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.
This month, the United Nations released their 2018 IPCC report on climate change, their most urgent and dire report to date. It states that an increase in global temperature of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit could be reached within 11 years. The increase would bring catastrophic consequences, including rising seas, heatwaves, disrupted animal migration patterns, as well as strains on the planet’s ecosystems, human health, and global economies.
Discussions of global warming and climate change have never felt more urgent, and you can feel that urgency throughout interview with British author and biologist, Paul McAuley.
Paul is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels that explore themes of climate change, biotechnology, space travel, and geoengineering. He also holds a PhD in biology, which has certainly informed his writing—his work is scientifically rich and all the more fascinating for it.
In his latest novel, Austral, we meet a protagonist of the same name. Austral is a “husky,” a human being genetically engineered to withstand extreme cold. That comes in handy, because she and a group of other “husky” women have helped to colonize Antarctica on an Earth that has been ravaged by global warming and climate change. Austral is among the last generation of “ecopoets,” geoengineers who have worked to build new ecosystems on a dying planet. She is also a former convict and a corrections officer at a labor camp, where she finds herself pregnant and desperate—so desperate she commits a kidnapping.
These themes are intricately woven together to form one of the most engaging works of climate fiction I’ve read this year. I spoke to Paul about his latest work, as well as his thoughts on the viability of geoengineering and what one thing he wishes we’d all do to help mitigate global warming.
Your imagery of Antarctica is rich and beautifully drawn. It’s clear that you have more than an impressive imagination; you understand the science of the place. What kind of research did you do to create your version of the continent?
At the end of the last century, I was invited to a workshop exploring the kind of stories scientists tell to each other and to the general public, held in a small Swedish village some way above the Arctic Circle. It was May: spring in London, and over two meters of snow on the ground when I arrived at the workshop’s venue. And it was also the beginning of the season of white nights. The sun roller-coastered around the horizon, briefly dipping behind a mountain peak at about midnight but otherwise tirelessly shining, and the locals were ice fishing and buzzing around on snowmobiles at all hours, intoxicated by the wealth of light and the end of their long winter. I tramped through snowfields to examine patches of dwarf birches and lichens on little islands of rocks poking up out of the snow, and on our free day some of us took the train along the Iron Ore Line into Norway, descending from the icy plateau through coniferous forests clinging to the steep sides of fjords, spotting the carcasses of two sunken Word War Two battleships preserved in the frigid waters.
Much later, I mined that experience—the islands of life in wastes of snow and ice; the descent into another season; the postglacial coastline and the abandoned detritus of vast engineering projects—for the framework of Austral. I transposed it onto the Antarctic Peninsula, the southernmost projection of the continent, which has some topographical similarities with Norway’s Arctic coast, pored over detailed maps of the region, and read accounts from the past hundred years of Antarctic exploration, from the Heroic Age to the present Scientific Era. The rest is imaginative extrapolation, informed by my former life as a research biologist, of how life might take hold in new lands exposed by the retreat of ice from the Antarctic coast.
In Austral you apply the concept of ecopoiesis—which is usually used in the context of space exploration—to planet Earth. Your “Ecopoet” characters have worked for generations to build sustainable ecosystems in Antarctica. Do you follow real life scientific conversations about geoengineering?
I knew only a little about geoengineering when I began thinking about Austral. Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade was a useful introduction to the science and politics of the kind of massive projects that might slow global warming, and a springboard for further research. The problem isn’t so much the scale of the necessary work. After all, the United States went from Pearl Harbor to D-Day in a little over three years, and conjured up the Apollo moon landings in only about twice that time. And there are all kinds of small-scale interventions—preserving glacial ice by covering it with fleece blankets in summer, for instance. But geoengineering the planet’s climate needs global commitment, and despite the urgency of the crisis there still isn’t universal agreement that climate change is driven by human activity, or that human activity can ameliorate it. There’s also the risk that any attempt to manipulate global weather systems could have unforeseen effects. But taking that risk may soon seem necessary if global temperatures continue to rise, especially if there’s some kind of feedback that amplifies and accelerates climate change–massive release of methane caused by melting of Arctic permafrost, for instance.
In the historical background I worked up for Austral, a variety of geoengineering projects had been tried, and had some effect, but the kind of long term political alliances and funding they required proved unsustainable. I still think that’s probably the most likely outcome, if geoengineering is initiated on a global scale, but given a genuine planetary crisis it would still be better than doing nothing.
As for the ecopoets, they’re one possible response to the effects of climate change and human activity on the world’s ecosystems. How do we preserve what we have left, how can we help it to survive further changes, and should we create new kinds of ecosystems to replace those we’ve lost? On the Antarctic Peninsula, increased summer temperatures have enabled invasive species to survive and thrive. Tourism has introduced the common house fly, as well as a variety of plants whose seeds have hitchhiked on clothing and boots. There’s an ongoing conservation effort to remove those non-native plants, but if temperatures continue to rise it won’t be possible to preserve the native ecosystem. And if ice sheets fringing the peninsula melts and exposes new territory, should we allow a new ecosystem to develop by itself? Or, like the ecopoets, should we intervene, and create a new, resilient wilderness in a world where wildernesses are already severely depleted? Thirty-five million years ago, the Antarctic Peninsula supported forests of conifers and Antarctic beech; there were stretches of tundra as recently as twelve million years ago, before glaciation took hold. As the peninsula warms, it might be possible to begin reforestation.
Your novel clearly ties the mistakes of your characters’ past (which would be our present) to a frightening and precarious future. I realize this is an enormous question, but if you could pick one thing (or two) that we should be doing differently right now to better mitigate the future effects of climate change, what would it be?
