Putting a Positive Spin on Rising Sea Levels

by Clare Rees, plus an interview with S J Morden about his new release Gallowglass

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.

You can find out more about Jelly here.

CLARE REES 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. She has a particular interest in, and has carried out research into, the development of literacy skills across the curriculum.

New Release

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.

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.

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]