Interview with S J Morden

Gallowglass by S J Morden was published this month by Gollancz. I talk to the author of the adult sci-fi novel about his new release, and his motivations for writing about climate change.

Tell us about your new book.

Gallowglass is a standalone near-future SF thriller about commercial asteroid mining – if you want an elevator pitch, think “Treasure Island in Space” – and while it’s set in the same timeline as my previous books One Way and No Way, there’s only a couple oblique mentions to events in those books.

We’ve moved into the second half of the 21st century, and private corporations are slowly colonising Cis-lunar space: it’s a real gold rush scenario, with fortunes to be made but often on the back of some terrible working conditions that can and do kill people. Regulation is almost non-existent and what there is tends to be ignored if it gets in the way of profits. Throw in a multi-trillion dollar asteroid, a crew of blue-collar miners with dubious pasts and a captain who is far from what he seems, and there’s ripe conditions for a lot more than shenanigans.

How does climate change play into the plot?

In two main ways. Firstly, it provides a backdrop to what’s happening out in space – whole populations (mainly poor, mainly brown or black) are being shifted north or south by increasingly intolerable summer temperatures, while rich northern and southern countries are desperately trying to preserve what they have by throwing up barriers at their borders and mitigating climate effects within them. Secondly, it gives motivation to the more mercenary-minded crew that if they can just hit one big payday, then they can sit above the chaos on their pile of money. Some of the characters are a lot more altruistic than that, but there’s a core belief in all of them that cold hard cash in their own hands is better than it being in someone else’s.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

As with all my books, but this series especially, I’ve left no stone unturned in my search for scientific veracity: hard SF uses science to force the characters to make choices that otherwise they wouldn’t if the background was a little more flexible. There’s no hand-waving away problems – this is Macguyer or die territory. My spaceships are, while fictional, the kind of thing that we can either build now, or are looking to build in the future, and I’ve spreadsheets and plans and delta-v calculations and everything: orbital mechanics can be singularly unforgiving.

Asteroid microgravity is something that I’ve theoretically known about, but when coming to actually write about it, is the most terrifying thing ever. Not enough gravity to help, but just enough to really ruin your day. And that’s before the cohesiveness of the asteroid itself is considered. The whole place is a deathtrap waiting for a mistake.

But most relevant here is that at the start of every chapter is a quote – all taken from primary sources, all cited – about climate change: the science, the opinions, and the way private briefings within the petrochemical industry contrasted with their public press releases. You’d almost think there was a deliberate covering up of the problem, from back in the 1950s and onwards.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change?

I think the first book I read that had what could be described as environmental themes was probably Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). Arrakis is a desert planet whose indigenous people dream of a wet, fertile world, but the rest of galaxy relies on to remaining dry as it is the only source of the drug Spice.

There were other early books too: JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) and John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes (1953). What’s striking are their publication dates: climate change and people’s reactions to it have always been a topic for fiction – it’s far from a new thing. I suppose it’s only over the last decade that it’s become politicised, although that’s not the fault of the science, nor of those who follow it.

Can you remember when your journey with climate activism started?

I studied geology at university: that conditions on Earth were always in flux was simply a given, but it was taught that the climate changed only gradually, over millions and tens of millions of years. Overlaid on that was the newer idea that volcanic events and meteorite strikes could disrupt the climate in a very short time and that those effects would last for thousands and tens of thousands of years.

The realisation that human activity could fit between those two timescales, that over the course of two to three hundred years produce not just a measurable effect, but an existential and global threat, was just coming into view while I was studying for a PhD in the late 1980s. A speaker from the UK Meteorological Office came to the department to give a lecture, laying out the foundational science and trying to extrapolate trends into the future. Those early predictions are now seen as rather optimistic and generous, but I still remember the sense of disquiet I had afterwards. Then as the 90s progressed I kept up with the science. Honestly, it’s not looking good, is it?

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

It’s problematic. People tend to react to the crisis in front of them. If there’s an earthquake or a fire or an industrial accident, then it’s much more straightforward to plan and then behave appropriately. Climate change is a slow-motion disaster, and it’s almost impossible to comprehend its seriousness because of its decades-long timescale. Even when we accept its scientific validity, it remains in an emotionally-distant future.

Which is where fiction comes in. By telling stories that are set in that future, our emotions are engaged – the theoretical becomes a vicarious reality, and it helps us re-orientate ourselves and our expectations. When we feel it in our bones, that tomorrow is not going to be the same as today, we can start making long-term decisions.

