More than 1,100 people from 85 countries submitted stories to Grist that elevate diverse voices and bring new perspectives to the increasingly vital genre of climate fiction. Whether built on abundance or adaptation, reform or a new understanding of survival, each story provides flickers of hope, even joy.
Winner: Afterglow by Lindsey Brodeck
As the wealthy flee Earth, a young woman must decide whether to follow her partner to a new world or stay behind to save a dying planet.
It’s early summer and only a month until the last of the pods leave for the Kepler planets. Renem secured a contract for two; of course she wants me to go with her.
I need time to clear my head. She doesn’t understand why, because it isn’t like we’ll be leaving anything behind. Our living situation is squatting on the good days and bench-sleeping on the bad.
Here, author Sim Kern interviews competition winner Lindsey Brodeck about her story.
Sim: What inspired you to write “Afterglow”?
Lindsey: My MFA thesis advisor (T. Geronimo Johnson) was the one who alerted me to Imagine 2200, and the instant I read the prompt, I knew I had to participate. I was inspired to create this story in the same universe as my novel-in-progress: a near future where contact has been made with the inhabitants of Kepler-452b. I was excited to reverse expectations a little, as there have been so many stories about fleeing a desolate Earth and finding solace in the stars. What if that same energy and hope could be applied to staying on our home planet?
I often find inspiration in words and etymologies, and “afterglow” is a word that has been occupying my mind as of late. I love how “afterglow” evokes both something very tangible: streaks of color remaining in the sky, and something abstract: a feeling of happiness and relief after some event has transpired. I was happy with how “afterglow” worked in my story on a few different levels.
I was also inspired by the power of naming and pronouns. The words we choose to express our ideas evoke so much more than some basic definition. In Afterglow, there’s the power of naming to show that you fully recognize and respect both human and non-human beings; and there’s the power of learning the name of an animal, plant, or some other phenomena which allows you to see and appreciate something on a whole new level.
I could talk about my inspirations for much longer, so I’ll mention just a few more here. On a craft level, I aim to create vivid, precise imagery with surreal elements. I’m inspired by nature writers, especially Annie Dillard and Robin Wall Kimmerer, who make the ordinary spectacular through observation and interesting, fresh descriptions, and novelists like Jeff Vandermeer and Han Kang, who write in such a striking, visceral manner, and constantly make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.
One of the things I loved about “Afterglow” was that Talli, the protagonist, seems very real, flawed, a bit messy even. Unlike you, she doesn’t have a background in biology, only someone with a passion for insects and a futuristic version of a Seek app. Was that intentional—to show how everyone, regardless of what skills they’re bringing to the table, has a role to play in the climate movement? And what else do you want readers to take away from Talli’s character?
Absolutely – it was really important for me to create an “ordinary” character who has a meaningful role to play in the climate movement. Ultimately, I want readers to see pieces of themselves in Talli. She is someone who has had tragedy in her life but is still hopeful. I can definitely empathize with that, and I hope others can too.
In my novella, Depart, Depart!, it was important to me to balance communicating hope alongside the dire urgency of climate change. When a climate catastrophe hits, our worst instincts might call us to flee from the problem–every person for themselves–rather than turning towards each other and strengthening our existing communities.
I love that one of the themes of your story is fighting for the earth at a time when others are giving up on it. We don’t have escape pods heading off to other planets, but we do see billionaires jockeying to get off the planet, even for a few minutes. Are there other ways you see people giving up on Earth in the here and now? And how do you respond to that kind of climate nihilism?
I see climate nihilism constantly, even in people with the best intentions…I see it in myself sometimes too. Unfortunately, I think a lot of us still think in binaries; i.e. since Earth is no longer “pristine”, Earth is irrevocably ruined. This worldview is damaging, paralyzing, and completely blind to all of the possibility and potential that is still very much present. Yes, the necessary work will be messy, difficult, and even heartbreaking at times, but here’s the thing: I truly believe we all have a pivotal role to play in crafting a better world, and the only way we can find that role is by following our passions and figuring out how we can use them to enact meaningful change. For me, my passion has and always will be writing. It has both the ability and the response-ability to create different ways of seeing, of being, of sense-making; and the beauty of science and speculative fiction is its ability to create new worlds that can serve as models (or warnings) for our own.
As Ocean Vuong said, “We often tell our students, ‘The future’s in your hands.’ But I think the future is actually in the mouth. You have to articulate the world you want to live in first.”
So I urge everyone to articulate the world you want to live in, and fight for it in whatever way you can.
You majored in biology-environmental studies and studied bee and plant interactions in particular, and there’s some fascinating bee science—real-world and speculative—included in this story. Can you share how your undergraduate research informed this creative work? Are there any bee-science “easter eggs” you were particularly excited to incorporate?
The biggest thing I wanted to do is open up my readers’ eyes to the incredible diversity and beauty of native bees, and how important it is to center native bees in restoration and rewilding efforts. It is unsustainable for us to only rely on honey bees, as they are non-native (except in Europe), highly susceptible to pathogens, and often out-compete native bees. There is a lot of exciting research showing the success of targeted native plantings: a border of native flowers around fields can attract native bees for crop pollination; and targeted native plantings interspersed in urban areas provide the “rest stops” native bees need when traveling through relatively desolate areas.
