As a scientist, it’s not surprising that writer Premee Mohammed would write a story about an apocalypse that’s both environmental and biological in nature. It’s also not surprising that, as she admits in the following email interview about her post-apocalyptic sci-fi novella The Annual Migration Of Clouds (paperback, Kindle), she sometimes found her writer’s instincts running up against her scientific ones.
To begin, what is The Annual Migration Of Clouds about, and when and where is it set?
The Annual Migration Of Clouds is about Reid, a nineteen-year-old woman living on the University Of Alberta campus after a series of climate disasters and societal collapses have more or less ended industrialized society, and her choice to either leave her community to go to school at one of the few “sanctuary” places that still has advanced technology, or stay and help rebuild.
I didn’t specify a date in the novella but I think it’s about sixty-ish years after present day.
Where did you get the idea for The Annual Migration Of Clouds?
I genuinely cannot remember, which I think I’ve said for a few of these interviews before, whoops. I do seem to recall it started with the disease in the book, Cadastrulamyces, and then I decided that I wanted to build a story around that. I didn’t have a setting, characters, anything, I just had the idea for this novel disease and wanted to fictionalize it somehow. Initial ideas I kicked around included the discovery of the disease, maybe a scientist or a team of scientists researching the disease, trying to figure out where it came from, or maybe how it infected the global population, like a The Stand type epidemic story. Eventually I shrank down the scope to a single community, and a single person, and her story of having it, dealing with it, as well as watching her mother deal with it.
It sounds like The Annual Migration Of Clouds is a post-apocalyptic cli-fi science fiction story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’d say that’s accurate. I did want to be specific that climate disasters (storms, floods, droughts, topsoil loss, desertification, death of forests, changes in precipitation and temperature patterns, etc.) had either directly caused loss of life and property, or contributed to the inability to rebuild and restore. You know, this idea that we can always recover from (say) a tornado or a flood, but it’s much harder to do it again and again and again and again while you’re trying to recover from the last one, and even harder if global shipping and supply lines have been disrupted from disasters elsewhere. For many people in North America it would definitely feel like an apocalypse to lose things like electricity and running water and fossil-fuel based transportation, which is the perspective I was writing from.
So, did you set out to write something that was socially and / or politically relevant, and this is the story you came up with, or did you just come up with this story and realize, as you were writing it, that it needed to be socially and / or politically relevant?
I think the latter; I wanted some kind of apocalypse, and I wanted it to be related to the disease I had invented, and then I was like “Okay, but if I set it in the future, I simply cannot avoid discussing climate change.” Realistically, there is just no way right now to set something sixty or seventy years from now on Earth and have the climate and all the biogeochemical systems related to climate be the same as they are now. Either I had to address it in a way that “fixed” things (emissions reduction, carbon capture, something like that) or, far more likely, that it wasn’t “fixed” and the effects of climate change happened. So it didn’t feel optional. My choices then were to talk about it directly or indirectly, and I chose directly; Reid has been taught that previous generations’ choices led her to live the way she does now, in a way that likely will never change back, and she also knows that Cad, her disease, was not identified, studied, or cured while the technology was still there, because of the impacts caused by climate change. It’s not a distant thing to her. It affects her life now. It also affects the lives of people she loves, and it affects her future.
Now, on your website, it says you are a scientist. What is your discipline and where do you work?
My degrees are in molecular genetics and land reclamation, so both pretty multidisciplinary studies; I’ve worked in labs doing immunology, cancer, viruses, and agriculture work, and also worked in environmental science as a consultant, and on-site environmental management for heavy industry. I’m currently working as a public servant and am registered as a Professional Agrologist.
Nice. So, given your scientific background, did you ever find yourself having to choose between telling a good story and telling a good story that was also scientifically accurate?
Yes, definitely… There’s so much that’s uncertain about the effects of climate change, for one. I study this a lot in my job so that we can try to develop policies that stay a little ahead of what we’re predicting, but honestly, climate is so complex that even the best modelling only shows us the first couple of dominoes that get knocked over based on the amount of energy that global warming is loading into planet-wide systems of air, water, soil, and biomass. After that, we’re trying to make educated guesses, and the dominoes get much more unpredictable in scale, location, and effects. For this story I made my best guesses for the ultra-specific little area (Edmonton, which is currently a boreal parkland ecosystem, and even more specifically, microsites near the river valley). I think I told a story that was scientifically accurate for what we now know. And same with the disease, which I developed based on things like Cordyceps and Toxoplasmosis; it’s just so unpleasant to think about our minds as merely chemical systems that can be affected by the microorganisms living in our bodies, I really wanted to lean into that and be like “Okay, but what if you can’t tell whether it’s your disease or yourself causing you to make decisions? What if your thoughts aren’t yours any more and you can’t tell? What if it’s the disease making you think that?”