Of course, all this is moot to those who are already in crisis: in poverty, in precarious employment and housing, struggling to keep food on the table and the lights on. Too many people are rightly distracted by their current conditions to worry about what might happen in ten years or twenty years.

What message do you hope readers will take away from your work? What steps would you like them to take to be more involved in climate activism?

Oh, this is hard, because I don’t want them to take away a ‘message’: novels are for entertainment, and if I wanted to preach, I’d find myself a pulpit. But the idea that art is somehow value-free and apolitical is nonsense on a stick. Obviously, I’ve brought things into the plot that I want to discuss, that I want to explore and dissect, and I want my readers to be engaged in those topics too, better to understand their own views, and yes, perhaps to challenge them. Most of all, I want them to experience what the characters are going through, so that they can incorporate them in their own experiences. That’s how we change and grow as human beings. Someone who’s never read a book lives just one life.

The most constructive act that someone can do at the moment is simply this: vote for a political party that takes climate change seriously, and has a plan to (not going to say ‘fix it’ because I think we’re beyond that point) reduce its effects by a rapid decarbonisation of the economy. Climate change isn’t something we can solve as individuals: it’s a global problem and it needs a global solution.

You can find out more about Gallowglass here.

S. J Morden

Gateshead-based Dr Simon Morden trained as a planetary geologist, realised he was never going to get into space, and decided to write about it instead. His writing career includes an eclectic mix of short stories, novellas and novels which blend science fiction, fantasy and horror, a five-year stint as an editor for the British Science Fiction Association, a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Awards, and regular speaking engagements at the Greenbelt arts festival.

Putting a Positive Spin on Rising Sea Levels by Clare Rees

It was a work-avoiding youtube wormhole. I can’t now remember what work it was that I was trying so hard not to do- marking, cleaning, lesson-planning maybe- but I was definitely being successful. I’d probably started off on a comedy cat video, but somehow, within a few clicks I’d ended up watching highlights from a Trump supporter rally. I can still remember that ‘don’t click you’ll only hate yourself’ feeling but, meh, why else do you watch youtube? I clicked.

A MAGA cap-wearing man was standing facing the camera with a stadium of flag-waving people behind him. Everything he said elicited cheers from the crowd, and all of his statements were short. It was the usual series of vague promises I think- but then he started to talk about climate change. And unusually, he was fully prepared to concede that climate change was real. It was at this point that I started to pay attention properly. Not only was it real and happening he admitted, but it was A GOOD THING (cheers from the crowd). It was happening in America right now he told them, and that’s fine, because it had already happened before in the Bible (more cheers. Lots of flag-waving).

In the Bible, he reminded us, God had razed whole cities to the ground due to their immoral behaviour. The MAGA speaker was, of course, specific and strangely enthusiastic about what that behaviour was, but I can no longer recall the details (indeed, as I’m writing this during lockdown, it just makes me feel jealous). God had also made sea levels rise before (cheers). Yes, sea levels rising was nothing new, the speaker reassured the crowd, because Noah and his family had faced that exact challenge. God had made sea levels rise in the past as a way of washing the earth of sin, and getting rid of all of the sinners (epic cheers). He finished by reassuring the crowd that America was ready  for climate change, sea levels rising, and it would be fine because God would take care of them, just as he had taken care of Noah in the Bible.

It wasn’t so much rage I felt, as absolute shock. I couldn’t believe there was somewhere people genuinely thought a Noah’s ark situation might be a good one for humanity or the world. I can only assume the stadium, and the speaker, were quite a long way inland, and maybe somewhere mountainous. I’d never met anybody like that and was shocked that so many people obviously thought drowning billions of people was a sensible idea- or were confident that they’d be some of the ones to survive. I spent  a couple of days muttering to myself when stopped at traffic lights, or when pushing the trolley round the supermarket, but then- and I get that this is how conspiracy theories/ extremism work- I started wondering whether maybe it had really happened before. Whether the MAGA man could be right, and if Noah’s ark could possibly be true.

It was a short skip from that to writing a book about a group of people trapped on top of a giant, killer, jellyfish following sea levels rising (plus, maybe, a couple of other missing stages). Jelly’s take on Climate Fiction is deliberately silly and bizarre- but then so was MAGA man’s. I think it’s important to explore our climate change future by looking at the possibilities in a range of different ways, and sometimes we can consider change the best when looking at things through absurdities. I also don’t think a climate change future is entirely bleak, because that’s not how humans work.

