Fiction for a Threatened World

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the environment and how we write about it.

This is partly driven by my own writing. I often use themed calls as inspiration for short stories, these calls’ limitations and specificity providing the framework I need to get creative. There have been more themed calls recently relating to climate change and other environmental issues, and those themes are a good fit for me, especially as my writing’s been getting more political lately. It’s a chance to vent some of my frustrations at the world while using that passion to power my prose.

Living with the Prof has been a factor too. She’s a specialist in sustainability, so conversations in our house often come around to the environment. Writing what you know is a good way to find ideas, and writing what the people around you know is a handy addition to that. I can take dinner talk and turn it into characters.

But what I’m reading has also been a big factor. I’m enjoying a growing number of stories that tackle environmental change.

The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed was the first that really got my attention. Set in the near future, it looks at characters struggling to get by in a damaged climate. The fragility of our environment is shown by how far things have gone awry, and the story also shows how fragile human life can be, how vulnerable we are to the same disruptions.

A more recent read for me, O Man of Clay by Eliza Mood does something similar to Annual Migration, but with a different setting. As someone from the north of England, a flooded Hartlepool feels immediate to me, and the presence of the ocean adds a sense of vast, destructive, unknowable forces pressing against human lives. The story’s central characters include a destroyer of the environment as well as protectors and survivors, and it shows the complex, flawed, sometimes frustrating ways people respond to our destruction of the world. Having lived through the cynicism of so much greenwashed politics, the idea of businesses profiting off the destruction, even using it to justify their actions, feels far too real. It shows how badly we can respond to a damaged environment.

Both of those stories do an excellent job of taking a familiar format – the postapocalyptic tale – and tying it to environmental destruction, but E. J. Swift’s The Coral Bones does something more unusual. Following three separate narrative strands, set in the past, present, and future, it shows women of different generations in their relationships with Australia’s environment. Reaching back to the Victorian past, we see enlightenment scientism shaping our relationship with the world. In the present, there’s the frustration of trying to save that world and how the struggle wears someone down. And in the future, an attempt to cope with the fallout of our failings, to survive and regrow a ravaged world. Coral Bones engages with the history and the social framework that have shaped the current disaster, and is realistic about the fact that some damage is now unavoidable thanks to the vast forces we’ve unleashed. Still, it holds out some hope.

Chloe Smith’s Virgin Land uses a sense of distance to discuss environmental change, by setting its story in the far future, on an alien planet. There, the colonial settler mindset plays out, a mindset that shaped modern America and by extension the ideology of the world we now live in. Virgin Land explores the myth of the empty wilderness, how it prevents a healthy relationship with the environment, and how that ties into other, patriarchal ideas. By presenting an unreal ecosystem, it can present a simpler, exaggerated version of ecological impact, playing out on a short time scale, and this hammers home the problem we face – that we can’t save the world without first changing how we think about it.

Ironically, my own recent environmental stories, “Silver Soul and Shining Wings” and “The Girl Who Drew Gold from the Sun”, weren’t inspired by those ecologically themed calls I mentioned earlier. Both were written for other ideas and themes, but in the process environmental concerns emerged, creating one story about our failure to understand ecosystems and another about the destructive effect of greed on the world. Have I been reading so much environmental fiction that it’s bleeding over into everything I write? Maybe. Is that a bad thing? Probably not.

Climate change is real, and like any big issue, people need help coming to terms with it. It’s too big an issue to wrap your head around in its entirety, but stories can be a good way of gaining perspective. Whether that’s exploring the aftermath or the event, the saviours or the destroyers, the abstract causes or concrete symptoms, fiction helps us face climate change realistically but with hope. That seems worth doing.


If, instead of scifi, you’d like some fantasy set in a damaged environment, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, a story about history, tradition, and a monastery full of ghosts:

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