Authors Saul Tanpepper and Sequoia Nagamatsu discuss their science fiction dystopia works.
Saul Tanpepper: Hi, Sequoia. It’s a real pleasure to be able to talk with you about your recent book, How High We Go in the Dark. I read it as soon as it came out and was completely immersed from the first page. It’s such an expansive work, but one theme that struck me throughout is connections– how we try (and often fail) to connect with one another; how our fate and the fate of the planet are interconnected; how the distant past, present, and distant future might connect. The chapters themselves are connected through theme, rather than character, which is an unusual approach structurally. Did you set out with this in mind, or was it something that came together after a period of time?
Sequoia Nagamatsu: The process of writing the novel was very kaleidoscopic in nature. It took me nearly ten years to write the book (of course I wrote another book in the interim and there were long periods away from the project). At first, the very raw/early forms of some of the chapters began as individual short stories, so the connectivity across the book does nod at a life as story collection where the narrative thrust is thematic and incident oriented. I began with themes of grief and reimagining funerary practices and several years later the plague element as narrative thread entered the manuscript.
That said, beyond the overarching themes, there are connections between characters which I strengthened/deepened in later stages of the novel, as well as dropping in hints in every chapter that compounds to the final chapter, which seeks to tie together some of the themes, character connections, and a cosmic frame.
I’m also curious about the origins and development of a story like Leviathan, which seems to be in conversation with the conventions of myth and folklore in both content and tone. Did you always intend the story to be told in this style? What do you think the role of myth and cultural memory is with regard to our modern world (and in particular conversations of the climate crisis)?
Saul: I’d had this question bouncing around in my head for a while of what it would mean to be the last person alive on a dying planet knowing you’re the final repository of all knowledge about the world and its inhabitants— the last caretaker of all memory, so to speak, not just cultural. I can imagine it would be a heavy burden to bear. But imagining is one thing, and I wanted this to be more than a simple thought exercise. I wanted to get deep inside the head of this person in a meaningful and relevant way. The challenge was to write a character who isn’t just preoccupied with trying to stay alive, but who is also obsessed with understanding who they are and where they come from, and whose circumstances give them the opportunity to seek out the answers to those questions.
For the tone and structure of the story, I took inspiration from Cormac McCarthy’s dark post-apocalyptic novel The Road. In that book, the two main characters are a child and an adult whose relationship to each other is left unclear, which got me thinking about personal lineages. More specifically, how we view our individual selves and our place in the world as the vessels of all the people who antecede us. In “Leviathan,” one character makes a conscious decision to erase the past as much as possible, as if to sever them from that burden. The second character, denied of knowing their past by the first character’s choice, yearns to understand who they are and their place in a world that seemingly offers no hope for the future. With respect to mythical elements, I didn’t set out to write it that way; rather, I think those elements arose as a consequence of the main character’s personal lack of factual context, which forces them to think about the world in a much more primal way.
That being said, I did intentionally include both myth and cultural memory in my most recent climate fiction story, “The Cloud Weaver’s Song.” I think they can be very effective tools for talking about subjects whose roots can be traced back generations. Anthropomorphic climate change is also such a large and complex problem that we risk losing people by trying to discuss it solely on a factual basis. Everyone understands the consequences of rising sea levels and drought, but very few people have yet to be impacted by it enough to change their behaviors. Storytelling — and in particular, stories steeped in myth — gives us a powerful way of teaching people what happens when we don’t.
In your story, climate change is the catalyst, causing the release of an ancient virus from a melting Siberian cave, but it’s also a constant theme in the book. You talk a lot about sea level rise and sinking cities, the California wildfires, and of course melting permafrost. I’ve employed the pandemic theme in my own writing, and as a former molecular biologist the emergence of new and archaic viruses are a real concern. But for me, the biggest threat of climate change, regardless of how it manifests, whether it be through disease, habitat loss, flooding, is how it will impact sensitive communities. More and more people will be forced to leave their homes; we’ll become uncomfortably familiar with the climate refugee designation for displaced persons. What is your biggest climate concern, and how do you think we’ll be able to address it?
Sequoia: You’re absolutely right. I think the kind of viral outbreak in the novel isn’t likely–although still something to monitor as many scientists acknowledge. Of course the nature of the plague in my novel is otherworldly in origin, so I would hope my Arctic Plague would never happen. But in some ways the plague isn’t really the point. It’s a vehicle for theme and a frame for the story. Once I introduce the plague the primary concern of the novel is how people respond and react–particularly in small, everyday ways. And in this way I think the plague in my novel is a parallel to how society and individuals respond to tragedy, to a significant upset to our world and worldview (like Covid). While looking into climate change mitigating solutions, engaging with green policies/legislation, and reimagining our industries, I think a major force that is important in addressing climate change resides with community and empathy–how we treat each other, how we think about the language that describes our relationship with the world and each other.
I think my biggest concern is that too many people will not be willing to enter those conversations, will not be interested in the plight of their fellow human beings. In some ways our Covid crisis has heightened those fears. Without empathy, we’ll make little progress in mitigating and preventing further damage, retreating back to the systems and inequities that created our problems to begin with.
