Writing Fiction in the Age of Climate Catastrophe: A Conversation Between Anne Charnock and James Bradley




HOW DO WRITERS address climate catastrophe, and where do they place climate within their fictional narratives? Two writers, Anne Charnock and James Bradley, face up to this challenge in novels published in 2020. They compare notes about their different approaches in this exchange of emails.

British writer Anne Charnock began her writing career in science journalism and has published four novels, winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Dreams Before the Start of Time (2017). Her latest novel, Bridge 108 (2020), follows a young climate migrant who has escaped wildfires and drought in a future Southern Europe. The story is set in a post-Brexit England in a shadow economy, and is told through multiple voices, including those of a trafficker and the people who incarcerate this unaccompanied migrant and put him to work.

Australian writer James Bradley is an essayist, critic, and the author of four novels, including Clade (2015) and The Resurrectionist (2008), two novels for young adults, a book of poetry, and The Penguin Book of the Ocean (2010). He won Australia’s Pascal Prize for Criticism in 2012. His new novel, Ghost Species (2020), which will be published in May, focuses on a cloned Neanderthal child, and explores a series of questions about connection and loss and planetary trauma against the backdrop of hastening climate catastrophe.

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ANNE CHARNOCK: Climate change is hitting the headlines every day, and the ongoing wildfires in your home country are the latest in a run of catastrophes that are raising the level of public anxiety and galvanizing many people, if not their politicians, into action. I wonder when, for you, climate change emerged as a distinct issue and as a driving mechanism for planetary change. Did you decide straightaway to write a novel with climate at its core?

JAMES BRADLEY: It was definitely a conscious decision. I’ve actually been writing about climate change in nonfiction, and tangentially in fiction, for almost as long as I’ve been writing (my 1999 novel, The Deep Field, takes place in a world where the climate is changing), but in the mid to late 2000s I found myself thinking about it more and more, and over time that began to bleed into my fiction. I suspect that was partly because the sense of urgency around the subject was increasing, but I suspect it was also about being a parent, and my growing concern about what the world my kids were going to grow up in would be like. I think in the first instance that question of what it might feel like to grow up in a world transformed by climate change (and the sense the subject was something I needed to be writing about) was what drove the idea of writing Clade (2015), but I quite quickly found myself trying to think through a whole series of other questions about temporality and possibility as well.

AC: What kind of possibilities were you questioning? Were they mainly pessimistic?

JB: Mostly the idea of political possibility, or at least the notion that although a lot of what is coming is already unavoidable, the future isn’t set, and the choices we make have the capacity to shape it, for better or worse. As for whether it’s pessimistic or not, I’m not sure that disjunction between pessimism and optimism is terribly useful in the context of environmental crisis; what’s more important is being prepared to accept the reality of where we are, and learning to work within that without succumbing to despair or engaging in magical thinking about “fixing” climate change. That’s why it’s sometimes a little odd to me when people talk about Clade being hopeful, when in fact it’s pretty unsentimental about what’s coming. But I suspect what they’re responding to is the way it refuses to treat that unsentimentality as an endpoint, and instead emphasizes ideas about human connection and continuity to remind us history will keep happening, whatever we do.

That sense that history keeps happening is built into the structure of your previous novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time (2017), but it’s also very much a part of Bridge 108 (2020), and the way it treats climate crisis as only one of the factors that shape its world. I love that sense that the future is never about only one thing, but I wondered whether the decision to put climate crisis at the center of the novel reflects a conscious shift in your practice as a writer. Or would you see it as a natural evolution from the questions of parenthood and continuity you explored in Dreams?

AC: It’s difficult to unpick the story of my writing practice. With each novel I try to address a specific question and keep the focus pretty tight. I asked myself back in 2001, when I started writing A Calculated Life (2013), if we were likely to face a schism as a species based on intelligence and selective cognitive enhancements. At the outset, I decided to shift the climate of the north of England — the setting for the novel — to a Mediterranean, Tuscan climate. Rainfed agriculture is replaced by irrigated crops, olive groves and citrus orchards. On the face of it, England is a climate change “winner” in this novel. But I alluded to climate migration, with climate refugees working as indentured labor in the UK to gain the right of permanent residence.

