Plant magic & the climate


Laura Lam, author of sci-fi Goldilocks, talks to Lauren James about her new climate thriller Green Rising, out now with Walker Books.

I zipped through Lauren James’ Green Rising when I was offered it for a blurb. It’s a perfect call to arms for teens (and adults) for climate change, while also being a rollicking good read! After I finished, I interviewed her for my YouTube channel, C.Y.O.Topia, which I do with my friend Dr. Sinead Collins, along with marine biologist Dr. Johanna Vad. This has been linked on this newsletter before, but thought it’d be a great excuse to link it again if you missed it last time. We delve more into the science side of things. 

I’m excited I can now ask some more questions about Green Rising I didn’t have a chance to ask in the interview or else it’d be too long. 

What were the different challenges and opportunities you faced while writing Hester, Theo, and Gabrielle?

 I really wanted to capture a mix of responses to the climate crisis, but without having any characters be totally uneducated about the topic – I feel like that’s unrealistic in this time, when we’re all very aware of the future we’re facing. Hester starts out the novel as someone who is against climate action, but she considers herself very educated and engaged on the topic and can debate very well on it. She’s been raised by an oil tycoon, so she knows all of the economical and political background of the climate issue.

Meanwhile, Theo is a fisherman’s son, and he is aware of the need for climate action but isn’t very educated about the topic. He just knows that action needs to be taken, even though he doesn’t know what or how it would be possible.

Gabrielle is a climate activist, and she knows what needs to be done, and specifically is willing to break the law to do it. She sees it as an ethical responsibility.

Their views all change over the course of the book, as the three of them start being able to grow plants magically, and use that power to tackle the climate. It was difficult to construct the character arcs for them that felt realistic and built into their cultural upbringing. I wanted it feel genuine to the experience of becoming more involved in climate issues.

If you could grow plants from your hands, what kind of plant would you want it to be?

Since researching rewilding for the book, I’ve become so aware of wasted land spaces, particularly in cities. I wish I could seed-bomb them all with wildflowers! It would be great to do that magically.

I always find it weird when you write things in near-future SF (like my book Goldilocks, set in a future in environmental collapse) and then see a version of it come true. What are some developments in climate change news since you wrote the book have really struck you?

 Oh, it’s been so depressing. There are lots of news articles in the book which include headlines for climate articles. I read lots of non-fiction about the future, and a lot of these events were inspired by predictions of the future. I was trying to pitch things happening a few decades from now, but several of them happened during the writing process itself. In particular, I remember reading about a spate of mystery elephant deaths in Botswana, and adding it into my draft as being a result of climate change. A few months later I checked the news and found out that there it actually was due to algae blooms in their water sources from heat waves.

Did you have to kill any darlings you wish could have made it into the book, i.e. some of the research that just couldn’t fit into the story?

Oh, gosh. So much. It’s such a huge topic, effecting so much politically and economically. I really wanted to dive more into how fossil fuel investments effect the US political system, but it was too far away from the main plot. I think I cut 50,000 words from the first draft to the final version.

I also really wanted to dive more into how we could use plants to deal with plastics in landfills, but it felt too small an issue when there are so many bigger, greater threats!

What’s the main thing you hope teens take away from Green Rising?

As individuals, we can’t do anything. But as a collective we have the power to make change. Make sure you are adding your name to that collective, so the people doing the active work have enough clout to get noticed. It takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in protests to ensure serious political change. That’s such a small amount. We can do this.

Some important things you can personally do, right now:

-check your bank/savings/pension scheme isn’t investing your money in fossil fuel companies

-change your energy supply to a green energy tariff

-find a climate action group in your profession & sign up for their newsletter

Good luck!

You can find out more about Green Rising here.

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League.

Originally from sunny California, Laura Lam now lives in cloudy Scotland. Lam is a Sunday Times Bestselling author whose work includes the near-future space thriller, Goldilocks, feminist space opera Seven Devils (co-written with Elizabeth May), BBC Radio 2 Book Club section False Hearts, the companion novel Shattered Minds, and the award-winning Micah Grey series: Pantomime, Shadowplay, and Masquerade. Lam’s short fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies such as Nasty Women, Solaris Rising 3, Cranky Ladies of History, Scotland in Space, and more. Lam’s romance alter ego is Laura Ambrose. Lam lectures part-time at Edinburgh Napier University on the Creative Writing MA.

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Apocalypse, not – why I wrote a romantic comedy about climate change by Lisa Walker

What is the krill issue, Rory?’

‘The krill issue is…’ Rory ponders, ‘very serious. Very, very serious.’

Melt by Lisa Walker

I’m the kind of writer who likes a challenge. Tell me that climate change is the most boring subject ever, as many have done, and I can’t whip out my laptop and start a novel on the topic fast enough.

But wait, climate change guru Bill McKibben says that climate change stories are difficult to tell. They’re too big, we are all to blame and there isn’t much chance of a happy ending. Ouch. This climate change thing is a bit of a downer.

It’s no wonder that climate change fiction has mainly been dominated by apocalyptic narratives – The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and A Friend of the Earth by TC Boyle, to name a few. These novels are amazing but, while I’m as frightened and angry as anyone, apocalypse isn’t my bag.

I’m a one trick pony – rom coms are my thing. I like to make people smile. So, being the over-confident fool that I am, I decided it was time I rolled my sleeves up and wrote a romantic comedy about climate change. Humorous love stories with happy endings can be climate change fiction too. Let’s face it, there are only so many scorched wastelands and mutant animals one can take.

The issue I faced in writing ‘Melt’ was to link this serious global issue to an entertaining and relatable story. Carbon dioxide and rising sea levels do not a novel make. Stories are about people – they thrive on the personal and particular. I needed a character and a situation that readers could relate to.

I’ve always loved fish-out-of-water comedies. Watching a character battle their way out of circumstances which they don’t have the skills to handle is so much fun. In ‘Melt’ my main character, Summer, is forced to impersonate a television science superstar in Antarctica. She knows nothing about glaciology, penguins or krill and her boss forbids her to talk about climate change…

‘There will be no mention of climate change on Channel Five. It’s boring and it’s bad for business. It makes people feel bad. Our job is to make people feel good. Is that understood?’

‘Yes, Maxine.’

Author Jonathan Franzen says that as a reader, if he senses he is reading environmental advocacy, he puts the writing down. Authors need to seduce their audience, not knock them over the head with a message. This is where comedy comes in. It can allow us to consider realities that would otherwise be overwhelming.

While Summer initially hams up the sex life of krill for her television program, she later discovers exactly how serious the krill issue is. My use of humour doesn’t belittle the climate change issue, but rather engages readers in thinking about it. Despite her strict instructions, Summer finds that she can’t resist going off script.

I take a deep breath. ‘Hurricanes are increasing! Bushfires are raging! Polar bears are at risk of extinction!’ Polar Fun for Kids filled me in on the polar bear situation. It seems the thin sea ice in the Arctic is leading to polar bears having difficulties in catching seals.

Rory is wide-eyed. It’s hard to know whether he’s impressed or alarmed. Maria opens her mouth, but I hold up my hand. I am Cougar. I have the floor. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I haven’t finished yet.

As well as humour, relationships play a key role in my novel, in terms of providing hope for the reader and alternative perspectives to the issue. It is not unprecedented for romance to tackle environmental issues — authors such as Jennifer Scoullar and Rachael Treasure are known for this. Romance can offer a story which shows how climate change plays out in characters’ lives in an extremely personal way. In ‘Melt’ I try to leave the reader with a subtle feeling of hope, rather than a disempowering notion of catastrophe. Even the villain is last seen riding his bike to parliament.

Environmental change is intrinsically linked to cultural change and fiction can be persuasive. Sadly, the arguably most influential climate change novel to date – Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, whichwas made required reading for the US government – is on the denialist side of the debate. But still, I live in hope.

We authors are sneaky, we like to seduce and as everyone knows, where hearts go, heads will follow. We need climate change stories in all sorts of genres, as many as possible.  Sci-fi and romance, comedy and thrillers. Writers, open your laptops now!

An early review of ‘Melt’ by author Kim Kelly says that it is “… so much more than romcom… It’s a bittersweet, cleverly nuanced exploration of climate change – how we’ve failed to market it and how urgently we need to turn our minds to the task.”

So maybe climate change really isn’t the most boring topic ever.

This essay was previously published here.

You can find out more about Melt here.

Lisa is an Australian author of quirky, thoughtful fiction for both adults and young adults, with seven novels published to date. She has also written an ABC Radio National play and been published in The Guardian, The Age, The Big Issue, Griffith Review and the Review of Australian Fiction. Her current novel, ‘Trouble is My Business’, is the second in a humorous teen detective series. Other recent novels include ‘Melt’, a romantic comedy about climate change, and ‘Paris Syndrome’, a young adult coming-of-age story. She has a PhD in creative writing and has previously worked in environmental communication. Lisa lives, surfs and writes on the north coast of NSW, Australia.

Meet the Imagine 2200 Climate Fiction Competition Winner

More than 1,100 people from 85 countries submitted stories to Grist that elevate diverse voices and bring new perspectives to the increasingly vital genre of climate fiction. Whether built on abundance or adaptation, reform or a new understanding of survival, each story provides flickers of hope, even joy.

Read all the stories in Imagine 2200 here

Winner: Afterglow by Lindsey Brodeck

As the wealthy flee Earth, a young woman must decide whether to follow her partner to a new world or stay behind to save a dying planet.

It’s early summer and only a month until the last of the pods leave for the Kepler planets. Renem secured a contract for two; of course she wants me to go with her.

I need time to clear my head. She doesn’t understand why, because it isn’t like we’ll be leaving anything behind. Our living situation is squatting on the good days and bench-sleeping on the bad.

Read the rest of the story here

Here, author Sim Kern interviews competition winner Lindsey Brodeck about her story.

Sim: What inspired you to write “Afterglow”?

Lindsey: My MFA thesis advisor (T. Geronimo Johnson) was the one who alerted me to Imagine 2200, and the instant I read the prompt, I knew I had to participate. I was inspired to create this story in the same universe as my novel-in-progress: a near future where contact has been made with the inhabitants of Kepler-452b. I was excited to reverse expectations a little, as there have been so many stories about fleeing a desolate Earth and finding solace in the stars. What if that same energy and hope could be applied to staying on our home planet?

I often find inspiration in words and etymologies, and “afterglow” is a word that has been occupying my mind as of late. I love how “afterglow” evokes both something very tangible: streaks of color remaining in the sky, and something abstract: a feeling of happiness and relief after some event has transpired. I was happy with how “afterglow” worked in my story on a few different levels.

I was also inspired by the power of naming and pronouns. The words we choose to express our ideas evoke so much more than some basic definition. In Afterglow, there’s the power of naming to show that you fully recognize and respect both human and non-human beings; and there’s the power of learning the name of an animal, plant, or some other phenomena which allows you to see and appreciate something on a whole new level.

I could talk about my inspirations for much longer, so I’ll mention just a few more here. On a craft level, I aim to create vivid, precise imagery with surreal elements. I’m inspired by nature writers, especially Annie Dillard and Robin Wall Kimmerer, who make the ordinary spectacular through observation and interesting, fresh descriptions, and novelists like Jeff Vandermeer and Han Kang, who write in such a striking, visceral manner, and constantly make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

One of the things I loved about “Afterglow” was that Talli, the protagonist, seems very real, flawed, a bit messy even. Unlike you, she doesn’t have a background in biology, only someone with a passion for insects and a futuristic version of a Seek app. Was that intentional—to show how everyone, regardless of what skills they’re bringing to the table, has a role to play in the climate movement? And what else do you want readers to take away from Talli’s character?

Absolutely – it was really important for me to create an “ordinary” character who has a meaningful role to play in the climate movement. Ultimately, I want readers to see pieces of themselves in Talli. She is someone who has had tragedy in her life but is still hopeful. I can definitely empathize with that, and I hope others can too.

In my novella, Depart, Depart!, it was important to me to balance communicating hope alongside the dire urgency of climate change. When a climate catastrophe hits, our worst instincts might call us to flee from the problem–every person for themselves–rather than turning towards each other and strengthening our existing communities. 

I love that one of the themes of your story is fighting for the earth at a time when others are giving up on it. We don’t have escape pods heading off to other planets, but we do see billionaires jockeying to get off the planet, even for a few minutes. Are there other ways you see people giving up on Earth in the here and now? And how do you respond to that kind of climate nihilism?

I see climate nihilism constantly, even in people with the best intentions…I see it in myself sometimes too. Unfortunately, I think a lot of us still think in binaries; i.e. since Earth is no longer “pristine”, Earth is irrevocably ruined. This worldview is damaging, paralyzing, and completely blind to all of the possibility and potential that is still very much present. Yes, the necessary work will be messy, difficult, and even heartbreaking at times, but here’s the thing: I truly believe we all have a pivotal role to play in crafting a better world, and the only way we can find that role is by following our passions and figuring out how we can use them to enact meaningful change. For me, my passion has and always will be writing. It has both the ability and the response-ability to create different ways of seeing, of being, of sense-making; and the beauty of science and speculative fiction is its ability to create new worlds that can serve as models (or warnings) for our own.

As Ocean Vuong said, “We often tell our students, ‘The future’s in your hands.’ But I think the future is actually in the mouth. You have to articulate the world you want to live in first.”  

So I urge everyone to articulate the world you want to live in, and fight for it in whatever way you can.

You majored in biology-environmental studies and studied bee and plant interactions in particular, and there’s some fascinating bee science—real-world and speculative—included in this story. Can you share how your undergraduate research informed this creative work? Are there any bee-science “easter eggs” you were particularly excited to incorporate?

The biggest thing I wanted to do is open up my readers’ eyes to the incredible diversity and beauty of native bees, and how important it is to center native bees in restoration and rewilding efforts. It is unsustainable for us to only rely on honey bees, as they are non-native (except in Europe), highly susceptible to pathogens, and often out-compete native bees. There is a lot of exciting research showing the success of targeted native plantings: a border of native flowers around fields can attract native bees for crop pollination; and targeted native plantings interspersed in urban areas provide the “rest stops” native bees need when traveling through relatively desolate areas.

