Solastalgia: climate change nostalgia
by Linda Woodrow, plus Tom Huddleston and Vashti Hardy discuss their latest Middle Grades
I didn’t know I was writing solarpunk. My aim was to write hard science fiction, to see if it was possible to communicate climate science in a way that actually cut through, by writing it into a novel, a bit like hiding vegetables in the two-year-old’s spaghetti sauce. I’m a list maker. I started out with spreadsheets full of carefully constructed plotlines and folder after folder of research. But then my characters took over. They didn’t want to be victims and they weren’t cut out to be heroes, but there was no holding them back.
Adam Flynn, in his ground-breaking 2014 Hieroglyph article “Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto” defined solarpunk as being about ‘ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community’ in the face of crisis, and this is what the characters in my novel ‘470’ discovered. They went off-script. They refused to be the ‘ordinary people’ encountering a hyperobject that they couldn’t understand or control, as I had planned for them. Whatever corners I tried to back them into, they refused to even try to look realistic stuck there. They milled around refusing to do anything much, making me get up from my writing desk and go for long furious walks until I let them ditch that whole chapter and take the plot where they wanted.
‘470’ starts in the near future in a world become precarious. There is a sense of normal being a little bit off, the uncanny flicker of a system on the edge. Characters go about their everyday lives looking over their shoulders and waiting for the next unprecedented thing to happen. There is nothing for them to do but to keep trying to act as if, this year or next, things will go back to normal and they can make some progress in their lives. “It’s as if we’re all trying to get some momentum in quicksand”, Zanna thinks while she serves ice cream into bowls for her dinner party guests.
The cyclone that displaces Zanna is a local manifestation of a systemic tipping point as one in a thousand year events become one in a hundred, then one in ten, tripping over themselves as they follow hot on each other’s heels. The cyclone is just the little bit of the elephant Zanna can see, and just one of the triggers for a cascade of social and economic consequences across the globe. There is a breakdown in economic and social institutions that throws the characters back on their own resources.
But it also creates an opening, an opportunity. I thought they would flounder. I wanted to give them some kind of hero’s journey against insurmountable odds. But to my surprise, it is almost as if there is a sense of relief. The spell is broken. There is no more waiting for normal to reassert itself. Normal wasn’t working anyhow. They aren’t happy about it and it isn’t easy. (‘470’ is, after all, still based in solid climate science, and anyhow, what would a novel be without giving characters trouble?) Transitions are painful, especially the kind of major, paradigm shift they are thrown into. There are moments of despair and self-pity, but there is never a moment in which they look like giving in to victimhood.
In response to the crisis, the characters in ‘470’ explore a large number of adaptation strategies – it is difficult to imagine people doing anything else. In their world, they are simply solving immediate personal issues of food, safety, health, transport, energy, medicine, communication. However, to do so they must adapt to a world in which familiar sources and institutions are no longer available, familiar social and political arrangements fail, and familiar relationships with the natural world are lost. They need to invent new ways to relating to the world, and do it on the hop without leaders or models. In finding the answer in ‘ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community’, they made me, unintentionally, a solarpunk novelist.
‘Solastalgia’ is a word I love, such a useful word. It was coined by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht to mean the distressing sense of displacement and nostalgia for what is lost brought about by climate change. It is a sense of unwelcome change, grief for the loss of a loved place and time, along with loss of the comfort, familiarity and sense of belonging that it holds. It is nostalgia for the remembered beauty of the world before.
‘470’ holds the hand of characters experiencing, adapting to, and mitigating it. They worry about loved ones, make difficult decisions about child-bearing, try to figure out their personal and moral responsibility for strangers, grieve the loss of orangutans, frogs and reef, and solve the daily challenges needed to survive in a world where their familiar modes of being are disrupted. Near the end of the book, Zanna finds herself “sitting on the beach with salt water running down her face”, crying for “the whole wounded world”. But even as she does so, there is a sense that despite real grief, there is also relief and hope and even joy to be found. Her tears also celebrate “her own fragile luck.”
When I started out with all the spreadsheeted plotlines, I imagined I was going to write a novel about climate change mitigation, the things we together need to do to limit the climate crisis, and the risks of not doing them. One of the things the characters in ‘470’ taught me, once I let them have their head, was that adaptation and mitigation go hand in hand to the same place. The things Zanna and the other characters do to adapt are also mitigation strategies. Which is good, because I didn’t want to find out they were just recreating a system where personal survival and wellbeing comes at the expense of the entire tangled delicate web of life on this planet.