I too felt the sense of urgency that you refer to, partly because of the increasing incidence of erratic weather patterns and partly because of a growing public awareness. In addition, my elder son moved to rural Portugal where wildfires are a persistent problem. In two wildfire outbreaks in 2017, 114 lives were lost. I have helped my son to thin out the more combustible trees on his plot and cut back vegetation along his roadside to meet new fire regulations. So I’ve had wildfires on my mind for several years. I decided to return to the world of A Calculated Life to write a companion novel, Bridge 108, to tell the story of a young climate refugee, Caleb, who leaves a drought-ridden Spain and is trafficked to England where he becomes a modern-day slave working for a recycling clan. I tell the story partly through Caleb’s voice and partly through the voices of adults he meets along his journey, some of whom can be read as both victims and persecutors. It’s a standalone novel with a different set of characters to those in A Calculated Life. However, one scene in the first novel is rewritten in the second novel from a new character’s perspective. That was fun to write!

As such, Bridge 108 does not seem a natural successor to Dreams Before the Start of Time, which imagines the impact of advances in genetics and reproductive technologies such as artificial wombs on human relationships, on society. (It’s the unintended consequences that fascinate me.) But all my fiction to date attempts to interrogate the boundaries between science, the political and the personal. And both Bridge 108 and Dreams imagine how the gap between “the haves” and “the have-nots” could become ever wider. In writing terms, they have similar fragmented structures — multiple viewpoint characters, jumps in the timeline — as is the case with your novels, Clade and Ghost Species.

In Ghost Species, I admired the subtle theme of dislocation, with multiple characters who are dislocated from their past either by choice or circumstance. This neatly mirrors Eve’s extreme dislocation from her Neanderthal origins. And the repeated refrain, “It’s a long story,” reminds me that Eve’s story is the longest of all!

Obviously different writers have different approaches, but I wonder how you feel about how to situate climate change within fictional narratives — foreground or background, realist or fantastical, dystopian or postapocalyptic? How has your own approach shifted, and why?

JB: Yes! I’m always a little uncomfortable talking in specific terms about the ways particular books come into being, because it makes the process sound much more linear and coherent than it actually is. But the use of fragmented structures is interesting. When I started Clade in early 2011, there really wasn’t much fiction engaged with climate change and environmental crisis, and as a result there weren’t many models to draw upon, and those there were — such as Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010) — were mostly bad, or in the sort of dystopic thriller mode that something like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) inhabits. I knew from the outset that wasn’t what I wanted to do: instead I wanted to write something that was realer, somehow, more grounded in everyday experience, but simultaneously engaged with bigger, more planetary questions.

The problem, I quickly realized, is that climate change is incredibly difficult to write about. Not just for all the obvious reasons to do with its gradual nature and inhuman scale, but because of its unboundedness, or what Amitav Ghosh has called “the inescapable continuities” of the Anthropocene. And that sense that climate change touches everything, and exceeds the kinds of temporalities humans normally inhabit meant that I quickly realized the subject was impossibly huge, and in some real sense writing a novel about climate change was like trying to write a novel about everywhere and everything.

The solution I came up with for Clade was to switch that problem around, and instead of trying to write a book about everything, writing quite a small story about a family across time. I think at the outset I thought that would let me come at the problem from different directions, and to capture a longer view by showing change over time. But once I was working on the novel, I realized it was useful in other ways as well: on the one hand shifting viewpoints and characters let me focus in on the affective dimension I wanted to capture, but it was also very effective at showing the incremental nature of change without me needing to foreground it.

What’s interesting to me is that I’m not the only writer who’s ended up using that kind of narrative structure. You use it in Dreams Before the Start of Time, but it’s also there in books such as Australian author Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland (2017), Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (2010) — which is one of the really exemplary early instances of what we now tend to think of as climate fiction — and David Mitchell novels such as Cloud Atlas (2004) and The Bone Clocks (2014), to mention just a few.

