Just Stories: African Solarpunk Challenging a Growing Climate Apartheid by Nick Wood

Narrating ‘stories’ is an ancient, lasting, and universal way humans have developed, to make sense of themselves and the world, and this includes linking together a series of facts (or events) from which to derive meaning. There is a huge, gathering factual story facing all of us – with no definitive end in our lifetime – a bleaker, and more extreme climate future lies lurking ahead. But how can we prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by the sheer immense scale of this unfolding planetary tragedy, apart from resorting to the defense of denialism or conspiracy theories?

Two poets hold succinct keys, I think. As TS Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ Yet Emily Dickinson maintained: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant…the truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.’

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What else is fiction, but slanted and bearable truth?

And what is fiction that facing forwards, watching for our emergent futures? Speculative Fiction (SF, sometimes called ‘Science Fiction’) models the potential scenarios ahead, proposing alternative models of the future – i.e., different ways of living, organising and being within the world. Because such templates may function as a threat to the status quo, it was no accident that several SF novels were banned for periods by the apartheid regime in South Africa. This trend of banning books and ideas continues to this day, not least in a current right-wing book banning binge, within the United States.

One of the quintessential SF stories centering climate changes was the Parable series; set to be a trilogy, but sadly incomplete, due to the premature death of the author, Octavia Butler, in early 2006. The Parable books (Sower, 1993 and Talents, 1998) highlight a burning California in the mid 2020’s, where a white demagogue US President is pursuing a ‘Make America Great Again’ agenda. The books highlight the need for adaptability and building sustainable communities of mutual aid which (in this case) are unified by a new, enlightened, and inclusive ‘religion’, called ‘Earthseed’.

Closer to home, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon establishes a post-oil, post- capitalist society in Nigeria, where a better world is built after ‘aliens’ have made contact – and awoken the old gods and spirits of the earth. A new world emerges where indigenous belief systems are married with technology, a process coined by Ian McDonald as ‘jujutech’. The reclamation of indigenous (African) epistemologies constitutes a narrative ‘push back’ – a decolonizing turn – against the colonizing role of materialistic science and much early white western science fiction.

As the SF author William Gibson was reputed to have said, towards the end of the last century: “The future has arrived – it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” So, too, the climate story, where the emissions of the Global North (and the richest) have exerted devastating impacts, particularly on the Global South, where resources to both survive and manage this are considerably less, due in no small part to long histories of colonial exploitation. Neo-colonial style extractions persist within international corporations and financial systems, such that the United Nations News reported (in 2019): ‘World Faces Climate Apartheid Risk.’

Given this burning inequality, climate change and climate justice are clearly both intertwined concepts. But where are the voices and stories from those most impacted, the ‘climate precariat,’ in the Global South? There is a form of narrative inequality at work, in terms of whose voices and stories are heard – and under what conditions, by those with the power to either amplify or censor. Conservation and climate activism within Africa, for example, has been operating long before Greta Thunberg, with Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement being the most significant forerunner in twentieth century Kenya (and beyond).

International corporations, allied by degrees of state capture, act with increasing neo-colonial impunity too. Eco-activists and indigenous ‘protectors’ have a history of being murdered, particularly in the global South, which is now reaching levels akin to war zones. As the world burns, from Canada, California, Siberia, and the Arctic, to the Amazon and the east coast of Australia, it is quite clear that the days of reckoning for our planet are right here, right now.

One critical resource constantly being depleted in many areas – through drought and misuse – is global fresh water. Yet, in 2019, the ‘financialization’/commodification of water has begun – water is seen as the ‘new oil’ – it has been put onto stock markets and is presented as a tradable commodity, not a human right. Given Cape Town’s (South Africa) threatened Day Zero in 2018 (i.e., the city reportedly running out of water), my initial premise for my own book Water Must Fall (2020) was, what if water was completely controlled by private companies? This had in fact happened partially previously, seen in the Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia – where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had insisted on the country selling their water to a private multi-national, who ramped up prices to unaffordable levels for the majority of the country’s populace.

Water Must Fall is set in 2048, in drought-stricken Kwa-Zulu Natal and California in ‘The Federated States of America.’ The central question facing the four main characters in this book is: In a desiccating world, who gets to drink? I adopted a rotating three-character chapter sequence throughout, with two of the characters focusing on Southern Africa, one on the ‘Federated States’ – a deliberately chosen name to highlight that nation states, however powerful, are subject to change, fracture and even, dissolution. What would a world without borders look like – given nature has no borders?

Within the SF sub-genres, I would characterize Water Must Fall as African Solarpunk, where ‘social justice is survival technology’. This genre focuses on resistance against a global system that has proven to be toxic to the planet – i.e., neo- liberal racialised capitalism – and replacing it with a greener and more just way of living, including the reclamation of indigenous rights and knowledges.

The ending of Water Must Fall involves a community – the Imbali Collective ‘Save our Water’ (SOW) – being faced with forcible relocation, to make way for ‘gentrification’ of their land. Dispossession of a vulnerable, disadvantaged community has multiple painful resonances, which can only echo down the corridors of a long apartheid history. The Imbali SOW survival response involved a considered land occupation, as well as legally pushing for the recognition of historically original land rights and the granting of personhood status to the natural world, a la the Ganges in India. If a company can be a person, why not a river? (In Water Must Fall, it’s the Msunduzi.)

Opponents of land reclamation always point out the dangers of land occupation, especially to the Zimbabwean Land Occupation Movement at the turn of the century – but a way must be found to address the massive (and iniquitous) resource inequalities between the ‘privileged’ and the ‘precarious’ – not least because those who have contributed the least are facing the worst brunt, of the unfolding climate crisis. Under a climate justice rubric there is a need for reparations, rematriation, allowed mobility/migration and land and water access, in a future which embraces all – and where no one is expendable.

A reclaiming of the public commons, such as land and water, over private wealth and a system that continues to carry hegemonic and exclusionary structural violence against the majority of the world’s inhabitants. Nothing less than a new and more just world order is required if we are not just to survive, but to survive compassionately and sustainably, despite the climate depredations that still lie ahead.

For what sort of world do we want our children/relatives/loved ones to live in? There can be no just and good future, without a just system – which means oppressive institutional systems and mechanisms that foster exploitation and damage – yet are often hidden and vociferously defended, such as white, toxic, capitalist patriarchies – need to be dismantled or reconstructed, for a fairer way of operating, that respects both life, and what little is left of our natural planet.

Speculative fiction does have a history of involvement with issues of justice, more recently in the anthology Octavia’s Brood. As the co- editor Adrienne Maree Brown stated:

“This is why I write science fiction (after spending so long in social justice work). To cultivate radical imagination…All organizing is science fiction, all efforts to bend the arc of the future towards justice, is science fictional behaviour. How we do that work really matters. We are all interconnected. Denying that, we die. Surrendering to that, we live. Let us all live.”

Speculative fiction (SF) can help us live and relearn our relationship to life in all its manifestations. Yet stories are not enough in themselves. We need to act to build a better future, given the dirty forces that continue to carry investments in the deadly status quo…we need to act now.

The future is already here.

Let us all live.

Find out more about Water Must Fall.

Addendum:

For more African stories of climate resistance and struggle, please see:

(Nick Wood):The Five Best African Climate SF Books

Aramide Moronfoye: African SF and Climate Change: How to Talk About an Apocalypse  

Hannah Onoguwe et al., Three Short Works of Literature That Can Inspire You to Fight Climate Change. The Slate.

Dilman Dila. One Cut CO2.

Tlotlo Tsamaase. Wild Authors. Artists and Climate Change.

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. Wild Authors. Artists and Climate Change.

Chinelo Onwualu. Centre for Science and the Imagination.


Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Gill Lewis shares an extract from Willow Wildthing and the Dragon’s Egg, a fantasy story illustrated by Rebecca Bagley for 5 – 9 year olds. Willow and her brother Freddie have found a newt in the overgrown garden of their new house. Freddie thinks it’s a baby dragon. They realise they have to make sure they convince the adults to give it a home and protect its habitat. The story shows urban rewilding being used to mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity:

The last owner of the house hadn’t done anything with the garden for years and the grass was so long that it came up to Willow’s waist. The bushes were overgrown and tangled with brambles and ivy. Nettles grew in thick green clumps and bindweed curled around the washing line.

‘I like it wild like this,’ she said. ‘Can’t we keep it like this for me and Freddie?’

Dad smiled. ‘Not everyone likes a jungle. It is a bit of a mess, and we need to clear these weeds.’

Willow just stared at some of the empty spaces where the bushes had been pulled up. She turned to Dad. ‘We can’t pull up all the bushes. Freddie’s dragon lives beneath them.’

‘I’m sure there are plenty of other places for it to live,’ said Dad. ‘I think newts like damp places near ponds.

Willow looked around. The neighbours’ gardens had patios and tiny squares of cut grass. Not a flower was out of place and it looked like weeds were forbidden. They didn’t have ponds either. ‘Where will it go, if we dig up its home?’ she said. ‘It has to have somewhere to live.’

The Wildlife Trusts help protect urban wildlife.

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Collaborators in Conversation by Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble

The Raven’s Song is a collaboration between Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble. It’s a novel for upper middle grade set in a climate and diseased ravaged future where cities have been deserted and survivors now live self-sufficient low-pollution lives in fenced and isolated hamlets as they wait for the world to heal. But children are curious and when Shelby Jones sees strange things outside the perimeter fence, she is tempted to leave the safety of her simple life and discovers the world from her history books, but then she discovers the past is not as dead as everyone thinks it is!

This novel has characters from three time periods and looks at how knowledge is passed through the ages, and what it means to be a good ancestor.

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Bren: In writing The Raven’s Song, I set out to explore a post-city world. A world of survivors dedicated to healing the planet, where the wilderness was honoured and explore how young people might live in simple, low-pollution and isolated communities.

I feel like you set out from a different place with more complex ideas and a very human-centric focus, in fact, much like my character Shelby in the book, I was so caught up in human obligations to the planet I had to be reminded by you that humans can earn rights to the planet as well. Thank you for that.

Can you talk about your starting point for your character Phoenix and this powerful connection through the ages that you brought to the book?

Zana: It’s so interesting you say that, because I think for me, the starting point was also about how people can begin to go about the process of healing the planet. I definitely see our role, as people, as one of custodianship – people have no more rights to the planet than the more-than-humans that we share the planet with. Arguably, we have far fewer rights considering the immense damage to the planet that has been caused by human activity in such a short space of time (and acknowledging here that not all humans are equally culpable – it is the interests of a select few that have created ruin for so many, and corrupted many efforts made to maintain systems of balance).

But we are living now in a time of rapid, radical, permanent, unpredictable and catastrophic environmental change caused by multiple and interacting human impacts on the Earth, and resulting in change so violent as to be archived as in indelible strata in the earth itself. And the question now is, how, in the face of such overwhelming damage, can we provide for future generations? How do we reconcile ourselves with what has been lost? With the gaps and absence of diverse species, habitat, language, culture and knowledge?

So in that sense, I suppose it is human-centric, in that I am calling on the human part of this kinship network to take determined action – like those in Shelby’s time did. They decided how they had to live to start to heal the damage that had been caused by those who came before.

When I started to think about my character Phoenix, what I really wanted to explore, was the idea that yes, we may have been birthed into a damaged world with damaged ideologies, but if we are still here, then we still have an impact! We can imagine a future that is different to the one we are being sold. So Phoenix for me, is all about rebirth. About seeing ourselves as future ancestors, and questioning what it is that we refuse to lose. What is it that we cannot bear for the earth to be without? What do we hold sacred? The notion that we are connected through massive expanses of time to people who have come thousand of years before us, and similarly, how we will be connected to those who come thousands of years after us – what is it that we will pass on through time?

