Sci-fi novels about climate change often take a “worst case scenario” approach, setting their stories in bleak, post-apocalyptic worlds. But in his new novel Clade (paperback, digital), writer James Bradley takes a more personal approach to the climate change sci-fi genre. Which isn’t to say things won’t still go horribly awry…
Let’s start with the basics. What is Clade about?
It’s the story of three generations of a family set against the backdrop of a world increasingly affected by climate change, and it explores the way their lives intersect with that process and the way they and the world are altered by it.
Where did the idea for Clade originate, and how different is the final version from that initial idea?
It’s always weird looking back at the original ideas or outlines for any finished project, not just because they’re often so different, but because the things you started out wanting to write have often fallen by the wayside, often without you even realizing. But with Clade, I was very clear right from the outset that I wanted to write about climate change, but that I wanted to do it in a way that let me talk about both the human experience of it and the larger, planetary and conceptual dimension of it. At least at first that second part dominated, so it was originally a novel about characters from all over the world which tried to be about everything, which I simply couldn’t make work. But one day it occurred to me I was coming at it from the wrong direction, and if I focused in on a relatively small group of characters, I could use them as a sort of prism through which to see the bigger picture. Once I realized that I went away and write an outline of the book in a few hours, and though it changed quite a bit during the writing, a lot of that basic outline — like the fact it begins and ends on beaches, which are such wonderful symbols of transition and encounter — made it through to the final version.
Now, the back of the book has a quote from New Scientist that says, “A beautifully written meditation on climate collapse,” while another from The Guardian says, “An elegantly bleak vision of a climate-change future…urgent, powerful stuff.” Are you at all worried that this might turn off climate change deniers, who might actually benefit from reading Clade?
To be honest, I don’t think anything is going to change the minds of hard core climate denialists, and certainly not a novel. But I also think one of the problems with thinking about climate change is that the problem is just so big and complex we have trouble holding it in our heads. That means that even people who are concerned about it tend to vacillate between acting like the problem exists somewhere over the horizon or total, overwhelming despair, neither of which are terribly helpful responses. With Clade, I wanted to try to get that past that a bit, and give people a way of thinking about what it might feel like to live through what’s coming, because it seemed to me that doing that might make it easier to think about what it might mean, and perhaps how we should respond. It’s also why the book deliberately resists the apocalypse. It was important to me we not pretend we could just press some kind of reset button and make our problems disappear. The reality is we have to live with the mess we’re making, so we need to find ways to think about it, and quickly.
Are you also worried that by having bees on the cover, especially the back cover, someone might run screaming from your book because they’ve been afraid of bees since they got stung when they were a kid, even though it was my fault, I shouldn’t have thrown a rock into the hole where they had recently built their home?
I got stung on the head by a bee the other day. I couldn’t say I felt terribly warmly to them after that. But I also think the degree to which bees have become such a potent symbol of our anxiety about the environment is fascinating. Obviously, that’s partly because what’s happening to them is so scary, and so weird. But it’s also because we know at some deep level that the presence of bees mean a place is healthy and full of life, and because we see in them and their industry and communality and warmth qualities we like to believe are in ourselves, so their loss makes us uneasy by suggesting something of our own fragility.
Clade is not your first novel. Are there any writers or specific novels that had a big influence on Clade, but ones that were not influences on your earlier books?
I suspect the really big influences on my early work were such writers as Michael Ondaatje and David Malouf, both of whom were enormous, enabling figures that helped show me what writing might be for, and how you might do it, as well as a series of poets like Seamus Heaney and Elizabeth Bishop and Derek Walcott. But as I’ve gotten older I suppose I’ve become more and more fascinated with nature writing and such nature writers as Robert Macfarlane and Helen MacDonald, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time ranging back and forth between such contemporary science fiction and spec fiction writers as Kelly Link and Paul McAuley and Kij Johnson, and older writers from the New Wave and earlier.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV show, or video games; did any of those have an impact on Clade?
That’s an interesting question. There’s actually a bit of gaming in the background of the novel itself; one of the characters plays a game called Twinmaker, which I named after my friend Sean Williams’ novel, and later there’s a vast, infinite virtual world game called Universe some of the characters spend time in. But I’m not sure visual media or games influenced the book in any particularly direct way, in fact it’s possible the opposite is true: I wanted to write a novel that did things with time scale and connectedness that are incredibly difficult to achieve on screen.
And this is my final influence question, I swear. In researching you for this interview, I saw that your partner is novelist Mardi McConnochie [The Snow Queen, Fivestar]. What impact do you think Mardi had on Clade?
I suspect Mardi’s influence is all over a lot of my work, although not necessarily in a direct way, simply because I talk to her about it all the time. Actually, I mostly talk at her, but that’s another story. But I think both she and our daughters are very much at the heart of the book, because one of the things I wanted to do when I started writing it was to think through what the future meant for them, and to try to work out what that meant, for them, for me and in a more general sense.
While Clade is clearly rooted in scientific fact, it’s still, thankfully, science fiction. Given that the big thing in science fiction is for books to not be stand-alone novels, but to be parts of a series, I’m legally required to ask if Clade is a stand-alone novel or the first in a series?
No, it’s very much a stand-alone book. But the sorts of concerns that are at the heart of it are also at the heart of the book I’m writing now, so in a way it — and I imagine the book after it — are sort of companion novels.
Earlier I asked you whether any movies, TV shows, or video games were an influence on Clade. But has there been any interest in making a Clade movie, show, or game?
There have been a few nibbles but nothing definite yet, which is interesting because though it would need to be rethought and expanded, I think the episodic structure and interlocking themes and characters would work really well as a self-contained television series.
If it was to be made into a TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles and why them?
Oh! That’s interesting. And impossible because I’m so hopeless at remembering anything I’ve seen. But I’d love to see Dev Patel as the adult Noah; he was wonderful in Lion.
Finally, as we mentioned earlier, Clade is not your first novel. If someone enjoys it, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I think if they enjoy Clade the best one to read next is my second book, The Deep Field, which is also a near future science fiction novel, and one I’ve always been terribly proud of, or my new young adult novel, The Silent Invasion. They’re all quite different books, but I think there’s a sensibility and set of concerns that unites them.