I think there are probably a couple of things going on in this retreat from unitary narrative. One is writers developing a set of narrative conventions capable of engaging with the peculiar challenges of writing about climate change and environmental crisis. But I suspect it’s also another example of the way climate crisis resists and disrupts narrative more generally. Because even these kinds of narrative structures impose a kind of order and shape on something that exceeds human comprehension.

AC: I have always thought of fragmentation as a form that mirrors the complex lives we now lead. And Rachel Cusk in her essay collection Coventry (2019), writes about Virginia Woolf’s suggestion that shorter, fragmented, interrupted fiction could become a female literature, “for interruptions there will always be.” I’m not convinced that still holds, but it’s an interesting point. I agree that a discontinuous form works well for narratives on climate catastrophe, allowing the author to switch setting and switch voice, staccato in style, without warning. The reader may struggle to keep up, but isn’t that how we all feel with the onslaught of climate news from around the world? Each story declaring “the hottest,” “the wettest,” “the most destructive.” I’ve recently read a good example of this staccato approach, Stillicide (2019), a short and poetic novel by Cynan Jones about a future UK suffering from acute water shortages.

JB: I love the idea of a staccato approach! One of the things I admired most about Bridge 108 was the structure, and the way it kept moving from character to character, because it allowed the book to be both extremely intimate but also to create the sense of getting glimpses of a much larger world. Was that your intention from the start?

AC: Yes. I felt from the outset that the novel wouldn’t work if written solely from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old boy, even though he reaches the age of 17 by the end of the story. (I’m not sure, personally, I’d find that novel interesting to write.) I decided to write in first-person, present tense throughout, so that the reader is plunged into each new viewpoint. I hoped it would feel intimate, while delivering the bigger picture. And I agree that fragmentation is an effective tactic in dealing with the “unboundedness” of climate change that you mention, and which Amitav Ghosh has interrogated.

Naturally, following on from Ghosh’s nonfiction work The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), I was eager to know how he himself would tackle climate change in his latest novel, Gun Island (2019). This too has a fragmented structure with settings switching between the United States, India, and Italy, and with characters from a wide range of backgrounds — a rare-book dealer, a marine biologist, a refugee, and a trafficker, as though he too wishes to capture the “everything and everywhere” nature of climate catastrophe. Gun Island also seems to reflect his skepticism about realism. Specifically, in Derangement, he calls on scientists to embrace the improbable as opposed to the rational, since the world is experiencing highly improbable climate events. (This reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s writing about outlier events — statistically at the ends of the probability bell-curve — in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable [2007]). So, in Gun Island, which is set in the present day, Ghosh incorporates Bengali legend and a number of audacious coincidences in the latter part of the novel, as though distancing himself from rationality. Gun Island has given me much to think about as I draft my new novel.

JB: Absolutely. Gun Island is a really interesting reminder that the sort of fragmentation and mutation we’re talking about isn’t just about narrative fragmentation, it’s also about deeper kinds of rupture and transformation. That’s something you see very clearly in the work of people like Jeff VanderMeer and Karin Tidbeck, both of whom use the weird and the uncanny to capture the way environmental crisis dislocates and unhinges reality, and the rise of the eerie and various kinds of ghost stories and hauntings (a phenomenon VanderMeer and Robert Macfarlane have both written about very eloquently). I also think there’s a more fundamental dislocation at work, though, in the way the Anthropocene and climate crisis overwhelm narrative and rationality altogether. That collapse of meaning is difficult to think about, let alone write about, but you see it emerging in the critiques of modernity and progress embedded in the work of people such as Paul Kingsnorth and Roy Scranton, and in a fictional context in some of the weirder and more confronting fiction coming out of the UK at present.

AC: Yes, I’m also struck by the suitability of short form for “unhinged” narratives. This distancing from rationality is seen in an extreme form in a collection of short stories Lost Objects (2018) by Marian Womack, which offers intensely dark, “weird,” or surreal visions of environmental degradation. Are you interested in pushing these kinds of conceptual and narrative fragmentation further in your own work?

JB: Oddly enough I’ve written quite a bit of fiction that’s relatively weird or surreal, but it’s almost always short form, which I think has something to do with the difficulty of sustaining that kind of conceit across something as long as a novel.