When I started writing Phoenix, I wanted a character who was open to different ways of seeing and thinking and being in the world. He is a character who is so perceptive and so brimming with imagination that he finds it almost overwhelming. And it is through him, that we are able to see ourselves (I hope!) as existing in this sort of everwhen of being. Of seeing ourselves as wonderfully entangled in this web of past, present and future that exists all around us if only we knew to listen.

I think this is something that Shelby and Phoenix share – their ability, despite being very different people, to listen to the earth and respond. But it did take me a while to work out just who Phoenix was going to be on the page. I struggled for a while to find his balance – he was very internal for a while.

For the first few drafts I don’t think he spoke either, or have I misremembered that? I think that is why I started writing the sections of the Ravened Girl – she was there in my head as soon as I sat down to write. This presence that we hadn’t planned but that I had to release. As though she actually was calling to me through time! A real person who’s voice I had stumbled on.

As soon as I read Shelby, I felt that she must have been the same for you – this character who charged out of your head whole and wonderful and knowing exactly who she is. She is such a dimensional character who holds so much presence on the page that I could immediately imagine her banging on my door and demanding to be let in. So did she stride into your head fully fleshed or did you have to tease her out like I did with Phoenix?

Bren: Phoenix was very internal initially but he’s got a lot going on in there! Shelby on the other hand did arrive fully formed and master of her own universe. And that’s because her world is simple. It’s working hard on the egg farm, getting by without a mother she never knew, hanging out with her best friend, getting bored at school, knowing her small community and how everything works. It’s feeling safe among her 350 people, and knowing they’re all working together for a higher purpose: Low pollution, fully contained lives so the world outside their fences can heal. (I liked the idea of putting the humans in ‘cages’ a little too much.) It was her grandparents who chose the path they’re on. She was born into a world that already existed this way and all she had to do was learn, with some pride, that the way they were living would repair past misdemeanours and create a better future for all life on the planet. I feel like we all want a simpler world to live in. That the price of the modern world is sometimes too high.

When the pandemic arrived half way through writing this book with you and the air quality cleared and animals came down into towns, it seemed like my plan for these self-contained hamlets made perfect sense. But then it was derailed by the pandemic deniers who insisted on going maskless, who insisted on their right to ‘freedom’ at the expense of others. So in a way, I guess we were writing a utopia… set after a dystopia. I included signs that survivors vacating the cities to go to these hamlets was not a simple and calm thing. Perhaps only the most logical and selfless people moved to the hamlets. I shudder to think what happened to the rest. They certainly were not still around in this future world. This is not a Mad Max story. This is very much a children’s adventure.

The thing I regret is I made my characters in the hamlets vaguely vegetarian, but I wish now I’d made them vegan. It’s so obvious on further research that the limited amount of land they live on would much more easily support them if there were no domesticated farm animals… apart from maybe the plough mules. Obviously animals give off methane and use much more water and resources by eating plants and grains that could have gone directly to people, so even though they’re mostly kept for eggs, milk and cheese, I regret I didn’t take that to a more sensible place and make my future people vegan. I’ve moved from vegetarian to vegan lately and I feel like it’s the absolute biggest move I’ve made to save the world from a lot of needless pollution. Even more than an electric car. It fully aligns with my values as a conservationist, with reducing the planetary stressors on pollution, loss of wild habitat and food security, and animal welfare, and I haven’t been this healthy or clear-headed in years!

When you speak of damaged ideologies it reminds me of how major health organisations in the US are funded by meat, dairy and pharmaceutical companies, and how many fossil fuel companies go to the UN Climate Change Conference. At what point do we put human health, animals, and environment ahead of corporate profits? The corporate-backed misinformation wars keep people’s heads spinning, and create inaction. What they say doesn’t have to be true, it just has to cause doubt. Humans turn away from things we don’t understand, we settle back into familiar patterns instead. The patterns that keep profits rolling along, and cause further damage to ourselves and our environment.

Phoenix who exists slightly in our future, I feel, represents the children of today. So many conflicts in the world to negotiate, nothing is as sure for him as it is for Shelby in her simple future 100 years on. He’s familiar with pandemics and pollution and climate change and these things really worry today’s children, particularly those who live in cities surrounded by pollution and people. Phoenix also lost a mother, but he remembers her and, with her living in the past and in his mind, I feel like she’s opened a pathway for him to the past and other things unseen by most children. And then… in steps your amazing Ravened Girl with her beautiful chants and folklore, a historical figure trapped in stasis in a bog, also familiar with pandemics, with some knowledge to give to the future. Phoenix becomes a conduit of sorts, but also struggles to be a boy in a family of loud children, trying to make sense of all he can perceive. He is entangled in a web of past, present and future and he does waver wonderfully between denial and acceptance and confusion over what to do with what he sees. You worked much harder at character wrangling than I did.

I adore the message he discovers about being a good ancestor. This is something young people are thinking about due to the world they’re set to inherit. Do you think being a good ancestor is a particularly hard sell in the modern world where people put their personal desires ahead of the needs of society and the planet? Where being a good ancestor once meant accumulating wealth to pass down. Is it only now that we begin to suffer from climate change that we take it seriously? Is attempting to save the planet now at the point of also saving ourselves? Is this too many questions at once?

Zana: Ask away! This feels like when we were plotting at the very beginning and our ideas and questions were coming faster than our fingers could type. I will never forget the exhilaration of that.

I think that the notion of being a good ancestor actually gives us a kind of freedom. Individual people are no match for the corporate greed you talk about. And yet, seeing ourselves as ancestors enables us to see ourselves not just as inheritors of absence and loss, but as threads in the weave. Our decisions matter. I think that sometimes the damage we have wrought on the planet feels too big to overcome. It is overwhelming, and people can’t act when they are overwhelmed. But if you can see yourself repositioned as an ancestor, then you are immediately connected through time to someone who won’t exist for thousands of years, and the next question becomes, what is it that you have to pass down? What we do now, the actions we take in our day to day lives, will make a difference for people who are so far removed from us in time, that they will speak a language totally unrecognisable to us now. The world they know may not be anything like the world we know. And yet, these are the people we are affecting.

David Farrier writes about it so powerfully in his book Footprints – that idea that people separated from us by 4000 generations, will still be living in a world in which the carbon levels in the atmosphere, caused by the burning of billions of tons worth of coal and oil, will still be higher that than those of the pre-industrial age. The future fossil record is witness to our lifestyles – plastic can be seen as an actual geological layer in the earth, and there are markers that signal the point in time where humans and livestock reached 96% of the entire animal biomass of the Earth. And that mass of livestock bones is accompanied by the sudden silencing of tens of thousands of mammal, bird, insect, reptile, fish, seaweed, coral, tree and plant species that once proliferated the planet.

Extinction rates for vertebrates alone, rose from 200 species lost every 10,000 years, to 200 species lost within a single century. Faced with facts like that, it seems pointless to even try. And yet. You are an ancestor. You have a responsibility. What you do matters. It shifts the focus from what is lost, to what can be saved. It is a strangely empowering notion I think, and one that fills me with joy and hope and promise and wonder.

For those future people, we are the fossils they are unearthing, we are the handprints in the cave! Ours will be the footprints revealed in the bog that they ponder over and analyse. When you shift your focus and see yourself in this light, wrapped up so completely in time, I think the day to day desires and stressors fade into insignificance. It allows you to notice the world differently, and more than anything perhaps, it suggests that there are myriad possible futures for the world.

I think sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that our future is set in stone. We see the damage done and assume what is to come. But there are so many different possible futures, I honestly believe that the key to our continued existence lies in imagination. We may be standing on the brink of disaster, but we are still able to imagine, to tell, multiple different futures. And if we can imagine it, we can fight for it.

As Anna Tsing writes, ‘the challenge of our time, is how we tell terrible stories beautifully’. And it is the stories we tell of this entangled time, the stories of our pasts, our presents and our futures, and how we tell them, that will direct and dictate the age that the Anthropocene will become. It is through stories that we know our world.

It is so interesting how you talk about our story as a post-dystopia-utopia, and in many ways, Shelby’s world mirrored the lockdowns that we all went through. Living in Melbourne, we were confined to a 5km zone around our homes, no visitors were allowed, there was a strict curfew – we all had to make do with the provisions that were available to us. When Shelby marvels over the possibility of having multiple kinds of apples, I know how she felt! I would have killed for a good croissant! A pomegranate! Dumplings! Things, people, possibilites that we take for granted were suddenly impossible. We missed out on so much, and yet, we all began to notice things that we had never properly noticed before. The natural world announced itself. When we stopped, the world bloomed. There is so much promise in that.

I remember when we started plotted and planning, one of the things that grabbed us both was the notion of the past re-erupting into the present. Phoenix’s pandemic was directly inspired by anthrax reappearing in the thawed carcasses of long dead ice age elk, and we spoke of hunger stones revealed in drought affected rivers, proclaiming ‘if you see me, weep’. And now of course, this year has brought more drought, and we are seeing more and more markers, more and more messages from our very deep pasts being revealed.

I feel we could continue this chat forever – and perhaps we shall! But I do have one final question for you. It was the question we asked of our characters, but I don’t think we ever asked each other. If you could leave a message for someone to find 100/1000/10,000 years in the future, what would it say?

Bren: Oh shit… what would I say to the future? In the light of all those amazing facts and wise and inspiring words, I would apologise. I’d say, I’m so sorry for what we did to the planet. We were born into these lives and thought this is just how we live and there’d be time to change. We thought governments would make the future better. But then we looked up from the task of daily living, and the future was here. We realised too slowly that the world was set up so advocates of polluting technologies and behaviours would profit and they stifled change. We were too caught up in ourselves. We made mistakes that had devastating results. When the wool lifted from our eyes, an albatross was hung around our necks. I hope the weather is mild. I hope we left you enough forests and jungles full of a myriad of creatures and plants so the rain will sink deep into alive soil and trickle slowly to streams and rivers as they run through mountains, hills and plains and out to an ocean alive with creatures. She is glorious, this planet. She deserved better.

Find out more about The Raven’s Song, is available in UK from Old Barn Books and in Aus and NZ from Allen & Unwin.

Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a kid on the land. In 2018, How to Bee – her first novel for younger readers – won the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award for Younger Readers, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature, and the New Zealand Book Awards Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction. In 2019 The Dog Runner won the New Zealand Book Awards Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction. Bren also writes for young adults under the name Cally Black.
Zana Fraillon is an internationally acclaimed, multi-award-winning author of books for children and young adults. Her work has been published in over 15 countries and is in development for both stage and screen. Her 2016 novel The Bone Sparrow won the ABIA Book of the Year for Older Children, the Readings Young Adult Book Prize and the Amnesty CILIP Honour. It was shortlisted for the PM’s Literary Awards, the CBCA awards, the Qld Literary Awards, Vic Premier’s Literary Awards, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Gold Inky and the CILIP Carnegie Medal. Zana spent a year in China teaching English and now lives in Melbourne with her three children, husband and two dogs.


Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Rem Wigmore shares an extract from Foxhunt, a queer solarpunk sci-fi novel.

“Our technology is among the best in the world,” Rivasoa said. “We use solar panelling of course, the same as any civilised person, for we honour the Earth. But things being of use does not mean they cannot, too, be of beauty. Many of our solar panels are as you have seen, mosaics of colour. The whole city is a work of art, and one that changes with every shifting angle of the Sun, as all art is changed by its viewer.”

Orfeus nodded, distractedly. Solarglass was one thing, but everything here was so organic. Whole trees reared out of buildings like nothing in Tinctora. “Your whole city is a forest,” she said.

Solar Estimate gives people in the US an estimate for converting to solar. Find out about stained glass solar panel innovations.

Conservation, Red in Tooth and Claw by Rem Wigmore

Sometimes hope needs teeth.

As a kid I was part of the Junior Naturalists Club, Junats. I cherish my memories of mossy dark forest, of doodling giant snails or staring at the wētā a guest speaker brought in.

