Climate Anxiety is a Daily Reality

Mary Woodbury (pen, Clara Hume and social media manager for the League’s Twitter account) talks to Mark Ballabon about his YA novel Home: My Life in the Universe (released on Earth Day, April 22, 2022).

Mary: What is your background, and what led you to writing Home?

Mark: I’ve always had a great love of philosophy and the big questions about life on earth. It began when I was 8 years old and it led me to my first big question, Why is the human on Earth? Many years later, I had a book published entirely about that question. 14-year-old protagonist Leah has her own big question, which no one can answer.

I also have a love of nature and wildness, and a passion for discovering the natural patterns, geometry and systems in living things – from a flower to a human cell. This has led me to being a strong environmentalist, involved in projects and supporting groups who defend the integrity of the planet’s natural ecosystems and habitats. Leah, who grew up near the great lakes in Killarney, south west Ireland, develops a similar passion for nature.

In the last decade I’ve been involved in a growing number of international projects with youth, and co-founded a youth group (12-17yr olds) who love to explore the big questions about living as well as contemporary issues of our modern culture, relating to body image, bullying, people pleasing and so forth. Through all of these projects, the climate crisis features all the time.

So all of these themes form the foundation for HOME. Yet it was a particular experience in leading an international group of 80 teenagers on a trip to Greenwich, which inspired me to not only write the book, but to develop the main characters. After a meditation and movement session, which I took them through on the hill, right by the observatory, they began asking questions about their lives, their issues, and their hopes for the future, which to me were profoundly moving. I felt I had something to offer them, which became Leah’s story in HOME.

Mary: We recently chatted on Zoom, and you mentioned that some of your earlier reviewers were children and teens. What did you learn from them?

Mark: Humility, I hope! I realised that as much as I tried to empathise with their world, I didn’t really understand it, and I wanted to. So I listened, a lot, took many notes and encouraged them to freely edit my draft manuscripts with a red pen or a finely sharpened pencil! It was actually very liberating when I received feedback such as “I don’t think like that”, or “I don’t speak like that”. After a few years of this, I finally got a piece of feedback from one of the teenage editors, which told me that I was on the right track. It simply said, “Great. It’s working. You’ve written yourself out of the story!”

Illustrations by Grant MacDonald

Mary: What’s happening in Home, and what would you like us to know about it?

Mark: A lot! 14-year-old Leah’s story was inspired by true events and real teenagers.

Beneath the daily noise of social media, clips, memes, and role models, Leah is trying to discover who she is and where she fits in, not only in the world, but in the universe which she sees herself to be part of.  While she is affected by the super-competitive culture at school, it doesn’t define her. Initially she becomes a loner, but she doesn’t feel alone. She has a big question, and although no one can answer it, she knows that there is an answer.

In the handwritten prologue from her journal, Leah says, “I’m writing this for anyone whose ever had an experience that no one could explain or asked a big question that no one could answer…” I hope people will relate to Leah’s quest to find herself, to find true friendship and to feel that very special feeling that you are really worth something.

Mary: Your main character, Leah, writes in a journal, so we get to see her perspective of the world, her friends, and her family. This allows the reader to better understand the mind of a younger person and see the world through their eyes. How did you step into that mind?

Mark: I’ve been trying to develop the art of listening for many years. And in the book, Leah’s mentor, Maia shows her the anagram of the word ‘LISTEN’ which is ‘SILENT’. So with the many young people I’ve met, I’ve tried to maintain an internal silence so I can fully listen to what they’re saying, unconditionally. That’s when their deeper thoughts, fears, hopes and aspirations reveal themselves. And it’s those feelings, which imbue each character in their own unique way.

Mary: Climate change, pollution, and other ecological horrors are a part of this story. Can you talk about why it was important for you to bring these issues into the story?

Mark: The climate crisis and climate anxiety are a daily reality for millions of people around the planet and for myself too. But for young people, this is the biggest threat to their future, the biggest threat to their hopes and the biggest threat to their enjoying the beauty of nature, the planet, flora, fauna and natural ecosystems. The conversation about this needs to go deeper as well as more practical, and the clash between climate activist Kayleigh and Leah hopefully offers some original and practical ways of approach.

Anything else you would like to tell audiences who read Home?

My main hope in writing HOME is that it would promote meaningful conversations in schools and homes, between friends and families… not only about the climate, social media, bullying and other contemporary issues, but about finding one’s place in the world, and in the universe.

