Step from Conceptual into Actualisation

Anna M Holmes and Jamie Mollart discuss their adult novels. Blind Eye by Anna M Holmes is a fast-paced environmental thriller locating the plight to save a rainforest in a global context showing how independent we are as a community.

Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart is a dystopian Cli-Fi novel set in a near future where the solution to depleted resources is The Sleep, enforced hibernation for most of the population.

JM: Hi Anna, I finished your book last night and really enjoyed it. I admired the pace it moved at, the way in which you discuss BIG ideas in a way that are part of the plot, rather than expository, and I thought the characterisation was really strong.

AH: Thanks Jamie, and I also enjoyed your story, though I hope humanity avoids coming to this! Writing about big ideas in an accessible way is crucial isn’t it? No reader needs to be bludgeoned over the head. Heavy-handed approaches are massively off-putting. We read novels to, in part, entertain us and maybe make us think.

JM: The thing that struck me while I was reading Blind Eye was that it’s really interesting how we’ve effectively approached similar ideas from very different places and perspectives. Kings of a Dead World is very much ‘after’ climate change, whereas Blind Eye is set now and in some ways provides guidance on how to avert the disaster I imagine. It got me wondering how you chose this particular approach to confronting climate change?

AH: Kings of a Dead World and Blind Eye make interesting bedfellows. Yes, your story is both ‘before’ and ‘after’ while mine is indeed right ‘now’. Your story deals with a world that has tipped with limited resources tightly controlled in a dystopian society. At the end of my story I leave readers with a sense of hope.

I felt I was in a unique position to write about rainforest destruction as I love telling stories and my partner is a founder member of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). His international contacts were crucial and my own political contacts were handy to check Westminster scenes. Blind Eye started as a screenplay in 2008. I updated it in 2020 (when it was joint-winner of the Green Stories screenplay competition) and I enjoyed delving deeper and reworking the material as a novel. At least in book form it has a chance of reaching an audience. Getting a film made is almost impossible.

Jamie, I loved the imagination you brought to your story. Tell me how you built your complex future world? I am particularly intrigued by Chronos.

JM: Thank you! For me everything began with the idea of The Sleep. I was looking for the most extreme, yet viable, way of dealing with the crippling lack of resources that we will face as a result of climate change, and I came up with the idea of forcibly hibernating most of the population for the majority of the time. From there it was a case of working out logistics! I had a pinterest board which I built up as a reference point as well. It’s actually still here if you want to have a look.

I’m really interested in the idea of how the monothestic religions are fundamentally layered versions of older beliefs, but I felt that if there was such a cataclysmic change to the structure of society that the existing belief systems would struggle to hold up and people would revert to older versions. I love mythology and wanted to bring that in so I looked for gods that would reflect the two types of people that populate my world. For the Sleepers it’s Chronos, the God of time, as this is the thing they value most and for the Janitors Bacchus, the God of wine, made sense as they live a decadent lifestyle, I also wanted to touch on fairy tales and that’s why I brought in Rip Van.

While we’re talking about place, that was something I wanted to touch on with you, Anna. There’s a real tangible quality to all the places in your novel, the jungle in particular. I wondered how you went about building that or whether you’d actually visited the locations yourself?

AH: While I have visited the tropics, and trekked in rainforest, I haven’t been in the situation I describe, but my partner has. His experience, and that of a tropical forester who advised me was invaluable and a development organisation in Indonesia advised me on specifics of Kalimantan tribal groups. By the way, ‘my’ tropical forester adviser had a $100 price tag on his head – another interfering environmentalist – so I use that in my story. I did loads of desk research: environmental reports, Google Earth, videos on YouTube, images and so on. I like your pinterest board! For my first novel, Wayward Voyage, about female pirates, I spent a week on a tall ship to experience handling ropes and going aloft, as well as the usual reading and archival research you’d expect. I love film and I aim to write visually.

You have asked why I wrote my story, and of course I am keen to learn what set you off to write Kings?

JM: As with most of my writing it was a combination of things. In my day job I work in advertising and I have a deep personal conflict about the fact that I contribute to consumerism, which is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, so I knew I wanted to write something that addressed that for me. This is where all the themes of culpability and personal responsibility come from I think.

At the same time I was watching and reading a lot of classic science fiction and wanted to write something that had that sensibility. A recurring theme in all my work is the cycle of male violence and particularly in male friendships and so that is in there too.

I tend to let things percolate for a long time before I actually start putting words down on the page, so my preoccupations with consumerism, climate change, classic science fiction and the idea of The Sleep as a potential extreme solution all bumped around together in my head until I felt ready to start the actual writing process. There’s always a tipping point where I feel that I am ready to step from conceptual into actualisation, although I can’t predict when it’s going to happen, and I get a really rough first draft done really quickly, then spend the time honing and tidying it up.

I have to say, It’s been a real pleasure talking to you Anna, the thing that has really pleasantly surprised me is that despite working in different genres our work is clearly connected through a concern for our world and a desire to make people aware of climate change through our writing.

AH: This conversation has been fun, Jamie. The climate crisis is such a HUGE thing but we can’t be preachy in fiction as this will turn readers off. Well-told stories matter. It is great that we enjoyed each other’s books.

Find out more about Kings of a Dead World and Blind Eye. You can also read Jamie’s previous League interview with Kate Kelly here.

Jamie Mollart is a reviewer for British Science Fiction Association, a mentor for Writing East Midlands, his first novel, The Zoo, was on the Amazon Rising Star list and his second novel, Kings of a Dead World is available now. The trailer can be watched here and the paperback was launched on February 3rd with an Exclusive Edition only available from Waterstones.  You can find Jamie on Twitter at @jamiemollart

Communication with different audiences drives Anna Holmes’ work. She was a radio journalist before a career in arts management including with UK Arts Councils as a specialist dance and theatre officer then as an external artform reviewer. To find out more about Anna, visit https://www.annamholmes.com

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Climate Change Fiction: Multicultural, Diverse, Global, and with Animals, Too! by Claire Datnow

Fiction can be a powerful way for students to understand how climate change has and will impact their future. Cli-Fi (climate change fiction) can serve as a springboard for lively discussions. In addition, stories offer ways in which students can envision and adjust to climate change through new technology and social adaptations. The ideas discussed below can be used to encourage class reading, enrich a unit on this topic and, hopefully, inspire students to do research, or create their own stories, poems, drawings of the future altered by climate change.

I began writing Red Flag Warning: An Eco Adventure (for Middle Grades and up) three years ago, horrified by the wildfires sweeping around the globe. My novel relates the dramatic story of three special young people from across the world, the amazing animals that are part of their lives, and the terrible threats of wildfires—threats that affect the entire world. Climate change is a serious reality to write about. The good news is that after decades of misinformation, denial, and inadequate attempts to reduce the dire impact of climate change, young people around the world are searching for ways to understand and to take action.

Keeping this in mind, I decided not to sugarcoat the truth. Instead, I choose decided to weave a solid base of scientific knowledge into a compelling story, in order to create a hopeful, yet realistic ending rather than gloomy or magical fairytale one. For me, the books I write will always be grounded in science. Telling a moving story does not mean making up facts—we have enough of that already—the basis of the narrative has to be the truth and reality of climate change and the need for social injustice.

After I’d completed Red Flag Warning, I saw more clearly how I’d woven diverse, multicultural, indigenous, and global themes into my story. The three protagonists are: Aisyah from Sumatra, Indonesia, whose ancestors are the Batak people: Kirri from Australia, whose ancestors are Aboriginal: and Hector from Northern California with roots in the Native American people of Mexico. The three draw strength and pride from the ancient wisdom of their ancestors. And, although they come from very different backgrounds the three become close friends.

As a writer and teacher I understand we need diverse stories to serve as mirrors that reflect ourselves and helps build pride in our identity. We also need multicultural stories that serves as windows through which we can begin to understand people of backgrounds different from our own. By weaving these strands together, I hope that Red Flag Warning delivers a powerful message: young people can work together to take action to heal the Earth. Compelling narratives interwoven with science can entertain, educate, and inspire readers. As storytellers we hold the keys to touching our readers’ hearts, to ignite their imagination to build a bridge to tomorrow that will empower them to take action for the greater good of humanity and the wellbeing of the Earth.

Environmental literacy can be integrated into subjects and activities already in the curriculum. In this way climate/environmental stories can serve as a springboard to lively discussions, projects, or research. Fortunately there are variety of novels to choose from at all levels. For a comprehensive list visit the eco-fiction site dragonfly.eco. Additional resources are listed at the end of Red Flag Warning: An Eco Mystery. For a free Teacher Handout “How to Become an Eco Detective: An Interdisciplinary Unit for Writing Across the Curriculum” here.

Find out more about Red Flag Warning.

Claire Datnow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, which ignited her love for the natural world and for diverse cultures. Claire taught creative writing to gifted and talented students in the Birmingham, Alabama Public Schools. She earned an MA in Education for Gifted and Talented and a second MA in Public History. Her books for middle schoolers include The Adventures of the Sizzling Six, an eco-mystery series, and Edwin Hubble, Discoverer of Galaxies. Claire’s most recent novel, Red Flag Warning: An Eco Adventure, weaves in the theme of global climate change. Claire’s books for adults include a memoir, Behind The Walled Garden of Apartheid and The Nine Inheritors.

Walking Lightly on the Earth

Denise Baden and Phil Gilvin discuss their novels, and the Green Stories climate writing competition founded by Denise.

Denise: I was amazed when I heard you had started Truth Sister ten years ago – it could have been written last year as it is so ahead of its time anticipating the trends towards greater female empowerment, the pandemic and increased anxiety about climate change. The central thread of following a girl on the brink of adulthood, coming to terms with the difference between the real world and what she has been taught, had a lot of resonance for me. It’s shocking when you realise who you thought of as the ‘good guys’ really aren’t. It was really gripping, and I’m so glad you left the reader with a sliver of hope at the end.

Phil: Denise, I really loved Habitat Man – a well-written, light-hearted and pacy read with believable characters and a telling environmental message. When Tim Redfern, stuck in a job he doesn’t like, hits fifty he knows it’s time for a change, and sets out to help people make their lives more sustainably. Along the way he meets a whole range of people, from a hostile teenager with an air-rifle to a Buddhist monk with secret yearnings to be an accountant, and helps them to see what’s great about nesting-boxes, green burials and composting toilets. Helped by his long-time friend Jo, he tackles his problematic love life, confronts a secret from his past and invents the Random Recipe Generator.

Denise: What inspired the story of Truth Sister?

Phil: I’d already written a couple of YA fantasy/ science-fiction-type novels that didn’t make it to publication, but when Truth Sister began to come together – ten years ago, as you say – I felt I wanted to branch out and explore some of the themes that interested me at the time. Climate change was one of those, of course; another was the idea that as our population grows, our energy and mineral resources will run low. Yet another was about the effect of pandemics – about which, of course, we now know a lot more! Truth Sister plays out in a world where each of those threats has taken effect gradually, which I think is more likely to happen than a sudden apocalypse.

Phil: How about you, Denise? What was your own writer’s journey? What inspired you to write about sustainability, and Habitat Man in particular?

Denise: I’ve been interested in the potential of fiction to inspire green behaviours ever since I read Ben Elton’s Stark. I would never have chosen to watch a climate change documentary, but his comedy thriller smuggled in green issues and really opened my eyes. I’d say that was when I became a bit of a greeny.

My day job is as an academic at the University of Southampton in sustainability and it can get frustrating as few people read academic articles. I turned to fiction as a way to reach a wider audience. In 2018, I set up the free series of Green Stories writing competitions. We’ve run 14 competitions so far, but even so, few entries were aimed at mainstream readers, and I was worried about preaching to the converted.

In 2019, I had a visit from a green garden consultant who had retired early to help locals make their gardens more wildlife friendly. He gave me all kinds of wonderful suggestions: what pollinator friendly plants would thrive in my garden, take down my bamboo and replace with a native tree, plant a hawthorn bush to screen off wildlife area at back of garden, and dump vegetation and garden debris there to create a habitat area – so no more trips to the dump. He installed a water butt, put up a bat box, advised on a pond. He was frustrated though that he was only one man and could only do so much, and I immediately thought what a great idea for a book. My fictional hero ditches his job to become Habitat Man and visits all kinds of gardens, falls in love, digs up something he shouldn’t and in the process of telling a love story, I share green solutions naturally as part of the plot.

Denise: Did you worry about writing a female protagonist as a male author?

Phil: That idea chimed with another topic that interested me. In terms of women’s equality, there’s been some progress in recent decades, although there’s still a long way to go. Taking that forward I wondered what would happen if men were (more or less) out of the picture? In turn, that pointed towards having a female protagonist. Yes, I was a little worried, but there are lots of precedents for authors who’ve written with opposite-gender protagonists (J K Rowling and Philip Pullman spring immediately to mind), so I knew it could be done!