The Annual Migration Of Clouds is not your first book. You’ve written two other novellas (These Lifeless Things, And What Can We Offer You Tonight), as well as three novels (The Apple-Tree Throne, Beneath The Rising, A Broken Darkness), with a fourth, The Void Ascendant, due out March 1, 2022. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Clouds but not on anything else you’ve written?
Definitely other post-apocalypse stories and other plague stories. The first one that comes to mind is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, because it shows a world in which there is still art and theatre, it’s not strictly about the “standard” post-apocalypse scenario, and I feel like it almost gave me the freedom to write a story in which there are still people working on novels, there are two characters who paint and give art classes on campus.
The second one I think is the classic The Stand by Stephen King, because he showed the two groups of survivors, even though they were directly opposed to each other, settling down and creating communities again, creating order and rules and government and safety. I really liked that, regardless of what happens in the rest of the book. There was a community in Denver, one in Las Vegas, and the first thing they tried to do was declare “Here is a safe place for survivors to come.” I like the cooperation, the collaboration. I’m much more versed in the whole “every man for himself, women are commodities now, we’ll kill outsiders after we rob them, everybody armed to the eyeballs, casual murders, roving bandits” type post-apocalypse literature. I’m reading a book like that right now and I keep rolling my eyes. One group of survivors encounters another and instead of saying “Let’s share what we have even though it means we’ll all have a little less” they just go “Let’s rob your group so you have nothing and we have more.” I hate it. I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Maybe initially, but surely not over the long run.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Was The Annual Migration Of Clouds influenced by any of those things?
Your novels Beneath The Rising, A Broken Darkness, and The Void Ascendant are all part of a series, but your novel The Apple-Tree Throne and your other novellas are stand-alone stories. What is The Annual Migration Of Clouds?
This was written as a stand-alone, although I’d love to write a sequel covering both Reid and Henryk’s stories in the future. Nothing in the works yet though, and I’m too overscheduled with other books to write something that I’m not being paid for at the moment.
The other novellas I mentioned, And What Can We Offer You Tonight and These Lifeless Things, both came out earlier this year. We discussed Offer in an earlier interview, and Lifeless in the interview we did about A Broken Darkness, but suffice it to say, they’re very different from each other and from The Annual Migration Of Clouds? How do you think working in these different genres influences what you do?
I think they all influence each other; it’s just a different series of decisions. For instance, as discussed above, the decision of making climate change implicit or explicit. In Offer, that’s implicit, it’s never discussed why the city is flooded. Was it designed to be flooded? Was there sea level rise? It’s mentioned that the church in Offer was once not that close to the sea, is it flooded now because of climate change or what? I think it’s about what the characters are thinking about, really. For a dystopia they’re thinking about the elements of the story that make it a dystopia, and how that affects their choices. For a fantasy, they’re thinking about the elements of the story that make it a fantasy, and how that affects their choices. That’s why I like disregarding genre when I write; people are complicated, stories are allowed to be complicated.
Earlier I asked if The Annual Migration Of Clouds had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But do you think Clouds could work as a movie, show, or game itself?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it would work best as a TV mini-series. I think some expansion would be required of the story, but it’s a slightly longer novella (almost 40K words) and I think about six episodes would cover what happens in it, the setup, and the aftermath. I think it would also work as a movie, but the thought of expanding it just a little bit into a show would be wonderful.
And if someone wanted to make that happen, who would you want them to cast as Reid and the other main characters and why them?
I literally do not know any young actors any more. But for this one I would really love if the actors weren’t thirty-year-olds playing teenagers. Maybe David Mazouz [from Gotham] for Henryk, because if you can play a young rich nerd you can hopefully play a young poor nerd; and [It: Chapter Two‘s] Sophia Lillis for Reid (and now that I’m looking at her, I wasn’t thinking of her while I was writing Reid, but she looks exactly the way I was picturing Reid).
Finally, if someone enjoys The Annual Migration Of Clouds, what cli-fi story of someone else’s would you recommend they read next?
Definitely Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon Of The Crusted Snow. I read that during lockdown and I just loved it, it’s not cli-fi exactly but it’s a “hey is this is the apocalypse” survival novel set in a small northern Ontario Anishinaabe community, and the range of reactions of people living there, plus the outsiders that come into the community, is just fascinating. It’s so thoughtful and reflective, it’s not a one-note story at all, just as there isn’t one response from people right now to climate change. It’s such a powerfully written examination of human nature in response to disaster, it even re-frames what we think of as a disaster.