The Arctic on Fire: A Nordic Perspective on Climate Fiction
by Emmi Itäranta, plus Josh Lacey talks about his HOPE JONES series
As I am writing this in the early days of July 2021, Kevo weather station at the northernmost tip of Finland has just registered the second-hottest ever temperature measured in Finnish Lapland since records began, and the hottest in over a century. Sweden and Norway have (once again) seen some record-brushing temperatures for June; news coverage of devastating heat waves in the Pacific Northwest in the US and across Canada has been streaming onto our screens for weeks.
Meanwhile, the Finnish Meteorological Institute is forecasting a severe draught, unusual for the time of year.
Back in 2008 when I began working on my first novel Memory of Water, set in a dystopian future in Finnish Lapland, I played such imaginary scenarios in my head, wondering how far I could go with the world-building. Would readers find it too hard to believe in Arctic winters without snow or ice? Would it seem too far-fetched to portray water shortages in Finland, known for its lakes and freshwater resources? Would a sea level rise of 50 to 60 metres sound too extreme a scenario?
Turns out I need not have worried – not about the world-building, anyway, but rather about life imitating art.
Thirteen years on, it is now long established that the Arctic region is warming two to three times faster on average than the rest of the world. The impacts of this are far-reaching. According to current estimates, Arctic Ocean may be entirely free of ice during summer by 2050, a scenario which as recently as fifteen years ago would have seemed an exaggeration. Forest fires have become more prevalent; wildlife is suffering on the level of entire vast ecosystems; the traditional livelihoods of indigenous peoples, such as the Sámi people in the Nordic countries, are under further threat after having already been compromised for centuries due to colonial practices.
It is not surprising, then, that climate change has found its way into Nordic literature. Like in the Anglo-American cultural sphere, speculative genres have been exploring environmental themes for decades, but climate fiction has only made something of a breakthrough into the mainstream in the past ten years.
As early as the 1970s, Norwegian author Knut Faldbakken depicted post-apocalyptic ecological scenarios in his duology Twilight Country and Sweetwater. These can be seen as predecessors to the novels of the perhaps most widely known and read Nordic climate fiction author today: Maja Lunde.
Lunde, also Norwegian, has reached worldwide success with her Climate Quartet – starting with The History of Bees. The upcoming fourth book explores environmental themes connected with human-made climate change. Her breakthrough novel, The History of Bees, focuses on Colony Collapse Disorder affecting bee populations and its impact on all other life on the planet.
Fewer readers may be aware that a Finnish writer, Johanna Sinisalo, beat Lunde to writing about Colony Collapse Disorder by a few years. Her novel The Blood of Angels, which came out in 2011, also has other parallels with Lunde's book: both portray tensions and colliding world views between parents and children. Sinisalo chooses to use climate change as a backdrop and centre other ways in which humans manipulate and violate the environment, but the core thesis remains the same: insistence on seeing ourselves as separate from nature, rather than as part of it, is an act of self-destruction.
Sinisalo's work can be seen as part of a continuum of a growing wave of Finnish climate fiction. To my knowledge, the earliest Finnish novel to directly use climate change as a major plot point was The Sands of Sarasvati by Risto Isomäki, first published in 2005. It depicts a group of scientists studying signs of a past flood of Biblical proportions around the world, and slowly builds up as an eco-thriller to reveal a future where the melting of the polar ice caps will inevitably cause a similar destruction.
By the 2010s, climate change had become a fairly frequent undercurrent in Finnish fiction, seen across different genres. The Healer by Antti Tuomainen is a crime story that would be at home on any Nordic noir shelf – save for the fact that instead of the present, it is set in a dystopian near future where climate change has turned Helsinki into a rainy, half-abandoned urban wilderness.
Published a few years later, Elina Hirvonen's novel When Time Runs Out paints an insightful portrait of a troubled family in the late 2020s Finland. In it, the son of activist parents grows up to be a mass shooter whose motivations, anxieties and clinical depression are deeply linked with his climate grief.
Frequently, a future setting would be enough to label a novel as speculative; however, I hosted a virtual book club on When Time Runs Out a few years ago and asked the readers if anyone considered it a work of speculative fiction. Not a single person did. Climate crisis is no longer a far-future science fiction scenario. It is now our lived reality.
I am aware that my brief glance at Nordic climate fiction is somewhat biased towards Finnish books. This is simply because as a Finn, I am most familiar with what my own country has produced. Also, I have wished to keep the focus on novels that are available in English; the fact of the matter is that much climate (and, of course, other) fiction written in the Nordic languages remains untranslated.