Phil: How about you, writing a male protagonist in Habitat Man?

Denise:  I admit I was worried that I might get called out or that readers would think my hero was too ‘girly’! I interrogated all the men in my life to the point of discomfort how they felt and would react. Also I have two boys and grew up with a brother which helped.

Denise: What are you hoping readers will take away from the story?

Phil: In the first place, the conviction that these threats are real: it could happen here (and probably will). In that respect, Truth Sister joins a large body of cli-fi literature that’s saying the same thing. And when you get climate-change deniers who are running the most powerful country in the world, you know there’s more work still to be done! But the other theme, and perhaps the more important, is that in the challenging future that lies ahead, we need to co-operate. We need each other.

Phil: Habitat Man has a very light-hearted style, which makes it an easy and fun read – but within that, it covers some serious issues. What would you say is the book’s theme?

Denise: The theme is walking lightly on the earth. Through the main character, Habitat Man, the reader can see the world from the perspective of wildlife, such as worms, birds, hedgehogs, bees etc. But there are also broader themes of love, friendship and parenthood.

Phil: Whereas Truth Sister looks at the rather dystopic consequences of climate change, Habitat Man is more about what we can do at local level to live more sustainably. Do you think it’s maybe time for writers to switch from being “prophets” of Climate Change to looking at the solutions?

Denise: Certainly in the UK, I think if people aren’t aware of the issues it is because they don’t want to be. This is understandable as the climate and diversity crisis is frightening. I decided upon my approach as a result of my research into readers’ responses to short stories with either a catastrophic focus or a solution focus. The solution-focussed stories were much more effective in inspiring proactive behaviour change, especially if characters were role modelling actions readers can easily do themselves. The catastrophic tales inspired some, but just as many switched off. I was also alarmed by recent statistics showing most young people have nightmares about climate change and think humanity is doomed. I don’t want to increase eco-anxiety – I’d rather enable effective action.

Denise: Phil, Considering the key theme of men being seen as evil, do you expect male and female readers of Truth Sister to respond differently?

Phil: In some respects. The sexes have similarities as well as differences, and I hope some of the messages are universal. But I did want to raise questions for the reader, such as, how would a world without (many) men look, and would a matriarchy make the same mistakes as a patriarchy? I don’t know the answers, of course; indeed, there are probably no definitive answers. But it’s certainly worth thinking about.

Denise: A lot has changed already in the 4 years since Truth Sister was first published in terms of the ‘me too ‘ movement. When you republished in 2021 did you make any changes as a result?

Phil: No. The shift in Truth Sister is already a radical one, and although it’s been caused by disease, the establishment view is, at the start of the novel, that men are not to be trusted. I was trying to imagine what would happen if the view that men are the cause of all the world’s evils became dominant.

Phil: The characters in Habitat Man are colourful and diverse, but there are not many who are resistant or opposed to living sustainably. Was it your intention to write it this way?

Denise: The plot is based on a man who reaching 50 who chucks in his job to become Habitat Man, helping to make gardens wildlife friendly. So the people who ask him to visit are necessarily already interested in nature. However in second chapter, he pitches the idea of costing for nature to his firm of financial accountants and he certainly does meet resistance. The scene becomes quite comic, but his frustration is one that many feel. This frustration was portrayed brilliantly by Jennifer Laurence in the Netflix sensation ‘Don’t Look up’.

Phil: In terms of sustainability, have you found that writing Habitat Man has changed your own habits?

Denise: I tried out everything in the book that Habitat Man recommends. I dug a pond and got a couple of frogs visiting it, and last week I saw a newt. I was delighted as I only had room for a small pond.  I got a gorgeous multi-coloured composting toilet from Strumpet and Trollope and installed it in my garden shed for when my son was hogging the bathroom. I lay some meadow mat to attract butterflies and crickets. That was less successful, despite Quality Garden Supplies assuring me it wasn’t plastic backed – it definitely was, so not as great for the wildlife as I’d hoped. This issue made its way into one of my chapters.

Denise: Truth Sister must have involved quite a lot of world building – how did you approach this aspect?

Phil: I asked myself about plausible scenarios for how the various threats might affect the world over the next century, and from that I created started with a timeline of possible world events. To support that I did some research around likely climate change and disease scenarios, for example using Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees and Robert Baker’s Epidemic as well a lot of online resources. And, in guessing how one event might lead to another, I tried to do what detectives in crime novels are supposed to do: follow the money. What would the economic factors be? But all of this was fairly broad-brush. It’s impossible to build down to the smallest details, until you start writing.

Denise: Did you originally plan Truth Sister as a trilogy?

Phil: Yes, I did have it in mind when I started. But the outline plans for Blackwolf (Aelurus Publishing, out in April 2022 and already available to pre-order) and The Scorpion (two-thirds drafted) evolved a lot while I was writing Truth Sister. The main themes continue throughout the three volumes, but where Truth Sister focuses on climate change, books II and III will look at epidemics and at migration and refugees.

Phil: How about you, Denise? What’s your next project?

Denise: I have so many stories stacked up for when I have time to write them. Tim’s back story is waiting to be written as a prequel so we are introduced to him as a 16 year old. To keep Habitat Man down to a reasonable length I had to cut loads of characters and gardens and plot lines so they will make their way into sequels. I also want to do more with the secondary characters, especially in terms of Jo’s (the hero’s best friend) back story. Reader feedback is that some love her and think she is hilarious and others hate her and think Tim would be better off without her. I’d love to give some insight into what has made Jo the way she is today. And of course I’d like to develop the love story with Lori.

However, while I’m still employed as a sustainability academic, I’m focussing on new projects for the Green Stories competitions I run. I’ve done lots of research on the powerful effects of role models, both good and bad (the role models, not my research!) Based on this, I’m launching a new competition with BAFTA to create a short video that raises awareness of the role of fictional role models in promoting sustainable lifestyles, and call out those writers, producers and characters that implicitly promote excessive consumption as an aspiration. I’m very excited about this, as cultural values of consumption are a part of the problem that are rarely debated, and I’m hoping this video will start a conversation around that.

The Green Stories project has also just partnered with the Ecologisers on an Eco Santa competition to make Santa Claus a role model of sustainable consumption. For example one story submitted last year had toys coming from a toy hospital rather than a toy factory, thus implicitly promoting re-use.

But come the summer holidays, I’ll be back at my laptop, working on a prequel to Habitat Man. I can’t wait!

Phil: Denise, thanks so much. It’s been great chatting to you.

Denise: Thank you Phil. It’s lovely to make a connection with other authors with similar aspirations.

Find out more about Habitat Man and Truth Sister.

Denise Baden lives near Southampton by the beautiful riverside park where she is often to be seen walking with her dogs and plotting! Denise has published widely in the academic realm, written 3 screenplays and one musical ‘Fidel’, based on her research on Fidel Castro. This is her first novel.

Phil Gilvin lives with his wife in Swindon, Wiltshire. When his children grew too old to have stories read to them, he turned to writing, winning a number of short story prizes. Truth Sister is his first published novel. His other career is as a scientist (now part-time), and he enjoys walking, listening to classical music and prog rock, and murdering folk songs.

Writing the Real by Catherine Bush

I spent the spring of 2019 at an Institute for Advanced Study in Germany. One evening, in the midst of a conversation about the climate crisis, I asked another Fellow—a methane expert, methane being an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon—what he feared most about the future. Crispr, he said, and a global pandemic. His words haunt me now. Some months ago, I wrote the essay below, about the challenges of representing our current reality in fiction, a reality that includes the climate crisis, our habits of denial, and our comforting belief in a future that resembles the past. Now the world has swerved. Swerves make good fiction, but they can be shocking to live through. The COVID-19 pandemic changes the lens through which we view the climate crisis and the breakdown of the planet’s ecosystems but it doesn’t make these phenomena go away. Mere weeks ago millions of hectares of Australia were burning. We add the pandemic—its viral deaths, our shutdown and disrupted lives, and its proof of the possibility of rapid social change in response to a crisis—to the seams of our world as we speculate about what is to come.

—Catherine Bush, March 31, 2020

Scene 1: Several years ago I was invited by a high-end adventure travel company on an expedition to Sable Island, the thin, ecologically delicate sandbar off the coast of Nova Scotia famous for its population of wild horses and history of shipwrecks. The island had just been turned into a national park. Wondrous as its landscapes were, it was also impossible to miss the oil platforms hovering mistily at the horizon. Over an elaborate lunch in the ship dining room, I described to my tablemates my novel-in-progress, which features an Arctic glaciologist grappling with the ecological wreckage of the world as both a climate scientist and parent, only to be met with the defensive posture of someone with ties to the oil and gas industry: the climate may be changing, but there’s no proof that humans have caused the changes.

*

Scene 2: A couple of years later, I found myself, one March afternoon, in a cabin on the far eastern reaches of Fogo Island, a forty-five-minute ferry ride off the coast of Newfoundland, itself an overnight ferry ride from mainland Canada. Outside, slabs of snow-covered granite, interrupted by stands of spindly and windswept tuckamore, spread to the white and ice-choked North Atlantic. I’d skidooed in to the cabin with two brothers from the community of Tilting, and as we sat there drinking instant coffee by the heat of the woodstove in this utterly remote place, it struck me that in my years of conversation with people on Fogo Island about the weather, people who live intimately connected to land and sea and air, I had yet to meet anyone who denied the existence of human-caused climate change. Nevertheless, many of the new houses in the village of Tilting have been built with money made in the oil sands. 

*

By now most if not all of us will have contended with amplified and more frequent hurricanes, weather fronts shifting with winds so strong they topple trees, so-called hundred-year storms and floods, droughts that keep recurring, perilous proximity to wild fires. Likely all of you reading this accept the science of the climate crisis: that human activity, specifically our burning of fossil fuels and spewing of greenhouse gases into the air, is a driver of atmospheric warming, which in the short term amplifies weather unpredictability and in the long term threatens ecological catastrophe, potentially bringing about our extinction as a species. 

Despite the dire warnings about the radical need to change our behaviour, we mostly go on living in a kind of functional denial of this climate knowledge. We fly, we drive, we cool our over-heated houses with air-conditioning powered by fossil fuels, vote for political parties that support the oil and gas industries, and console ourselves with illusions of continuity. I’m not innocent. I fly less than many people and I obstreperously ask people if they can imagine not flying at all. (I’ve met one person, an environmental lawyer, who has managed this for many years.) But I drive regularly between city and country. I navigate my own seams of contradiction, even hypocrisy. Nevertheless, as a writer, I no longer feel capable of making art that fails to acknowledge the climate crisis and the existential condition in which we all live. 

For six years I’ve been working on a novel that attempts to bring climate science and the climate crisis into a work of literary fiction alongside some of our existential habits of denial. I’m provoked by the question of what literary realism looks like at this moment, in the places I write from on this planet. How do I create a literature that feels real when so many aspects of the lives around me are premised on the most profound fictions: that we can continue to live as we do, those of us lucky enough to be able to privilege our short-term comforts and desires, indulging in the luxury of global mobility and the individual benefits of ideologies of growth and extractivism, while ignoring the profoundly destructive consequences of our behaviour, particularly for those who come after us? What does the project of literary realism, which for the last couple of centuries in the industrialized and capitalist West has largely focused on the interactions of individual human psyches within their social milieu, look like going forward? How do we represent our current reality imaginatively, and, if we’re going to grapple directly with the climate crisis in a literary work, how can we do so artfully rather than swinging about with an apocalyptic sledgehammer? 

I’m drawn to thinking about my own first novel, Minus Time, published twenty-six years ago in 1993. It’s narrated by Helen Urie, a young Canadian woman struggling to come to terms with an ecologically fragile world and with an astronaut mother attempting to set a record for orbital space habitation. The novel grew out of the collision between my childhood love of the Apollo space missions and my lifelong feeling of interconnection with the rest of the living world. Even as a child, the Christian idea of human “dominion,” aka our exceptionalism, made no sense to me. While her mother circles the planet, Helen’s fascination with a group of animal-rights activists heightens and she gets pulled into their increasingly large-scale protests as nonviolent eco-warriors. 

When I wrote the novel in my twenties, I saw it emphatically as a work of realism, even as my intentions were to break through the borders of a normative domestic realism that to my mind never felt real enough. Yet when I mentioned that there was an astronaut in the novel, people often asked me if I were writing science fiction, as if I’d somehow veered into the speculative even though astronauts, including female astronauts, were as real in the 1990s as they are today—one being Canadian neurologist Roberta Bondar, who flew on an American space shuttle mission in 1992. Animal-rights activists and slaughterhouses were also just as real then as now, and I wanted to embed them in a work of realist literary fiction, to expand the map of the imaginary by making animal-rights activists and female astronauts as real on the page as they were actually real. 

