Decentring the Human in Climate Fiction
by Piers Torday, plus Jamie Mollart interviews Mark Smith about his activism YA
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.
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.
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.