This is the case for many Swedish climate-themed novels, such as Nattavaara by Thomas Engström and Margit Richtert, or Malmö Manhattan 1994-2024 by Catarina Rolfsdotter-Jansson. And while a number of Finnish climate novels have been published in English, there are many more I crave to see in translation, such as the European Union Prize for Literature winner Taivas (Heaven) by Piia Leino or Lupaus (Promise) by Emma Puikkonen, which explores parenthood in the face of climate crisis.
Furthermore, if Iceland and Denmark have produced a body of climate fiction to date, I have not been able to locate it (possibly because of translation issues, since I do not read either language). Philip K. Dick Award special citation winner, Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason has written about climate change, but mainly in nonfiction context in his Dreamland: A Self-help Manual for a Frightened Nation and On Time and Water.
It is clear nevertheless that climate fiction has carved a place for itself in the Nordics. Just as humans are not separate from nature, fiction is not separate from reality. It provides us with a very real space to explore what matters: our grief and fear and sense of loss, as well as our hope and dreams of what we can still save. Climate fiction from various parts of the world can support us in working together to cope with a change that may manifest differently at different locations, but will highlight the fact that all borders are, at the end of the day, artificial.
When our world is on fire, so must our writing be.
You can find out more about Memory of Water here.
Emmi Itäranta is a Finnish author of three award-winning novels. She has recently relocated to her native Finland after living 14 years in the UK. She writes fiction in Finnish and English, and often explores environmental themes and the relationship between humans and other species in her stories. Her debut novel Memory of Water has been translated into more than twenty languages, and a film adaptation shot during the pandemic is due to be released in 2021.
Give me Hope, Jones.
Bijal Vachharajani talks to Josh Lacey about his Hope Jones Middle Grade series.
When I was studying climate change in Costa Rica, one of the things that stuck with me amidst all the doom and gloom we knew to expect, was that hope is what keeps the world spinning. Because without hope, how do we go on in a world that’s seeing relentless heat waves, unpredictable weather conditions, and making us all crankier? After all it is that feeling which drives human beings to find solutions, to dream big, and to aspire for change (not the climate kind).
It’s something that as an eternal climate worrier, I underscore my books with. My middle grade novel, A Cloud Called Bhura: Climate Champions to the Rescue, is about a group of teenagers who take on a brown (Bhura is brown in Hindi) cloud of pollution that has taken over their city and they do it with so much panache and grit. My non-fiction book, So You Want to Know About the Environment offers tangible actions for young readers, and to my utter surprise, many have actually filled pages and pages of the book. These books are based on my work with children, and I always come back with the feeling that they care, and in a very intense way that demands attention from us groan-ups.
Which is why I was thrilled when Josh Lacey’s Hope Jones Clears the Air came my way, right after reading Hope Jones Will Not Eat Meat. Illustrated by Beatrice Castro, the middle grade book is part of a series where the eponymous ten-year-old announces that she is going to save the world (That is also the name of the first book in the series, Hope Jones Saves the World). And she does in her own kickass way. Hope Jones is pretty much the sum of all the young people and children out there who are advocating for a cleaner future, who are refusing to settle for a status quo, and who are taking small and big steps to combat the climate crisis. I caught up with the author over email, and found out more about this cool Hope Jones who gives us all reason to believe in a better future.
So how did the Hope Jones series start? And of course, the story behind the name.
I had been trying to write a book about climate change for some time, but my efforts weren’t succeeding. Eventually I realised the problem: I was writing about my own feelings, which are mostly pessimistic, and so my drafts were too depressing, especially for children, my intended audience. And then, somehow, a girl strode into the story, and grabbed it, and demanded to tell it herself. I started writing again, this time in the first person. The girl announced her name was Hope, and her character followed from her name: she was forward-looking, passionate, determined, and full of optimism.
That explains the character’s first name. I think her second name comes from two very strong fictional characters, Indiana Jones and Halo Jones, no relation to one another, let alone Hope Jones. (If you haven’t come across Halo Jones, she’s the protagonist of a brilliant comic strip originally published in 2000AD. Highly recommended.)
‘You couldn’t possibly stop pollution,’ Mum said. ‘It’s everywhere!’ ‘I can try,’ I said. – to me this was such a great example of some of the underlying stories in your books – that no one is too small to make a difference, that no one is just ordinary when it comes to the environment, and that doing something is better than nothing. Tell us more!
