Putting a Narrative Loop around the Future by Nicky Singer

Many moons ago, I asked my friend Tom Burke, then Director of Friends of the Earth, what he really thought would happen if we failed to get to grips with increasing global temperatures. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘you’d better be prepared to go to Scotland and take a gun’. The image stayed with me – but I didn’t know how to write the book he was telling me needed to be written. The subject was too big, too disempowering – people’s eyes glazed over when you mentioned it.

Years later, a chance encounter with a real climate-change story (melting ice-graves on the Arctic island of Herschel) gave me a way in to the subject and I wrote a play –Island – for the National Theatre, which I later re-wrote as a novel. The book made the Carnegie longlist and was routinely called ‘beautiful’, ‘calm and magical’ and ‘full of wisdom’, but somehow the Arctic setting meant that, for most people, the drama was just too far away – both geographically and emotionally. Not our problem.

Then came the migrant crisis – and the hardening of attitudes and borders. And now the girl with the gun came back to nag me. Might her story intersect with this new anxiety? And why were we so anxious anyway, so lacking in empathy? I began to think it might be because for us in the north (in Europe particularly) the migrant is almost always ‘other’, as we are not the displaced, the ones forced to travel. So here was my challenge: could I finally bring this story ‘home’? Write about a very near future where one of those displaced people could truthfully be you – or me?

The result was The Survival Game: the girl with the gun, Mhairi, and the story about what she’s prepared to risk – or sacrifice – to get to safety in a climate changed world. It seems that this story has hit harder (published in numerous territories, already optioned for film etc) but it ran into the sand in America. Six major publishers put in bids, offering eye-watering amounts of money – but only if I’d change the ending. I refused. Disney didn’t seem quite where we’re headed.

But I thought I’d check in with my friend Tom again. He now heads up the independent climate think tank E3G. He doesn’t think we’re headed for Disney either, in fact the only change in his advice re Scotland is to get there quicker and take some friends. I got out my list of additional climate questions. ‘Let’s talk about story,’ he said. ‘Story is the only thing that matters. Facts don’t persuade people, stories do.’

I didn’t need asking twice. So, what does Tom want from story makers now? 

He explained it like this: about 5000 years ago a guy turned up on Salisbury Plain and told the subsistence farmers there a story. The farmers had a life expectancy of about 20-30 years and were beset with forces they couldn’t control; wild beasts, pathogens, raiders, extreme weather events etc. Plenty to be getting on with. But whatever the storyteller said, made then get up, walk 150 miles to the North West, dig up a bunch of huge stones and drag them back to the Plain, erecting them into what we now know as Stonehenge.

What on earth did the storyteller say?

In terms of time and technology, the achievement of those farmers is, Tom suggests, equivalent to the mountains we must move to save ourselves from climate catastrophe. Only instead of persuading a bunch of farmers, we have to persuade the 8 billion people currently on earth. And we don’t have a story.

So – I hazarded, you’re saying, as writers, we’ve failed in our job?

Yes, Tom said. (He doesn’t get to address governments about this stuff without being straight talking.)  Put another way, the sci-fi dystopian stuff, is only half of the job. In order to create a better future, Tom believes we need to be able to imagine it first. We need to have an image as strong as the Garden of Eden to aim towards. ie it has to be aspirational, something as big as god was before the death of religion or as reason before the demise of the Enlightenment. A story, if you like, outside all normal boundaries.

Piece of cake, eh?

I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too. What Tom actually wants is a Good News story and ‘as any fule kno’, good news is death to story makers which is why eg Paradise Lost is a marvel and Paradise Regained – isn’t.

Just before anyone throws in the towel here, let me (or rather Tom) re-cap on timescale and context. Unless we’ve seriously decarbonized by 2050 then we’ve had it, not as a species (some of us will survive, of course) but as a civilization. It’s already beginning to happen (increased tribalism, nationalism, rats in sacks) but it won’t come with a label on. Another of Tom’s stories (hey, why doesn’t he do this job himself?) is the Persian Carpet analogy: the pattern on a carpet in an area of high traffic gets worn away. But not at the same rate everywhere, for a long time, there will still be islands of colour among the faded bits, and you’ll still be able (just) to imagine the pattern. Then, one day, a seemingly small erasure will tip the balance. Substitute order/disorder for pattern and fray and you get the picture. This, incidentally is why Tom thinks the scenario in The Survival Game is ‘just a matter of time’ because there’s an island of functionality (Arran) and many patches of fray on the journey from the Sudan. Meanwhile, as a comparator, no-one will be going on holiday to Southern Spain or Italy in 50 years’ time. It will be too hot to be pleasant.

So – back to the challenge. What’s the story? Can we make ‘a narrative loop around the future and make it accessible’? We’ve unlocked the secrets of the cell and the atom but not the nucleus of wisdom.

So – one helluva big story needed and not much time. Who’s up for it?

You can find out more about The Survival Game here.

Tom Burke is the Head of Climate Change Think Tank E3G

Nicky Singer has written four novels for adults, two books of non-fiction but most of her recent work is for young people. Her first children’s novel Feather Boy won the Blue Peter ‘Book of the Year’ Award, was adapted for TV (winning a BAFTA for Best Children’s Drama) and then commissioned by the National Theatre as a musical with lyrics by Don Black and music by Debbie Wiseman. Her new novel The Survival Game is a migration road-movie about a girl with a bullet-less gun and what she’s prepared to risk – or sacrifice – to stay alive in a climate ravaged world. If you want to join the conversation about how to keep our planet beautiful and our future bright, check the #ChooseLovetoSurvive campaign.

Climate Change in the News

Stopping Carbon Pollution by 2050 Would Add $1 Trillion to the Economy [Gizmodo]

Global Action Is ‘Very Far’ From What’s Needed to Avert Climate Chaos [NY Times]

THE CLIMATE CONTROVERSY SWIRLING AROUND NFTS [The Verge]

Video panel: League founder Lauren James talks to climate activists Dr. Sinead Collins, Laura Lam and Dr. Johanne Vad, whose work looks at animal behaviour around oil rigs


Teaching Resources

Are you an educator or librarian? We’d love to hear how you teach your students about climate change, to help guide our work in the future. You can fill out a survey here.

See below for a book-related teaching quiz about water resources.

Memory of Water, written by Emmi Itäranta, explores a setting in which clean water is a scarce and controlled commodity. The book is set in a post-war Finland which has been taken over by a foreign power. Rising sea levels, war, and other environmental factors have eradicated many sources of water. Access to clean water is limited and under military control. The possession of any secret water source, such as a well or a spring, is a crime punishable by death.

The book is written from the perspective of seventeen-year-old Noria as she takes over the responsibilities of tea master from her father. A position which will force Noria to know of, and protect, a secret spring. A spring her family has taken care of for generations. After the death of her father, Noria must decide whether to keep the spring safe or go off on her own in pursuit of knowledge.

As clean water becomes an ever-scarcer commodity in our world, Memory of Water invokes a sense of alarm within its reader. The dystopian setting that Noria is forced to contend with seems like a not-so-distant future to the modern reader. How much water are we using? And how long can we continue to take clean water for granted without repercussions?

Although the idea of clean water running out is uncomfortable, it is important to address. It is especially important to take note of how much water we are currently using, so we can find ways to eliminate practices that waste and/or deplete our fresh water supply. 

Test your knowledge of water usage within the UK by taking our quiz!

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Angie Hockman discusses the Galápagos in her new Romance

Two authors inspired by travel in their work, YA author Angela Kecojevic and romance author Angie Hockman, talk about Shipped, a delightful romance novel with a heart-warming climate twist which is out now with Gallery Books. Kecojevic also talks about her forthcoming novel Train, published later this year.

OK, so let’s talk about Shipped. This was delightful escapism at its very best. The way you combined conservation topics with romance was a breath of fresh air, and the gorgeous book cover screams at days we can only dream of (at present!). Shipped has a truly exotic location. Can you tell us what drew you towards the setting of the Galápagos?

Sure! For my day job, I manage conservation and education programs for Lindblad Expeditions, a small-ship expedition cruise company, and a few years ago I had the great good fortune of traveling to Galápagos on a Lindblad voyage. I was familiar with the islands and the opportunities they afford to have up-close-and-personal encounters with wildlife, but I never imagined how profoundly the experience would touch me on a personal level. To have the chance to hike amongst endemic marine iguanas and past nesting waved albatross, snorkel with endangered Galápagos penguins, spot giant tortoises roaming in the wild, and more…and have the wildlife not be afraid of me…it gave me this feeling of being connected to nature and the larger world—a feeling that hasn’t left me. The Galápagos is one of the most special, unique places on earth, which is why I was inspired to share it with readers through the setting of Shipped.