Are you working on anything else right now?

I’m working on book two in the Trilogy, called DRAGONFLY which is about what it really means to change. Leah’s first love, Sean, will have a big part to play in that!

Find out more about HOME.

Mary Woodbury (pen, Clara Hume) has written the Wild Mountain Series: Back to the Garden (Moon Willow Press, 2018) and, upcoming, The Stolen Child (Dragonfly Publishing, 2022) as well as The Adventures of Finn Wilder’s children’s series, Finn’s Tree Alphabet (Dragonfly Publishing, 2021), with more to come, and Bird Song: A Novella (Dragonfly Publishing, 2020). Mary contributed to the book Tales from the River (Stormbird Press, 2018) and edited the anthology Winds of Change: Short Stories About the Climate, which received kudos from Bill McKibben. She is a graduate of Purdue University and lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and two cats. They maintain a 2-acre property with beehives, over 50 newly planted trees, and much more. You can read more about her at her blog. She runs the site, a place to find meaningful stories about our natural world and humanity’s connection with it.

Mark Ballabon is a philosopher, environmentalist and author who has been teaching and writing about personal and spiritual development for over two decades. He is the author of several non-fiction books, including the acclaimed, ‘Why is The Human on Earth?’ and ‘Courting the Future: Preparing for a Different World’. The latter features a collection of essays that explore the future in a visionary and practical way, including a section of writings on the climate crisis and climate change in the human. ‘Home: My life in the Universe’ will be published on 22nd April 2022.

Mark is an honours graduate from the University of Greenwich and lives in England with his wife. He continues to be actively involved in a variety of international projects with youth groups.


Learning Earthmind in a Time of War

“To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

I am sitting outside in the patio looking onto the Santa Monica mountains, green fields and hills, peppered with yellow mustard flowers. It is a wildly beautiful summer day, one of the last days of winter.  I relish this day as the grass will soon turn brown for lack of rain and fire season will probably begin early.

For several long summers, I sat here in this way, in the shade of Eucalyptus trees, writing, watching for fires, listening to the counsel of an old woman, La Vieja, who had, herself, taken refuge in a Fire Lookout in the Sierras, watching for fires. She is living there to see what we must see in these times, and she demands that I do likewise. That we do likewise. 

I have sat here with this focus and intent since October 2017.  Today, March 1, 2022, the book, La Vieja, A Journal of Fire, emerges into the world.  For the last five years, La Vieja slid between dimensions, slipped into various realms of the human and non-human, made connections across time and space, gathering ways of seeing and knowing that are significantly different from how we are living our lives.  She was looking as far as she could across this Earth, back into history, forward to the future, struggling to comprehend how to meet a world continuously, self-righteously set on fire each day through the most commonplace and conventional habits, activities, assumptions and beliefs.

It is bitter that she comes into the world today as another unconscionable war proceeds in Ukraine and the UN IPCC assessment 2022 is released. What does this simultaneity of war and climate dissolution indicate?  What is it we are called to see? 

 “Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC says. “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction.” The report asserts, “Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature…” 

“Human-induced climate change ….  Miles of lines of tanks. 

“Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks. People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit, said scientists in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released today.

Today, March 2, 2022, an even more violent attack on Ukraine cities has begun. A news photo shows a group of Ukrainian people standing across the road blocking access to a nuclear plant in Enehodar.  

In 1945, the US dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima.  The Fukishima nuclear disaster was in 2011. 

The American Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, “We have seen videos of Russian forces moving exceptionally lethal weaponry into Ukraine, which has no place on the battlefield. That includes cluster munitions and vacuum bombs – which are banned under the Geneva Convention.”

“The United States dropped about 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 bomblets between October 2001 and March 2002.” [1] “The United States also used cluster bombs extensively in its cave campaigns near Tora Bora and Shahi-Kot. [2] Forty-six of the reported 232 strikes fell on these regions. [3] Reporters who arrived at an al-Qaeda camp in mid-December described the aftermath of a cluster strike, including denuded trees, shredded clothing, “twisted cooking pots,” torn religious books, and dead al-Qaeda fighters.” [4]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that if a third world war were to occur, it would involve nuclear weapons and be destructive, according to Russian media.