In terms of it as a narrative technique, I suspect it really depends on the project. With Ghost Species, I ended up using a discontinuous narrative rather like the one in Clade, although this time the time frame is a lot shorter (25 years rather than 60 or 70), and the focus is much narrower. But although the structure is similar, the book as a whole feels quite different from Clade. In Clade, I was trying to create a structure in which motifs and ideas recurred and echoed each other across the novel, and a lot of what mattered happened in the gaps between what was on the page, almost like a piece of music. But with Ghost Species I wanted a book that felt like a stone skipping across water, and was almost weightless somehow.

I think I wanted that weightlessness because Ghost Species is, in many ways, a much darker and more despairing book than Clade. Some of that comes out of the personal material about addiction and damage at the heart of the novel, and the idea so many of us end up reiterating our childhoods. But it’s also because the consolations it offers are very limited, and it is, at some level, very much about endings and the letting go of illusion. Somehow that sparseness and cleanness seemed the best way to confront that, at least in this book. It also meant that I decided to keep a lot of the really bad stuff in the background, so it’s inescapably present but also happening elsewhere, at least until it’s happening right here, right now. I think — I hope — that by doing that the novel captures some of that sense of anxiety and dissonance that now infects so much of our lives, something that’s been painfully clear over the past few months in Australia, where even if you haven’t been directly threatened by the fires you’re constantly aware of them because of the smell of the smoke and the weird light.

Bridge 108 does something very similar by deliberately consigning a lot of the usual business of climate fiction to the background. People mention firestorms and things, but you don’t see them, they’re just part of the fabric of the world. That makes space for the novel to ask slightly different questions about what the factors that might shape a climate changed world might be, but it also helps collapse the boundary between lived experience and the world of the novel. Were you conscious of that sense of hastening disaster as you wrote?

AC: Certainly, my family’s ongoing concern about wildfires in Portugal came into play! However, writing Bridge 108 seemed to grow out of a long, steady accumulation of experience. I studied environmental sciences, including meteorology and hydrology, at the University of East Anglia soon after the department set up the Climatic Research Unit. So I’ve always picked up on climate-related news, and I reported on renewable energy technologies throughout my time in journalism. I also reported on agricultural practices in the extreme climates of the Middle East — meeting farmers of both small-scale hydroponics and vast irrigation schemes. In a way, writing Bridge 108 (and A Calculated Life) felt like a reworking of all that experience.

Equally, my writing builds on my later experience as a practicing artist, and on the research I carried out in art history. This is particularly the case for my second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (2015), which reflects on women’s lives in the present day and the past, through the eyes of a future art historian. In a more immediate way, Dreams Before the Start of Time collapsed “the boundary between lived experience and the world of the novel” on a number of levels. The opening chapter, as the simplest example, mines the strange anxiety and responsibility I felt toward an apple tree in my back garden, which I overlooked from my writing desk. That anxiety set a tone, and the chapter as a whole set a frame, for the rest of the novel.

It’s fascinating to learn how you arrived at the form and tone for Ghost Species. The novel has a pervasive atmosphere of unease, which lifts momentarily when you focus on the loving relationship between the scientist, Kate, and the Neanderthal child, Eve. These moments are fleeting because the reader senses that this close relationship is under threat, just as the wider world in Ghost Species is on the verge of environmental and ecological rupture.

With each novel, I look forward to a new challenge in terms of structure and atmosphere. I don’t know if you’d agree that some of the decisions we take as novelists feel instinctive as much as they are strategic, especially when establishing tone. With my work-in-progress, I too have returned to a more linear story and a shorter span of time. There’s a single narrator as opposed to the switching points of view of all my previous work, bar my first novel. So far, the tone of this work-in-progress seems more subdued, with a sense of distance between me as writer and reader, to the events on the page. A “this is how it happened” feeling.

