On Writing Other Animals by Mimi Thebo

The life of man, as David Hume pointed out, is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster. So it seems grossly unfair how many acres of print have been given over to the examination of the human experience and how little to the oyster experience – or indeed to the experience of any other species.

Some writers, and most notably writers for children, have tried to set this right. We have Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Buck in Jack London’s Call of the Wild. We have the rabbits of Watership Down and we have Tarka, Varjak Paw, Ratty and Mole… and of course Piers Torday’s chorus of wild things, of which he wrote in our recent blog post.

These can be memorable, insightful, important texts… but, as Thomas Nagel[i] points out, they are inaccurate. We cannot know the life of a bat, or an otter, or even an animal as close to us as a horse or a dog. There is an unbreachable gap between our experience and that of another species, and we write animal experiences from our place at the apex of the concept of evolution.  We write other animals by regressing our own evolutionary journey in our imaginations, from a position of superiority.

Imagining the non-lived experience of others from a position of superiority is not an ethical act. Just listen to John Paul Sartre’s claim that ‘The European of 1945 can… redo in himself the project of the Chinese, of the Indian or the African… there is always some way of understanding an idiot, a child, a primitive man or a foreigner if one has sufficient information[ii]’, to hear how off it seems to us today. And, given that our own superior species is murdering all the fellow species of the planet, and taking their lands for our own insatiable needs, it isn’t hard to note the philosophical parallels between the literature of colonisation and the literature of animal narratives. 

And yet.

And yet novels are empathy machines.  If we are to begin to feel the death of a bat as profoundly as we do the death of one of our own – if we are to embed the understanding of the interconnectedness of the lives on this planet into our emotional responses, fiction can play an important part in that change. This is perhaps especially true of fiction for young readers.  

Activism, Human Rights and Social Sciences have long discussed when ‘speaking for’ a person or group can be condoned. The conclusion has been, basically, ‘when it is important’ and ‘when they would otherwise be silenced.’ Our furry, feathered and scaled others are all silent. Tarka herself can’t tell her story – at least not yet.  Even Bunny the ‘talking dog’ doesn’t have enough buttons to express any longing she feels for freedom from domesticity, the way London did for Buck.

But appropriating other species’ voices and experience for artistic satisfaction and profit, at a time when we are literally killing them? That seems the grossest human consumption. When I was writing my Young Adult novel Dreaming the Bear, I stuck a post-it note in my writing shed, ‘Do Not Consume The Bear.’ And yet, in the end, my heroine accidently breathes in the bear’s last exhale. She consumed her, and it was too right for me to change. It might be that we are such agents of consumption that there is no other relationship we can have with the natural world – either as animals or as novelists.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is when we write other species is signal in the narrative that we are ‘speaking for’, that an act of imagination is taking place, that we are in a field of play. This can be done by writing animals who are clearly humans in fur suits (though with good natural history displayed), as Piers and Kenneth Graham have done. It can be done by writing from the outside of the experience of another species as I do, and as Hannah Gold has done in The Last Bear. Or, as in Nicola Davies’ new The Song That Sings Us, writing from an imagined future time when, at last, the animals can speak for themselves.

As I write, from my window I can see a flock of disappointed young wood sparrows – their feeders are empty. Of course, I am just imagining their disappointment, but they have tried several times to feed and have been twittering madly about the experience of failing to do so. My next act will be to go and stock their seed towers – this land was fields, and the house I rented opposite had been built the year before on an orchard. I owe the birds their food – I have inadvertently consumed their previous sources. And that is my last word on writing other species. That it’s not enough to just write and read – we also need to perform practical help.

You can find out more about Dreaming the Bear here.

Mimi Thebo is a Carnegie-longlisted author for children and teens. Her work has been translated into twelve languages, adapted for a BAFTA-winning BBC film, illustrated in light and signed for deaf children by ITV. Born in the USA, she is based in South West England, where she is Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol and a Royal Literary Fellow.

[i] Nagel, T. (1974) “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review, 83(4), pp. 435–450.

[ii] Quoted in Spivak, G. C. (1999) A critique of postcolonial reason : toward a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 172

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Optimistic Dystopias – a naïve contradiction? by Cynthia Zhang and Saul Tanpepper

Today, two authors discuss their writing: Cynthia Zhang, author of the adult contemporary fantasy novel After the Dragons, and Saul Tanpepper, whose story The Cloud Weaver’s Song won second place in Grist’s climate fiction competition Imagine 2200. Read or listen to a 30-min audio recording of the story online here.

You can read Sim Kern’s previous interview with the competition winner Lindsey Brodeck here.

ST: Hi, Cynthia! It’s so good to be able to meet and talk with you! I just finished After the Dragons and I just love so much about it, particularly that you chose to set it in Beijing. I’ve done a lot of traveling, but I’ve never been to the Far East, so I’m always excited to read stories set there. Given that you grew up in the United States, I’m curious why you decided to set your post-climate change story in China.

CZ: Hi Saul! Thanks so much for kicking off this conversation, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the novel!

I grew up in the US, but I was born in Beijing, so it’s always felt like a central part of my experience of China even though my parents aren’t actually from there. As a kid, our flights from the US always landed in Beijing, so my summer memories of visits home always began with Beijing, this old, busy city where I could read maybe half the billboards. So part of it is nostalgia, the desire to connect with a place that I am technically from but which (because my parents left for China when I was four) I have very few real concrete memories of.

Beyond personal history, Beijing felt like the natural setting for After the Dragons because it’s such a contradictory city. Which fits, since the People’s Republic of China is itself a deeply contradictory country itself—a communist state with one of the largest capitalist economies in the world, an old country eager to modernize, a rising superpower that still has a major chip on its shoulder because of nineteenth century colonialism. There’s a lot of wealth and innovation in Beijing, but there’s also a lot of poverty and suffering, much of which has been caused by development itself—I remember reading about the 2008 Beijing Olympics and how thousands of residents were displaced to make way for new buildings. Those were some of the tensions on my mind when trying to write about my relationship to a country I left when I was four.

And just logistically, Beijing works as a setting because for years the air pollution there was notoriously bad. I hear it’s been getting better in recent years though, which is very heartening to hear—obviously there are still plenty of problems to tackle, but it’s good to know that change is still possible, no matter how dire the circumstances seem. 

I have a few questions about your work as well. First of all, congratulations so much on placing in the Imagine 2200 contest – that’s such a huge feat, and I’m glad it means that The Cloud Weaver’s Song can reach new readers, including me! 

ST: Thanks, it really is an honor to be one of the twelve diverse storytellers featured in Fix’s inaugural climate fiction collection. At a time when doom and gloom pervades so much of the climate discussion, a project looking to inject hope and a sense of endless possibility is a refreshing change. So, what would you like to know?

CZ: Something I was struck by throughout the story was the constant tension between tradition and change. There’s something deeply ironic in the fact that tradition prevents the Sky People from listening to Semhar and adapting to new conditions when the Sky People’s way of life developed out of adaptation. At the same time, I can imagine that living in precarious circumstances would give tradition even more power—experimentation is difficult because the risks are so high, so it feels far safer to stick to what has already worked. I think this is a very relevant message for the current global response to climate change, but I’m wondering if you have anything to add on this topic. How do you think we can balance the need to change with the responsibility of listening to the past?

ST: When I set out to write the story, I didn’t consciously plan to pit the need to change against the Elders’ reluctance to embrace it. In retrospect, I suppose the theme arose organically out of the zeitgeist as it relates to our current climate challenges. There’s an intuitive sense that technology, the driving force behind change, enabled us to have such a large and rapid impact on the climate. Perhaps this explains why there’s such a strong resistance to employing new technologies as solutions. Realizing that we can’t roll the clock back, either, has paralyzed us into not doing anything at all. Of course, that’s not an option. We have to make changes, and we have to be both brave enough to accept this fact and creative enough to conceive of new technologies.

I don’t know if the organizers of the contest intended for us to avoid this dilemma by asking us to place our stories 200 years in the future. However, in doing so, they freed us to consider how a society might have already overcome the broader challenges of climate change without tasking us to explain how our characters overcame their reluctance to doing it. But it’s such a perennial conflict that I guess I simply couldn’t avoid making it a central theme in The Cloud Weaver’s Song.

It’s interesting that your own story employs some of these same tropes, albeit in a completely different and unique way, by incorporating a mythological element into a real world setting struggling with modern-day problems. And I just love how you juxtapose your vivid, colorful descriptions of the dragons against Beijing’s often drab and desolate backdrop. China’s cultural history with dragons is steeped in reverence. But you go further in your story: Dragons have become commodified. They’re kept as pets, they’re disposable, and they’re even used as tools for turning a profit. So, once more we have this same tension between honoring tradition and moving past it. But you take it even one more step by envisioning a way for dragons to become crucial to your characters’ story arcs. It’s… inspired.