Pictures by Angie Hockman

Henley Evans, your ambitious heroine, delights at sighting a giant tortoise in the wild. In your ‘acknowledgments’ section you talk about the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galápagos National Park Directorate’s Tortoise Breeding Center. Can you tell us a little more about this?

The story of Galápagos is (sadly) one of destruction: early sailors hunted the famed giant tortoises to near-extinction. But the story is also one of immense hope. Scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station—along with nonprofits, government leaders, the Galapagos National Park Directorate, and community members have undertaken extraordinary efforts to preserve native and endemic species like the Galápagos giant tortoise, and it’s because of these efforts that you can find giant tortoises thriving in the wild on certain islands today. It’s an inspiring example of what a tangible, positive impact people can make when we choose to take action.

Shipped is set aboard a cruise liner (Seaquest Adventures). As Henley finds herself falling in love with her new (and often challenging) environment, she makes a powerful decision to try and take the company in a different direction: eco-tourism. This may still be a new idea to many travellers. What is eco-tourism and how does it benefit our planet?

Eco-tourism is travel, most often to wild or remote places, that promotes responsible exploration and conservation of the natural world. The travel industry on the whole gets a bad rap (for good reason!) for its negative impacts on the environment. But travel can be done sustainably and responsibly, and there are eco-tourism companies out there leading the way. Lindblad Expeditions (the inspiration behind my fictional cruise line in Shipped), for example, is a carbon neutral expedition-cruise company that has been committed to sustainability, responsible travel, and environmental conservation for more than 50 years. So if you want to travel, but also want to do so respectfully and sustainably while contributing to preservation of the environment, choose eco-tourism!

In Shipped, Henley and Graeme battle with the expectations and stresses of everyday life. Yet their priorities change as they find themselves falling for the beauty of the Galápagos and each other. As an author, and having researched the environmental work that takes place on the islands, what effect has this had on you in today’s world?

Learning about the incredible conservation work in the Galápagos—and witnessing its successes first-hand—has made me more hopeful for the future. I think it’s easy to get sucked into the endlessly bleak news cycles of devastation and destruction, but the fact is that the future of the planet rests in the hands of people. We can have a better tomorrow…if we choose. Even seemingly small, everyday choices like reducing single-use plastic consumption, recycling, and opting for sustainable goods and services (and voting in elections!) can add up to making a big difference if enough people join in. And that’s a very hopeful, empowering thing.

Conservation efforts are clearly dear to your heart, and this shows throughout Shipped.  Do you have any more adventures lined up for Henley or are you working on something new?

I’m currently working on something completely new! My next romantic comedy, Dream On, is coming out from Gallery Books in summer 2022, and follows a woman who wakes up from a coma with memories of a picture-perfect boyfriend who isn’t real, only to meet him months later. This one takes place in Cleveland, Ohio, so quite a bit closer to home than the Galápagos! After Dream On though, I would love to return to the world of Shipped—if not in a sequel, then perhaps in a standalone rom-com set in another wild, remote part of the world…stay tuned!

Authors are always looking for new and exciting ways to highlight conservation and climate issues, often taking us on adventures spanning all four corners of the world. Yet what about the earth beneath our feet? This still remains uncharted territory.  Whilst Shipped takes place on a cruise liner, my upcoming novel, Train by Angela Kecojevic, uses another form of popular travel to raise awareness on climate change.

Inspired by Jules Verne’s 1884 classic novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I wanted to explore a frozen planet, often referred to as a ‘snowball’ planet. The idea that Earth’s core could be habitable led me to the creation of a high speed train that would break through Earth’s crust and explore its depths.

Train focuses on a group of international teenagers summoned to the only remaining train station in the world: Station X. Here, they must train for survival. Their mission: to fix a dying planet. Their destination: the centre of the earth. Train will be published by the Untold Group later this year.

Angie Hockman is a RWA Golden Heart Award® winner. Her professional background includes stints in law, education, and eco-tourism, but these days you can find her writing romantic stories, enjoying the outdoors with her family, or dreaming of her next travel adventure. She lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband, young son, two cats, and one ornery golden retriever.

Angela Kecojevic is the author behind award-winning adventure park Hobbledown in Surrey. Two YA novels are upcoming with the Untold Publishing Group, including Train and Arc. She has also written ‘The Laughing Shepherd’ (OUP 2020) for the Oxford Reading Tree programme. She lives with her family in Oxford, working as a school librarian.


Climate Change in the News

Why oil giants are swapping oil rigs for offshore windfarms [The Guardian]

Here’s how to talk with your kids about climate anxiety [Grist]

PhD opportunity to produce a commercially credible TV drama script, working with themes from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals  [BBC Writers Room]

Renewable Energy Had a Record-Setting Year Despite… All This [Gizmodo]

I Was a Climate Change Denier – This Is Why I Changed My Mind [Vice]

A Glimpse of America’s Future: Climate Change Means Trouble for Power Grids [NY Times]

What is a billionaire’s role in saving the planet? [Grist]

The Climate Fiction Writers League is still looking for volunteers: a graphic designer and a curriculum developer! Check out our opportunities at Jointly Earth.

Journalism inspiring Fiction

by Joanne O’Connell

My debut novel, Beauty and the Bin was partly inspired by my food journalism, particularly by a column I wrote for the Guardian, about giving up supermarkets.   

For twelve months, I whizzed nettles into pesto, baked my own bread, grew vegetables, and stocked up on everything from chilli flakes to tomato ketchup at my local independents. At first, it was about saving money (it was for the consumer affairs section of the paper) but alongside the savings (£2,000 in a year, by the way!) it allowed me to explore how to live and eat in ways that protect the planet.  

It led to so many inspiring conversations, with people like eco chef Tom Hunt, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage, and expert forager Fiona Bird. I ate seaweed spaghetti on a Scottish Island, drank velvety smooth chocolate with a chocolatier in London, and learnt about everything from hydroponics to how much perfectly edible food gets wasted each year. And I didn’t just write about this stuff, the point of the column was to live it. So, my sourdough starter bubbled on the kitchen worktop, peas grew up the garden fence and the windowsills of my house became a blur of leafy salad greens (much of which ended up in Beauty and the Bin). 

Once the column was over, I carried on writing for the Guardian sustainable team, and begun to research my non-fiction food history book: The Homemade Vegan – which led me to connect with lots of climate pioneers all over the world.  

As a journalist and a non-fiction writer, you interview so many people. You’re looking for the real reasons behind what they say and do, and the privilege of the job is that it allows you an access to others from politicians to pop stars to the people eating surplus food from the supermarket bins.  But there are things you can’t say easily in journalism. You can report what people do or say but you can’t say for sure what they’re thinking. Plus, there’s a formula, which you must write to, there are fact checks and fast-paced deadlines.  

The more I thought about my writing, the more I realised there are things that novelists can say that journalists can’t. That sounds so basic! But this was my process. I knew I wanted to write a truthful, honest book about that awkward tug between family and friends when you’re just trying to find your place in the world. So, I wondered if writing a novel for children was also a great way to share what I’d learnt about food, and climate-friendly ways of eating – a new way of writing the story. And I knew I wanted the story to be a fun, light-hearted, magazine-style read, which could inspire a reader or two (fingers crossed) but which didn’t heap pressure on younger generations or worry them. 

But it wasn’t really until the final edit of the book that I realised how much the story had been influenced by my journalism work. The characters in Beauty and the Bin are nearly always either eating or putting food on their faces or feet; the family lives in a hydroponic growing farm, where Laurie, the main character, makes her plant-based beauty products from surplus food. And while I did of course know the idea for this book had sprung from my journalism and love of food, even I was surprised to discover that the word chocolate appears 91 times.  

‘You have two choices, Laurie. You can either get some food out of the bins to take to the party or you can get back into the car and sulk.’

Laurie got back into the car and sulked.

Unconcerned, her mum picked up the bags. ‘Come on, Fern,’ she said to Laurie’s little sister. ‘Last night’s rubbish should still be in the containers. We’re looking for bagels, salad, strawberries . . .’

‘Can I get into the actual bin?’ asked Fern, jumping up and down on the spot. Her bracelets, home-made from bottle tops, jangled loudly. ‘Like properly inside it? And throw things over to you?’

‘But you’re the lookout,’ said Mum. ‘What if the manager comes out and you don’t give me the signal in time?’

Laurie pulled her cardigan around her. Normal people, she thought, don’t slip around the back of supermarkets and take things out of the bins for free. She stared out of the window. It was nearly seven o’clock on a Saturday evening and the car park was busy. Shoppers were going through the shiny doors, into the brightly lit aisles to pay for groceries.

Her eyes rested on a girl and her mum – both dressed in this season’s statement jeans – who were trying to prise a trolley out of the rack. The mum kept tugging on the handles and then throwing her arms up, panto-style. Laurie couldn’t see the girl’s face but she was tossing her blonde ponytail.

