that art is somehow value-free and apolitical is nonsense on a stick. Obviously, I’ve brought things into the plot that I want to discuss, that I want to explore and dissect, and I want my readers to be engaged in those topics too, better to understand their own views, and yes, perhaps to challenge them. Most of all, I want them to experience what the characters are going through, so that they can incorporate them in their own experiences. That’s how we change and grow as human beings. Someone who’s never read a book lives just one life.
The most constructive act that someone can do at the moment is simply this: vote for a political party that takes climate change seriously, and has a plan to (not going to say ‘fix it’ because I think we’re beyond that point) reduce its effects by a rapid decarbonisation of the economy. Climate change isn’t something we can solve as individuals: it’s a global problem and it needs a global solution.
You can find out more about Gallowglass here.
S. J Morden
Gateshead-based Dr Simon Morden trained as a planetary geologist, realised he was never going to get into space, and decided to write about it instead. His writing career includes an eclectic mix of short stories, novellas and novels which blend science fiction, fantasy and horror, a five-year stint as an editor for the British Science Fiction Association, a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Awards, and regular speaking engagements at the Greenbelt arts festival.