Conservative as the IPCC report must be in order to be approved by the 195 government members, it, inevitably, does not mention war as a major contributor to the destruction of the environment. It does not say that every war is a war on the earth.  The report says we must change our use of fossil fuels now; it does not say we must end war now. 

Perhaps this is the most unlikely time, the most necessary moment to say no to war, to say no to ecocide, to recognize they are intrinsically inter-related and to act now.

“There is increasing evidence of adaptation that has caused unintended consequences, for example destroying nature, putting peoples’ lives at risk or increasing greenhouse gas emissions. This can be avoided by involving everyone in planning, attention to equity and justice, and drawing on Indigenous and local knowledge.”

A forty-mile line of tanks is advancing on the ancient city  of Kyiv that traces its history to the year 482 while its first settlements were 25,000 years ago. 25,000 years to come to this?  Russian paratroopers deployed in Kharkiv, the city of poets, as key port city of Kherson falls under Russian control.

IPCC Assessment Report, 3/1/2022.  SPM.D.5.3 The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.

The first IPPC 1990 assessment said that certain that emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface. They calculated with confidence that CO2 had been responsible for over half the enhanced greenhouse effect. They predicted that under a “business as usual” (BAU) scenario, global mean temperature would increase by about 0.3 °C per decade during the [21st] century.

We didn’t make the necessary internal or external changes to meet the dire circumstances being revealed to us. We didn’t understand.  We didn’t want to understand.

Thirty-two years later:

SPM.D.5 It is unequivocal that climate change has already disrupted human and natural systems. Past and current development trends (past emissions, development and climate change) have not advanced global climate resilient development (very high confidence). Societal choices and actions implemented in the next decade determine the extent to which medium- and long-term pathways will deliver higher or lower climate resilient development (high confidence). Importantly climate resilient development prospects are increasingly limited if current greenhouse gas emissions do not rapidly decline, especially if 1.5°C global warming is exceeded in the near term (high confidence).

Circumstances are changing so rapidly that even this essay is being rewritten five minutes before posting because circumstances have changed extremely in twenty-four hours.  The war advances, the dead and suffering soldiers and citizens increase.  The injuries to people, structures, land intensify. 

Let’s pause and take a breath.

This is an extreme moment.

Whether we are in Ukraine or seemingly safe gazing across a line of eucalyptus trees to a green field radiant with yellow mustard flowers (mustard gas, developed into chemotherapy, with serious and unacknowledged effects on the environment) we are in war. One war seems to demand our immediate reaction and the other to allow for gradual change. A misunderstanding of the realities of time and space leads us to these assumptions.

We have had so many alerts to what could be coming and so much sooner than we have expected.

Two years ago, Covid 19 or Queen Corona could be seen as a warning to change our lives. Disregard for the environment and the animals, the disruption of natural system led to the virus mutating and jumping to humans and the ensuing pandemic, still not globally contained. It is only hours since those in the US learned we could probably take off our masks and, statistically, be safe.

The global Covid death toll is almost 6 million.

In the last months, many of us, in the US and Canada and globally, have been struggling with unfathomable explosions of random violence, hate crimes, and extreme polarization in response to Covid, masking and vaccine. Divisions we had never imagined were emerging everywhere and we were not able to avoid them even in our own lives, even here (wherever here is for you who are reading this.) We were alarmed by the vitriol and violence even in the most intimate relationships. Now we see that these seemingly milder but alarming conflicts were harbingers of what is occurring. A difference, perhaps, in degree, but not in intent or consequences.

IPCC Assessment Report, 3/1/2022.  SPM.D.5.3 The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.

Whether we live by signs or can connect the dots, this moment of extremity calls.  What are we to do?

We are to know that each of us, that we are at war.  That we live in terms of conflict, domination and winning, That our language is bellicose and we make war on everything and so war is pervasive. 

We do not think in terms of interconnection, interrelationship, and interdependence.  We do not think ecologically.  

The wars against the Earth and all living beings and the wars against nations and peoples are the same wars.  Each one affects the others.

The medicine for ending war and the medicine for ceasing ecocide, the methods, the strategies, the actions, are the same – interrelationship, interconnection, interdependence.

Insisting on relationship is a radical act that is only effective if it is universal, occurring in every realm and on every level, between all beings – without exceptions.  Further, it will only be possible if our activities of inter-relationship are pre-emptive. 

