Marissa Slaven and Bill McGuire discuss their eco-thrillers, and how their work as a palliative care physician and UCL Professor Emeritus respectively have effected their fiction writing.
In Bill McGuire’s Skyseed, a clandestine attempt to tackle global heating using untried and untested technology threatens to bring about a climate cataclysm. Under constant threat of assassination, three scientists struggle to expose the plot and stop the project in its tracks, but could it already be too late?
Jane Haliwell put her head in her hands. To tell the truth, she was still in shock. All the samples she had taken from inside and around the lab contained the enigmatic spheres in huge numbers. She had only had a brief time to think about the implications, but she was pretty sure already what was going on.
For the first time in the history of the world, it was literally raining carbon. Long before it stopped, the guilty would pay, but so would the innocent…
Marissa Slaven’s Code Red is the sequel to Code Blue, which she discussed in a previous issue of the newsletter here. It is set in the not to distant future when the climate crisis is even worse but the nations of the world have truly united in a serious effort to fix things. It picks up with our hero Tic returning to North Eastern Science Academy after her adventures in the North Atlantic. After a hurricane and a big fight with her boyfriend she’s very happy to go with Uncle Al to Montana for school break. There she encounters plenty of natural disasters, but the real danger comes in human form. The secret sect determined to bring about the end of the world is on to her and they are pissed!
A truck. A huge black semi drops out of the sky.
Danny turns hard to the right and slams on the brakes, but we are going too fast. The driver’s side of our pickup slams into it. The momentum throws Uncle Al into me and I press into Danny. There’s a shriek of metal on metal as our truck scrapes along the roof of the semi, lying on its side, until we come to a full stop. After so much violent noise, I can suddenly hear my own screams in the stillness.
Marissa: It’s always interesting to me to see how different cli-fi writers entered the field. You are a Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. Why did you decide to write fiction?
Bill: Actually, it’s been a very natural progression. Over time, my writing career seems to have moved of its own accord, from a focus on scientific papers, through newspaper and magazine articles and popular science books, to short stories and – ultimately – my debut novel, Skyseed. I still write papers and articles, but I feel that telling stories is a far more accessible way of getting across to people the critical nature of the climate emergency. I have to say, it is also a great deal more fun that pulling together a dry journal paper.
As a palliative care physician, you work in a very different field, so I wonder what inspired you to write?
Marissa: I have always been an avid reader. I was inspired to try writing fiction after reading several novels where the heroine saved the world with her physical skills. I kept looking for a girl who could save the world using her intelligence. I came up with the idea that such a hero might be battling climate change and then I had to learn about the climate crisis so that I could write the novel. The more I learned about the climate the more passionate I became and that in turn inspired me to keep writing. Palliative care is all about facing up to very unpleasant realities in order to make the best possible decisions and use of time, so I believe my experiences have better equipped me to learn about the climate crisis.
Bill: I can definitely see there is a real connection there. What do you hope your novels Code Red and Code Blue might accomplish?
Marissa: I hope that readers might pick up a few titbits of information, but more importantly I want my novels to give readers a bit of hope. In them, I imagine a future that – while still terrible in its climate catastrophes’- is at least striving towards a better future. I also really want readers to be engaged and entertained! What about you?
Bill: Principally, that readers sit back when they have finished and think, ‘I enjoyed that’. More than this, the narrative is pretty grim at times, and I would hope that this would arouse deep feelings within the reader. I know that some people have said the book terrified them, and others that it made them cry, which is all to the good.
As is appropriate at the height of the climate emergency, Skyseed also carries an important message, which is: ‘mess intentionally with the climate and it will bite back’. As the idea of so-called geoengineering gains credence and support, people need to know that it is a very bad thing.
Marissa: You have way more science creds than I do, so I have to ask, how realistic is your book?
Bill: Well, the self-reproducing nanobots that threaten climate cataclysm in Skyseed don’t exist. Nonetheless, I was somewhat shocked to read, recently, that scientists have built self-replicating artificial lifeforms called xenobots, so maybe I should add ‘yet’ to that statement. Other than this, I think the consequences of a massive, rapid, fall in atmospheric carbon, are pretty accurately portrayed. Code Red strikes me as very authentic too.
Marissa: It really is! I tried very hard to keep every bit of science in my novels accurate even though I don’t have your background. That said, is it realistic that in my novels I imagine governments all working together to fight climate change? Hmmm…well that gets into politics. So let me ask you this, the bad guys in your novel are mostly politicians, tell me about that decision.
Bill: It would be great if politicians around the world worked together to tackle the climate emergency, and I hope that this comes to pass before it is too late. At the moment, however, I feel that politicians – as a body – simply don’t ‘get’ global heating and the existential threat it presents, and most don’t want to. The idea that the status quo – meaning unfettered free-market capitalism – must be maintained at all costs is ingrained. They are in thrall to growth and GDP increase and, I believe, will do anything to keep it that way, despite the fact that this is impossible on a small planet with limited resources. It has to be said that, at the moment, politicians are more to blame than any other group for the fact that we can no longer side-step dangerous climate breakdown.
Marissa: But for those of us lucky enough to live in a democracy we elect our politicians so I could argue that we are responsible on that count. I could, but I think that you are correct that the problem all around is capitalism.
Bill: Agreed, but in your novels the bad guys seem to be religious fringe types. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
Marissa: You’re right they are very fringe, but I don’t feel they are actually religious, but rather that they each use religion as a mask or an excuse to serve their own needs and desires. In fact, each of my ‘bad guys’ truly has other deeper, more personal reasons, for their actions. These have to do with greed, with insecurity and ultimately with the need to be loved, which is revealed or hinted at in their back stories and may come out even more if there is another book in the series. There are clearly many religious people in our world who take their responsibilities to all creation very seriously and I give them total credit for that.
