James Bradley, author of the critically acclaimed climate fiction novel Clade, is publishing a new adult science fiction novel this week in the UK, Ghost Species. Lauren James talks to him about his career in climate fiction.
Tell us about Ghost Species.
Ghost Species begins with the creation of a Neanderthal child as part of a secret project in the Tasmanian wilderness, and then imagines the childhood and adolescence of the child – Eve – against the backdrop of hastening climate collapse. It’s about extinction and de-extinction, the boundaries between the human and the non-human, and what love means in the face of impossible grief.
How are the climate politics/science in this book different from your first climate fiction title, Clade, which was published 5 years ago? What drew you back to the topic?
In a lot of ways Ghost Species is a companion book to Clade, and shares many of its concerns. But it’s also a more intimate book, and in a lot of ways, both more despairing and more focussed on what it will take to survive coming decades and what that survival might mean. That’s partly because a result of what was going on in my life while I was writing it – I began it just after my father died, and my mother died just before it was published – but it’s also because I think the tenor of the conversation around the climate crisis has changed over recent years, and the knowledge we’re careening towards catastrophe has become harder to avoid. So in one sense the book is very much about that sense of imminent disaster, about trying to give shape to ideas of collapse and catastrophe and inevitability, and what it might be like to live through that. But it’s also about the bonds of love and care and communality that sustain us, the questions of justice that underpin them, and what we need to hold onto to survive in the world that’s bearing down on us.
What kind of research did you do when writing it, beyond knowledge you already had? How do you keep up to date on the latest climate news – do you subscribe to any specific media sources?
I suppose that like a lot of people who are interested in environmental questions I spend a lot of time reading news reports and articles in newspapers that take climate issues seriously, but because I write so much non-fiction I also often find myself talking to scientists about their work (which is always a wonderful experience) and reading more technical material in scientific journals and various official reports. That tends to be a bit brain-breaking (and always makes me wish I had some formal scientific training) but it really does force you to get to grips with the research.
Obviously some of that sort of research went into Ghost Species – I read a lot about Neanderthals, for instance – but I always treat the science as a starting point rather than a straitjacket. That’s partly because I don’t think it’s what readers are there for – certainly in Ghost Species the de-extinction stuff is deliberately very lightly sketched – but it’s also because I don’t think fiction’s function is to lecture or educate, it’s to create worlds and ways of seeing and understanding. For me that usually means creating a version of the future that feels plausible, but isn’t necessarily entirely constrained by the facts (in Ghost Species, for instance, there’s an ice sheet collapse, but it happens much faster than that’s likely to be in the real world). And it also means I think there’s a place for work that inhabits every point on the spectrum between rigorous scientific accuracy and complete fantasy; what matters to me isn’t accuracy, it’s that the work feels real and true and necessary.
That said, one of the things I find most disturbing about writing in the climate space is the sense that reality keeps outpacing your predictions. The final chapter of Clade depends upon something that was pure science fiction at the time I wrote it, but has since begun to happen. Likewise Ghost Species is full of fire, and smoke, and I ended up editing it in a city choked with smoke from the bushfires last summer. That collapsing of present and future, reality and imagination is extremely unsettling and uncanny.
Ghost Species includes a lot of high-concept elements like resurrecting Neanderthals, as well as being set in a future time facing the climate crisis. Do you see the representation of climate trauma as an essential element of any book set in the near-future?
Absolutely. One of the things I very much wanted Ghost Species to do was to capture something of the sense of trauma and dislocation that’s so much a part of the experience of being alive right now. In order to do that I tried to write in a way that erased the boundary between me and the work, and between the work and the world, so it made the experience of environmental and social breakdown tangible. That meant processing a lot of very personal and very intimate stuff straight into the text, but it also let me make a whole lot of connections between very personal forms of grief and larger, more planetary forms of grief.
Are there any elements of the climate issue which you rarely see represented in the climate fiction you read, which you’d love to see discussed more?
I often worry about the fact writing about climate skews so White, Western and middle-class, especially when the worst impacts of climate crisis are going to be felt by poor people and people of colour. The solution to that is greater diversity at every level of the process, but we need to be reading more work by Indigenous writers, and writers from communities in the Global South and elsewhere who are on the forefront of both climate change and the fight against the forces driving it. I also want to see more work that inhabits the lived reality of climate crisis, and the way it touches our lives already, rather than treating it as a specific subject to be tackled: we’re way past the point where it should be regarded a trope or a genre; instead it’s a tangible condition, like modernity, and should be part of everything we write and think.
Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?
“For months now the news has been about West Antarctica, the possibility the ice sheet has reached a critical point, but as she calls up the news she sees the story has moved rapidly in the hours she has been away, and the sheet really is collapsing. And when she sleeps she dreams of shifting ice, the yaw and tectonic creak of it, the way it slithers down into the waiting ocean, dark as grief.”
Can you talk a little about the differences between your climate fiction and non-fiction? How do you personally feel about the formats – and are you trying to achieve different things with them both? What message do you hope readers will take away from your work?
I think like a lot of people who write both fiction and non-fiction, the two processes are interconnected, so I often use non-fiction as a way to think through questions or ideas connected to the fiction I’m writing. But they’re also very different processes, and seem to me to come from quite different places. For me at least, fiction is a very intuitive process, a way of capturing and communicating emotion and certain kinds of awareness that aren’t easily expressed in other ways, and of making various sorts of connections. As a result it’s perfectly suited to capturing the feeling of being alive right now, the weirdness and dissonance and confusion of our moment, and of helping us approach and process grief and trauma.
Good non-fiction can do some of that as well, but it’s also better at argument and ideas and, because the timelines are so much shorter, tends to be more immediate in its concerns. For me that immediacy is definitely part of the appeal of non-fiction, because it allows you to actually intervene, by bringing some information or perspective to people in a very direct way. Write well about the plight of the oceans, or about the need to accept the reality of climate change, or the inner lives of fish, or Australia’s lost oyster reefs, and there’s a chance you might actually change people’s perspectives or behaviours. Obviously fiction can do those things as well, but it works differently, and at deeper levels, so its results are often slower and less tangible. But that’s also its strength, because it shows us things we can’t see any other way, and alters us in ways we can’t predict.
James Bradley is the author of four novels: the critically acclaimed climate change narrative, Clade (Hamish Hamilton 2015), The Resurrectionist (Picador 2006), which explores the murky world of underground anatomists in Victorian England and was featured as one of Richard and Judy’s Summer Reads in 2008; The Deep Field (Sceptre 1999), which is set in the near future and tells the story of a love affair between a photographer and a blind palaeontologist; and Wrack (Vintage 1997) about the search for a semi-mythical Portuguese wreck. He has also written a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, the novella, Beauty’s Sister, and edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean and Blur, a collection of stories by young Australian writers.