I’ve always had a wide-eyed wonder for the natural world. I was raised knowing the joys and struggles of trying to preserve what remains and restore what used to be. As a Pākehā, a NZ European, I’m a guest on Māori land. I tried, and try still, to be a good guest: tread quietly. Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, however much my child-fingers longed to snatch at stalactites.

Junats sometimes went to Te Kauri Lodge, near Oparau in the Waikato. The lodge is nestled in dense native bush, resplendent with birdsong. To keep it that way there’s all the usual pest-trapping and management. I’d been taught that sometimes death was necessary. I was still badly startled when I saw the work of some older kids, along by the fence between the lodge and the looming green wall of the forest. They were plucking possums.

Possum fur is made into luxury goods to help fund the elimination effort. In Australia, brushtail possums are an important part of the ecosystem. In Aotearoa New Zealand they’re nothing but hungry mouths, chewing through tender greenery and eating the eggs and young of birds who have no method to fight, in a country where life evolved for millions of years with no terrestrial mammalian predators at all – the only land mammals are two small species of bat. The birds can’t take it, the trees can’t take it and the forests die.

So I knew it was needed. Probably I could’ve helped, but I shrank from the plucking. What really struck me, what I remember to this day two decades later, was that one of the possums had joeys. Two, maybe. Tiny little babies no bigger than my thumb, hairless and pink. As best as I remember they were already dead, but my memory might be painting over that.

I was a city kid and hadn’t seen death like that before. Of course it was good these had been caught now – in a way, it was good – I knew it was good, but it seemed so viciously, pointlessly cruel.

Maybe it was. It was good all the same.  

That image never left me. It might be part of why I didn’t go into conservation as a profession myself and instead write books about it; I didn’t think I’d have the guts to handle all those tiny deaths. But I knew we needed them.

These days I hold that double standard effortlessly in my mind: I cherish all lives, yet cheer on poison drops and pest-trap tallies. Because that’s a death that gives our native species a better change at hanging on. There’s a saying about this in my fantasy novel Foxhunt’s sequel, Wolfpack:

Growth comes easier than rot, but truthfully the two go hand in hand. As vital as pollinators are the decomposers, breaking down dead flesh and leaves so the nutrients return to the Green. Do not hide away from death but accept it, and leave fallen trees where they lie. A healthy death brings new life with it.

Foxhunt presents a version of the future about 800 years from now where life is balanced – very solarpunk, renewable energies, a society focused on sustainability. People are kept in check by the threat of a fearsome organisation, the Order of the Vengeful Wild. Those who don’t keep to the unwritten-but-known rules about environment and hospitality will be hunted down by the Order, or so people say. Foxhunt’s protagonist Orfeus thinks that the Order is a myth, until she’s the one being hunted.

It wasn’t until it came up in an interview with a local radio host that I realised how much my cultural background affected the future I made. Of course it did! I cherish hope. In writing Foxhunt my main goal was to paint a world where we all make it, where humanity and the rest of nature both thrive. But even in that vividly green vision of the world, there is bloodshed and violence and death. Even at my most gloriously imaginative, I can’t picture one without the other.

Aotearoa’s long isolation (we’re talking since Gondwana) means it has a high rate of endemic life, species found nowhere else. We have birds that evolved to fill every imaginable niche, an incredible range of creepy-crawlies, silent and fascinating frogs – flora, fauna, fungi, the whole package. None of it evolved with mammalian predators. The first humans here, Polynesian travellers who would become the Māori, brought some pests with them, rats and pigs, and my Pākehā settler ancestors brought countless more: mice and stoats, ferrets and deer. The life here didn’t grow into itself alongside anything like the quick, hungry mammals we introduced, so it needs protecting.

In Aotearoa, protecting native species means killing invasive ones. That’s what I was raised knowing: sometimes to love a thing and protect it, you must destroy something else.

Maybe that’s why the calculation seems simple to me. If we can sacrifice those small lives – pest species but living things all the same – to the altar of a thriving world, how much harder is it to sacrifice capitalism, beloved luxury goods, the poisonous convenience of gas and coal?

In fact, isn’t it easier? Only a metaphorical death, and no blood on your hands. So many lives to be saved.

In my duology the sacrifices are more literal. The narrative digs into the flaws inherent in the Order of the Vengeful Wild, bounty hunters, ecoterrorists, vigilantes – assassins. Foxhunt shows the consequences of when that punishing violence is brought to bear on an innocent, asking whether such violence is ever justified. But we see the results – in the world of Foxhunt, humanity is in balance with the rest of the world, reaping no more than we sow, cultivating saplings. Kept in check by the fangs and teeth of the Order, life flourishes.

At the heart of my bloody and beautiful world is a question I ask but never fully answer. Is it worth it? Despite the cruelty and corruption, is this way of things good?

Guilt’s a powerful thing. It can immobilise, but it can galvanise too. Because I know deep down that I’m an invasive species too. I explore the themes of environmentalism and climate disaster in my work partly from that guilt, the need to somehow justify my existence – in this country, on this planet. Part of it is passion, and they’re hard to tell apart.

Here, as elsewhere, conservation and climate change are deeply interwoven – resilient ecosystems stand the best chance of weathering by climate change, and they help alleviate it. Our forests and wetlands are powerful carbon sinks, and the more we can restore and preserve them, the better.

Conservation work in the real world is less about bloody muzzles and bared fangs. The deaths here are more metaphorical: death of hope, resignation to what Orfeus calls a ‘smaller world’. I’ve never travelled out of Aotearoa and I’m starting to think I never will: even aside from everything else, I’m not sure I could justify the fossil fuels.

But I have my world, here, and all the world is connected, whether through mycelial threads between the roots of trees or the cables deep below the sea that link us together. This is my beloved world, and it is worth protecting.

It’s grim work, sometimes bloody, sometimes boring. We trap pests, we plant trees – real trees and the metaphorical kind, seeds that grow in the mind and blossom into hope. So take up your traps and tools. Much has been lost, but much can still be saved. The work awaits.

Rem Wigmore is a speculative fiction writer based in Aotearoa New Zealand, author of the queer solarpunk novel Foxhunt, published by Queen of Swords Press, and forthcoming sequel Wolfpack. Their other works include Riverwitch and The Wind City, both shortlisted for Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Rem’s short fiction appears in several places including Capricious Magazine, Baffling Magazine and two of the Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies. Rem’s probably a changeling, but you’re stuck with them now. The coffee here is just too good. Rem can be found at remwigmore.com or on twitter as @faewriter.

Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Hannah Gold shares an extract from the Waterstones prize winning The Last Bear:

‘Bear Island was once full of bears,’ April explained. ‘That’s why it was called Bear Island in the first place! Now there aren’t any left. You know why? Because the ice caps have melted and the bears can’t get there anymore. That’s why we have to take him home.’

‘And this is my responsibility because?’

‘Because it’s all our responsibility!’ she cried. ‘Don’t you see? It’s not you or me who’s melted the ice caps. It’s all of us. And if we don’t do what we can to help, then very soon there won’t be any polar bears left.’

‘Dad.’ Tör turned to his father. ‘She’s right. And it’s not just about the polar bears. You said yourself many times that the sea ice is retracting further and further each year. We are seeing it with our own eyes.’

‘You want me to save every polar bear I see?’

‘No,’ April said. ‘Just this one.’

‘You think I don’t wish to save the Arctic too?’ the captain said in exasperation. ‘But it needs more than just a little girl saving one polar bear.’

‘I agree,’ said April. ‘But imagine if every single person on the planet just did one thing.’

‘Then it is still not enough.’

‘But it’s better than doing nothing.’

Polar Bears International address both short and long-term threats to polar bears

Lost soundscapes – birdsong, the sound of insects and amphibians

Chitra Soundar interviews Gill Lewis about her latest book Song of the River ( illustrated by Zanna Goldhawk and published by Barrington Stoke), that explores violent storms and flooding while also discussing her picture book Pattan’s Pumpkin, which is an ancient folktale from India, which has the same themes.

Chitra: I really enjoyed reading Song of the River. I was quite impressed with the way you have seamlessly woven so  many themes – from moving from the city, to a parent’s death, the joys of following one’s dream amongst everyday concerns of riding a bike in the city and the skill of photography as a way to change perspectives. Amazing! Well done.

Gill: Thank you, Chitra, and thank you for the signed copy of Pattan’s Pumpkin, a retelling of the story told by the Irular tribe who live in the Palakkad district of Kerala in southern India – it is a beautiful book I will treasure.

I love hearing folk tales from other lands and cultures – and seeing the similarities and differences between them. The flood tale is a common theme across so many cultures.

Your retelling of the story is so gently told, with Pattan portrayed as a farmer who cares deeply for his family, his farm animals, the wildlife and for the land he is responsible for.  There is much to be gained for us all from this story.  The vibrant illustrations by Frané Lessac perfectly match the text.

CS: Thank you Gill, that’s so kind. As I was reading Song of the River, I wondered about many things about the writing process.  Was there a reason why you wanted Cari and her mum to be from outside the community in which the story was set? Did you wrestle with giving her a lot of new things to deal with, while also dealing with grief?

GL: I wanted the story to explore loss, grief and recovery, both for Cari and for the landscape, and to use the river to emulate Cari’s emotions. Cari’s father has recently died, and she is going through stages of grief; shock, denial, anger, acceptance and recovery. The landscape too has lost much over the centuries due to mis-management by man. The continual loss of biodiversity and wild places causes a solastalgia within many of us, a grief at environmental destruction. Not only have we lost landscapes, but we have lost soundscapes; we have lost birdsong, the sound of insects and amphibians. The river rages down the valley, and Cari rages deep inside as well. I wanted the restoration of the landscape via the return of the beaver to reflect Cari’s recovery too.  Beavers are landscape engineers, creating ponds and wetlands and allowing the recovery of many species of flora and fauna. Cari’s recovery reflects that of the landscape.

I felt that there were similarities in the threads of environmental protection in both our stories. Pattan’s Pumpkin begins where Pattan discovers ‘an ailing plant’ in the valley and decides to look after it. He nurtures the plant and it, in turn, provides protection for him, his family, farm animals, wildlife and harvested plants. The ending is particularly beautiful, and without giving too much away, shows Pattan’s gratitude and respect for the pumpkin. But now, in a time where people across the globe are becoming more urbanised, we are losing connection with the earth that sustains us. And perhaps the biggest flood story of all is unfolding right now, with the threat of climate change; increased rainfall, stronger storms and rising sea levels. It will affect us all across the world.

What importance do you think folk stories have to ensure we reconnect with, and protect this planet? And what can we learn from folk stories to help mitigate the effects of climate change? And why do you think it’s important for us to hear stories from other cultures and countries?

CS: Folktales gives us a way into today’s dilemma through yesterday’s tragedies. We reflect on the stories, as we tell them and realise much of what is in the story is playing out in front of us. I’ve visited many classrooms where the children are reading this story and finding out about floods in their communities and in India. By telling the story each time, we hope to evoke a sense of connection with the past and with the present. It’s a cautionary tale too like many folktales the purpose was to share the wisdom of those experiences with the future generations.

In Song of the River, there is a distinct and stark difference between facing a deluge of rain in a tower block in a city, watching it as it slashes the window panes to being next to a bulging river. You’ve very effectively shown us how scared Cari and her mum would have been when the rain gets bigger and the river runs amok, washing away everything in its path. As a child, I’ve been in flooded homes, and even recently as last year when I spent time with my parents, all my things started to float as the rain turned the streets into a river, which is perhaps the reason I’m fascinated by flood stories. Where did you draw inspiration for this vivid portrayal? What’s your relationship with the merciless side of nature – where it doesn’t stop for others?

