The Arctic on Fire: A Nordic Perspective on Climate Fiction by Emmi Itäranta

As I am writing this in the early days of July 2021, Kevo weather station at the northernmost tip of Finland has just registered the second-hottest ever temperature measured in Finnish Lapland since records began, and the hottest in over a century. Sweden and Norway have (once again) seen some record-brushing temperatures for June; news coverage of devastating heat waves in the Pacific Northwest in the US and across Canada has been streaming onto our screens for weeks.

Meanwhile, the Finnish Meteorological Institute is forecasting a severe draught, unusual for the time of year.

Back in 2008 when I began working on my first novel Memory of Water, set in a dystopian future in Finnish Lapland, I played such imaginary scenarios in my head, wondering how far I could go with the world-building. Would readers find it too hard to believe in Arctic winters without snow or ice? Would it seem too far-fetched to portray water shortages in Finland, known for its lakes and freshwater resources? Would a sea level rise of 50 to 60 metres sound too extreme a scenario?

Turns out I need not have worried – not about the world-building, anyway, but rather about life imitating art.

Thirteen years on, it is now long established that the Arctic region is warming two to three times faster on average than the rest of the world. The impacts of this are far-reaching. According to current estimates, Arctic Ocean may be entirely free of ice during summer by 2050, a scenario which as recently as fifteen years ago would have seemed an exaggeration. Forest fires have become more prevalent; wildlife is suffering on the level of entire vast ecosystems; the traditional livelihoods of indigenous peoples, such as the Sámi people in the Nordic countries, are under further threat after having already been compromised for centuries due to colonial practices.

It is not surprising, then, that climate change has found its way into Nordic literature. Like in the Anglo-American cultural sphere, speculative genres have been exploring environmental themes for decades, but climate fiction has only made something of a breakthrough into the mainstream in the past ten years.

As early as the 1970s, Norwegian author Knut Faldbakken depicted post-apocalyptic ecological scenarios in his duology Twilight Country and Sweetwater. These can be seen as predecessors to the novels of the perhaps most widely known and read Nordic climate fiction author today: Maja Lunde.

Lunde, also Norwegian, has reached worldwide success with her Climate Quartet – starting with The History of Bees. The upcoming fourth book explores environmental themes connected with human-made climate change. Her breakthrough novel, The History of Bees, focuses on Colony Collapse Disorder affecting bee populations and its impact on all other life on the planet.

Fewer readers may be aware that a Finnish writer, Johanna Sinisalo, beat Lunde to writing about Colony Collapse Disorder by a few years. Her novel The Blood of Angels, which came out in 2011, also has other parallels with Lunde’s book: both portray tensions and colliding world views between parents and children. Sinisalo chooses to use climate change as a backdrop and centre other ways in which humans manipulate and violate the environment, but the core thesis remains the same: insistence on seeing ourselves as separate from nature, rather than as part of it, is an act of self-destruction.

Sinisalo’s work can be seen as part of a continuum of a growing wave of Finnish climate fiction. To my knowledge, the earliest Finnish novel to directly use climate change as a major plot point was The Sands of Sarasvati by Risto Isomäki, first published in 2005. It depicts a group of scientists studying signs of a past flood of Biblical proportions around the world, and slowly builds up as an eco-thriller to reveal a future where the melting of the polar ice caps will inevitably cause a similar destruction.

By the 2010s, climate change had become a fairly frequent undercurrent in Finnish fiction, seen across different genres. The Healer by Antti Tuomainen is a crime story that would be at home on any Nordic noir shelf – save for the fact that instead of the present, it is set in a dystopian near future where climate change has turned Helsinki into a rainy, half-abandoned urban wilderness.

Published a few years later, Elina Hirvonen’s novel When Time Runs Out paints an insightful portrait of a troubled family in the late 2020s Finland. In it, the son of activist parents grows up to be a mass shooter whose motivations, anxieties and clinical depression are deeply linked with his climate grief.

Frequently, a future setting would be enough to label a novel as speculative; however, I hosted a virtual book club on When Time Runs Out a few years ago and asked the readers if anyone considered it a work of speculative fiction. Not a single person did. Climate crisis is no longer a far-future science fiction scenario. It is now our lived reality.

I am aware that my brief glance at Nordic climate fiction is somewhat biased towards Finnish books. This is simply because as a Finn, I am most familiar with what my own country has produced. Also, I have wished to keep the focus on novels that are available in English; the fact of the matter is that much climate (and, of course, other) fiction written in the Nordic languages remains untranslated.

This is the case for many Swedish climate-themed novels, such as Nattavaara by Thomas Engström and Margit Richtert, or Malmö Manhattan 1994-2024 by Catarina Rolfsdotter-Jansson. And while a number of Finnish climate novels have been published in English, there are many more I crave to see in translation, such as the European Union Prize for Literature winner Taivas (Heaven) by Piia Leino or Lupaus (Promise) by Emma Puikkonen, which explores parenthood in the face of climate crisis.

Furthermore, if Iceland and Denmark have produced a body of climate fiction to date, I have not been able to locate it (possibly because of translation issues, since I do not read either language). Philip K. Dick Award special citation winner, Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason has written about climate change, but mainly in nonfiction context in his Dreamland: A Self-help Manual for a Frightened Nation and On Time and Water.

It is clear nevertheless that climate fiction has carved a place for itself in the Nordics. Just as humans are not separate from nature, fiction is not separate from reality. It provides us with a very real space to explore what matters: our grief and fear and sense of loss, as well as our hope and dreams of what we can still save. Climate fiction from various parts of the world can support us in working together to cope with a change that may manifest differently at different locations, but will highlight the fact that all borders are, at the end of the day, artificial.

When our world is on fire, so must our writing be.

You can find out more about Memory of Water here.

Emmi Itäranta is a Finnish author of three award-winning novels. She has recently relocated to her native Finland after living 14 years in the UK. She writes fiction in Finnish and English, and often explores environmental themes and the relationship between humans and other species in her stories. Her debut novel Memory of Water has been translated into more than twenty languages, and a film adaptation shot during the pandemic is due to be released in 2021.

Climate Change in the News

The Mainstream Climate Change Movement Needs To Get More Creative [Teen Vogue]

Writing Climate Fiction with Lauren James, Bijal Vachharajani, Clara Hume, James Bradley – Youtube panel [Cymera Festival]

Climate Screenwriting Grant

Can fiction fight climate change? [Race to Zero]

Landmark £15 million woodland creation grant opens for applications [UK Government]

Petition to rewild national parks [UK]

High greenhouse gas emitters should pay for carbon they produce, says IMF [Guardian]

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the End of the World. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League. Her upcoming release is Green Rising, a climate change thriller. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into five languages and shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. The Last Beginning was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for young adults by the Independent. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2021. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers programme.

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