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Donna Glee Williams, author of fantasy novel The Night Field, talks to Marjorie B. Kellogg, author of the science fiction dystopia Glimmer.
DONNA GLEE: Hi, Marjorie—
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When I read a book, questions always bubble up that I wish I could ask the author. I’m delighted that our Climate Fiction Writers pairing gives me a chance to ask you about your impressive 2021 near-future dystopia Glimmer (DAW, 2021). In the novel, you go to considerable pains to explore the physical, social, and psychological realities of a world reshaped by cataclysmic climate change. Why do you think it’s important to commit this act of imagination and to show that world to your readers?
Hello, Donna Glee—
Wonderful to have the chance to talk with you about our books! As for world-building, I have always been drawn to expressions of the senses, to color and texture, smell and sound. And because, as living beings, we share the sensual experience, this seems to offer a compelling common language for storytelling. Even when writing in the fantasy genre, these have been my touchstones, with the aim of making the world of the book as alive and immediate, and therefore, as convincing, to the reader as possible.
And 'convincing' matters when it comes to climate fiction because I feel people have distanced the whole subject of climate change because it's too big and in many ways too abstract for them to come to grips with, to find their personal relationship with, even though it’s going to impact them on a daily basis. Turning your eyes away from something generally leads to ignorance and inaction. So, in Glimmer, my goal was to imagine the reality of climate change, to bring it right home, by evoking a place that is familiar (a New York City that could be any city) but changed by circumstances not too hard for the reader to put themselves in. If they can feel that place wrapping its sensual realities around them as they read, surely they can better grasp the truths of climate change as it will affect their own, very personal future.
DONNA GLEE: Absolutely. The great Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, in the four Berlin Lectures which became his book The Great Derangement, marvels at this same disconnect between “the truths of climate change as it will affect their own, very personal, future” and people doing what you call “turning their eyes away” (The lectures are available on YouTube, starting here.)
MARJORIE: Interesting that you mention the Ghosh book. When I read The Great Derangement, I agreed with his charge that visual artists were not paying much attention to climate change, but I was a bit peeved that he seemed to accuse all writers of the same lapse, as if denying the long history of science fiction and fantasy books where weather and climate take a major part in theme and action (and before ”climate fiction” was an accepted term). What about J.G. Ballard or Frank Herbert or Ursula LeGuin or Kim Stanley Robinson? Now, of course, Stan is often called the father of climate fiction, but the others? The work they did doesn’t matter, because they were genre?
DONNA GLEE: Ghosh’s weakest logic was around his comments about science fiction. In his Berlin Lectures, it sickened me to hear such a fine intellect simultaneously assert that climate change is the biggest issue of our moment, that only science fiction is dealing substantively with it, and that “serious fiction” isn’t dealing with it at all; clearly, for him, the categories of science fiction and serious fiction are mutually exclusive. At the end of the first lecture, in the Q&A, he actually responds to someone asking him why he didn’t write a certain scene by saying, “If I were to work that tornado into a story, I would be thought to be writing science fiction and The New York Times wouldn’t review my book.” And he grinned and laughed. (For the record, The New York Times has reviewed Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Sheri S. Tepper, Andy Weir… I’ll stop now, but I could go on. )
MARJORIE: Nor does he consider the possibility of what you’ve created with your 2023 The Night Field (Quercus): serious fantasy that carries a climate message. For instance, I admire your strong emphasis in the novel on teaching against current practices. Your protagonist Pyn-Poi knows she can only convince people to change their toxic farming methods by showing how things can be done differently and by getting results. Is this a hint at how you think we should be teaching and convincing about climate change?
DONNA GLEE: More than just a hint, I hope; although The Night Field is a fantasy novel, it is steeped in solid, real-world EcoTipping points theory, particularly the “ingredients for success” essential to triumphant environmental healing. Dr. Gerald Marten, the author of Human Ecology and founder of the EcoTipping Points Project, has spent a lifetime gathering ecological success stories and analyzing them to see why certain efforts get the job done while many others flop. One of the characteristics of effective ecological restoration is that it is often triggered by outside stimulation. You know that Albert Einstein quotation, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it?” Well, ecological restoration successes seem to require some kind of input from a viewpoint that is foreign enough to bring fresh insights, but intimate enough with the problem to really understand the nuts, bolts, and nuances involved. My main character Pyn-Poi is meant to be that kind of insider/outsider who can bring new thinking to Tract Eleven. And I would say your main character Glimmer could be seen as an insider/outsider also.
MARJORIE: Certainly, as are all the den-dwellers by definition, as well as anyone else attempting a life in a flooded, resource-scarce city. Where business-as-usual is no longer an option, invention becomes a necessary tool for survival. Outsiders with limited options are more likely to come up with new norms and social structures based on the existing conditions, i.e., the new reality, rather than holding on to old habits, traditions, laws, or beliefs that are no longer viable. I’m looking at that more closely in the book I’m currently working on: farmers who refuse to adjust to climate change vs. those who see the only choice is to embrace the new reality and adapt.