Bill: Indeed there are, and we could do with many more of them.
Marissa: I noticed that several of your characters are scientists and academics. Are there any of your characters in SkySeed that you particularly identified with?
Bill: Yes, scientists do play a big role, which I think is inevitable given the technical nature of the plot. Essentially, my characters are amalgams, pulled together from the best and worst bits of colleagues I have known over the years. If I were to identify with one, it would probably be Karl, the only difference being that while I matured over time, he – in many ways – remains unadulterated by the passing years.
Marissa: That’s interesting because Tic matures some between Code Blue and Code Red. She is less naïve and less impulsive, and I attribute this to her significant experiences in Code Blue. I found it very difficult to write about her killing someone. I managed to sidestep it in Code Blue, but realized I wasn’t going to be able to avoid it forever. I have no personal experience, but I can’t help but believe that killing someone, even in self-defence, changes a person. I felt bad about that.
Bill: You’re right, killing someone off – even in a book – can be somewhat traumatic. Killing off Jane was certainly hard. It may have seemed a bit harsh, and a number of readers said it made them cry, but it just felt right. Despite her upbeat nature, she had been ground down by events across the decades that followed the murder of her son, and simply had nothing left to live for.
Marissa: I found it sad but completely realistic that Jane died. I believed that she was worn by the events and that the world she was living in was very bleak. Do you think your novel is overly pessimistic about the future?
Bill: There is little chance that the outcome I present in Skyseed will come about, but in other ways I don’t feel it is pessimistic at all. Burning all fossil fuel reserves will result in a planet with an average global temperature in excess of 30°C (it is currently less than 15°C), which would make most of our world uninhabitable. Without huge emissions cuts in the next seven or eight years, the future does look pretty bleak, and this just doesn’t look as if it’s going to happen.
Marissa: If I only thought about decreasing or even stopping all emissions, I would say that we are cooked. I think the answer needs to include drawing down CO2 levels and there are already many natural ways to do that. What we are lacking is not the science to keep the planet liveable but the will to implement solutions. Is it overly optimistic to imagine that we can have the will? I don’t think so. Historically, how society organizes itself has changed drastically many times, so I know that it is possible. I’m not saying there won’t be many lives lost but I’m not without hope.
Bill: You are absolutely right, the will to change is critical. If we wanted to, we could easily roll back on emissions as the science demands, but everyone – from individuals to governments would need to be onboard. There is always hope that this will happen before a climate cataclysm is upon us, and I would never want to say otherwise. Hope is an important message, especially for younger readers, who I am guessing you are aiming at?
Marissa: Yes, Code Red is intended for young adults, ages 12 and up. That said I have had readers as young as 8 and as old as 81. One of the things about YA fiction is that it is very accessible to people of all ages. I think it is really important to help empower all people with information but I feel we owe young people a huge debt for the world they are inheriting from us. What about Skyseed? Who do you picture reading it?
Bill: Setting aside any deeper messages, I would describe Skyseed as a fast-paced techno-thriller, at heart, with speculative fiction overtones, and a grim theme. As such, I would hope anyone keen on a good adventure story, science fiction, or even a who-done-it, would enjoy it.
Marissa: I definitely enjoyed the thriller aspect of the novel. I don’t want to give too much away but those characters who speak out against geoengineering often come to bad ends. Have you received any negative feedback around how geoengineering is portrayed in your novel?
Bill: At least for the present, there is an overwhelming consensus that resorting to any form of geoengineering to attempt to put the global heating genie back in the bottle is a very bad idea. Consequently, I have had nothing but support. No doubt this will change when and if support for techie tinkering with the climate builds, as it inevitably will.
[Ed – read our essay on Geoengineering by David Barker here]
Marissa: I really enjoyed Skyseed and have enjoyed this chance to talk with you about it. I’m sure folks are wondering what you are working on next?
Bill: Wearing my popular science writer’s hat, I have just finished putting together Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant’s Guide (publishing Aug 22). As you can probably glean from the title, it is not an optimistic book. Based upon the latest research and observation, it starts from the premise that it is now practically impossible for us to dodge dangerous climate breakdown, and goes on to look at what sort of world this will bring. I also have a couple of YA projects on the go. How about you?
Marissa: During COVID I’ve been learning screenwriting and hope to have a few things coming out in the next while. Maybe when I’m good enough at it I will try to tackle the Code books either for a film or television series.
Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London, a co-director of the New Weather Institute, and was a contributor to the 2012 IPCC report on climate change and extreme events. His books include A Guide to the End of the World: Everything you Never Wanted to Know and Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes. He writes for many publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Observer, New Scientist, Focus and Prospect, and blogs for the New Weather Institute, Scientists for Global Responsibility, Extinction Rebellion and Operation Noah.
Read his recent article for New Scientist ‘Climate fiction has come of age – and these fabulous books show why’.
Marissa Slaven was born and raised in Montreal by parents who taught her that it was her responsibility to do her part to make the world a better place. She has been helping people in her role as a palliative care physician for twenty-five years and she continues to get great satisfaction from this work. She is the mother of three grown children and two dogs. Marissa loves interacting with her readers and speaking with young people about the environment. She recently completed Code Red, the sequel to Code Blue, and is working on a screenplay account of her great-uncle’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War.