Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining how contemporary literature is addressing climate change, 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.
How will the climate crisis impact the planet’s most marginalized communities? That question is at the heart of the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author Anne Charnock’s latest novel, Bridge 108. Like her three previous novels, this one reveals how large, systemic problems like economic stratification and climate change are tightly entwined.
Her latest is set in Europe’s near future and told from differing perspectives—including a young boy and the adults he meets throughout his life. Through vibrant storytelling and compelling character development, Bridge 108 depicts a possible future rife with ecological destruction and millions of climate refugees.
I spoke with Charnock about what inspired the novel, how she sees climate change manifesting in her own life, and how the genre of science fiction allows her to tell her favorite kinds of stories.
What inspired you to write a novel about the devastating effects of climate change?
Since my student days, my internal radar has pinged whenever I’ve seen a climate-related headline. I studied environmental sciences in the UK at the University of East Anglia, home of the Climatic Research Unit where scientists carried out pioneering work to establish the history of climate over millennia. I saw this as an incredibly exciting endeavor. When I started my career in journalism, I reported on renewable energy technologies as often as I could and felt constantly frustrated that ambitious schemes for wind and solar farms and major tidal power projects were being shelved. I knew it was a waiting game for renewable energy to become more economically competitive. Thankfully that’s happening now.
When, in 2001, I started writing my first novel, A Calculated Life, I imagined a near-future England where the climate has shifted to a Mediterranean, Tuscan climate. I wasn’t sure if many readers had latched onto the issue of climate change, so although climate sits in the backdrop, I didn’t make it a major driver of events in the novel. But in returning to the world of that first novel with Bridge 108, I’ve been able to bring out that story line and focus on the migration within Europe as people abandon their increasingly precarious lives amid wildfires and drought in countries around the Mediterranean rim.
Have you started to see the effects of the climate crisis manifest in your own life?
My elder son lives in rural Portugal, in an area prone to wildfires. That alone is sufficient to keep climate change at the forefront of my thoughts, day and night! Going further back, I recognized during the years I commuted into Manchester by car, between 1995 and 2005, that the rainfall was becoming extraordinarily intense, to the point where the traffic would come to a standstill. More heat in the system means more rain! And of course, I’ve seen the change in my own garden, the early flowering, the winter mowing of the grass.
Before my first novel was published, I helped to start a grassroots community carbon reduction project in the English village where I lived. Ashton Hayes has a population of around 1,000 people. We succeeded in cutting our household carbon emissions over a ten-year period by between 25% and 40% through simple lifestyle changes and energy conservation measures. Taking these positive steps has helped to assuage the sometimes overwhelming angst we feel about the problems in store for society, for our children and grandchildren.
Let’s return to Bridge 108. I loved the structure of this novel. How did writing from many different perspectives help you to tell the story you wanted to tell?
I wanted to tell the story of a young climate migrant, trafficked from the European continent to England, and to portray his determination to make a new life for himself, despite being forced into modern-day slavery. But I didn’t envisage the book being totally about this individual endeavor. I asked myself how people in a post-Brexit Britain would react to climate migrants arriving from our neighboring European countries. Would our state institutions treat these migrants kindly or regard them as a resource ripe for exploitation?
By switching between Caleb’s voice and the voices of adults he encounters along the way, I could flesh out the bigger picture of a society in which the “have-nots” are all scraping by as best they can. I stuck with first-person narrative throughout in an attempt to get the reader into each character’s mind as quickly as possible. In a way, each character is both a persecutor and a victim, though it’s difficult to excuse some of their cruelty. I loved the challenge of this structure, of fine-tuning the voices and adopting slight alterations in prose style to fit their characters.
Structure fascinates me, and I’ve always been drawn to the fragmented form. Several novels have made a huge impression on me—A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, The Hours and Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Shore by Sara Taylor, to name a few.
I felt a strong class consciousness all through your book. Why write about class when writing about climate change?