DONNA GLEE: Another of Dr. Marten’s “ingredients for success” is something else you mentioned: Rapid results. Once you start letting Nature do the work of restoration, then quick results, right from the beginning, help to mobilize community commitment. The positive results begin cascading through the social system and the ecosystem. Then normal social, economic, and political process can take it from there, flipping vicious cycles into virtuous cycles—and my Pyn-Poi hears frogs in her night field.
These “ingredients of success” are so central to the plot of The Night Field that Dr. Marten has crafted a set of questions for discussion to dial up the novel’s power as a tool of environmental education. Readers can find them here.
Getting back to your Glimmer, Marjorie—I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hero’s Journey lately. It’s been over seventy years since Joseph Campbell described it in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces. So much has changed since then, and I wonder how our vision of the Hero’s Journey needs to alter for a post-patriarchal world. What is your own relationship to the Hero’s Journey? How do you see it in your book? (Or your life?)
MARJORIE: We are each the Hero of our own Journey, of course, and it’s always fun and maybe even revealing to try to line one’s own life up with the progressive stages of Campbell’s Hero. But I think my protagonists generally feel themselves swept along by the currents of life, rather than having much control over its direction—certainly that’s how Glimmer sees it, so maybe that’s how I feel about my own journey. And truly, do we yet live in a post-patriarchal world?
DONNA GLEE: Not by a long shot. A very long shot. But some of us are writing in that direction.
MARJORIE: I do fear that the more lawless and chaotic the world gets, the more men’s superior physical strength will win out…again.
DONNA GLEE: Unless the new challenges call for other kinds of strengths, maybe: emotional intelligence, collaboration, endurance, and resilience. There is more than one kind of power.
MARJORIE: Of course. And one I always grant my protagonists is the power of making the moral choice, however they might see it—the choice of not going along just because that’s what’s easy or what others are doing. The moral choice can also be what seems to offer the most future potential—for the protagonist or for all—and so those choices can change the flow of events for the better…though they might not always lead to a happily-ever-after resolution.
As both a reader and writer, I’m finding myself less and less willing to buy into only-this-hero-can-save-the-world scenarios. So it was satisfying that you chose to have Pyn-Poi show the way but not pull a brave new world out of her hat like a magician (or a Hollywood movie). Much more believable, and therefore, much more possible to accept as a model for real-life behavior and real-life change.
DONNA GLEE: You know, Marjorie, I actually tried for that one-person-saves-the-world hat-trick—Campbell’s Heroes have to bring the boon back to their people, right?—but the more I wrote in that direction, the tackier and less authentic the story felt. I finally let the story go where it needed to, and that was obviously not in a traditional Hero’s Journey. The idea of co-heroes and tag-teams of heroes is more faithful, as you mentioned, to how change actually happens in what we laughingly call The Real World.
MARJORIE: Of course, we must allow our heroes (and our readers) a satisfying conclusion! Bringing salvation home to your family, village, town, perhaps even country, seems well within imagining. It’s saving the universe single-handedly that I have trouble crediting. For one thing, humans are too diverse for one hero’s magic to offer salvation for everyone. In Glimmer, for instance, the solution is reached by rival dens being forced to work together in order to survive. It’s workable and satisfying but clearly temporary because it doesn’t solve the Big Problem, climate change. The solution will keep evolving, along with the climate until, in some hopeful future, both can find a mutual equilibrium.
DONNA GLEE: Campbell’s Hero’s Journey also neglects the Heroes who stay home—Penelope at her loom, you know? I wrote the home-staying story, but then bowed to the pressure of the Hero’s Journey template and stripped it out to keep my book short, tight, and focused on Pyn-Poi. But in the last stages of editing, Jo Fletcher (the near-shamanic genius who edited Ursula K. LeGuin for seventeen years) told me we needed some circling back to the people who stayed home. I found a way to boil their Hero’s Staying down to its essence and deliver it in a series of dream-visions towards the end of the book.
MARJORIE: And, in the end, the People choose to leave the Real for the deeper jungle. What’s the significance of this choice? Is it about the inevitability of climate migration?
DONNA GLEE: What an interesting point, Marjorie; I truly hadn’t thought about this consciously until you asked the question, but I’d have to say yes, yes, it is. Pyn-Poi’s success wasn’t instantaneous, and humanity’s won’t be either. Even if we slam on the brakes of carbon emissions right now—and there seems to be no hope of that happening—it will take years and possibly generations for the Earth’s warming spiral to stop. We, like Pyn-Poi’s People, are going to be dealing with the human consequences of shortsighted stupidities for years and possibly generations, finding places for the displaced and hoping like hell that enough diversity (genetic, cultural, and intellectual) has survived to give humanity the resilience to adapt and go on.