In the story, before Talli learned the names of all of those black bees, she had always assumed they were flies, or she didn’t notice them altogether. But then this whole other world opens up for her, in a place that she felt like she already knew. I had a similar experience during my undergraduate research at Whitman, where I conducted a survey of the native bee fauna visiting targeted landscapes on campus and studied the pollen collection and consumption behavior of one native bee species in particular. Before my thesis, I thought there were only honey bees, bumblebees, and maybe a handful of other bee species, when in fact, there are over four thousand native bee species in the United States, and close to twenty thousand species in the world! It was an extremely formative experience for me to learn this, and to observe dozens of native bee species supported by only a tiny area of land. And finally, learning the Latin names of those flowers and bees was special too. They felt like an incantation to me, something holy. I wanted that same feeling for Talli too.

In this story, relationships between life forms from vastly different places can heal native ecosystems, which is not a narrative we often see in climate discourse or fiction. There’s the plant-like aliens, whose communication with Keepers has inspired a rewilding movement on Earth. The Keepers also practice Pleistocene Rewilding (which I had to look up!) in which they’re bringing species similar to extinct megafauna, sometimes from other continents, to an ecosystem in order to help bring that ecosystem into balance. I wondered if that parallel was intentional? And are you a believer in Pleistocene rewilding?

Yes, that parallel was definitely intentional, and I am so happy you picked up on it!

I think all of us are subject to having some pretty damaging value judgments when it comes to “nature”, and which natural spaces are worth saving. Full disclosure, I kind of despise words like “nature” and the “environment” because they have historically been used in such an isolative manner. Just take the famous “Save the Earth” slogan; it was well-intentioned, of course, but it also created an artificial (and absurd) divide between humans and the rest of the world. As Wyl says in Afterglow, “Why didn’t they just say ‘Save Ourselves’?”

I’ve been fascinated by Pleistocene rewilding ever since reading Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. I’m not sure if I’m a believer in Pleistocene rewilding specifically, but I am certainly a proponent of rewilding and targeted plantings. In Rambunctious Garden, one of the central arguments is that we must throw away the ideas that we are somehow separate from the natural world, and that “pristine” wildernesses are the only spaces worth saving. Instead, Marris urges us to recognize that we are a part of nature, and that we must take on the role of steward to actively work with and create more of it. Furthermore, this effort can (and should) be on multiple levels.

This is why the frog wetlands scene in Afterglow was really important for me, because charismatic megafauna aren’t the only types of animals worth saving – small rewilding efforts can be very meaningful and impactful too. On a similar note, that’s why I wanted the bulk of the story to be in an urban setting, not the stereotypic version of a natural Utopia. I wanted Talli to realize that there was so much nature and possibility all around her, and that she just hadn’t been tuned into it.

Illustration by Amelia K. Bates

At the same time as there’s this embrace of intercontinental and interstellar relationships, your story centers indigenous leadership as essential to ecological restoration. Wyl, who brings Talli to the Keepers, is Passamaquoddy and shares some of her culture and language with Talli in explaining the mission of the Keepers. I’m a non-indigenous cli-fi writer, who believes that indigenous voices and perspectives must be centered in climate conversations. But bringing that conviction into fiction can be tough to navigate—I worry about being appropriative or speaking outside my experience.  Are these also questions you struggle with? What are your thoughts on being a non-indigenous writer including indigenous perspectives? And how did you approach writing Wyl’s character?

I wanted this story to be inclusive and intersectional, so that everyone could envision themselves living in this world. Reading and writing is ultimately an empathy-building experience, and as writers, we have this amazing opportunity to craft new worlds that the reader can enter into. I believe that with this opportunity, we also have a responsibility to create multidimensional and diverse characters thoughtfully and convincingly.

When envisioning a “truly just, regenerative world,” I knew there had to be substantive change not only in our physical world, but in our linguistic world too. Because of this, I wanted an indigenous language to be at the forefront of this linguistic revolution, and it was important to me to have an indigenous, multidimensional character be the one to reveal this information.

When writing characters outside our lived experience, it is essential to be critical of our intention and execution. I return often to Tamara Sellman’s advice in “Practical Magic: Understanding the Other”. In it, Sellman states that, “if you write realistic characters who can animate subversive possibilities in a way that is both organic to the story and marvelous in aesthetic, you’ll have a better chance of pulling this off.”

Wyl is more than “organic to the story”; Afterglow absolutely depends on their presence.

This is the final point I’ll make: having good intentions isn’t always good enough. It is extremely important to have a variety of people from different backgrounds read your work and serve as sensitivity readers, which I did often with Afterglow. If someone has a problem with how I presented a character, it is my duty to listen to them and do better.

Finally, are there other solarpunk or climate fiction or ecofiction writers who have particularly informed your work? 

There are so many, but I’ll list a few of my all-time favorite writers, and the works that have most informed my own: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Compass Rose, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.

And while Amitov Ghosh’s The Great Derangement and Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble are not climate fiction (perhaps they are climate non-fiction?), I had to include their works in this list too. 

Lindsey Brodeck (she/her/hers) lives in Bend, Oregon, and is a graduate student at the University of Washington studying speech language pathology. She has an MFA in creative writing from Oregon State University-Cascades, and a BA in Biology-Environmental Studies from Whitman College, where she completed a two-year thesis studying native bee and plant interactions. Afterglow is her first published story.

Sim Kern is an environmental journalist and speculative fiction writer, exploring intersections of climate change, queerness, and social justice. Their quiet horror novella DEPART, DEPART! is available from Stelliform Press, and they have published numerous climate-related short stories.


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A new wave of climate fiction could help young people’s mental health [Bright Green] – by League member Rab Ferguson

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Ten Eco-Fiction Novels Worth Discussing by Nina Munteanu

In most fiction, environment plays a passive role that lies embedded in stability and an unchanging status quo. From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity has consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. This thinking is the ideological manifestation of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels. This stability easily gives rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world.

But this is changing.

Our world is changing. We currently live in a world in which climate change poses a very real existential threat to life on the planet. The new normal is change. And it is within this changing climate that eco-fiction is realizing itself as a literary pursuit worth engaging in.

Eco-Fiction (short for ecological fiction) is a kind of fiction in which the environment—or one aspect of the environment—plays a major role, either as premise or as character. Our part in environmental destruction is often embedded in eco-fiction themes, particularly if they are dystopian or cautionary (which they often are). At the heart of eco-fiction are strong relationships forged between a major character and an aspect of their environment. The environmental aspect may serve as a symbolic connection to theme and can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind; the over-exploited sacred white pine forests for the lost Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins; the mystical life-giving sandworms for the beleaguered Fremen of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Many readers are seeking fiction that addresses environmental issues but explores a successful paradigm shift: fiction that accurately addresses our current issues with intelligence and hope. The power of envisioning a certain future is that the vision enables one to see it as possible.

Eco-fiction has been with us for decades—it just hasn’t been overtly recognized as a literary phenomenon until recently and particularly in light of mainstream concern with climate change (hence the recently adopted terms ‘climate fiction’, ‘cli-fi’, and ‘eco-punk’, all of which are eco-fiction). Strong environmental themes and/or eco-fiction characters populate all genres of fiction. Eco-fiction is a cross-genre phenomenon, and we are all awakening—novelists and readers of novels—to our changing environment. We are finally ready to see and portray environment as an interesting character with agency.

The relationship of humanity to environment also differs greatly among these works as does the role of science. Some are optimistic; others are not or have ambiguous endings that require interpretation. What the ten examples I list below have in common is that they are impactful, highly enjoyable works of eco-fiction.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Climate change and its effect on the monarch butterfly migration is told through the eyes of Dellarobia Turnbow, a rural housewife, who yearns for meaning in her life. It starts with her scrambling up the forested mountain—slated to be clear cut—behind her eastern Tennessee farmhouse; she is desperate to take flight from her dull and pointless marriage to run away with the telephone man. The first line of Kingsolver’s book reads: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” But the rapture she’s about to experience is not from the thrill of truancy; it will come from the intervention of Nature when she witnesses the hill newly aflame with monarch butterflies who have changed their migration behavior.

Flight Behavior is a multi-layered metaphoric study of “flight” in all its iterations: as movement, flow, change, transition, beauty and transcendence. Flight Behavior isn’t so much about climate change and its effects and its continued denial as it is about our perceptions and the actions that rise from them: the motives that drive denial and belief. When Dellarobia questions Cub, her farmer husband, “Why would we believe Johnny Midgeon about something scientific, and not the scientists?” he responds, “Johnny Midgeon gives the weather report.” Kingsolver writes: “and Dellarobia saw her life pass before her eyes, contained in the small enclosure of this logic.”

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory is a Pulitzer Prize winning work of literary fiction that follows the life-stories of nine characters and their journey with trees—and ultimately their shared conflict with corporate capitalist America.

Each character draws the archetype of a particular tree: there is Nicholas Hoel’s blighted chestnut that struggles to outlive its destiny; Mimi Ma’s bent mulberry, harbinger of things to come; Patricia Westerford’s marked up marcescent beech trees that sings a unique song; and Olivia Vandergriff’s ‘immortal’ ginko tree that cheats death—to name a few. Like all functional ecosystems, these disparate characters—and their trees—weave into each other’s journey toward a terrible irony. Each their own way battles humanity’s canon of self-serving utility—from shape-shifting Acer saccharum to selfless sacrificing Tachigali versicolor—toward a kind of creative destruction.

At the heart of The Overstory is the pivotal life of botanist Patricia Westerford, who will inspire a movement. Westerford is a shy introvert who discovers that trees communicate, learn, trade goods and services—and have intelligence. When she shares her discovery, she is ridiculed by her peers and loses her position at the university. What follows is a fractal story of trees with spirit, soul, and timeless societies—and their human avatars.

Maddaddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

This trilogy explores the premise of genetic experimentation and pharmaceutical engineering gone awry. On a larger scale the cautionary trilogy examines where the addiction to vanity, greed, and power may lead. Often sordid and disturbing, the trilogy explores a world where everything from sex to learning translates to power and ownership. Atwood begins the trilogy with Oryx and Crake in which Jimmy, aka Snowman (as in Abominable) lives a somnolent, disconsolate life in a post-apocalyptic world created by a viral pandemic that destroys human civilization. The two remaining books continue the saga with other survivors such as the religious sect God’s Gardeners in The Year of the Flood and the Crakers of Maddaddam.

The entire trilogy is a sharp-edged, dark contemplative essay that plays out like a warped tragedy written by a toked-up Shakespeare. Often sordid and disturbing, the trilogy follows the slow pace of introspection. The dark poetry of Atwood’s smart and edgy slice-of-life commentary is a poignant treatise on our dysfunctional society. Atwood accurately captures a growing zeitgeist that has lost the need for words like honor, integrity, compassion, humility, forgiveness, respect, and love in its vocabulary. And she has projected this trend into an alarmingly probable future. This is subversive eco-fiction at its best.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune chronicles the journey of young Paul Atreides, who according to the indigenous Fremen prophesy will eventually bring them freedom from their enslavement by the colonialists—The Harkonens—and allow them to live unfettered on the planet Arrakis, known as Dune. As the title of the book clearly reveals, this story is about place—a harsh desert planet whose 800 kph sandblasting winds could flay your flesh—and the power struggle between those who covet its arcane treasures and those who wish only to live free from slavery.

Dune is just as much about what it lacks (water) as it is about what it contains (desert and spice). The subtle connections of the desert planet with the drama of Dune is most apparent in the actions, language and thoughts of the Imperial ecologist-planetologist, Kynes—who rejects his Imperial duties to “go native.” He is the voice of the desert and, by extension, the voice of its native people, the Fremen. “The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences,” he later thinks to himself as he is dying in the desert, abandoned there without water or protection.

Place—and its powerful symbols of desert, water and spice—lies at the heart of this epic story about taking, giving and sharing. This is nowhere more apparent than in the fate of the immense sandworms, strong archetypes of Nature—large and graceful creatures whose movements in the vast desert sands resemble the elegant whales of our oceans.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

This is an eco-thriller that explores humanity’s impulse to self-destruct within a natural world of living ‘alien’ profusion. The first of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation follows four women scientists who journey across a strange barrier into Area X—a region that mysteriously appeared on a marshy coastline, and is associated with inexplicable anomalies and disappearances. The area was closed to the public for decades by a shadowy government that studies it. Previous expeditions resulted in traumas, suicides or aggressive cancers of those who managed to return.

What follows is a bizarre exploration of how our own mutating mental states and self-destructive tendencies reflect a larger paradigm of creative-destruction—a hallmark of ecological succession, change, and overall resilience. VanderMeer masters the technique of weaving the bizarre intricacies of ecological relationship, into a meaningful tapestry of powerful interconnection. Bizarre but real biological mechanisms such as epigenetically-fluid DNA drive aspects of the story’s transcendent qualities of destruction and reconstruction.

The book reads like a psychological thriller. The main protagonist desperately seeks answers. When faced with a greater force or intent, she struggles against self-destruction to join and become something more. On one level Annihilation acts as parable to humanity’s cancerous destruction of what is ‘normal’ (through climate change and habitat destruction); on another, it explores how destruction and creation are two sides of a coin.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Barkskins chronicles two wood cutters who arrive from the slums of Paris to Canada in 1693 and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation in North America.

The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect for anything indigenous and a fierce hunger for “more” of the forests and lands. Ensnared by settler greed, the Mi’kmaq lose their own culture and their links to the natural world erode with grave consequence.

Proulx weaves generational stories of two settler families into a crucible of terrible greed and tragic irony. The bleak impressions by the immigrants of a harsh environment crawling with pests underlies the combative mindset of the settlers who wish only to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. From the arrival of the Europeans in pristine forest to their destruction under the veil of global warming, Proulx lays out a saga of human-environment interaction and consequence that lingers with the aftertaste of a bitter wine.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Memory of Water is about a post-climate change world of sea level rise. In this envisioned world, China rules Europe, which includes the Scandinavian Union, occupied by the power state of New Qian. Water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives. One of them is 17-year old Noria Kaitio who is learning to become a tea master from her father. Tea masters alone know the location of hidden water sources, coveted by the new government.

