It was inevitable that someone would write a science fiction story about genetically modified crops. But while more obvious authors would have the GMOs running amok and killing people like in some B-movie from the ’50s, or the ’80s, writer Nancy Kress is anything but obvious. In the following email interview, she not only discusses what inspired her new GMO-related sci-fi novella Sea Change (paperback, Kindle), but how looking into the real science behind GMOs influenced this story.
Photo Credit: Liza Trombi
To begin, what is Sea Change about and when and where is it set?
Sea Change spans a few decades beginning in 2005 and ending in 2033. Most of it takes place in Seattle. It’s about a lot of things, but the primary concern is genetically-modified crops. This is, I know, a spectacularly controversial subject. And, I believe, a necessary one. Usually people come down hard on one side or the other, without nuance. “Frankenfoods!” “Luddite!” I wanted to depict a near future that takes into account the genuine complexity of GMOs.
Sea Change is also “about” ocean algae blooms, government control, and chess. But since all stories are primarily about the characters who inhabit them, this is a story about Renata and Jake. In fact, if I were titling my novella now, I would call it Sea Change: A Love Story. Unfortunately, I didn’t think of this in time and Tachyon would not be happy to change the title at this late date.
Sea Change has been called a bio-thriller. Is that how you’d describe it or are there genres you think describe it better or are at work in this story as well?
Well, as I just said, it is a romance, but I don’t think it would fit very well in that genre. “Bio-thriller” as a subgenre always baffles me. How much action do you need for a story to qualify as a thriller? I think of Sea Change as hard SF, in that the science is as accurate as I can make it. The story concerns what we do with that science, and how those choices affect my characters and, ultimately, the future of food. I think that’s thrilling, but on the other hand, nobody in the entire story pulls a gun. So you decide.
This story is clearly rooted in what’s going on these days with food production. But did you set out to write a story that was socially and politically relevant or did you just start writing this it and realize at some point that it was socially relevant?
Both. I started out to write about GMOs, which I think will become increasingly relevant in decades to come. But I also started out writing about Renata, an older woman who’s known heartbreak of the worst kind. I confess that I get tired of young, badass heroines who always triumph over the world. Life is messier than that, and if one is going to be an activist, as Renata is, life can get really messy. Mess interests me. Mess is what good fiction is about.
Why did you want to write something socially / politically relevant, especially given how, as you said, some people would greet it warmly but others would attack it with equal vigor?
I expect this novella to be attacked. I’m not looking forward to it, but I expect it. The job of writers is to tell the truth as they see it, not to write only what seems politically safe.
In writing this novel, did you do any research into GMOs or did you make up those aspects of the story, and why did you do whatever you did?
I always research my science meticulously. For Sea Change, I read a great deal on both sides of the GMO question, as well as the actual science involved in algae blooms and their effects. I would hope that you could tell that from reading the novella. In addition, because some of my characters are Native American, I researched the Quinalt Nation, who have been settled on their land in Washington State for over a thousand years, as well as the complicated questions of law enforcement jurisdiction on and off tribal lands. Tachyon hired a Native American sensitivity reader to review my story and make suggestions, which was very helpful. I wanted all aspects of the story to be real.
So how did that research impact your story, both positively and negatively?
Researching science always suggests plot points. For instance, when I read about the conditions under which algae blooms do or do not produce toxins, it suggested some aspects of the work that the Org is doing, and why they’re doing it, which in turn had a lot to do with the ending. I started with a rough idea of where my story was going, but science shaped the details.
What about the Native American sensitivity reader, did they suggest anything that prompted you to change anything in the story?
The sensitivity reader did not suggest any changes at all to my plot, including the information on the disgraceful way that instances of abuse of Native American women by non-Native men are often ignored or mishandled by federal prosecutors. The sensitivity reader’s suggestions all addressed names of characters and legal jurisdiction questions.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Sea Change but not on anything else you’ve written?
Not that I can think of.
Now, you and I previously did interviews about the three books in your Yesterday’s Kin trilogy: Tomorrow’s Kin, If Tomorrow Comes, and Terran Tomorrow [which you can read here, here, and here, respectfully]. Is Sea Change part of a series as well?
Never once as I wrote a novella did I think there would be sequels. Usually what happens is that later — sometimes years later — I get the itchy feeling that the story isn’t done, that I want to return to those characters. This happened with the novellas of Beggars In Spain, The Flowers Of Aulit Prison, and Yesterday’s Kin. So far, I’m not feeling “itchy” about Sea Change because I’m deeply involved in the novel I’m writing now, but in the future, who knows? Stay tuned.
Finally, if someone enjoys Sea Change, what environmentally-minded thriller of someone else’s would you suggest they read next, and what environmental group would you suggest they donate the same amount of money as they paid for the book?
That’s a good question, but unfortunately I don’t have an equally good answer. If you know of any good environmental thrillers out there that you would recommend, please tell me.
My charitable donations are usually connected with feeding the world, but not (yet) with GMOs. My favorite cause is Heifer International, which helps the world feed itself, one family at a time, by providing the poorest family with livestock and an instructor to teach them how to care for it. Depending on the amount you can afford, you can send a water buffalo to plow land, alpacas or sheep or goats to provide milk to drink or sell and hair for spinning; rabbits or chickens to breed, eat, and sell; or even fish. They do wonderful work.