GL: I’m fortunate enough only to have been caught in one scary flood but it did influence the telling of this story. I was camping in a river valley in France and there was a surge in the river after heavy rains and the campsite was deluged. There was much panic as the water levels rose very, very quickly and in the dark it was impossible to know if we were heading towards or away from the deep water. I have a huge respect for the power nature. I live by the sea and am aware of storms and strong tidal currents. With climate change, the force of nature is going to become even more powerful, and we have a responsibility to try to slow the effects of climate change.

It’s interesting to hear you are fascinated by flood stories from your own experiences. The theme of a large destructive flood is a common thread through folktales in many cultures. The ones I have been most familiar with are Noah’s Ark and the Welsh legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod. Why do you think flood stories have been told in so many variations across so many countries and cultures, and do you think there is a central common message?

CS: Every culture has many flood tales told, passed down orally through generations. I’m sure there was a mighty big flood that devastated human civilisations. There are a number of flood tales in South Asia and South East Asia, that document a very real geographic catastrophe at a certain time. In a way, by telling flood stories today and by retelling the stories of the past, we are carrying on the traditions of our ancestors, don’t you think?

In Song of the River, I love the way classroom projects and the solution to the village’s problem come together. I like the link when the owner of Beverley Farms looks at the Borneo example vs the Beaver one and decides she can do something right here, right now. How important do you think community action, engagement and coming together in our own small corners of the world are? How do we create more such action?

GL: I think community engagement is vital because it can be part of a groundswell of activism to bring about change. When people come together to protect the environment in their local area, be it demanding clean rivers, stopping tree felling etc, it can empower communities and make a real difference to local and government policy. I don’t think we will change the world by stopping using plastic straws (though it’s important to do so) but we will change the world through helping to change the laws and policies to protect this planet.

I also think that stories are important because they engage and educate people. I was interested to read that you were born in Chennai, India, and have been telling stories since your days in primary school! Were you surrounded by books and oral storytelling when you were growing up? And who were the people in your life that had most influence to encourage your own love of storytelling? I also read with interest that you often go to schools to tell stories. Oral storytelling seems a lost art and certainly doesn’t appear to be on the curriculum in schools. What benefit does oral storytelling have, and should we be encouraging children to try it for themselves? 

CS: It’s so true that in the current political climate across the world, communities have to come together to fight for what’s important to us. Stories – whether folktales or contemporary real-life accounts break down barriers and bring us together. It is a way of collective imagination when everyone’s hearing the same story and imagining it in their own way in their minds.

I didn’t grow up with much books. The nearest library was 10 miles away and we couldn’t afford to buy books. My mum would take me on the bus every month or so to get books from the library. But oral storytelling and narrative art was always part of our lives. My dad’s mum, my grandmother told us stories from the epics and folktales almost every day. It was almost a way of life. My mum improvised plays that we performed and those who know me well know that I can never answer a question without a story attached to it.

Oral storytelling is thriving in the UK and in India, luckily. I love telling stories to children and adults and tell both stories from my own books and also make up stories with the collective imagination of the children. It’s a special experience. I always request teachers to have an oral storytelling assembly and in many cases, when we write stories in workshops, I invite the children to come and tell it to their class. It’s a special experience when they realise they have an audience and they can read or tell the story they just made up.

In your book, you have introduced photography as a way of expression. I really loved the photography being part of the inspiration – the different perspective of looking at things, and the photos becoming a source of income, a symbol of change. Are you interested in photography, yourself? Do you think such hobbies can inspire our readers to find different ways to see the world and also engage with it?

GL: Many of the arts allow us to focus on the world a different way and step out of our busy lives for a moment. I love drawing and painting because it allows us to examine and observe form and colour and our place within the world. Our education system is too often driven by data and targets, but the arts make an impression on us for life and their effect on our lives cannot be truly measured.

I love Frané Lessac’s vibrant illustrations and lots of the lovely details in Pattan’s Pumpkin. Did you have any discussions with the illustrator about the style and the colours, or did Frané have free rein to interpret the story?

CS: Frané had access to all my research and she did her own independent research about the geography of the story and the tribe itself. I got to see her storyboard and her roughs. Alongside Frané, the publisher and the designer, we just made sure it was authentically told.  Frané and I discussed this in this interview too.

And as we come to the end of this delightful conversation, I have to ask about a topic close to every reader’s heart perhaps – cakes! Cari’s mum loves baking. Do you like baking too? What’s your favourite cake to bake and the one you think is a real challenge? Will you expect your readers to bake the chocolate log beaver cake?

GL: I love the Great British Bakeoff, but sadly I am not a great cook. The only cakes I can make successfully are welsh cakes, but I use my father’s secret recipe and am sworn to secrecy. But I do love eating cakes and recommend to everyone especially in the company of a good book.

And Chitra, I hear you love cooking too. Do you have any pumpkin inspired recipes?

CS: Of course, I love cooking. In the interest of keeping the topic in the sweet spot, here is a pumpkin halwa recipe you can download.

It was a pleasure talking to you about Song of the River and Pattan’s Pumpkin, Gill. Let’s hope caring communities will look after our ailing planet.

Find out more about the Cornwall Beaver Project.

Find out more about the UNESCO protected biosphere, the Sahayadri Mountains, where Pattan’s Pumpkin is set here.

Gill Lewis is a multi-award-winning children’s author, vet and wildlife enthusiast. She has been fascinated with animals as far as she can remember. She lives in West Wales with her family and their collection of pets including dogs, chickens and a rescued Shetland pony. She writes books that celebrate the wonders of the natural world and raise awareness of the threats facing this planet. Song of the River is her latest book. Find out more at http://www.gilllewis.com/web/ .

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author of over 60 books for children. Her books are often set in India or Indian families. She currently lives in London where she spends her free time reading, cooking, and taking photos of her neighbourhood. Find out more at www.chitrasoundar.com and follow her on twitter @csoundar.


Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, April Doyle shares an extract from Hive, set in a future where pollinators have all but died out and colonies of nanodrones have been developed as a way to mechanically pollinate crops. In this scene, the scientists are testing the nanodrones outside the lab in an orchard…

‘Let’s do this,’ said Scott. ‘Launching Colony One.’ He placed the lead drone on the ground and stepped back.

This was the moment. Jed and Victor stopped talking and came closer. Emily put her hands to her mouth. Annie crossed her fingers behind her back.

Silence.

Nobody moved.

The lead drone twitched and rose into the air with a barely audible hum. A second later, out of the crates, the rest of the swarm began to climb. The white noise of the propellers drowned out every other sound as they ascended into the air, each one maintaining a perfectly safe distance from the rest, like a murmuration of starlings on the wing. And then, following the lead drone, they moved together across the short distance to the orchards.

Scott’s mouth worked in concentration as he sought to keep an eye on the lead. One of his final tweaks had been to change the colour of the lead drone completely, abandoning the red dot on its upper surface, making the whole thing scarlet so that it stood out from its dark grey counterparts. He walked beneath the swarm, over the tarmac, onto the grass, and guided the lead down towards one of the lower blossoms so that he could more easily monitor its connection with the bloom. He held his breath as the drone made contact. A second later, he watched the other drones fan out over the trees in a perfectly coordinated swathe, all of them coming in to land on their own flowers.

‘They’re doing it,’ squeaked Emily.

‘Not yet, not yet,’ said Annie. She held out her hand. ‘Wait for the next bit.’ This was the crucial moment. Would the lead drone take off before all the others had finished pollinating their flowers? Would the whole swarm be able to move independently from that moment on?

The answer to both questions was yes. The lead drone rose from its flower and took off in search of another one while all around it drones were still landing. Soon after that, Annie watched as other drones took off in their own time.

Scott lifted his hand from the controller. ‘It works,’ he shouted. ‘It works!’

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust works to increase the number and distribution of bumblebees. See the RHS’s tips for making a more bug-friendly garden.

Adapted climate change: a new genre by J. Ekstam

My trilogy, Katja’s World Game, belongs to a new genre that I call ‘adapted climate change’. Why does climate change require a new genre?  If we are to adjust to the ecological, social or economic systems related to climate change and its effects, we need to understand what is at stake. Why fiction? Because it enables us to understand both with the brain and the heart.

As Ursula Heise argues in Imagining Extinction:

Biodiversity, endangered species, and extinction are primarily cultural issues, questions of what we value and what stories we tell, and only secondarily issues of science.

In a time of crisis, it matters deeply what stories we tell. The story of climate change is the most important story right now.

Literary works are, I believe, imaginative biotopes that provide the symbolic space to explore the dimensions and energies of life. When we see them in this light, literary texts are a form of sustainable textuality because they are sources of ever-renewable creative energy (Rueckert, Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism, 1978).

I believe Ursula K. Le Guin was right when she said,

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some grounds for hope.

(2014 National Book Awards Acceptance Speech)

In the spirit of Ursula K. Le Guin, my trilogy offers hope. It shows why – despite all our problems, there is hope, and that it is not too late. Yet.

Katja’s World Game: The Game Begins is the first novel in a trilogy about climate change. It is ‘adapted’ because it responds to actual as well as expected climate problems. To move the story on from the present, and to stimulate the imagination, there is an element of fantasy in the form of the fourth dimension. Fantasy is an excellent medium for offering hope because, as Marek Oziewicz claims, ‘it presents the magical, the supernatural, and the wondrous as a fact in the world of the narrative’ (Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene. Imagining Futures and Dreaming Hope in Literature and Media, 2022). All three elements – the magical, the supernatural and the wondrous, play an important part in my novels.

In my first novel, set in 2022, the future is very uncertain. In book two, The Understory, the dangers of climate change become increasingly clear. And in book three, The Overstory, a comfortable and sustainable life style is presented. As my six characters, from China, Iran, Northern Ireland, Norway, West Africa and the U.S.A. gradually realise that the programme they are studying at a university in Bath, South West England, is so much more than an academic programme – they begin a journey with enormous challenges, both academic and practical, but they also make exciting discoveries about what it means to be a young human-being in the Anthropocene. What is the future? Is it something we merely inherit and must accept – with all its dangers and challenges, or can we change it, or perhaps even create a new future?

The path the six students follow in their three years at university is a winding one, with successes and failures, joy and disappointment, and progress and regression. Will the dance show they put on in the first book, for example, make any difference? Will the audience understand the message that we must work together if we are to save the Earth? The video game on climate change that the students create in book two raises important questions: how do we want the world to look? How can we show that our actions matter? And what part will technology and Artificial Intelligence play in the future?

Katja knows, because of her connection with the fourth dimension, that there is hope. There is a future. A different way of living that will protect the Earth from further degradation if we accept and live in accordance with its principles. Book three offers hope because it presents a sustainable way of living that not only works but can also be adapted to different countries and climates.

The fourth dimension and the advice from the narrator’s deceased great-grandfather, Jo, make Katja and her friends’ success certain. It is only Jo who can help Katja fully understand her duties and responsibilities as a guardian of the Earth. In book one, she fights against it; in book two, she gradually becomes a respected leader who not only accepts but embraces her fate. In book three, she fulfils her duty to Jo and to the fourth dimension. She still has questions: Will our solution for a more sustainable way of living last? Will it evolve still further? How will advances in technology and Artificial Intelligence influence the future? After three years of challenges, Katja fully understands the rules of the game of survival and the part she must play.

The game of survival is not only Katja’s but our game too. Can we make the adjustments necessary for creating a more sustainable life style? Will we play the game? Can we follow the rules? Who will be the winners? Who will be the losers? Whatever our answers, the game has already begun.

Find out more about Katja’s World Game.

Jane Ekstam is a professor of English literature at Østfold University College, Norway. She has published books, chapters and articles on works of English literature, teacher education and academic writing.