Faced with moral choices that draw their conflict from the tension between love and self-preservation, young Noria must do or do not before the soldiers scrutinizing her make their move. The story unfolds incrementally through place. As with every stroke of an emerging watercolour painting, Itäranta layers in tension with each story-defining description. We sense the tension and unease viscerally, as we immerse ourselves in a dark place of oppression and intrigue. Itäranta’s lyrical narrative follows a deceptively quiet yet tense pace that builds like a slow tide into compelling crisis. Told with emotional nuance, Itäranta’s Memory of Water flows with mystery and suspense toward a poignant end.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

This trilogy is set on an Earth devastated by periodic cataclysmic storms known as ‘seasons.’ These apocalyptic events last over generations, remaking the world and its inhabitants each time. Giant floating crystals called Obelisks suggest an advanced prior civilization.

In The Fifth Season, the first book of the trilogy, we are introduced to Essun, an Orogene—a person gifted with the ability to draw magical power from the Earth such as quelling earthquakes. Jemisin used the term orogene from the geological term orogeny, which describes the process of mountain-building. Essun was taken from her home as a child and trained brutally at the facility called the Fulcrum. Jemisin uses perspective and POV shifts to interweave Essun’s story with that of Damaya, just sent to the Fulcrum, and Syenite, who is about to leave on her first mission.

The second and third books, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, carry through Jemisin’s treatment of the dangers of marginalization, oppression, and misuse of power. Jemisin’s cautionary dystopia explores the consequence of the inhumane profiteering of those who are marginalized and commodified.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a work of mundane science fiction that occurs in 23rd century post-food crash Thailand after global warming has raised sea levels and carbon fuel sources are depleted. Thailand struggles under the tyrannical boot of predatory ag-biotech multinational giants that have fomented corruption and political strife through their plague-inducing genetic manipulations.

The book opens in Bangkok as ag-biotech farangs (foreigners) seek to exploit the secret Thai seedbank with its wealth of genetic material. Emiko is an illegal Japanese “windup” (genetically modified human), owned by a Thai sex club owner, and treated as a sub-human slave. Emiko embarks on a quest to escape her bonds and find her own people in the north. But like Bangkok—protected and trapped by the wall against a sea poised to claim it—Emiko cannot escape who and what she is: a gifted modified human, vilified and feared for the future she brings.

The rivalry between Thailand’s Minister of Trade and Minister of the Environment represents the central conflict of the novel, reflecting the current conflict of neo-liberal promotion of globalization and unaccountable exploitation with the forces of sustainability and environmental protection. Given the setting, both are extreme and there appears no middle ground for a balanced existence using responsible and sustainable means. Emiko, who represents that future, is precariously poised.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

The classic dystopian novel set in 21st century America where civilization has collapsed due to climate change, wealth inequality and greed. Parable of the Sower is both a coming-of-age story and cautionary allegorical tale of race, gender and power. Told through journal entries, the novel follows the life of young Lauren Oya Olamina—cursed with hyperempathy—and her perilous journey to find and create a new home.

When her old home outside L.A. is destroyed and her family murdered, she joins an endless stream of refugees through the chaos of resource and water scarcity. Her survival skills are tested as she navigates a highly politicized battleground between various extremist groups and religious fanatics through a harsh environment of walled enclaves, pyro-addicts, thieves and murderers. What starts as a fight to survive inspires in Lauren a new vision of the world and gives birth to a new faith based on science: Earthseed. Written in 1993, this prescient novel and its sequel Parable of the Talent speak too clearly about the consequences of “making America Great Again.”

Article originally appeared here

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and author, currently living in Toronto where she teaches at the University of Toronto. Her latest novel A Diary in the Age of Water was released by Inanna Publications in 2020 and was a finalist for the International Book Award, It was also Winner (Bronze) of the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award (Science Fiction); and Winner (Silver), of the 2020 Literary Titan Book Award.

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In most fiction, environment plays a passive role that lies embedded in stability and an unchanging status quo. From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity has consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. This thinking is the ideological manifestation of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels. This stability easily gives rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world.

But this is changing.

Our world is changing. We currently live in a world in which climate change poses a very real existential threat to life on the planet. The new normal is change. And it is within this changing climate that eco-fiction is realizing itself as a literary pursuit worth engaging in.

Eco-Fiction (short for ecological fiction) is a kind of fiction in which the environment—or one aspect of the environment—plays a major role, either as premise or as character. Our part in environmental destruction is often embedded in eco-fiction themes, particularly if they are dystopian or cautionary (which they often are). At the heart of eco-fiction are strong relationships forged between a major character and an aspect of their environment. The environmental aspect may serve as a symbolic connection to theme and can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind; the over-exploited sacred white pine forests for the lost Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins; the mystical life-giving sandworms for the beleaguered Fremen of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Many readers are seeking fiction that addresses environmental issues but explores a successful paradigm shift: fiction that accurately addresses our current issues with intelligence and hope. The power of envisioning a certain future is that the vision enables one to see it as possible.

Eco-fiction has been with us for decades—it just hasn’t been overtly recognized as a literary phenomenon until recently and particularly in light of mainstream concern with climate change (hence the recently adopted terms ‘climate fiction’, ‘cli-fi’, and ‘eco-punk’, all of which are eco-fiction). Strong environmental themes and/or eco-fiction characters populate all genres of fiction. Eco-fiction is a cross-genre phenomenon, and we are all awakening—novelists and readers of novels—to our changing environment. We are finally ready to see and portray environment as an interesting character with agency.

The relationship of humanity to environment also differs greatly among these works as does the role of science. Some are optimistic; others are not or have ambiguous endings that require interpretation. What the ten examples I list below have in common is that they are impactful, highly enjoyable works of eco-fiction.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Climate change and its effect on the monarch butterfly migration is told through the eyes of Dellarobia Turnbow, a rural housewife, who yearns for meaning in her life. It starts with her scrambling up the forested mountain—slated to be clear cut—behind her eastern Tennessee farmhouse; she is desperate to take flight from her dull and pointless marriage to run away with the telephone man. The first line of Kingsolver’s book reads: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” But the rapture she’s about to experience is not from the thrill of truancy; it will come from the intervention of Nature when she witnesses the hill newly aflame with monarch butterflies who have changed their migration behavior.

Flight Behavior is a multi-layered metaphoric study of “flight” in all its iterations: as movement, flow, change, transition, beauty and transcendence. Flight Behavior isn’t so much about climate change and its effects and its continued denial as it is about our perceptions and the actions that rise from them: the motives that drive denial and belief. When Dellarobia questions Cub, her farmer husband, “Why would we believe Johnny Midgeon about something scientific, and not the scientists?” he responds, “Johnny Midgeon gives the weather report.” Kingsolver writes: “and Dellarobia saw her life pass before her eyes, contained in the small enclosure of this logic.”

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory is a Pulitzer Prize winning work of literary fiction that follows the life-stories of nine characters and their journey with trees—and ultimately their shared conflict with corporate capitalist America.

Each character draws the archetype of a particular tree: there is Nicholas Hoel’s blighted chestnut that struggles to outlive its destiny; Mimi Ma’s bent mulberry, harbinger of things to come; Patricia Westerford’s marked up marcescent beech trees that sings a unique song; and Olivia Vandergriff’s ‘immortal’ ginko tree that cheats death—to name a few. Like all functional ecosystems, these disparate characters—and their trees—weave into each other’s journey toward a terrible irony. Each their own way battles humanity’s canon of self-serving utility—from shape-shifting Acer saccharum to selfless sacrificing Tachigali versicolor—toward a kind of creative destruction.

At the heart of The Overstory is the pivotal life of botanist Patricia Westerford, who will inspire a movement. Westerford is a shy introvert who discovers that trees communicate, learn, trade goods and services—and have intelligence. When she shares her discovery, she is ridiculed by her peers and loses her position at the university. What follows is a fractal story of trees with spirit, soul, and timeless societies—and their human avatars.

Maddaddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

This trilogy explores the premise of genetic experimentation and pharmaceutical engineering gone awry. On a larger scale the cautionary trilogy examines where the addiction to vanity, greed, and power may lead. Often sordid and disturbing, the trilogy explores a world where everything from sex to learning translates to power and ownership. Atwood begins the trilogy with Oryx and Crake in which Jimmy, aka Snowman (as in Abominable) lives a somnolent, disconsolate life in a post-apocalyptic world created by a viral pandemic that destroys human civilization. The two remaining books continue the saga with other survivors such as the religious sect God’s Gardeners in The Year of the Flood and the Crakers of Maddaddam.

The entire trilogy is a sharp-edged, dark contemplative essay that plays out like a warped tragedy written by a toked-up Shakespeare. Often sordid and disturbing, the trilogy follows the slow pace of introspection. The dark poetry of Atwood’s smart and edgy slice-of-life commentary is a poignant treatise on our dysfunctional society. Atwood accurately captures a growing zeitgeist that has lost the need for words like honor, integrity, compassion, humility, forgiveness, respect, and love in its vocabulary. And she has projected this trend into an alarmingly probable future. This is subversive eco-fiction at its best.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune chronicles the journey of young Paul Atreides, who according to the indigenous Fremen prophesy will eventually bring them freedom from their enslavement by the colonialists—The Harkonens—and allow them to live unfettered on the planet Arrakis, known as Dune. As the title of the book clearly reveals, this story is about place—a harsh desert planet whose 800 kph sandblasting winds could flay your flesh—and the power struggle between those who covet its arcane treasures and those who wish only to live free from slavery.

Dune is just as much about what it lacks (water) as it is about what it contains (desert and spice). The subtle connections of the desert planet with the drama of Dune is most apparent in the actions, language and thoughts of the Imperial ecologist-planetologist, Kynes—who rejects his Imperial duties to “go native.” He is the voice of the desert and, by extension, the voice of its native people, the Fremen. “The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences,” he later thinks to himself as he is dying in the desert, abandoned there without water or protection.

Place—and its powerful symbols of desert, water and spice—lies at the heart of this epic story about taking, giving and sharing. This is nowhere more apparent than in the fate of the immense sandworms, strong archetypes of Nature—large and graceful creatures whose movements in the vast desert sands resemble the elegant whales of our oceans.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

This is an eco-thriller that explores humanity’s impulse to self-destruct within a natural world of living ‘alien’ profusion. The first of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation follows four women scientists who journey across a strange barrier into Area X—a region that mysteriously appeared on a marshy coastline, and is associated with inexplicable anomalies and disappearances. The area was closed to the public for decades by a shadowy government that studies it. Previous expeditions resulted in traumas, suicides or aggressive cancers of those who managed to return.

What follows is a bizarre exploration of how our own mutating mental states and self-destructive tendencies reflect a larger paradigm of creative-destruction—a hallmark of ecological succession, change, and overall resilience. VanderMeer masters the technique of weaving the bizarre intricacies of ecological relationship, into a meaningful tapestry of powerful interconnection. Bizarre but real biological mechanisms such as epigenetically-fluid DNA drive aspects of the story’s transcendent qualities of destruction and reconstruction.

The book reads like a psychological thriller. The main protagonist desperately seeks answers. When faced with a greater force or intent, she struggles against self-destruction to join and become something more. On one level Annihilation acts as parable to humanity’s cancerous destruction of what is ‘normal’ (through climate change and habitat destruction); on another, it explores how destruction and creation are two sides of a coin.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Barkskins chronicles two wood cutters who arrive from the slums of Paris to Canada in 1693 and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation in North America.

The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect for anything indigenous and a fierce hunger for “more” of the forests and lands. Ensnared by settler greed, the Mi’kmaq lose their own culture and their links to the natural world erode with grave consequence.

Proulx weaves generational stories of two settler families into a crucible of terrible greed and tragic irony. The bleak impressions by the immigrants of a harsh environment crawling with pests underlies the combative mindset of the settlers who wish only to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. From the arrival of the Europeans in pristine forest to their destruction under the veil of global warming, Proulx lays out a saga of human-environment interaction and consequence that lingers with the aftertaste of a bitter wine.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Memory of Water is about a post-climate change world of sea level rise. In this envisioned world, China rules Europe, which includes the Scandinavian Union, occupied by the power state of New Qian. Water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives. One of them is 17-year old Noria Kaitio who is learning to become a tea master from her father. Tea masters alone know the location of hidden water sources, coveted by the new government.

Faced with moral choices that draw their conflict from the tension between love and self-preservation, young Noria must do or do not before the soldiers scrutinizing her make their move. The story unfolds incrementally through place. As with every stroke of an emerging watercolour painting, Itäranta layers in tension with each story-defining description. We sense the tension and unease viscerally, as we immerse ourselves in a dark place of oppression and intrigue. Itäranta’s lyrical narrative follows a deceptively quiet yet tense pace that builds like a slow tide into compelling crisis. Told with emotional nuance, Itäranta’s Memory of Water flows with mystery and suspense toward a poignant end.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

This trilogy is set on an Earth devastated by periodic cataclysmic storms known as ‘seasons.’ These apocalyptic events last over generations, remaking the world and its inhabitants each time. Giant floating crystals called Obelisks suggest an advanced prior civilization.

In The Fifth Season, the first book of the trilogy, we are introduced to Essun, an Orogene—a person gifted with the ability to draw magical power from the Earth such as quelling earthquakes. Jemisin used the term orogene from the geological term orogeny, which describes the process of mountain-building. Essun was taken from her home as a child and trained brutally at the facility called the Fulcrum. Jemisin uses perspective and POV shifts to interweave Essun’s story with that of Damaya, just sent to the Fulcrum, and Syenite, who is about to leave on her first mission.

The second and third books, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, carry through Jemisin’s treatment of the dangers of marginalization, oppression, and misuse of power. Jemisin’s cautionary dystopia explores the consequence of the inhumane profiteering of those who are marginalized and commodified.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a work of mundane science fiction that occurs in 23rd century post-food crash Thailand after global warming has raised sea levels and carbon fuel sources are depleted. Thailand struggles under the tyrannical boot of predatory ag-biotech multinational giants that have fomented corruption and political strife through their plague-inducing genetic manipulations.