MARJORIE: Definitely for generations, especially as there is no real sign of a global willingness to change our habits of consumption and overpopulation. We’re eager to control each other’s lives – see the rise of the alt-right and dictatorships around the world—but not ready to control our excesses. In Glimmer, the darkest corners are inhabited by people focused entirely on feeding their worst appetites, without regard for the future of the planet. Diversity, adaptability, resilience, and reduced population should be our goals now, yet so much of the world is grasping at old straws.
BTW, in your novel, the cotton monoculture might be seen as a metaphor for racial segregation, and Pyn-Poi’s night field as a vision of a healthy-because-diverse society.
DONNA GLEE: You know, on a systems level, diversity is diversity, whether you are talking about crops, intestinal bacteria, genes, or people. It’s a basic requirement for resilience. Monoculture like Pyn-Poi saw on the Tract is not resilient: witness the history of the potato. For almost 10,000 years, the potato has been a solid, dependable food source in the Andes where there are thousands of varieties. But the small handful of varieties that were introduced to Europe didn’t have the genetic diversity to fight off the challenge of the Blight in the mid-1800s—and over a million people died of hunger. In the same way, if we don’t preserve a rich variety of human cultures and ways of being, we will tragically limit our options for facing the inevitable challenges of climate change in front of us. Yes, racial segregation impoverishes our choices, and a diverse society gives more choices for adapting and surviving.
MARJORIE: And it’s not just agriculture! The mega-corporate interests encourage a global monoculture of fashion and consumption. Diverse cultures and tastes are their enemy—they complicate the one-size-must-fit-all market. Going back to the idea of outsiders as our heroes, who else will lead us away from mindless mono-consumerism?
In Glimmer, when the oceans began invading the city streets, the various dens formed along strict cultural lines—very tribal, like grouping with like, each with their strengths and weaknesses—but the lethal weather plus a vicious common enemy requires them to accept their differences—in fact, to put those differences to use (“From each according to his ability…”) to forge a common road toward a more sustainable existence.
Lately, with the smoke and the wildfires and the heat waves and the melting and the flooding, I find myself recalling James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which induced a lot of giggles back in the 80s when he first introduced it but makes total sense now (sadly, just as he has passed away). Earth is clearly fighting back, not so much as a sentient intellect but as a natural, integrated mechanism reacting against the terrible things we’ve done to her…and continue to do. The idea that humans were created to subdue and control Nature is ignorant and egomaniacal. We need to work with and within Earth’s natural systems, not against them, but that will first require learning and even more important, accepting what behavior is sustainable and in sync with those systems.
Taking a breath, is this a good place to ask if you’re planning a sequel to The Night Field, to let us know what will happen to Pyn-Poi’s knife and feathers?
DONNA GLEE: I’m glad you asked that. I love leaving stories open for my readers to imagine what happens after the last page, but in The Night Field, I’m hoping that it will be more than just imagining. I’m hoping that readers take any love or admiration that Pyn-Poi has sparked in them to fuel their own passionate quests for environmental healing. I want them to pick up those feathers—the Mothers’ feathers—and that blade—the Fathers’ blade—and step out on their own quests. I want them head upstream, listening to the voices of the Trees, and find the source of the problem that is theirs to fix.
MARJORIE: Excellent. Very much a shared goal among writers of climate fiction, I believe. In a recent post elsewhere, I said that if reading Glimmer changed even one person’s mind about the importance of addressing climate change and inspired them to take action, I will have done my job.
Marjorie B. Kellogg leads a double life as theatrical set designer and writer, especially of climate fiction. Her books include Glimmer (2021), Lear’s Daughters, the four books of The Dragon Quartet, Harmony, and A Rumor of Angels. Locally, she is Editor of The New Franklin Register and has written short stories and many articles for theatrical publications. She was Associate Professor of Theatre at Colgate University from 1995 – 2017, and spent 45 years designing Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theatre productions. See www.marjoriebkellogg.com
Pushcart Prize-nominee Donna Glee Williams is the author of the eco-fantasy The Night Field (Jo Fletcher Books, 2023). The imagined societies of that and her other novels, The Braided Path and, Dreamers, owe a lot to her years of wayfaring on four continents. Her essay “The Moons of Le Guin and Heinlein” appears in the Hugo Award-winning collection Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950-1985. In the past, she’s worked as turnabout crew on a schooner, librarian, environmental activist, registered nurse, educator, and creative coach. These days she mostly walks in the woods, writes, and leads dream-groups in her little cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, forever drunk on the isoprene exhalations of the trees.
Climate Fiction Writers League is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.