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Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, D A Baden shares an extract from Habitat Man, a contemporary romance novel. Inspired by a real-life green garden consultancy, Tim – the unlikely hero – is fifty, single and trapped in a job he despises. In a desperate quest to find love and meaning, Tim endeavours to rescue the planet through a combination of wildlife gardening, composting toilets, bird psychology and green funerals. When he accidentally digs up the body of the fabled guerrilla knitter in a back garden, a natural burial is held, with a shallow burial in a willow coffin to avoid toxic embalming fluids:

The intermittent sound of fiddles gave way to a proper tune, and gradually the chatter subsided and everyone looked towards Andrew and Katie. They brought their fiddling to a graceful close and we stood before the curtain of flowers and willow. Brian’s voice still taking to Paul was discordant in the sudden quiet, and he bumbled to a halt.

The music of the garden took over from the fiddles. Undeterred by the crowd, a tiny brown wren, tail cocked in the air, trilled its liquid song from the new willow fence. Nearby, a chiff-chaff chanted the repetitive call of its name. A queen bumblebee burred, her legs loaded with balls of pollen for her hungry offspring. A brimstone butterfly fluttered by, investigating the flowers on the willow bower, its bright yellow wings a flash of sunshine.

A roar of a plane flying overhead reminded us that we weren’t in the deep countryside, but in a suburban small garden, underneath the flight path from the airport a few miles down the road. When the plane had passed, Fern nodded at Andrew and Daisy and together they carefully lifted the willow curtain down from the branches and walked it to the end of the garden.

I steeled myself to look. But it wasn’t the deep, dark, rectangular coffin-shaped hole I’d pictured in my head. The hole in the ground was just as I’d left it, pond-shaped and three feet deep, except now Grandad, as I thought of him, was laid out in his baggy trousers and a colourful knitted jumper in the willow coffin, surrounded by the bones of his wife. I exhaled with relief. This was absolutely right. The shallow pond-shaped hole was like nature’s opening arms welcoming them back to the earth.

For more information on natural burials, see the Natural Death Centre.

“Business is Booming, Nevermind the Climate”

Today the author of the experimental short story collection Our Shared Storm, Andrew Dana Hudson, talks to Sarah Blake, author of the adult dystopian novel Clean Air.

Andrew Dana Hudson: Sarah, your novel Clean Air is ecofiction, but it also feels like pandemic fiction—the masks, the confined life, the focus on health dangers rather than big storms or rising seas. And I think you captured some of the fluctuations of emotion COVID brought: anxiety, boredom, dread, despair, occasionally hope. When did you start writing the book, and how did that process change as the pandemic unfolded?

Sarah Blake: I started (and finished) writing the first draft in 2017, but I was going through the edits from my editor and doing my final revision during lockdown over here in the UK. I had been saving emails and news articles, writing down the things that were flying off the shelves, thinking about all the ways I hadn’t been able to predict the kind of panic that Covid brought on. But I didn’t end up using many of those details, and it was a relief that the catastrophe that I had created was a new thing, an improbable thing.


What was your process like for writing (varying levels of) (im)probable things?

ADH: Wow! I gotta say, even if not originally intended, Clean Air definitely resonated with big chunks of my pandemic experience. I suppose there’s some “death of the cli-fi author” there: we don’t always get to choose which disasters will make it feel like our stories are coming true.

For Our Shared Storm, I had an ambitious enough structure with my five parallel-future-stories that I kept the actual storm part a bit generic. There are some authors that do a great job of situating a disaster in a particular locale’s unique geography—busting out the flood maps and all that—but I wanted that part of my book to feel intense more by how, yes, probable, even inevitable, such bigger, scarier, harder-to-predict storms will be and already are. I focused more on the cultural and political shifts, and tried to sell each of those as probable within their own context. It’s been interesting to see how reviewers and readers have picked out different scenarios as the “most likely” one. (I’d be curious if one stuck out to you in this way.)

I suppose one result of that strategy is that climate change takes a mild backseat in my book to climate politics, to how people treat each other. Clean Air had a bit of that too, but one thing I appreciated was that, even when their boxed-in culture felt dystopian, it never quite slipped into that “the climate cure is worse than the disease” zone that I see sometimes. The atmosphere, and the way it was weaponized, remained the locus of danger. I wondered while reading how conscious that discipline was on your part?

SB: For me, Clean Air‘s catastrophe resulted in something utopic. People are working together. Crime has been non-existent. Money is seen for the sham that it is. Having people in varied careers is truly valued. Religion is no longer a guiding principle. Etc., etc., etc. I tried to put as many things as I could into a “better” future–things that I would like at least. It was about starting at that place and exploring how people’s individual lives, Izabel’s life, could still be anything but utopic. And by untangling Izabel’s unease, I ended up uncovering weaknesses of the society as well. I probably avoided “the climate cure is worse than the disease” because I’ve never thought that could possibly be the case!
 
In terms of your scenarios, I don’t think one stood out as the “most likely,” but I did think that SSP5 seemed like the “least likely.” While I think that scenario is sort of our current trajectory, your version of it made everyone way more creative and fun than they are right now! I enjoyed that. Were there stories you enjoyed writing more than others?

ADH: SSP5—the “business is booming, nevermind the climate” scenario—was definitely the most fun to write, and it’s the one that’s gotten the most response from readers/reviewers. It was such a potent writing mindset that when I finished I had to write two more short stories with a similar energy before I got it out of my system.

The third story, the inequality scenario, took me the longest, perhaps even the bulk of the year I spent drafting. And the others, well each of them is special to me in their own ways.

The opening SSP2 story was the most evocative of my experience attending the UN climate negotiations as an observer. The discussions in the SSP3 breakdown story were reminiscent of ones I’ve had with other activists and researchers. The utopian SSP1—well, like you I tried to throw in all kinds of good stuff I cared about, small and big hints at a better way of living.
 


How about you? Was there a favorite thread in Clean Air that really engaged you? Like the rhythms of parenting or the procedural investigation?

SB: Writing about parenting often brings me to the page, but my favorite thread has to be the monsters! I’ve written poems about monsters in both of my poetry collections. I’m sure I’ll return to them over and over because I’m fascinated by them—both the legendary kind and the characteristics that make a person monstrous. In Clean Air, I got to write about so many different monsters, from the serial killer to kappa to La Llorona to Baba Yaga.

My next books feature settings that are the monstrous things, and they have varying effects on my protagonists (one is turned monstrous!). I guess it could be argued that Clean Air is also a monstrous setting that created its monsters, but the new books have settings that are less complicated than Clean Air’s!

What are you working on now?

ADH: The book I’ve been working on for the last year features a different kind of looming societal crisis than climate change (something closer to a supernatural pandemic). It’s a little more of a mystery, which I think is a kind of comforting relief. Mystery tales all sort of imply that once the mystery is solved, society can rectify itself, through justice or accessing some kind of secret magic or what have you. Climate stories often come with this more-like-real-life anxiety in part because climate change isn’t a mystery at all—we know exactly why it’s happening, but it turns out knowing isn’t actually enough to make the problem go away. I thought Clean Air nicely threaded the needle between these two modes, and I’m hoping my own WIP can maybe do the same.

Andrew Dana Hudson is a speculative fiction writer, sustainability researcher, and futurist. In 2016 his story “Sunshine State” won the first Everything Change Climate Fiction Contest (free to download in the climate fiction anthology here) and in 2017 he was runner up in the Kaleidoscope Writing The Future Contest. His 2015 essay “On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk” has helped define and grow the “solarpunk” subgenre. His first book, Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures is out with Fordham University Press. Andrew has a master’s degree in sustainability from Arizona State University, where he is an Imaginary College Fellow at the Center for Science and the Imagination. He has previously worked in journalism, political consulting, and healthcare innovation.

Sarah Blake is the author of CLEAN AIR, a cli-fi domestic thriller, NAAMAH, a novel reimagining the story of Noah’s ark, and poetry collections, MR. WEST, LET’S NOT LIVE ON EARTH, and the forthcoming IN SPRINGTIME. In 2013, she received a Literature Fellowship from the NEA. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Poetry Review, and The Kenyon Review. She lives outside of London, UK.

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Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Bren Macdibble shares an extract from Across the Risen Sea:

‘You already have too much technology at your joint, what with those solar panels and car batteries you use for cooking and whatnot,’ Jacob says.

Marta shrugs. ‘There is safe technology, Jacob. It’s not all bad. Our electric stovetops cook food for us all without the need to cut down trees, or add woodsmoke to the environment.’

‘This is the Ockery Islands. We have an agreement to leave technology behind!’ Jacob says and he frowns so hard, I shrink in my seat and think how lucky I am that the frown is for Marta and not me.

Marta nods, and then shrugs like she don’t care at all. ‘We each do all we can to live low-impact lives. Our electric stovetops are no worse than your water-drawing windmill there. Let’s not lose sight of what really matters here, old friend. Living gentle lives.’

Jacob nods. ‘Gentle lives,’ he says and lifts his tea.

The Clean Cooking Alliance supports women entrepreneurs as advocates in the clean cooking sector. UK charity Practical Action empowers women in Kenya to sell alternative fuels to firewood, which reduce the health risks.

Birds and Bees

Author of the historical fantasyWindsmith Kevan Manwaring and April Doyle, author of adult dystopia Hive, discuss their writing.

Kevan: I have just finished reading your book, Hive, which I really enjoyed. For a near-future dystopia it has a refreshingly life-affirming quality to it (which I think is essential if we are to avoid climate paralysis and doomism). It has both a sweetness and an edge, and reminds me of the Welsh saying: being in love is like licking honey from a thorn. So, what inspired you to write this labour of love?

April: Thanks for reading – I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It’s good to hear that the story didn’t feel overwhelmingly dark – this is a subject which is terrifying to think about in its entirety and I took the decision when I was writing to hint at the monster rather than look it straight in the eye. That would have been a very different book. In the end I wanted a story of hope.

I think the idea for Hive was probably brewing for years before I started to write it. I’ve always been interested in the natural world, and it’s a big part of my writing (as a side note I think that since the first Lockdown, like a lot of us, noticing small details on my daily walks has made me even more tuned in). Climate change has been casting a shadow for a long time now. But the subject of pollinator decline is something that I’ve become more aware of in recent years. The catalyst for the story came in 2018 during a horrible period of insomnia. After sleepless nights I was usually wide awake for Farming Today on Radio Four, listening to report after report about colony collapse, diseases in beehives, the deleterious effect of neonicotinoids on pollinators… Then, unexpectedly, Hive dropped into my head early one morning and I had to write as fast as I could so as not to lose any of it – which isn’t the way it usually works with my writing!

How about you? I’ve enjoyed reading Windsmith and I understand that it’s part of a much larger story world. I’d love to know more about what inspired The Windsmith Elegy.

KM: It’s complicated, as they say, but there are two main strands. Firstly, its prequel, The Long Woman, was started in 2002 when the world was still reeling from the impact of 9/11 (in many ways we still are, but then it was at its most raw). It felt like we were collectively going through the stages of grief – many were paralysed by shock or denial, or full of rage. With war imminent it occurred to me that we were going through something similar to the early 20th Century. Way before the First World War Centenary events started to kick off I saw resonant parallels. The massive traumatic event of war led to a huge loss of life (made even more catastrophic by the devastation of the Spanish Flu in 1919) and hard times – but this created the Roaring Twenties, where those with the liberty to sought consolation in hedonism and spiritualism.

Parallel to this was the fight for Women’s Suffrage. Yet all this was too massive (for me) to fit into a single novel – so I decided to chart the impact of one death upon one life. Enter my heroine, Maud Kerne, who lost her husband in the First World War. Nearly a decade on, she cannot accept he is never coming back, and is frozen in her grief: a life in stasis. I knew people like this and wanted to understand what that was like, and critically, imagine a way out of that: a light at the end of the tunnel: an escape hatch back into life. 

I hadn’t planned to write about a forty-something widow in the early Twenties – it was initially going to focus on her husband, Isambard Kerne, a surveyor for the GWR and observer for the Royal Flying Corps obsessed with ley lines – but Maud took over the story. ‘The Long Man’ (my working title) became The Long Woman – and it became a narrative about those left behind, recovery, and finding one’s own ‘ley’ (voice and path) to live by. Set in late 1922 and 1923, it feels eerily resonant with the current situation in Ukraine, which is causing so much unspeakable suffering. War sadly never seems to go out of ‘fashion’.