The book opens in Bangkok as ag-biotech farangs (foreigners) seek to exploit the secret Thai seedbank with its wealth of genetic material. Emiko is an illegal Japanese “windup” (genetically modified human), owned by a Thai sex club owner, and treated as a sub-human slave. Emiko embarks on a quest to escape her bonds and find her own people in the north. But like Bangkok—protected and trapped by the wall against a sea poised to claim it—Emiko cannot escape who and what she is: a gifted modified human, vilified and feared for the future she brings.

The rivalry between Thailand’s Minister of Trade and Minister of the Environment represents the central conflict of the novel, reflecting the current conflict of neo-liberal promotion of globalization and unaccountable exploitation with the forces of sustainability and environmental protection. Given the setting, both are extreme and there appears no middle ground for a balanced existence using responsible and sustainable means. Emiko, who represents that future, is precariously poised.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

The classic dystopian novel set in 21st century America where civilization has collapsed due to climate change, wealth inequality and greed. Parable of the Sower is both a coming-of-age story and cautionary allegorical tale of race, gender and power. Told through journal entries, the novel follows the life of young Lauren Oya Olamina—cursed with hyperempathy—and her perilous journey to find and create a new home.

When her old home outside L.A. is destroyed and her family murdered, she joins an endless stream of refugees through the chaos of resource and water scarcity. Her survival skills are tested as she navigates a highly politicized battleground between various extremist groups and religious fanatics through a harsh environment of walled enclaves, pyro-addicts, thieves and murderers. What starts as a fight to survive inspires in Lauren a new vision of the world and gives birth to a new faith based on science: Earthseed. Written in 1993, this prescient novel and its sequel Parable of the Talent speak too clearly about the consequences of “making America Great Again.”

Article originally appeared here

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and author, currently living in Toronto where she teaches at the University of Toronto. Her latest novel A Diary in the Age of Water was released by Inanna Publications in 2020 and was a finalist for the International Book Award, It was also Winner (Bronze) of the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award (Science Fiction); and Winner (Silver), of the 2020 Literary Titan Book Award.

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Positivity in the apocalypse: can a climate fiction novel be uplifting? by Lauren James

As a former physicist, my writing is always science focussed. I’ve written a book about space travel inspired by special relativity (The Loneliest Girl in the Universe), a post-apocalyptic novel based on extinction and evolution (The Quiet at the End of the World), and multiple other stories with scientists at their heart.

From the beginning of my writing career, I’ve wanted to write about climate change – but I could never find a ‘way in’. It’s such a huge, complex topic that I didn’t know how to tackle it in a way which felt uplifting. My writing is primarily character and story focussed. It’s funny and romantic. That tone felt impossible to capture in a book about climate change, a topic which is discomforting at best and soul-destroying/terrifying at worst.

And while it’s a huge issue that should be treated seriously, the best stories are those which are enjoyable to experience. Those books reach the widest audience, having a better chance of spreading awareness of the climate crisis.

Eventually, I realised that I needed to focus on writing about characters who are actively working to slow climate change, rather than writing a story showing the terrors to come. I’m not interested in dark dystopias about a climate-ravaged planet. We know the dangers already. I want to read inspiring, optimistic stories that show a future where we’ve done things right.

The climate debate needs to move beyond fear at rising sea levels and pollution towards a more solutions-based view on climate change. I feel strongly that we should not be telling a generation of children that their future is unavoidably broken. Change is possible. The climate crisis is an urgent, yet utterly solvable issue. Our fiction should reflect that.

In Green Rising, the characters are teenagers who can grow plants from their skin. They use their powers to rewild the planet, and stand up to the profit-hungry corporations who want climate change to continue (because the end of the world is going to be very profitable to a lot of people). It shows the positive changes we can make to the environment which will help store carbon in huge quantities, often through plants: kelp forests, peatlands, reforestation.

I expected the writing process to be depressing and mentally exhausting. But, in fact, immersing myself in the climate debate helped me to stop feeling anxious and helpless about our future. I could see all the things that needed to be done to fix the future.

Instead of trying desperately to ignore the monster looming in the corner of my vision, I was facing it head-on. It was a lot less scary than I’d imagined. I felt like I was doing something to actively help (from writing the novel and another climate novella, The Deep-Sea Duke, to setting up the Climate Fiction Writers League, a group of over a hundred authors writing about climate change). I was no longer a helpless observer.

My research involved a lot of books (my favourites: The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres & Tom Rivett-Carnac, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein).

I’m not great at reading scientific publications – it feels too much like homework. But I am good at wasting time on social media. So I tricked myself into researching climate change through online resources like the Heated newsletter, Lights On newsletter, Inkcap Journal, and Green Light by The Guardian newsletter, as well as the How to Save a Planet podcast, Drilled podcast and Hot Take podcast.

My research clarified what I wanted to do with my writing. I was surprised by how many aspects of the climate crisis I didn’t know about. Often, the science behind the issue has been obscured by politics or fossil fuel smear campaigns and ads. I decided to focus the story on some of those factors. I trust my readers to know the basics of climate change, but they might not necessarily know about the other discussions in progress.

A big thing which is going to become increasingly topical over the next decade is geoengineering – the idea that we can take measures to slow the temperature increase while continuing to burn fossil fuels. This might include dramatic sci-fi concepts like using a solar mirror in space, or chemicals sprayed into the atmosphere, to reflect light away from the planet. These ideas are supported by the oil industry, who would be able to continue selling their products while supporting climate action. However, we have no idea what knock-on effects geoengineering might have on the planet.

I wanted to explore Juliana V. US – an ongoing legal case where young plaintiffs argue that the US government have violated their constitutional rights by failing to act on climate change. I’m interested in the way youth activist groups like Extinction Rebellion are treated by the press – as extremist terrorists and moral heroes standing up for the planet, often simultaneously.

I wanted to explore how billionaires are investing money in accessible space tourism, rather than fixing Earth. How the new, trendy NFT art and bitcoin use huge amounts of power to create cryptocurrency.

I wanted to highlight the issues related to carbon emissions, like metal poisoning from coal ash, microplastics and the garbage patches in the ocean.

And I wanted to do it all in a positive way, in a book for teenagers. It was a lot to tackle.

I tried to look at both sides of debate, because the way that climate deniers talk about the topic can often be really helpful for creating narratives (because why not let them do the hard work of being creative with arguments?). Books about climate change need characters who are working against climate action, just like in real life.

Those people – whether that’s the CEOs of an oil company, a billionaire trying to launch a space mission, or a politician with investments in fossil fuels – won’t see themselves as the ‘bad guys’. They’d be really surprised if you accused them of being one of the key people destroying the planet. To them, they’re community-builders, providing jobs and energy to keep the world running. I researched their perspective as much as possible, trying to put myself in their shoes so I could write characters who felt that way.

In general, I studied the way people discuss climate change on social media. The very human ways we interact with this topic, from fear to anger to ignorance to defiance, can be a great starting point for creating characters dealing with climate change. I subscribed to a very niche geoengineering forum, where scientists debated what should happen in future. Eavesdropping on their highly technical bickering gave me a lot of insight into the people working at the forefront of this issue, on both sides of the equation. I kept track of memes and viral Twitter threads about climate change, trying to isolate the core ideas and concerns that people were sharing online.

Once I’d taught myself as much about the topic as possible – from the science, to the politics, to the economics – I started writing. I tried not to get bogged down in the science, even though I was overflowing with anger and frustration at the world. Story always has to come first. It’s useful for me to be aware of all the context, but the reader only needs to know the things that are relevant for that particular scene or plot point. The rest can come later.

I look for the ways I can tie science into interesting ideas from other fields, like archaeology or linguistics. If you can discuss a big, often boring topic like atmospheric chemistry through the lens of something fun, it can be an exciting way to bring the reader on board.

In my books, characters explore caves full of treasure after an apocalypse, discovering cold-storage seed caches in a Doomsday Vault. They might have to deal with an outbreak of the Black Plague, after the melting permafrost thaws animal corpses which bring bacteria back to life.

I keep an eye out for interesting, well-known concepts – for example, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park is a science experiment which everyone knows well. It’s emotional, uplifting, and hits you right in the heart. A common idea like that is a great way to talk about something more complicated, such as how large predators can impact climate change through balancing the ecosystem.

I look for debunked or disproven theories in science, which can lead to really creative thinking. In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are huge, terrifying reptiles, but we now think that dinosaurs were more likely to have feathers. But a movie about a giant, fluffy blackbird-like T-Rex wouldn’t make for a very good film.

In the fifties, fossil fuel companies investigated other uses for their products, such as burning oil to blow away smog; coating land in asphalt to change rainfall patterns and avoid drought; and spraying oil droplets onto the ocean surface to divert the paths of tropical storms. These ideas seem ridiculous now, but they tell us a lot about people’s knowledge level – and motivations – at the time.

I try to think about big concepts in terms of historical events: how can we look at archaeology to get a new perspective on climate change. How might the present day look from a far-future or far-past point of view? Has something like this ever happened before on Earth?

Ultimately, climate change is a political topic – it has to be. It’s unavoidable. The end of world is profitable. My characters are angry they’re being told to reduce their climate footprint, that they’re being made to feel guilty about their personal pollution when industry is responsibly for the vast majority of emissions.

I wanted to create a book for young people who are anti-capitalist and pro-revolution, who are changing the world at an incredible pace against the enormous weight of the existing establishment.

From a legal perspective, there were things I couldn’t do – I wasn’t allowed to mention real life companies or people by name, and had to create fictional versions of certain things. But in Green Rising, I tried to capture the feeling of being part of the ongoing green revolution, to show what it feels like to grow up in a time of unprecedented existential fear. I wanted to write about young people turning that fear into hope and action.

It feels impossible to comprehend the scale and immensity of the dangers of the climate crisis. But with every book we write, we get a little bit closer.   

My top tips for writers who want to include climate change in their work:

·       Read as much climate fiction as possible – in a variety of genres, not just SFF! Check out the database on the Climate Fiction Writers League website for ideas.

·       Include the activism going on outside the very vocal UK/US groups. The countries who will be most affected by climate change have amazing activists whose hard work is often ignored by the media.

·       Inspire activism, but don’t imply individuals are at fault – readers don’t want to be made to feel guilty about not recycling!

·       Convey the seriousness of the situation without making it seem futile. Climate change is a solvable issue, and fiction can demonstrate that better than anything.

·       Show how imminent this crisis is – climate change is no longer a long-term issue for the future, but something happening right now.

·       Use your anger and frustration to drive your writing, but don’t write an angry book – people don’t want to read that.

Remember that hope and optimism will inspire more action than anything else. Fiction can inspire a huge amount of empathy, and that’s a force that we can use collectively to inspire change on a global level.

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the End of the World. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League. Her upcoming release is Green Rising, a climate change thriller.

Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into six languages and shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise.

She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university.

Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient.  She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

Green Rising (Walker Books, 2nd September)

In a climate catastrophe, resistance is taking root . . .

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?


Climate Change in the News

How to write and think about a warming planet [Galaxy Brain newsletter]

Meet the BIPOC Farmers Cultivating Green Spaces in NYC [Teen Vogue]

Why publishers need to take action on climate change today – an open letter by 100+ UK authors, organised by League member Piers Torday

LGBTQ rep in Books About Climate Change [LGBTQ Reads] – by League members Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang

#ReadGreen Campaign – Amazon KDP to switch to sustainable book printing on recycled paper [Change.org]

Facebook let fossil-fuel industry push climate misinformation, report finds [Guardian]

Democrats Seek $500 Billion in Climate Damages From Big Polluting Companies [NY Times]

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Real-world Issues in a Fantasy Setting

Rab Ferguson talks to Stephanie Burgis about her new book The Raven Heir, which is out now.

I’ve just finished The Raven Heir, and I loved it. There’s so much I want to talk to you about in this wonderful middle grade novel! But before we get into it, how would you describe the book to a new reader?

Thank you so much! The Raven Heir is the story of three children who’ve grown up in an enchanted forest only to discover one day that everything they thought they knew about themselves and their family was wrong. Now one of them is the heir to the throne – and they’re all in deadly peril.

One of those three children is the main character, Cordelia. An element of the novel that particularly spoke to me was Cordelia’s connection to nature. She has the power to turn into different animals, and from the beginning feels called to go out into the wild. Could you tell us a little about your thinking behind that connection?

I’ve always loved the idea of shapeshifting, but of course you can’t transform into an animal in every way without being changed inside. As I was writing Cordelia’s character, I wanted to give her a really strong intuitive sense of the natural world around her that’s very much tied to the various animal aspects of her nature. There’s a strong core of personality – her essential Cordelia-ness! – that remains unchanged in every form; but some of the wild, animal elements that she’s gained through all of her animal transformations remains within her even when she’s wearing her original human form.

I found that so interesting, especially when she was in animal form and took on a bit more of that particular animal’s character. I have to ask: if you could transform into any animal, which would it be, and why?

What a great question! I have thought about this a LOT (you will not be surprised to hear!), and my answer is generally a cat, but with breaks to become a red kite so that I could fly (without any fear of being snapped up by larger predators).

However, if it REALLY has to be just one animal, I’ll stick with cat after all.

So you and I are two of many writers in the Climate Fiction Writer’s League whose work is aimed towards children and young people. What draws you to write for the middlegrade age range, especially around the topic of the environment?

I have two middlegrade-aged kids, so I can say from their experience that MG-aged kids right now are learning about climate change in school AND a lot of them are extremely concerned about it – and unlike many adults, they’re willing to consider the kind of big changes that society needs to avert a total crisis. When we address environmental issues in MG fiction, we’re not telling kids anything they don’t already know, but we are offering hope and empowerment and the reminder that it’s worth fighting to make things better for everyone!

Something I liked in The Raven Heir was that the environment itself was key to the book, and had its own personality. Could you tell us more about the importance of the landscape to the novel?