After the first shock, Zanna surprises herself feeling “strangely liberated” - no obligation to see through deals, no winding up with clients. The monkey grip of capitalist consumption that seemed inescapable was washed away in that same cascade of natural consequences. In the process of just trying to figure out how to live a good life in this new normal, Zanna and her community discover for themselves the tiny germ of a better good life than the one lost. Unformed, unfinished, unexplored, but full of hope, and carbon negative.
“Eudaimonia’ is another word I love. It comes from the Greek, and means a good life, a well-lived life, with enough material possessions but not so many as to mug you of the real joys and meanings in life. The term is used to apply well-being theory to the economics of climate change mitigation. The argument is that we have been focussing too much on the supply side in figuring out how to beat climate change. We’ve investigated all sorts of green energy sources and ways of mopping up carbon, but we haven’t looked hard at the demand side - at whether it is actually necessary, or useful, or pleasurable to release so much in the first place. We haven’t seriously questioned, or at least put enough effort and thought into finding out, what makes an eudaimonic life, and whether our carbon-producing consumption adds anything to it.
That’s changing. The IPCC now uses the term. The argument is that a focus on eudaimonia can have a real world effect on climate change. If the lowest cost options for combatting climate change are the lowest cost in terms of eudaimonia rather than GDP, everything changes. “I miss the ocean so much”, says Zanna, near the end of the novel as they plan a trip to the beach. What she misses isn’t the economic, or even the “ecosystem services” it provides. She misses something much less tangible, a deep human relationship with the natural beauty and joy of it. If we rank this kind of value alongside economic value, then the whole equation shifts.
The extension of this idea that is of interest to cli-fi novelists is the effect of imagining eudemonia in a climate changed world. Maybe creating fictional worlds in which characters live eudaimonic lives can have a real-world effect, an inspiring vision, a picture of a kind of life to aspire to. Which is where solarpunk as a genre sits.
I wish I could have just put my characters there. It’s one of the hardest parts of being a novelist, creating characters you love and care about then giving them trouble and pain. It feels quite sadistic. But I had to get them somehow, from here to there, and to be true to climate science, there’s now no easy way. They showed me though, that there is a way, with courage and active hope and a good measure of luck, through crisis, solastalgia, and despair to love, worthwhile work, beach holidays, kids, birthday parties, eudaimonia.
You can find out more about ‘470’ here.
Linda Woodrow is a Northern Rivers NSW based writer, researcher, and food gardener. She is the author of 470 (Melliodora Publishing, 2020) and The Permaculture Home Garden (Penguin, 1996). She lives in a home-built, off-grid house and checks on the platypus in the creek most days.
Eco-fiction for kids
Writing eco-fiction for children presents a unique set of challenges. How much about the ongoing climate crisis can kids fully understand? And how do authors write about it without the stories becoming too grim and downbeat?
Vashti Hardy and Tom Huddleston have both woven ecological themes into exciting adventure stories for children aged 8 and up. In Hardy's mysterious and lyrical new book Crowfall, a boy living on an overpopulated island discovers the dark secret that keeps his isolated world running - and sets out on an ocean voyage to another island where people appear to live in harmony with nature. In Huddleston's action-packed FloodWorld trilogy (FloodWorld, DustRoad and the new instalment StormTide), two street kids living in a flooded city of the future stumble upon a secret map and are hurled into a world of seagoing pirates, terrorist plots and blockbuster adventure.
We asked the two authors to interview each other about the joys and difficulties of writing climate fiction for younger readers, their inspirations as writers, and what they've got coming up next.
Tom: Hi Vashti! I've been reading the wonderful Crowfall and was wondering, when did you first decide that you wanted your new book to explore ecological themes? Did that idea come first, or did you start more with the world and/or the characters?
Vashti: Hi Tom, great to be chatting about our eco-themed books together!