*

A few years ago it was a commonplace to lament the dearth of writers and artists responding to the climate and biospheric crises in their work. This is changing. But the challenge of how to do so remains and, like the changes to the weather itself, only grows more amplified. 

The climate crisis is both real and hyper-real, so existentially enormous it’s virtually impossible to imagine. In fact, we have no idea what’s coming. We have scientific probabilities as a prognosticator of looming social collapse brought on by increasing weather extremes and food and water insecurity. Yet we can only ever imagine a future based on the past, and the past becomes less a guide all the time to what lies ahead. 

While the conversation about the climate crisis seems to be gaining momentum as the timeline for meaningful societal change shortens, most people still don’t want to think very much about these matters because the subject is so overwhelmingly depressing. And terrifying. This makes it hard to figure out how to give climate issues an imaginative form other than as a disaster narrative that still risks being overwhelmed by the narrative arc of reality. On the one hand, nothing seems to be changing at all, so much human activity all around me continuing to ignore impacts known for decades; on the other hand, as the pace of climate disaster accelerates, the cultural conversation does seem to be shifting—witness the rise of Extinction Rebellion as a global movement and the strikes led by youth activist Greta Thunberg. How can fiction that isn’t written at breakneck speed capture something of these contradictory realities, too?

Here’s another problem: paradoxically, the more we talk about our actual predicament, the harder it becomes to represent it imaginatively. Through repetition, the climate crisis risks becoming a cliché on the page, overburdened with overwhelming, unchanging significance—even as it simultaneously exists as an uncanny, unaddressed presence, or present absence, in many lives. 

All fiction written now is climate fiction, I would argue. More usually the term refers to a genre of fiction that addresses the climate crisis directly, often within the broader genre of speculative fiction, but this compartmentalization enacts its own denials. All writers today write in relation to the climate and ecological crises, our planetary emergency, whether these things are acknowledged or not. Because this existential condition is at the core of our current reality, it infects all attempts at artistic realism. Literature is an art of navigating between presences and absences, making the usually unseen visible and reversing disappearances large and small. Yet writers also leave traces of unacknowledged absences for others to notice. Whether or not it is on the page, the climate crisis imparts meaning: its presence or absence denotes something. 

In her article “Climate Change and the Struggle for Genre,” which appears in a 2017 anthology, Anthropocene Reading (Penn State University Press), American academic Stephanie Lemenager writes:

The question of what it means to be human in this ecological moment and how to narrate the problem of ‘being human’ lies at the center of Anthropocene thinking.

The term Anthropocene may be a contested one. In geological terms our impact may remain small over timespans of billions of years, but Lemenager’s words can serve as a useful guide for thinking about contemporary literary realism. 

*

William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, first performed in 1611, opens with a stage-wracking storm. In his essay “Enter Anthropocene, 1610,” American professor Steve Mentz notes that Europeans rarely encountered hurricanes before the early-modern period. Following the argument of geographers Lewis and Maslin, Mentz proposes the early-seventeenth century as the beginning of this new geological epoch, one defined by a human presence powerful enough to leave a mark on the geological record, with rising global trade and colonialism as its initial drivers. Hurricanes are a New World weather phenomenon. As European navigators struggled to contend with them, Shakespeare sends one onto the stage. Audiences of the time would have seen not just a terrifying storm but something larger: unfamiliar, symbolic, epochal. 

The novel I’m working on, set in an approximate now, opens with a Category Five hurricane that has churned up the east coast of North America, leaving devastation in its wake. Tugged by warming ocean water, it swerves farther north than expected, side-swiping the small island where the novel is set. Every hurricane we encounter now, in life and on the page, becomes larger than itself, literally and metaphorically, by simultaneously embodying the climatic forces that humans have unleashed, leading to new forms of chaos. In the words of American writer Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), “We live in the gap between the wind and the whirlwind.”

*

In 2006, I saw a production of The Tempest by the Royal Shakespeare Company, featuring Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame as the magician Prospero. Deposed from his dukedom, Prospero ends up fleeing to an isolated island with his young daughter, where he seizes control of this world and all its elements. He commands the wind and waves. As the play opens, he conjures a huge storm to entrap the enemies he’s lured to the island. Often Prospero is played as an aging sorcerer. By contrast, Stewart was a virile and forceful presence, hunter and autocrat, still angry as the play ends at being compelled to relinquish his power. The production was set in the bleached world of the high Arctic, which is in fact a world of islands. 

Many artists, historical and contemporary, have reworked The Tempest to their own purposes. The play has offered strong fodder for post-colonial retellings, such as Martinique writer Aimé Césaire’s 1969 play Une Tempête, which shifts focus to the subaltern characters, particularly Caliban, the island native enslaved by Prospero. In Julie Taymor’s film version, Prospero becomes a woman, Prospera, played by Helen Mirren. The play has also been written about in eco-critical terms, which I didn’t know when I began to think about Prospero, the weather changer, as a kind of proto-twenty-first-century human, man of the Anthropocene, who, in my novel, shapeshifts into a climate scientist. 

Shakespeare’s Prospero, too absorbed in his books and study, is accused of witchcraft and deposed by his conniving brother. My scientist, Milan Wells, a glaciologist engaged in studying ice cores extracted from northern glaciers, is set upon by climate-change deniers in a scenario that loosely follows the contours of what happened to actual scientists in 2009, in the series of events dubbed Climategate, just before the COP15 conference in Copenhagen. A server at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit was hacked, and email correspondence, released by deniers, was framed in such a way as to alter sense. UEA scientists and others, including American Michael Mann, were accused of fudging data to show warming; they were guilty, deniers claimed, of perpetuating a hoax. The events received massive mainstream press; the scientists in question, while ultimately vindicated, faced enormous short-term pressure. 

My scientist, his realistic career in tatters, flees to a fictional version of Fogo Island. Here, in the North Atlantic, he discovers real subarctic flora on the island’s ocean side. Every spring and summer, icebergs, pulled south from the Arctic Ocean by the Labrador current, float past: huge, sepulchral monuments to a vanishing world. While he comes seeking refuge, determined to leave the rest of the damaged world behind, he also arrives at a place where he becomes a fictional frontline witness to actual environmental disruption.

“I have done nothing but in care of thee,” Prospero says passionately to his daughter Miranda. How does an Anthropocene parent, a climate scientist no less, best care for his child? His knowledge of our predicament is a burden he cannot escape. This is Milan Wells’ quandary. The novel is narrated by the recipients of his troubled and sometimes troubling care: his daughter, Miranda, and the young local man, Caleb Borders, once almost a son, whom he employs. In the novel’s present, both Miranda and Caleb are engaged in trying to discover what Milan Wells is up to. Is he actually monitoring the weather, as he claims, or something else? What is the nature of the mysterious field experiments that he has conducted and in which Caleb has been an unwitting assistant? Why has Milan Wells brought three younger scientists to the island, and later three more disturbing visitors: a flamboyant airline magnate, the magnate’s financier brother, and an economist who doubles as a “famous” climate-change denier?

*

When father and daughter first arrive on Blaze Island, driving off the ferry into thick fog, Milan, intent on hiding his past as a climate scientist, elicits a promise from her: they are never to mention the word climate to each other or anyone else. I can’t claim this as an entirely original literary gesture. In 2014, American writer Nathaniel Rich published Odds Against Tomorrow, a novel in which a disaster climate modeller working for corporations confronts a New York swamped by a huge hurricane eerily similar to Hurricane Sandy, which went howling through Manhattan just as Rich was proofreading his novel. In the book Rich refuses ever to mention the words “climate change.” As he explained in a 2013 NPR interview:

I think the language around climate change is horribly bankrupt and, for the most part [is full of] examples of bad writing, really. Climate change as a phrase is cliché. Global warming is a cliché.

I decided to create a more active void, characters who refuse to speak the words “climate change” while the weather changes around them accumulate. 

When I began work on the novel, I had a conversation with the director of Cape Farewell, a cultural organization that has brought writers and artists, including Ian McEwan, author of the climate-fiction novel Solar, on boat trips to the Arctic to confront the realities of climate change in that landscape. I told him that I intended to have my scientist contemplate climate engineering—intentional tampering with the atmosphere in order to counter anthropogenic warming. He told me I shouldn’t write about climate engineering because this seductive and perhaps impossible detour from the real work of getting humans off carbon was ethically bankrupt. A dangerous fantasy. In life, I have profound moral questions about extreme forms of climate engineering. Perhaps we’ll figure out ways to capture carbon. Biological carbon sinks may make sense, but injecting particles into the upper atmosphere to create a haze that reflects back solar rays in order to mitigate warming fills me with horror. Yet such plans are indeed being investigated by real scientists such as Canadian David Keith, now at Harvard. This seemed all the more reason to write about these things as a phenomenon for fictional humans to wrestle with. In fact, it felt like a necessary form of realism. 

Imagine you are a climate scientist with a child; your research, gathered from Arctic ice cores, offers evidence of ongoing warming trends; you publish your data; you breach expected scientific objectivity to offer public warnings about the risks of rising C02 levels. When you are accused of data fraud, and abandon academia, you create a new life close to nature, teaching your child an intimate attention to the natural world and practical survival skills, which may be the best schooling you can offer her for what lies ahead. Still, atmospheric carbon levels keep going up and Arctic ice keeps melting. Can climate engineering, in such conditions of extremity, be conceptually entertained as a form of parental care by a parent determined to do everything possible to protect his child from the worst of possible futures? 

Fiction doesn’t need to answer this question, only pose it, and a novel poses questions by embodying them in urgently imagined bodies and consciousnesses, set in motion to con- front the world through brain and gut, amid a matrix of emotion and sensation and memory. Fiction creates possible worlds and lives in their vivid particulars: this is the core of its realism. It gives body and voice to incompatible truths, to contradictions and self-contradictions. It creates experiential complexity. This is at the core of its art. Paradoxically, through little black marks on a page, fiction offers, in the words of Scottish dance artist Paul Michael Henry, “an embodied response to the situation,” the situation being our predicament at this moment of ecological unravelling. 

I remember being at the Climate Engineering Conference in Berlin in 2014, a conference notable for its intense interdisciplinarity, so many singular intelligences fixed on the problem of how to address rising emissions and climatic disruptions. The conference rooms were also filled with fear. One night, as we gathered in the city’s Museum of Natural History surrounded by the skeletons of dinosaurs, I listened to an American diplomat who’d worked for the Clinton administration give voice to his terror. At an afternoon session, a researcher from the South Pacific grew furious at northerners for ignoring the extreme risks faced by those in the global south. Objectivity has its place, but it is only one way of knowing, one particular way of exercising brain and body in relation to the world around us. It has its own self-confirmation biases. “Science,” says American ecological theorist Donna Haraway, “is a set of situated practices.”

In a 2018 New York Times Magazine feature, French philosopher Bruno LaTour argues that the idea that we can stand back and behold nature at a distance, as something discrete from our actions, is an illusion. As he described flying over the fissured ice sheets of Baffin Island on his way to give a talk in Calgary about obsolete notions of nature, he told an audience,

My activity in this plane going to Canada was actually having an effect on the very spectacle of nature that I was seeing. In that sense, there is no outside anymore.

There never has been, a knowledge that indigenous cultures in particular have sustained while Western thought insisted on human superiority and that the rest of the world was mere material for our use. 

Other ways of knowing enmesh us with our own subjectivities and reveal our porousness to a world that we are never separate from. A novel is one such mode of thought, a way of querying scientific “objectivity” while inviting us into that porousness. 

*

In choosing to narrate my novel from the perspective of two younger characters, I wanted to acknowledge the limits of my own expertise and to view climate science through the experiential lens of those who are not scientists, as most of us are not. I also wanted to embody less obvious forms of climate denial—that of a young woman strenuously protected by a knowledgeable parent, a scientist whose fears seep out no matter how he tries to hide them. How does she come to her own knowing of a changed and changing world, knowledge that she can inhabit, that is not wholly shaped by her father’s terror, that offers her agency and a way to look forward? The human response to the anthropogenic climate crisis is often an intergenerational struggle, one in which, as Greta Thunberg has declared, adults often behave like children and children are compelled to hold the adults in power to account. 

“Climate change, as many have observed, appears to detach atmospheric knowledge from atmospheric sensation,” writes literary scholar Thomas H. Ford. “Climate is global, a statistical construction of highly abstract and mediated modes of knowledge. Whatever the weather around you at any given moment, it is never climate, let alone climate change.” Yet we can and do experience change, and we experience it constantly, incrementally, disruptively, sometimes even cataclysmically. My character Miranda Wells, alert to every shift of wind direction, senses the changes that adolescence brings to her body even as she notices the new birds arriving on the island: the grosbeaks, the goldfinches, the flocks of robins. She lives through worsening storms. She encounters melting icebergs, broken off the Greenland ice sheet, whose fragments she and others gather along the shore and put in their drinks, dissolving ancient ice and air into their own bodies, as I myself have done. 