When I set out to write The Raven Heir, I knew one of the triplets at the centre of the story would be the “rightful” heir to the throne…but that is such a fraught concept to wrestle with, especially in our modern era! So the big question I had to answer was: what would actually MAKE any one person the “rightful” king or queen? WHY would they be better than anyone else for the job? And that brought me back to the old folk belief that a sign of rightful royalty was the happiness of the land; if a land was ruled by its rightful ruler, the harvests would be good and there would be no droughts or famines.

As I was working all of this out, I was also accompanying my kids on protest marches as part of Greta Thunberg’s global School Strikes for the Climate…and all of that bubbling anxiety over our own climate future and all of my admiration for the passion of the kids who actually organised those protests in our town came together in the conception of the powerful and magic-infused land of Corvenne.

Those protests and the young people behind them were so inspiring. It’s interesting that these real world issues can spark the writing of fantasy. What’s the advantage of talking about these real problems in the magical genre?

I think that when we reconceptualize a real-world issue in a fantasy setting, it gives us some much-needed distance from the fears and the day-to-day stress factors that can overwhelm us and stop us from trying to find solutions to that problem in real life. It’s all too easy to get overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis when it comes to climate change and think – it’s too big, it’s too hard to change, it’s unstoppable… But the truth is, there ARE options we can fight for on a big structural level by putting pressure on businesses and on our governments, and we CAN fight for change even when it’s hard. I hope that my fantasy adventure – where 3 kids are given the option of either hiding from the huge problems of their broken kingdom or stepping forward to try to make a difference – can leave readers feeling empowered and hopeful and willing to make the hard effort to fight our own world’s problems.

I love that. It feels so important to remember that even broken kingdoms can be changed! I’d be interesting to hear a bit about your writing process for the novel. Was it all planned out beforehand? Did Cordelia or the or the other characters anything to surprise you along the way?

I wrote the first four chapters before I stopped to do any planning at all, but then I did pause and – since this book was sold on proposal – talked through the story a bit with my editors, which mostly consisted of them asking important questions about the worldbuilding that I needed to figure out for consistency before I kept going. That was really good for me, but the truth is, I never plan books in a lot of detail – I’m very much an exploratory writer. Whenever I write a first draft, I’m always following the internal guideline: “What would be the most fun thing that could happen next in this scene/chapter? What would make things harder for my protagonist in the most interesting way?” So every chapter is full of real surprises!

That reminds me of a Neil Gaiman quote, that the first draft is you telling yourself the story. I wanted to finish by asking you three favourites. Favourite character, favourite setting, and favourite magical moment from The Raven Heir? And why, of course!

Ooh, this is such a (good) tricky question! My favourite character as I wrote completely depended on the scene. I love all three of the triplets! My favourite setting was the mysterious Mount Corve, home of the ancient spirits of the land. And my favourite magical moment might be the first time the land actively whispers to Cordelia!

Finally, where can people find you if they want to learn more about your writing?

On my website! You can read excerpts from all of my books there and also find links to lots of free short stories. http://www.stephanieburgis.com

And of course I’m on Twitter and Instagram too (as @stephanieburgis and @stephanieburgisinwales, respectively)

You can find out more about The Raven Heir here.

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffee shops. She writes fun MG fantasy adventures and has published six so far, most recently the Dragon with a Chocolate Heart trilogy and the Raven Heir duology. She also writes wildly romantic adult historical fantasies, most recently the Harwood Spellbook series. She has had over forty short stories for adults and teens published in various magazines and anthologies.


Climate Change in the News

How to write and think about a warming planet [Galaxy Brain newsletter]

Meet the BIPOC Farmers Cultivating Green Spaces in NYC [Teen Vogue]

Why publishers need to take action on climate change today – an open letter by 100+ UK authors, organised by League member Piers Torday

LGBTQ rep in Books About Climate Change [LGBTQ Reads] – by League members Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang

#ReadGreen Campaign – Amazon KDP to switch to sustainable book printing on recycled paper [Change.org]

Facebook let fossil-fuel industry push climate misinformation, report finds [Guardian]

Democrats Seek $500 Billion in Climate Damages From Big Polluting Companies [NY Times]

A stone-age climate novel

Nabeel Ismeer talks to Claire Datnow about his new upper Young Adult novel, The Hunter’s Walk, which is published by Penguin Random House on 31st August. Generations of prolonged drought and hunger have allowed the harsher voices of the Zarda tribe to set edicts of discrimination against their fair skin members. Ghar, a dark skin cave painter and Dun, his fair skin brother, push back on this discrimination to ensure that Dun and the fair skins can take part in the Hunter’s Walk, a Zardan rite of passage.

Where did you grow up, Nabeel?

I was born in Saudi Arabia, where I spent about half of my childhood before moving back to Sri Lanka. The rest was mainly spent playing cricket in the town of Kandy, Sri Lanka

How did those growing up years shape your perspectives?

The difference in affluence and development really struck me when I used to travel back to Sri Lanka for the holidays. For the longest time I was told that the difference was work ethic. But as I got older, I learned that there were real structural inequalities in place that made it hard to move forward. The struggle between inequality and meritocracy has stuck with me.

What was the first language you learned as a child?

Although my parents were both multi-lingual, I only learned English. I would love to learn more Sinhalese, and Malay and Tamil. I speak a little bit of Sinhalese (Sri Lanka’s national language) which was only enough to take the bus around Kandy.

You build solar power plants across Asia. What inspired you to become a writer as well?

I used to write a bit early on in school and university, mostly brooding young emotional prose. I never really intended to become a writer, but then one day I was thinking about how our prehistoric ancestors left Africa and marched on into Asia. Scientists contend as they moved further north that their melanin reduced to help vitamin D production. It struck me there was a possibility that darker-skinned people met their fairer-skinned counterparts. Over the next couple of years, I thought about how intelligent the painters of the Lascaux cave had to be, and how they would have dealt with the declining ice age. I thought this was an interesting story to write, and as I continued over the years the story began to write me.

What influences inspired you to write this particular book, The Hunter’s Walk?

Although I find any kind of discrimination abhorrent, I am quite curious why it is so prevalent in human society. Skin color, race, religion, caste, gender, we seem to find a way to group certain sets of people and then treat them as inferior. Isn’t that weird? I am also really concerned about climate change. Is climate change going to expose us to racial and other kinds of discrimination, I felt exploring how climate change might actually influence us down at a human level, was a topic worth spending a decade of writing.

Why did you choose to set The Hunter’s Walk back in the Stone Age?

I was thinking about how our dark skinned ancestors might have met our fair skinned ancestors during their last ice age. Could there have been prehistoric colorism? Could ice age climate change have influenced their interactions?

Did you carry out extensive research about the Stone Age?

The Hunter’s Walk premise is that our ancestors have a common origin. It was built around how the out of Africa theory coincided with the last ice age was built around works of Spencer Wells, and Stephen Oppenheimer. The characters, their interactions were based on literature and documentaries on the San bushmen, the Chukchi tribe and the Aborignals of Australia. I imagined these native tribes, almost untouched by modernity, like a window to view our ancestors, their traditions and cultures inherited over generations.

Also I was inspired by the fictional stories from Michelle Paver, Claire Cameron, Jean Auel and William Golding and how they reimagined our ancestors as intelligent, artistic, and soulful human beings.

Lastly, for Ghar, the main protagonist, the Lascaux cave art lead me to imagine this Da Vinci type intellectual who painted the great murals, probably sacrificing time hunting and other tasks. That to me sounds amazing – a caveman Leonardo Da Vinci.

What are the challenges, Ghar and Dun, the main protagonists in your book, need to overcome?

During a time of prolonged drought and hunger, Ghar and Dun challenge the harsh treatment against the fair-skinned members and the women of the tribe, only to get expelled themselves. Ghar finds a new tribe but then sees the same forces of exclusion grow when they are struck by a never seen kind of storm – snow. Will he ever find Dun and the fair skins? Will he ever complete the Hunter’s Walk – a rite of passage?

What message would you like your readers to take to heart from The Hunter’s Walk?

I would love for readers to be inspired by this great era or art and invention that the stone age was. Also to question exclusion and discrimination, and maybe renew hope in these fearful times.

What stumbling blocks—or ‘lucky breaks’—did you encounter on the way to becoming a published writer?

I think the biggest lucky break was creating this prehistoric colorism dynamic that seemed compatible with the scientific research. I am lucky (and thankful!) that Nora Nazerene Abu Bakar from Penguin Random House SEA was willing to take on The Hunter’s Walk, it is a great privilege. There are so many stories out there that never get the chance.

What is the most difficult part of writing for you?

Structurally I find creating stories that are compatible with documented research is the hardest part, but also the most rewarding aspect. Also prioritizing writing over family and building solar power can be difficult at times, because those are important parts of my life too.

Tell us a little about your plans for the future.

I am working on a book series about justice in the time of war and advanced civilizations. I am also playing with the idea of a group of scientist moms breaking down the spy world, after a spy tries to kill one of their activist children. On the solar power front, I am looking to build more solar rooftops and hopefully be a part of a large scale solar plant in Bangladesh.

Where do you see yourself as a writer in the next five years?

Hopefully still exploring and creating stories while also reaching readers.

Why does fiction matter in a world of real-life consequence like climate change, and racism?

I think contrary to popular belief, scientists and journalists have done a great job of detailing the risks that climate change poses to humanity. I think the problem here is not so much the messenger, nor even the message. I think part of it is how we have been trained to be objective and emotionless with data. We are more likely to be moved by a picture of a little boy dead on the beach than hear about the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing war. Or a burning Notre Dame is far more saddening than hearing about the millions of acres lost in the recent bush fires. Telling the human story of climate change, is one more way of reaching people.

You can find out more about The Hunter’s Walk here.

Nabeel Ismeer builds solar power plants across Asia during the day. He spends his nights writing, centred around the question ‘What if?’. What if the stone age had a Leonardo Da Vinci, was Lascaux her Mona Lisa? What if prehistoric leaders resorted to discrimination when they had no answer to the ice age? What if mitigating climate change can also help reverse inequality and further humanity?

His writings, which include themes of climate change and inequality, have been published in print and online magazines. The Hunter’s Walk is his first book.

You can find out more about Claire’s books here.

Claire Datnow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, which ignited her love for the natural world and for diverse indigenous cultures around the globe. Claire taught creative writing to gifted and talented students in the Birmingham, Alabama Public Schools System. Her published works include a middle grade Eco mystery series, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six. She received numerous scholarships and awards, including, The Blanche Dean Award for Outstanding Nature Educator, the Alabama Writers Cooperative Middle Grade Award, and Monarch Mysteries (Book 6 eco mystery series) long listed for the Green Books Award. During her tenure as a teacher, Claire and her students developed a nature trail, recently named in her honor as the Alabama Audubon-Datnow Nature Preseve.


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Climate Change in the News

Stories to save the world: the new wave of climate fiction [The Guardian]

A Century of Science Fiction That Changed How We Think About the Environment [MIT Reader]

Chlorophobia: An Eco-Horror Anthology open for submissions

Geoengineering – what is it, and why should we be worried? by David Barker

I remember reading, twenty-five years ago, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy about the colonization of the red planet. The idea that we humans could, over many decades, terraform an inhospitable, deadly atmosphere into something living seemed very cool. Back then I had no idea that our own planet’s atmosphere might become hostile in my lifetime. If the pioneers in the Mars trilogy could use science and technology to make that planet liveable, can’t we do something about ours?

The Oxford Geoengineering Programme defines geoengineering as the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change. Two main areas are focused on to help reduce global temperatures: the reduction of solar radiation and the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In case you hadn’t guessed from the title of this article, I’ll be considering the potential costs as well as the benefits of each below. Because guess what, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Solar Radiation Management aims to reflect a small proportion of the Sun’s energy back into space. Methods of doing this vary from the simple – such as using brighter colours or more reflective materials on buildings and roads (also called albedo enhancement) – to the more outlandish ideas such as launching massive mirrors into space. While the latter would surely work, its readiness and cost effectiveness must be questionable, especially with a shelf-life potentially limited by bombardment from micro meteors.

A more pernicious method of reducing sunlight involves stratospheric aerosols – scattering particles into the upper atmosphere or into clouds. We know this method definitely works because history is full of case studies: massive volcanic eruptions spew billions of tonnes of particles into the atmosphere and global temperatures subsequently drop for a year or two. Most famously, the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 resulted in the ‘year without summer’ in 1816, and helped create two of literature’s greatest horror stories: Dracula and Frankenstein. Volcanic eruptions even inspired the plot in the final part of my Gaia Trilogy but, somehow, I doubt that will ever become a gothic classic!

Researchers have been using computer models to stimulate the effects of stratospheric injection to figure out how much would be needed and, importantly, what side effects could arise. These might include changes in rainfall, reduced crop yields, and damage to the protective effects of the ozone layer. And if the global financial crisis or the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that computer models are rarely able to predict the full ramifications of complex systems.

So, if reducing sunlight seems like a risky or very costly method of combating climate change, what about carbon dioxide removal? We’re on safer ground here, since the aim is to reverse what’s been done to the atmosphere in recent decades rather than introducing a radical new effect into the climate. Chopping down fewer trees and planting more saplings seems a pretty obvious starting point but has to work with local land management policies and the economics of our own consumerism.

Helping more phytoplankton grow in the oceans – through iron fertilisation – could also reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and be combined with the dispersal of ground-up rocks such as limestone to help combat oceanic acidification. But research is needed into potential side effects on marine life. While we’re at it, we might have to find a way to maintain the North Atlantic drift – the warm currents that stop Northern Europe feeling as cold as Labrador. Melting North Pole ice is changing the salinity of this conveyor belt of water, potentially shutting it down for good.

Carbon capture grabs the offending gas as it tries to leave polluting power stations or factories. This can be frozen and stored deep underground in a technology already in use by the Norwegians and will surely prove popular as countries struggle to reduce carbon emissions directly. Progress is being made with machines that can suck carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. However, these methods still require huge amounts of energy and, in some cases, water to work so are not yet feasible on a scale large enough to achieve significant progress.