To step out of ecocide we must learn to think like an eco-system.  We must learn to think ‘we,’ to step out of making enemies.  Even today, as we watch the attacks increase, peacemaking is not a choice; it is an absolute necessity.

Even today, we are called to soul search and find ways not to be at war. 

Today we step out of war mind.

Tomorrow we truly change our lives.

We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they only rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism.

Thich Nhat Hanh

On behalf a future for all beings,

Deena Metzger

This essay was originally posted in Deena’s substack here. Find out more about La Vieja: A Journal of Fire.

Deena Metzger is a writer, healer, and teacher whose work spans multiple genres including the novel, poetry, non-fiction, and plays. She is the author of many books, including the novels: A Rain of Night Birds, concerning two climatologists, La Negra y Blanca (2012 PEN Oakland Pen Award for Literature), Feral, and The Other Hand. Her other books include The Burden of Light, Ruin and Beauty and Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing. Metzger co-edited Intimate Nature, The Bond Between Women and Animals, which pioneered the radical understanding that animals are highly intelligent and exhibit intent. Her experiences with Elephants in the wild over twenty years is based on their spiritual agency and complex narrative communication. Some of that experience is chronicled in her latest novel, La Vieja: A Journal of Fire. She has developed The Literature of Restoration to, among other goals, advance Earth based writing, restore climate and counter extinction.

Ecological lake pollution in a merfolk folktale

Mary Woodbury, social media coordinator for the Climate Fiction Writers League, talks to C.S. MacCath about their new podcast radio play The Belt and the Necklace, which is available to listen soon here. It was commissioned by the Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa for its new Wondrous Tales Podcast. These plays are contemporary adaptations of traditional folk tales produced for audio by professional actors and sound engineers under the direction of Laurie Steven.

Mary: As someone who grew up enjoying fables, folklore, and fairy tales, I wonder sometimes if these stories—where animals, myth, magic, and parables aligned heavily with the natural world—informed my adult gratitude for what we consider the wild making its way into fiction. Not to mention, I never lost the wonder felt as a child when reading these genres. So, I was happy to reach C.S. MacCath and talk with her about her upcoming play The Belt and the Necklace, which is adapted from an original fairy tale. Who better to take this on?

I’ve been enjoying your folklore and fiction newsletter. What drew you to the genres of folklore and fairy tales?

C.S.: I’ve been drawn to narrative all my life as a reader and writer, but as a doctoral candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, I’ve gained a far deeper appreciation for it. My academic research documents ethical beliefs among contemporary animal rights activists and the ways they are expressed in activism, and it also engages with the idea that narrative can be a means of maintaining or resisting power. My interest as a writer is in traditional folk narrative genres like myth, legend, fairy tale, ballad, and tall tale because these kinds of stories are an integral part of humanity’s storytelling heritage.

Mary: Your newest radio play is “The Belt and the Necklace”. It’s based off a tale of the same name. What did you change?

C.S.: “The Belt and the Necklace” is one of five hundred fairy tales collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth in the 19th century and subsequently lost in a Regensburg archive for over a hundred and fifty years. Schönwerth was careful in his transcription of these tales, and many of them have not been collected elsewhere, so they aren’t sanitized or heavily adapted like the tales collected by the Grimm brothers. “The Belt and the Necklace” itself is short, barely a page, and in it the ugly daughter of a king wants to be beautiful, so she bargains with the merfolk for a magical belt and necklace that will either make her radiant or invisible depending on how the pieces are worn. In exchange, she agrees to give the merfolk her third-born child and the most beautiful of her children when they are born. My adaptation situates the plot in a modern setting where the fat daughter of a fashion magnate loses her inheritance to a model because of her body shape, and the merfolk want her future children for reasons that aren’t part of the original fairy tale.

Mary: Can you talk about the structure of folklore tales like this, and the importance we derive from them?

C.S.: The Folklore & Fiction dispatch and podcast endeavour to help writers emulate the structure of traditional folk narratives so they can tap into the ways these narratives resonate with people. For example, fairy tales are:

·       Short Prose Narratives: Short stories which may be told or written as prose.

·       Both Magical and Mundane: Containing supernatural beings, objects, and other story elements that intervene in the everyday lives of people.

·       Infused with Moral Lessons: Imparting social values relevant to the contexts in which they were created, told, and received.

·       Resolved by Rewarding the Good and Punishing the Wicked: Often called “happy endings,” it might be more helpful to think of these resolutions as logical outcomes of moral lessons the tales impart.