We hunger for stories because by their nature they embody principles of transformation. They are temporal beings, as humans are. In a story, something changes. In older forms of poetry, a rhyme is not a word that repeats over and over but similar words that enact change even as they recall each other, scoring grooves in our memory. Confronting change in its deepest form means facing our own mortality, since for us change inevitably leads to loss and death.

 But experiences of change also connect us to everything else on this planet: life forms, weather system, earth system, oceans. Even mountains weather. A novel can be a zone for activating these webs of connection, inviting us to leap not only into other humans but beyond—into caribou and hawk and lichen, into wind and cloud and ice and sea and air. To become other, become nature. A novel shifts our attention, seriously and playfully. It offers its own modes of concentration, bringing order and unpredictability together. In its very form it opens us to transformation—taking us out of a realm of endless traumatic repetition and offering up the slim, temporary yet nevertheless real possibility of accessing other ways of being.

This essay was originally featured in Canadian Notes & Queries. Find out more about Blaze Island.

Catherine Bush is the author of five novels, including Blaze Island (2020), a Globe & Mail Best Book, and The Rules of Engagement (2000), a New York Times Notable Book and a Globe & Mail and L.A. Times Best Book of the Year. Her books have been shortlisted for the Trillium and City of Toronto Book Awards in Canada. She was a 2019 Fiction Meets Science Fellow at the HWK in Germany and has written and spoken internationally about responding to the climate crisis through fiction. She is the Coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA, located in Toronto.

Mess with the climate and it will bite back

Marissa Slaven and Bill McGuire discuss their eco-thrillers, and how their work as a palliative care physician and UCL Professor Emeritus respectively have effected their fiction writing.

In Bill McGuire’s Skyseed, a clandestine attempt to tackle global heating using untried and untested technology threatens to bring about a climate cataclysm. Under constant threat of assassination, three scientists struggle to expose the plot and stop the project in its tracks, but could it already be too late?

Jane Haliwell put her head in her hands. To tell the truth, she was still in shock. All the samples she had taken from inside and around the lab contained the enigmatic spheres in huge numbers. She had only had a brief time to think about the implications, but she was pretty sure already what was going on.

For the first time in the history of the world, it was literally raining carbon. Long before it stopped, the guilty would pay, but so would the innocent…

Marissa Slaven’s Code Red is the sequel to Code Blue, which she discussed in a previous issue of the newsletter here. It is set in the not to distant future when the climate crisis is even worse but the nations of the world have truly united in a serious effort to fix things. It picks up with our hero Tic returning to North Eastern Science Academy after her adventures in the North Atlantic. After a hurricane and a big fight with her boyfriend she’s very happy to go with Uncle Al to Montana for school break. There she encounters plenty of natural disasters, but the real danger comes in human form. The secret sect determined to bring about the end of the world is on to her and they are pissed!

A truck. A huge black semi drops out of the sky.

Danny turns hard to the right and slams on the brakes, but we are going too fast. The driver’s side of our pickup slams into it. The momentum throws Uncle Al into me and I press into Danny. There’s a shriek of metal on metal as our truck scrapes along the roof of the semi, lying on its side, until we come to a full stop. After so much violent noise, I can suddenly hear my own screams in the stillness.

Marissa: It’s always interesting to me to see how different cli-fi writers entered the field. You are a Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. Why did you decide to write fiction?

Bill: Actually, it’s been a very natural progression. Over time, my writing career seems to have moved of its own accord, from a focus on scientific papers, through newspaper and magazine articles and popular science books, to short stories and – ultimately – my debut novel, Skyseed. I still write papers and articles, but I feel that telling stories is a far more accessible way of getting across to people the critical nature of the climate emergency. I have to say, it is also a great deal more fun that pulling together a dry journal paper.

As a palliative care physician, you work in a very different field, so I wonder what inspired you to write?

Marissa: I have always been an avid reader. I was inspired to try writing fiction after reading several novels where the heroine saved the world with her physical skills. I kept looking for a girl who could save the world using her intelligence. I came up with the idea that such a hero might be battling climate change and then I had to learn about the climate crisis so that I could write the novel. The more I learned about the climate the more passionate I became and that in turn inspired me to keep writing. Palliative care is all about facing up to very unpleasant realities in order to make the best possible decisions and use of time, so I believe my experiences have better equipped me to learn about the climate crisis.

Bill: I can definitely see there is a real connection there. What do you hope your novels Code Red and Code Blue might accomplish?

Marissa: I hope that readers might pick up a few titbits of information, but more importantly I want my novels to give readers a bit of hope. In them, I imagine a future that – while still terrible in its climate catastrophes’- is at least striving towards a better future. I also really want readers to be engaged and entertained! What about you?

Bill: Principally, that readers sit back when they have finished and think, ‘I enjoyed that’. More than this, the narrative is pretty grim at times, and I would hope that this would arouse deep feelings within the reader. I know that some people have said the book terrified them, and others that it made them cry, which is all to the good.

As is appropriate at the height of the climate emergency, Skyseed also carries an important message, which is: ‘mess intentionally with the climate and it will bite back’. As the idea of so-called geoengineering gains credence and support, people need to know that it is a very bad thing.

Marissa: You have way more science creds than I do, so I have to ask, how realistic is your book?

Bill: Well, the self-reproducing nanobots that threaten climate cataclysm in Skyseed don’t exist. Nonetheless, I was somewhat shocked to read, recently, that scientists have built self-replicating artificial lifeforms called xenobots, so maybe I should add ‘yet’ to that statement. Other than this, I think the consequences of a massive, rapid, fall in atmospheric carbon, are pretty accurately portrayed. Code Red strikes me as very authentic too.

Marissa: It really is! I tried very hard to keep every bit of science in my novels accurate even though I don’t have your background. That said, is it realistic that in my novels I imagine governments all working together to fight climate change? Hmmm…well that gets into politics. So let me ask you this, the bad guys in your novel are mostly politicians, tell me about that decision.

Bill: It would be great if politicians around the world worked together to tackle the climate emergency, and I hope that this comes to pass before it is too late. At the moment, however, I feel that politicians – as a body – simply don’t ‘get’ global heating and the existential threat it presents, and most don’t want to. The idea that the status quo – meaning unfettered free-market capitalism – must be maintained at all costs is ingrained. They are in thrall to growth and GDP increase and, I believe, will do anything to keep it that way, despite the fact that this is impossible on a small planet with limited resources. It has to be said that, at the moment, politicians are more to blame than any other group for the fact that we can no longer side-step dangerous climate breakdown.

Marissa: But for those of us lucky enough to live in a democracy we elect our politicians so I could argue that we are responsible on that count. I could, but I think that you are correct that the problem all around is capitalism.

Bill: Agreed, but in your novels the bad guys seem to be religious fringe types. Why did you decide to go in that direction?

Marissa: You’re right they are very fringe, but I don’t feel they are actually religious, but rather that they each use religion as a mask or an excuse to serve their own needs and desires. In fact, each of my ‘bad guys’ truly has other deeper, more personal reasons, for their actions. These have to do with greed, with insecurity and ultimately with the need to be loved, which is revealed or hinted at in their back stories and may come out even more if there is another book in the series. There are clearly many religious people in our world who take their responsibilities to all creation very seriously and I give them total credit for that.

Bill: Indeed there are, and we could do with many more of them.

Marissa: I noticed that several of your characters are scientists and academics. Are there any of your characters in SkySeed that you particularly identified with?

Bill: Yes, scientists do play a big role, which I think is inevitable given the technical nature of the plot. Essentially, my characters are amalgams, pulled together from the best and worst bits of colleagues I have known over the years. If I were to identify with one, it would probably be Karl, the only difference being that while I matured over time, he – in many ways – remains unadulterated by the passing years.

Marissa: That’s interesting because Tic matures some between Code Blue and Code Red. She is less naïve and less impulsive, and I attribute this to her significant experiences in Code Blue. I found it very difficult to write about her killing someone. I managed to sidestep it in Code Blue, but realized I wasn’t going to be able to avoid it forever. I have no personal experience, but I can’t help but believe that killing someone, even in self-defence, changes a person. I felt bad about that.

Bill: You’re right, killing someone off – even in a book – can be somewhat traumatic. Killing off Jane was certainly hard. It may have seemed a bit harsh, and a number of readers said it made them cry, but it just felt right. Despite her upbeat nature, she had been ground down by events across the decades that followed the murder of her son, and simply had nothing left to live for.

Marissa: I found it sad but completely realistic that Jane died. I believed that she was worn by the events and that the world she was living in was very bleak. Do you think your novel is overly pessimistic about the future?

Bill: There is little chance that the outcome I present in Skyseed will come about, but in other ways I don’t feel it is pessimistic at all. Burning all fossil fuel reserves will result in a planet with an average global temperature in excess of 30°C (it is currently less than 15°C), which would make most of our world uninhabitable. Without huge emissions cuts in the next seven or eight years, the future does look pretty bleak, and this just doesn’t look as if it’s going to happen.

Marissa: If I only thought about decreasing or even stopping all emissions, I would say that we are cooked. I think the answer needs to include drawing down CO2 levels and there are already many natural ways to do that. What we are lacking is not the science to keep the planet liveable but the will to implement solutions. Is it overly optimistic to imagine that we can have the will? I don’t think so. Historically, how society organizes itself has changed drastically many times, so I know that it is possible. I’m not saying there won’t be many lives lost but I’m not without hope.

Bill: You are absolutely right, the will to change is critical. If we wanted to, we could easily roll back on emissions as the science demands, but everyone – from individuals to governments would need to be onboard. There is always hope that this will happen before a climate cataclysm is upon us, and I would never want to say otherwise. Hope is an important message, especially for younger readers, who I am guessing you are aiming at?

Marissa: Yes, Code Red is intended for young adults, ages 12 and up. That said I have had readers as young as 8 and as old as 81. One of the things about YA fiction is that it is very accessible to people of all ages. I think it is really important to help empower all people with information but I feel we owe young people a huge debt for the world they are inheriting from us. What about Skyseed? Who do you picture reading it?

Bill: Setting aside any deeper messages, I would describe Skyseed as a fast-paced techno-thriller, at heart, with speculative fiction overtones, and a grim theme. As such, I would hope anyone keen on a good adventure story, science fiction, or even a who-done-it, would enjoy it.

Marissa: I definitely enjoyed the thriller aspect of the novel. I don’t want to give too much away but those characters who speak out against geoengineering often come to bad ends. Have you received any negative feedback around how geoengineering is portrayed in your novel?

Bill: At least for the present, there is an overwhelming consensus that resorting to any form of geoengineering to attempt to put the global heating genie back in the bottle is a very bad idea. Consequently, I have had nothing but support. No doubt this will change when and if support for techie tinkering with the climate builds, as it inevitably will.

[Ed – read our essay on Geoengineering by David Barker here]

Marissa: I really enjoyed Skyseed and have enjoyed this chance to talk with you about it. I’m sure folks are wondering what you are working on next?

Bill: Wearing my popular science writer’s hat, I have just finished putting together Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant’s Guide (publishing Aug 22). As you can probably glean from the title, it is not an optimistic book. Based upon the latest research and observation, it starts from the premise that it is now practically impossible for us to dodge dangerous climate breakdown, and goes on to look at what sort of world this will bring. I also have a couple of YA projects on the go. How about you?

Marissa: During COVID I’ve been learning screenwriting and hope to have a few things coming out in the next while. Maybe when I’m good enough at it I will try to tackle the Code books either for a film or television series.

Find out more about Code Red and Skyseed.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London, a co-director of the New Weather Institute, and was a contributor to the 2012 IPCC report on climate change and extreme events. His books include A Guide to the End of the World: Everything you Never Wanted to Know and Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes. He writes for many publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Observer, New Scientist, Focus and Prospect, and blogs for the New Weather Institute, Scientists for Global Responsibility, Extinction Rebellion and Operation Noah.

Read his recent article for New ScientistClimate fiction has come of age – and these fabulous books show why’.

Marissa Slaven was born and raised in Montreal by parents who taught her that it was her responsibility to do her part to make the world a better place. She has been helping people in her role as a palliative care physician for twenty-five years and she continues to get great satisfaction from this work. She is the mother of three grown children and two dogs. Marissa loves interacting with her readers and speaking with young people about the environment. She recently completed Code Red, the sequel to Code Blue, and is working on a screenplay account of her great-uncle’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

Writing the Human Element Into Climate Change Via Those Most At Risk by Claire Holroyde

It was easy to be distracted at the start of 2017 when I was writing a manuscript about a potentially cataclysmic event. It wasn’t the one I feared, nor was it the one lying in wait at the turn of 2020. I focused on a plot with cosmic collisions; comets and asteroids are fascinating, after all. They held my attention until I couldn’t ignore current events that read more and more like the science fiction I was crafting.