All geoengineering solutions come with a financial cost. As technological advances reduce those costs and the price of doing nothing rises, I’m sure we’ll see more and more of these methods being used in the years ahead. I just hope we keep an eye on those side effects. One consequence that I haven’t mentioned yet is the potential for induced behavioural changes. If we come up with a viable engineering method for combating climate change, will this lessen consumers’ willingness to make lifestyle choices or politicians’ inclination to pursue potentially unpopular legislation in the name of climate change? I hope not.

Whilst progress is being made in reducing carbon emissions, most projections show us failing to hit Paris Agreement targets. I am a big fan of Sci-FI. I’m an even bigger fan of science. Researched properly, used sensibly, I am sure that we can and should adopt some of these geoengineering solutions to climate change as well as continuing to pursue behaviour changes from individuals, companies and governments. Spoiler alert: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy has a happy ending. I hope our planet’s story does too.

David Barker is the author of the Climate Fiction Gold trilogy (Bloodhound Books) – and gives talks on water shortages and climate change. Prior to writing full time, David worked in the city as an economist where his fascination with commodity shortages began.

He attended the Faber Academy in 2014 and, more recently, completed a scriptwriting course with the National Writing Centre. When not writing thrillers or scripts, David likes to create stories for younger readers and joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 2018.

David participates in Radio Berkshire’s monthly book show, plays tennis & golf and does amateur dramatics (when theatres are allowed to be open). He lives in Berkshire with his wife and daughter, who are both much better at acting than him.

You can find out more about David and his writing at: https://davidbarkerauthor.co.uk

Creating picture books

Author Bren Macdibble interviews Emma Reynolds about her new picture book.

Hi Emma! Can I just say Amara and the Bats is a bit of a debut masterpiece. It’s a picture book that’s a visual feast, and it’s also a heartwarming story packed with information that’ll have kids examining it more closely and reading it again and again.

This book is basically about a young girl’s adoration of bats and encroachment on bat habit. You are also the illustrator as well, so can we talk about the illustrations first off.

I adore the colour palette you’ve chosen, the colours are very natural shades of burnt orange, greens, aqua, yellows, browns and midnight blues. I particularly loved the evening scenes when the colour palette is limited to midnight blues and oranges. They’re scenes in the dark but they really pop! Later in the book purple and sky blue also appear. Can you tell us more about your colour palette?

Thank you so much Bren! I really appreciate your kind words.

Yes the colour palette was very important – I worked with three distinct colour palettes. The daytime palette of light browns and orange with highlights of red, turquoise and yellow. The night time palette of dark blues and oranges to show the moment when the sun is setting and bats appear – this was used throughout the book, even when the characters are not outside. And lastly, the green palette that appears later in the book, where nature is shown flourishing and bursting into life.

The illustrations of Amara have her looking a little like her favourite animal. Her cute little ears stick out and when she runs around pretending to be a bat, it seems like her long black hair is a cape or wings. Was that on purpose?

Yes it was, well spotted! I like using character features to help show how they’re feeling – for example when Amara is sad, her ears droop down a bit, and her hair lies more flat. When she is excited, her ears prick up and her hair almost grows as if caught by a Ghibli-style gust of wind in excitement.

There’s bonus marks for endpapers, we all love endpapers, but yours are helpful too with lots of friendly bat faces showing the features of different bat species and their names. Throughout the book, the bats all look really friendly. Is this an attempt to counteract the spooky Hollywood vampire-type portrayal of bats or is a reflection of your love for bats?

Thank you! I loved spending a lot of time drawing the endpapers. Honestly, bats ARE cute, and if you compare my illustrations to some real life photographs, especially in the endpapers, they are pretty accurate to real life. So, it was important to show everyone how cute bats really are, and to see them up close, as we never really get to experience this as we mostly see them flitting past quickly at night time. The whole book is about myth-busting, both through sharing facts, and showing how cute bats really are, and how vital to all life on earth.

How far is the character of Amara from Emma the real person?

Haha this is a very good question. Honestly, I actually did run a fundraiser with my best friend Lucy when we were nine to sponsor an endangered animal back in the 90s. We made logos and everything. This book is my whole heart, and a lot of people have told me they can tell when they read it. Which is really so special to me. There is so much of me in many aspects of the book, especially Amara.

What is one astounding bat fact that a bat enthusiast like Amara might know?

Bats are amazing pollinators, and so much of the food humans eat relies solely on pollination from bats, such as: 70% of the tropical fruit that humans eat, cocoa, and agave which makes tequila!

The dedication is “This book is dedicated to all people fighting to protect our planet,” and when it’s big companies doing the polluting, buying up land and building housing estates, and our governments refuse to install limits to protect our environments or to mandate the use of green energies, we all feel very small and unable to influence anyone. I imagine children who want to stand up for their environment can quickly feel overwhelmed, so what I really like about this book is Amara, who was sad about the loss of forest and local bats near her new home, focussed on one thing she could do. She spoke up for one solution and that rippled out into her new community and it got done. Is this a strategy for children who may be feeling anxiety around our environment, one cause, one step at a time, be active?

Yes, this was intentional. There is a scene in the book where Amara feels devastated and overwhelmed because so many things need fixing and she’s just one person. She curls up on the bed and squeezes her eyes shut. It was important to me to reflect this feeling of overwhelm and grief that myself and so many people especially young people are dealing with – climate anxiety. We cannot fix everything ourselves, but what we can do is pick a cause we really care about, start locally – think globally, and this can absolutely make a huge difference for our bats. I did this myself, I chose a cause I really care about, and made it my mission to use my skills to communicate about bats, and I look forward to using my book as a learning tool and in community outreach going forward, to directly help with conservation and rewilding.

I love that Amara was new to the community but she made friends through her cause. I was also fascinated by the idea of bat houses, I’d never seen that before. In Australia we have a lot of bats and flying foxes and they often overwhelm city locations and sometimes need to be relocated. Are bat houses a common thing in the US or the UK where you live? Should bat houses be in people’s back gardens or is it best to entice them to a nice patch of wilderness?

Yes, so in the US and UK we don’t have flying foxes AKA megabats, as they only live in tropical locations. We have microbats, which are smaller and have different needs. If you have a suitable garden or a house where you can install a bat box/house high enough up by the eaves, you can absolutely install one! It’s super important to be a responsible cat owner and keep your cat inside around sunset, especially in the summer months when baby bats are out (disclaimer: I LOVE cats, but it’s so important to care for wildlife. Cats don’t really eat bats, but they will play with them and the bacteria in cat saliva from injuries can sadly kill bats.)

In terms of installing them in the wilderness, it’s best to join your local bat group or get in touch with your local bat charity, who will most likely already have a scheme in place to install bat boxes/houses and their expertise will know the best places for them. Bat boxes/houses must be built to spec, or be purchased from a certified vendor. There is more detail on this in the back of the book!

What is the one greatest bat myth that you would like to bust wide open right now?

Bats contract rabies far less than other animals. Less than half of 1% of all bats may contract the disease, and you’re more likely to get rabies from a dog or cat.

And of course, the widespread misinformation about covid-19, summed up here by world renowned bat expert Merlin Tuttle. It’s so important we share these facts, as the biggest threat to bats is misguided human fear. Bats harbour no more viruses than other animals.

What exactly are the effects on our environment when bat habitats are lost? How are bats beneficial to our ecosystems?

Bats are beneficial in so many ways – they are the world’s natural bug repellent, eating harmful insects like mosquitos and eating crop-destroying insects saving farmers billions every year. Worldwide they are also pollinators as I mentioned above, and some flying fox species are seed dispersing ‘Keystone Species’ – without them the whole food chain would be affected, and entire ecosystems could collapse. Bats are also fantastic indicators of a wider ecosystem’s health – see the Bat Conservation Trust for more info on this.

Your book is an important asset to keeping the conversation going on protecting environments to a new generation. Do you hope that just like Amara’s mother and teacher helped her on a path to effective change, parents and teachers who read this book will find inspiration to help concerned children?

I absolutely hope so! There are so many ways people can get involved at the back of the book inspired by Amara’s journey, and I truly hope that this inspires kids, families, teachers and bat fans of all ages to get involved and see and protect bats in the wild J

You can find out more about Amara and the Bats here, and learn more about Bren’s book Across the Risen Sea here.

Good guys and bad guys: a writer’s perspective by Chris Beckett

The original prototype for my novel America City was a short story I wrote in 2012 about an American politician called Stephen Slaymaker.  I wanted to write about global warming, and the context of the story was an America in about a hundred years’ time, that was already almost completely closed off to climate refugees from other parts of the world, but was facing new stresses as a result of mass internal migrations caused by climate change: Hundreds of thousands of people from south-eastern and south-western parts of America were moving north to escape from flooding, fires, hurricanes and droughts.  And northerners were beginning to feel threatened by them and therefore to ‘other’ them, in the way that migrants from overseas are othered now.  Just as in the past, farmers fleeing from the dustbowl were derided as Okies, these new migrants were called ‘dusties’ or ‘storm trash’, and northern states were beginning to talk about building frontiers to keep them out.

The term ‘Storm trash’ was inspired by my reading of a couple of books about refugees from Hurricane Katrina: a real-life example of American refugees from an extreme weather event being briefly welcomed as fellow Americans in other parts of the country but then very quickly becoming the objects of resentment and hostility.  A detail that stuck in my mind was a mother from New Orleans who said her children were ostracised at school in Texas because, as she put it, they ‘came from the storm’.   

They came from the storm.  I felt this was a foretaste of things to come. Some people from New Orleans, made homeless by the hurricane and trying to leave, were stopped at gunpoint from entering neighbouring communities.  

My character Slaymaker was not a bad man by his own lights, but his sense of moral responsibility ended at the borders of his own country.  Later on, when I eventually wrote the novel, I’d compare him to the king described at the beginning of Beowulf, King Scyld, of whom the poet says ‘that was a good king’ because he is a ‘wrecker of mead-benches’, and a ‘ring giver’ who looks after those who are loyal to him. 

A ‘ring giver’.  I’ve thought a lot about that notion and I explore it in the book. I’ve concluded that all political leaders are, of necessity, ring givers.  And even now, it seems to me, it tends to be the case that the flip side of being a ring giver to one bunch of people is being a wrecker of someone else’s mead halls.

Slaymaker had no interest in opening the country’s external borders, but he was a patriot and he hated the idea of America itself being divided.  He wanted to become President in order to bind the country together again, north and south. 

* * *

As I say, I wrote the short story in 2012, but I realised —as probably seems obvious— that this wasn’t really a short story at all but rather the setup of a novel. 

So I began to plan a book.  In my plan I introduced, as the main viewpoint character, a bright, ambitious young British publicist named Holly Peacock, who has the idea of  winning the Presidency for Slaymaker by getting him to turn the focus of American people’s fear and resentment onto a neighbouring country instead of onto each other.  Holly also sees herself as a good person, and she defends the morality of what she does throughout the book.  Having grown up with impeccably right-on activist parents who seemed to care about everyone in the world but her, she’s drawn to the simplicity of Slaymaker’s Beowulf-style morality, which is based above all else on loyalty to your own.  

I say a Beowulf-style morality, but I suppose you could equally well call it a Homeric morality, or even an Old Testament one: a good king is a strong king who looks after his own people and defeats their enemies.  Nowadays, we could also call it right-wing. 

But then we use the words left wing and right wing to mean many different things. 

* * *

Anyway, I decided to write this novel about President Slaymaker but I didn’t pursue the idea for quite a while because I was working on other things.  It wasn’t really until four years later that I settled down in earnest to write it. 

So there I was, in 2016, writing this book I’d been planning about an American presidential election being won by appealing to atavistic tribal loyalty and hostility towards a demonised ‘other’.  And meanwhile, out there in the real world… 

No one ever thinks about the problems all this rapid change is causing for writers of speculative fiction! Sitting there at my laptop, writing America City, it sometimes felt to me as if reality was overtaking me. 

Of course I used this turn of events to my advantage, borrowing ideas for the novel from the real election as it unfolded, and from what had happened in Britain earlier that year.  I plagiarised reality.  But there were times too when reality seemed to be plagiarising me.  For instance, I came with the idea of AIs that collected data about individuals from their phones (which by that point in the future are routinely monitoring things like heartrate in order to understand the current mood of their owner).  These AIs worked out what mattered to each individual and what they wanted to hear, then tailored bespoke electoral messages accordingly, with no regard for factual accuracy, using fake social media accounts that posed as regular human beings in order to deliver them.  I called these fake social media accounts ‘feeders’, because when I invented them —and I kid you not— I had not yet heard the word ‘bot’. 

I’m not in any way technical, but one thing I’ve learnt as a writer about the future is that if you think about something that could plausibly happen then very likely it will exist, and quite probably already does.

Incidentally, though I do say it myself, my Stephen Slaymaker was a way more plausible and better-drawn character than Donald Trump.  If I’d come up with someone like Trump back in 2012, I’d have dismissed him as a lazy one-dimensional stereotype, told myself to try harder, and started again.  I still haven’t quite come to terms with reality’s sloppy workmanship there.

You may be wondering, if you haven’t read the book, which other country Slaymaker makes an enemy of?  Well, I’ll just say that one thing that’s going to become highly desirable as the world heats up is empty Arctic territory.   You may remember that earlier this year —and very spookily from my point of view— PresidentTrump tried to buy Greenland from Denmark.

I’ll make you a prophesy: Greenland will belong to America one day.  (If it happens you’ll be impressed by my prescience at least.  If it doesn’t, you’ll forget I said it.)  But, though Greenland is as big as Mexico, it’s very small beer compared with the Arctic territories to its west.

*  *  *

Let me tell you something about my personal approach to writing about the politics of the present time.  And I’d like to start with some thoughts from someone I admire. 

Natascha Kampusch is an Austrian woman, now in her thirties, and her claim to fame is that she was kidnapped at the age of 10 in 1998 by a man named Wolfgang Priklopil who bundled her into his van when she was walking to school and then kept her captive for the next eight years.  For the first six months she was entirely confined to a tiny underground room.  At weekends, when Priklopil had his mother to stay, ten-year-old Kampsuch was down there alone for three days at a stretch.  One of her great fears was that he would have a road accident and never return for her.

