Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors
an interview, plus a podcast, a panel, and award season
As I’ve mentioned a couple times, I’m teaching a class on climate fiction and solarpunk in March as part of the Clarion West workshop series. (If you register, I’d love for you to let me know you’re joining!) It’s for fellow writers, of any level, who want to get into this genre space. The goal will be to get participants going on a piece of fiction that might serve as a solid entry in Grist’s annual Imagine 2200 contest. The contest has recently launched its third collection. I was a story reviewer on the first round of this contest in 2021, working with the amazing Sarena Ulibarri and Tobias Buckell to shift through a slush pile some 900 stories deep. It was a great experience, and in the couple years since, the contest has continued to produce really interesting cli-fi stories.
For this newsletter, I’m trying something a little different——an interview with the creative manager of the contest, Tory Stephens. Please check it out down below the fold.
News + Reviews + Miscellany
Agenda for a Progressive Political Economy of Carbon Removal: Last year I worked with the American University Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy to write speculative scenarios for a super exciting report on how to build out the CDR industry in a progressive way. The report comes out in a week or so. We are having a Zoom event on Feb. 13 to launch it, with a panel that will include me and several really smart policy folks I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with. Register for the event here.
Solarpunk Manifesto Podcast: I was interviewed for the first episode of a lovely new podcast by a really thoughtful pair of solarpunks in Paris. We talk about how the movement has evolved and a bunch of other topics: degrowth, photoncultures, the pope, and whether it’s now time to ‘move loudly and plant things.’ Check it out here.
Award Season: My story “The Uncool Hunters” was included this year in both the Locus Recommended Reading List and the Nerds of a Feather Recommended Reading List. As a reminder, here’s my eligibility post for this SFF award season. I’d much appreciate a nomination, a share, or just a like in the Nebula Reading List.
Interview: Tory Stephens of Grist
ADH: The Imagine 2200 contest series bills itself as "climate fiction for future ancestors." How do you and the contest define or situate "climate fiction" and why are you drawn to it? Has that changed at all over the course of running the contest for several years?
TS: Put simply, climate fiction, as we see it at Imagine 2200, is a story that focuses on the climate crisis and how that crisis touches everyone – you, me, and the animals we share this planet with.
I’m personally drawn to climate fiction because it resonates with my core values as an advocate. Prior to joining Grist, I raised funds for health advocacy organizations that championed the critical role of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act. Much of that work was story work. Stories helped educate others about the importance of these programs, and laid the groundwork for people to advocate for themselves and others. I fully believe stories are an important and underutilized climate solution. It’s no secret, the world is awash in misinformation, false narratives, and fossil fuel propaganda. I fully believe the right kind of climate fiction can help raise awareness and counter misinformation by sparking crucial climate conversations.
As to whether the definition of climate fiction is static; I don’t think it needs to change. What we are hoping to change is who climate fiction is for, who feels comfortable writing and reading it, and what other social issues are interwoven throughout the stories.
Let me explain. Imagine 2200 offers a space for writers to explore hopeful visions and build worlds that intersect with other key issues people care about. Things like indigenous land rights, food insecurity, LGBTQ issues and rights, abortion, and other key social issues that folk care about. Lots of climate fiction stories out there are great, but they focus on climate, and forget or don't care to weave in other important life events that a character would be wrangling with. This is why I have been calling for intersectional characters in climate fiction. People have layered identities, and to relate to the characters people want stories that peel back those layers. This is about way more than attracting a wider audience to the climate conversation; it's about reflecting the multifaceted reality of our changing world. The initiative is in its third year, but in year one we published a story called, Canvas - Wax - Moon. That story has just a bit of climate in the plot, and is much more about a person who experiences a miscarriage or goes through an abortion. This is a common experience, and yet this was the first time I had read this in a climate fiction story. After we published the story I received a bunch of emails from people who said they could relate and appreciate us publishing this type of story. Another story from our first year features a transfemme character from Barbados and this story had a similar effect as Canvas did. People reached out and said they heard about this brave trans climate fiction story we published.
Another thing we’ve been advocating for is for more writers to lean on the genre they emerged from or love the most, and weave in a climate plot. We want romance, mystery, fantasy, and detective fiction writers, to name a few to write climate fiction. Right now we need a full spectrum of hopeful climate fiction to help us envision the world we want and need.
Running Imagine 2200 over several years has only strengthened my conviction in the power of climate fiction. The stories we receive reveal a tapestry of human ingenuity and resilience, and demonstrate how diverse cultures can rise to the challenge in unique and inspiring ways.
ADH: When I talk about climate fiction, I often talk about how it’s focused on different drivers of social change than science fiction: the changing environment instead of evolving tech. What are a couple ideas you’ve encountered in this contest about what now-to-2200 will look like that you find compelling?
TS: When the team was designing this initiative, the central themes of the healing justice movement——mutual aid, collective responsibility, healing and transformation, and restorative practices——resonated with many of us.
Our initiative's focus on justice, hope, and intersectionality meant that these values showed up for many of our writers as well, and we’ve received fantastic stories that challenge our current economic and social systems, which prioritize production and consumption over care and healing.
A good example of this is in our second collection. And Now the Shade by Rich Larson is a story that focuses on care for our elders, hospice care, emotional well-being, the importance of listening to our elders and accessing their ancestral knowledge. The story serves as a powerful reminder that addressing environmental injustice demands not just physical solutions, but also a commitment to social and emotional aspects of climate work and our daily lives.