·       Passed Down from Oral Traditions: Collected in cultures where people learned these stories from other people.

Hallmarks like these can act as structural aids for writing new fairy tales that remind people of the traditional fairy tales they already love. The same is true for myths, legends, ballads, tall tales, and other folk narrative genres. I would add, however, that it’s not always possible to categorize folk tales as one genre or another, and folk narrative genres can be slippery in general.

As for their importance, well, that’s another sizeable topic. The Grimm brothers collected and sanitized German folk tales in part as a means of preserving German national identity. Gàidhlig waulking songs contain elements of Scottish and Cape Breton history, but they’re also work songs that help to pass the time. Apache stories connected to place are told as teaching devices in such a way that the places themselves encourage people toward right behaviour. So the importance of folk narratives is nuanced, just like the cultures that give rise to them. As a folklorist, I care about what these cultures can tell me about their stories, but I also care about what you think of your own favourite folk tales. For example, we’ll never know why “The Belt and the Necklace” was important to the person who told the story to Schönwerth, but it’s important to me because it tells a truth about what it means to be labeled “ugly” and mocked for it. It might be important to you for a different reason.

Mary: Mermaids and mermen are an important part of the story. These creatures have a rich background in myth and stories. What makes them so interesting to you?

C.S.: I wasn’t particularly interested in merfolk before I adapted “The Belt and the Necklace,” but I did find several points of interest along the way. Much as there is a horizontal veil between this world and the Otherworld of the fairies, I came to see the water as a vertical veil between this world and the Otherworld of the merfolk. With that in mind, I was able to treat the merfolk as beings who enforce the bargains they make (much as fairies do), abduct children (much as fairies do), and are somewhat inscrutable (much as fairies are). I also came to see them as representatives and protectors of an underwater world plagued by ecological hardship, which led me to the motivation I gave them in the play.

Mary: How does your play relate to climate change and modern ecological imbalance?

C.S.: Ecological imbalance is a supporting theme in the play, and it’s the second time I’ve made an ecological issue part of my work without giving it centre stage. The first time was in a short fable I wrote for Rhonda Parrish’s Alphabet Anthologies series titled “Metal Crow and Ghost Crow,” in which a little girl dying of thirst on a boat once populated with climate refugees seeks safe harbour in a small Canadian settlement. “The Belt and the Necklace” addresses ecological imbalance from the perspective of merfolk living in an over-fished, polluted lake. I hope that by including these themes as supporting plot concerns I can help people engage with them in a way that doesn’t come across as sermonizing.   

Mary: Do you have any favorite books or plays that relate to climate and ecological change in the world? What are they, and why do you enjoy them?

C.S.: There’s so much good, new fiction about the climate crisis right now, and there are several books by members of the Climate Fiction Writers’ League in my queue. Ghost Species by James Bradley and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse look especially interesting, and I’m hoping to read them soon. But for books I’ve already read, I’d have to put Dune at the top of the list. Frank Herbert’s Arrakis is a desert world its Fremen inhabitants hope to terraform into a green paradise, but there are tragic consequences associated with the planetary engineering they undertake.

What’s so interesting about this is the inversion of our expectations about terraforming and the ways turning Arrakis into a green world disrupts not only the planet’s native ecosystem but much of the galactic civilization itself. Another tremendous climate-themed duology is Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light, in which a slave-owning species obsessed with death unleashes a weapon that turns much of the planet Orthe to glass. The descendants of the slaves venerate the planet itself as a goddess and eschew technological advancement in the hope they can preserve what life remains on the world. It makes me wonder what our descendants will venerate and preserve.

Mary: Do you have anything else to add?

C.S.: I invite everyone to read “The Belt and the Necklace” in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales and listen to my podcast radio play by the same name when the Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa releases it this month. Finally, the Folklore & Fiction dispatch and podcast have been exploring folk narrative structure once a month for nearly three years, and my archives are freely available at

C.S. MacCath is a PhD candidate in Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, a playwright, and a musician. Her long-running Folklore & Fiction newsletter, now a podcast and written dispatch, integrate these passions with a focus on folklore scholarship aimed at storytellers. Ceallaigh’s research interests include animal rights activism as a public performance of ethical belief, and she brings a deep appreciation of folk narrative, ecology, and Neo-Pagan spirituality to her writing. Work from her two fiction and poetry collections has been shortlisted for the Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and nominated for the Rhysling Award. She lives in Atlantic Canada. 