On a national and global level, accelerate development of solar, wind and other renewable sources of power, and give up, as soon as possible, dependency on fossil fuels. And there are all kinds of changes we can make in our daily living that can give us the very useful sense of exerting some kind of control. Actions that are individually small, but usefully scale up to. If I had to pick one, it would be this: give up bottled water.
Your lead protagonist, Austral, is a fascinating and complex character. Where did she come from? And without giving too much away, can you discuss what inspired her pregnancy plot?
I always knew that the protagonist would be a woman, if only because most of the stories about Antarctica are stories about men. The first people to set foot on continental Antarctica were men – part of the crew of a whaling and sealing ship, in 1895. Sixteen years later, a party of men led by Roald Amundsen were the first to reach the South Pole. It wasn’t until 1935 that a woman, Caroline Mikkelsen, set foot on an island off the continent of Antarctica, and women are still under-represented in Antarctic research and exploration. Austral, and all the other women in the novel (and most of the main characters are women) are a small correction to that imbalance. And because Austral’s story is partly about how our lives are affected by choices made in previous generations, it seemed thematically fitting that a pregnancy should trigger her personal crisis, and become the focus of her hope for a better future.
Austral is one of several “huskies”—human beings who were genetically modified to better withstand cold temperatures. Like every other aspect of your novel, it’s clear that you’ve read up on the science behind this as well. What surprised you the most about where the science currently is with genetic modification? And do you think that genetic modification will become more common as the effects of climate change become more extreme?
Science fiction stories are rife with genetically enhanced people. And with plants and animals likewise modified, and species resurrected from extinction, as with the dwarf mammoths in Austral. It’s one of the defaults of our common future. The precision of the recently developed CRISPR gene-editing tool brings those fictional possibilities much closer to reality. Although social and ethical concerns about the uses and misuses of gene technology have so far prevented changes to the human genome which could be transmitted across generations, as in Austral, it’s probably only a matter of time before it happens. Many scientists worry that children whose parents choose not to have their offspring improved by gene editing could be discriminated against; in Austral, it’s the genetically enhanced who are the subject of discrimination and distrust.
Meanwhile, in the real world, plants are already being gene-edited to improve their yields, make them more resistant to drought, disease and higher temperatures, or to make them more resistant to saline soil conditions, which are a big problem with irrigated crops. There’s also a powerful new technique that combines genome mapping and traditional techniques of plant breeding to facilitate precise and rapid “breeding by design.”
Cheap and fast whole genome mapping is one of the most interesting developments in the fifteen years since the massive, and massively expensive, Human Genome Project was declared complete. Another is the way that molecular paleontology has revolutionized our understanding of human evolution. We’ve discovered that the Neanderthal genome differs by just 0.12% from that of modern humans, and that about twenty per cent of that genome survives in Europeans and Asians because of interbreeding tens of thousands of years ago (Austral’s ability to survive in the raw Antarctic is partly based on selected Neanderthal genes). We’ve discovered a new species or subspecies of archaic humans, the Denisovans, by extracting and sequencing DNA from a single finger bone. And mapping frequency and location of gene markers in modern populations has helped to create a detailed picture of ancient human migrations across the world. It’s pretty amazing that our deep history can be excavated from our genes as well as from archaeological sites.
What do you think fiction can teach us about climate change that scientific reports can’t?
One thing we know about the future: it’s going to be massively influenced by global warming and climate change. The average global temperature is presently 1.1°C (2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, and will continue to rise if nothing is done, driving changes to climate patterns, rises in sea level, thinning of Arctic ice, mass die-offs of coral reefs and increases in frequency of extreme weather events.
At least, that’s what almost every climatologist, and most governments, believe. But it’s hard to win over people who remain unconvinced, not only because much of the scientific argument relies on facts, statistics and graphs, which aren’t especially relatable to everyday life, but also because climate change is also a kind of hyperobject. Its size and temporal span defies easy comprehension; the scale and nature of its full impact on the world and human civilization is still unclear. Climatologists and science writers are acutely aware of this, and are trying to find other ways of conveying the seriousness of our plight. And if some people don’t want to believe the scientists, they could take note of what the very rich are doing: building luxury bunkers, discussing how to keep the help loyal after the apocalypse, buying refuges in New Zealand, South America and other places that might be least impacted by severe climate change. I once wrote a novel, The Quiet War, in which billionaires clubbed together to construct a refuge city on the Moon (the help eventually revolted, and headed further out). It doesn’t seem quite so implausible now.
Fiction can help to make the possible consequences of global warming by illuminating the nature of the catastrophe through stories on a human scale. A significant proportion of climate-change fiction is dystopian and apocalyptic. Awful warnings. Catastrophe fueling our worst appetites and fantasies. But some, like my Austral, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 or James Bradley’s Clade, are hopeful. They show how we might be able to adapt to worlds transformed in various ways by climate change, and how we might be able to overcome or prevent the worst of it.
Austral wants to escape the fate she’s inherited from her parents and grandparents, She wants something better, for herself and for her child. That’s relatable I hope. And hopeful. And hope especially now, is no small thing. As the climatologist Michael Mann has pointed out, “Despair and hopelessness lead us down a path of inaction much the same way that outright denial does.”
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on something completely different–a novel set on a decaying far-future world whose inhabitants are trying to come to terms with having been abandoned by their creators, framed by a kind of Samurai Western story of pursuit and justice.
FICTION – SCIENCE FICTION
By Paul McAuley
Published October 19, 2018
Paul McAuley is the award-winning author of more then twenty novels, several short story collections, and many more edited anthologies. He won the Philip K. Kick Award for his first novel and went on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, Sidewise, British Fantasy, and John W. Campbell Awards. A former research biologist, he is now a full-time writer living in London.