Gallows humour is a key feature of some very important books:

·        The Decameron- frame narrative is set in the black death

·        A Modest Proposal- satire about the poverty in Ireland

·        Candide- includes the Seven Years War and the Lisbon earthquake

·        Catch 22 (and so many other war satires, including Blackadder)

In the coronavirus nightmare we’re currently living, humour has been a coping strategy for many.  I think humour is going to be a key feature of how we deal with climate change- as it is a key feature of how humanity has always approached negative situations. Gallows humour has been what has got many of us through the past year and, yes, if there ever was actually a zombie invasion, my survival plan does include a couple of dad jokes (What do vegan zombies eat? GRAAAIIIINNS. Where in the house is the best place to hide from a zombie? The living room).

What MAGA man and his youtube clip of horror did remind me, is that we as humans always deal with situations differently- both in terms of our reactions to them, and also in our solutions. We can see that right now in the way different countries have dealt with the current pandemic, or even in people’s differing attitudes to whether the vaccine is a good thing or not. I think books offer us a safe way of exploring those possible futures and solutions without having to actually deal with them- which is why I think Climate Fiction is particularly important.

Despite coronavirus, it’s climate change that is probably the most important issue of our lives, and the lives of future generations. And if we’re at the stage now where even radical Trump supporters can fill stadiums by talking about it, then it’s a pivotal concern even to groups who have previously denied its existence. Hopefully it won’t result in mythological sea monsters rising from the deepest parts of the ocean with the intention of killing us all, but it is unlikely that the experience will be as good as MAGA man and his supporters hope.

Books obviously won’t prevent ecological disaster, but they will help us think about it and explore both the human consequences and strategies for survival. Some of that survival will depend on being able to see humour and absurdity in the world because, for some people, that’s a way of coping with disaster.

So, why are sea levels getting higher? Because the sea weed.

Twitter: @ClareRees3

Clare Rees

Clare is the Head of English in a Berkshire school. She has enjoyed a varied career so far, including spending two years teaching in Ethiopia and seven years in inner London comprehensives. She loves working with teenagers and is particularly keen on the aspects of her job which involve the promotion of reading and writing for pleasure.

Clare holds an MEd in International Education and an MA in Late Medieval Literature, and has had educational resources published by Pearson, AQA, Teachit and Zigzag. These have included co-authored books, lesson resource collections and teaching units. She has also written education articles for The Independent and ‘Secret Teacher’ blogs for The Guardian. She has a particular interest in, and has carried out research into, the development of literacy skills across the curriculum.

Jelly is her first novel and was published by Chicken House in August 2019.

Climate Change in the News

Lauren James Launches Climate Fiction Writers League [Tor] – an interview about this newsletter, and taking inspiration from the Women Writers Suffrage League

If you’d like more climate fiction in your inbox, check out journalist Amy Brady’s monthly newsletter Burning Worlds, where she interviews writers and artists who are thinking about climate change in their work

Lorde’s essay on travelling to Antarctica to learn about the climate crisis firsthand [Rolling Stone]

Temperature analysis shows UN goals ‘within reach’ [BBC]

Why Science Fiction Authors Need to be Writing About Climate Change Right Now by League member Charlie Jane Anders [Tor]

Writing Fiction in the Age of Climate Catastrophe: A Conversation Between League members Anne Charnock and James Bradley [LA Review of Books]

What I learned from preparing for the end of the world by League member Carys Bray [The Guardian]

Interview with Cara Hoffman

The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield by Cara Hoffman was published this month by HarperCollins. I talk to the author of the middle grade novel about her new release, and her motivations for writing about climate change.

Tell us about your new book.

The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield is an environmental fable about frog and his doctor cousin who live in a Louisiana swamp. Their lives are happy until many of the creatures in the swamp become sick and it’s up to them to find out the source of the illness and protect their world. I couldn’t have anticipated when I started writing a second children’s novel about a singing frog, a mysterious illness and an uprising—that we would be living with a mysterious illness, with multiple uprisings throughout the country, and that our children would be confined at home, audience to the collective anxiety of the nation; to California burning; to the tears of parents who lost jobs, family, faith in better society. Children live and adapt to the terrors of the adult world.

Part of the reason I wrote The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield is because Children alive today have the biggest challenge in front of them—adapting to the climate crisis. And adults should respect the depth of their burden, support them and also give them cause for joy because joy helps assure survival. As a writer, and just as a fellow creature on this planet, the most important work I can be doing now is in aiding the people who will be left with the crisis—helping them to understand it and withstand it.

How does climate change play into the plot?