CZ: Ah, thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the depiction of the dragons in this story—I’ve always had a soft spot for animal characters, and I’m glad these little scaly terrors could slither their way into your heart. Speaking of inspiration, I was really taken with the central technology of the webs in The Cloud Weaver’s Song. They’re so striking and unique—I don’t know that I’ve seen anything similar in sci-fi, though perhaps maybe in myth. Was there any particular inspiration for gathering water via webs? Something in nature, perhaps, or maybe new developments in tech? 

ST: The ideas are based on existing technology. For example, meshed dew-catchers are currently employed to harvest water from the air in deserts around the world; and mech — or exo — suits, such as the one Sigourney Weaver’s character dons in Aliens, are an emerging technology.

As you know, I set my story in the Dannakil Depression of the Horn of Africa, one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. One of the themes the organizers had encouraged in our submissions was Afrofuturism, which is an expression of the sociopolitical, cultural, and technological experiences of the African people, particularly of its diaspora. Again, in hindsight, I think this was very clever, since, as a genre of fiction, Afrofuturism blends the modern with folklore and myth. Think of the Kingdom of Wakanda in Black Panther as a reference. So, yet again, there’s that dynamic between the old and the new. By calling Semhar’s and Alimira’s mech suits spider and termite skins, respectively, I wanted to invoke in the reader’s mind the unique cultural and mythological experiences of the people of the region.

You took a different approach in After the Dragons by highlighting the culture clash between your two main protagonists, Kai and Eli. But the friction between them extends to their personalities, as well. Kai is an artist with a strong sense of morality, while Eli is the scientist driven by his emotions. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, since it switches the stereotypes of what motivates them. Was this intentional? And how does the interplay between the two of them – the conflict, tension, and ultimately their feelings for each other — help them finally come to agreement? And in your opinion, how does their reconciliation speak to whether or not our world can agree on much larger issues, such as climate change?

CZ: So, fun fact: both my parents are scientists and my brother is currently in med school, making me the familial black sheep who chose a very different (and far less stable) career path. When developing Eli and Kai as characters, I don’t think I was consciously thinking in terms of an art/science divide, but it’s possible that this is because that divide has always seemed a little artificial to me. Though I work in the humanities, I have a great deal of respect for what colleagues in STEM are doing, and in contrast to the STEM/humanities antagonism that many media stories emphasize, I try to focus on the ways both fields can learn from each other. Which I suppose is something that bleeds through in After the Dragons insofar as Eli and Kai are characters with very different backgrounds who learn from each other.

Overall, I see both Eli and Kai as characters who want to help the world around them, but they feel differently about their ability to enact meaningful change. While I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s naive per se, Eli is fundamentally more optimistic and better at managing despair. Tiny elementary schooler Eli rescues a box of abandoned kittens, and while that experience inspires disbelief about the kind of people who would do such a thing, he’s struck by the wonder of tiny creatures brought back to health by care and kindness. Kai does his best to mitigate injustice where he can, but he’s more prone to despairing over how much work there is to be done. And to be fair, there’s a lot of reason to despair! We need large-scale, structural change if we want to survive, and the vast majority of the people in power are simply not interested in that.

But even as we grieve and mourn what’s lost, I think it’s important to find ways of sustaining ourselves nonetheless. Of understanding the importance of protecting what is left and the ways in which our actions, even if they seem so small against the vastness of one hundred companies producing 71% of carbon emissions—God, just saying that makes me depressed. Still. Social movements have never been led by the rich and powerful, and that just means it’s all the more important for us to do what we can now. 

Returning to The Cloud Weaver’s Song, I really love about your story is how hopeful it is. It’s not a naive hope—the People of the Sky have suffered significantly, and there’s suffering in their future if their leaders refuse to change—but just the idea of the Earth becoming green and inhabitable again. In wrestling with my own climate anxieties, I’ve tried to balance awareness of the planet’s fragility with an acknowledgement of nature’s resilience. Things are bad and they’re going to get even worse, but maybe at some point in the future we can figure things out. On the spectrum of doom to cautious hope, where would you place yourself and this story? And asking as someone who has a lot of anxiety about climate change, how do you manage climate anxiety/grief? 

ST: I’m actually really optimistic about our chances. This may seem self-contradictory, since a lot of my fiction is dystopian and post-apocalyptic and incorporates elements of global warming and its dire consequences. It’s a reflection and exaggeration of the real world as it is today and of people’s fears. But there’s always an element of hope as well, an ability to overcome, which reflects my own personal sense of possibility. As a former scientist, I’m keenly aware of the power of technology and the human mind to conceive of ways to do things better… once we set our minds to the task. Right now, the world is in a bit of a slump due to Covid-19 and a string of natural disasters that have the media beating the gloom and doom drum. People are eager for more reasons to hope, and they’ll look to stories to deliver it to them.

Your characters’ challenges mirror this. They have a certain fragility, whether it’s physical or emotional, and a resignation to a fate that feels immutable. But it’s all overcome by the arrival of the right person at the right time, someone who is brave enough, and optimistic enough, to take chances and find solutions. Importantly, he doesn’t do it alone. That’s an important message for us all, because neither can we.

CZ: Yes, definitely! There’s the idea in a lot of dystopian fiction that under dire circumstances, humans will revert to a natural state of violence and selfishness. History will give you plenty of examples for that argument, but there are also just as many examples of how people have managed to band together despite dire circumstances. Working together is hard and complicated and frustrating, but it’s also our best bet for making it through this.

You can read The Cloud Weaver’s Song here, and find out more about After the Dragons here.

Saul Tanpepper is the author of the popular post-apocalyptic book series BUNKER 12 and ZPOCALYPTO, as well as the climate fiction stories “Leviathan” and “They Dreamed of Poppies.” A former combat medic and retired PhD scientist from Northern California, he is the co-author (as Kenneth James Howe) of the African diaspora memoirs “Relentless” and “I Will Not Grow Downward.”

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. After the Dragons, her debut novel, was released in August 2021 with Stelliform Press. She is tragically online and can be found at cz_writes on Twitter.

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News Round-up

Tips for Guerrilla Gardening

Ten ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope [Guardian]

Climate migration on five levels: a response to Undullah Street [Storythings]

Liverpool’s Theatre in the Rough has announced an open callout for short works for a new digital arts festival exploring women’s experience of the Climate Crisis – open to female writers living in Liverpool

Join the climate scavenger hunt by Lauren James

My new book, Green Rising, is a climate thriller inspired by movements like Extinction Rebellion. I wanted to write about teenage activists who have the power to make real, decisive change in the climate crisis. It’s something which makes us all feel incredibly helpless, and climate fiction is often a depressing, dystopian look at our doomed future. I wanted to write a more optimistic, hopeful path forward to a better world, with clear instructions about what we should be doing next to fix the planet.

When I was writing Green Rising, I became really passionate about doing something about climate change – but I didn’t know how to actually help make a difference! So much of the climate crisis is beyond our control as individuals. Change relies on large corporations making changes to the status quo. But there are some things we can all do to help – most importantly, to start conversations about climate change and raise awareness of how urgent the situation is.

People tend to bury their head in the sand about climate change, because it often feels so hopeless. But it’s important that we’re all aware of the politics and ethics of climate solutions, because they’re going to determine the course of the next hundred years on Earth.

I challenge you to do something from my list below, and use it to talk to someone – whether it’s with your family, employer or educational institution – about how they can make a difference.

I can’t wait to see how many points you can get and all the actions you might take!

Pledge not to mow your lawn (10 POINTS)

Make space for insects by letting plants like daisies and white clover grow. These will produce nectar and habitats for pollinators, frogs and small mammals. If you feel self-conscious about leaving your lawn ‘messy’, then try to mow a border around the outside or a path through the middle. Avoid using pesticides too. Find out more here.

Go on a charity shop clothes hunt (10 POINTS)

Disposable, cheap fashion pieces are a major contributor towards wasted energy. If you buy new clothing, it’s best to invest in long-term, quality pieces that can be worn for many years. Even better, try to buy second hand! Visit your local charity shops to hunt down some new clothes, and post your haul online.

Air dry clothing instead of tumble drying (10 POINTS)

Save energy where you can by letting your new clothes haul air dry instead of tumble-drying them.

Register to Vote (10 POINTS)

It’s important to vote in all political elections you are able to, and make sure your representatives are aware that your vote is based on their climate policy views. If you haven’t yet registered to vote, you can do so here.

Switch to LED lightbulbs (10 POINTS)

Energy efficient LED bulbs can save energy compared to halogen/incandescent bulbs. Get 10 points for every bulb you replace!

