This year marks the sixth anniversary of the 2015 Paris Agreement, an international accord that marks the first time nearly every nation on Earth promised to tackle the climate crisis. The goals set by that agreement, however, have not been met.
As the climate crisis worsens, more novelists than ever before are writing about climate change, environmental destruction, extinction, and related issues. Whereas climate change and science more generally has long been the domain of science-fiction writers, now those subjects are explored by writers of all kinds.
I had the great pleasure of asking seven novelists who write about climate change and environmental problems—Omar El Akkad, John Lanchester, Lydia Millet, Kim Stanley Robinson, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Madeleine Watts, and Diane Wilson—to tell me more about their work. We discussed what inspired them to write about these matters, what role they see novels playing in public discourse on climate, and whether they see writing about the climate crisis as a kind of activism. We also discussed their writerly processes for tackling such an enormous issue and how optimistic they are for the future. The transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and divided into two parts. This is part one.
What inspired you to write about environmental problems and/or climate change in your fiction? Was it a person? An event? Perhaps something you read?
Pitchaya Sudbanthad: Climate issues were on my mind well before I began writing more developed fiction. I have a degree in environmental sciences and policy, but after college I decided that I would be trying my luck in the cultural carnival that was New York City instead of spending my days collecting water samples or drafting policy memos elsewhere.
Years later, what I’d learned from my studies re-emerged in my narrative explorations as I began writing fiction centered on Bangkok. Living through the 2010 floods in Thailand, followed by Hurricane Sandy smashing into NYC in 2012, made me worry even more about the most vulnerable people and places. I think I can consider my novel as partly the product of years of persistent climate anxiety. How could my imagination keep out humanity’s most pressing existential concern?
As the climate crisis worsens, more novelists than ever before are writing about climate change, environmental destruction, extinction, and related issues.
For me, I can’t write around a climate crisis. Writing fiction, instead, becomes my imaginative consideration of how we’re systematically linked by the most mysterious complexities in one vast narrative—to different effects, depending on where we live and who we are in that society. To follow my characters—from past to future, in their lives and memories—I needed to myself appreciate the urgency of globally entangled climate change rather than ignore or deny it.
Kim Stanley Robinson: While writing my Mars books in the early 90s, I was aware I was writing a kind of climate fiction in that terraforming Mars would involve pumping up its frozen atmosphere, etc. In those books some characters spoke of people “terraforming Earth” as well as Mars, and so I knew I was treating Mars as a kind of distorted mirror, or comparative study. After that I went to Antarctica, and all the scientists there spoke of climate change, and that began a long process of trying to include it in my science fiction. I struggled to find a form for that and I still do, but I recall the discovery of an “abrupt climate change” in the Greenland ice core data for the Younger Dryas, as being the stimulus for my Green Earth trilogy. Since then I’ve kept coming at it from different angles.
Lydia Millet: Pitchaya, similar arc with me. I did a master’s in environmental economics and policy, then insisted on living in New York when my first novel was published despite the fact that the jobs in my academic “field” were mostly in DC. So I ended up writing grants for a while before I took off to the southwest US, where I now work for a conservation group (still writing and editing, but not grants).
My first love and fear and crisis as a writer has for a long time been species extinction, which has a large Venn overlap with climate but also exists distinctly from it. I still feel strongly that extinction falls out of the discussion too often when we talk and write about climate, and that there’s a real risk, as human cultures grapple with the threat of climate catastrophe, that we’ll embrace our sense of human supremacy too single-mindedly in our desperation to find solutions. And end up steamrolling other lifeforms as we flail. So I tend to try to write about climate from that fear, the fear of the loss of others and otherness.
Diane Wilson: Twenty years ago I started volunteering with a little half-acre garden that was growing out a collection of rare, old, indigenous seeds. I was drawn not only as a gardener but also as a writer, after realizing that these seeds also carried stories: corn that survived the Cherokee Trail of Tears, traditional tobacco that was 800 years old, stories of the weather and land on which they grew. After getting involved with a walk to commemorate the Dakota who were removed from Minnesota in 1863, I heard a story about the women who protected their seeds by hiding them in their pockets and sewing them in the hems of their skirts. Even when families were hungry, they protected these seeds for future generations.