The narrative arc of the novel is about a changing landscape, extinction events and then discovering the source of the problem and working together, even with people you disagree with, to help fix that problem. Most of all I wanted kids to see that the red and blue, the binary, the black and white world that has taken over the collective imagination in our country can change. We can work with people we disagree with to make a world in which all can live. I wanted to write about resourcefulness: lemmings who can sew their own parachutes, frogs who can hop trains, and water rats who can outwit alligators. We all need a little of that resourcefulness right now in taking on the climate crisis.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

I researched the bayou and did extensive research on frogs. Most of the research for this book was part of work I had done as an environmental reporter.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change?

Elizabeth Kolbert’s work is some of the most important on climate change. I try to avoid book on the subject that are dystopic, stick to what’s realistic. There is an amazing book for children written by the astronaut Sally Ride, Mission: Save the Planet which looks at the interdependence of ecosystems. This message is essential for kids—we’re all in it together. As Tubs says, “A creature is a creature.”

Can you remember when your journey with climate activism started?

I worked for about twelve years as an environmental reporter in the rust belt and in rural New York State. This kind of reporting is mostly covering corporate crimes; illegal dumping—and sometimes all too legal dumping by industries. I covered racist and class-based redlining that causes increased cases of cancer and other illnesses in certain neighborhoods. I covered industrial farming practices that cause ocean dead zones and soil erosion, extinction, and illness among humans. It was an education.

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

The climate crisis is going to affect everyone personally, whether they are directly experiencing it right now or not. Fiction as a form of art is how humans engage with experiences and emotions beyond those of their immediate circumstances, and it’s how many people come to understand the landscape of their own emotional lives, and learn about other lives and other places. As an act of communication, and a way of communing with and thinking about other beings it’s hard to improve upon.

What message do you hope readers will take away from your work? What steps would you like them to take to be more involved in climate activism?

There are lots of things kids can be doing. The most important thing is changing the way we think about the environment. taking time to be in nature if it’s possible, taking time to notice other forms of life and seeing how interconnected our environment is. The earth doesn’t belong to people, people belong to the earth. I’ve been interested in this project through the National Forest Foundation where people are planting fifty million trees. They are replanting trees everywhere in the country from Florida to Alaska. Their goal is to repopulate the forests. Trees of course help filter carbon out of the atmosphere and help clean the air. Forests help filter and supply water and provide homes for animals of all kinds. They help provide a healthy habitat for four hundred species—including humans. I’d encourage kids and their parents to google the National Forest Foundation to find out more.

You can find out more about The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield here.

Cara Hoffman

Cara Hoffman is the author of Running, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, an Esquire Magazine Best Book of 2017, and an Autostraddle Best Queer and Feminist Book of 2017. She first received national attention in 2011 with the publication of So Much Pretty which sparked a national dialogue on violence and retribution and was named Best Suspense Novel of the year by the New York Times Book Review.

Her second novel, Be Safe I Love You, was nominated for a Folio Prize, named one of the Five Best Modern War Novels by the Telegraph UK, and won a Sundance Institute Global Film Making Award.

Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Paris Review, Bookforum, Rolling Stone, Salon and NPR and she has been a visiting writer at Columbia, St. John’s and Oxford University. She is the recipient of a number of awards and accolades including a MacDowell Fellowship, an Edward Albee Fellowship, and a Cill Rialaig Fellowshp. She is the author of the classic children’s novel Bernard Pepperlin.

She currently lives in Manhattan and Athens, Greece with Marc Lepson and is at work on her fourth novel.

But we all know this stuff. Don’t we?

by Marcus Sedgwick

Almost exactly 20 years ago, I was writing what would become my first published novel, Floodland. Set in a future Britain in which rising sea levels from climate change have seen half of the country disappear under the waves, it came out in March 2000. Obviously, the publication of one’s first book is an intense thing, and there are lots of memories, but one thing that happened surprised me at the time. When the book was published, that year, it was very wet in England. (This is not the thing that surprised me, that’s coming.) In fact, there were epic floods across the country and it was making national news. Such apt publicity for a book release is clearly tricky to arrange – never mind that the kind of flooding I was writing about in the book, due to sea levels rising, was not the kind of flooding that was occurring that spring, which was due to excessive rain fall and rivers bursting their banks as a consequence. Though both, of course, are a consequence of climate change. What surprised me was that many people said to me, quite genuinely, how clairvoyant I must have been to write a book about flooding just before it was about to happen.

To be honest, I found this ridiculous – climate change is not a new story now, and it wasn’t a new story 20 years ago either. (Theories of climate change stretch back to the early 19th century.) The very fact that my slim novel had grown out of a request from a publisher for short stories about climate change showed that this was on lots of people’s minds. But in the strange (I thought) reaction I received to my book’s theme, I learned something important – just because we might think something is well-known, accepted scientific fact, doesn’t mean everyone does.