That year, the incoming Trump administration removed all mention of climate change from the White House website in January, and ordered the US Environmental Protection Agency to do the same. The following month, Trump acted with his majority in Congress to revoke the Stream Protection Rule, which had placed certain restrictions on the disposal of mining waste in waterways, and confirm Scott Pruitt as the new head of the EPA. While he was Oklahoma’s acting Attorney General, Pruitt had often sued the agency to challenge its regulations. All around me, there was a backlash against environmental protection, science, and truth itself.

Writing a novel about saving the only known life-sustaining planet in our galaxy compelled me to save the Earth in our own timeline. So I began researching the last wild places on Earth: the Amazon and the Arctic, where the last battles against the climate crisis will be waged. For humanity to survive, it must stem the burning of the Amazon, halt the melting of the Arctic, and prevent the further rise of global temperatures and the extreme weather that results from it.

I studied first-hand accounts of those landscapes in writing, photography, and video because I couldn’t physically travel to the South American equator and the northern pole (I had a full-time job and those ecosystems would likely kick my ass; being hostile to human habitation is how they survived in our Anthropocene age). But I had to tread carefully; as The Economist has stated, “Climate change is a notoriously tough subject for novelists,” a fact that is as real to me now as it was in 2017.

One big reason for that: A story about climate change needs an ambassador for the cause. For many people, the facts just don’t make a difference; ecocide, deforestation, and the loss of species that are evolutionary marvels just don’t register. At least, that has usually been the outcome of my own discussions around climate change. Only when humans are affected directly, do others feel compelled enough to act. I needed a real human story as a basis to inspire empathy and show the threat of extinction to a people, as well as the creatures that surround them.

That was when it became clear to me that my story needed to feature the Wayãpi of the Nipukú River, one of the last Indigenous tribes to exist completely independently of modern technology. Most other such tribes had been wiped out or forcibly assimilated by 1974, the year that anthropological linguist Alan Tormaid Campbell arrived in the Wayãpi village by the Nipukú in his account Getting to Know Waiwai. These Wayãpi came close to extinction when their numbers dwindled down to only one village with 152 people. Here was the potential permanent loss of a people, a culture, and a language; here were my ambassadors.

I couldn’t find any current information on the Wayãpi, although the different spellings of their name—Wayapí, Waiapi, Wayampi, Wajãpi, etc.—made research difficult. I feverishly hoped that they were still living in the northeastern forests of Brazil and surviving invasion from illegal gold panners, loggers, missionaries, disease, and deforestation. Today, the forest where they lived was burning at such magnitude that the astronauts on the International Space Station could see the fires at night.

As I wrote a chapter about those astronauts, the Wayãpi hit the news after almost four decades. Michel Temer, Brazil’s president, issued a decree that removed protection from a large area of Amazon forest that included eight conservation parks and two Indigenous land reserves. Environmental activists alerted the international press and journalists followed up on the story. With the world watching, a federal judge blocked the decree. Temer was not a king, but a president that needed approval from his National Congress.

However, this was only one victory among the many environmental defeats in Brazil. From 2006 through 2017, the country lost around 91,890 square miles of forest, which scales to an area larger than New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Connecticut combined; mass destruction had happened in just in ten years, and fires kept spreading into the future. In the fall of 2018, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro as its 38th president. He wasted no time on his agenda, announcing, “Where there is Indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it.” Bolsonaro attacked the legal protection granted to Brazil’s 305 ethnic groups, the last stewards of the Amazon forest.

This is what the Wayãpi ambassador in my story faced. He has two names—Gustavo, a Brazilian name given by a missionary, and his Wayãpi name, Wanato—and I hope he can bear witness to this destruction.

Now, my manuscript had two potential apocalypses included. But I was going to need heroes to save the planet—lots of them. It’s no wonder that I chose scientists. During a rise in nationalist politics when our new president pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement and walked away from a pact with our allies, I created characters that knew how to reach across borders and collaborate for the greater good.

Most of my characters were invented, like Dr. Benjamin Schwartz from NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, Dr. Maya Gutiérrez from UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, and Dr. Zhen Liu from China National Space Administration. Chapter by chapter, these characters demonstrate the cooperation, ingenuity and altruism of our species when the chips are down.

Heroes like these exist throughout history. In fact, some of my characters are modeled after specific instances of them. Dr. Siegfried “Ziggy” Divjak is inspired by Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker, the Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hecker collaborated with Russian nuclear physicists—former enemies—to secure nuclear arsenals during growing unrest. He’s the perfect example of how scientists have fought to protect our future—sometimes from ourselves.

I had all the characters I needed to save the planet and complete the manuscript. I found a literary agent at the end of the year, and then a publisher in early 2019. Together, we titled the book The Effort for the work that is done by Indigenous peoples like the Wayãpi, environmental activists, and scientists that point to danger and plead: Don’t look away.

This essay was originally published on Lithub here. The Effort by Claire Holroyde is available now.

Claire Holroyde is a graphic designer, writer, and storyteller living in the Philadelphia metro area. Her novel The Effort is sci-fi for readers of Station Eleven and Good Morning, Midnight, an electric, heart-pounding novel of love and sacrifice that follows people around the world as they unite to prevent a global catastrophe.

Sentient Trees and Hungry Crocodiles

Bren MacDibble and Bijal Vachharajani discuss their childrens books, set at sea and on land.

Bijal: Sometimes the clichés just become the truth. I had an early morning meeting the next day, but there was Neoma making her way in the most perilous of journeys to the Valley of the Sun, and that’s it, I spent most of my night reading Bren MacDibble’s Across the Risen Sea.

Like the waterbody it’s set in, this middle grade book is full of unexpected twists and turns, joy and darkness, depth and frothiness, and the uncanny ability to sit in the present while looking towards a future shaped by the before-times. Here the before-times is where climate change turned farmlands into ‘salty swamps’ and cyclones destroyed many homes and the sea took everything everyone owned. Now Neoma and Jag’s families live gentle lives on high ground enveloped by the risen sea. Their lives change even more when strangers from the mysterious Valley of the Sun arrive and Neoma has to cross this sea to help her best friend and her community. A sweeping story of the climate crisis, social justice, fast friendships, and what home means in a changed world.

Bren: I hope you got your eyelids closed for a couple of moments before that early morning meeting! Savi and the Memory Keeper is a book I found enchanting on so many levels especially the major themes: connection and loss.

A little background: It’s a story about a girl who loses her father and they move to his childhood home to take over a family apartment. She loses not only her father, but the only home she’s ever known, her friends and her school. Savi’s sister and her mother are processing grief in very personal ways so she’s struggling to process her grief alone. She’s the only one up to caring for all the plants they bring with them that were her father’s. Savi feels a connection to him when she starts out but suddenly every plant she touches stirs up vivid magical memories of her father. This extends into her new school where an ancient tree grows. Then the tree shows her other visions and it becomes clear this tree and the whole city need her help. Initially, she keeps her visions to herself but other people are aware of her gift, those who want to help and those who want to stop her and it’s very hard for Savi to navigate them and this bizarre gift she definitely does not want, but one that also connects her to her dead father.

Bijal: I have to ask! You are an expert on being a kid on the land. How did you write such an immersive sea book?

Bren: I’ve always loved being near the sea, in the sea. Growing up in New Zealand, the sea was never too far away. I guess it’s a Kiwi thing? Childhoods spent digging toes in the sand for pippi! I have only been sailing a few times but I live right on the sea.

There’s so many moments of loss in Savi and the Memory Keeper, not only of Savi’s father, but also the connection with her remaining family, as well as the dwindling biodiversity and the loss of mild weather and clean air. This is a loss that we feel all around the world with dwindling ecosystems and wild weather events causing more devastation. Also in a COVID world, a lot more people are feeling the loss of a loved one and that loss can overwhelm our environmental losses as it does with Savi when she first moves to Shajarpur.

Was it a conscious decision on your part to entwine these two losses and have Savi bounce back and forth between them? Is this a reflection of something we’re all doing right now?

Bijal: Savi and Tree’s story comes from many places, from the day I stepped out a few weeks after a deeply personal loss, of the changing planet and the grief that comes from it, and the isolation of the COVID-changed world in which so many of us turned to our windows for comfort. I started drawing parallels between different kinds of grief as I turned to the clouds outside my balcony, and the trees around me for conversation. While I was forgetting the keys outside my door in my grief fugue, I began thinking about this environmental generational amnesia that we are facing collectively. It just happened that I started writing about all of this, reluctantly. Just trying to make sense of this strange new world, and also the familiarity and recuperative power of all things green and magical became Savi and the Memory Keeper.

How did Across the Risen Sea come about?

Bren: I was travelling Australia in a bus and I loved how many features in the landscapes were carved out by the great inland seas of the past, but I saw how coastal erosion was affecting small towns. I felt like the inland seas were returning. I was also following the plight of many Pasifika nations and Jakarta dealing with water inundation and it all seemed suddenly very close. Jakarta draws up massive amounts of groundwater that destabilise the land under the city. Parts of Jakarta have sunk two metres in the last ten years. Sea level rising has only got more mentions in the news since, so I feel like I’m writing real fears into survival scenarios.

My friend Gabi Wang pointed out a while ago, it feels like children’s writers are all writing our childhood selves over and over as if we can repair ourselves. Has the loss of family or of environment affected you personally the way it affects Savi in your book? What are you repairing?

Bijal: I so resonate with your friend, I was completely bewildered by the world as a child, lost in one of my own making – from making up stories to even an imaginary dog. Maybe hat’s why my protagonists– whether it’s the children of A Cloud Called Bhura or Savi –seek refuge in books, animals and trees. Yet, they are very unlike me, because in fiction I can give them a lot more agency than what I had. I always wanted to do things, like try out for a play or raise my hand in class, but no, it just did not happen. (I lost my partner three years ago, and the only way I center myself is by writing. Even though I am a reluctant writer.)

The jerky-walking crab baby is going to haunt me a long time. Could you tell us more about our present and how it becomes Neoma and Jag’s before-times?

Bren: Ha! This is where our books cross over the most. Tree loss and soil degradation is a major player in sea level rising. A land full of living roots and water ways lined with trees can hold so much more water mostly due to the actions of the mycorrhizal fungi mentioned in your book and their secretions of sticky substances that allow water to go deep into the soil. Also, of course, global warming accelerated by us continuing to cling to fossil fuels is speeding the melting of the poles and glaciers. We’re entering a period of wilder weather which brings coastal erosion. I mention a particularly bad summer of cyclones in Across the Risen Sea as a major contributor to the flooding.

Speaking of mycorrizal fungi, the connectivity of the trees was an amazing feature of Savi and the Memory Keeper and a topic we’re all becoming increasingly familiar with and love to hear about. You’ve shown that the trees are sentient and connected but you’ve given them a kind of royal tree that is magically sentient, talks to Savi and the other trees and tries to protect all the trees in the city of Sharjarpur. I loved that it made them all flower and enrapture people at once! How much are trees actually connected and sentient in real life? How important are trees to our environment?

Bijal: I read about the Wood Wide Web and Dr Suzanne Simard’s research, and it just blew my mind. I researched non-stop, read books and watched videos, went on walks and spoke to naturalists, and that’s how Tree came into being, inspired by the mother trees. It’s amazing how forest trees communicate, there’s drama in the underland, how they share nutrients, sunlight, information. And yet, the mycorrhizal network that makes this magic happen is also vulnerable to climate change. Without trees, there’s no us. Forests are home to our water resources and our food systems, apart from being home to so many species. They are our keepers of soil and regulators of climate. Also, it would be very boring and horridly concrete without them.

Your books bring together the climate crisis and the human and wild world. What keeps you writing these powerful themes with such heart-warming prose, in the face of all the apocalyptical things that we are surrounded by now.

Bren: I feel like the climate news is overwhelming. Humans are not good with overwhelming, we tend to turn away, but if we stop talking about these issues nothing will change so what I try to do is say it could look really bad, but also, here are people surviving and thriving anyway. They have love and family and purpose and morals. They have everything they need to be good humans even though they have lost so much. And I hope that’s empowering for young readers and that talking about Across the Risen Sea and Neoma’s world is a safe space for examining sea level rising and keeping the conversation going. Children don’t deserve to be overwhelmed.

And you, top marks for the addition of a wise bossy cat and the pot plant overwatering. Seems very covid lockdown adjacent. I like that Savi is a typical teenager, both smart and tough but also lost and emotional and sometimes feeling foolish and defensive.