I come from a part of the world that is slowly growing uninhabitable. The Arabian Gulf, where I spent my childhood, will one day be too hot for most people to make any kind of life there.
Over the years as I continued to work with Native seeds and foods, I began to understand much more deeply how that story reflected a relationship with the earth that was vastly different from that expressed through modern-day farming. That understanding brought a realization that every generation has to take responsibility for these seeds, and by extension, for the earth itself. Writing the novel was my way of elevating the story of these Dakota women, and raising questions about the consequences of our evolving relationship with seeds and plants.
Omar El Akkad: I come from a part of the world that is slowly growing uninhabitable. The Arabian Gulf, where I spent my childhood, will one day be too hot for most people to make any kind of life there. Possibly this will happen during my lifetime, and this act of witness, of watching as the compartment in which I’ve stored my formative memories smolders, is the primary reason environmental change works its way into almost every piece of fiction I write. I think one of the functions of literature is to study consequences—the consequences of what we do to ourselves and what we do to one another. By that metric, it’s impossible to write honestly in this moment, as we stand on the precipice of what could be the most cataclysmic century of human existence, and not engage with the consequences of what we’ve done and continue to do to this planet.
John Lanchester: A dream, of all unlikely things. In early 2016 I began having a recurring dream about a figure standing on a wall with the land on one side and the sea on the other. I started by wondering who he was and then realized that was the wrong question—instead I should be asking what had happened to the world, because it was clearly not the same as the world we currently live in. It was a world after catastrophic climate change. I think what happened is that I was deeply preoccupied by climate change on a subconscious level, while also not knowing what to do about it, in my work. So my subconscious cooked up the novel for me. It was a strange process—dream to image to world to character to story—completely unlike how I’ve written anything else, and I fully expect it not to happen again.
Madeleine Watts: My impulse to write about the environment came from a slightly different direction. I didn’t set out to write a book about climate change per se, but I found as I wrote that vivid descriptions of place and nature kept coming through. In my own life I was becoming increasingly preoccupied by reading about environmental problems, both news stories and books. After finishing a draft of my novel I happened to read The Great Derangement by the writer Amitav Ghosh, which, among other things, calls on contemporary writers to find different forms, structures and narratives to address climate change in our writing, the most serious problem facing us. I radically rearranged the novel after reading Ghosh’s book, and started to thread in all my doom-laden news-reading and environmental book-learning into the novel itself.
Climate change and environmental degradation are enormous in scale and caused by systemic problems like racism, xenophobia, and greed. All of this seems too big to capture vividly on the page. And yet each of you did just that. Please describe your writerly approach or process for giving these planet-sized problems a narrative shape.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Science fiction provides the method. In particular, the placement of the story in a possible future, with an implied history running back to our time; and secondly, a focus on the planet itself as a character, or actant, or actor in an actor-network. Thirdly, an emphasis on science and technology, and scientists. Science fiction has always had these tools ready to bring to bear, and so it’s particularly well-suited as a genre to writing about climate change. In fact I would say most climate fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction, also, that any time science fiction gets particularly interesting to the culture at large, they give it a new name so they don’t have to admit to having anything to do with such a disreputable art form. This is so old-fashioned an attitude as to be funny, but since it still exists, it’s not that funny.
Lydia Millet: Stan, I love that you bring that up. I think science fiction has so often been prescient in a way so-called literary fiction has not—and has preferred to envision its stories systemically and philosophically, while fiction that’s deemed to be literary, particularly in the US, has stubbornly situated itself inside the myopically humanist, domestic, and personal. Thus avoiding a wider-scope imagining of, for example, social and economic arrangements beyond, say, market capitalism.