That’s why it’s very important that we continue to speak (even at risk of boring ourselves) about the vitally important matters that need to change in the world – in this case, climate change. And of course, the best way to do this is to work with younger people.  Most adults, once they have made up their mind about something, never change it, regardless of how ill-informed their choice was, how sparse or incorrect the information they based their decision on. And frankly alarming experiments into confirmation bias show us that once made, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, most people stick to whatever they have decided is ‘right.’

It is for this reason that I was delighted that Floodland was later accepted as part of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s Power of Reading project, and has been actively used in primary schools for most of its life. The work that CLPE do across the board is both powerful and well thought out. Kicking against the pricks of successive ill-informed education ministers with their unworkable and ineffective schemes – phonics, ‘learning objectives’, all the National Curriculum box-ticking exercises – CLPE produce excellent material that primary teachers can use in the classroom, based around the use of ‘real’ books, which are read in their entirety over the course of a term, perhaps, and then explored and expanded in a variety of ways: through art, drama, science, music and so on. The work I am still sent every week from teachers who’ve worked with the book makes me happy enough; the letters I get from young students bring tears to my eyes.

Incidentally, thinking back to confirmation bias, other research shows that people’s minds are more easily changed by fictional accounts (ie books and films) than by factual accounts (ie news stories and scientific pieces). So working with books like the ones on this site is a genuinely positive step for change.

That’s why I am pleased to be able to offer here the CLPE’s (recently updated) scheme of work for Floodland, for you to share with whichever primary teachers you happen to be, or know. Thank you to CLPE for offering this work gratis. If you’re interested in Primary Education, you probably already know about their work, but if not, go here and see more of the resources they have to offer.

Link: Free Floodland resource from CLPE

By Marcus Sedgwick (May 2018, Updated November 2020)

MARCUS SEDGWICK is a writer of novels for adults, novels for younger people and of non-fiction. He even published a couple of picture books once but that’s a secret. He is winner of many prizes, most notably the 2014 Michael L. Printz Award for his novel Midwinterblood.

Climate change fiction by Marcus includes Snowflake, AZ and Floodland.

Climate Fiction in the News

The Ministry for the Future is the most important book I’ve read this year [Vox]

12 Great Books on Climate and Environment to Gift This Holiday [EcoWatch]

The forgotten environmental crisis: how 20th century settler writers foreshadowed the Anthropocene [The Conversation]

Climate Fiction in the news

Recommended books:

STILLICIDE By Cynan Jones (New York Times) – “In “Stillicide,” the through-line is an iceberg headed for London. The novel opens many years after Britain has entered an extended drought, and enough time has passed for one phase of responses to yield to the next. After becoming a target for terrorists, a pipeline to the city has been replaced by a train that carries millions of gallons of water from a distant reservoir, equipped with automatic guns to mow down any moving object near the tracks.”

THE NEW WILDERNESS By Diane Cook (The Guardian) – “Above all, she seems to ask: how will we regard one another once the climate crisis finally becomes the uncontested crucible of our time?”

A CHILDREN’S BIBLE By Lydia Millet (Grist) – “There was just this sort of righteous rage about climate and extinction and other matters of monolithic stature that I hadn’t really observed in my own generation at their age, or even now. People of my general age bracket, we just had this kind of complacency to us. For as long as I can remember, we’ve been willfully turning away from anything that seems overly dramatic, overly earnest, overly serious. I wanted to write about the way that might play out in this particular scenario, where I populate a summer house with this group of families.”

EJECTED By Dawn Pape (Female First) – “Non-fiction books detailing the horrors of climate change abound. But the solutions in these books are often brief, superficial, and too often presented in a textbook-like, unengaging manner. My goal was to create a story with relatable characters who naturally weave complex social and political aspects of climate change together.”


Climate Fiction Festival (Literaturhaus Berlin) – 4th – 6th Dec 2020, online – see their “Why cli fi?” article

Climate fiction shifts readers’ beliefs

Climate fiction competition results

Everything Change Climate Fiction Contest announces winners, forthcoming anthology

With the world on fire, climate fiction no longer looks like fantasy

Ten Eco-Fiction Novels Worth Discussing – “Eco-fiction is a cross-genre phenomenon, and we are all awakening—novelists and readers of novels—to our changing environment. We are finally ready to see and portray environment as an interesting character with agency.”

8 best climate emergency books to help you better understand the crisis