Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.
One of the reasons climate change is so hard to even think about — let alone understand fully — is that it manifests in many different ways. We’re seeing some of those manifestations now in the form of wildfires ravaging the Pacific Northwest, larger and more frequent hurricanes, and rapidly melting polar ice.
In Siobhan Adcock’s latest novel, The Completionist, climate change has led to even more catastrophic events: world war and a global fertility crisis. It’s set in the near future and told from the perspective of a war veteran named Carter Quinn. Carter’s youngest sister, a Nurse Completionist, is missing, and his older sister, miraculously pregnant, has tasked him with finding her. As he embarks on the search, he wrestles with health problems of his own and learns just how risky his sister’s job actually is.
I spoke to Adcock, a former Chicagoan now living in Brooklyn, about what inspired this feminist novel about war and climate change, and how, in her own words, “we have to tell stories about ourselves to help us make sense of ourselves.”
In the future depicted in The Completionist resources are scarce, wars and ecological disasters have all but entirely destroyed the planet, and women around the globe are experiencing a fertility crisis. What inspired you to bring so many different plot points together in one novel?
Seems like a lot for an elevator pitch, right? But these themes are already connected in the real world right now, so as a writer it felt less like a stretch and more like looking just a little way down the road. We already know that climate change has wide downstream effects that are only going to get wider. We already know that climate change impacts the most vulnerable communities worst and first. And we already know that women—largely because of persistent income inequality—are among the most vulnerable to climate change around the world. Because one of the biggest and earliest impacts of climate change is, in fact, income inequality: More-frequent and more-intense environmental disasters, rising seas overtaking low-lying, low-income communities, and population shifts all force an entrenchment of income inequality. As stuff starts burning and falling apart, those who have resources start to guard over them, and those who don’t are even more desperately impacted.
Income inequality is a theme you’ve addressed in previous work.
Yes, it’s at the root of another issue that I am very much invested in as a writer. My previous work has been about motherhood and the crisis affecting maternal health care in the U.S. and abroad. Unequal access to basic prenatal and postnatal care, right here in the U.S. in 2018, means 700-800 women die of preventable complications of pregnancy and childbirth every year, and women of color are three times as likely to die of such complications. On top of that, we unfortunately already know that in turbulent or reactive political times, one of the freedoms women stand to lose first is reproductive freedom. Something that Margaret Atwood says about The Handmaid’s Tale is that she was careful not to put anything into it that wasn’t already happening or hadn’t already happened, somewhere in the world. Every novel about the future is really a novel about its time.
Over the past two years, I’ve interviewed several writers who’ve said that any work of fiction set in the future must deal with climate change. What are your thoughts on this? How much does climate change figure into your future world building?
I read your interview with Annalee Newitz in which she said, basically, that any novel set in this world, from here on out, is de facto a novel of climate change—I loved that point. So whether your story is set 100 years in the future when the robots take over, or tomorrow, when some teenagers in Portland go to the skate park and find a mysterious dead body, if you’re writing fiction of this world, you’ve got to write about what’s happening to this world.
“Future world building” is such a great phrase for something that in practice feels a lot more like sweating and squinting and squirming over a laptop. For me, as a writer working on a book about climate change and its interconnected results, the best part was imagining the technological innovations that we’ll come up with to save ourselves. I really believe we can put some hope in our inventiveness, in our ability to creatively problem-solve. The very real threat that climate change poses to cities around the world is already inspiring some incredible feats of engineering. I mean, they built gigantic plates under the ocean to try to save Venice; that’s some futuristic next-level Earth-hack stuff, and it’s happening right now.
What inspired you to write a novel told from the perspective of a veteran?
I’m the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, and I work with an organization that runs creative writing workshops for veterans. One thread that runs through a lot of writing by and about veterans is, “Whatever got us into this mess, we are first and foremost responsible for each other.” If I’ve learned anything from being immersed in veterans’ narratives it may be that in the lived experience of war, what gets you through is trying to take care of your men, trying to keep your friends alive—and that’s especially and poignantly true when the war itself seems misguided and chaotic, born from a lost cause. If there’s a better metaphor for how we must deal with climate change, I can’t think of one: However we got here, we must work together to find our way forward. Our great, saving responsibility is to each other.