She’s probably laughing, thought Laurie. Like I’d be, if I hadn’t been asked to climb into a bin and splatter myself with yogurt, custard and hummus. 

You can find out more about Beauty and the Bin here.

Joanne O’Connell is a journalist whose inspiration sprang from a year-long column she wrote for the Guardian called ‘Goodbye Supermarkets’, during which she met food waste campaigners, such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and eco-chef Tom Hunt, and presented a short video about taking her children foraging on a Scottish Island. She has written for The Observer, The Times, The Daily Express, The Independent and various glossy magazines, and is the author of The Homemade Vegan, published in 2016. She occasionally appears on television and radio, most recently on BBC Breakfast and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

James Bradley talks about Ghost Species

James Bradley, author of the critically acclaimed climate fiction novel Clade, is publishing a new adult science fiction novel this week in the UK, Ghost Species. Lauren James talks to him about his career in climate fiction.

Tell us about Ghost Species.

Ghost Species begins with the creation of a Neanderthal child as part of a secret project in the Tasmanian wilderness, and then imagines the childhood and adolescence of the child – Eve – against the backdrop of hastening climate collapse. It’s about extinction and de-extinction, the boundaries between the human and the non-human, and what love means in the face of impossible grief.

How are the climate politics/science in this book different from your first climate fiction title, Clade, which was published 5 years ago? What drew you back to the topic?

In a lot of ways Ghost Species is a companion book to Clade, and shares many of its concerns. But it’s also a more intimate book, and in a lot of ways, both more despairing and more focussed on what it will take to survive coming decades and what that survival might mean. That’s partly because a result of what was going on in my life while I was writing it – I began it just after my father died, and my mother died just before it was published – but it’s also because I think the tenor of the conversation around the climate crisis has changed over recent years, and the knowledge we’re careening towards catastrophe has become harder to avoid. So in one sense the book is very much about that sense of imminent disaster, about trying to give shape to ideas of collapse and catastrophe and inevitability, and what it might be like to live through that. But it’s also about the bonds of love and care and communality that sustain us, the questions of justice that underpin them, and what we need to hold onto to survive in the world that’s bearing down on us.

What kind of research did you do when writing it, beyond knowledge you already had? How do you keep up to date on the latest climate news – do you subscribe to any specific media sources?

I suppose that like a lot of people who are interested in environmental questions I spend a lot of time reading news reports and articles in newspapers that take climate issues seriously, but because I write so much non-fiction I also often find myself talking to scientists  about their work (which is always a wonderful experience) and reading more technical material in scientific journals and various official reports. That tends to be a bit brain-breaking (and always makes me wish I had some formal scientific training) but it really does force you to get to grips with the research.

Obviously some of that sort of research went into Ghost Species – I read a lot about Neanderthals, for instance – but I always treat the science as a starting point rather than a straitjacket. That’s partly because I don’t think it’s what readers are there for – certainly in Ghost Species the de-extinction stuff is deliberately very lightly sketched – but it’s also because I don’t think fiction’s function is to lecture or educate, it’s to create worlds and ways of seeing and understanding. For me that usually means creating a version of the future that feels plausible, but isn’t necessarily entirely constrained by the facts (in Ghost Species, for instance, there’s an ice sheet collapse, but it happens much faster than that’s likely to be in the real world). And it also means I think there’s a place for work that inhabits every point on the spectrum between rigorous scientific accuracy and complete fantasy; what matters to me isn’t accuracy, it’s that the work feels real and true and necessary.

That said, one of the things I find most disturbing about writing in the climate space is the sense that reality keeps outpacing your predictions. The final chapter of Clade depends upon something that was pure science fiction at the time I wrote it, but has since begun to happen. Likewise Ghost Species is full of fire, and smoke, and I ended up editing it in a city choked with smoke from the bushfires last summer. That collapsing of present and future, reality and imagination is extremely unsettling and uncanny.

Ghost Species includes a lot of high-concept elements like resurrecting Neanderthals, as well as being set in a future time facing the climate crisis. Do you see the representation of climate trauma as an essential element of any book set in the near-future?

Absolutely. One of the things I very much wanted Ghost Species to do was to capture something of the sense of trauma and dislocation that’s so much a part of the experience of being alive right now. In order to do that I tried to write in a way that erased the boundary between me and the work, and between the work and the world, so it made the experience of environmental and social breakdown tangible. That meant processing a lot of very personal and very intimate stuff straight into the text, but it also let me make a whole lot of connections between very personal forms of grief and larger, more planetary forms of grief.

Are there any elements of the climate issue which you rarely see represented in the climate fiction you read, which you’d love to see discussed more?

I often worry about the fact writing about climate skews so White, Western and middle-class, especially when the worst impacts of climate crisis are going to be felt by poor people and people of colour. The solution to that is greater diversity at every level of the process, but we need to be reading more work by Indigenous writers, and writers from communities in the Global South and elsewhere who are on the forefront of both climate change and the fight against the forces driving it. I also want to see more work that inhabits the lived reality of climate crisis, and the way it touches our lives already, rather than treating it as a specific subject to be tackled: we’re way past the point where it should be regarded a trope or a genre; instead it’s a tangible condition, like modernity, and should be part of everything we write and think.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

“For months now the news has been about West Antarctica, the possibility the ice sheet has reached a critical point, but as she calls up the news she sees the story has moved rapidly in the hours she has been away, and the sheet really is collapsing. And when she sleeps she dreams of shifting ice, the yaw and tectonic creak of it, the way it slithers down into the waiting ocean, dark as grief.”

Can you talk a little about the differences between your climate fiction and non-fiction? How do you personally feel about the formats – and are you trying to achieve different things with them both? What message do you hope readers will take away from your work?

I think like a lot of people who write both fiction and non-fiction, the two processes are interconnected, so I often use non-fiction as a way to think through questions or ideas connected to the fiction I’m writing. But they’re also very different processes, and seem to me to come from quite different places. For me at least, fiction is a very intuitive process, a way of capturing and communicating emotion and certain kinds of awareness that aren’t easily expressed in other ways, and of making various sorts of connections. As a result it’s perfectly suited to capturing the feeling of being alive right now, the weirdness and dissonance and confusion of our moment, and of helping us approach and process grief and trauma.

Good non-fiction can do some of that as well, but it’s also better at argument and ideas and, because the timelines are so much shorter, tends to be more immediate in its concerns. For me that immediacy is definitely part of the appeal of non-fiction, because it allows you to actually intervene, by bringing some information or perspective to people in a very direct way. Write well about the plight of the oceans, or about the need to accept the reality of climate change, or the inner lives of fish, or Australia’s lost oyster reefs, and there’s a chance you might actually change people’s perspectives or behaviours. Obviously fiction can do those things as well, but it works differently, and at deeper levels, so its results are often slower and less tangible. But that’s also its strength, because it shows us things we can’t see any other way, and alters us in ways we can’t predict.

James Bradley is the author of four novels: the critically acclaimed climate change narrative, Clade (Hamish Hamilton 2015), The Resurrectionist (Picador 2006), which explores the murky world of underground anatomists in Victorian England and was featured as one of Richard and Judy’s Summer Reads in 2008; The Deep Field (Sceptre 1999), which is set in the near future and tells the story of a love affair between a photographer and a blind palaeontologist; and Wrack (Vintage 1997) about the search for a semi-mythical Portuguese wreck. He has also written a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, the novella, Beauty’s Sister, and edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean and Blur, a collection of stories by young Australian writers.

The History of Dystopia by Jamie Mollart

Dystopian fiction in its current form has been around for a long time. It’s been a prominent escape route from our daily life and has been a reflection of our collective fears and concerns for a couple of hundred years.

Since the events of 2020, and now 2021, have begun to make it look as if we’re actually living in a Dystopia, I’ve begun questioning what the place of Dystopian fiction is in our consciousness and whether it’s possible to cover new ground in a genre that increasingly looks like a mirror to the world, rather than a flight of fantasy.

I have a vested interest to declare here. I have a Dystopian fiction novel due to be published this summer, Kings of a Dead World, and as I’ve gone through the editing process it’s seemed more and more horribly prescient.

To understand Dystopian fiction, we need to understand its roots. Utopia, the perfect state, came before Dystopia, Sir Thomas More invented the term in 1516 and it took us quite a long time to come up with the flipside. We had to look forward to imagine a good future before our pessimism could imagine it’s opposite.

Dystopia literally means ‘unhappy country’ and was born purely to be the negative reflection of Utopia. The first recorded public usage of the word was in the House of Commons in 1868, when John Stuart Mill said, ‘it is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians.

The truth is people like the black and white of extremes, think right back to the Garden of Eden and Hell, so we needed to build a Utopia in order to define a Dystopia.