Halfway through writing The Long Woman I had a flash, a download, of the five volumes I wanted to write – following Isambard into what I call the Afterlands (in the novels).

Ten years and half a million words later, I completed The Windsmith Elegy – and Windsmith, the second in the series, fully establishes the Secondary World in which Isambard Kerne finds himself, having crossed through an Angel Gate in the opening battle of the First World War. In this and subsequent novels I drew upon my long-term interest in myth, legends, and folklore – but most of all my deep knowledge of the Bardic Tradition (I worked on The Bardic Handbook around the same time, and it was published in the same year as Windsmith, 2006, from Gothic Image).

I wanted to ground my fantasy world in something solid – and so I drew upon my fascination with prehistory, with the ancient, sacred sites I like to visit (Stonehenge, Avebury, Carnac in Brittany etc) and on Celtic Iron Age culture. My magical system draws upon the Ogham alphabet, which the druids used. But most of all, the whole series brings to life the Bardic Mysteries – ‘Windsmith’ is my neologism for a Bard and is a magician of the air who can conjure the winds with their words of power. As a writer with a long interest in the spoken word (storytelling; poetry) I have a deep fascination with the power of language. As Maud find her own voice in The Long Woman, so Isambard learns to become a Windsmith in the later novels: both become empowered through language, but in different ways.

So, a long answer to your question! I did say it was complicated. Novels are seldom inspired by one single thing. Place was such an important inspiration and influence for me in writing the novels (e.g. I walked the Ridgeway – the ‘oldest road in Europe’ – as part of my research); so I wanted to ask you about that in your novel, which has a strong sense of regionality to it, of characters moving through a landscape, and the importance of one’s ‘terroir’. So, can you tell us about this? Were there particular places that inspired you? Did you do any field research? And how important is setting for you in a novel?

AD: Place is hugely important to me when I’m writing. As important as any of the characters, maybe even more so. I’m really interested to find out that you walked the Ridgeway – I grew up near there and did lots of walks along various sections of the Ridgeway – there’s such a strong sense there of how ancient the land is, the feet which have walked that path before. It feels like a place where the veil is very thin.

In the published version of Hive the story is set in rural Kent, in and around the place where I live now. In fact the first draft was set in America, and the story begins on the West Coast, where commercial bee farmers begin their year by taking their hives to pollinate the almond orchards in California, moving gradually East as the growing season draws on, moving from crop to crop. This first version of the story felt bigger and more expansive, far more plot-led, like a thriller. An agent I spoke with about the book suggested a drastic edit: proposing a more contained setting with a smaller cast of characters – with space for their stories and relationships to breathe, giving more attention to the plight of the bees and how this would affect people at a much more intimate, human level. I think that by changing the setting the novel is much stronger for it – though if any Hollywood producers happen to be reading this I still have a copy of that first draft…

Places that inspired me? The hills and orchards of the Weald, the vast open skies and flat fields of the Thanet coast, and the beautiful rich farmland here in Kent. I loved writing about the place where I’ve lived for so long.

When researching places for Hive I spread out a map of the county, borrowing settings I’m familiar with, changing the names of some of the places and leaving others the same. The setting in Thanet – the giant greenhouses there – is a place I didn’t know at all beyond driving past it occasionally. I did what research I could and imagined the rest.

One thing I slightly regret is writing an upsetting scene in the book not far from where I live. It’s on a lane where I walk most days. Knowing the place so well really helped me when I came to write the scene, but with hindsight I should probably have set it somewhere else (the problems of having an overactive imagination…). When I’ve lived with a story for so long that the characters have become real and the places ARE real, there’s a strange sort of overlap between the story world and reality. Does this sound familiar to you? Are there things you’ve explored in your books which feel more real to you than they did before? Have any of your fictional ideas inspired you to start real-life projects?

KM: Oh, yes, very familiar with that strong sense that the characters and settings you are describing are real somehow. I’m fascinated by the act of creation. Where does imagination end and … something else begin? Do our novels come from us, or through us? Sometimes it really does seem like I’m ‘channelling’ something (e.g. the character of Maud Kerne or other protagonists from my other novels definitely wanted their story told).

The Irish mystic AE (aka George Russell) talked about this in The Candle of Vision – how in dreams it is not merely our un- or sub-conscious inventing stuff, or reshuffling the day’s events, but something being glimpsed that is … autonomous – a secret world to which we are granted a brief, tantalising flash now and then. Whether that’s true or not (and who can say?) the thought intrigues me, and echoes my many experiences of invention/discovery.

One example in particular has lingered with me (and this will lead into answering the last part of your question). When writing the 3rd volume of The Windsmith Elegy, The Well Under the Sea, I created a fictional setting called Ashalantë – an island at the crossroads of time where lost souls find each other. Borne out of my research into islands (which saw the publication of my nonfiction book, Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden, in 2008), including many field trips to evocative places like Malta, it became very tangible to me, as I ‘went’ there daily for a couple of years until I had built up a kind of mind palace of it – I could visualise it in 360 degrees. I loved going there – my dream holiday destination!

I returned to it in writing the interactive novel set in the same storyworld: Hyperion: tower of the winds (Tales, 2021) – and in that version the reader-player can explore it themselves by choosing different routes and actions. And over the last year I have been thinking alot about future communities. What kind of world do we want to live in? And can we use the arts to imagine a better future?

I recently gave a lecture on ‘Codesigning the ecovillage of the future’ for Arts University Bournemouth, and in this I cite the experience of creating Ashalantë. I get participants to fill in a questionnaire to harvest a cross-section of perspectives on a ‘future village’, and now I’m in discussions about taking the project into schools – as it is so important to include all stakeholders. I also run what I call a ‘playshop’ – using multimodality and play to creatively explore a chosen theme. In that I encourage participants to consider all those impacted by any such initiative, including the more-than-human and the indigenous concept of the ‘Seventh Generation’.  I’m hoping that future playshops will produce some great results – getting us all thinking about the kind of world we want to live in.

          And so, that leads me to the next question. The philosopher Fredric Jameson famously said that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’ And we see this in the countless dystopias on the bookshelves, on the digital streaming services, and in the writing classes. Of course it is completely understandable that people are compelled to imagine worst-case scenarios – especially with the way the world is at the moment!

I wanted to ask you: what do you think about the growing ‘pushback’ to this in subgenres like Hopepunk, Solarpunk, and  initiatives like Manda Scott’s ‘Thrutopia’? Do you think we should be trying to imagine better futures, rather than nightmarish ones? And what are the challenges of writing positive speculative narratives?

 AD: I love the idea of reading about future utopias. In fact I know a writer who is working on just such a book (and I can’t wait until it’s finished – I’m really looking forward to reading it). I admire anyone who can imagine such wonderful possibilities in our future. I am here for all of those books, and will definitely look into Hopepunk, Solarpunk and Thrutopia.

I wonder, though (and this is of course through the lens of someone who is desperately worried about the world we’re living in at the moment) whether we (and our stories) can arrive at utopian futures without losing significant things along the way. In Hive there are a lot of losses – both at a personal and a world level. But because of the ingenuity of the characters and their determination to survive, there is hope at the end, and perhaps a utopia just beyond the horizon? Not just for them, but for everyone. In other words, the nightmare is not, I believe, the end of the story.

For me, this would be the challenge – I can’t get past the thought that a positive speculative narrative would have to spring from something very difficult. What do you think?

KM: In terms of narrative causality, I think it’s pretty much a given that any speculation about possible futures emerge out of addressing the challenges that we now face: that any paradigm shift, be it positive, negative, or ambiguous, will spring, artesian-like, from the multiple pressures of the modern age. It would be unrealistic to assume ‘things will just turn out okay’ (the fatal abnegation of quietism and doomism) without some major, and probably traumatic, breakdown and rebirth. Without serious effort by people to turn things around. And people are coming up with the solutions right now – for food, energy, housing, transport, etc –  and have for decades, but without political will (as imagined in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future), or a San Andreas level event (or ‘perfect storm’ of climate disasters) it won’t happen by itself. Not that I want any kind of apocalypse, except in the true sense of a ‘revelation’! But out of adversity can arise ingenuity, innovation, and the ‘best of us’ (and not just the worst as the more nihilist dystopias imagine) and so, in terms of fiction and characterisation, that is what makes good drama. And perhaps good people!

As this initiative – the Climate Fiction Writers League – and many others, exemplify. And so, to end on a positive note – it’s been a pleasure having this conversation. Such generous sharings (and well-crafted fiction) give me hope – because paying it forward, as any good novel does, is a hopeful act. And so, to round up, what gives you hope, April?

AD: People working on solutions gives me hope – and I wish that they were more visible. When the Earth Shot Prize was televised in October 2021 it was a wonderful insight into all the work that’s going on globally to address environmental challenges. That night I was filled with hope. However I find that it’s too easy, with the daily diet of news, to forget all of the good work that’s going on. There are so many ingenious projects out there, and people who are focused on what’s possible.

Here’s to a future where politicians fully engage with the ingenious solutions that are out there. Other things that give me hope? The natural world – especially since Lockdown – noticing the daily little changes outside (including, most recently, a cuckoo that has arrived near where I live. It’s the first time I’ve heard one for years). Last but definitely not least: stories and art and music – the deep and mysterious magic of creativity and creative acts. Thank you for this conversation, Kevan, it’s been wonderful. And thanks to the Climate Fiction Writers League for this opportunity!  

April Doyle is a writer, tutor and editor who lives in rural Kent with her husband and two sons. She has been teaching creative writing to adults since 2012. April’s short stories have been published in women’s magazines in the UK and Australia, and her short story Elsewhere was published in an anthology Tales From Elsewhere in 2016. Her short story Rise on the Wings was longlisted for the 2019 Mslexia Short Story competition. Hive was shortlisted for the 2019 Exeter Novel Prize.

Kevan Manwaring is a prize-winning writer & lecturer in creative writing who lives on the ancient downs of Wiltshire. He is the author of over twenty books including The Windsmith Elegy series of Mythic Reality novels; Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, The Bardic Handbook, and Ballad Tales (ed.). He loves walking in other worlds, but sometimes he prefers to ride his Triumph motorbike.


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Solutions Spotlight

Today, Katy Yocom shares an extract from Three Ways to Disappear, a contemporary adult novel which involves conservation workers in India trying to save a tiger habitat. In part by helping villagers reduce their dependence on the national parks’ resources, and here the NGO workers deal with a drought:

“We need a dredger to dig out that lake,” she said. 

Back at the Tiger Survival office, they worked the phones for hours. Geeta and Sarah put out calls to other NGOs and government agencies, trying to round up emergency funding. Sanjay and William called their construction contacts in search of earth-moving equipment, though with the ground baked so hard, the equipment might prove useless. At the end of the day, they gathered for a briefing. “The best we can do is start in ten days’ time,” William said.

“And until then? Geeta asked. 

“I can think of only one solution. Bring in the water by tanker.”

“Expensive,” she said. “And insufficient. But I don’t see a way around it.”

The World Wide Fund for Nature – India works to protect tigers in India through Biodiversity Conservation and Footprint Reduction.

Individual Heroism as a Story Engine

Aya de León and Michael DeLuca discuss their work in genre fiction which includes climate issues.

Michael: QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECYhas a romance backbone–I’ve seen you use this word to describe your own work so I am not as wary of speaking out of turn there as I might be. It’s also packed with people struggling to do right with what they’re given, taking responsibility for their actions, standing up for each other and for people who don’t have a voice. And giving voice to subjects that even in 2022 somehow still feel taboo in publishing: climate justice, defunding the police. For me, coming as I do from science fiction and fantasy, what I feel doing the work of a speculative element here is the main characters acting admirably even when it’s hard, doing right and speaking righteously in spaces where it’s systemically discouraged. I am delighted by this book, delighted to be made aware it is a kind of book that exists, and now I’m wondering what I’ve been missing out on. Who are the novelists out there that pointed you in the direction this book and your work in general is going–and/or the rappers and activists, if you feel more of your influences for this work came from those worlds? In what ways do you see your work breaking new ground?