Go foraging (20 POINTS)

From mushrooms to blackberries, there are lots of edible foods available in hedgerows and woodlands. Use this calendar to see what’s in season in your area. You can pick up some litter along the way, while collecting wild elderberries or sloes to make homemade cordials and liqueurs.

You can even collect some wildflowers to dry or press. Use flowers to decorate recyclable brown paper, and wrap up a bottle of homemade sloe gin as a personalised, sustainable Christmas or birthday present.

Make a bird bath or wildlife pond (20 POINTS)

Use a shallow, watertight bowl, bin lid or plant tray to make a water source for local wildlife – and wait to see what comes for a dip. Birds, hedgehogs, bees and frogs will be grateful!

Donate old books to a school or charity shop (10 POINTS)

I don’t know about you, but my shelves are filled with books I know I’m not going to read again. Why not make someone’s day by donating them to a local primary school or charity shop? Show off your contribution with a #unhaul post. If you’re a book blogger, showcase the eARCs you’re reading via Netgalley – which all saves on postage and printing of paper proofs!

Build a bird box or insect hotel (20 POINTS)

Use a wooden pallet, broken bricks/plant pots, twigs and leaves to create a structure for insects in a cool place in your garden. If you’re more crafty, you can make a bird box out of recycled materials like plastic drain pipes, paint cans and even old boots.

Decorate your wheelie bin (30 POINTS)

Use your wheelie bin, front window or garden fence to raise awareness of the climate battle by using one of Extinction Rebellion’s downloadable assets. You can make a stencil to use with spray-chalk or emulsion paint, or print out stickers and posters (I’m a big fan of the Declaration of Rebellion). Of course, these are council property so make sure you have permission first. You can even create a mural – paint beautiful art with a climate-based message on a wall!

Distribute outreach materials (30 POINTS)

Go the extra mile by giving your stickers or posters to friends, shops and community centres, encouraging them to showcase their views too. Extinction Rebellion are hosting lots of events this summer to encourage climate activism (check out their calendar here).

Volunteer for Extinction Rebellion (40 POINTS) –

As well as organising marches and protests, Extinction Rebellion are always looking for creative people to help with outreach, from musicians to graphic designers, photographers and social media content creators. Artists can help by making murals, stickering, flyposting, stencilling, chalking, banners and subvertising bus stops or billboards. Find other roles: https://volunteer.extinctionrebellion.uk/roles

Make a change to your diet (30 POINTS)

Whether that means cooking with non-dairy butter, drinking tea with oat milk once a day, or only eating beef once a month, you can incorporate small changes into your routine that will make a difference over the course of a lifetime. Use this guide to see which foods are in-season locally, so you can avoid hot-house produce grown out of season.

Change to a renewable energy utility supplier (30 POINTS)

Many utility suppliers offer a tariff which uses renewable energy sources such as wind or solar energy. Check your supplier’s website to see how to switch – more information can be found here.

Speak out! (10 POINTS)

If you’re nervous of getting caught seed-bombing, you can still help by signing petitions like this one to rewild Britain’s national parks, or write to your local MP to encourage your council to rewild vacant land (check what your council is doing here). You can find government climate petitions here. Extinction Rebellion’s big goal for 2021 is to demand that the UK Government stop all new fossil fuel project investments – every voice will help make that happen!

Speak to your employer/educator (50 POINTS)

If you work in local government or in the private sector, then part of your pension is almost certainly invested in coal, oil and gas companies. Write to the trustee or convenor of the pension scheme to ask them to divest from their harmful default options using a template.

You can also ask for more sustainable practises within companies or institutions, such as only offering beef once a week in canteens, asking for more reusable materials to be used in shipping, or reducing the amount of business trips taken by employees. It’s likely they’ve not considered the harm being done through their actions while working in a business-as-usual fashion. 

If you work in publishing, join Writers Rebel’s campaign for recycled paper to be used in book printing. They’re looking for people to help with editorial support, administrative tasks, investigative research, campaign planning, event organisation and project management.

While writing Green Rising, I founded the Climate Fiction Writers League, an organisation of over a hundred climate writers. I run this newsletter in order to encourage readers to take action. Talking about climate change to your social media followers, or founding a climate activism group in your workplace, can help make people reconsider their actions.

Good luck on your climate missions, fellow activists! Green Rising is about politics, standing up for what you believe in and taking direct action. But remember: no amount of careful consumption can fix an industry-wide problem. The carbon emissions responsible for climate change are largely caused by industry, and can only be reduced through government action. This fight has to start with policy changes, immediately. So the most important thing you can do is vote, and make sure you know where your money is going – at every level. While magic is fantastical, the ability of humans to fix the climate emergency is not. I believe we can make a difference: and I’m excited to see how you go about it.


You can find out more about Green Rising here.

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

Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics.

A coming-of-age David and Goliath story

Jamie Mollart interviews Mark Smith about his new activism YA novel, If Not Us.

If Not Us is a wonderful novel which perfectly tackles the issue of Climate Change within the context of a YA novel. It’s a coming-of-age story combined with a David and Goliath story. Hesse is a 17-year-old surfer in a small town on the coast of Australia. The town is home to both a mine and a power station, with most of the population employed in one or the other. The company which owns them, Hadron, has put the power station up for sale and a group of townspeople, including Hesse’s mum, have mobilised a group to protest the sale and to try and close them both down. Hesse is drawn into speaking at a forum to discuss the potential sale but isn’t ready for how everything is going to change.

I had the pleasure of reading it and Mark was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel.

One of the problems about Climate Change I always think is that it’s too big a problem for us to understand on an individual level, so we can often feel helpless against it. For that reason, did you worry about presenting it to a YA audience or did you see it as an opportunity to reach them at an age where they can be influenced to do good?

Mark: Probably both – it’s such a big issue for adults to get their heads around, let alone a YA audience. That said, the attention being given to the issue at the moment means schools in particular are looking for cli-fi novels that kids will engage with. I think if you wrap any big issue like climate in a page-turning story – and If Not Us is first and foremost a coming-of-age story – teenage readers are quite capable of understanding what is at stake. The Schools Strike for Climate protests have demonstrated they know when they are being ignored or misrepresented. So hopefully this is the right book in the right place at the right time for young people to engage with the issue on a practical level.

As someone who lives in the absolute centre of an island, but who loves the sea, the atmosphere of the beach and the water that you created was very evocative to me. Was it a conscious decision to use the waterside location to frame the discussion around Climate Change?

We know climate change will affect the planet everywhere, but the coastal setting gives me the opportunity to explore it in an environment most readers are familiar with. The effects of climate change are already obvious along our coasts: noticeable warming of the ocean, beach and cliff erosion and more frequent storms and swell surges. The fact the main character, Hesse, is a surfer enables me to explore these issues in a way that readers will understand.

You go big with mining and power generation – two massive contributors to the problem – and once you combine that with the proximity to the sea you have quite a heady mix, which you manage beautifully. Where you worried as you wrote about how easy it is with this topic to slip into a polemic?

Definitely! I had to be careful in my portrayal of the people involved in the mining and power generation, to ensure they weren’t stereotyped. It also meant explaining the human cost in terms of jobs for the town and the businesses and organisations that relied on the mine for support. These are the sorts of issues that need to be dealt with in the transition to a decarbonised economy. At the same time, I had my own moral position to take into account. Being too didactic would have been an easy trap to fall into. But all novels are didactic to an extent in that we don’t just write stories for the sake of it, we do it to explore issues, ideas and themes which, through our characters, we take a moral position on. My moral position in If Not Us is pretty clear to the reader, but I hope they come to the understanding that any change of this magnitude has human consequences.

Also, both mining and power stations are both a very visceral way of demonstrating Climate Change, I wonder how you settled on them? I enjoyed the town as a microcosm of the world and it has the feeling of something written from personal experience?

The story is loosely based on a campaign I was a part of in my own hometown, where a multinational company had a coal mine and power station, designed to feed electricity to a smelter they operated. When the smelter closed, the company tried to sell the mine and power station as a viable, ongoing producer of electricity for the national power grid. It was, however, a fifty-year-old facility, the coal was very high in sulphur and it was very likely they wanted to offload it before it became a stranded asset. I fictionalised much of the story (though the real-life campaign was successful in closing down the mine and power station.) Most importantly, my experience gave me enormous insight into the way social media can be such an effective tool in political and environmental campaigns.

I like the way you build up a background of climate change without ramming it into the readers face, the Elfstedentocht or the refugees at Hesse’s school. You show how it effects the everyday of the characters before going into the big themes, was this an intentional trick? To help mitigate that sense of the problem being too big that I mentioned earlier?