I’m thinking of old books, even, from H.G. Wells on: one of my personal favorites is Karel Capek’s War With the Newts, which I guess is more allegorical than sci-fi but brilliantly and hilariously describes a population explosion/world domination scenario involving intelligent, increasingly bipedal salamanders. More recently, your own work or maybe that of writers like Vernor Vinge, who also doesn’t shy away from vast canvasses.
Science fiction provides the method. In particular, the placement of the story in a possible future, with an implied history running back to our time.
The painstaking world-building that Stan does, or indeed that Vernor Vinge does very differently, is hyper-intellectual by comparison to much of general or domestic fiction. That intellectual and imaginative labor is deeply appreciated by readers—an appreciation that’s borne out by the large and sophisticated audiences these books command—yet still, in publishing culture, marketing categories keep books in separate compartments, where the general and the genre are segregated.
As we come to confront the life-support matter of climate change in fiction—and, I hope, species extinction—it would behoove us all to collapse those categories.
Omar El Akkad: I’m not sure if I’ve ever succeeded in this approach, or if it is in any sense the best one, but I tend to move as much as I am able in the direction of smallness. Having spent some of my life as a journalist covering war, I’ve experienced the terrible power of human indifference in the face of mass suffering, this idea that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths a statistic. As I do when I’m writing about love or rage or any other mechanic of being human, I try to filter everything through individual characters’ experiences. A couple of weeks ago, here in Oregon, we were hit by a pretty vicious ice storm, and were left without power and water for more than a week. It was a freak thing but in its own way a harbinger of what climate change will likely render a normal occurrence in my children’s lifetime. And yet during those miserable few days, at least for me, climate change did not exist. The only thing that existed was that very small human desperation to keep one’s family safe, to stave off cold and hunger and suffering. Emotionally and psychologically, it was the same place I retreated to when the wildfires tore through our county last year, and probably where I’ll go the next time this kind of carnage strikes. So I suppose it’s not surprising that my characters should go there too.
John Lanchester: +1 to what Stan and Lydia said.
A peculiar thing about this moment, for writers, is that the big subjects are all structural and systematic. And yet we are hard-wired, as humans, to like stories that are about individuals, about heroes and villains and journeys and all that. SF has been tackling these tensions forever, since it doesn’t subscribe to what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism”—the idea that everything is just the way it has to be, and the writer’s job is just to reflect that status quo back at itself.
Madeleine Watts: John, it’s funny that you bring up Mark Fisher and “capitalist realism,” because reading Fisher was a momentous experience for me, producing the kinds of perspective-shifts I think you only get from very special writers a few times in your life. I knew what I was writing wasn’t science fiction, but I was interested in the fact that it has so often been science fiction which has best addressed issues of climate change. I borrowed from a couple of approaches – the essayistic digressions of writers like Sebald, the fragmentation of writers like Jenny Offill, and a lot of the creative non-fiction I was reading, by writers like Eduardo Galeano or Charles Bowden.
I used a lot of research and old reporting skills to represent real climactic events which had happened, in the case of my book, in 2013. Every “extreme” event which might ordinarily be construed as veering towards the science fictional is based completely in fact, and skews surreal only in my arrangement of the facts. It was important to me to make sure every fire or flood or heatwave I was writing about was not only verifiably real, but historical. I think writing the book under the last administration while so many climate denialists were being given a platform made the truth of those events feel very urgent to me as I wrote.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad: In writing Bangkok Wakes to Rain, it helped to have been bookish since my youth about the city and its history. By the time I started, I had ready knowledge of a particular place and its transformation through time, but there was a lot that I could cover. I had no idea where to begin or end, especially when I started to additionally consider a future in which climate change has taken a toll.
Yet it was my imagination of a Bangkok reshaped by a worsened climate crisis that helped me to think about how centuries-old histories connected to current political dysfunction and reckless growth, paving way for a precarious future ahead. I saw how new problems took the shape of past ones, ad infinitum, and the way lives confront and move with powerful forces. I let myself wander freely between the personal and the systemic. It became clear to me that no one character or story would be enough. I needed many more across the lifespan of a city, so I let them come and go. I watched them do their best to feel more whole in the midst of upheavals and uprooting, and I jotted down what I saw. It’s almost voyeurism. Then when I needed a wider view, I zoomed out.