Aya: In college, I read Sam Greenlee’s THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR. It was a classic Black Power spy novel about domestic armed revolution, a somber political fantasy. In my 20s, I read Mabel Maney’s Nancy Clue (queer Nancy Drew parody) and Jane Bond (James Bond’s lesbian twin sister). My work is a sort of wild intersection of these two lineages, the male-dominated Black militant legacy and the white 2nd wave lesbian feminist legacy.

Somehow I’ve figured out how to make them work together, and QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY borrows from both and uses a hip hop cultural lens to fight for climate justice. But my fiction world is born of both of these political fantasy lineages where the underdogs win. I write that because that’s what I want to see happening in the world.

A lot of these politically charged novels with victorious endings are happening in books for young readers. The other climate book that I LOVE that does this is Natalia Sylvester’s RUNNING. I was so moved that after I read it at the end of 2021, I wrote a whole Green New Deal young adult/middle grade novel inspired by what she was doing in YA, THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE. Which really painted me into an awful publishing corner because the Green New Deal was way too politically urgent to go to a traditional publisher with that story.

If I waited the 2-3 years needed for traditional publishing, it would come out in 2023-24.I wanted the book to come out at the beginning of the Biden administration. I had an online outlet who was ready to publish it in late spring of 2021. The contract was on my agent’s desk and we were just negotiating about the editorial process, but then they got a new executive editor who dropped out before we finished executing the contract. So my project was orphaned but I was determined to get it out before the end of the year. I reached out to a number of outlets and–thankfully–it finally found a home at Orion [read the novel online here].

I had to get an exception from my YA publisher, because technically it was my next novel for young readers and they had first right of refusal. But they understand that I’m an activist as much as an author and signed off. I got a fraction from Orion of what I got for my other YA books, but that particular novel was my first intentional piece of climate fiction propaganda. I wanted to see if I could write a novel that was essentially promoting the GND. And then I wanted to get it published while the GND was still politically relevant as a platform that the climate movement was pushing at the national level. Moving forward with subsequent novels, I want to figure out how to push even harder with the climate justice fiction propaganda. 

Michael: I am kind of floored by this! That you’re using the word “propaganda” here–it spurs me. I want to see more like this, I want to be more like this. Thank you. I’m sure you’re more familiar than I am with discussion of “civility” as a tactic for discourse that is steeped in white supremacy. I was raised in that tradition, it is ingrained in me to be polite, respectful, non-confrontational, pretty much up to the last possible second before somebody else initiates violence. And that’s what this moment is in the fight for climate justice, I daresay: the last possible moment. But I’m still have trouble raising my voice, calling for disobedience and disrespect of the status quo.

I see Deza doing that in QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY–but only after a lot of hesitation, even knowing as she does that she’s already been pushed into the spotlight. She’s learning, seeing the consequences of her choices unfold in real time, e.g. when she gets corporate sponsorship from a clothing company that turns out to use child labor, accepting her mistakes and changing them. Did you go through a process like that yourself, one that you’re able to draw on in your writing? Do you find having an expected story framework, like a romance–or a heist for that matter–makes it easier to accommodate activist language like that? 

Aya: I come from an activist family, so I’m sort of writing the epiphany moment of politicization that I never had. I grew up in a family with a strong leftist and class and anti-racist analysis. But I really do love using these genres to write political stories. There’s a much different pressure in literary fiction to be ambiguous and explore the gray areas. But I have a very soap-boxy style with my politics. So I just set the stories in super politicized contexts and have controversial things happening to people. And then I have them taking political stands that are a reasonable result of their character development. And in the process, I’m committed to showing the movements having wins.

All these books definitely do each have a “romance backbone.” As a writer of novels with romance arcs, the form commits me to a HEA (happily ever after) ending. It’s clear that the characters are going to be romantically happy, and it also implies that the movements are on the way to being successful. But with a literary novella like yours, anything is possible.

I’m always curious about how other authors decide how to end their stories, when they don’t have any genre prescriptions. In your novella Night Roll, the character Aileen goes on a group neighborhood nighttime bike ride with an inclusive, carnival atmosphere, the ‘Night Roll’.

The momentum toward Aileen’s Night Roll built steadily throughout the story. Did you have the ending in mind from the start? Was it challenging to decide how to land the book?

Michael: The idea that Aileen would get into the Night Roll in an effort to save Virgil from the Elf was in my mind from the beginning. But I spent awhile wavering over whether to let Aileen “save” Virgil or sacrifice Christian or die in some climactic battle with Beaurein, worrying a fantasy audience wouldn’t be satisfied without a final, decisive encounter.

You’re right that the rules are different, but I think reader (and publisher) expectations do persist, and end up needing to be addressed, across genres? Anyway, yes, I did struggle with that. I wanted Aileen’s journey to be personal–I didn’t want to end up writing a “white savior”. I also happen to be a sucker for a kind of “open” ending I think of as a hallmark of literary writing, where a little more thinking is asked of the reader: what’s next, where are these characters going? 

Aya: What do you want readers to take from Night Roll? I keep telling the same story over and over: African heritage woman is going about her business and gets caught up in the climate crisis, then she decides to join the movement for climate justice. I want to leave the reader with the idea that they can join the movement, as well. 

Michael: Grace Lee Boggs, the Chinese-American civil rights activist, who was a fixture in Detroit organizing from when she first moved here in the 50s with her husband Jimmy Boggs until her death in 2012, was a huge influence on me in writing this. One thing she said that sticks with me:

“The most radical thing I ever did was to stay put.”

What that communicates to me is a repudiation of the colonizing spirit. Come to a new place not to take from it everything you can and remake it in your own image, but to listen, learn, adapt, build connections, and figure out a way to help. That was a lesson I needed to hear when I got here. And I feel like it’s something a lot of people are going to need to hear in the near future, as climate change forces all this mass migration, and as white folks begin to come to terms with colonialism and extractive capitalism’s legacy in the world.

I’d love to think Aileen’s journey could provide some kind of model or jumping-off point for that process. Put down roots, build soil and watch what grows.

Aya: The book was really grounded in Detroit. How did you pick that city as your setting? Was it because of your own relationship with the place? Was it about what the city represents in terms of the automobile industry? Neither? Both? Something else?

Michael: I moved to Detroit’s distant post-industrial northern suburbs in 2011, with my partner who had accepted a professorship at a university here. It was very alien to me at first, as it is for Aileen in NIGHT ROLL, but one of the things that helped me find footing was the amazing bike culture.

As a result of the auto industry collapse, white flight and a massive reduction in population, Detroit has a lot of wide, beautiful (not terribly well-paved) streets with hardly any cars on them that were practically begging to be converted for bike lanes, and that was already happening when I got here. So practically the whole setting and premise of NIGHT ROLL were handed to me gift-wrapped. 

Aya: As an author, I write only about the present. I have a couple of MG novels that include some time travel to the past. There’s something I seem to be called to explore there about where certain lineages of trauma and heroism come from, but I don’t ever write the future. It’s not particularly a choice–my mind just doesn’t spin any stories there. What calls to you about writing in the near future? What do you find possible to explore if you’re constrained by the present reality?

Michael: Honestly, I think I have the same trouble you do. I feel like the best I can do is look at the past, try and find the patterns and then employ those in thinly disguising the present as the future. Because the present is what I want to change! I publish a magazine that features a lot of thinking about the future, but no distant, far-flung alien world means anything to me except as a metaphor for what has happened in the past and what’s happening here and now on earth. The metaphor is important, and useful, to me. I’ve thought about this regarding what we publish at Reckoning and with respect to climate grief.

The pain of what’s happening, the injustice, the suffering, ICE detainees, heatwaves, hurricanes, refugee crises, species dying out, desertification–it’s so much that it’s enervating to try to take it head-on. So I look for another lens, weird, beautiful, maybe even a bit silly, that will let me feel my way through without getting bogged down in the quicksand of grief. Magic is great for that, and the unwritten future–like that of an infant child–helps a lot too. 

Aya: Speaking of infants, your book really took me back to my own new motherhood. In particular, the loss of biking during my pregnancy and afterwards having to wait until my own kid was old enough to ride that I could get on the bike again. (Of course, in other countries kids travel much earlier).

What was your inspiration to write a protagonist who was a woman and new mom? Were there challenges for you in writing from that POV? Did you consult with anyone?

Michael: When I started writing NIGHT ROLL, my son was less than six weeks old and my partner and I were doing the insomniac spit-up-covered zombie thing. So all the stuff about sleepless hallucinations and regular wake/sleep schedules seeming like fantasy were all drawn from life.

I’d also just watched all three of my younger sisters become mothers and go through a lot of that, including one who’s a cycling safety and infrastructure advocate in Boston. And though my partner doesn’t bike much, she was very forthcoming about how all that felt. And I was trying to be there with her as much as I could.

Aya: In the 1970s, Ms. Magazine published “The Story of X” by Lois Gould, about a baby who grew up with their gender never being revealed. Many years before the modern transgender liberation movement, it was about subverting gender roles and expectations. The way you treated Christian’s character and pronouns reminded me of that story. What were your hopes for the impact of Christian’s character on your readers?

Michael: I hope seeing Christian being allowed to grow towards and figure out their own sexuality will help normalize a little for readers the extent to which gender roles are something we as a society impose on kids. I never encountered “The Story of X”–I’m going to seek it out now! But it took me a long time, with help again from my partner, who teaches women and gender studies, to see how much work goes into maintaining those rigid categorizations and how much trauma comes out of it. 

I also meant Christian to represent the uncarved block that is Detroit’s future, and by extension humanity’s future, dealing with climate change and environmental injustice. So much of Detroit was in the process of falling into ruin when I got here, at the same time all these new things were being born, corporate “revitalization” projects alongside huge groundswell for urban community agriculture. The idea that Christian could grow up unburdened by the detrimental institutions of the past was moving for me, and representative of the hopes I have for my own kid’s future. 

Aya: What was your inspiration for the Night Roll itself? I recall watching a Critical Mass bike party roll past the corner at the end of my block one day and I was mesmerized. Do you have experience riding in or witnessing any of those mass biking actions?

Michael: Slow Roll is (was and will be again) an event organized by the wonderful cycling advocacy community in Detroit, a series of neighborhood nighttime rides with an inclusive, carnival atmosphere that were sadly derailed by COVID and are still in the process of recovering. I saw a Slow Roll going past me in the street one day, like you I was fascinated, and yes that was absolutely one of the seeds of NIGHT ROLL. And eventually I got to ride 30 miles around Detroit with a bunch of those folks in a thing they call the Tour De Troit. It was absolutely inspiring, and yes, all of that is in the book.

Aya: I am not a scholar of my myths or classic stories. Beaurein and the Elf seemed like they might be modeled on rivals from a classic story…were they? If so, which one(s)?

Michael: The Elf is an amalgam of two mythic figures. One is the Queen of the Fairies from the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, in which the fairy queen kidnaps Tam Lin and his lover has to ride (a horse) into fairyland and fight a shapeshifting battle in order to rescue him.

The other is the Nain Rouge (red dwarf), a kind of racist, anti-Indigenous trickster figure the descendants of the French settlers of Detroit dreamed up as someone to blame for their failures. The Nain’s legend has since been reclaimed somewhat, and there’s an annual Mardi Gras parade here that’s named in his honor. 