I’m not sure I saw it as a trick, but yes, this is something I have learned from my experiences as teacher. If you want teenagers to understand a complex issue, personalise it for them. Bring it down to the individual level. A good writer does that through encouraging the reader to empathise with their characters, then have those characters raise the issues. Young readers also have a pretty good BS meter – they know when they are being preached to, and they won’t stand for it. The subtle backgrounding of climate change though the experiences of Hesse and Fenna, the Dutch exchange student, is essential to gaining my readers’ trust, so they are able to see the larger issues through the characters’ eyes.

There’s a powerful scene where the kids have a debate about climate change based around the writing of an essay – I get the sense that you were putting the whole of the topic into the kids hands here, both from a plot point of view and metaphorically

The debate the kids have in class is a means of highlighting the arguments that deniers put forward to justify their positions. I certainly didn’t want to dumb the issue down, but I did want to show Hesse refuting the most obvious holes in the deniers’ positions. And yes, I was putting the issue in the hands of the kids – which was really the intention of the whole book, to show teens are capable of understanding the arguments for climate action and are willing to act. I want my readers to believe they have a voice and that it will be listened to.

Fenna is an interesting character and a foil to Hesse. Did you intend her anxiety as a metaphor for climate anxiety?

First and foremost, I wanted to normalise anxiety as a mental health issue that many people experience. I didn’t want to write the whole book about a character with anxiety, but to show the way people like Fenna deal with it on a day-to-day basis – and also how those around them can assist them in dealing with it.

On another level, I think anxiety about the future is a natural state for anyone concerned about the glacial pace of action on climate. In that way, Fenna’s anxiety was a metaphor for what so many of us feel.

I don’t want to get into spoiler territory here, but did you choose to use the power of social media to demonstrate that anyone can make a difference, an accessible call to arms, and also to prompt action in a medium that is very familiar to your target audience?

All of the above! The campaign in my hometown was heavily reliant on social media. While we maintained small, local actions, the heavy hitting in terms of pressuring banks and company shareholders was all done through social media. Exposing companies for their poor environmental record has a cumulative effect that eventually influences managerial decisions based on shareholder anger. And in the case of a company purchasing fossil fuel businesses, they need to get their money from somewhere – banks, investment houses, superannuation funds – all of whom are sensitive to being seen to be associated with the climate crisis.

Social media is also a tool my target audience is very competent with – though generally they don’t use it in the political sphere. But they understand how far-reaching it can be. So, marrying the two – their competence with social media and their anger about the way their future is being betrayed – is a powerful combination.

There are a couple of scenes where you give voice to both sides of the debate, I’m thinking of a discussion around essays at school, the meeting itself and later on in interviews, were you consciously doing this to allow the reader to come to their own decisions or was it more to highlight the challenge that people like Hesse, and us as Climate Fiction writers, face when trying to raise awareness? Either way, I found it an intelligent way of showing both sides of the debate through real people in real situations.

It was more of the latter – to highlight the forces that so quickly muster against people like Hesse who speak up for climate action. I also make a point about the way the media frames a story for their target audience rather than approaching it objectively.

I’ve rarely been trolled on social media but since I’ve been posting about the book, and especially when I use hashtags like #climatecrisis or #climateemergency, I’ve got blowback from deniers, mostly abuse about scaring kids.

Ultimately, I want my readers to make up their own minds about the big issues raised in the book, because I have no right to force my opinions on them. I can best do this by presenting both sides of the argument, without being too forceful regarding my own position.

You can find out more about If Not Us here, and Jamie’s book Kings of a Dead World in our interview with him here.

Mark Smith’s debut novel, The Road To Winter, was published in 2016. The sequel, Wilder Country, won the 2018 Australian Indie Book Award for YA. The third book in the trilogy, Land Of Fences was released in 2019. His fourth novel, If Not Us, will be published in September 2021. Mark is also an award winning writer of short fiction, with credits including the 2015 Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize and the 2013 Alan Marshall Short Story Prize, and his work has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Review of Australian Fiction, The Big Issue, Great Ocean Quarterly, The Victorian Writer and The Australian.

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

Decentring the Human in Climate Fiction by Piers Torday

In the month of COP26, there is no doubt that we are at a pivotal moment for humanity. The decisions made, good or bad, will have profound and long-reaching implications for everyone on this planet. But I guess a human would say that, wouldn’t they?

Because it’s not just the future of humanity at stake, of course, but the millions of other species we share the planet with. It’s quite possible that should our efforts fail, and that we cannot stop an average global temperature rising by more than 1.5°c, that some form of life will prevail on earth for many living things. But many will pay the price for our destructiveness and failure to act.

A lot of climate fiction seeks to engage and educate (as well as entertain). It’s often seen necessary to place humans in peril for this to be effective or emotionally powerful. Humans will be wiped out by a great flood, humans will die from a deadly plague, humans will go to war over a shortage of natural resources. But by placing humans at the centre of our stories about the planet’s predicament, are we helping or hindering our response to it?

A recent study in People and Nature claimed that animals were being written out of novels at a similar rate to their extinction in the real world. This included a decline not just in mentions of specific different animal species (other than pets or ’threat’ animals like lions and bears), but taxonomical labelling for plants and trees, so ‘oak’ is replaced by ‘tree’ and so on. Professor Christian Wirth, the study’s senior author, argued  that this has implications for our response to the climate crisis, “that we can only halt the loss of biodiversity by a radical change in awareness.”

Biodiversity is just one piece of the climate jigsaw, but ecosystems we rely on will collapse without it. In the human sphere, the literary response to chronic, structural inequality has finally led to a discussion of social justice both on the page and off it, decentring the dominant white male gaze, giving marginalised voices space and agency.  To protect this wonderful human diversity we also need to protect biodiversity. It’s not either but both. So is it time for climate fiction to actively decentre the human? After all, if climate change is the result of centuries of anthropocentric behaviour, can any story which still places human desires and needs at their heart ever move the conversation on?

Honouring biodiversity in fiction is not as straight forward as honouring other forms of human diversity. There are no “own voices” writing books about trees or animals, still just us humans – whether the trees and animals like it or not.  But we have imagination, scientific knowledge, a literary form with a large capacity for reinvention, and –  I would argue – a responsibility to at least try.

That doesn’t mean stories without any humans in, necessarily, more just told from a different perspective, humans set in a new context. Richard Powers, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Overstory, has suggested that to “truly tell the human story, you need to put non-human stories front and centre.” And Helen Macdonald (author of H is for Hawk) said recently that “Maybe the only way to save the world is to re-enchant it. To love things, and to feel that they have some kind of greater presence or power.”

It’s a challenge. In my latest middle grade children’s book, The Wild Before, I deliberately chose an all animal cast, from hares to waxwings. Now I can’t pretend that in the way they spoke to one another, using human figures of speech and displaying human character traits like pride or jealousy, that I was really decentring the human. Anthropomorphism is simply anthropocentrism in disguise after all. 

And yet.

 I did make strenuous efforts to avoid any imagery, similes or metaphors not drawn from their natural environment. I also found that by denying myself a human protagonist, and seeing the drama of the story through a hare’s eyes, I found myself brought closer and closer to them.  Every day I started writing, I began by thinking where they were in the fields, what they could see or hear, what threats they faced, what food or rest they required. I never thought about what they were wearing, what drink they might order in a bar, or where they might go on holiday.

My preoccupations became entirely to do with the natural world.  The seasons dictated the story as much as characters’ objectives. I found myself wondering how certain roots and weeds tasted to a hare, how the fear of a chase from a predatory bird might consume their whole body, how the changing light affected their actions.

As the book was a prequel to a pre-existing fictional universe with its own parameters and conventions, I could only go so far.  I also introduced some magical and fantasy elements, which also complicate the picture. But I began to understand something of what Powers was alluding to. The sense that there are so many greater forces at play in our world than the human.  It is the ancient, mysterious, complex and interwoven sentience of trees that drive the plot in The Overstory, sweeping up many compelling human characters along the way.

It’s not a new idea to recentre nature, of course. The Romantic poets strove to, in Macdonald’s words, “re -enchant” the natural world, with a sense of awe at the sublime mystery of it. In part, this was a response to their experience of sudden and enveloping industrialisation.

That was a pivotal moment in our history, and now we are at another. And this time, we know so much more than them. Hundreds of years of scientific research have given us insight into the secret lives of animals, plants and trees that the Romantics could only have dreamed of.  For me, the more I learn about how trees communicate with one another, or the vital role that fungi play in so much of our lives, I realise there is so much untapped opportunity in areas of nature we are only just beginning to understand.

There is a whole world of dramatic potential that has scarcely been touched by novelists. We may never be able to completely speak authentically for other species, but we now know enough to write about them with some actual facts, and a little less guesswork. If we can start making humans part of the planet’s story, rather than the other way around, perhaps we can begin to change the narrative for us all.