Mary Woodbury graduated with BAs in English and anthropology at Purdue University. She grew up in the United States, where her parents introduced her at an early age to hiking, climbing mountains, horseback riding, canoeing, white-water rafting, and camping—filling her with a deep respect for the wilderness. She now lives in Nova Scotia with her partner and two cats. As a curator at, a site that explores world eco-fiction, she has interviewed several award-winning authors and built a database of over 800 novels. She also founded Moon Willow Press in 2009 and its newest imprint Dragonfly Publishing.

Climate News

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]

A half-mile installation just took 20,000 pounds of plastic out of the Pacific — proof that ocean garbage can be cleaned [Business Insider]

Counselling resilience by Cynthia Zhang

cw: discussions of suicide, racial violence, hate crimes

For quite some time now, it’s felt like we’ve been living in the end times. Check the news, your Twitter feed, the bookshelves of the YA section—it’s all dystopias and apocalypses, islands of plastic and radioactive waste that will not dissipate for a million years at least. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and no one is feeling anything remotely close to fine.

I know that. I know that the ice caps are melting and the tigers are running out of habitat, that we are in the middle of a mass extinction event and that in fifty years our everyday luxuries—plentiful chocolate and cheap coffee and Florida oranges in the middle of winter—may be mere memories. I know that there is a great deal of suffering that awaits us in the future and that, despite our best efforts, there will be only so much we can do to alleviate it. 

I worry, nonetheless, about the absolutist ways in which we frame global catastrophe. There is, I’ve noticed, a streak of deep nihilism in talking about climate change—well-deserved nihilism, perhaps, but one which still worries me. In some places, it feels like even suggesting the idea of hope can get you labeled as willfully naive, an ostrich blissfully burying its head in the sand to hide from reality. You poor, naive soul—you think there’s still a chance that the world will be merciful, that you will live on? It’s time to face facts, and all the reports are telling us that we’re doomed.

Under reports about the unsustainability of our planet in fifty years, I see people discussing contingency plans and worst-case scenarios. If things are bad, I read strangers commenting on Twitter and Youtube, and if they’re only going to get worse—then how do I know (how will I know) when it’s the breaking point, when I can reasonably give up? Living through the collapse of modern civilization is a harrowing prospect; with so many reports alleging the inevitable death of the human species, is it any wonder that some people would want to decide their own suffering? When you have no home and money and the future looms like a void, what sense is there in holding on for the tenuous hope of change? With Nazis on the horizon and a lifetime of illness and suffering weighing on her, can we blame Virginia Woolf for choosing to drown?

Like all decent people with a shred of empathy, my instinct when faced with other people’s despair is to argue, to comfort. I want to say all the usual platitudes—that there are resources, hotlines, people who would need and miss you even then at the end of the world. That nature is resilient, and that even if we lose chocolate and pandas and processed sugar, there will still be things worth living for—small joys, dandelion fluff and spring clover and squirrels who walk up to you for offerings of bread and nuts.

It’s hard, though. It feels ingenious to talk about the beauty of life when I too often find myself falling into despair, traveling down nihilistic paths of what-ifs. There are a lot of things to worry about these days, and the coming future hardly seems any more stable. Counseling resilience and hope for others feels unbelievably presumptuous and insincere when there are days that I can do nothing but lay in bed, worrying about forest fires and nuclear winter.

And yet, despite everything, I want to believe in hope, in a future built on the slim chance that we are not yet fully doomed. I want to live, and I want my friends to live.

For someone who spent much of their adolescence in a miasma of low-level despair, this has been a rather unexpected shift of attitude for me. I was an unhappy, cynical teenager, obsessed with death and self-destruction—never enough to actively act on it, but enough so that I still remember what it feels like to see the world as nothing but a yawning black hole, an endless abyss into which all happiness would vanish. Even today, I am skeptical of inevitable happy endings, the idea that so long as you make it out of adolescence, it will all get better—that the moment you turn eighteen or move out of your small town, you will find yourself bright and shining on the other side of happily-ever-ever. It gets better for some of us, yes. It gets better, yes but not always, and not for everyone. It gets better for a day, a month, maybe whole years at a stretch, but the world has never promised any of us happiness, only the certainty of silence and death.