The idea for Crowfall came before the world. Originally, the concept of a huge, living, breathing, sentient organism, known as the Eard in Crowfall, was part of a different world in a story I wrote called The Seer. It wasn’t published, but it was the book my agent signed me for about six years ago. I always knew that the core idea was worth exploring, I just had to find the right world and characters for it. Since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between humans and the natural world and the way that humans often see themselves as superior to and separate from nature, considering animals, plants and minerals as resources to be exploited for humankind. There are some big questions that arise from this: our responsibility to nature, the planet, resources, our relationship with technology, etc. The idea of this great sentient creature, part plant, part animal-like, which can live symbiotically with humans, grew from these musings. Often the best lens to explore the big questions of the world is through fantasy and children’s fiction, because it allows the space for big ‘what ifs’, with added fun and adventure, so taking the Eard and growing Orin’s world and personality around it seemed to work well.
On that note, I’d like to ask you about your gripping Flood World series. I listened to Flood World and Dust Road on audiobook recently and I’m so glad I discovered them and I love Kara and Joe. It seems fitting to ask you where the ecological themes for your books arose from, was it the concept or world first? And I’d also like to ask you why a children’s book felt like the right place to tell the story?
Tom: For me, it was definitely the world first. I had this idea of the flooded city, of people living in the upper stories of tower blocks and on walkways linking them together, this huge floating slum. To me that was just an incredibly exciting location for a story - it felt futuristic but grounded, and sort of oddly Dickensian, which I suppose is where the idea of having two street urchins as our heroes came from. Then from there the ideas just accumulated - the Wall around the centre of the city to protect the rich folks inside; the Mariners who live out on the ocean, trying to exist in balance with the 'new reality' of the flooded world but being (sometimes justifiably) dismissed as terrorists and troublemakers by the older order. Joe's dangerous work as a scavenger on the bottom of the sea, and Kara's desire to protect him from the harsh reality of the world in which they live.
I initially didn't know what kind of story I was going to tell - I tried to put some of my ideas into a screenplay, but it wasn't really satisfying. I worried that it might be too complex and sophisticated for a kids book - it was actually reading Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series that made me realise just how much you could do in childrens' fiction, how sophisticated young readers really are. I could explore environmental themes, ideas of oppression and exploitation, grand moral concepts, without really having to water anything down. I just made sure it was always full of twists and turns and exciting action scenes to keep the reader hooked.
Did you have any major inspirations for Crowfall?
Vashti: That’s interesting on the Dickensian aspect, because I had that thought when I was reading FloodWorld, the character of Colpeper definitely gave me excellent Fagin vibes! My major inspiration for the world of Crowfall was the concept of exploring humanity’s relationship with nature. The challenge I set myself was to achieve cohesion between that theme, the setting and the character’s arc. With the setting, I’d always wanted to explore an island based world in a story, and Crowfall seemed the perfect place for it as it allowed me to develop the contrasting island communities of Ironhold and Natura who approach their relationship with nature in very different ways.
I like the idea of empowering the powerless in my stories, so the protagonist, Orin Crowfall, begins the story feeling he doesn’t have any power for change, but as the story unfolds he is the only one who can save his world. He also has a deep connection with nature and an innate need to save things so he felt like the right person for the eco-fable theme. In real life, children are sometimes underestimated in their abilities by adults, but I’m a believer in that just because someone is small, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a voice and make a big difference.
Are there ways your protagonists Kara and Joe become the change makers in your world? I’d also love to ask you how you go about achieving a cinematic dystopian-like setting in your writing?
Tom: Absolutely, it was always important to me that the readers could see how much Kara and Joe affected things in their world, just like Orin does in Crowfall. So even though the future depicted in FloodWorld is pretty messed up - rising tides, flooded cities, constant conflict - they were able to make a big, positive difference to lots of peoples lives. Perhaps inevitably (and very flatteringly), Kara ended up being compared to Greta Thunberg (blonde, forthright, knows her own mind and speaks it), but the character was formed long before GT came on the scene. And besides, in many ways the book is actually more about inequality and self-empowerment than it is about climate change - after all, in this world the change has already happened, it's about how people live with it and adapt to it rather than how they try to stop it.
As for writing cinematically... thanks! That was always the intention, I'm a huge film nerd (writing about film is my other job), and I always envisioned FloodWorld as a big, blockbuster-y kind of book, with action scenes and giant 'sets' that you could imagine as you read the book. It took a long time to get right: my early drafts were full of way too much detail, I was trying to describe everything so much, thinking that would make it easier for the reader to visualise it. But in fact the opposite is true - if you give the reader just the information they absolutely need and no more, then they fill in the blanks for themselves. So by stripping it back, the world actually became more vivid, not less. It's funny how that works!