And what are your biggest climate concerns? How do you see storytelling (and the arts and humanities more broadly) being part of future climate actions and dialogues?
Saul: By far my biggest frustration with the climate conversation — indeed, with any complex technical discussion — is the willingness by so many to dismiss scientific consensus based on little more than conjecture, gut feeling, or preconceived notions. Within this segment of society, there’s this misconception that they’re practicing healthy skepticism; it’s actually unreasoned denialism. There’s a huge difference between the two.
As a trained scientist, I’m naturally skeptical. I question everything I don’t personally understand and try my best to learn more about it before forming an opinion. But I don’t have to know everything about astrophysics or musical theory to accept what experts in their respective fields consider consensus, because I trust they’ve applied the most rigorous practices developing and testing their theories, and have properly vetted their conclusions through adequate peer review processes.
I wish everyone had a better understanding of this distinction, because it would make having these discussions so much easier. But it doesn’t mean we can’t reach the deniers; they just operate differently. That’s why art in all its forms is so important right now, because it’s a form of messaging that can resonate with those who rely more on emotion than logic to make their decisions. It’s a way to bridge the divide currently separating so many of us. It’s also why I love writing science fiction, particularly hard sci-fi, because it offers me a way to reach people on both an intellectual and an emotional level.
How High We Go in the Dark starts at an ending and ends at beginnings. It’s an interesting narrative structure that delivers the climax first as the inciting event, but draws us in and keeps us reading, because what we all want is also an implicit objective in the story: a cure. Or, in a broader sense, resolution, both from the pandemic, but also from the mystery surrounding it.
We know how climate change will impact us, because we can already see its effects. We’re entering our own climax moment, but we can’t wait for the resolution to be written. We must write it now. What will the story end up being? Where do you see us being by the end of the century? Two hundred years from now? Six thousand?
Sequoia: It’s honestly difficult to imagine our world beyond a year from now, a few years. Will the human species even exist in six thousand years? Or will civilization as we know it even exist in a few hundred? That sounds bleak, but I don’t think it’s uncalled for.
While my students give me much hope–young people who care deeply about the planet and issues of social justice related to environmental catastrophe, the Covid years have certainly given me some pause, as I’ve mentioned above. We’re much more fractured and dysfunctional as a society (particularly in America) than I previously thought.
Most editors would have laughed you out of the room if you told them the events of recent years for being completely outlandish and unbelievable. And yet here we are. While my Star Trek heart would love to imagine where we’ll be in the distant future (and of course I do this in my fiction), my real world/non-writerly self is just trying to imagine where we’ll be in a few months. I think there’s something hopeful about thinking about where we’ll be in large time scales, but I think we also need to think in smaller terms–what can we do right now.
What about you? What are your resolutions? What do you see for us?
Saul: I think the answer to many of our problems, including climate change, is education— better, longer, expanded. And I don’t just mean informing the public — that’s the job of the Media, which has always opted for stories that elicit strong emotions over those that instill intellectual curiosity — but educating people how to think critically, deeply, and creatively, no matter what their chosen area of study. Not only will this help convert deniers into objective thinkers, but it will ultimately lead to better, more innovative solutions to the challenges we face today.
Now, one might argue that anthropogenic climate change can be traced back to technological advancements, from the discovery of fire to the rise of the Manufacturing Age to our current unsatisfied demand for rare earth elements, and since technology is spurred by innovation, which is itself the offspring of education, why expand education if it’s just going to put more strain on the planet? But better education will help us better appreciate our impact on the planet, and better, more directed, innovation will help drive the creation of technology that will reduce that strain and correct the damage.
About a third of the way into the book is the chapter “Through the Garden of Memory.” It’s both metaphysical journey and metaphor, and I’m guessing the inspiration for the title of the book. It’s placement in the story acts as a kind of fulcrum, a pivot point where you take us from this heavy, almost unrelenting, sense of finality and into the realm of infinite possibilities. What message, if any, do you hope your readers come away from this chapter and from the book?
Sequoia: Ultimately, I hope my readers walk away with a sense of community–the importance of forming new connections and strengthening/honoring old ones. How can we use tragic moments, times of uncertainty to reimagine better versions of ourselves and society? How can we look beyond our prejudices and differences to come together for a greater good?
And what about readers of Leviathan? Does this story resonate with your other work in terms of take-aways you want readers to walk away with or is the message/theme here particularly unique to this work? The thread of the importance of names is particularly present, for instance.
Saul: A lot of my work is dystopian, so I spend a significant amount of time thinking about how we as individuals and species survive, fight, and overcome seemingly insurmountable systemic challenges. Implicit in many of these types of stories is hope and victory. Although I’ve left the ending of “Leviathan” intentionally vague, readers are invited to interpret it as either hopeful or not.
In terms of similarity to my other works, I think my short story “The Last Zookeeper” is most similar to “Leviathan” in a number of ways— the end of humanity and the transition into a new world, characters obsessed with understanding the past in order to better understand themselves, to name a couple. Coincidentally, the narrators of both stories remain nameless, as do most of the secondary characters.