Having spent some of my life as a journalist covering war, I’ve experienced the terrible power of human indifference in the face of mass suffering, this idea that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths a statistic.
I feel that freedom of narrative motion is important when trying to capture something as unimaginably far-reaching as climate change. I can’t tell the entire story, but I think readers can feel the larger shape of the story through my novel’s movements across places and time.
Is there something a novel can show us about climate change or environmental damage that’s different than what a scientific study can show us?
Lydia Millet: Our brains organize consciousness in terms of story. So story always matters, and matters a lot. The trick now, I suspect, is to pull away from the stories we’ve told for so long that hinge on the struggles and ultimate triumph of the self. Into a different form of narrative that reaches beyond the self to tell stories of the collective. And returns us to ideas of community and the communal.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, I think so. It can give readers a bit of fictional time travel and telepathy, such that the readers experience what climate change will feel like. The thick texture of narrative is designed to create that Coleridgean “willed suspension of disbelief” and then the text is experienced as a kind of dream or hallucination, which can be vivid and emotional. Having felt it in advance of its full arrival, possibly this will create changes in behavior now. Scientific studies create changes in a different way.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad: To me, the difference is that science is mostly a search for observable truth. This search is advanced by conversations between scientists, usually through papers and conferences where findings are presented and debated in their own specialty language. Perhaps that conversational murmur, like the one about the science of climate change, is overheard by the larger culture, and some might ask, “What difference does it make?”
I think novelists, poets, filmmakers, and others play a very important translational role. For me, storytellers help translate climate science into imaginative possibilities hinted by what’s observationally verifiable. In part, we create, as Stan had said, a kind of advanced preview, and I think we also help to elucidate meaning. People can be compelled by art to ask moral questions about what has been allowed to happen to our world and what might come next. They may come to understand why climate truth makes existential difference to many lives—human and non-human. Good fiction, which can only be meaningful if it is truthful, makes already real climate science even more real by helping to show why it matters so much.
Diane Wilson: I agree with Lydia’s point that story always matters. Years ago, I learned a terrific lesson from a flamenco dancer and choreographer who understood that her audience was often overwhelmed by the gravity of the day’s headlines, the stress of their lives, and felt burdened by guilt and shame over issues like the environment. Instead, she found ways to appeal to their imaginations, layering difficult stories with images that were also beautiful. She knew that a good story can bypass our defenses, deepen our understanding of complex issues, and create empathy.
For me, storytellers help translate climate science into imaginative possibilities hinted by what’s observationally verifiable.
As we grapple with scientific evidence that points to catastrophic climate change, it’s not hard to feel almost paralyzed, especially as we’re also dealing with a pandemic, the recent attempted coup, and the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. In the discussion of climate change, too often we forget to emphasize the beauty and life-giving joy of clean water, healthy seeds, breathable air. We neglect the stories of what it means to be a good relative to the plants and animals and soil and water that give us life. We forget that our real work is to protect what we love. Through story, a novel can carry us through the challenges that we face and remind us of what truly matters.
Omar El Akkad: I’m not sure there’s a medium as well-suited as the novel for mimicking the lies we tell ourselves in order to get through the day. My wife is a clean-energy chemist; a lot of her work is related to solar energy and building better batteries. The general structure of her research, which of course I am oversimplifying, is very much in keeping with the scientific method—a hypothesis, followed by an experiment, followed by a conclusion that informs what changes should be made to the original hypothesis. It’s a productive and scientifically honest way of doing things, and perhaps if everyone lived their lives in keeping with this method, we would have by now become one of those God-species that shows up on the occasional Star Trek episode to serve as a deus ex machina. But we don’t live this way, and a lot of the time we live in the exact opposite way—we decide on conclusions and then wrestle hopelessly with the world to make the evidence fit whatever we’ve already decided to believe. It’s destructive and flawed but it’s also deeply human and while the rigor and authority of scientific research can’t meet us in this place, the workings of literature, this very graceful art of guided lying, can.