I think you’ve summed it up perfectly! I don’t know what else to say, really. I suppose my books always put the child at the centre of the story, whether that’s defeating a tyrannical ruler (A Dog Called Grk) or dealing with a mischievous pet (The Dragonsitter). When writing about climate change, I wanted to describe how children can make a difference in very ordinary and everyday ways: using a bike rather than a car, for instance, or boycotting plastic.
What made you decide to use the blog-illustration-list-letters format for this book?
Having written the Dragonsitter books in emails, I knew that I wanted to use something similar: a first-person format, which allowed me to use a child’s voice to tell the story. A blog had the additional benefit of suiting the subject matter perfectly, because Hope has a message which she wants to tell us.
What I love about your books is the threading of facts with fiction. What is the kind of research you do when writing this series, is it hard blending facts with fiction?
Thank you! When I wrote these books, I spent a lot of time on research, mostly reading books and articles, and chatting to people. I did find it very difficult to merge factual information with the demands of a narrative. It was also hard to put facts and figures into the blog in Hope’s voice, rather than my own. The format certainly helped a lot, because I could use tables, pie charts, spreadsheets, etc., which was fun.
How did you zone into the topics for your books – plastic, meat and now pollution?
They’re issues that I care about myself, and areas of our lives that we can all change, however young (or old) we might be. We can all decide to have a jacket potato rather than a beef burger, or choose not to use an extra plastic bag. Children may not have the power to make many of the decisions in their own lives, but they can have a strong and important impact on their parents’ decisions through discussion and argument.
Could you share some reader reactions with us? Both children and adults.
I haven’t had much chance to meet the readers of these books, because they’ve been published during lockdown. However, I have had some nice emails from readers. I’ve also been really delighted that lots of teachers have been in touch to say that they’ll be using the Hope Jones books as class readers, because they fit very well with topics that children are covering in schools at the moment.
From fantasy worlds to really real world problems, tell us about this journey in your writing.
Actually, I’ve always written stories which are set in the everyday world, although some of them have had some more fantastical or unusual elements. My first children’s book, A Dog Called Grk, was about a very ordinary boy who finds a dog in the street, and the adventures that follow. That story had political themes: the antagonist is a dictator who punishes dissent and locks up his enemies, including the dog’s owners. Other books in the Grk series touched on climate change and environmental activism.
Has your writing brought about green changes in your life as well? Are you active like Hope Jones in climate activism?
I have certainly changed my own behaviour because of my research and writing, yes, although I’m ashamed to admit that I am much less active than Hope. I have been on marches and written letters to my MP, but I haven’t transformed my life with anything like her passion and determination.
What do you hope to see more of in climate fiction in children's literature?
At the moment, there’s an amazing number of good children’s books with environmental themes, both fiction and non-fiction. It’s the adults who really need some schooling now.
Is firstname.lastname@example.org active, do you get mails on it?
I liked the idea of using a real email address, so yes, I have set this up, and I do check it often. I thought I might get one or two people writing to me, but I’ve actually been surprised by the number of messages. When I reply, I always make it clear that I’m writing as myself rather than Hope, because I would feel awkward impersonating her.
Tell us about working with Beatriz Castro.
Unfortunately, I haven’t actually met her (she lives in Spain and I live in the UK) and all our interactions have gone through the designer and editor at Andersen. But I’ve really enjoyed seeing her interpretations of my characters, and she’s brought her own vision and ideas to the story, which has been wonderful. I’m especially delighted by her illustrations for the third book, when Hope makes a trip to Amsterdam, and Beatriz has done some lovely drawings of that beautiful city with its bicycles, canals, and Van Goghs.
Hope Jones isn't going to stop here. What do we hope she will tackle next?
Ah, that’s a very good question, and I wish I knew the answer.
You can find out more about the Hope Jones series here.
Josh Lacey is the author of many children’s books, including A Dog Called Grk and The Dragonsitter.
When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading a children’s book, she is writing or editing one. She has written A Cloud Called Bhura: Climate Champions to the Rescue, which won the Auther Children’s Book Award 2020, and So You Want to Know About the Environment, and has co-authored 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting to Save the Planet and The Great Indian Nature Trail with Uncle Bikky. Her picture books include P.S. What’s up with the climate?, What’s Neema Eating Today? and The Seed Savers. The former editor of Time Out Bengaluru, Bijal has worked with 350.org, Fairtrade and Sanctuary Asia. Senior Editor at Pratham Books, Bijal has a Masters in Environment Security and Peace, with a specialisation in climate change from the University for Peace.
Climate Change in the News
Writing Climate Fiction with Lauren James, Bijal Vachharajani, Clara Hume, James Bradley - Youtube panel [Cymera Festival]
Can fiction fight climate change? [Race to Zero]