Yet I think there’s still value in fighting for something finite, something that will necessarily end. I think of New York City in the 80s, the men who cared for friends and lovers through the height of the HIV epidemic. Was the time they spent ultimately in vain, rendered useless by the fact of death? Or is there still value in that kind of care—care without grand ambition of cure or eternal repair, care that only hopes to better things for today and for now?

I think of N. K. Jemisin’s assertion that “an apocalypse is a relative thing,” the fact that for many people—indigenous peoples dispossessed from their homes, Black peoples forced from their homelands into slavery—the end of the world has already come. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a harrowing vision of a patriarchy, but as other critics have pointed out, the violence Atwood describes is all too real for Native and Black women. So many of the symptoms we associate with dystopia—famine, violence, a stark disregard for human life—are in fact already present in even supposedly civilized countries, just a few feet away from Whole Foods and microbreweries. As anti-trans legislation continues to be passed and ICE separates children from their families, it’s so easy to give in to look at the state of the world and give into despair. 

And yet every time I go out to engage with my various communities, I’m inspired by the strength I find. When the world is literally built against you, it is so easy to give up, and yet there are so many people who do not, who continue to fight against the despair of a world built to erase their existence. I don’t want to fetishize the strength of marginalized communities—Black women shouldn’t be expected to be constantly “strong,” and abuse survivors are no less valid for being angry or scared instead of brave and inspirational. Still, incurable optimist that I am, I can’t stop myself from thinking of the way resilience persists even under the most dire conditions. Like dandelions growing through sidewalk cracks and matsutake mushrooms growing in the wake of nuclear disaster, kindness and empathy are hard to truly kill. 

I think of the Japanese pensioners who, in the wake of the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, volunteered to help with the radiation cleanup. In their sixties and seventies, they argued that they, and not Japan’s youth, should bear the risk of radiation exposure. “We’re doing nothing special,” volunteer Masaasaki Takahashi told reporters in 2011. “I simply think I have to do something and I can’t allow just young people to do this.”

I think of the documentary Babushkas of Chernobyl, of old women who sing folk songs and make jam from irradiated berries and leave mushrooms for the hedgehogs in the winter. Because species of fungi can feed on radiation, an on-site scientist tells the filmmaker watchers that even mushrooms gathered from safe zones can absorb high levels of radiation. But against the prospect of starving during the winter, what other fate are the hedgehogs meant to choose? If the hedgehogs must live short, irradiated lives, are they still not worthy lives nonetheless? 

I think of Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary, the love that millions of internet strangers willingly invest in these animals that, to many, are already damaged goods—too old, too sick, too doomed. A bad investment, one that will give out after four or five years at most. I think of the dogs themselves—Leo and Gracie and Captain Ron and Gertrude, all so happy, all so loved. Blind and tri-pawed and arthritic, they did not live in fear of death, did not spend time on pity and trembling in the face of their own impending demise. 

Tomorrow I could be hit by a car in traffic or struck by a sudden freak asteroid; tomorrow my heart could decide to stop, some blood vessel in my brain burst after years of hard service. I have been lucky; I have healthcare, a relatively stable income, and the luck to live in an area of the world with easy access to clean water and modern medicine. Yet I know that all of this is fragile, infinitely contingent and provisional. Tomorrow, someone could set my apartment and all my belongings on fire; I could trip while walking down the stairs or fall sick and lose all my savings in attempting to navigate the US healthcare system. 

For now, there is sky and grass and a content cat napping on my bed. For now, I am alive, and so are you, and billions of people as well, many of them suffering the same or worse than I am. For now, I can leave out bread for the birds and nectar for the hummingbirds, pick up plastic where I see it and participate in mutual aid instead of hoarding against an unknowable future. Maybe these are ultimately all small gestures; maybe they will only be helpful for a few hours or days, the way fallen baby birds so rarely survive even under the best of care. That does not make the work any less important. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy.” To respond in kind with joy then is not naivety, but a returning of the gift that the world has given us. If either my life or death is to have any meaning, this is how I want to live—giving joy to others, making use of the time I have to make the world a little kinder for the ones I share it with. 

Find out more about Cynthia’s queer science fiction novel After the Dragons here.

Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain…

Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease—shaolong, or “burnt lung”—afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.

Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.

Cynthia Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kaleidotrope, On Spec, Phantom Drift, and other venues. She is a 2021 DVdebut mentee and is on the web at

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

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 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.