Gradually, Priklopil began letting her out for limited periods, making her work for him, and even taking her on trips outside the house.  He kitted out her dungeon like a schoolgirl’s bedroom, with desk, a bunk bed, a computer, and even fetched her books and magazines at her request.  But he also became increasingly violent towards her, lashing out at her without warning with his fists and with hard objects.  He shaved her head. He kept her chronically weak with hunger.  He forbade her from talking about her family.  He abused her sexually. 

Yet Kampusch to this day refuses to view Priklopil simply as a monster.  This refusal led to her being subjected to abuse and hate mail in Austria, but she remained absolutely firm on it.  In particular she angrily rejects the idea that her refusal to see Priklopil as evil is a symptom of the Stockholm Syndrome, a label which, she says, victimises her all over again.

Naturally, when reading her book about her ordeal, one identifies with Kampusch.  And that’s a very disturbing experience: my relief when she finally escaped was so overwhelmingly cathartic that I often replay it in my mind even now, years after reading the book.  But of course it’s much more challenging to do as she asks and consider Priklopil not as something utterly ‘other’, but as a human being who is on the same continuum as the rest of us.  Priklopil, as Kampusch sees it,

…didn’t want anything more than anyone else: love, approval, warmth.  He wanted somebody for whom he himself was the most important person in the world.  He didn’t seem to see other way to achieve that than to abduct a shy, ten-year-old girl and cut her off from the outside world until she was psychologically so alienated that he could ‘create’ her anew.

Natascha Kampusch, 3,096 Days.

This idea that Priklopil was human like everyone else was too much for the many people who saw fit to direct hate mail at a woman who’d spent half her childhood in solitary confinement.  Presumably they just couldn’t bear the thought that what was inside him was inside them also.  (Yet their own behaviour demonstrated this to be true of course.  What strangers we are to ourselves!)

Anyway, my thought is that, if Kampusch can manage to think about her captor and abuser as a fellow human being, I really ought to be willing to do likewise about people who actually aren’t locking me up, or beating me, but whose politics I hate.  In fact I think I see that as part of my task as a novelist: to try not to ‘other’ people but instead to understand why they think and feel as they do, both from the inside, as subjects, but also in terms of the external forces to which they’ve been subjected and which have shaped them.  

This is not to ‘excuse’ bad behaviour —seeing Priklopil as human, motivated by the same desires and fears as the rest of us, doesn’t mean it was okay to turn a child into his personal slave, or that it was anything other than an utterly vile thing to do— but, unlike those upright citizens who wrote hate mail to Natascha Kampusch, for daring to suggest that Priklopil was anything like them,  I don’t want to pretend that I can see no trace of Priklopil inside my own head.

I agree with Solzhenitzyn that ‘the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.’  Whatever a hundred million outraged voices on Twitter might have you believe, it doesn’t run neatly between us and them.

*  *  *

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the fact that most human beings think of themselves as the ‘good guys’.  I suppose there are a few people in the world who actually enjoy the idea of being bad, but my guess is that even murderers and torturers usually have some sort of story they tell themselves that allows them to feel justified in what they do, like my characters Stephen Slaymaker and Holly Peacock (who by the way I actually like.)

Most of us think of ourselves as the good guys and those who threaten us as the ‘bad guys’.  I’ve seen this happening in Britain during the endless arguing over Brexit (which incidentally is the subject of my next book): this tendency to demonise the other side, to assume the worst and most unforgivable motives to them, and to attribute nothing but virtuous motives to our own side.  Psychologists call this the attribution bias: we see only the good in us and only the bad in them.

But how likely is it, actually, that we (whoever ‘we’ may be!) really are straightforwardly the good guys, given that nearly everyone thinks they’re the good guys and has some sort story to explain why it’s so?  Many years ago, I visited Belfast, and had the strange experience of passing through one neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all vociferously agreed that one particular view of the constitutional situation in Northern Ireland was the only one consistent with truth and justice, and then almost immediately coming to another neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all believed the opposite. 

I mean — what are the odds?

But of course this isn’t just a massive coincidence.  It’s not the case that all the right-thinking people have ended up in one street and all the wrong-thinking people in another, as the result of some kind of colossal cosmic fluke.  The truth is that our political views — our theological ones too for that matter—  are not just the result of individual choices we make as free agents.  People’s beliefs, opinions and loyalties are very powerfully shaped by their history, their social context and their material circumstances, even if not completely determined by them.

The Brexit map of Britain illustrates that.  Just as Belfast people know which areas are nationalist and which are unionist, and can often tell which side someone comes from when they meet them, I’m guessing most Brits have a pretty good sense of which areas are Leave and which Remain.  I don’t need to look it up, for instance, to know that the fairly working-class Essex town of Harlow would have voted Leave, or that the attractive seaside city of Brighton will have voted Remain.  On one level it seems surprising that Dover voted Leave, given that it’s the most famous of our gateways to Europe, but on another level, I don’t find it surprising at all because I’ve been there, and I know it’s a Leave town just by looking at it.  Regardless of economic self-interest, there is something about a place like Dover that tends to make you Leavier.

As a matter of fact, Cambridge, where I live, is the Remainiest city in the entire UK. A wealthy, rapidly growing, university city with London-style property prices and booming IT and biotechnology industries, Cambridge was 75% remain.  But in the same county, and only an hour or so’s drive away, is the rural, dauntingly flat, and considerably less prosperous area called Fenland where the vote was 71% leave.  It just makes no sense to see these obviously demographic differences as purely individual choices.

So I don’t have much patience with those whose account of Brexit (or Trump) is just ‘some bad people did it.’  What kind of explanation is that?   Certainly, there are some pretty unimpressive people involved, but how did they manage to get purchase on our politics?  How did they manage to persuade people that they had their back?  Those are the interesting questions.

*  *  *

One of the things I did when writing America City was to include some vignettes of ordinary people—people involved in the great internal migration— and I tried to show how the sympathies of these internal refugees, and their failures of sympathy, are shaped by their own needs and circumstances, and change as those circumstances change.  (It’s a technique I used in an earlier book Mother of Eden, in which among other things, I tried to explain to myself why poor people often give their support to people who you’d think they’d see as their exploiters.)

It seems to me that, if you feel you need something that someone else has got, you find a way of justifying the act of taking it from them — and if that means refusing to see things from their point of view, so be it.  And if you’ve got something that other people need —and let’s face it, the money that each one of us in this room spends each year on non-essential comforts could meet an awful lot of basic human need— you find ways of justifying hanging onto it, even if that means hardening your heart.  That’s only human —in fact I think it’s quite possible that this kind of manoeuvre is an inevitable part of being in the world— but we need to acknowledge it in ourselves before we rush to judgement about the lack of generosity of others. 

Otherwise attribution bias does its work, and moral principles become tools, not for making ourselves into better human beings, but for proving how much better we already are than those other people.

*  *  *

So.  Holding up a mirror to the age of Trump, and to all the other huge upheavals that are beginning to take place in the Euro-American world as its old hegemony starts to crumble.  How do we do it?

I really hope we don’t see a lot of novels about the travails of comfortably off middle-class people whose lives have been made a little less comfortable by having to hear about Trump’s doings.  I am tired of people of my own class (the delicado class, as people call it in America City) acting like they’re the victims here. 

It is important that the real victims’ experiences are brought into the light —for instance the callous treatment of migrant children separated from their parents— but we still need to be careful not to choose atrocities selectively and self-servingly, to maintain a simplistic fairy tale about good guys and bad guys.  Immigrant children weren’t necessarily treated particularly well under Obama either, however much more charming his manners were, and however much more he resembled the kind of president we would like to be.  In fact immigration controls are always ugly, but the most liberal of countries still have them and there’s very little appetite, even among liberal-minded folk, for their complete abolition.  (I wouldn’t advocate that myself. Would you?)

One kind of novel about the rise of Trump would, I think, be one that looked under the skins of Trump voters.  I know it’s hard and perhaps some people here will think that they don’t even deserve to be understood.  But I think that’s looking at ‘understanding’ in completely the wrong way.  We shouldn’t think of understanding as some kind of reward to be given out only to people we like, or people we feel sorry for.  Natascha Kampusch needed to understand her kidnapper as a human being, not as a kindness to him, but in order to survive 8 years in which he was her only companion and the nearest thing she had to a friend— and also in order to be able to escape.     

In the following short extract from America City, I am writing speculatively about future events.  (I know that in many ways that’s much easier to do than writing about now, but I like to think that, in my own way, I am really writing about now.)  What I am specifically trying to do in this passage is to show how something as mundane and material as precipitation patterns in the mountains of California can have consequences not just for human behaviour but for the cast of human minds. And what I want to suggest to you is that what literature in the age of Trump needs to do is to illuminate the similar chains of consequences which lead in a series of steps from events in the material world —it might, for instance, be something like a reduction in global demand for American-made steel, or the invention of the internet— to changes in things like the human capacity for tolerance and empathy.

The snow used to settle up there on the Sierras, many metres deep in places, and it would form drifts and glaciers whose meltwaters flowed all summer long down into the Central Valley and into the states to the east. Some of that snow was so deep that it lasted years. But now what snow still falls will all melt off in the spring, stripping bare the rocky peaks before summer has even reached its height. And rain just runs straight off, evaporating all the while back into the air.

 It’s no big thing as far as the planet is concerned. The mountains themselves are still the same huge shapes against the sky. Earth still follows the same old track round the sun. But living things depend on small contingencies. On the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and down in the valleys, there are plants and animals that depend on streams flowing for such-and-such a time, farmers who depend on meltwater to irrigate their crops, towns that depend on water tables being replenished every year. There has only been a small change in the air, and only a small change in the way that water comes down the mountains, but an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it.

Trees die. Animals starve, or climb higher up the mountains, or wander north. And in the human world, farmers dig deeper wells, invest in costly water-saving devices, experiment with expensively engineered low-water crops, until a time comes when they can no longer borrow the money or no longer service their debts. And then they abandon everything and follow the animals north, becoming another stream, a human stream that branches and divides across America, a river of people with no money and no home, leaving crumbling buildings and rusting machinery and empty fields.

People in the north watch their arrival with suspicion and hostility. It’s dangerous to feel sorry for them, for that might mean feeling an obligation to help them, and to give up some part of the comfort blanket that everyone wraps around themselves against the frightening world. And isn’t that blanket always threadbare? Doesn’t it already feel too thin?  Yes, and if you were to look those new arrivals in the face and really acknowledge them for what they are, wouldn’t you also have to face the thing that follows behind them, the thing that has driven them north, the thing that everyone knows is moving north itself, coming closer and closer with every year?  And who in their right mind would want to do that?

You can find out more about America City here.

Chris Beckett is a former social worker and now university lecturer who lives in Cambridge. In 2009 he won the Edge Hill Short Story competition for his collection of stories, The Turing Test.

The original prototype for my novel America City was a short story I wrote in 2012 about an American politician called Stephen Slaymaker.  I wanted to write about global warming, and the context of the story was an America in about a hundred years’ time, that was already almost completely closed off to climate refugees from other parts of the world, but was facing new stresses as a result of mass internal migrations caused by climate change: Hundreds of thousands of people from south-eastern and south-western parts of America were moving north to escape from flooding, fires, hurricanes and droughts.  And northerners were beginning to feel threatened by them and therefore to ‘other’ them, in the way that migrants from overseas are othered now.  Just as in the past, farmers fleeing from the dustbowl were derided as Okies, these new migrants were called ‘dusties’ or ‘storm trash’, and northern states were beginning to talk about building frontiers to keep them out.

The term ‘Storm trash’ was inspired by my reading of a couple of books about refugees from Hurricane Katrina: a real-life example of American refugees from an extreme weather event being briefly welcomed as fellow Americans in other parts of the country but then very quickly becoming the objects of resentment and hostility.  A detail that stuck in my mind was a mother from New Orleans who said her children were ostracised at school in Texas because, as she put it, they ‘came from the storm’.   

They came from the storm.  I felt this was a foretaste of things to come. Some people from New Orleans, made homeless by the hurricane and trying to leave, were stopped at gunpoint from entering neighbouring communities.  

My character Slaymaker was not a bad man by his own lights, but his sense of moral responsibility ended at the borders of his own country.  Later on, when I eventually wrote the novel, I’d compare him to the king described at the beginning of Beowulf, King Scyld, of whom the poet says ‘that was a good king’ because he is a ‘wrecker of mead-benches’, and a ‘ring giver’ who looks after those who are loyal to him. 

A ‘ring giver’.  I’ve thought a lot about that notion and I explore it in the book. I’ve concluded that all political leaders are, of necessity, ring givers.  And even now, it seems to me, it tends to be the case that the flip side of being a ring giver to one bunch of people is being a wrecker of someone else’s mead halls.

Slaymaker had no interest in opening the country’s external borders, but he was a patriot and he hated the idea of America itself being divided.  He wanted to become President in order to bind the country together again, north and south. 

* * *

As I say, I wrote the short story in 2012, but I realised —as probably seems obvious— that this wasn’t really a short story at all but rather the setup of a novel. 

So I began to plan a book.  In my plan I introduced, as the main viewpoint character, a bright, ambitious young British publicist named Holly Peacock, who has the idea of  winning the Presidency for Slaymaker by getting him to turn the focus of American people’s fear and resentment onto a neighbouring country instead of onto each other.  Holly also sees herself as a good person, and she defends the morality of what she does throughout the book.  Having grown up with impeccably right-on activist parents who seemed to care about everyone in the world but her, she’s drawn to the simplicity of Slaymaker’s Beowulf-style morality, which is based above all else on loyalty to your own.  

I say a Beowulf-style morality, but I suppose you could equally well call it a Homeric morality, or even an Old Testament one: a good king is a strong king who looks after his own people and defeats their enemies.  Nowadays, we could also call it right-wing. 

But then we use the words left wing and right wing to mean many different things. 