Another example is A Tree in the Backyard by Michelle Yoon. In the story, the protagonist Mariska selects an Eternity Pod, a green burial option for her father, from which a tree will grow. Mariska selects a merbau tree, which is native to her family's ancestral land, Malaysia. Later when selecting a spot for the tree at the cemetery where she aims to bury her father she hears a cacophony of spirits talking and murmuring to her. This part of the story really spoke to me because my great grand-mother did this in her later years. I was 10, and I remember hearing her talking in her room, but no one was around. I asked her who she was talking to, and although she was somewhat embarrassed she said, “I’m talking to the spirits, now leave me alone.” After that I would leave her alone, but sometimes listen from the top of the stairs. This story is about the gentle moments, memories, and rituals of our life that mean so much. No laser battles, sinister corporations, or off world adventures. Just a woman struggling to hear her father in a forest of the dead. This story doesn't offer a simplistic solution to healing justice, but instead takes a multifaceted approach that combines individual grief work with cultural reconnection along with the emotional, and spiritual dimensions of healing.
The last story I want to highlight is When it’s Time to Harvest, by Renan Bernardo. Renan’s story tackles personal well-being, open communication in a marriage and elderly love. The story takes place at Torre Verde, their vertical farm. The couple in this story are work-aholics, and married to the food justice movement and real world issues food justice can solve. The wife, Nadia, wants her husband to think about an exit plan, but he isn’t in that mental space at all. You get to see how much care work requires listening and intentional communication around one's needs. What bonds and binds the couple deeply are their shared values and purpose. But what happens when self care and aging requires making lifestyle adjustments, like moving on from their daily passion and life's work, the farm, for longevity’s sake. Healing often requires introspection and ultimately transformation. The introspection here is them understanding that they are too old for this work and burning out, and their work is becoming harmful to their longevity. The transformation is them making the choice to invest in selfcare by retiring and walking away from their passion for longevity's sake.
All of these are issues I do not often see science fiction or climate fiction addressing, and are issues we will be dealing with in 2200, and beyond. Elder care, spirit work, wellness, rest, and self care, to name a few, are important to healing on an individual level, but if these issues are tackled on a systemic level you have the framework for a society that looks radically different. With Imagine 2200 you have writers exploring their imagination and articulating what healing and care work look like in practice with the characters making transformational changes.
ADH: Do you have any tips for aspiring entrants looking to write stories that will be successful in this contest? Anything you expect the judges and reviewers will be keen on this upcoming round? What do you think makes for a winning Imagine 2200 story?
TS: Our recent mantra for all things Imagine 2200 is that we are looking for a variety of genres and storytelling styles. While it might seem straightforward to stick to a winning formula, Imagine 2200 actively pursues genre variety for a vital reason: expanding the reach and impact of climate narratives. Different genres resonate with different audiences. Mystery or romance lovers might discover climate themes embedded within their preferred genres. Fantasy lovers might connect with stories woven into mythical landscapes. By embracing genre diversity, Imagine 2200 wants to ensure climate stories reach a wider audience, not just those already engaged in traditional environmental narratives.
And for me personally the main thing that unites the judges, reviewers and the Imagine 2200 team is a good story that surprises us. Now that we have a few years behind us we have become hyper vigilant about not just attracting what we call an Imagine 2200 check the box story. We don’t want anything to become formulaic. And every year we’re grateful that this isn’t happening. At the same time, we’ve clearly cooked up something that has resonated with a wide group of people, so the core things we are looking for have remained stable for the past three years. Creative climate solutions, hope in action, vivid characters, a compelling story, and decolonized futures.
One thing we love to see are culturally authentic stories, drawing inspiration from diverse traditions, knowledge systems, and cultural resilience strategies. This allows readers to imagine more inclusive and vibrant futures, and may even foster understanding and respect for different ways of life. Furthermore, this is a global initiative and we recognize climate change impacts are not felt equally. Indigenous communities, people of color, and marginalized groups often bear the brunt of environmental damage despite contributing the least to it. Culturally authentic stories can raise awareness of these injustices and highlight the unique experiences and perspectives of different communities in navigating climate challenges.
Looking back, now that we’ve published close to 40 stories, the other big thing that is a must is well-developed characters with relatable emotions and motivations. Readers should connect with our characters' hopes, fears, and struggles, making the story more than just a thought experiment about the future. Many of the characters I highlighted earlier when I was talking about care work are wrangling with relatable issues like growing old, taking the time to listen to an elder, grief, and love in our older ages.
Finally, the foundation for any great Imagine 2200 story should be hope for the future. It should be a reminder that even in the face of adversity, humans have the capacity to learn, adapt, and build a better world for themselves and future generations.
Art Collection: The Rainy Season
Some years back I saw this small, lovely, sad piece hanging in an Oakland cafe. I am very susceptible to buying art priced under $60 in such an environment, and so it went. This piece is by Ahran Lee. I don’t know if it was intended as such, but it’s always seemed to me a work of climate art.
If you like the this newsletter, consider subscribing or checking out my climate fiction novel Our Shared Storm, which Publisher’s Weekly called “deeply affecting” and “a thoughtful, rigorous exploration of climate action.”