I especially like the language that’s full of Indian words and food and is very modern and easy for me to enjoy. I love the energy of it, there are times that seem full of teenagers just making noise as they do. I love to see English mutated for people’s own use. It’s a perfect language for that. But rather than butchering it like I do in my books, you’ve used it much more eloquently.

Is this true to Indian teens, and what time do you envisage this story is set? You mention Covid-19 at one point which is now a great scar on the timeline of humans so it must be now or slightly in the future? Who’s your main audience?

Bijal: Savi’s story is set somewhere just in the hopeful future, where we think that we’d have decided to ‘look up’ like the recent film, and yet no one does. Except the children, and well, some grown-ups.

I do write like I talk and think, and like a lot of multilingual Indians, I pepper my writing with a lot of Indian words, much to my autocorrect’s annoyance. And food is pretty much a constant preoccupation, plus there are such different regional words that we use for them – like I say pauva for beaten rice, my friend says avalakki, and my partner said pohe. All of that just goes in pretty subconsciously.

A teacher recently told me that she felt I gave children a voice with my books, and that’s all I can hope for. I think I write for them, children who love books and who like my childhood self, find companionship in these stories.

Neoma’s just one of my favourite protagonists, she’s spirited and amazingly loyal, but Jag has my heart with his torn shorts and his courage in the face of daunting events. In fact, the friendships in the book are really the anchors of the story, and their banter and little fights and anecdotes. To me this is really a story of different relationships, of friends, of relationship with the sea, with strangers, with shifting realities. Take us a little behind the scenes of how you built this compelling world?

Bren: I like when friendships are formed even though kids are so different. Girls at 8-12 are often more physical than boys and in a culture where people don’t teach girls to be quiet and tidy this would be true. She’s very sure they are living good environmentally-friendly lives and I think there’s power in that. I have an island which used to be a hill, and all the human detritus the sea can wash in, so houses are made from old vehicle bodies.

Furniture, utensils, tools and clothing are foraged from abandoned apartment buildings now surrounded by sea. Solar panels run ovens, a sea wall is built from old car chassis. We have so much stuff in the world now, we’re probably set for any future! The sea may be claiming the land, but it can also give food and transport.

Other elements of connectivity in Savi and the Memory Keeper were the house plants and bonsai plant in the boardroom of the corporate greedy Uncles and Aunties (yes, I saw that subtle little spy tree – well done), the people from Savi’s father’s past, the connection to the land his people had belonged to since early history, and the sharing of grief amongst Savi’s new friends.

Savi has to figure out all these connections and how they affect her, but it’s beautiful to watch it all coming together. Her growing awareness. You continually mention the distractions, social media, shiny things, luxury things and how they lull people into a false sense that the economy and nice things are what we should be paying attention to which lets greed push aside the natural world. The messages contained in this book are very clear. Don’t sell out the environment!

India is a country of great philosophers and landscapes but also a country of amazing human history and new technological and scientific advances. How do you feel it’s coping with this surge in technological advancement? Is there an awareness of the importance of environment?

Bijal: I am lucky, I know amazing people who champion the environment in the work they do –teachers, activists, filmmakers, bookmakers. I acknowledge that I end up being in a bubble of like-minded wonderful people, at the same time, I get to witness what we are fighting for. I go to classrooms with my books, that’s really when I get to meet children and listen to them –students who are keen defenders of the environment and have trivia at the tip of their fingers, children who have never heard the term climate change, despite environment studies being part of the curriculum; kids who are curious about the world once we begin talking. I think we have a long way to go when it comes to making environment a priority in decision making at all levels, across industries and while making policies. It again comes from us perceiving the natural world as different, seeing our place separate from the environment.

The crocodile! Genius. I co-interviewed Romulus Whitaker for my book 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting To Change The Planet. He has worked for many years with crocodiles and came away with a feeling of awe for these prehistoric reptiles. You do that as well, and you make us see the natural history side of this animal and also a very compassionate side. How did you decide to bring in this amazing twist in the tail (tale)?

Bren: A little girl out on the risen sea all alone in a sail boat? She really needed back up. A crocodile isn’t such a good back up because you can never trust a hungry crocodile, but I feel like they had some mutual respect, and it did keep other people away from her boat. Also its a children’s novel, there should be a few things that push the line of the absurd just because it’s fun.

You’ve written a lot of non-fiction and picture books for children about the environment. What’s one thing kids can realistically do to help save our environment? And where can they turn for more advice?

Bijal: Whenever I work with children, I always come back overwhelmed. Children care, so much. They want to be part of the change making process, they still have that inherent sense of wonder Rachel Carson wrote about. I truly believe for anyone, children or adults, who want to save the environment, we need to first get them to fall in love with it. We protect what we love, and I think we need to create more opportunities for children to engage with trees, spiders, fungi, the natural world around them. After that it’s easy, protecting that bush which is home to ten caterpillars, or starting an anti-plastic drive in their school, voting for green policy makers when they grow up, all of that comes naturally to them. They need wild spaces to meander in, to fuel their imagination, and well-meaning adults who can walk with them on these nature trails for a bit at least. 

Could you share with us a little bit about the amazing cover and working with Jo Hunt, and also working with your editor on Across the Risen Sea?

Bren: This is the third book cover Jo Hunt has done for me, and I adore them. She reads the books and creates the art just perfectly. Input from me would be irrelevant. She’s the expert. I love the two-tone layered images. Internally, she has little black outline images for chapter ends as well.

You also have amazing cover illustrations and chapter header illustrations. So gorgeous! I love the hugging of the ancient tree and its roots reaching down into the city and above all the hornbill perched in the tree. I spent three days trekking in a jungle in Malaysia with just four packets of two-minute noodles trying to see a hornbill, so to me this is a very rare and exotic bird that just lives at Savi’s school! Amazing! Who made them for you?

Bijal: Rajiv Eipe’s a genius! He worked very closely with Nimmy Chacko, my editor, on the cover. He made tonnes of iterations – Tree’s many avatars in purple and pink, and yellow, and green, 42 plants and Bekku the cat, a wasp singing Figaro to the ficus. For me, the cover represents the way end up othering green spaces especially in cities, yet offering hope in the form of Tree and their companions. I love the symbiotic chapter headers, where Rajiv gives voice to tree rings, wasps and earthworms in his own wondrous way.

Like me, you won’t be able to put Bren’s book down, and really no regrets on being a little late for that meeting the next day.

Bren: Thanks Bijal! I always feel like scientists can talk about how important trees are but for people to really comprehend what it means, we need to put it into story, show how it affects individuals. Stories have been handed down and kept humans safe since the beginning of time. We are the descendants of people who listened to story-tellers and I thank you for this story of Savi and the Memory Keeper.

Find out more about Savi and the Memory Keeper and Across the Risen Sea.

Bren MacDibble lives in a national park right on the beautiful Indian Ocean in Western Australia. Her adventure novels for children set in futures affected by environmental issues have won multiple awards, including Across the Risen Sea and her next book, The Raven Song, written with Zana Fraillon, which will be published in Aus/NZ/UK late in 2022. Bren also writes for young adults as Cally Black.

When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading a children’s book, she is writing or editing one. Her books are about all things green and blue, including Savi and the Memory Keeper and A Cloud Called Bhura, which won the AutHer award in 2020. She is usually found talking to a tree or worrying about the climate crisis.


Climate News

Panel with Climate Fiction Writers League members Lauren James and Laura Lam at Aberdeen’s Granite Noir festival [27th Feb]

Overcoming Climate Change, One Story at a Time: “Stories for Earth” Interviews Nina Munteanu

Polish Studio Far From Home Reveals Climate Fiction Game Forever Skies [The Gamer]

Pop culture can no longer ignore our climate reality [Grist]

Our pick of the best sci-fi and speculative fiction books for 2022 [New Scientist]

Learning how to face our feared future by Danielle Celermajer

The light that falls through the rainforest is always mottled. By the time it reaches you it has passed through the layers of the leaves and vines, the branches and trunks that fold and twist over and among each other. The humus and leaf litter are soft and moist underfoot because the light that reaches them is muted. They cook down there in the wet, and are thick with insects, worms, and new ferns just emerging like green beetles.

When it has been raining some of the fungi that grow on the forest floor seem implausible. In the first year we were here in Kangaroo Valley, I photographed an extraordinary form that was larger than a tall man’s boot, bright orange and porous like a sea sponge. Last year, I walked down the slope to the place where the mushrooms used to grow and the earth smelt dank. Now the leaves crackled beneath my boots. There was no give in the earth.

Down where the rainforest slopes towards the river there is a grove of huge trees, their ochre trunks reaching high above the canopy. It hurts your neck to try to see their upper branches. There is one whose trunk must have a diameter of three metres at least. You’d need a good eight people, arms outstretched and holding hands, to encircle it. He is remarkable and when you see him, he stops you in your tracks. He is also, quite evidently, part of a larger multi-generational family, not only of the trees of the same species but also of creepers, bird’s nest ferns, other trees, the animals and insects that live in and on him, and the mycelium that stretches beneath and among them. Even when he dies, he will continue to nurture this community. The hollows that form in his trunk will be homes for small marsupials such as bush rats, possums, and antechinuses; for bats and gliders; goannas; frogs and snakes; parrots and owls. The decaying wood will provide habitat, breeding grounds and food for beetles, ants, worms, and snails. Those wonderous orange parasites that catch your eye when you walk through the forest will form a line along his body when he eventually lies horizontal.

And as they all do this, they will transform what he has become into nutrients in and on the forest floor, from which others will grow. I named the tree Isaac.

Isaac was my grandfather. He came on a boat to Australia with Hela, my grandmother, and John, my father, in April 1950. Right after the end of the war they fled from Poland to Paris, and it was from there that they obtained refugee status and a passage to Australia. Other than Hela and John, no one from Isaac’s family survived the war. He told me that his business partner had escaped to Argentina, where he changed his family name from Zając — Polish for hare — to Królik, which means rabbit. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Isaac and Hela’s daughter, my father’s sister, Alma, was taken by the Gestapo in 1942 when the family was in hiding in Warsaw, and murdered. She was twelve.

When the three of them arrived in Australia with barely a word of English, they virtually stopped speaking their native tongue. Their lives were, and, I came to understand, had to be, about the future. As he had learned from his Jewish forebears, everything that Isaac did was oriented towards the community he felt part of, and to the lives of his grandchildren, and their children — down seven generations. People who did not yet exist, and whom he would never know, but whose yet-to-be lives guided his. It is one of the human qualities that takes your breath away, this capacity to be consciously present not only to what you might make from what is immediately in front of you in time and space, but to what that could become, long after you are gone. We continue to draw nourishment from the spring he opened.

When I turned fifty it occurred to me that it was my turn to live towards seven generations. It sounds like a romantic idea, but when you actually go about realising it you start to fathom the difficulty of the task — to orient yourself, and to start to act in ways that are given by your care for future lives whose context and shape will always remain opaque to you. It means imagining not only what those lives might be like, but what nourishment they might most need. And even if you have a model to inspire you, as I did in Isaac, your time is not their time. 2014 was not 1950.

When I tried to look forward, to feel forward, what seemed most vital was access to fertile land and sources of clean water. And, along with that, lifeways and understandings that would have those seven generations feel at home in, delighted by, grateful for, and responsible to the earth and the other beings who supported and accompanied them. That is what had us find our way to this valley, and that is why the most magnificent tree in our midst bears the name Isaac.

What Isaac “knows”

Around me I hear whisperings, almost shamefully spoken, of people’s fear for the future. Since the fires began to consume the worlds around us, the reverberations of those whisperings have intensified. People have started to use the term “existential threat” to convey the idea that not just human lives but human life is at stake. It is not inaccurate, but it does not quite make present or bring close what is happening in our bodies as we sense this peril. Maybe it is easier to adopt an abstract idiom than to speak out loud about the intimate, palpable, and direct losses we would prefer not to name. Maybe we believe that if we don’t give them shape in the form of words, they will cease to exist. Or maybe we are trying to shield ourselves from the flood of feelings they would elicit.

But it is only fantastical thinking that has you believe that silence will not stop the dreaded future from coming to pass. I’d hazard a guess that wrapping words around our still-amorphous feelings, and giving voice to the ones we already know we harbour might be a corner piece in the puzzle of learning how to live in this world. If we are to have any chance at mitigating that dreaded future, difficult actions lie before us. Speaking the feared future, and being present with each other to how desperately we do not want it, may give us the clarity and resolve we need to act. And if or when it is too late for such actions, if there is no more to be done to prevent that future, honesty will be the only solid ground to stand on. To stand and hold on to each other.