Climate change is a phenomenon we will have to incorporate into our lives—even if we get our act together (let’s hope) and mitigate the worst impacts. Whatever the environmental outcomes, people on the economic margins will have the least room for maneuver, have the least number of options in finding ways of adapting to a changing world.
In combining class and climate change in Bridge 108, I’m building on the world I created in A Calculated Life, where society is stratified on the basis of intelligence, on who is approved for cognitive enhancement. People who are enhanced take the best jobs in cities, while the rest are consigned to low-grade work and live in enclaves outside the metropolitan areas. Everyone feels they have a reasonable deal because out in the enclaves accommodation is subsidized, electricity is free, transport is free. But this level of subsidy is partly possible because migrants are working as indentured labor in the power plants and aquaculture farms on the outskirts of the enclaves.
So, the world of Bridge 108 portrays a society that has drifted to an entrenched economic class system, one that’s almost impossible to break out from. These economic, technological, and societal forces will be playing out at the same time as climate change, and indeed will be exacerbated by climate-induced upheavals.
I suppose this is the area of speculation that interests me most. Namely, how technological advances and global climatic events will affect everyday lives and how these forces might reinforce the stratifications in society.
Do you find the sci-fi genre especially adept at speaking to these larger issues?
Well, science fiction certainly offers an expansive playground! I suspect, having worked in journalism, dealing with the here and now, I simply want to know (or at least imagine) what might happen next. And some issues such as climate change are particularly well served by a long timeline, one that stretches some way into the future. With my second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, I decided on three settings—Renaissance Florence, present-day China, and a future London—and my main character in the future is an art historian who works at the Academy of Restitutions. She elevates female artists of the past to give them overdue recognition. So, in this way I can use an imagined future as a lens through which the reader can view the position of women, and girls, in the present and past.
In Dreams Before the Start of Time, I follow two families through successive generations to imagine their paths to parenthood, using artificial wombs and advances in genetic engineering, all seemingly plausible. By doing so I can reveal a rolling “shock-of-the-new” as each generation opts for new ways to start a family, sometimes with unintended consequences for relationships and society as a whole.
Many mainstream writers find it irresistible, just as I do, to nudge their fiction into the speculative realm—Cunningham’s Specimen Days, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to offer a few shining examples. And all these brilliant stories offer the opportunity to reflect on today’s world, to allow the reader a momentary glimpse, inflected with a sense of the uncanny—an estranged view if you will.
At risk of sounding too bold, do you think that literature—whether in the sci-fi vein or otherwise—has the power to change minds? In an era of climate change, this question feels more important than ever.
This is such a difficult question to answer. People who read fiction might already have the kind of mindset that allows for a change in world view. But I don’t think it’s a binary: I don’t believe versus I do believe. As far as climate change is concerned, the argument that the world is warming as a result of human activity has already been won on this side of the pond. And I have no idea what would change the mind of a climate denier. Nothing, I suspect. So I don’t write to change that mindset.
As a writer of speculative fiction, I’ve made it my job to daydream, stare out of the window, imagine conversations, events, conjure the “unexpected consequences” that I referred to earlier. Most people are too busy for daydreaming on this scale! In writing a novel with a climate change angle, I hope the readers encounter fictional scenarios they haven’t previously considered, encounter complex characters with whom they can empathize, even if those characters are not wholly likable. Perhaps readers will ask themselves what they would do in a particular character’s situation, how they would measure up. But more particularly, fiction might encourage readers to make changes, or to reflect on their place in the scheme of things, as I do in the process of writing.
What’s next for you?
I’m about to retreat to my cave to press on with a manuscript with, at present, a contemporary setting. I hesitate to reveal more, but I am hugely excited. It’s becoming clearer to me how the second half of the novel will develop. There will be science in the background, and my characters will feel buffeted by global events and personal crises, all outside their control. Just like real life.
By Anne Charnock
Published February 18, 2020
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.