You can find out more about The Wild Before here.

Piers Torday began his career in theatre and then television as a producer and writer. His first book for children, The Last Wild, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award and nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. The sequel, The Dark Wild, won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Other books include The Wild Beyond and The Death of an Owl (with Paul Torday.) His adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights opened at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2017. He lives in London with his husband and a very naughty dog.

Eco-adventures with a message

Authors Claire Datnow and Bruce Smith discuss their eco-fiction books for younger readers, Red Flag Warning and Legend Keepers.

Claire: Bruce, as a science writer and wildlife biologist, what motivated you to switch from nonfiction to environmental fiction for middle grades?

Bruce: It wasn’t planned. Instead, the idea leapt from the pages of my nonfiction book, Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the Mountain Goat. While on tour for that book, I was dismayed that few children attended my book events. Their parents and grandparents didn’t bring them, even though event publicity made clear “This is a talk for the whole family, with lots of slides of animals.” In an Ah Ha! moment, I decided to write a story specifically for kids. I’d talk directly to them, or rather the characters in my novel would.

I remain hopeful about the future of humans, our planet, and Earth’s biological diversity because of the aspirations and activism I see in children. I want to nourish that and kindle the passion of young readers. Middle grade seems the sweet spot for the stories I want to tell. Those kids are learning about science and the concepts I want to write about. Plus, most middle graders are captivated by animals and nature.

Claire: I totally agree. After decades of misinformation, denial, and inadequate attempts to reduce the dire impact of climate change young people around the world are troubled and frustrated. They are searching for ways to understand climate warning and to take action. Compelling, informative narratives can inspire them to do that.

Bruce: What has been the arc of your writing journey, Claire?

Claire: When I was kid growing up in that faraway land of Johannesburg, South Africa, I loved playing outside. In the garden, I pretended the variety of flowers were my students and I was their teacher and storyteller. Back then, an exciting adventure was a drive into the country for a family picnic, followed by a hike in the veld. I also fantasized about traveling worldwide. I guess I was a nature lover, teacher, and explorer from an early age. In college I majored in anthropology, which sparked my interest in the indigenous people of South Africa, and, later, of cultures around the globe. When I become a teacher, my students and I built a nature trail on the school grounds, now named the Audubon-Datnow Forest Preserve. All these experiences and passions are reflected in the books I write.

Storytelling is a powerful way to ignite the imagination while entertaining, informing, and empowering readers to take action that can make a difference for the greater good of humanity and the wellbeing of the Earth. The epiphany that inspired me to begin writing Eco mysteries struck me one morning driving to work down the road winding through a wooded hillside. As I approached the bottom of hill, I screamed out loud, “How dare they!” Overnight a swath of naked red dirt had replaced a verdant forest. A forest of oak, hickory, and pine, which had sheltered and sustained a rich diversity of life, had been bulldozed to barren patch of clay. Just one ancient white oak, standing like a tower of hope, had been spared. 

After that, whenever I drove by the oak tree it kept on calling to me to share its sad tale.  I imagined the oak telling its story to the neighborhood’s children. Nine months later, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six: The Lone Tree became the first Eco mystery to blossom into a series of nine books published over the past decade.

Bruce, What challenges did you meet in making the switch from nonfiction to fiction?

Bruce: My previous works were 5 adult nonfiction books of science, natural history, and outdoor adventure. I had no experience writing fiction. I knew I had much to learn. I began reading craft books and joined an SCBWI writers’ group.

In my nonfiction writing, I was used to writing book proposals for publishing houses to consider. Among the elements in book proposals is an annotated chapter by chapter outline of the work. I was used to carefully planning each project. By definition, I was a plotter. When I started, I didn’t know the full story arc of Legend Keepers: The Chosen One. As I began drafting the early chapters, I had to learn to let the story happen, often with the guidance of the characters’ interactions. Also new to me was developing a story’s cast of characters. As each appeared (sometimes while I was hiking or in my dreams), I fleshed out their physical traits, behaviors, quirks, and relationships to others, creating a character bible. The protagonist and secondary characters had as much to do with the story’s arc as did any preconceived plot. I’ve come to see that approaching the story with an open mind is essential to the creative process, being able to let go of what I thought “would be.” I love the creativity of fiction.

Claire: Allowing your imagination free reign is both the challenge and the excitement of writing fiction for me.

Bruce: What shaped your interest in writing eco-fiction for kids?

Claire: Storytelling is a powerful way to ignite the imagination while entertaining, informing, and empowering readers to take action that can make a difference for the greater good of humanity and the wellbeing of the Earth. The epiphany that inspired me to begin writing Eco mysteries struck me one morning driving to work down the road winding through a wooded hillside. As I approached the bottom of hill, I screamed out loud, “How dare they!” Overnight a swath of naked red dirt had replaced a verdant forest. A forest of oak, hickory, and pine, which had sheltered and sustained a rich diversity of life, had been bulldozed to barren patch of clay. Just one ancient white oak, standing like a tower of hope, had been spared.  

After that, whenever I drove by the oak tree it kept on calling to me to share its sad tale.  I imagined the oak telling its story to the neighborhood’s children. Nine months later, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six: The Lone Tree became the first Eco mystery to blossom into a series of nine books published over the past decade.

Bruce: Yes, kids (including us big kids too!) love stories.Storytelling dates back as far as human history, ethnologists tell us. It’s vital for passing down information, group bonding, entertainment, cultural identity, and survival. Stories have beginnings and endings. We want to know how the story ends. Listeners, or readers, remain engaged. In my nonfiction works, I used storytelling to translate science for lay readerships. Fiction allows us to expand the readers’ experience. I want learning to be almost subliminal by being integral to the characters’ stories.

For kids, animal characters serve as trusted teachers. I believe lessons learned in the course of reading animal fantasies and magical realism will stick with them.

Claire, where did the idea for Red Flag Warning spring from?

Claire: This novel was sparked by the unprecedented wildfires exploding around the world. The courage of real-life young eco heroes, like Greta Thunburg, who are urging the grownups to save our planet, also inspired me to create the young tweens and teens in my novels.

Bruce: Yes, these young activists are today’s heroes and perhaps tomorrow’s leaders. How did you decide on the transglobal settings for Red Flag Warning?

Claire: After I had finished writing Red Flag Warning, I saw more clearly how I’d woven diverse, multicultural, indigenous, and global themes into my story. All three characters draw strength and pride from the ancient wisdom of their ancestors. Red Flag Warning follows the adventures of three special young people from across the world, the amazing animals that are part of their lives, and the terrible threats they face, threats that affect the entire world. The three teens, all scarred by fire, struggle with the deeper wounds to their self-image and dreams. They must learn to respect the wildness of the animals they love and find their own voices, along with the power of community, in the mission to heal the Earth. And, although they come from very different backgrounds the three become close friends.

Bruce: You’ve written many novels for tweens and teens. I’m fascinated to know how you come up with the many characters in your books. Are some based, in part, on real people?

Claire: Sometimes real people provide the inspiration for the characters in my stories while others spring from my imagination. I try to figure out how different characters will overcome challenges based on their needs and goals. As I get further into the plot, they become more real to me and “tell” me who they are and how they will react.

Why did you choose a young mountain goat as the hero of your story?

Bruce: I thought a MG novel about the lives of mountain goats, and other animals of the alpine zone that few people see or know about, would charm children. These species suffer from conservation neglect and need an ardent following, including children. Perhaps especially children.

Other MG books have featured cats, dogs, bears. The One and Only Ivan features Ivan the gorilla and Ruby the elephant. The Tale of Despereaux features a mouse. Charlotte’s Web stars a spider. Plenty of other books have animal protagonists. But never a mountain goat. And by gosh, it’s about time. By now you’ve guessed that I’m fond of mountain goats. I’ve observed, photographed, studied, and written about them for almost 50 years. When kids see images of these furry, photogenic cliff dwellers, they just smile. They want to know more.

Claire: I also choose to introduce animals into my story. Aisyah a compassionate free spirit from Sumatra, bonds with Pongo an endangered orangutan. Kirri a competitive marathon runner from Australia, bonds with Rocky an endangered Rock wallaby. And then there’s Hector, a headstrong and gifted falconer from California, who bonds with Swain, a magnificent Swainson’s hawk.

Bruce why did you choose to include other animals beside mountain goats into the story?

Bruce: Animal (and plant) species don’t exist in isolation. This story takes place in a high mountain environment where mountain goats share their home with a community of biota. I wanted readers to see Buddy’s story within the context of the out-of-sight and out-of-mind species with which goats interact. Her unique ability to communicate with other species (under certain conditions) provides the reader greater insight into mountain goat society but also the community of species in which Buddy lives.