It was, however, authors who took control of the word and rooted it in our lexicon. Jack London’s Iron Heel’ and Yevgeny Zamyatins ‘We’ were front runners and there’s no coincidence that they book-ended the First World War.

Dystopian fiction is almost always fired by global events – World Wars, Pandemics, the War on Terror –  all of them have seen a boom in popularity of stories about the end of the world.

So, what is it that makes people enjoy Dystopia from a psychological point of view?

Some of it can be put down to simple Schadenfreude; the sense of taking pleasure from other people’s misfortune. In a very unpleasant, basic way human beings are wired to find satisfaction in other people’s problems, if it’s happening to them it’s not happening to us.

But we also have a morbid fascination in disaster. We see it in the slowing of traffic on a motorway to view a crash, in the obsession with reality TV shows and in the obsessive hitting of the refresh button on news about Covid-19. It’s a kind of group rubbernecking, and if it’s at a distance and removed we can observe it and take lessons without suffering the pain.

There’s no doubt people like to psychologically prepare for real disasters by taking a dry run and Dystopian fiction plays into this beautifully. It acts as a dress rehearsal for potential horrors.

We live in a world, which pandemic excluded, is the safest it’s ever been. Max Roser, an economist at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University says “We live in a much more peaceful and inclusive world than our ancestors of the past. The news is very much focused on singular events. All of these trends that I’m looking at are slow changes that happen over decades, or sometimes even centuries. These developments never have a ‘now’ moment that would make them interesting for news that is following current events.’

Murder rates are down globally, poverty is down globally, there is more readily available democracy than ever before, people are working less hard than ever before, there is more economic success and education than at any point in our history, technological advances are happening at an unprecedented rate.

And yet all of this comes at a price.

For a lot of people, myself included, awareness of the Climate Crisis is a constant chatter in their subconscious, and with it a sense of an impending reckoning where we will be faced with the consequences of the way we’ve played fast and loose with the world.

One of the problems with understanding Climate Change is that it can easily be seen as an issue that is too big for one person to have an impact on and so a modern Dystopia serves as a clean slate, wiping away everything that we’ve done to the world without having to imagine the steps in between. It is a shorthand way of jumping to the end of the story and enabling us to consider consequences without having to live through the horror that will get us there.

Equally an imagined Dystopian world can help us cope with a perceived stressful reality in the same way that horror movies do. It enables us to explore our worst fears in a way that isn’t immediately threatening, and this is exciting. It engages our fight and flight mechanism, kicks in the adrenaline, but in a controlled way. We can walk away from it safely and then consider what we’ve seen. It’s part of our way of coping with the rigours of the world.

Because we’re human beings though, forewarned is not always forearmed. We have a collective self destructive nature, an ability to ignore the bigger picture, and politically we work in a cyclical nature, you just need to look at American President’s approach to climate change to see this on a relatively short time scale.

Writing in the Guardian, Obama said ‘During the course of my presidency, I made climate change a top priority, because I believe that, for all the challenges that we face, this is the one that will define the contours of this century more dramatically perhaps than the others. No nation, whether it’s large or small, rich or poor, will be immune from the impacts of climate change. We are already experiencing it in America, where some cities are seeing floods on sunny days, where wildfire seasons are longer and more dangerous, where in our arctic state, Alaska, we’re seeing rapidly eroding shorelines, and glaciers receding at a pace unseen in modern times.’

Trump’s attitude to Climate Change is the opposite, at once extreme and startling: “Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee – I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” and “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Then, four years later I’m writing this as Biden is about to be inaugurated, and the news is reporting that he will undo up to 17 of Trump’s executive orders on day one of his presidency.

According to Paul Bledsoe, climate adviser to Bill Clinton’s White House, “Day one, Biden will rejoin Paris, regulate methane emissions and continue taking many other aggressive executive climate actions in the opening days and weeks of his presidency.’

There’s a microcosm of human behaviour here playing out in the role of the leader of the world’s biggest polluter. Human attitudes change in a cyclical nature and Dystopian fiction by necessity changes with them. In its role to discuss our worst fears it changes along with the geopolitical and socio economic landscape it reflects.

Here and now in 2021 we’re faced with the worst health crisis in a century, huge swathes of the globe are in lockdown, hospitals are filling up and economic disaster is piling up around the world. To all intents and purposes we feel like we could be living out the plot of a Dystopian novel. If anyone has watched Twelve Monkeys recently it suddenly doesn’t seem so fantastical. What has personally surprised me is that even in the midst of all this horror, our desire to delve into Dystopia hasn’t waned. For weeks at the start of the first lockdown Outbreak was trending on Netflix.

If Dystopian fiction is a mirror to our current concerns and a practice run for imagined horrors, then Covid-19 has served to bring our long standing relationship with the genre into sharp focus. Waterstones have reported a surge of sales of The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 and Brave New World during lockdown, whilst online sales of Stephen King’s The Stand increased by 163% in the first week of March last year.

So are we living in a Dystopia now? The answer is no and the reason being a subtle but important distinction.

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Margaret Attwood, the grand dame of modern Dystopia and author of The Handmaid’s Tale, said “a Dystopia, technically, is an arranged unpleasant society that you don’t want to be living in. This one was not arranged. So people may be making arrangements that aren’t too pleasant, but it’s not a deliberate totalitarianism. It’s not a deliberate arrangement.”

What we are doing though is living through a time when we are as close in living memory to something that reminds us of the potential of Dystopian fiction and this affects us on a deep level.

The last living UK veteran of World War 1 died in 2009, The Spanish Flu and World War 2 will soon be out of living memory, Covid-19 is a worldwide trauma which is forcing us to look again at our collective fears, and with that comes a desire to delve back into Dystopia.

Speaking more broadly you have to ask is Covid-19 going to help us learn our lessons and lead to a more Utopian culture?

I truly hope so, but history tells us this hope is unfortunately probably unfounded. As discussed, Dystopia is a mirror to our fears, so it will always hold an important place in our culture until we agree on Utopia. (An aim which appears contrary to human nature.)

Dystopia holds a unique position in the literary canon because it speaks to us on a primal level and answers deep needs within the human psyche.

As the challenges the human race faces change so too will the Dystopian fiction that it consumes.

And this is why it will always be relevant. Until we fix the flaws in our species’s nature there will always be new ground for Dystopian fiction to cover.

Category: Dystopia, Science Fiction

Published by Sandstone Press (June 2021)

Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart

The Earth’s resources are dwindling. The solution is The Sleep: periods of hibernation imposed on those who remain with only a Janitor to watch over the sleepers. In the sleeping city, elderly Ben struggles with his limited waking time and the disease which is stealing his wife from him. Outside, lonely Janitor Peruzzi craves the family he never knew. Around them both, dissatisfaction is growing. The city is about to wake.

Jamie Mollart

Jamie Mollart runs his own advertising company, and has won awards for marketing. Over the years he has been widely published in magazines, been a guest on some well-respected podcasts and blogs, and Patrick Neate called him ‘quite a writer’ on the Book Slam podcast. He is married and lives in Leicestershire with his family. His debut novel, The Zoo, was on the Amazon Rising Stars 2015 list. His second novel, Kings of a Dead World will be published on June 10 2021.

Climate News

Are you an educator, blogger or graphic designer? Would you like to get involved in climate activism as an online volunteer? The Climate Fiction Writers League is working with Jointly Earth to find activists who can volunteer some time to help the group develop further into a resource for teachers and librarians. If you would have a few hours to spare, you can help us with Outreach, Graphic and Web Design and Curriculum Development. There are lots of other opportunities on the website to work with other environmental groups if none of those are a fit for you.

How Biden is reversing Trump’s assault on the environment [The Guardian]

Waiting to Address Climate Change Will Cost Trillions of Dollars [Gizmodo]

The Shift Toward Clean Cars [NY Times]

How to spot the tricks Big Oil uses to subvert action on climate change [Vox]

League member Laura Lam and University of Edinburgh evolutionary biologist Sinead Collins have launched C.Y.O.TOPIA, or Choose Your Own Topia, a YouTube series that investigates two different approaches to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to build these two versions of a future, and discover what we can do collectively to bring about a better world.

An extract from new book The New Climate War, where scientist Michael Mann explores the concept of ‘soft doomism’ and how it threatens vital action [Crikey]

League founder Lauren James talks about her new Middle Grade release The Deep-Sea Duke

The Climate Fiction Writers League was created and run by Lauren James. This week her new novella The Deep-Sea Duke is published by Barrington Stoke.

Tell us about your new book.

The Deep-Sea Duke is a sci-fi novella set on an alien planet. It’s aimed at struggling readers (age 8+). The story follows a pompous amphibian Duke Dorian as he takes his best friends – a living volcano and a servant-class android – to meet his parents.