In the story, before Talli learned the names of all of those black bees, she had always assumed they were flies, or she didn’t notice them altogether. But then this whole other world opens up for her, in a place that she felt like she already knew. I had a similar experience during my undergraduate research at Whitman, where I conducted a survey of the native bee fauna visiting targeted landscapes on campus and studied the pollen collection and consumption behavior of one native bee species in particular. Before my thesis, I thought there were only honey bees, bumblebees, and maybe a handful of other bee species, when in fact, there are over four thousand native bee species in the United States, and close to twenty thousand species in the world! It was an extremely formative experience for me to learn this, and to observe dozens of native bee species supported by only a tiny area of land. And finally, learning the Latin names of those flowers and bees was special too. They felt like an incantation to me, something holy. I wanted that same feeling for Talli too.
In this story, relationships between life forms from vastly different places can heal native ecosystems, which is not a narrative we often see in climate discourse or fiction. There’s the plant-like aliens, whose communication with Keepers has inspired a rewilding movement on Earth. The Keepers also practice Pleistocene Rewilding (which I had to look up!) in which they’re bringing species similar to extinct megafauna, sometimes from other continents, to an ecosystem in order to help bring that ecosystem into balance. I wondered if that parallel was intentional? And are you a believer in Pleistocene rewilding?
Yes, that parallel was definitely intentional, and I am so happy you picked up on it!
I think all of us are subject to having some pretty damaging value judgments when it comes to “nature”, and which natural spaces are worth saving. Full disclosure, I kind of despise words like “nature” and the “environment” because they have historically been used in such an isolative manner. Just take the famous “Save the Earth” slogan; it was well-intentioned, of course, but it also created an artificial (and absurd) divide between humans and the rest of the world. As Wyl says in Afterglow, “Why didn’t they just say ‘Save Ourselves’?”
I’ve been fascinated by Pleistocene rewilding ever since reading Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. I’m not sure if I’m a believer in Pleistocene rewilding specifically, but I am certainly a proponent of rewilding and targeted plantings. In Rambunctious Garden, one of the central arguments is that we must throw away the ideas that we are somehow separate from the natural world, and that “pristine” wildernesses are the only spaces worth saving. Instead, Marris urges us to recognize that we are a part of nature, and that we must take on the role of steward to actively work with and create more of it. Furthermore, this effort can (and should) be on multiple levels.
This is why the frog wetlands scene in Afterglow was really important for me, because charismatic megafauna aren’t the only types of animals worth saving – small rewilding efforts can be very meaningful and impactful too. On a similar note, that’s why I wanted the bulk of the story to be in an urban setting, not the stereotypic version of a natural Utopia. I wanted Talli to realize that there was so much nature and possibility all around her, and that she just hadn’t been tuned into it.
At the same time as there’s this embrace of intercontinental and interstellar relationships, your story centers indigenous leadership as essential to ecological restoration. Wyl, who brings Talli to the Keepers, is Passamaquoddy and shares some of her culture and language with Talli in explaining the mission of the Keepers. I’m a non-indigenous cli-fi writer, who believes that indigenous voices and perspectives must be centered in climate conversations. But bringing that conviction into fiction can be tough to navigate—I worry about being appropriative or speaking outside my experience. Are these also questions you struggle with? What are your thoughts on being a non-indigenous writer including indigenous perspectives? And how did you approach writing Wyl’s character?
I wanted this story to be inclusive and intersectional, so that everyone could envision themselves living in this world. Reading and writing is ultimately an empathy-building experience, and as writers, we have this amazing opportunity to craft new worlds that the reader can enter into. I believe that with this opportunity, we also have a responsibility to create multidimensional and diverse characters thoughtfully and convincingly.
When envisioning a “truly just, regenerative world,” I knew there had to be substantive change not only in our physical world, but in our linguistic world too. Because of this, I wanted an indigenous language to be at the forefront of this linguistic revolution, and it was important to me to have an indigenous, multidimensional character be the one to reveal this information.
When writing characters outside our lived experience, it is essential to be critical of our intention and execution. I return often to Tamara Sellman’s advice in “Practical Magic: Understanding the Other”. In it, Sellman states that, “if you write realistic characters who can animate subversive possibilities in a way that is both organic to the story and marvelous in aesthetic, you’ll have a better chance of pulling this off.”
Wyl is more than “organic to the story”; Afterglow absolutely depends on their presence.
This is the final point I’ll make: having good intentions isn’t always good enough. It is extremely important to have a variety of people from different backgrounds read your work and serve as sensitivity readers, which I did often with Afterglow. If someone has a problem with how I presented a character, it is my duty to listen to them and do better.
Finally, are there other solarpunk or climate fiction or ecofiction writers who have particularly informed your work?
There are so many, but I’ll list a few of my all-time favorite writers, and the works that have most informed my own: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Compass Rose, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.
And while Amitov Ghosh’s The Great Derangement and Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble are not climate fiction (perhaps they are climate non-fiction?), I had to include their works in this list too.
Lindsey Brodeck (she/her/hers) lives in Bend, Oregon, and is a graduate student at the University of Washington studying speech language pathology. She has an MFA in creative writing from Oregon State University-Cascades, and a BA in Biology-Environmental Studies from Whitman College, where she completed a two-year thesis studying native bee and plant interactions. Afterglow is her first published story.
Sim Kern is an environmental journalist and speculative fiction writer, exploring intersections of climate change, queerness, and social justice. Their quiet horror novella DEPART, DEPART! is available from Stelliform Press, and they have published numerous climate-related short stories.
A new wave of climate fiction could help young people’s mental health [Bright Green] – by League member Rab Ferguson