* * *

Anyway, I decided to write this novel about President Slaymaker but I didn’t pursue the idea for quite a while because I was working on other things.  It wasn’t really until four years later that I settled down in earnest to write it. 

So there I was, in 2016, writing this book I’d been planning about an American presidential election being won by appealing to atavistic tribal loyalty and hostility towards a demonised ‘other’.  And meanwhile, out there in the real world… 

No one ever thinks about the problems all this rapid change is causing for writers of speculative fiction! Sitting there at my laptop, writing America City, it sometimes felt to me as if reality was overtaking me. 

Of course I used this turn of events to my advantage, borrowing ideas for the novel from the real election as it unfolded, and from what had happened in Britain earlier that year.  I plagiarised reality.  But there were times too when reality seemed to be plagiarising me.  For instance, I came with the idea of AIs that collected data about individuals from their phones (which by that point in the future are routinely monitoring things like heartrate in order to understand the current mood of their owner).  These AIs worked out what mattered to each individual and what they wanted to hear, then tailored bespoke electoral messages accordingly, with no regard for factual accuracy, using fake social media accounts that posed as regular human beings in order to deliver them.  I called these fake social media accounts ‘feeders’, because when I invented them —and I kid you not— I had not yet heard the word ‘bot’. 

I’m not in any way technical, but one thing I’ve learnt as a writer about the future is that if you think about something that could plausibly happen then very likely it will exist, and quite probably already does.

Incidentally, though I do say it myself, my Stephen Slaymaker was a way more plausible and better-drawn character than Donald Trump.  If I’d come up with someone like Trump back in 2012, I’d have dismissed him as a lazy one-dimensional stereotype, told myself to try harder, and started again.  I still haven’t quite come to terms with reality’s sloppy workmanship there.

You may be wondering, if you haven’t read the book, which other country Slaymaker makes an enemy of?  Well, I’ll just say that one thing that’s going to become highly desirable as the world heats up is empty Arctic territory.   You may remember that earlier this year —and very spookily from my point of view— PresidentTrump tried to buy Greenland from Denmark.

I’ll make you a prophesy: Greenland will belong to America one day.  (If it happens you’ll be impressed by my prescience at least.  If it doesn’t, you’ll forget I said it.)  But, though Greenland is as big as Mexico, it’s very small beer compared with the Arctic territories to its west.

*  *  *

Let me tell you something about my personal approach to writing about the politics of the present time.  And I’d like to start with some thoughts from someone I admire. 

Natascha Kampusch is an Austrian woman, now in her thirties, and her claim to fame is that she was kidnapped at the age of 10 in 1998 by a man named Wolfgang Priklopil who bundled her into his van when she was walking to school and then kept her captive for the next eight years.  For the first six months she was entirely confined to a tiny underground room.  At weekends, when Priklopil had his mother to stay, ten-year-old Kampsuch was down there alone for three days at a stretch.  One of her great fears was that he would have a road accident and never return for her.

Gradually, Priklopil began letting her out for limited periods, making her work for him, and even taking her on trips outside the house.  He kitted out her dungeon like a schoolgirl’s bedroom, with desk, a bunk bed, a computer, and even fetched her books and magazines at her request.  But he also became increasingly violent towards her, lashing out at her without warning with his fists and with hard objects.  He shaved her head. He kept her chronically weak with hunger.  He forbade her from talking about her family.  He abused her sexually. 

Yet Kampusch to this day refuses to view Priklopil simply as a monster.  This refusal led to her being subjected to abuse and hate mail in Austria, but she remained absolutely firm on it.  In particular she angrily rejects the idea that her refusal to see Priklopil as evil is a symptom of the Stockholm Syndrome, a label which, she says, victimises her all over again.

Naturally, when reading her book about her ordeal, one identifies with Kampusch.  And that’s a very disturbing experience: my relief when she finally escaped was so overwhelmingly cathartic that I often replay it in my mind even now, years after reading the book.  But of course it’s much more challenging to do as she asks and consider Priklopil not as something utterly ‘other’, but as a human being who is on the same continuum as the rest of us.  Priklopil, as Kampusch sees it,

…didn’t want anything more than anyone else: love, approval, warmth.  He wanted somebody for whom he himself was the most important person in the world.  He didn’t seem to see other way to achieve that than to abduct a shy, ten-year-old girl and cut her off from the outside world until she was psychologically so alienated that he could ‘create’ her anew.

Natascha Kampusch, 3,096 Days.

This idea that Priklopil was human like everyone else was too much for the many people who saw fit to direct hate mail at a woman who’d spent half her childhood in solitary confinement.  Presumably they just couldn’t bear the thought that what was inside him was inside them also.  (Yet their own behaviour demonstrated this to be true of course.  What strangers we are to ourselves!)

Anyway, my thought is that, if Kampusch can manage to think about her captor and abuser as a fellow human being, I really ought to be willing to do likewise about people who actually aren’t locking me up, or beating me, but whose politics I hate.  In fact I think I see that as part of my task as a novelist: to try not to ‘other’ people but instead to understand why they think and feel as they do, both from the inside, as subjects, but also in terms of the external forces to which they’ve been subjected and which have shaped them.  

This is not to ‘excuse’ bad behaviour —seeing Priklopil as human, motivated by the same desires and fears as the rest of us, doesn’t mean it was okay to turn a child into his personal slave, or that it was anything other than an utterly vile thing to do— but, unlike those upright citizens who wrote hate mail to Natascha Kampusch, for daring to suggest that Priklopil was anything like them,  I don’t want to pretend that I can see no trace of Priklopil inside my own head.

I agree with Solzhenitzyn that ‘the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.’  Whatever a hundred million outraged voices on Twitter might have you believe, it doesn’t run neatly between us and them.

*  *  *

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the fact that most human beings think of themselves as the ‘good guys’.  I suppose there are a few people in the world who actually enjoy the idea of being bad, but my guess is that even murderers and torturers usually have some sort of story they tell themselves that allows them to feel justified in what they do, like my characters Stephen Slaymaker and Holly Peacock (who by the way I actually like.)

Most of us think of ourselves as the good guys and those who threaten us as the ‘bad guys’.  I’ve seen this happening in Britain during the endless arguing over Brexit (which incidentally is the subject of my next book): this tendency to demonise the other side, to assume the worst and most unforgivable motives to them, and to attribute nothing but virtuous motives to our own side.  Psychologists call this the attribution bias: we see only the good in us and only the bad in them.

But how likely is it, actually, that we (whoever ‘we’ may be!) really are straightforwardly the good guys, given that nearly everyone thinks they’re the good guys and has some sort story to explain why it’s so?  Many years ago, I visited Belfast, and had the strange experience of passing through one neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all vociferously agreed that one particular view of the constitutional situation in Northern Ireland was the only one consistent with truth and justice, and then almost immediately coming to another neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all believed the opposite. 

I mean — what are the odds?

But of course this isn’t just a massive coincidence.  It’s not the case that all the right-thinking people have ended up in one street and all the wrong-thinking people in another, as the result of some kind of colossal cosmic fluke.  The truth is that our political views — our theological ones too for that matter—  are not just the result of individual choices we make as free agents.  People’s beliefs, opinions and loyalties are very powerfully shaped by their history, their social context and their material circumstances, even if not completely determined by them.

The Brexit map of Britain illustrates that.  Just as Belfast people know which areas are nationalist and which are unionist, and can often tell which side someone comes from when they meet them, I’m guessing most Brits have a pretty good sense of which areas are Leave and which Remain.  I don’t need to look it up, for instance, to know that the fairly working-class Essex town of Harlow would have voted Leave, or that the attractive seaside city of Brighton will have voted Remain.  On one level it seems surprising that Dover voted Leave, given that it’s the most famous of our gateways to Europe, but on another level, I don’t find it surprising at all because I’ve been there, and I know it’s a Leave town just by looking at it.  Regardless of economic self-interest, there is something about a place like Dover that tends to make you Leavier.

As a matter of fact, Cambridge, where I live, is the Remainiest city in the entire UK. A wealthy, rapidly growing, university city with London-style property prices and booming IT and biotechnology industries, Cambridge was 75% remain.  But in the same county, and only an hour or so’s drive away, is the rural, dauntingly flat, and considerably less prosperous area called Fenland where the vote was 71% leave.  It just makes no sense to see these obviously demographic differences as purely individual choices.

So I don’t have much patience with those whose account of Brexit (or Trump) is just ‘some bad people did it.’  What kind of explanation is that?   Certainly, there are some pretty unimpressive people involved, but how did they manage to get purchase on our politics?  How did they manage to persuade people that they had their back?  Those are the interesting questions.

*  *  *

One of the things I did when writing America City was to include some vignettes of ordinary people—people involved in the great internal migration— and I tried to show how the sympathies of these internal refugees, and their failures of sympathy, are shaped by their own needs and circumstances, and change as those circumstances change.  (It’s a technique I used in an earlier book Mother of Eden, in which among other things, I tried to explain to myself why poor people often give their support to people who you’d think they’d see as their exploiters.)

It seems to me that, if you feel you need something that someone else has got, you find a way of justifying the act of taking it from them — and if that means refusing to see things from their point of view, so be it.  And if you’ve got something that other people need —and let’s face it, the money that each one of us in this room spends each year on non-essential comforts could meet an awful lot of basic human need— you find ways of justifying hanging onto it, even if that means hardening your heart.  That’s only human —in fact I think it’s quite possible that this kind of manoeuvre is an inevitable part of being in the world— but we need to acknowledge it in ourselves before we rush to judgement about the lack of generosity of others. 

Otherwise attribution bias does its work, and moral principles become tools, not for making ourselves into better human beings, but for proving how much better we already are than those other people.

*  *  *

So.  Holding up a mirror to the age of Trump, and to all the other huge upheavals that are beginning to take place in the Euro-American world as its old hegemony starts to crumble.  How do we do it?

I really hope we don’t see a lot of novels about the travails of comfortably off middle-class people whose lives have been made a little less comfortable by having to hear about Trump’s doings.  I am tired of people of my own class (the delicado class, as people call it in America City) acting like they’re the victims here. 

It is important that the real victims’ experiences are brought into the light —for instance the callous treatment of migrant children separated from their parents— but we still need to be careful not to choose atrocities selectively and self-servingly, to maintain a simplistic fairy tale about good guys and bad guys.  Immigrant children weren’t necessarily treated particularly well under Obama either, however much more charming his manners were, and however much more he resembled the kind of president we would like to be.  In fact immigration controls are always ugly, but the most liberal of countries still have them and there’s very little appetite, even among liberal-minded folk, for their complete abolition.  (I wouldn’t advocate that myself. Would you?)

One kind of novel about the rise of Trump would, I think, be one that looked under the skins of Trump voters.  I know it’s hard and perhaps some people here will think that they don’t even deserve to be understood.  But I think that’s looking at ‘understanding’ in completely the wrong way.  We shouldn’t think of understanding as some kind of reward to be given out only to people we like, or people we feel sorry for.  Natascha Kampusch needed to understand her kidnapper as a human being, not as a kindness to him, but in order to survive 8 years in which he was her only companion and the nearest thing she had to a friend— and also in order to be able to escape.     

In the following short extract from America City, I am writing speculatively about future events.  (I know that in many ways that’s much easier to do than writing about now, but I like to think that, in my own way, I am really writing about now.)  What I am specifically trying to do in this passage is to show how something as mundane and material as precipitation patterns in the mountains of California can have consequences not just for human behaviour but for the cast of human minds. And what I want to suggest to you is that what literature in the age of Trump needs to do is to illuminate the similar chains of consequences which lead in a series of steps from events in the material world —it might, for instance, be something like a reduction in global demand for American-made steel, or the invention of the internet— to changes in things like the human capacity for tolerance and empathy.

The snow used to settle up there on the Sierras, many metres deep in places, and it would form drifts and glaciers whose meltwaters flowed all summer long down into the Central Valley and into the states to the east. Some of that snow was so deep that it lasted years. But now what snow still falls will all melt off in the spring, stripping bare the rocky peaks before summer has even reached its height. And rain just runs straight off, evaporating all the while back into the air.

 It’s no big thing as far as the planet is concerned. The mountains themselves are still the same huge shapes against the sky. Earth still follows the same old track round the sun. But living things depend on small contingencies. On the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and down in the valleys, there are plants and animals that depend on streams flowing for such-and-such a time, farmers who depend on meltwater to irrigate their crops, towns that depend on water tables being replenished every year. There has only been a small change in the air, and only a small change in the way that water comes down the mountains, but an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it.

Trees die. Animals starve, or climb higher up the mountains, or wander north. And in the human world, farmers dig deeper wells, invest in costly water-saving devices, experiment with expensively engineered low-water crops, until a time comes when they can no longer borrow the money or no longer service their debts. And then they abandon everything and follow the animals north, becoming another stream, a human stream that branches and divides across America, a river of people with no money and no home, leaving crumbling buildings and rusting machinery and empty fields.

People in the north watch their arrival with suspicion and hostility. It’s dangerous to feel sorry for them, for that might mean feeling an obligation to help them, and to give up some part of the comfort blanket that everyone wraps around themselves against the frightening world. And isn’t that blanket always threadbare? Doesn’t it already feel too thin?  Yes, and if you were to look those new arrivals in the face and really acknowledge them for what they are, wouldn’t you also have to face the thing that follows behind them, the thing that has driven them north, the thing that everyone knows is moving north itself, coming closer and closer with every year?  And who in their right mind would want to do that?

You can find out more about America City here.

Chris Beckett is a former social worker and now university lecturer who lives in Cambridge. In 2009 he won the Edge Hill Short Story competition for his collection of stories, The Turing Test.


Climate Change News

The Unequal Distribution of Covid Vaccines Is a Preview of the Coming Climate Apartheid [New Republic]

How are our cities going to look in a rapidly heating world? It won’t be long before 50C will be normal by League member James Bradley [The Guardian]

Can fiction fight climate change? [Race to Zero]

Event: Looking after our Planet with Emma Shevah & Marc ter Horst [Reading is Magic Festival]

Future weather forecast for the year 2050 [Met Office]