My father’s letters home from Vietnam were a major inspiration for me as I wrote The Completionist, and some parts of the book are based closely on his experiences. He was a young man in a terrible place, trying to figure out how to be one of the good guys. For the last two decades, we have sent a lot of young men and women into terrible places, where being a good person is often at odds with what we’re asking them to do. As the geopolitical impact of climate change is felt, more and more, around the world we’ll probably see violence and zones of conflict erupt, and more young men and women will be sent to those places. We’re well into our second decade of constantly being at war, and I’m not the only person saying that we probably shouldn’t expect to see that situation change any time soon. War as a consequence of climate change may very well be the next evolution of the decades-long conflict our military is already engaged in. If that is the case, our veterans will be carrying an even greater responsibility than they already do. That’s the only part that’s hard to imagine.
Do you think about climate change beyond what you write about in your fiction?
That question gets at this weird situation most of us inhabit, where we basically live in a house where some of the furniture is on fire, but we’ve learned to kind of…work around it? Just sit on the opposite side of the room from the flaming couch? As a human being who cares about other human beings and reads the news, I think about climate change every day. Stuff is on fire. Literally. People are suffering. But I am not suffering, here in Brooklyn, where there hasn’t been a superstorm to flood the streets in a couple of years or so. Which makes my responsibility all the greater, I think.
As I mentioned, I’m most immediately concerned about the impact of climate change on income inequality, especially here in the U.S. where income inequality is already at the root of some of our most pressing problems in education, housing, and public health. If you live in Brooklyn, as I do, this is a problem that comes closest to home when the next Sandy hits and forces people in the Rockaways to evacuate in the middle of the night carrying their three year-olds on their shoulders. If you live in Flint or Puerto Rico or Plaquemines Parish, this is a problem that is very much on your doorstep, and I hope to God people are writing about it there too.
The Completionist isn’t necessarily dystopian, but it contains a dystopic streak. Are you hopeful for the future? Or do you think it’ll resemble what you write about?
While it may seem like I am the world’s biggest walking sad trombone, I am in fact a ludicrously hopeful, optimistic person by nature. I am from Chicago, and I’m a Midwestern girl, through and through—weirdly, the longer I live in New York the more Midwestern I seem to get. It is the great genius of our people that we solve problems, mostly around kitchen tables.
I’m far from the first person to point this out, but dystopian fiction isn’t really about the end of the world. It’s really about hope. There’s a reason why so many bestselling YA novels are set in dystopian worlds where the challenge is to figure out how to be a good human being in a world where that’s crushingly difficult. Figuring out how to be a good human being in a difficult world: that’s what teenagers are all about, that’s their full-time job. That’s also a deeply hopeful and human challenge, and it’s what powers the tradition of dystopian fiction from George Orwell to Octavia Butler.
There’s reason to bank hope. I think it’s pretty established that major changes are coming to our way of life, and sooner rather than later. But we’ve also had a ringside seat for about two decades of sustained, unprecedented technological innovation. We are inventing and making and fixing and pushing things forward faster than we ever have as a species. I very much believe that we have what it takes to find creative solutions to the problems presented by climate change. I am hopeful. Hope is the move.
What role do you see novels playing in our larger conversations about war, climate change, and the future to come?
It’s hard to give yourself permission to write fiction about huge systemic catastrophes like climate change or income inequality or the impact of war on the human heart. You think, isn’t there something better I could do with my time, something more useful? On one hand, it’s tempting to think that no novel, however thoroughly-researched or thoughtful or passionately-felt, can create change on the level that we seem to require to save ourselves. But on the other hand, that has never stopped us from trying, and it shouldn’t. We have to tell stories about ourselves to help us make sense of ourselves. It’s what separates us from every other species on the planet, and why we should take stories seriously as a way of building a future we all want to live in.
By Siobhan Adcock
Simon & Schuster
Published June 19, 2018
Siobhan Adcock is the author of author of The Barter and The Completionist. Her short fiction has been published in Triquarterly and The Massachusetts Review, and her essays and humor writing have appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, and Huffington Post. A former Chicagoan, she now lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn.
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.