Secondly, new plot points often required new characters to help carry the story. Each character, in her or his own way, presented obstacles or aided Buddy. All were part of her struggle to achieve her internal need and external goals. Don’t get me wrong, Buddy is quite exceptional, even for a mountain goat! To survive being orphaned and then to undertake her quest on behalf of her band required great courage, perseverance, and determination. One of her greatest strengths was her willingness to trust others. One message here is that no great task is accomplished alone.

Finally, the unique personalities of the other characters add interest, humor, and texture to Buddy’s story.

Claire, what about the main characters, Aisyah, Kirri, and Hector, in Red Flag Warning? Tell me about their origins?

Claire: I chose Sumatra, Australia, and California as my setting because of the frequency of wildfires there. I also chose characters from different countries and backgrounds to show that fires driven by the warming environment impact diverse people, animals, and plants worldwide. Aisyah’s ancestors are the Batak people of Sumatra, Indonesia. Kirri’s ancestors are the Aboriginal people of Australia. Hector has roots in the Native American people of Mexico. All three protagonists have bonded with their animals native to their regions.

Bruce: Do they have similar or different inner needs and challenges they must overcome to fulfill those needs?

Claire: All three protagonists have similar challenges but come from different backgrounds and countries. The three teens, all scarred by fire, struggle with the deeper wounds to their self-image and dreams. They must learn to respect the wildness of the different animals they love and find their own voices, along with the power of community, in their mission to heal the Earth.

Global warming is the overarching theme of Legend Keepers. How did you choose to incorporate this complex and serious theme into your story?

Bruce: Legend Keepers arose from my desire to reach kids with conservation topics of importance to me. Climate change is near the top of that list. One chapter in Life on the Rocks addresses how the warming environment is affecting alpine biota. We know that habitats at the highest latitudes and altitudes are warming fastest. Species there are among those that must adapt behaviorally and genetically fastest. If they can. I’m knowledgeable about alpine species and the climate challenges they face. And I’m a fan of mountain goats, as I’ve said. Basing this novel on the lives of mountain goats—the North American large mammal that lives at the highest elevations—was a logical gateway to climate change.

Claire, we don’t get to see Dr. Gladys’ character’s transition from her viewpoint. Was that your intent?

Claire: Keeping endangered animals in zoos is a controversial issue. I intentionally chose not to completely explain the doctor’s final decisions from her POV. In that way, I hope to stimulate lively discussions and additional research on the topic.

What message would you like your readers to take away from Legend Keepers?

Bruce: There are both life lessons as well as environmental aspects. I’ve alluded to some in answers to earlier questions. In short, Legend Keepers is a story of hope, perseverance, and finding one’s purpose. It’s a story in which kids will see themselves, as Buddy overcomes loss and hardship while learning the value of friendship and family. I hope that kids will take away this: Step outside your comfort zone to pursue something worthwhile, something you know is right. If you persist and attain that goal, you’ll find fulfillment, especially if the goal benefits others.

What message would you like your readers to take away from Red Flag Warning?

Claire: Climate change is a serious topic that should not be sugar coated. Fiction can be a powerful way to make future consequences more immediate to ourselves and our students.  I hope that my readers will understand that that science-based solutions are the key to reducing the consequences of climate change. I weave scientific knowledge into the story to create hopeful but realistic endings to my story rather than gloomy or magical fairytale ones.

Can you provide a glimpse into the sequel to Legend Keepers you are planning?

Bruce: In Legend Keepers: The Partnership, Buddy remains a prominent character. But the narrative expands to the human world with the entrance of twelve-year-old Garson and other human characters. Garson faces some personal challenges: he’s insecure, in a new community, and his father goes missing in the war. Garson doesn’t fit in at school. Then something dramatic happens in his life that promises to be life changing. His life intersects with Buddy’s in a most astonishing way. Climate change is integral to the story. Like The Chosen One, The Partnership is a hopeful story. But the story’s arc will serve up more challenges for both Garson and Buddy. 

Claire, what book are you working on now?

Claire: After Red Flag Warning, I’ve begun writing the second book in a trilogy, The Whale’s Lament. When Alysie Muckpa discovers a gray whale washed up on the beach near her isolated village in Alaska, she tucks an urgent message into a plastic bottle, found in a ball of trash in the whale’s stomach, and tosses it back into the ocean. The bottle rides on the California Current that flows along the western coast of North America, to Mexico 5,000 miles away. Her message triggers an unstoppable chain of events, leading her and three other teenagers, who find the bottle, down a path of discovery and danger to help save the whales.

Bruce, Thank you so much for exchanging your thoughts and goals about writing environmental fiction for young people. I wish you continuing fulfillment with your books for middle graders.

Bruce: Claire, this has been such a pleasure, learning about the inspiration and craft of your climate fiction writing.

Find out more about Legend Keepers and Red Flag Warning.

Claire Datnow grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her family originates from Lithuania. Claire immigrated to the United States with her husband, Dr. Boris Datnow, in 1965. She has published numerous works of nonfiction ranging from news features and educational materials, to biographies for young adults. She taught gifted and talented children, in the Birmingham, Alabama Public School System. She has received numerous scholarships and grants including a Beeson Samford University Writing Project fellowship, a Folk Life Grant from the Alabama Arts Council, a Fulbright Memorial Fund teacher scholarship to Japan, the Blanche Dean Award for Environmental Education, and Birmingham Public Schools Teacher of the Year.

Bruce Smith is a wildlife biologist who holds a PhD degree in Zoology. During his career with the federal government, he studied and managed most large mammal species that roam the western United States. He’s authored five nonfiction books of natural history, conservation, and outdoor adventure. Among them is Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the Mountain Goat, which won the National Outdoor Book Award.

Artificial Intelligence and the Climate Crisis by Michael Muntisov

Most of us have been to one of those meetings where the speaker asks us to answer a question using our smartphones and the answers appear dynamically in a wordcloud on the screen. My favourite wordcloud answer is this one:

You might wonder how a room full of AI computers would answer this question? Which begs a further question: Can an AI be caring?

Of that we can’t be exactly sure. In Spike Jonze’s film Her, this theme is explored with the protagonist Theodore falling in love with an operating system AI. The AI, named Samantha, tells Theodore:

The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love you more.

So what has this got to do with climate change? I think we can safely predict that in thirty years’ time AI and supercomputers will be advanced enough to not only ‘love’ us, but to tell us what the climate consequences were of every decision or non-decision we made today. There will be no grey areas.

That is why AI formed an important theme in my novel, Court of the Grandchildren. Set in 2050’s America, an aging former bureaucrat, David Moreland, is pressured by his great-niece Lily to face the Climate Court.

At the court, David has to navigate interrogation and manipulation by a lawbot. Furthermore, he has to confront the compelling evidence provided by powerful computer modelling of the consequences of his past policy decisions:

Attorney: Mr Moreland, you have seen the havoc wreaked by climate change events. Do you accept any responsibility at all, even the tiniest amount, for the creation of the conditions that caused the chaos we now face?

David Moreland: No

Attorney: We will return to this issue, Mr Moreland. But for now, that is all from me.

As in Her, the ubiquitous nature of AI introduces other complications. In this case, Lily faces problems that contrast with the plotline in Her.  Lily bemoans about men:

They can’t put two thoughts together on their own. They depend on their AIs too much. They’re too shallow.

Of course, this is a normal relationship issue in a near future world just as dependent on AI as we are dependent on the internet today.

The prospect that technology will finally nail the climate culprits may feel satisfying to many of us. After all, the deniers certainly deserve their comeuppance…But wait. How will you, dear reader, distinguish yourself from the ‘evil-doers’ in the eyes of the grandchildren? Are you just as much to blame? After all, you watched, participated and let it happen. What if you were lumped in with the ‘burners’? How would your track record survive being picked apart by an AI lawyer? How should our generation be punished? But then again, what is the value in attributing blame and seeking retribution?

These were some of the intriguing questions I grappled with in writing Court of the Grandchildren.

Someone perceptively made the observation that humans are the only species that can tell the difference between what is and what might have been. AI and supercomputers promise to provide us with the stark truth about that difference.

Will it be helpful to know with precise certainty ‘what might have been’ for our planet and climate? In relation to that question I can say with confidence that the AI won’t care. So I guess, as always, it falls to us humans to act and make a positive difference on man-made climate change.

You can find out more about Court of the Grandchildren here.

Michael Muntisov’s professional expertise was in making drinking water safe. He was the editor of a non-fiction book on water treatment, sales proceeds of which were donated to Water Aid. After a global consulting career spanning 35 years, Mike finally got around to writing his first work of fiction. Before he knew it, he was a playwright as well. Among Mike’s other interests are college basketball, film, and working with start-up entrepreneurs.