John Lanchester: Obviously we all think so, otherwise we wouldn’t be bothering to write novels about it. The prospect of cataclysmic, irreversible, planetary change is inherently difficult, borderline impossible, to get our heads around. La Rochefoucauld wrote, “neither death nor the sun can be looked at directly.” Climate change is like that too. But unless we face the truth of it, we won’t be able to start addressing it, at the necessary scale and with the necessary urgency. That’s why writers, artists in general, have a special role in relation to climate change: to make people see clearly what’s ahead if we don’t alter course. As Omar says, what can do this better than a novel? Description and visualization are easy to underrate as political forces and means to change.
Madeleine Watts: It’s true, we all clearly think so. A scientific study can tell us what is happening, and what likely will happen. But there are other ways we are experiencing climate change—social, psychological, cultural, emotional—which a scientific study doesn’t help us understand. Climate change is also produced by human history, by imperialism and colonialism, and a novel has the ability to roam across all that territory, to collect it up and represent it back to us.
How important is it to get the science right in your novels? Or is this something you even think about when writing?
Pitchaya Sudbanthad: Yes, science definitely feeds the storytelling imagination. In many ways, scientists begin their investigation with an initial fantasy—a what-if? What if you stick this genetic sequence in this other creature? What happens if you ram these particles into each other? Many writers begin a work with similar what-ifs. What if someone woke up as a cockroach? What if a woman’s daughter returns from the dead? It’s all about finding out what happens.
Climate change is also produced by human history, by imperialism and colonialism, and a novel has the ability to roam across all that territory, to collect it up and represent it back to us.
With writers, we don’t have the onus of peer-reviewable experimentation. When it comes to science, we can cherry-pick a part that fascinates us and test hypotheses in our own heads to their most ridiculous conclusion however we’d like. As I was writing my novel, I did some cursory research just to see if the events I’d depicted were maybe within some range of possibility. The scary part was that whenever I felt like I may have gone too far with a climate scenario, some news article would pop up to say that we could be headed in its very direction.
Lydia Millet: My own novels and short stories are probably less dependent on getting any particular science right than on investigating the place where knowledge and wisdom meet. Or fail to meet. How we’ve fallen away from wisdom even as we accumulate large masses of knowledge. What that falling away could mean, for us and for the rest of what lives. And how we might move from knowledge toward wisdom.
Omar El Akkad: I couldn’t agree more with what Lydia says about the place where knowledge and wisdom meet, or don’t. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten the science fully right in any of my fiction, both because the level of rigor and detail required to do so isn’t something a writer of my limited talent can keep from overwhelming the emotional and narrative mechanics of the story, but also because novels are static in time. The science changes but books, once written, stay the same. With a topic as rapidly evolving as climate change, I don’t try to stay true to the current science, but rather do right by it. In broad strokes, we know full well what we are doing to the planet, and we have known for decades. My stories are rooted in this knowing, but from there they branch off in all kinds of invented directions.
Madeleine Watts: Like Lydia and Omar, I’m not sure my novel is that dependent on the science. There are two big leaps forward into what “will” happen in the future in the book, one concerning an inland sea, and one concerning sea level rise, and I did make an effort to get the science correct. I tried to do right by what I knew and understood, but climate science is always changing, and I can only hope that what I’ve represented is as truthful as it can be to the moment it was written in.
Kim Stanley Robinson: It depends on what kind of novel I’m writing. If I want to write about Galileo getting taken by time travelers to the year 3000, getting the science right becomes kind of a relative thing—although knowing the surfaces of the four Jovian moons is really helpful to writing that story. For stories closer to now and more realistic, getting the science right helps to create the “effect of the real” that is important for allowing the novel to work for the reader as a fully experienced dream-state. Also, science keeps bringing us new stories to tell, and that’s very valuable. There are many stories that have been told so many times they’re worn out, being variations on a theme that already goes in one ear and out the other. New stories? Gold. So science is a kind of gold mine for story-tellers.