To date, I have stuck fairly close to plausibility and realism in my novels, keeping close to everyday lived experiences whether in the past, present, or future. In my climate-related fiction, none of my characters is a scientist as I keep the science in the background. This is a personal preference. Other writers successfully foreground the science and scientists in their fiction, and in those cases the science element doesn’t actually dominate but is balanced by strong characterization. Kate in Ghost Species, for example, feels totally authentic, and I felt I knew her well, and became 100 percent invested in her story as a geneticist. Recently, I was also impressed by how Richard Powers includes a tree scientist, Patricia Westerford, in his climate-change novel The Overstory (2018). Her backstory is so powerful that her strand in this multi-stranded novel has stayed with me. So, what is your thinking about how you position science within your novels?

JB: The Overstory is an extraordinary book, and I’ve always been in awe of the seamlessness with which Powers synthesizes science and speculation, especially in novels like Generosity (2009) and The Echo Maker (2006) (he’s also genuinely interested in the interplay of science and art, and in books like The Time of Our Singing [2003] and Orfeo [2014] manages to create fictional artworks that are as plausible as the fictional science in his other novels).

I suppose there’s a not dissimilar process at work in a number of my books — my second novel, The Deep Field, has quite a lot of semi-imaginary science and art in it, and The Resurrectionist is about 19th-century surgeons and anatomists, and is concerned with questions about life and death and mortality — but both Clade and Ghost Species have a slightly different relationship to science, because rather than being a metaphor or a device, it’s one of the structuring factors that defines the worlds they depict.

But while the science helps set the parameters of the narrative in both books, I deliberately took a fairly flexible approach to scientific accuracy, so while most of what happens is broadly plausible, I didn’t feel like I needed to have complete fidelity to the research. In Ghost Species, for instance, there’s a sea level pulse driven by the collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf, and sea levels rise by several meters over a year or two. Obviously that’s much faster than it’s likely to happen in real life (although as we’re beginning to discover, change can often be much more abrupt than we expect), but it was more dramatically effective if it happened reasonably quickly, not just because its effects would be more concentrated and direct, but because it echoed some of the ideas about the inexorability and inescapability of particular kinds of collapse the book is grappling with. Likewise the central conceit of Ghost Species — the idea that we might be able to resurrect Neanderthals from ancient DNA — is probably scientifically impossible, but it’s metaphorically incredibly resonant, so I didn’t allow the facts to constrain the story.

AC: I agree! The facts can only take you so far when you’re writing fiction. I gain a great deal of satisfaction from doing the research, whether that research takes place before I start drafting, or is carried out on the hoof. For Bridge 108, I looked into a whole bunch of subjects in addition to climate change — hydroponics and the potential for large-scale aquaponics, the immigration system, detention systems at home and abroad, living off-grid, et cetera. In A Calculated Life, I took a bigger leap by imagining a future world where biological simulants are manufactured and leased to corporate and government departments, but I did so to examine the nature of our humanity. But when I sit down to draft any story, I push the research aside and concentrate on the characters and their journeys. At a later stage, I consider if the story fits reasonably well with the research, but I try not to agonize over it. Of course, if the story isn’t constrained by the facts, a writer is open to criticism. How do you feel about that?

JB: I suspect my approach to the science irritates some readers. I remember one reviewer complaining that the chapter in Clade in which the birds are disappearing was impossible because it would lead to a global ecosystem collapse. But quite aside from the fact we’re now seeing some of those sorts of collapses, I think that kind of literalism misses the point. Novels, and especially novels with science fictional elements, aren’t supposed to be accurate in any narrow sense, they’re supposed to give us access to new ways of thinking about the world, and to communicate various kinds of experience. How we do that varies from book to book and writer to writer: Kim Stanley Robinson writes brilliant fiction that’s carefully grounded in science, while Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction is populated by impossibilities, but they’re both entirely legitimate approaches. So as far as I’m concerned, writing about birds disappearing isn’t about summarizing research, it’s a way of giving shape to ecological grief.

On the flip side though, reality is changing so fast it can trip you up in other ways. A number of the scientific predictions I relied on in Clade have already come true, often much earlier than anybody expected even a few years ago, and in a couple of cases things I just made up, and were pure science fiction in 2013 or 2014, are now reality.