How does climate change play into the plot?

Dorian’s parents happen to be the monarchs of a water planet (think: space mermaids!), which is currently struggling to find housing for an influx of climate refugees. A race of butterflies have made their planet uninhabitable by burning fossil fuels, so they had to leave the hot planet. Dorian’s parents have to find habitats for them.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

I read a lot of books about climate change as research for this novella and my upcoming climate thriller, Green Rising. I also subscribed to email newsletters like Heated, Lights Out , and Green Light by The Guardian to make sure I was getting up-to-the-minute climate news.

What approach did you take to talking about complicated topics, either political or scientific, for younger readers?

It’s all about character – as long as readers can see the effects of a difficult topic on someone they care about (whether that’s a human, animal, alien or robot!) then they’ll understand the importance. Empathy is a really powerful force in creating change.

So many of the climate fiction books I read focus on the effect that individuals can have on the planet, with the message that we all need to be more responsible, greener consumers. I wanted to look at how industry and businesses are causing pollution, to make it clear to my young, scared readers that it’s not their responsibility to fix climate change. No amount of careful consumption can fix an industry-wide problem.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change? (fictional or non-fiction!)

The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres & Tom Rivett-Carnac

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climateby Naomi Klein

Can you remember when your journey with environmental activism started?

I studied Chemistry and Physics at university, so I’ve been studying the science of climate change for many years. It’s incredibly frustrating that I was taught the science of the greenhouse effect and the proposed solutions over a decade ago, and yet we’re still no further along in fixing it.

Why is it so important for you personally to see the environment discussed in fiction?

I’m most interested in seeing the politics of climate change discussed. Everyone is aware of the science, but I’m not sure that everyone understands the details of oil companies’ campaign of science denial, or the other political events which have slowed down the efforts to counteract climate change.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

“Climate change, I’m afraid. They’ve been using those motorised penny farthing bicycles for centuries now. It burnt up all the fossil fuels they dug up from the ground. It released chemicals into the air that changed the atmosphere of their planet. It has been raising the temperature for decades, but they just ignored the problem. This summer, the planet got so hot that wild fires started breaking out everywhere. Global warming has turned it into a desert wasteland.”

Dorian winced. “Oh dear. They’ve had to evacuate?”

What message do you want readers to take away from The Deep-Sea Duke?

The carbon emissions responsible for climate change are largely caused by industry, and can only be reduced through government action. However, if you’d like to make lifestyle changes to help limit your individual emissions, here are the most effective changes you can make. Some of these will take many decades to achieve, but long-term societal changes are the only way we can tackle this problem.

  • Vote in all political elections you are able to, and make sure your representatives are aware that your vote is based on their climate policy views
  • Replace garden lawns with wildflower meadows
  • Switch to LED lightbulbs
  • Don’t fly – and pay for carbon offsetting for any flights you are required to take
  • Make sure your savings and pensions schemes are not invested in companies contributing to climate change. Ask your company to divest from their harmful default options
  • Avoid eating beef, and transition to dairy alternatives
  • Buy in-season food, grown locally (avoiding hot-house produce grown out of season)
  • Change to a renewable energy utility supplier
  • Buy electric cars – but only once your current car is absolutely unable to be fixed. Keep current cars on the road for as long as possible, to keep manufacturing emissions low
  • Install solar panels or solar roof tiles
  • Air dry clothing instead of tumble drying
  • Avoid disposable, cheap fashion and invest in long-term, quality pieces that can be worn for many years

And, of course, plant trees wherever you can. They truly are the lungs of our planet. Depleted forests, savannahs, peatlands, mangroves and wetlands have the ability to grow back quickly, but we need to give them the opportunity to do that. 

Lauren James (founder)

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the End of the World, among others.

Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into five languages and shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award.

Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She teaches creative writing for many organisations, including Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

Lauren is currently working on Green Rising, a Young Adult climate change thriller about nature, geoengineering and civil disobedience in the face of overwhelming corporate negligence, which will be published in 2021 with Walker Books.

The Deep-Sea Duke by Lauren James

When Hugo and Ada travel to their friend Dorian’s planet for the holidays, android Hugo is anxious about being accepted by Dorian’s powerful family. But when they arrive on Hydrox, there are more pressing things to worry about, as the planet has been overrun by refugee butterflies. Displaced from their home by climate change, the butterflies have been offered sanctuary by Dorian’s parents, but they’re quickly running out of space. Meanwhile, beneath the seas, a strange creature is wreaking all kinds of havoc …
Can Hugo, Dorian and Ada step in before the crisis gets out of control?

The sequel to The Starlight Watchmaker is particularly suitable for struggling, reluctant or dyslexic readers aged 12+. 

Categories: Science Fiction, Dyslexia-friendly, Romance, Scavenger hunt

Published by Barrington Stoke (out now)

Melting Ice and Rising Seas

by Kate Kelly

All my life I have lived near the sea. I’ve spent my days watching the pulse of the tides and smelling the salt on the air. The sea is my life, my passion, my career (I’m an oceanographer). For that reason it was inevitable, when I turned my hand to writing fiction that the sea would feature as a recurrent theme.

Most of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, and yet the ocean depths are one of the least explored regions of our planet. Life began in the oceans, and their circulation patterns have a major effect on our weather and climate. For example, it is the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift that give the UK its mild weather, when it’s at the same latitude as Labrador!

Ever since climate change was first recognised by science, authors have been exploring various scenarios through their fiction. As a result Climate Fiction covers a wide variety of possible futures for our planet and our civilisation and the ocean plays a vital part in many of these. Let me share with you a few examples.

One of the first effects of a warming world is that the ice caps start to melt. Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has been showing some of its lowest summer extents in recent years. As more of the underlying ocean is exposed so more sunlight is absorbed, warming the waters and increasing the melting.

The loss of the Arctic sea ice is a tragedy for the creatures who live in these regions as year by year their habitat disappears. This loss of habitat is poignantly explored by Hannah Gold in The Last Bear.

Photographs by Kate Kelly

Of course all this melting ice introduces a huge influx of fresh water into our oceans. If this should disrupt the circulation in the North Atlantic then Europe’s climate could become more like Labrador, an ironic twist for a warming world, and of course, a scenario that several authors have explored. Angela Kecojevik imagines just such a frozen world in her forthcoming novel, Train.

Then there is sea level rise. It is estimated that if the Greenland Ice cap were to melt global sea levels would rise by about 7 metres. Should all the ice caps melt sea levels could rise by 70 metres or more. With most of the world’s largest cities being in low lying or coastal regions we have a potentially catastrophic scenario building.

Many authors have incorporated global sea level rise into their stories when addressing climate change. It doesn’t take a great deal of sea level rise in order to have a dramatic effect on our world. Many places are below or barely above sea level. A rise of only a few metres could obliterate Bangladesh, Northern Germany or the Netherlands.

In both my own novel Red Rock and Marcus Sedgewick’s Floodlands there has been a relatively small sea level rise. Floodlands is set in the Fenlands of East Anglia which will be one of the first parts of the UK to be inundated. This will happen with a sea level rise of no more than a few metres. In Red Rock a twelve metre sea level rise has resulted in Cambridge becoming a wasteland of tidal mudflats and abandoned buildings.

In Always North, Vicki Jarret has gone with the more extreme sea level rise of 50-60 metres, as has Emmi Itӓranta with Memory of Water. Cities and entire countries and underwater and whole populations have been displaced.

But sea level rise isn’t the only effect that the warming oceans will have. Warmer oceans mean more energy being introduced into the atmosphere and this feeds into more dynamic weather systems. In other words, fiercer and stronger storms. We are already seeing these extreme weather conditions across the world. Hurricanes that are larger than normal, and more of them.

Julie Bertagna takes all this into consideration in her novel Exodus. As well as flooding caused by the rising seas, the lower lying cities have been subjected to repeated storm surges which has made them unviable. The world as we know it has fallen apart.

All these novels emphasise the fragility of the civilisation we have built. It’s frightening to think how fast everything could unravel and that any of these scenarios could be our future. These books may be fiction but the underlying science surrounding climate change is solid. Human activity is having a profound effect on our planet and hopefully our stories will help to draw attention to the catastrophic results climate change could have if left unchecked.

Let’s hope our fiction doesn’t become reality.

You can learn more about Red Rock here.

Kate Kelly

Kate Kelly is a marine scientist by day and a writer by night, with short stories published in a number of SF magazines and anthologies, often inspired by her fascination with the sea. Her first novel, Red Rock, a Cli-Fi adventure for young adults, was published in 2013 by Curious Fox. Kate and her family live in Dorset UK and when she is not writing she takes to the sea on her paddleboard, or can be found wandering the remoter stretches of the South West Coast Path.