Many of the early chapters in your book absolutely destroyed me – “City of Laughter,” “Elegy Hotel,” “Through the Garden of Memory.” You take us through this emotional woodchipper right from the start. You tear us apart and then bring us back together again so that by the end of the book I feel almost… reborn. The chapters reflect this in a way, too: they’re looser, even tenuous in their relationship to one another by the very end, as if they’re exploring new connections with each other. I’m curious if writing it took you on a similar journey of discovery and redefinition.
Sequoia: I think the process of writing definitely reflected this idea of discovery and redefining relationships. As mentioned, some of these stories began as stand-alone pieces, but as I started conceiving this book as a whole, something more than the sum of its parts, I began looking at possible connections, possible scenes that would force a reader to flip back to an earlier section for an ah ha moment.
I’ve noticed readers indicating in reviews how the ending of the novel has prompted them to re-read the book sooner rather than later since they would be able to find new connections, would see mysterious characters in a new light with the information revealed at the book’s end. Applied to my own life, I think this book has helped me reflect on new ways of being. I think that’s probably not uncommon during the Covid years, but editing a plague book during an actual pandemic allowed me to dwell with questions of “what now?” perhaps more so than the average person.
How would you say writing a story like Leviathan helps you reflect upon our own realities? On your own way of seeing and navigating the world? What makes climate fiction worth writing for you?
Saul: I’m terribly frustrated by the direction our world seems to be headed, and by the division and dysfunction between us, which you mentioned earlier. I worry about the world we’re leaving our children. With regards to important social issues, I see climate fiction and other artistic expressions as a form of activism, but on a far grander scale than protests.
Art has the potential to reach a much broader segment of society and erase social, political, and ideological boundaries. Anytime I can reach people and instill in them a sense of urgency about important issues is time and effort well spent. Like the characters in “Leviathan,” we all must live in the world our ancestors created. So that our children will live in a better world than ours, we must be responsible architects of the future by making better choices today.
If I can help people envision the possibilities of their choices, both good and bad, and thereby encourage them to at least think about the consequences of their actions, then it is absolutely worth it.
Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the national bestselling novel, How High We Go in the Dark, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, as well as the story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. His work has appeared in literary magazines such as Tin House, Lightspeed Magazine, The Iowa Review, and Conjunctions, among others. He is an associate professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College, where he also teaches in the Environmental Conversations program, and serves on the low-res MFA faculty at the Rainier Writers Workshop.
Saul Tanpepper is the author of the popular post-apocalyptic survival series BUNKER 12 and ZPOCALYPTO, as well as the cli-fi stories “The Cloud Weaver’s Song,” a second-place finalist in Grist/Fix’s Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, and “They Dreamed of Poppies.” A former combat medic and retired PhD scientist from Northern California, he is the co-author (as Kenneth James Howe) of the African diaspora memoirs “Relentless” and “I Will Not Grow Downward.”
In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Ana Filomena Amaral shares an extract from The Director, an adult contemporary novel inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Just like the surface of the earth, the depths are driven by sunlight and moon. As the sun was about to set, Henry and Armina decided to throw themselves back into the sea, they anchored the boat by one of the Doors, attached themselves to the cables, and with lit lanterns and camera attached, they dived. The moon illuminated the depths and exercised its power on the creatures of darkness, all the others sought shelter disappearing suddenly in the blackness. The apotheosis moment was about to happen when a new crop of regenerating plankton filled that world of gelatin and mucus and the polyps awoke from their torpor, launching themselves like starving animals in search for food.
Nightlife erupted in all its frenzy, allowing everything that light forbids. The octopuses, once timid and discreet with the gloom, become daring and powerful beings camouflaging themselves with the tone more appropriate to the occasion. Harlequin shrimps manipulate their prey, turning it upside down to immobilize it: a starfish fall from the firmament on the most fatal night. The Spanish dancer crawls across the reef collecting his food and, when disturbed, turns in the waters displaying its sensual flamenco in garish Andalusian reds. The most bizarre forms emerge from unexpected places, surprising humans and confusing their rooted stereotypes in the brain too calcified to understand such a world, where the unreal is no longer illusion. The polyps then stop feeding and the living structure of the reef prepares for its annual explosion, under the sign of the moon. The water is filled with coral spores, sections of their body released, sperm and eggs of their species. With luck, these pink constellations of lit up fireflies will stop thousands of miles away, in an expansion and supremacy hard to perpetuate.
Henry and Armina suddenly stopped and hid behind a choir, turned off the lanterns and set the camera in position. Two divers illuminated by powerful lights stirred the sand trying to either place or remove something that in the distance they could not see. It took only a few minutes, and they went up again. When they disappeared the two approached the place and immediately moved away quickly at the speed with which the water allowed them, returning to the hidden boat. They were not alone!
– That was dynamite, I’m sure. We need to get back to shore right away, because we do not know when they’re going to detonate it. Besides I need to report this to Michael as soon as possible.
– Of course, let’s go fast before they notice us!
Ana recommends the Oceano Azul Foundation for their work on ocean conservation.