Climate News

Read free climate books online through the COP26 Virtual Book Showcase including: The Deep Sea Duke by Lauren James, Across the Risen Sea by Bren Macdibble, A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, Eagle Warrior by Gill Lewis, and The Planet Remade.

Stories that save the world: How fiction can drive climate change awareness [Illuminem]

League member Aya de León is releasing a serialized YA novel, The Mystery Woman in Room Three, about two undocumented teenage girls in Florida who uncover a kidnapping plot to stop important climate legislation. Free to read on Orion Magazine’s website, this is the first part of six to be released over the next several weeks.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Why COP26 Invited a Science Fiction Writer [Bloomberg]

A quick guide to solarpunk by Emma Watson

Eco-fiction for kids

Writing eco-fiction for children presents a unique set of challenges. How much about the ongoing climate crisis can kids fully understand? And how do we write about it without the stories becoming too grim and downbeat?

Authors Vashti Hardy and Tom Huddleston have both woven ecological themes into exciting adventure stories for children aged 8 and up. In Hardy’s mysterious and lyrical new book Crowfall, a boy living on an overpopulated island discovers the dark secret that keeps his isolated world running – and sets out on an ocean voyage to another island where people appear to live in harmony with nature. In Huddleston’s action-packed FloodWorld trilogy (FloodWorld, DustRoad and the new instalment StormTide), two street kids living in a flooded city of the future stumble upon a secret map and are hurled into a world of seagoing pirates, terrorist plots and blockbuster adventure.

We asked the two authors to interview each other about the joys and difficulties of writing climate fiction for younger readers, their inspirations as writers, and what they’ve got coming up next.

Tom: Hi Vashti! I’ve been reading the wonderful Crowfall and was wondering, when did you first decide that you wanted your new book to explore ecological themes? Did that idea come first, or did you start more with the world and/or the characters?

Vashti: Hi Tom, great to be chatting about our eco-themed books together!

The idea for Crowfall came before the world. Originally, the concept of a huge, living, breathing, sentient organism, known as the Eard in Crowfall, was part of a different world in a story I wrote called The Seer. It wasn’t published, but it was the book my agent signed me for about six years ago. I always knew that the core idea was worth exploring, I just had to find the right world and characters for it. Since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between humans and the natural world and the way that humans often see themselves as superior to and separate from nature, considering animals, plants and minerals as resources to be exploited for humankind. There are some big questions that arise from this: our responsibility to nature, the planet, resources, our relationship with technology, etc. The idea of this great sentient creature, part plant, part animal-like, which can live symbiotically with humans, grew from these musings. Often the best lens to explore the big questions of the world is through fantasy and children’s fiction, because it allows the space for big ‘what ifs’, with added fun and adventure, so taking the Eard and growing Orin’s world and personality around it seemed to work well.

On that note, I’d like to ask you about your gripping Flood World series. I listened to Flood World and Dust Road on audiobook recently and I’m so glad I discovered them and I love Kara and Joe. It seems fitting to ask you where the ecological themes for your books arose from, was it the concept or world first? And I’d also like to ask you why a children’s book felt like the right place to tell the story?

Tom: For me, it was definitely the world first. I had this idea of the flooded city, of people living in the upper stories of tower blocks and on walkways linking them together, this huge floating slum. To me that was just an incredibly exciting location for a story – it felt futuristic but grounded, and sort of oddly Dickensian, which I suppose is where the idea of having two street urchins as our heroes came from. Then from there the ideas just accumulated – the Wall around the centre of the city to protect the rich folks inside; the Mariners who live out on the ocean, trying to exist in balance with the ‘new reality’ of the flooded world but being (sometimes justifiably) dismissed as terrorists and troublemakers by the older order. Joe’s dangerous work as a scavenger on the bottom of the sea, and Kara’s desire to protect him from the harsh reality of the world in which they live.

I initially didn’t know what kind of story I was going to tell – I tried to put some of my ideas into a screenplay, but it wasn’t really satisfying. I worried that it might be too complex and sophisticated for a kids book – it was actually reading Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series that made me realise just how much you could do in childrens’ fiction, how sophisticated young readers really are. I could explore environmental themes, ideas of oppression and exploitation, grand moral concepts, without really having to water anything down. I just made sure it was always full of twists and turns and exciting action scenes to keep the reader hooked.

Did you have any major inspirations for Crowfall?

Vashti: That’s interesting on the Dickensian aspect, because I had that thought when I was reading FloodWorld, the character of Culpepper definitely gave me excellent Fagin vibes! My major inspiration for the world of Crowfall was the concept of exploring humanity’s relationship with nature. The challenge I set myself was to achieve cohesion between that theme, the setting and the character’s arc. With the setting, I’d always wanted to explore an island based world in a story, and Crowfall seemed the perfect place for it as it allowed me to develop the contrasting island communities of Ironhold and Natura who approach their relationship with nature in very different ways.

I like the idea of empowering the powerless in my stories, so the protagonist, Orin Crowfall, begins the story feeling he doesn’t have any power for change, but as the story unfolds he is the only one who can save his world. He also has a deep connection with nature and an innate need to save things so he felt like the right person for the eco-fable theme. In real life, children are sometimes underestimated in their abilities by adults, but I’m a believer in that just because someone is small, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a voice and make a big difference.

Are there ways your protagonists Kara and Joe become the change makers in your world? I’d also love to ask you how you go about achieving a cinematic dystopian-like setting in your writing?

Tom: Absolutely, it was always important to me that the readers could see how much Kara and Joe affected things in their world, just like Orin does in Crowfall. So even though the future depicted in FloodWorld is pretty messed up – rising tides, flooded cities, constant conflict – they were able to make a big, positive difference to lots of peoples lives. Perhaps inevitably (and very flatteringly), Kara ended up being compared to Greta Thunberg (blonde, forthright, knows her own mind and speaks it), but the character was formed long before GT came on the scene. And besides, in many ways the book is actually more about inequality and self-empowerment than it is about climate change – after all, in this world the change has already happened, it’s about how people live with it and adapt to it rather than how they try to stop it.

As for writing cinematically… thanks! That was always the intention, I’m a huge film nerd (writing about film is my other job), and I always envisioned FloodWorld as a big, blockbuster-y kind of book, with action scenes and giant ‘sets’ that you could imagine as you read the book. It took a long time to get right: my early drafts were full of way too much detail, I was trying to describe everything so much, thinking that would make it easier for the reader to visualise it. But in fact the opposite is true – if you give the reader just the information they absolutely need and no more, then they fill in the blanks for themselves. So by stripping it back, the world actually became more vivid, not less. It’s funny how that works!

But I do think it probably helped that I’d done that extra writing in the longer drafts – the world was very clear in my head. How do you go about visualising the world of your stories? Do you ‘explore’ your locations through drawing or making notes, or do you just let the world unfold along with the story?

Vashti: I’m quite a visual person when it comes to my world-building so use lots of images to help create the setting in my imagination. I love Pinterest for this, and create boards for all of my stories. Sometimes, if an image captivates me but I don’t have the right story for it yet, I save it to an ideas board for later use. It’s amazing how a whole story world and theme can be grown from a single image. I also draw maps of my worlds as it helps me bring the geography of the world to life. It may sound peculiar, but it feels as though the very act of drawing a map magically creates the word in a far away galaxy! It also helps me on a practical note of working out the movement of the story and how the characters progress from place to place, how long it takes, what they’ll experience, and what’s going to get in their way. I also like to make a glossary of place names and terms unique to the world I’m building as on a practical level it helps for consistency as well as making sure the naming matches the vibe of the world atmosphere. Having said that on the pre-planning, I do let the world unfold as I go along too and I love the dance that goes on between planning and spontaneous world details that unfold as you write. While I’m writing I constantly go between my images, maps and notes to adapt and refine them.

Crowfall is standalone (at the moment…) and FloodWorld is part of a series. One of the joys of world-building is knowing you can dive into any number of places with any number of characters to tell a story — will your next book will be a third in the series and what might readers expect from book 3, (without spoilers, of course!), and will book 3 conclude the series? Also, would you like to explore similar themes in other stories? In essence, I’m snooping! Can you give us a hint about what you’re working on beyond the Flood World series?

Tom: I’m a big map drawer too! Though my skills as an illustrator are pretty feeble and not suitable for public consumption (that’s why I have the amazing Jensine Eckwall to draw my maps). But you’re right, it really helps make the world of the story feel concrete, and helps me visualise things much more clearly.