Beaurein on the other hand is just my colonizer/extractive capitalist boogeyman, a stand-in for people like Cadillac, the alcoholic French playboy and war criminal who gets credit for settling Detroit even though the people of the Three Fires were fishing and trading here twelve thousand years before, or for Henry and Edsel Ford, who in the course of industrializing Detroit also instituted all the white supremacist policies that paved the way for the race riots of 1941, redlining, Detroit’s Wailing Wall and the city’s white depopulation starting in the 80s. Beaurein’s legacy is also, unfortunately, alive in Detroit to this day.

Before we close, I wanted to ask you about the impact of this kind of political, activist speech in fiction and art. I publish a journal of creative writing on environmental justice, Reckoning, so I think about the efficacy of art in effecting social and political change a lot.

In 2015, when I started the journal, I was completely convinced that radical art and writing was desperately needed, was a worthy and admirable way to pursue activism that could produce real results, even if those results were hard to perceive. Here in 2022 that math is much harder for me, though I still believe deeply in what Reckoning is doing, and in my own writing I’m trying to engage with these issues as hard as I can.

What’s it been like for you, committing to writing as a tool for fomenting progress? How do you imagine a middle grade reader encountering your Green New Deal novel and being inspired by it–what does that kid go on to do? Write fiction? Protest? Something more?

Aya: in the past year and a half, I have become obsessed with writing about the climate justice movement, and I definitely want to inspire people to join in collective action for change. I’m obsessed with the idea of using fiction to create a literature of winning, and I wrote about it here at the Climate Justice Writers League. I really want to write more movement fiction for adults, because the young people are pretty clear about what’s at stake.

I notice that the novel as a form is often more focused on the individual—particularly the exceptional individual—and I fall into that trap in a lot of different ways. Even though all my protagonists are raised poor or working class, somehow all of my climate fiction involves some sort of celebrity or elite education. I am currently trying to figure out how to get out of that.

Of all my books that are out in the world, my most successful was THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE, because the heroes were ordinary teens, the main two were undocumented. But my adult novels all have individual heroism as a sort of story engine. How do I write about people who aren’t famous or rich or doing something wildly exceptional? And above all, how do I model setting really compelling stories in the midst of collective action for climate justice. I don’t know yet, but that is definitely my goal!

Michael: Thank you very much for doing this with me! It has been inspiring and amazing.

Michael J. DeLuca lives in the rapidly suburbifying post-industrial woodlands north of Detroit with partner, kid, cats and microbes. He is the publisher of Reckoning, a journal of creative writing on environmental justice. His short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Mythic Delirium, and lots of other places. His novella, Night Roll, released by Stelliform Press in October 2020, was a finalist for the Crawford Award.

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program, teaching creative writing at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist/romance series, Justice Hustlers: UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018), and SIDE CHICK NATION (2019) which was the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.


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Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Annemarie Allan shares an extract from Breaker, her childrens adventure novel about how two children, a mad professor and the local community, come together to save the Firth of Forth from a potentially catastrophic oil spill.

The inside of the wardrobe was awash with a patchwork of sparkling greens and browns.

‘There’s no need for an external light source. The bioluminescent moss does it all for you.’

‘But what is it?’ Tom was mystified.

‘An indoor pet walker, of course!’ The professor waved at the green and brown walls. ‘A nice woodland walk even when it’s raining outside. Look!’

The children looked. The floor of the wardrobe was missing.

‘There’s a treadmill down there.’ said the professor. ‘It generates energy while you walk. Saves it up, too!’

Based in North Berwick where most of the events in Breaker take place, Fidra is an environmental charity which combats the harmful chemical contamination of the environment from consumer products, industrial processes and waste. Fidra are evidence-based, pragmatic and collaborative.

Teaching Resource for Green Rising by Lauren James

Mr B Tillbrook, librarian at Invicta Grammar School, has prepared some teaching resources for students reading the Young Adult novel Green Rising by Lauren James. This is suitable for Year 7 (age 11-12).

Green Rising Guided Reading booklet (includes: about the author, things to think about when reading, extract from the novel, challenge activity, extension tasks, letter from the author, further reading) [PDF download]

Year 7 – Green Rising scheme of work (guidance for teachers) [Word Document download]

There is also a list of book club discussion from the publisher available here.

You can email Mr Tillbrook to discuss the resources or ask for an editable copy here.

Set in a near-future world on the brink of ecological catastrophe, Lauren James’ novel is a gripping, witty and romantic call to arms.

Gabrielle is a climate-change activist who shoots to fame when she becomes the first teenager to display a supernatural ability to grow plants from her skin. Hester is the millionaire daughter of an oil tycoon and the face of the family business. Theo comes from a long line of fishermen, but his parents are struggling to make ends meet.

On the face of it, the three have very little in common. Yet when Hester and Theo join Gabrielle and legions of other teenagers around the world in developing the strange new “Greenfingers” power, it becomes clear that to use their ability for good, they’ll need to learn to work together. But in a time of widespread corruption and greed, there are plenty of profit-hungry organizations who want to use the Greenfingers for their own ends. And not everyone would like to see the Earth saved…

As they navigate first love and family expectations, can the three teenagers pull off the ultimate heist and bring about a green rising?

The Magic of Nature by Josh Martin

I just read Lord of the Rings for the first time and here’s my take away: it’s like, the OG treehugger’s book. Before Suzanne Simard and Peter Wohlleben and Richard Power’s The Overstorythere was this eccentric professor who loved languages and heroism and ended up writing a 1000+ page tome that’s as much about keeping trees in forests and hills green as it is about anything else.

What struck me in particular was its magic, and the narrow, out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye ways it appears. Yes, there are magic words, yes there are flashes of light, telepathy, possessions – but always above and beyond that I felt the power of the natural world: the cold of the mountains, the blistering heat of the lands of Mordor, the cool shade of Fangorn forest. In Middle Earth, nature is not the stronger magic, but the oldest magic: the place from which all the magic came. It’s an idea that many myths from all over the world explore, but I hadn’t expected to find these themes laid out so clearly and carefully in the fantasy story I assumed had nothing fresh for me to look at.

It made me think about how fantasy fiction has always been about how humans impact the world around them, even when it isn’t trying. Magic often seems to be speaking to a particular kind of interaction between humans and nature. If you look closely, you can see patterns forming. Some stories relate a binary of magics: one which imposes itself through order and a another that muddles along in chaos.

This division can often create a binary in morality as well – in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, chaos is characterised as an imposition to our protagonists and must be defeated or restructured in order to restore balance. In a world where the dead won’t stay dead and Free Magic erodes the fabric of reality the magic wielders must take up the position of the imposer – restoring the natural order in the face of raw and unwieldy elementals. Nix’s Charter Magic harnesses the power of Free Magic by forcing it into sense and symbols, but doing it skilfully is hard, and the order that Sabriel, Lirael et al are obliged to carve onto the world around them is deliciously slippery and hard won. The world of the Old Kingdom is naturally chaotic, always trying to slide back into mess and corruption and there is a sense that the battle of the Abhorsens is ongoing and eternal.

In its first pages, we find a similar attitude towards chaos/magic in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Agnieszka’s world is a forest, and the demons and monsters can pass their corruption to anyone with frightening ease: a touch, a scratch, or even a lungful of bad spores can do it. But as Agnieszka’s indenture to the local wizard (known as the Dragon) progresses and her aptitude for his straight-laced, single-minded magic exhausts her, she gradually learns there is another way. From [Baba] Yaga’s scribbled notebook, Agnieszka learns a magic that exists between chaos and order – that pushes chaos gently in the direction of balance rather than exerting a powerful will over it (It’s beautifully described and executed, and evoked for me the exact feeling I have as a writer when I’m in the process of inventing, making something up but trying to balance pure creativity with narrative sense).

There are echoes of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea in this magic, particularly some of her wonderful passages from the fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu, in which our protagonist, Tenar, contemplates how this other, less obvious magic is more innately feminine (apologies for the long quote but if you haven’t read it I certainly hope to intrigue you enough to give it a go):

“The best I can say, it’s like this. A man’s in his skin, see, like a nut in its shell … It’s hard and strong, that shell, and it’s all full of him. Full of grand man-meat, man-self. And that’s all. That’s all there is. A woman’s a different thing entirely. Who knows where a woman begins and ends? Listen mistress, I have roots, I have roots deeper than this island. Deeper than the sea, older than the raising of the lands. I go back into the dark … I go back into the dark! Before the moon I am, what a woman is, a woman of power, a woman’s power, deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon. Who dares ask questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?”

 Le Guin seems to be reflecting on how so much of patriarchal norms have been established out of enviousness for this deep-seated magic: as old and natural as anything is old and natural.

For me, it’s such a pertinent comment on our modern predicament: that men’s (and more broadly, patriarchy’s) unwillingness to stand still and listen and try to learn from this older, deeper magic is doing as much damage to the natural world that reflects it as it is to women, queer people and anyone who cannot hope to walk along patriarchy’s narrow precipice.

This seems to be the lesson that more and more writers are pointing to: embracing wilderness, not from the patriarchal sense of survival, but in the sense of allowing a wildness to grow around you, to curb the impulse to impose yourself upon wilderness and find the points where you are needed, where you can help wilderness to thrive.

We’re seeing that kind of philosophy in many, many nature books at the moment, but we’re also seeing a resurgence in popularity in the kind of fantasy and sci-fi that nurtures this outlook. I feel a nervous yearning, as I’m sure many people do, for the ending promised in Disney Movies: where things are returned to as they were before, and yet I know that the more  mature outlook presented Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaäor Princess Mononokeis the one to hope for – not a redemption but a promise of healing and regrowth. It’s the same note I tried to leave my reader with when I wrote my first book, Ariadnis, which is about the almost-war between two cities on the last island on earth and it’s sequel, which is about struggling to rebuild, but it feels time to move beyond a promise.

I want to be working towards the tentatively optimistic future that Becky Chambers predicts in her novels. I want a sequel to Uprooted that painstakingly details the healing of Agnieszka’s forest and what it looks like when it’s done. It feels like our duty as writers to continue to call attention to the wild magic of nature, to listen to what it’s trying to say and inspire more to do the same.

Josh Martin writes and draws his way through life and is currently residing in London. He has aspired to novel writing since he was a tadpole and has since graduated from Exeter University before completing Bath Spa’s Writing For Young People MA. His particular interest in heroines, fantasy, environment, gender studies and wisdom led him to write his first book Ariadnis, published by Quercus Children’s Books in February 2017, and its sequel, Anassa, published in February 2018.

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Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Linda Woodrow shares an extract from 470, her dystopian novel. The scene discusses an economy based on localism – locally grown food, artisanal household goods, refurbishment and repair, producer and consumer in at most two degrees of separation.

Duke would get a carrot today. Trade was good. It was a fine, blue sky autumn day and the market was buzzing so hard even the buskers’ hats were filling with produce and small coins. Stalls overflowed with pumpkins, tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers. There were hands of bananas and pyramids of deep red pomegranates. A young man at the stall next to him had cages of chickens and ducklings and one a few stalls up had tanks of fish fingerlings. A piglet tethered to a post squealed as people tripped over it. Along Doobie’s stretch there was a bosomy woman with a cloud of silver hair who sold herbal medicines, a man selling refurbished electronics and a woman selling vegetables, macadamia butter, tortillas and charcoal.

Doobie was wearing his lucky pink singlet. The singlet was getting very worn now, but his magic always flowed when he was in it. His pouch was heavy with coins, his cart was full of goods and his crypto account in credit.

He had only half a box left of the apples he’d brought down from his friends’ orchard near Stanthorpe. He’d been lucky with the weather – it had stayed cool and dry. But the journey took more than a week and even though he’d packed them carefully, the apples wouldn’t last. He gave one to a woman who passed by singing to herself in a high, sing-song voice. Her pale fair hair was tangled and she was dressed in ragged velvet and lace too heavy for this beautiful warm day. She looked like she needed some sweetness. She thanked him with clasped hands and bowed head.

The Farmers Market Coalition supports local farmers in the USA.