That sense reality is outpacing fiction grows more pronounced every day. When I was writing Ghost Species, I had fire on my mind a lot of the time, and it’s a constant presence in the novel. But I ended up doing the editing in a city choked with smoke from the bushfires that have devastated Australia’s eastern seaboard over the past few months. Working on a book that’s so concerned with the idea of imminent catastrophe amid the horror of an actual catastrophe was incredibly dislocating and uncanny, but it was also weirdly confronting, because it brought all my anxieties about writing fiction in a time of crisis back to the surface. Does art actually achieve anything? Can it help make a difference? Or is that the wrong question to be asking? Does that sense of pointlessness and despair ever strike you? Or do you have ways of keeping it at bay?

AC: I do experience those moments. A wave of dread seems to wash over me. In this context, I’m reminded of a character in my first novel, A Calculated Life, who tries to explain how people assess risk (based on my reading of Taleb’s The Black Swan). She says that when primitive man lived on the savannah the risk of death was high, but the types of risk were limited in number. Our intuition on certainty and uncertainty was formed then, and it’s inadequate now because life is too complex. In effect, she says, people have to get on with life as though the risks aren’t there. I suppose I’m not immune to that. In those moments when I do feel a wave of dread, I experience an uncanny sensation — the blinkers come off and I say to myself, “So it’s true after all, we’re out of luck, and all this will end badly.”

However, I do more or less keep these moments in check because feeling this way is not going to solve anything. In 2006, I helped to start a grassroots project in the village where I lived with the aim of going carbon neutral as a community. We pooled our ideas on energy conservation, lifestyle changes. We were fortunate to have the support of the University of Chester’s geography department, who monitored our carbon footprint over the next 10 years. It’s been amazingly successful and has gained huge media attention, even being featured on the front page of The New York Times. The Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral Project resulted in individual households cutting their carbon footprint by between 25 percent and 40 percent. The community has now installed solar panels and set up a community energy company that provides free electricity for our local school. So that journey continues, and we do feel it’s been a boon in terms of helping with mental health, something we hadn’t anticipated. It lessens anxieties when we know we’re doing something (though we can always do more), and even though we still want our politicians to be bolder, braver, and more honest.

I greatly admire Kim Stanley Robinson’s moral stand in offering a glimmer of hope, of optimism. I suppose my writing is a little less optimistic, though I aim for an open-endedness, which allows for the possibility of redemption should the reader wish for that. To date, I have stayed clear of writing postapocalyptic fiction — as you have too, James — because I wouldn’t want to suggest that we’re doomed and we might as well give up. Again, it’s a personal choice. I remember the author Tricia Sullivan arguing convincingly at a book event that postapocalyptic fiction is an indulgence when so many people in the world are in fact living in conditions that are certainly dystopian and not far from apocalyptic. So, to answer your question, I’d say that we can only do what we can do, keeping our spheres of influence in mind. If we have writing skills and the necessary imagination, we can conjure an array of possible visions of the future for others to consider.

JB: Absolutely. I often think coming to grips with climate catastrophe is a bit like grieving, and we have to move through denial and anger and bargaining toward some kind of acceptance. But we also need to understand that acceptance in this context isn’t a passive state. Instead, it involves a lived awareness of the reality we inhabit. That demands we learn to live without illusion, but it also means recognizing our obligations, not just to each other, but to the planet and to future generations. Doing that is incredibly difficult, and demands humility and courage. But it also demands empathy and kindness. Fiction and art have a part to play in that process. Sometimes that will involve bearing witness, or giving shape to what being in the world we inhabit feels like, or helping us understand people and lives and perspectives unlike our own. But it can also be about refusing us the consolations of despair, and demanding we take on the hard work of finding a way forward.

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Anne Charnock won the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2018 for Dreams Before the Start of Time, and the British Science Fiction Association Award for Short Fiction 2017 for The Enclave. Her latest novel, Bridge 108 (2020), is published by 47North.

James Bradley is an author and critic. His books include the novels WrackThe Deep FieldThe Resurrectionist, and Clade, a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, and The Penguin Book of the Ocean. His new novel, Ghost Species, is published by Hamish Hamilton.

 

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