Sometimes I take a walk to visit Isaac. He is good for being straight with. These last few years, through the work of scientists, as well as novelists and artists, we have learned so much more about trees than we in the West have ever allowed ourselves to acknowledge before. So I would not presume even to guess what capacity Isaac has to “know” about the future. It took us suspending our certainties about the order of life for long enough to pay attention to trees as something other than resource, aesthetic object or environment for (other) sentient life. Already we have learned that they communicate with each other about drought or disease or harmful predators using chemical, hormonal, and slow-pulsing electrical signals. They know, and share with each other what they know, about what might threaten them. I’d hazard a guess they also know, and share what they know, about what pleases them.

I wonder what Isaac has come to know, both in these last years, as the temperature he lives in has risen, the rainfall has declined, and now, as the fire that is approaching has already killed others like him who lived in the millions of hectares that form his larger home. I wonder whether Isaac had received the message that others’ immediate worlds are disappearing as the fires move from root to crown, from the leaf litter to fungi to trunks to leaves to birds. I wonder how Isaac, who by his nature orients his life to seven generations, looks to the future now.

This article originally appeared on ABC here.

Danielle Celermajer is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her most recent book is Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future, from which this is an edited extract.

The wonderful recovery of the natural world

Catherine Bush and Nicola Penfold discuss their novels, which focus on wild nature.

Catherine: Nicola, one of the things I loved so much about entering your upper MG novel Between Sea and Sky was feeling uncanny resonances to my novel, Blaze Island, written for older readers yet with young adult protagonists and being released in the UK and US this spring.

At moments I felt like your platform island, built of lashed-together boats on a bay that reminded me of Morecambe Bay in the northwest of England, was on one side of the Atlantic while my wild and wind-swept Blaze Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, lay in a parallel world on the other side of the ocean.

Both novels feature resolute and protective daughters who live with their grief-stricken fathers and don’t want to leave their islands. In my novel the climate scientist father has forbidden his teenaged daughter from leaving Blaze Island. In the futuristic world of your novel, one daughter longs to take off for a life on the mainland, the other passionately resists. Both will find their lives transformed.

Fathers teach their daughters about the natural world in both novels. In Between Sea and Sky a boy arrives on Pearl and Clover’s rigged-together sea farm bearing a secret, in mine a young man tumbles through Miranda’s door in the midst of a violent storm, hiding his true identity. Both our novels gesture to Shakespeare’s The Tempest – how could you not in stories of young women living with fathers on islands?

Climate-engineering science becomes a kind of magic in my novel. And when I came upon the greenhouse, which plays a key role in your novel, as a greenhouse does in mine, my mind felt a bit blown. I was immersed in your story, by your characters, who move with such energy and vitality. And though the future world that you describe felt bleak, you also invite the reader to be beautifully and tenderly transported into wonder.

Nicola: Catherine, hello! Thanks so much! This honestly feels like such a great pairing, doesn’t it? My mind was blown in that section of Blaze Island when the storm brings in old treasures – sections of clay pipe, fragments of pottery, seaglass. Mudlarking is such a big thing for my characters. And then the use of seaweed as a carbon sink too. Our worlds have so much in common, and yes, The Tempest of course. How indeed could we not?! I love referring to other stories – I think it can give extra weight to a novel.

Blaze Island was such a seductive a setting for me. I love remote places, and characters living on the edge of society, and it felt so fitting that this was the kind of place Miranda’s father would seek refuge in, after he was cast out by climate deniers. But I was impressed with how reports from the outside world still came in, and that sense of ever worsening climate catastrophe – hurricanes, blizzards, intolerable heatwaves, forest fires, a brown sea surging through Manhattan subway stations, icebergs dying in the bay… It was genuinely terrifying, all the more so because these things are of course real. And there’s such a sense that Blaze Island won’t be a refuge for long: the bad weather is coming in.

Catherine: Yes, the bad weather is definitely coming in, and I wanted that realism. Blaze Island isn’t futuristic, it’s an alternate now. Between Sea and Sky is your second speculative, environmentally themed novel for young readers. In your first, When the World Turns Wild, two children escape from a walled city that has shut itself off from the natural world after a deadly virus released by eco-activists runs rampant, a plot that given our pandemic reality sends eerie shivers down my spine. Can you describe the spark that began Between Sea and Sky and were you writing the novel during the pandemic?

Nicola: Yes, I was writing this in the pandemic. I’d already agreed to the premise with my editor, but it was written in the UK’s first COVID lockdown. This definitely impacted my writing. It was the first time I’d lived through a period of such tight rules and regulations, and this helped build the claustrophobia of my fictional world, the loss of freedom. Then because it’s a sea novel, and I live in London and was feeling very landlocked, all my love and longing for the sea poured out into this book. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but in retrospect, I’m really grateful I had it to write!

Were you writing in the first lockdowns too? How did this influence your writing?

Catherine: I released Blaze Island in Canada during the first year of the pandemic. I spent those early months of lockdown on my own in the country not really knowing what was going to happen with the book’s publication, which was agonizing. Collectively everyone was trying to figure out how to publish during a pandemic and make the transition to online events. I was really preoccupied with that.

I found myself thinking that even though Blaze Island was written before the pandemic, there are all sorts of correspondences between Miranda’s isolated life on an island that she can’t, or won’t, leave and our lockdown lives, which left most of us feeling as if we were living on our own version of an island. So I spent time writing about this condition of feeling ‘islanded’ by the pandemic, our need to cultivate self-reliance amid isolation, and I produced a short film called “We Are Islands,” in collaboration with an experimental filmmaker and two artists from Fogo Island, the magical place that inspired my fictional Blaze Island. Like you, I’ve been haunted by the fact that I can’t get to the sea, especially because my next novel is also a sea novel. On this continent, the ocean is over a thousand kilometres from me. All these months later, I’m still dreaming!

Nicola, would you describe the future world that you create — in which the earth is poisoned, much of the UK has flooded, families live under intense social surveillance by a Central Government, grow their food in vertical towers, and are only permitted one child — as dystopic?

Nicola: Yes, absolutely. Like my first book, this is a dystopia, but with light and hope, which is important I think, for the age I write for. In my first book, Where the World Turns Wild, the characters leave the dystopic city behind, and head out to the wild. Here too, my characters quickly escape: on land, Nat and his friends explore the forbidden fields of solar panels, where nature is returning; at sea, the sisters live outside of the rules, they’ve run away from them. This is rather like Miranda and her father have run to Blaze Island in your book. They’ve left the real world behind. Actually, I’m really interested to know, how long have you wanted to write an island story? An island is a compelling setting for a writer, huh?! I almost got there with my offshore oyster farm in Between Sea and Sky, but I think I still have an island story inside me to tell!

Catherine: Oh, please write an island story. I’m already eager to read it. I will say that the makeshift island of Between Sea and Sky feels like an island – and, yes, I’ve long wanted to write an island story. In the midst of all that early pandemic isolation, I found myself thinking back to the island literature I loved as a child. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, a classic from my youth, about a young indigenous woman left behind on an island off the California coast who learns to survive on her own while befriending a wolf. Islands are magical in part because they’re microcosms of the world. Maybe that’s why writers love them. In climate terms, island thinking is so crucial, isn’t it – because ultimately, we all live on a planetary island.

I’m curious — how do you create a world that might compel us to recognize the threats to our familiar lives but doesn’t terrify or depress young readers? I’ve been thinking recently about the place of dystopias in climate literature. In Blaze Island I try to stay close to an elastic realism, containing nothing that couldn’t or isn’t happening now – a massive hurricane barrelling up the east coast of North America, melting Arctic ice, research into climate engineering. What appeals to you about creating a speculative future in which we can see traces of our own world?

Nicola: It’s definitely that relatability. Mudlarking was a great way of weaving this in actually. Sisters Pearl and Clover find washed up toys, jewellery, crisp packets…familiar things to my readers. I wanted to reach across to them from the future world. But you’re so right, not completely terrifying and depressing readers, particularly young readers, is important! I was very conscious of this, and it felt a fine tightrope to walk – how to include enough of the climate emergency to do justice to what a huge thing it is in all our lives, but not to make readers despair. For me, the natural world is always the answer, and particularly natural climate solutions. In my first book the focus was very much on rewilding, and in Between Sea and Sky, it’s rewilding too, but this time of the seas. People retreating has given nature space to recover.

Catherine: Attention to nature feels key to both your novels and this was certainly essential to me when evoking the world of Blaze Island in which Miranda and her father, and Caleb and his mother, live very close to the land. I spent eight years returning to the actual Fogo Island for research, talking to people in its communities, living near to sea and wind. In Between Sea and Sky, I felt transported into a watery zone where nature seems on the verge of recovering from human ravages. Porpoises swim in the bay. You invite young readers to notice, really notice, the living world beyond the human.

As the novel opens, mainlander Nat discovers some small crawling creatures munching on the leaves of a plant. At first, like Nat, I had no idea what they were. You do a brilliant job creating suspense out of whether the caterpillars will survive long enough to pupate into butterflies. Perhaps there’s metaphor here, but above all there’s ardour in the way we are invited to pay attention to the natural world through your characters’ care and noticing. Can you talk about this aspect of your writing and why it feels so important?

Nicola: I loved the nature on Blaze Island! It was as alive as the characters for me. I especially loved how Miranda has been raised alongside it, how she names berries, lichens, flowers, birds. She knows the direction of the wind. She can read the clouds. She makes bread and fire. It was beautifully done. For me, reading your book, which is essentially of course a story of growing climate disaster, the natural world was the space and the light and the hope. You got the balance just right, and this is absolutely why I include nature too. I mean practically all the solutions to the climate crisis that make any sense involve nature.

I don’t want to preach or be didactic, first and foremost I’m telling stories, but I do consciously want to promote a connection with nature. A relationship with the natural world is a huge gift in our lives, it brings solace in hard times, it makes us happier, healthier. And of course, it’s been said by many more articulate people than me, we protect what we know and love. We want, we need, our leaders of tomorrow to have this relationship with the natural world.

Catherine: As I was writing up these questions I was listening to Spell Songs, created from poems by writer Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by artist Jackie Morris, in their books Lost Words and Lost Spells, in which they bring back to life nature words, and worlds, at risk of being lost. Spells play a crucial role in Between Sea and Sky. As a reader I felt both spellbound by your world and bewildered – that is, invited to be wilder, to enter a world growing wilder again. Do you think fiction can cast a spell and bring readers into closer relation with wild nature?

Nicola: Fiction does cast a spell. Reading Blaze Island, I certainly was under the spell of Miranda and Caleb as their lives adjusted to the newcomers on the island, and the incoming hurricane, and working out what all this means for them. And yes, I do think this is something good writing can achieve, taking us into wilder spaces, even as we read in our city bedrooms and urban classrooms.

Catherine: What’s your own relationship to the natural world – as you live and write? Do you live close to the sea?

Nicola: No, sadly. It’s a dream of mine, to someday live near the sea, but I live in north London, thankfully with many green spaces nearby which help restore me. I do seek out water. I swim in a nearby lido, I walk pretty much most days by a little urban waterway where I see cormorants and a heron, and ducks, swans etc. I seek wild places out like medicine. As I’ve got older, I’ve recognised this about myself: I’m happier when I’ve been somewhere green. Calmer. There’s even evidence that being outdoors in nature can make us kinder. I found this out, and many other things like this, from an amazing book by the writer Lucy Jones. It’s called Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild. I now recommend it to everyone, so am here recommending it to you!

Tell me about where you live and where you write, Catherine!

Catherine: Oh, I love this book recommendation and I just read an astonishing, horrifying statistic in the Guardian review of it: “three-quarters of children in the UK, aged five to 12, now spend less time outside than prisoners”.  I hope the spell of your books helps to counteract that. I’m lucky these days to write between city and country.

Some years ago my soul said, I need more nature, and I was lucky enough to be able to buy an old stone one-room schoolhouse, set amid fields, for what was very little money though a lot to me. So I write in both places but mostly out here. The green world is my place for nurturance. I totally agree with everything you say about the need to bring us back into connection with nature. To notice and care for the aliveness of the world around us. I’m lucky in Toronto to live surrounded by trees and a nearby forested park but there’s more space for wonder and awe out here in the country — and complications, like the fields around me being sprayed by glyphosate. It’s rural but not far enough out to be wild, whatever that means these days. Still, I love it.

Nicola, can you imagine writing fiction for young readers that doesn’t somehow respond to the climate and ecological crises we face? In a recent piece for The Guardian writer Ben Okri spoke about the need for ‘existential creativity.’ I know you’re working on a new novel about the Arctic – can you say more?