Categories: Thriller, Dystopia, Young Adult

Published by Curious Fox (out now)

Red Rock by Kate Kelly

The ice caps have melted. The coastal areas we once knew are gone, and only scavvers now live in the flooded towns. The world has changed, but as 14-year-old Danni Rushton soon discovers, it isn t the first time… Living with her uncle after the tragic death of her parents, Danni s world is turned upside down when her aunt is assassinated. With her dying breath, she entrusts Danni with a strange, small rock. Danni must not tell a soul that she has it.

But what is the rock for, and to what lengths must Danni go to keep it safe? This action-packed adventure takes the reader from the barren terrain of Greenland, to the flooded ruins of Cambridge, and on to a sinister monastery in Malta. In her effort to save her uncle and evade a power-hungry space agency, Danni discovers that friends aren t always what they seem, and a rock isn t always just a rock…


Climate News

Dizzying pace of Biden’s climate action sounds death knell for era of denialism [The Guardian]

Picture Books That Highlight Climate Change by league member Chitra Soundar

Aviva will use its ‘ultimate sanction’ to force action on global warming [Financial Times]

The North Sea oil giants fueling climate change with millions of tonnes in preventable emissions [Unearthed Greenpeace]

Other new member releases:

Kat Wolfe on Thin Ice (Wolfe and Lamb Mysteries #3) by Lauren St. John [Middle Grade Adventure]

Wench by Maxine Kaplan [Young Adult Fantasy]

P.S. What’s up with the climate? by Bijal Vachharajani [Picture Book]

Hope Jones Will Not Eat Meat by Josh Lacey [Middle Grade activism]


While this newsletter will always remain free to read, I’ve set up the option of contributing to the administration costs of running the site. Essays and interviews are scheduled every two weeks for the next year, which is a lot of work to organise and upload. I’d like to receive enough donations to allow the league to hire a book publicist to process new applicants and schedule the newsletters, so that it’s sustainable long term. All donations are appreciated!


Discussion between Hannah Gold and Joanne O’Connell

League members Hannah Gold and Joanna O’Connell discuss their new Middle Grade releases, The Last Bear (HarperCollins) and Beauty and the Bin (Macmillan). Here, they talk about what led them to write books which deal with the climate emergency.

Joanne: Hannah, how about you start by telling us about The Last Bear?

Hannah: The Last Bear is the story of 11-year-old April Wood who spends the summer on a remote Arctic island with her scientist father. The island is called Bear Island but because of the melting ice-caps, the polar bears can no longer travel so far south. But one endless summer’s night, April spots something distinctly bear-shaped. A polar bear who is starving, lonely and a long way from home. Determined to save him, April begins the most important journey of her life. On one level, it’s the pure joyful celebration of the love between a child and a wild animal, but, on a much deeper level, it’s also a battle cry for our planet. It’s also, and I’m so proud to say this, the book of my heart.

Hannah: And you could tell us about Beauty and the Bin?

Joanne: Beauty and the Bin is about a girl called Laurie Larksie, who comes from a family of full-on eco warriors. The Larksies are always off bin diving, marching for the climate and even (at a particularly low point for Lau) eating up leftover food in restaurants. Laurie loves her family and deeply shares their values, but she just wants to fit in at school. When she enters an entrepreneur competition with her homemade beauty products, Laurie has to find a way to be successful without losing sight of who she is. So, it’s about family, friendship, and values, and it’s (fingers crossed!) a funny and uplifting read.

Joanne: I’ve read that you grew up in a family where books, animals, and the beauty of the outside world were ever present. So, it sounds like your background helped lead you to write The Last Bear. Can you us a bit about your childhood and how it has inspired your writing?  

Hannah: Animals have always been part of my world ever since the day my mum took me to a garden centre and we saw a litter of kittens for sale. My little eyes lit up and there was no way were going home empty-handed! At aged seven, I was young enough to think I could wear Penny round my neck as a scarf but also wise enough to know that animals spoke in the most special of languages – the language of the heart. My love of animals has just grown stronger and deeper with age – but not just the pets in our home, but animals everywhere. So, when it came to writing The Last Bear, there really was only one subject I wanted to try and capture – that mysterious, almost magical bond which exists between us (but particularly children) and them.

Hannah: You write about a family with an alternative lifestyle in Beauty and the Bin, so is any of that inspired by your own childhood?

Joanne: I think so. I grew up in a fun, loving family, where there was a huge emphasis on sharing, and community, and putting other people and the planet first. We campaigned against racism and for peace, we delivered leaflets, we wrote letters to Amnesty and so on. And the house was full of books and ideas and friends who were writers, academics, and thinkers. So as a child, political discussions flew around the dinner table. Plus, my family were part of a scheme to help give respite care for other families, so there were often other children staying in our house, with me and my sisters. Those children were a brilliant, important part of our lives and we loved it but it also involved a lot of sharing! The Larksies are a warm, loving family and they’re all about sharing, and so yes, I think some of those childhood influences are in the book. 

Hannah: So, it sounds like your family was interested in climate activism? How aware were you as a child or a teenager about climate issues? 

Joanne: Pretty aware! In my family, we were all vegetarian (though I have since been vegan for years) and we were into recycling back in the 70s/80s. We baked our own bread, had a veg box and used to shop at a zero-waste independent for all our grains, and beans, flour, and raw sugar. With our re-usable bags, obvs! It’s fantastic how the eco lifestyle is now going mainstream. I kind of wish I could go back and tell my 12-year-old self, sitting eating my organic packed lunch that one day, all this would be considered ordinary … I’d have choked on my chickpea fritters if I’d heard about vegan influencers, etc. I think it’s great how much awareness there is now but there’s a long way to go until things really change. What about you?

Hannah: To be honest, as a teenager, I can’t recall it being a topic of conversation, but my love of nature has always been there and having been lucky enough to live in various places abroad, I’ve seen first-hand the unbelievable and breath-taking beauty of our planet. I think anything that we love we automatically want to protect. So, the older and more aware I’ve become, the more I started to make ecological choices that were aligned to my values. When this no longer felt enough, I stepped up to be part of my council’s Climate Focus Group to see what change I could make on a community level. And writing The Last Bear is about making change on a global level.

Joanne: When and how did you decide to start writing The Last Bear

Hannah: In truth, I’m not sure I deliberately set out to write a climate change book but once I had chosen a polar bear as the main character (or in truth, he had chosen me) it was impossible to write about them without talking about the melting ice caps. Not just the fact they are melting at an extraordinarily frightening pace, but the affect this is having on all our Arctic animals, but especially the polar bears who rely on the ice-caps for hunting.

When looking at where to set the book, I stumbled across a real-life island named Bear Island because of the polar bears which once lived there. It’s a tiny island which does in fact have a weather station (but not staffed by one man and his daughter!) and is situated half-way between the mainland of Norway and an archipelago of islands much closer to the North Pole called Svalbard. Not that long ago, polar bears would use the winter sea ice to roam from Svalbard to Bear Island to hunt for seals. But now, because the winter sea ice has retreated so much, polar bears can no longer reach the island which bears their name.

Once I found that out – there really was only one story to tell. How 11-year-old April rescues a lonely, starving polar bear stranded a long way from home. What about you, did you intend to write about the climate emergency?

Joanne: My book is about that awkward tug between friends and family and I think making the family super aware of the climate emergency, helped tell that story. I wanted to highlight how it can be tricky (even now) to make eco choices when you’re at school, and there’s lots of peer pressure, from food to fast fashion.

Joanne: What kind of research did you do while writing it? 

Hannah: I spent a long time obviously researching Bear Island itself – the geography and geology of it, the weather and its habitat. The other main area of research was into the rate at which the ice-caps are melting in the Barent’s Sea area and how this is affecting polar bears in that region. Frighteningly, these statistics keep changing. At the start of writing the book the sea-ice was melting at a rate of 12% per decade according to NASA stats but just under two years later, this had crept up to 13%. I looked at how the loss of the ice caps affected the polar bear habitat and sadly, so many are literally starving to death because the ice is coming later and later each year. In fact, the ICUN predicts that by 2050 the polar bear population could be in serious decline – that’s a little over 25 years away. A lot of the research was quite upsetting, but I needed to understand the facts before I could write my story.

Joanne: The Last Bear is a book for readers of 8+. Some children will be reading it by themselves and I know you’ve been really careful to inspire hope and warmth in the story, despite the worrying subject. I think children’s writers have a responsibility when it comes taking care of younger readers when writing about the climate. How did you achieve this? 