In answer to your question – yes! The third and final book in the trilogy, StormTide, is out now. I won’t give away too much, except to say that it’s a fittingly epic end to the saga, with apocalyptic threats and giant sea battles and some pretty cool oceanic trench action! It feels great to have brought the series to its conclusion – I’m going to miss the characters, but I’m happy with where they all ended up. Beyond Floodworld I’m working on a number of other projects – a series for younger readers that’ll be coming out next year, a book for adults that I’m just in the planning stages of, and a book for the same age group as FloodWorld that’s proving a tough nut to crack – but it’s an idea I love, so I’ll keep at it. Most of my time these days is spent wrangling my new baby, but I’m hoping to find more time to write as the year goes on…

Vashti Hardy is a writer of children’s books spending her time between Lancashire and Sussex. She was a primary school teacher for several years, and has a special interest in children’s writing, especially free-writing and the use of journals and creating fantasy worlds. Now a successful children’s author, Vashti’s breathtaking middle grade fantasies are published across the world in several languages. Wildspark won the Blue Peter Book Award ‘Best Story’ in 2020 and the FCBG Children’s Book Awards and Brightstorm was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, Books are My Bag Awards, among others. Brightstorm was also selected for Independent Booksellers Book of the Season and both Brightstorm and Wildspark were selected as Primary School Book Club Reads.

Tom Huddleston is a writer, musician and film journalist best known for his FLOODWORLD series of futuristic, climate-themed adventure stories. He currently lives in London. Tom is the author of several books for children including instalments in the STAR WARS: ADVENTURES IN WILD SPACE and WARHAMMER ADVENTURES series. Published in 2019 by Nosy Crow Books, his FLOODWORLD trilogy combines thrilling action with themes of ecological disaster and social inequality.

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Solastalgia: climate change nostalgia by Linda Woodrow

I didn’t know I was writing solarpunk. My aim was to write hard science fiction, to see if it was possible to communicate climate science in a way that actually cut through, by writing it into a novel, a bit like hiding vegetables in the two-year-old’s spaghetti sauce. I’m a list maker. I started out with spreadsheets full of carefully constructed plotlines and folder after folder of research. But then my characters took over. They didn’t want to be victims and they weren’t cut out to be heroes, but there was no holding them back.

Adam Flynn, in his ground-breaking 2014 Hieroglyph article “Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto” defined solarpunk as being about ‘ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community’ in the face of crisis, and this is what the characters in my novel 470 discovered. They went off-script. They refused to be the ‘ordinary people’ encountering a hyperobject that they couldn’t understand or control, as I had planned for them. Whatever corners I tried to back them into, they refused to even try to look realistic stuck there. They milled around refusing to do anything much, making me get up from my writing desk and go for long furious walks until I let them ditch that whole chapter and take the plot where they wanted.

‘470’ starts in the near future in a world become precarious. There is a sense of normal being a little bit off, the uncanny flicker of a system on the edge. Characters go about their everyday lives looking over their shoulders and waiting for the next unprecedented thing to happen. There is nothing for them to do but to keep trying to act as if, this year or next, things will go back to normal and they can make some progress in their lives. “It’s as if we’re all trying to get some momentum in quicksand”, Zanna thinks while she serves ice cream into bowls for her dinner party guests.

The cyclone that displaces Zanna is a local manifestation of a systemic tipping point as one in a thousand year events become one in a hundred, then one in ten, tripping over themselves as they follow hot on each other’s heels. The cyclone is just the little bit of the elephant Zanna can see, and just one of the triggers for a cascade of social and economic consequences across the globe. There is a breakdown in economic and social institutions that throws the characters back on their own resources.

But it also creates an opening, an opportunity. I thought they would flounder. I wanted to give them some kind of hero’s journey against insurmountable odds. But to my surprise, it is almost as if there is a sense of relief. The spell is broken. There is no more waiting for normal to reassert itself. Normal wasn’t working anyhow. They aren’t happy about it and it isn’t easy. (‘470’ is, after all, still based in solid climate science, and anyhow, what would a novel be without giving characters trouble?) Transitions are painful, especially the kind of major, paradigm shift they are thrown into. There are moments of despair and self-pity, but there is never a moment in which they look like giving in to victimhood.

In response to the crisis, the characters in ‘470’ explore a large number of adaptation strategies – it is difficult to imagine people doing anything else. In their world, they are simply solving immediate personal issues of food, safety, health, transport, energy, medicine, communication. However, to do so they must adapt to a world in which familiar sources and institutions are no longer available, familiar social and political arrangements fail, and familiar relationships with the natural world are lost. They need to invent new ways to relating to the world, and do it on the hop without leaders or models. In finding the answer in ‘ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community’, they made me, unintentionally, a solarpunk novelist.

‘Solastalgia’ is a word I love, such a useful word. It was coined by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht to mean the distressing sense of displacement and nostalgia for what is lost brought about by climate change. It is a sense of unwelcome change, grief for the loss of a loved place and time, along with loss of the comfort, familiarity and sense of belonging that it holds. It is nostalgia for the remembered beauty of the world before.

‘470’ holds the hand of characters experiencing, adapting to, and mitigating it. They worry about loved ones, make difficult decisions about child-bearing, try to figure out their personal and moral responsibility for strangers, grieve the loss of orangutans, frogs and reef, and solve the daily challenges needed to survive in a world where their familiar modes of being are disrupted. Near the end of the book, Zanna finds herself “sitting on the beach with salt water running down her face”, crying for “the whole wounded world”. But even as she does so, there is a sense that despite real grief, there is also relief and hope and even joy to be found. Her tears also celebrate “her own fragile luck.”

When I started out with all the spreadsheeted plotlines, I imagined I was going to write a novel about climate change mitigation, the things we together need to do to limit the climate crisis, and the risks of not doing them. One of the things the characters in ‘470’ taught me, once I let them have their head, was that adaptation and mitigation go hand in hand to the same place. The things Zanna and the other characters do to adapt are also mitigation strategies. Which is good, because I didn’t want to find out they were just recreating a system where personal survival and wellbeing comes at the expense of the entire tangled delicate web of life on this planet.

After the first shock, Zanna surprises herself feeling “strangely liberated” – no obligation to see through deals, no winding up with clients. The monkey grip of capitalist consumption that seemed inescapable was washed away in that same cascade of natural consequences. In the process of just trying to figure out how to live a good life in this new normal, Zanna and her community discover for themselves the tiny germ of a better good life than the one lost. Unformed, unfinished, unexplored, but full of hope, and carbon negative.  

“Eudaimonia’ is another word I love. It comes from the Greek, and means a good life, a well-lived life, with enough material possessions but not so many as to mug you of the real joys and meanings in life. The term is used to apply well-being theory to the economics of climate change mitigation. The argument is that we have been focussing too much on the supply side in figuring out how to beat climate change. We’ve investigated all sorts of green energy sources and ways of mopping up carbon, but we haven’t looked hard at the demand side – at whether it is actually necessary, or useful, or pleasurable to release so much in the first place. We haven’t seriously questioned, or at least put enough effort and thought into finding out, what makes an eudaimonic life, and whether our carbon-producing consumption adds anything to it.

That’s changing. The IPCC now uses the term. The argument is that a focus on eudaimonia can have a real world effect on climate change. If the lowest cost options for combatting climate change are the lowest cost in terms of eudaimonia rather than GDP, everything changes. “I miss the ocean so much”, says Zanna, near the end of the novel as they plan a trip to the beach. What she misses isn’t the economic, or even the “ecosystem services” it provides. She misses something much less tangible, a deep human relationship with the natural beauty and joy of it. If we rank this kind of value alongside economic value, then the whole equation shifts.

The extension of this idea that is of interest to cli-fi novelists is the effect of imagining eudemonia in a climate changed world. Maybe creating fictional worlds in which characters live eudaimonic lives can have a real-world effect, an inspiring vision, a picture of a kind of life to aspire to. Which is where solarpunk as a genre sits.

I wish I could have just put my characters there. It’s one of the hardest parts of being a novelist, creating characters you love and care about then giving them trouble and pain. It feels quite sadistic. But I had to get them somehow, from here to there, and to be true to climate science, there’s now no easy way. They showed me though, that there is a way, with courage and active hope and a good measure of luck, through crisis, solastalgia, and despair to love, worthwhile work, beach holidays, kids, birthday parties, eudaimonia.

You can find out more about ‘470’ here.

Linda Woodrow is a Northern Rivers NSW based writer, researcher, and food gardener. She is the author of 470 (Melliodora Publishing, 2020) and The Permaculture Home Garden (Penguin, 1996). She lives in a home-built, off-grid house and checks on the platypus in the creek most days.

Plant magic & the climate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some important things you can personally do, right now:

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

-change your energy supply to a green energy tariff

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

Good luck!

You can find out more about Green Rising here.

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

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

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