But I do think it probably helped that I'd done that extra writing in the longer drafts - the world was very clear in my head. How do you go about visualising the world of your stories? Do you 'explore' your locations through drawing or making notes, or do you just let the world unfold along with the story?
Vashti: I’m quite a visual person when it comes to my world-building so use lots of images to help create the setting in my imagination. I love Pinterest for this, and create boards for all of my stories. Sometimes, if an image captivates me but I don’t have the right story for it yet, I save it to an ideas board for later use. It’s amazing how a whole story world and theme can be grown from a single image. I also draw maps of my worlds as it helps me bring the geography of the world to life. It may sound peculiar, but it feels as though the very act of drawing a map magically creates the word in a far away galaxy! It also helps me on a practical note of working out the movement of the story and how the characters progress from place to place, how long it takes, what they’ll experience, and what’s going to get in their way. I also like to make a glossary of place names and terms unique to the world I’m building as on a practical level it helps for consistency as well as making sure the naming matches the vibe of the world atmosphere. Having said that on the pre-planning, I do let the world unfold as I go along too and I love the dance that goes on between planning and spontaneous world details that unfold as you write. While I’m writing I constantly go between my images, maps and notes to adapt and refine them.
Crowfall is standalone (at the moment…) and FloodWorld is part of a series. One of the joys of world-building is knowing you can dive into any number of places with any number of characters to tell a story — will your next book will be a third in the series and what might readers expect from book 3, (without spoilers, of course!), and will book 3 conclude the series? Also, would you like to explore similar themes in other stories? In essence, I’m snooping! Can you give us a hint about what you’re working on beyond the Flood World series?
Tom: I'm a big map drawer too! Though my skills as an illustrator are pretty feeble and not suitable for public consumption (that's why I have the amazing Jensine Eckwall to draw my maps). But you're right, it really helps make the world of the story feel concrete, and helps me visualise things much more clearly.
In answer to your question - yes! The third and final book in the trilogy, StormTide, is out now. I won't give away too much, except to say that it's a fittingly epic end to the saga, with apocalyptic threats and giant sea battles and some pretty cool oceanic trench action! It feels great to have brought the series to its conclusion - I'm going to miss the characters, but I'm happy with where they all ended up. Beyond Floodworld I'm working on a number of other projects - a series for younger readers that'll be coming out next year, a book for adults that I'm just in the planning stages of, and a book for the same age group as FloodWorld that's proving a tough nut to crack - but it's an idea I love, so I'll keep at it. Most of my time these days is spent wrangling my new baby, but I'm hoping to find more time to write as the year goes on...
Vashti Hardy is a writer of children's books spending her time between Lancashire and Sussex. She was a primary school teacher for several years, and has a special interest in children’s writing, especially free-writing and the use of journals and creating fantasy worlds. Now a successful children’s author, Vashti's breathtaking middle grade fantasies are published across the world in several languages. Wildspark won the Blue Peter Book Award ‘Best Story’ in 2020 and the FCBG Children’s Book Awards and Brightstorm was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, Books are My Bag Awards, among others. Brightstorm was also selected for Independent Booksellers Book of the Season and both Brightstorm and Wildspark were selected as Primary School Book Club Reads.
Tom Huddleston is a writer, musician and film journalist best known for his FLOODWORLD series of futuristic, climate-themed adventure stories. He currently lives in London. Tom is the author of several books for children including instalments in the STAR WARS: ADVENTURES IN WILD SPACE and WARHAMMER ADVENTURES series. Published in 2019 by Nosy Crow Books, his FLOODWORLD trilogy combines thrilling action with themes of ecological disaster and social inequality.
Climate Change News
The Climate Fiction Writers League is now represented in the Authors and Illustrators Sustainability Working Group, an umbrella organisation set up through the Society of Authors, to represent the interests of British authors and illustrators in consulting and negotiating with UK publishers, agencies, distributors, suppliers and retailers to press for climate change initiatives. Everyone in the publishing industry – from printers and publishers to booksellers and authors – can pledge to take action on climate, protect life on land, strengthen partnerships, educate for sustainability and advocate for sustainability.
Climate Change Writing Competition [University of Birmingham students]