Climate change is a scary thing on top of lots of other scary things happening right now. And yes, absolutely as an author, I feel we have a level of responsibility to our younger readers and need to be mindful of what emotions we are potentially inducing via our words. Fear, in itself is counter-productive. At the time of writing this book, there was a lot of dystopian middle-grade and young adult fiction on the market – and a lot of it, is very good. But I wanted to write something which was set in the here and now, and which instilled the message that it’s not too late. And funnily enough, that’s actually what made my submission to agents and publishers stand out – because I was telling it from a different narrative. On a personal level, I have always been interested in how we can engage children (and grown-ups!) to feel energized and engaged and books are a fantastic way to do that.

Hannah: I know Beauty and the Bin is a positive, and funny book, was that how you wanted to make sure readers didn’t feel overwhelmed by the climate emergency story?

Joanne: I definitely wanted to write a funny, light-hearted book for children. And hopefully it works, because I think humour can be a powerful way to engage people in issues. I also wanted to make sure that the message in the book was very do-able. Laurie makes homemade beauty products from discarded food – she turns squashy bananas into hair custard, and so on – and that’s a simple, affordable action for most readers.

Joanne: So, given that the subject matter is very important what message do you hope readers will take away from your work?  

Hannah: There is a line in the book that many of the early reviewers have picked up on. It’s when April is defending her actions to someone who is skeptical about what difference she (who is tiny) can make. She replies, ‘But what if every single person on the planet just did one thing?’ I think that sums up my attitude perfectly – it is not about waiting for someone else to sort this situation out, it’s about being the change ourselves and leading the fight. If we’re talking dream author goals, then I would really love to see my book in schools, libraries and even on the curriculum to inspire and empower children.

Joanne: Yes, empowering children sounds great. That would be amazing. But books are amazing, aren’t they? I was an avid reader as a child and so many fictional characters have stayed with me and given me hope, fun and confidence at different times.

Joanne: Our debut novels will be published in February (whoop, whoop!) and out there, in bookshops, libraries, homes and more importantly right in the hands of readers. I can’t get over how exciting it is to hear what children think about Beauty and the Bin – big shout out to those lovely early readers! So, when it’s published, I am crossing my fingers that some more children enjoy the book. What’s the best bit about publication?  

Hannah: At the time of this interview, we are sadly in another lockdown but all of this journey has just been an utter dream come true. The reaction to the book has been so heartfelt and special and I love particularly how many teachers are calling for it to already be used in the classroom. So, the best bit (aside from my own personal goals) is the thought that I really could make a difference. And that’s really what the whole book is all about.

Beauty and the Bin is out on 18th Feb, and The Last Bear comes on the 2nd in the US and 18th in the UK.

Twitter: @byesupermarkets

Joanne O’Connell

Joanne O’Connell is a journalist whose inspiration sprang from a year-long column she wrote for the Guardian called ‘Goodbye Supermarkets’, during which she met food waste campaigners, such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and eco-chef Tom Hunt, and presented a short video about taking her children foraging on a Scottish Island. She has written for The Observer, The Times, The Daily Express, The Independent and various glossy magazines, and is the author of The Homemade Vegan, published in 2016. She occasionally appears on television and radio, most recently on BBC Breakfast and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

Twitter: @HGold_author

Hannah Gold

Hannah Gold grew up in a family where books, animals, and the beauty of the outside world were ever present and is passionate about writing stories that share her love of the planet. She now lives in the UK with her tortoise, her cat, and her husband and, when not writing, is busy hunting for her next big animal story as well as practicing her roar. The Last Bear is her middle-grade debut.


Climate Change in the News

Grist Magazine has launched a new climate-fiction short story contest. Imagine 2200 calls for stories (3,000–5,000 words) that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress. What might the world look like in the year 2200, and how did we get there? Conjure your wildest dreams for society — all the sweet, sweet justice, resilience, and abundance we could realize — and put those dreams on paper. Submissions are open now, and will close April 12, 2021. Literary judges will include authors Adrienne Maree Brown, Kiese Laymon, and Morgan Jerkins. The top three contest winners will be awarded $3000, $2000, and $1000 respectively, and nine additional finalists will each receive a $300 honorarium. Winners and finalists will be published on Fix’s website and will be celebrated in a public-facing virtual event. Join this uprising of imagination, and help turn the page on earth’s next chapter. grist.org/fix/climate-fiction-writing-contest-imagine-2200-prizes

More than 50 countries commit to protection of 30% of Earth’s land and oceans [The Guardian]

Reasons To Be Hopeful About The Climate Fight In 2021 [Refinery29]

Geoengineering in Poetry

by Frederick Turner

Apocalypse is an epic poem about catastrophic climate change in the next several decades and a parallel catastrophic social crisis. A climate tipping-point happens, the Antarctic ice sheets collapse, and the existing answers prove ineffective. But the word “apocalypse” originally meant “unveiling,” and the story follows a group of remarkable human beings who find brilliant scientific and engineering solutions that require a very different way of looking at the world. That way also opens up profound spiritual perspectives, echoing in a twenty-first century secular scientific world the poetry of the book of revelations and the Zen parable of the ten bulls.

It’s perhaps my most important book—important to me at least—and many have asked me how I wrote it. So here goes.

1.  Prophecy Comes from the Mistakes

You don’t just learn, you learn that you’ve already learned a bunch of things you didn’t know you’d learned. And now that you set finger to key you find out what they are.

Which means that you have to trust yourself and plunge in.  That’s what heroes do, and poets have to do the same if they want to keep up.  In medias res, in the middle of things, as Aristotle said. There is no excuse for writer’s block.

In the case of Apocalypse, I’d written two earlier SF epic poems, The New World and Genesis, so I’d had plenty of chances to make mistakes.

The big mistake I made was in thinking that the mistakes my critics had pointed gleefully out in my earlier epics were really mistakes. In fact the mistakes were just what made them interesting. They made people argue about them and look at things from a different perspective and remember them and keep reading the book to find out what the trouble was.

Now I was writing poetry, and epic poetry at that, and science fiction epic poetry to boot. So I was naked on stage, the royal nonesuch, and a lot of fruit got thrown at me, some of it delicious, some rotten, and some, like the durian fruit, disgusting to smell but delightful to eat. I loved being called barbarous, sentimental, reactionary, camp, “troubling.” The New World prophesied the current political civil war in America; Genesis was used in NASA’s long-range futures planning for the settlement and terraforming of Mars.  Prophets are a pain in the neck: that’s why they throw prophets in pits.

So for an encore I knew I had to make trouble. I had to figure out not just the conventional wisdom, but also the conventional revolution against the conventional wisdom, and piss them both off.  It’s only in the uncanny valley between the two that the future lurks, and not only the future but the meaning, the spiritual goodies.

2.  The Uncanny Valley

A target-rich environment, or to change the metaphor, a hornet’s nest. I’d already violated the poetry workshop values of economy and the 17 line crafted free verse lyric, by writing poems of thousands of lines in voices not my own; told stories in verse when everyone knows the prose novel is the accepted modern way; gone back to outdated forms of meter and rhyme; mingled the nasty cheap pulp populism of sci-fi with the refined elegance of modernist verse; used a lot of scientific and technological words and thus desecrated the vocabulary of Dasein and authenticity; refused to lay at capitalism’s door all the evils of life; and gloried in the thrill of battle in a form—poetry–that was the property of very nice antiwar people.

But now in Apocalypse I learned a whole lot of new crimes. The uncanny valley in between the rhetoric of conventional environmentalism and that of climate change denial is geo-engineering.  Global warming deniers hate the very suggestion that anthropogenic warming may be responsible; like evolution, the fake moon landings, and women’s rights, it’s a liberal plot against God, the free market, and America. Environmental activists hate the idea that cheap dirty technological fixes might actually work, and heal the planet, thus derailing their deeper agenda: making everybody into meek green moralists, diagnosing heroism, adventure, glory, discovery, invention, contestation and fun as symptoms of ADD, and drugging us so that we don’t fidget. If I could get both sides to get mad at the book, I would know I was on the right track.

Likewise, I could mess up poetic diction by putting the most well-worn idioms into exact snapping pentameters and make them mean something completely different. I could use all the bits of language—grammar, subordinate clauses, logical inference, abstract terms from other disciplines—that are routinely cut out of beginners’ poems by conscientious poetry workshop teachers—and make them dance in an entertainingly ghastly way.  The uncanny valley between the heartfelt amateur verse that good people write about a dead friend and that la-de-da articulate croon you hear in NPR book reviews—but rendered in the unmistakable pentameter of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope. Even in Genesis I had cautiously kept a certain traditional nobility of tone; now I was about making the messy language of now, with all its technical jargon and bureaucratese and media catchphrases, into something so neat, so cool, that nobility might not be far off. Maybe cool is the new beauty.