Nicola: That was a tremendous piece by Ben Okri. It felt like a call to arms to creatives. Yes, I am working on a novel about the Arctic and I’m finding it a strange and tricky thing to do, because what I want to do most is to take the readers there in their imaginations, to write about the beauty and the wonder of this extraordinary landscape. Which so many people will never have seen in real life, and quite possibly won’t ever. And it’s desperately sad to know we’re losing these icy landscapes at such an unprecedented rate. But I want to write about hope, and imagine a different kind of future where we have stepped up to save our beautiful planet, where the balance has shifted in favour of the natural world. I’m still working out quite how to do this.

I was very moved by the icebergs that drift into the bay in Blaze Island. You had a line about how little time it takes for eternities to vanish. These parts must have been emotional to write?

Catherine: There was one summer when, perhaps because of wind or water currents, so many icebergs stranded in the bay off Fogo Island. The water was full of them. It was the most astonishing, beautiful and, yes, heart-rending sight. The little house where I lived, and which inspired Miranda’s house in the novel, sits on a cove on the ocean-side of the island and I could literally watch icebergs float past my back door – melting.

It’s so hard to wrap our heads around the scale of that ice, ten thousand years old or more, broken off the Greenland ice sheet that helps hold planetary life together – and you’re right it’s something that many people will never see; I’d never seen an iceberg until I went to Newfoundland. I wanted to bring icebergs to the page in a way that made them not scenery but presences, presences in time, disappearing presences; I wanted to give readers the chance to have an encounter, come into relationship with the ice on which we all depend, to imagine swallowing ice containing bubbles of ten-thousand-year-old air. As my character Frank does and I have done. If you take that into your body, you become a little bit iceberg, as old, as ephemeral, and, I hope, transformed, more open to attention and care.

When thinking about the future, we cannot bring into being what we can’t imagine, and so, even beyond offering hope, the imagination and stories play a crucial role in our path ahead. Nicola, what are your thoughts on this?

Nicola: It comes back to the natural world for me. David Attenborough said at COP26, addressing young people, “In my lifetime I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery.” This is what I really want to write about, the wonderful recovery of the natural world, and what a marvellous story it is to write.

Find out more about Between Sea and Sky and Blaze Island.

Nicola Penfold was born in Billinge and grew up in Doncaster. She studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Nicola’s worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most. She is married, with four children and two cats, and is an avid reader of children’s books.

Catherine Bush is the author of five novels, including Blaze Island (2020), a Globe & Mail Best Book, and The Rules of Engagement (2000), a New York Times Notable Book and a Globe & Mail and L.A. Times Best Book of the Year. Her books have been shortlisted for the Trillium and City of Toronto Book Awards in Canada. She was a 2019 Fiction Meets Science Fellow at the HWK in Germany and has written and spoken internationally about responding to the climate crisis through fiction. She is the Coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA, located in Toronto.

Climate Justice Fiction: Movement Building for the Win by Aya de Leon

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For decades, science fiction and fantasy writers have been warning us about the type of future we may face if we don’t transform our current society. In the past five years, Octavia Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower has felt particularly prophetic, because she predicted 2024 with a changed climate, greater income inequality, widespread privatization, and an authoritarian leader who pledged to “Make America Great Again.”

Sci-fi and fantasy climate fiction is a rich body of literature in which some writers include myth, magical powers, and fantastical elements and others lean more on the science. Whatever the case, these authors have been writing nearly half a century of cautionary tales to warn us of what may happen if we don’t change our practices of toxic pollution, environmental racism, burning fossil fuels, extractive industries, and exploiting the earth for maximum profit.

These dangerous practices have brought us to the point of complete consensus among scientists, authors of science NON-fiction, that our actions have changed the climate. Scientists have given us a deadline to change these practices, lest we damage the climate so much that the planet may not be fit for human habitation.

The facts are scary. Some people have just given up. Many say we’re doomed. But we’re not. To be clear, there is a ticking clock, but averting these large scale climate disasters is TOTALLY POSSIBLE. Their challenge to us is to act now, particularly those of us in the US. The United States is disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions and is in a highly strategic position to take global leadership in ending the crisis. Unfortunately, our economy is so wrapped up in profit-making and corporate interests hold much sway in our political system, that many of our political leaders are unwilling to make the tough choices and big changes that are required to address the climate emergency at scale. 

But if our leaders won’t use their power to do it, we need to build our power to make it happen. To be clear, it’s no longer about our consumer choices: using solar, buying a hybrid car, going vegan, recycling or composting. We need massive political and economic policy changes at the national and international level, to transform the entire system of how our lives are fueled and organized worldwide, to get us to zero emissions. In order to achieve this, we need to build the movement that can put the necessary pressure on our leaders to make that happen. And it won’t be easy. 

Which is why I want to invite authors to write about THIS MOMENT. To the science fiction and fantasy writers who have been carrying the torch in climate fiction for all these decades: thank you. And keep up the good work. But for the rest of us, writers of contemporary fiction, it’s time for us to start doing our part.

In 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, I was writing feminist heist fiction. I have roots in various parts of the African Diaspora, including Puerto Rico, and I was devastated. I was working on my fourth novel in a series, and asked my editor for permission to change topics to write about the hurricane. My publisher, Kensington, offers two-book contracts, and the second book is generally unspecified. This was one of those unspecified books, and I was able to pivot quickly. So my first novel of climate fiction, SIDE CHICK NATION (2019), came out less than two years after Hurricane Maria. 

If I could go back and edit some of the book, I would. I’d include a lot more of the concepts from the first two paragraphs of this essay, because now, after several years of climate activism, I have a much clearer picture of what is needed in the climate movement today. But I feel incredibly proud of my work in that novel, because I took action. I didn’t wait to do it perfectly. I felt racked with impostor syndrome. Who was to be the first novelist to publish a book about this massive disaster. I didn’t feel like I knew enough, or that I was Puerto Rican enough. And would people think I was somehow disrespecting the tragedy by writing about it in the context of popular fiction? A heist/romance series? But I didn’t let those fears stop me. I decided that this was my opportunity to make a contribution, and that I would just do the best I could.

That novel started what has now become my wheelhouse in climate fiction: stories of everyday people who have no intention of becoming active in the movement for climate justice, who get politicized by events happening around them, and who decide to take a stand. I used this same character arc in my 2020 novel A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE. I had been working on this novel for decades–since my 20s. I had originally been writing about FBI infiltration of a racial justice organization. It wasn’t that much of a stretch to make it a racial and climate justice organization. This novel had more of my developing climate justice analysis, and more movement building. 

Ultimately, the climate crisis caused a deep reorganization of my priorities. I decided to put climate in the center of all areas of my life. As a working mom who taught college and wrote novels, I didn’t have time to drop everything and become a full-time climate activist. But I decided to center climate in everything I was already doing. If I was a poetry teacher, I would teach young poets to write about climate. If I was a novelist, I would write novels about climate. If I was parenting, I would find ways to center climate justice activism in my parenting (shoutout to Mary DeMocker, author of The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids and Still Get a Good Night’s Sleep. I also started a multi-genre climate blog with several other women writers as a place for people to come to find writing about people choosing to face this emergency from a perspective that we do have the power to turn the situation around.

Recently, climate activists have been pointing out the following statistic: 3.5%. Historically, any time 3.5% of the population becomes active in a non-violent movement, it has ALWAYS led to change. So we don’t need EVERYONE to agree to take climate action. We’re just aiming for that 3.5%. This number gives me great hope. 

So I became determined to do my part to get us to 3.5%. As a fiction author, I continued to write adult thrillers about characters who became politicized by the climate crisis. And I wasn’t the only author doing so. In 2020, I read Natalia Sylvester’s young adult novel RUNNING, about the daughter of a presidential candidate who becomes disillusioned with her father’s environmental policies as a senator in Florida. I LOVED this book and I wanted to emulate it.

So in December 2020, I began writing THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE, about two undocumented Dominican teens in Florida who uncover a senate kidnapping plot to stop the Green New Deal (GND). The GND policy framework, first introduced into congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey in 2019, calls for sweeping public policy to address the climate emergency along with achieving other social aims like job creation and reducing economic inequality in order to move quickly to zero carbon emissions. The name refers back to FDR’s New Deal in response to the Great Depression. 

It felt really timely to publish this GND novel during 2021–the first year of the Biden administration, now that we had flipped the senate. However, I faced the challenge that I wasn’t under contract for this book. Around that same time, I had just sold my first YA novel, and it wasn’t going to come out for 2-3 years. The climate crisis is increasingly urgent. This newly inspired novel was intended to publicize the Green New Deal as the type of solution required for the climate crisis. It wouldn’t do to have it published in 2023. So I decided to look for an online outlet who would publish it serially. I partnered with one outlet, and we had a deal set up. The contract was on my agent’s desk. But then a new senior editor took over and decided they didn’t have capacity for the project. I was back to square one. 

At the same time, I had a new climate justice novel for adults, a love triangle between a naive young woman, a fossil fuel mogul and a climate activist. Ultimately, she begins to spy on her mogul boyfriend for the movement. I was hoping to sell this book to a Big 5 publishing house. I had been working with an independent publisher, and my advances were small. I had done better financially with the YA. I was hoping to level up with my adult books as well.

Like many authors, the dream is to write full time. And it seemed like it would come true! A Big 5 editor wanted my adult book, and we had a great phone conversation. Unfortunately, she got back to me that while she loved it, the higher ups at her press couldn’t see it for their list. I got this bad news within two weeks of losing the serial publication. I had two new climate books that I loved, and no place to publish them. I was so discouraged. If I couldn’t find publishers for these books soon, they would no longer be politically relevant. Worst case, they might not be publishable at all. I sank into a funk for weeks.

I was particularly discouraged because–SPOILER ALERT–both of these books included visions of our climate movements winning. And not just happy endings for the protagonists involved. THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE ends with (SERIOUS SPOILER) the senate passing the Green New Deal. Yes, I know it’s not realistic that two teens will change the course of the climate crisis. But they don’t act alone. They work with the Sunrise Movement and become a tipping point for climate justice, where the will of the people is finally implemented by our leaders. In reality, very few people profit from the system that is causing global warming, but those who do have disproportionate power and influence. These books are creating a new story to pair with our abundant dystopian literature: we have many cautionary tales for what will happen if we don’t act in a timely fashion. My contemporary books are roadmaps to winning if we DO take collective action NOW.

Our fight against the climate crisis demands resiliency and commitment. I couldn’t let the publishing disappointments get me down. I just kept trying. I changed my strategy. I edited the adult novel and pitched it to my independent publishing house. I continued to reach out to everyone I could to try to find a serial publisher for the YA novel. And after months of hustling, both books were picked up. Orion Magazine serialized THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE in fall 2021, and the other book (not yet titled) will be published by Kensington in 2022/23.

I was incredibly relieved and I had learned a very important lesson: writing urgent political fiction is much more stressful if you don’t have your work under contract. I vowed not to make that mistake again.

So I continue with my strategy to infuse climate into my novels, however I can. In December 2021, my latest book came out QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY. It’s about a young starlet rapper who faces unexpected public scrutiny when she releases a song about a girl shot by police after school, and a girl with the same name gets killed by police under those circumstances. Again, I’m working with this accidental activist character arc. But given my activist commitments, I had to find the opportunities to work climate justice into the narrative. These opportunities proved to be quite abundant. The book is largely a romance that takes place on a the bus of the rapper’s national tour. I decided to make her love interest (a DJ) a Puerto Rican guy who lost family in Hurricane Maria. As she travels across the coutnry, there were opportunities for her to confront past tragedies like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, as well as current crises like heatwaves, floods, and droughts. As she takes small steps towards activism, other activists contact her and urge her to get more involved in both the movement for climate justice and the movement against police violence. 

My latest project is a work-for-hire. Like many genre writers, I got tapped to write for an entertainment franchise. My current goal is to get them to approve a plot that centers on the climate crisis. If I’m successful, this will definitely be my largest platform yet. Stay tuned!

I share all of this about my own journey because it is my hope that we can build a here-and-now brand of climate justice fiction. This body of literature could become a wonderful companion to the flourishing what-can-happen-if-we-don’t-act brand of climate fiction in sci-fi/fantasy. I invite all of my contemporary writer colleagues to consider getting involved in climate justice fiction, and helping visualize a world where we fight and we win.

Find out more about Aya’s latest novel, Queen of Urban Prophecy, or read her serialised YA novel The Mystery Woman in Room Three.

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program, teaching creative writing at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist/romance series, Justice Hustlers: UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018), and SIDE CHICK NATION (2019) which was the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Aya de León teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her novels for adults, including her award-winning “Justice Hustlers” feminist heist series. An alumna of Cave Canem and VONA, Aya is currently working on a memoir of her body that explores the intersection of food, body image, race, and the environment. In March/April, she is organizing an online conference entitled BLACK LITERATURE VS. THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY (exact date TBA). Finally, her Justice Hustlers series has been optioned for television, and she is currently working on the pilot. Find her at ayadeleon.com

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