John Lanchester: Agree with Stan here about “it depends.” The tools needed to make a novel feel satisfyingly true vary wildly from story to story; it’s part of the magic of fiction that readers sense so quickly and completely the conditions and rules of a particular imaginative world. Nobody reading N.K. Jesmin is going to demand more physics and geology, and nobody reading Vernor Vinge ever complains that there aren’t enough wizards. In the case of climate change, I think Lydia and Omar are right that readers are looking for wisdom rather than knowledge. In my own case I tried hard to think about the question, “what would it be like,” and to keep that in my head all the time, to make the world I was imagining feel real. In respect of science, the task was therefore not to seem too intrusive, too distracting, or too wrong—if you posit something about a post-catastrophe world which the science has already disproved, it puts the reader off.
Omar El Akkad was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar, moved to Canada as a teenager and now lives in the United States. His fiction and non-fiction writing has appeared in The Guardian, Le Monde, Guernica, GQ and many other newspapers and magazines. His debut novel, American War, is an international bestseller and has been translated into thirteen languages. It won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award, the Oregon Book Award for fiction, the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize and has been nominated for more than ten other awards. His next novel, What Strange Paradise, is forthcoming from Knopf in July.
John Lanchester is the author of novels, a memoir, non-fiction and journalism. His writing has appeared in the London Review of Books (where he is a Contributing Editor), Granta, The Observer, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and The New Yorker. He also regularly writes on food and technology for Esquire. His most recent novel, The Wall, depicted a future ersatz Britain in a world devastated by climate change. His short story collection, Reality and Other Stories, is forthcoming next month.
Lydia Millet has written more than a dozen novels and story collections, often about the ties between people and other animals and the crisis of extinction. Her story collection Fight No More received an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2019, and her collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. She also writes essays, opinion pieces and other ephemera and has worked as an editor and staff writer at the Center for Biological Diversity since 1999. Her latest novel, A Children’s Bible, was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction and one of the New York Times Book Review’s Top 10 Books of 2020.
Kim Stanley Robinson is an American science fiction writer. He is the author of more than 20 books, including the internationally bestselling Mars trilogy, and more recently Red Moon, New York 2140, and Shaman. In 2008 he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and UC San Diego’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. His latest novel is called Ministry for the Future.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad is the author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which was selected as a notable book of the year by The New York Times and The Washington Post. The novel, published by Riverhead Books (US) and Sceptre (UK), has been hailed as “ambitious and sweeping” (Esquire) and “a remarkable debut” (Financial Times) with a narrative that “recreates the experience of living in Thailand’s aqueous climate so viscerally that you can feel the water rising around your ankles” (Washington Post). It has also been named a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, the Casa delle Letterature Bridge Book Award, and the Edward Stanford Award.
Madeleine Watts grew up in Sydney, and sometimes Melbourne, but she has been based in New York since 2013. She is a writer of fiction, essays and journalism. Her writing has been published in The Believer, The White Review, Lithub, The Paris Review Daily, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Irish Times, Guernica, Meanjin and The Lifted Brow, among others. She is the winner of the 2015 Griffith Review Novella Competition. Her debut novel, The Inland Sea, was published by Pushkin Press (UK/ANZ) in March 2020, and in January 2021 by Catapult (US).
Diane Wilson (Dakota) is a writer, speaker, and editor, who has published two award-winning books, as well as essays in numerous publications. Her new novel, The Seed Keeper, will be published by Milkweed Editions in March, 2021. Her memoir, Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past (Borealis Books) won a 2006 Minnesota Book Award and was selected for the 2012 One Minneapolis One Read program. Her 2011 nonfiction book, Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life (Borealis Books) was awarded the 2012 Barbara Sudler Award from History Colorado.