3.  All Fiction Is Theater

I also learned some technical stuff that most writers always knew. Actors know it even better: whenever anyone says anything in a good play, they are trying to do something, they have what theater people call an objective.  I found that the conversations only worked if each character already has an idea of what his conversational partner wants, and even an idea of what their partner thinks he wants, and is bent on altering what the other person wants, for definite ends of his own. This can obviously be a destructive process; but it can also be a way in which humans build each other into better versions of themselves. We owe it to each other to take this work on, and to allow others to work on us likewise. It’s our gift to each other. In Apocalypse there’s a character who is supremely good at this, and s/he isn’t even human in a strict sense.  You’d like to meet hir.

This theatricality also implies that you can’t just be funny and witty and ironical in places.  You have to be so all the time, even in the most horrifying and tragic situations, or the story will simply die, the air goes out of it, the iridescent colors fade, and people stop reading or watching the stage.  Every word has to have ‘tude.

4.  Change the Contract Midstream

All art is about expectations and anticipations, even ones that in a strict sense don’t change over time, like painting, sculpture, and architecture (where the eye and the foot do the action, and the artwork changes in response). 

The experiencer of a work of art comes in with a sort of ticket, an implied contract with the artist.  OK art fulfills the contract more or less ingeniously, and gets rewarded by the experiencers’ satisfaction as they check off another item on their “been there, done that” list. Another summer blockbuster movie or romance ended with the car chase to the airport.

But really good art does something else. It takes its guest to a place where the original contract is suddenly or gradually shown to be a big mistake or silly illusion, and the real discovery/reward/goal now begins to materialize, something one hadn’t dreamed of.  And when that goal does appear, it miraculously does fulfill the original contract, almost inadvertently, as it answers a very much bigger question altogether. The Odyssey changes exactly half way through from the Arabian Nights to the Iliad, but even nastier and more splendid—and then we see that the Arabian Nights part was not a fairytale but the inside of the Iliad part.  The Ten Bulls of Zen starts as an orthodox parable of how to meditate, and then goes haywire when we realize that the goal was not the goal, and that goal stuff is not the point.  Beethoven’s Ninth turns from a work of art music into a gigantic hymn. 

In Apocalypse the change happens in Books 6 and 7. But the new contract is really the heart of the old. The Great Flood that overwhelms us all is Time.  And how do we hold that back?

5. When All Else Fails, Get Yourself a Conflicted Narrator

And let the story also be a deep study of the narrator’s own personality.  This way all the implications of the story can seep their way out, and the reader’s skepticism will have its own lively voice in the argument.  And also you’ve escaped from your own voice, the very thing creative writing teachers tell you that you have to discover. Unless you can escape it, you’ll be plagiarizing that voice the rest of your life.

And Number 6, which was not in the contract:

Get yourself a genius editor, like Tony Daniel at Baen and John Lemon at Ilium, and a brilliant agent, like Sara Megibow.  Then you might also get a sort of publishing first, in which, for instance, the same work of fiction appears as a gripping hard-SF war story, serialized and promoted as an ebook, and at the same time as a classical epic poem, beautifully presented in a fine press library-quality book.

Frederick Turner

Frederick Turner’s science fiction epic poems led to his being a consultant for NASA. He received Hungary’s highest literary honor for his translations of Hungarian poetry with the distinguished scholar and Holocaust survivor Zsuzsanna Ozsváth. He won Poetry’s Levinson Prize, and has often been nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Born in England, raised in Africa by his anthropologist parents Victor and Edie Turner, educated at Oxford University in English Language and Literature, he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1977. He is a Shakespearean scholar, an environmental theorist, an authority on the philosophy of Time, poet laureate of traditional Karate, and author of over forty books. Turner is Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities emeritus at the University of Texas at Dallas, having taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Kenyon College, and the University of Exeter in England. A former editor of The Kenyon Review, he is a winner of the PEN Southwest Chapter Golden Pen Award and several other literary, artistic and academic honors, and has participated in literary and TV projects that have won a Benjamin Franklin Book Award and an Emmy.

Interview with Julie Carrick Dalton

Waiting for the Night Song by Julie Carrick Dalton was published this month by Forge. I talk to the author of the adult contemporary novel about her new release, and her motivations for writing about climate change.

Tell us about your new book.

Cadie Kessler, a forestry researcher, is in the middle of trying to head off a potential wildfire when she gets a panicked message from her long-estranged childhood friend, Daniela, after a body is discovered in the woods where they played as kids. Cadie rushes home, where she and Daniela must acknowledge the traumatic childhood secret that drove them apart decades earlier. As Cadie and Daniela confront their past, they come face to face with truths about themselves they don’t want to see, and Cadie must decide what she’s willing to risk to protect the people and the forest she loves. WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG is a portrait of friendship, secrets, and betrayal, a love song to the natural world, a call to fight for what we believe in, and a reminder that the truth will always rise.

How does climate change play into the plot?

A slow uptick in local temperatures creates conditions that attract a bark beetle to the woods of New Hampshire. Cadie, a forestry researcher, is trying to prove the beetle has arrived in New England, although models indicate it should not be there. The same conditions that appeal to the beetles are driving out native species, including a tiny song bird (from the title) that Cadie remembers from her youth. The federal government has restricted federal lands – including the forest where Cadie suspects the beetles are – from environmental research. She must decide if it’s worth risking her career and possibly jail time to defy the restrictions and collect samples to prove she is right. When Cadie advises fire crews to clear fire breaks in the town where she grew up, a long-buried body is unearthed and Cadie must confront the traumatic secret she has been hiding since she was eleven. As the drought worsens, crops fail, and the beetles settle in, wildfire looms over the small agricultural community and Cadie must decide how far she’s willing to go to do the right thing.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

Eight years ago, I bought a piece of land and started a small farm in rural New Hampshire. I didn’t have a background in agricultural so the learning curve has been steep! I enrolled in the New Entry Sustainable Agriculture program at Tufts University and did a lot of reading about farming in my area. I learned that the growing season in my region has expanded by twenty-two days in the past century because of a slow, steady increase in the average summer temperature. It made me wonder about all the slow-burning, quiet effects. I researched the invasive species and endangered species affecting my area and tried to imagine how the absence of a tiny song bird and the presence of an invasive beetle could impact the personal lives of residents, as well as the broader community and the world.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change? (fictional or non-fiction!)

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

American War by Omar El Akkad

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Why is it so important for you personally to see climate change discussed in fiction?

Fiction can convey truth in ways that charts, graphs, and scientific research often can’t. Inhabiting characters in fiction is an act of empathy which opens us up to new ways of considering the world. When it comes to climate change, too many people think about it as a looming crisis, but for many regions of the world that crisis has already arrived. I chose to focus on a small, insular community in New England we might not consider as on the front lines of the climate crisis. I wanted to tease out the small impacts we are already noticing and connect them to other parts of the world. For example, the endangered song bird in my book is dying off, in part, because its winter habitat in the Caribbean is being destroyed by deforestation and hurricanes. The bird is returning to New England in smaller numbers every year, which, in quiet ways, alters the ecosystem of the forest in New Hampshire. Everything is connected. It’s already happening, and we can’t think of it as a looming crisis any more.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

“All the other creatures had fled. The mice, spiders, crickets, squirrels. The silence they left behind hurt. The owl sat on a charred branch. Its home had been in these woods. Its mottled brown and amber stood out in stark contrast to the black and gray backdrop. Exposed without camouflage, the great bird blinked at Cadie and pulled its square head lower into its shoulders. Its whole body shuddered, as if shaking off a bad memory.

The owl launched itself into the air. Time to start over.”

What message do you hope readers will take away from your work?

I hope readers might see the small changes in their own region and consider how they tie into the global crisis. Climate change doesn’t happen in silos. We can’t think about it as something happening to other people. We all know that the people affected first and worst are most often marginalized, poor, indigenous, black, and brown communities. If readers feel like they are not being affected personally by climate change yet, I hope my book will prompt them to recognize their privilege and consider their own connections to and responsibility for populations already living the crisis.

You can find out more about Waiting for the Night Song here.

Julie Carrick Dalton

Julie Carrick Dalton’s debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG (Tor/Forge, Jan 2021) and a second novel, THE LASTEEKEEPER (2022), both hinge on contemporary climate-related issues. Pre-publication, WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG has been named to Most Anticipated 2021 lists by several platforms including Buzzfeed, Medium, and Betches, and has been featured in The Chicago Review of Books. As a journalist, Julie has published more than a thousand articles in publications including The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, Electric Literature, and The Chicago Review of Books. A Tin House alum, 2021 Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s Conference Fellow, and graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, Julie holds a master’s in literature and creative writing from Harvard Extension School. She blogs for DeadDarlings and The Writer Unboxed, where she often writes about climate fiction. She is a frequent speaker and workshop leader on the topic of Fiction in the Age of Climate Crisis at universities, high schools, bookstores, and writers conferences. Mom to four kids and two dogs, Julie also owns and operates an organic farm in rural New Hampshire, the backdrop for her novel.