It’s not uncommon for writers of science fiction to rework other people’s non-sci-fi stories. The classic 1956 movie Forbidden Planet was a retelling of William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, while the story in Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 movie Seven Samurai has been retold as both the steampunk anime Samurai 7 and as Stina Leicht’s sci-fi Western novel Persephone Station [which you can read more about by clicking here]. And now Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea is getting similar treatment courtesy Marian Womack’s environmental speculative fiction novel The Swimmers (paperback, Kindle). Though in the following email interview about it, Womack not discusses why she wrote this rewrite, but how our current climate literally influenced it as well.
To start, what is The Swimmers about, and when and where is it set?
It is a novel set in the future, in Andalucia, the part of southern Spain I come from. The premise is that the Earth is unbearably polluted (the sea is nothing more than a swell of brown sludge and plastic waste) and so certain people, the rich, have emigrated to an orbital ring above the planet. The plot follows the experiences of a young woman, Pearl, trying to find her position between this world and the Ring, in the ruins of our dead civilization.
It sounds like The Swimmers is a dystopian sci-fi novel…
It describes the obvious consequences of our current actions: We are headed towards unavoidable and unalterable climate catastrophe, may even be too far down that path already to turn back. But to my mind, “dystopia” suggests something almost as unrealistic as its positive twin, “utopia”: the worst of all possible worlds. I think that The Swimmers is not talking about extreme negative possibilities, but rather, in a more or less realistic way, about what I truly believe is going to happen. The battle between our ingenuity and our destructiveness is a fight to the death, our death, which is unfolding in slow-motion in front of us even now.
Obviously, The Swimmers has an environmental bent….
Yes. Environmental issues are extremely important for all my work.
…but did you set out to write something environmental or did you just start writing this story and realized it lent itself to having an environmental bent?
I had always planned this as an environmental novel. I think of myself as a writer of environmental speculative fiction: everything I write has at least some focus on the overwhelming, wicked problems we face as a species. It seems a little irresponsible not to address them.
The press materials also call it, “a claustrophobic, dystopian reimagining of [Jean Rhys’ novel] Wide Sargasso Sea.” Is that accurate, did you set out to write a new take on that novel, or are they just being clever?
I yield to no one in my respect for, and love of, Jean Rhys’s work, and Wide Sargasso Sea is one of my key texts: a book I think taught me more than almost any other about what I want to write. I won’t say that it taught me how to write, because Rhys is inimitable, but I was interested in thinking about how the broad strokes of her novel might be transposed to or reflect themselves in a different environment or a different time. I don’t think of it as a “direct” reimagining, but there are clear points of overlap and influence between the two novels.
Why did you decide to write a, well, claustrophobic, dystopian version of Wide Sargasso Sea?
I think the claustrophobia, and even to a certain extent the dystopia (the loss of Paradise, the loss of any possibility of being happy in the pure, recognizable landscape of one’s childhood and youth), are key parts of Rhys’s original novel. I certainly, to the extent that I was thinking about Rhys’s novel when I was writing The Swimmers, felt that the tone of Wide Sargasso Sea fitted very well with how I wanted to say what I wanted to say.
How hard was it to translate Jean Rhys’ story into the sci-fi genre?
When I read Jean Rhys — not just Wide Sargasso Sea, but her Left Bank books, her short stories — then I see a sensibility that only requires a tweak or two to bring it into a fairly recognizable speculative fiction environment. The sheer alien nature of how other people’s feelings exist and impinge on her narrators — Rhys tends to be lost in a world that is only a keystroke away from being science fictional.
Wide Sargasso Sea was written as a response to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Given that, was The Swimmers influenced at all by Jane Eyre?
I like the way that Rhys’s novel filters Brontë through its own set of concerns — autobiographical, political — and I maybe tried to filter Rhys’ version of Brontë through my own set of concerns, but I think that Jane Eyre is more a spectre behind The Swimmers than a definite direct influence. But Brontë is a spectre behind most women’s writing in English.
So aside from Jean Rhys and Charlotte Brontë, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Swimmers but not on anything else you’ve written?
I am a big fan of Jeff VanderMeer and his radical reimaginings of space and environment. This novel feels more in tune with some of his ideas than anything else I have written, perhaps. And also Spanish writers: the great late Franco / post-Franco writer Ana María Matute, in particular her novel Primera Memoria, hangs around The Swimmers in certain of its aspects.
What about non-literary influences; was The Swimmers influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not really, I don’t think. There are some films I’ve seen over the last several years that might have fed into various bits of how I imagined the story: in particular there are two films by Debra Granik — Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace — that got their hooks into my head and helped me envision the scuzzy kind of future I wanted to describe.
Now, as you know, some speculative novels are stand-alone stories, while others are part of larger sagas. What is The Swimmers?
I don’t have any current plans to expand this book into a series, or write another book set in the same world. In fact, my current writing project is set in an entirely different environment, both in terms of time and space.
I asked a moment ago if The Swimmers had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. Do you think The Swimmers could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it really is quite a cinematic work in some ways — it’s got that Space Odyssey contrast of purity and dirt, and the central story is quite direct and could translate well into a different medium. But I like very much working with atmosphere and things that are left unsaid. A film version of The Swimmers would have to turn bits of the story inside-out, make visible things that I wanted to keep hidden in the novel. It would be interesting to try (or see someone else try).
So, if someone wanted to adapt The Swimmers into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Pearl and the other main characters and why them?
I don’t like these games very much: I don’t think I’m very good at them. But there are a couple of very different recent female lead performances I’ve seen that I thought had something of what I wanted Pearl to be — Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace, that I mentioned above, and Laia Artigas as a young orphan, a stunning piece of acting, in a recent Catalan film, Summer 1993. Of course, Pearl grows up a bit over the novel, so maybe there’s an argument for having two actresses play her…
Finally, if someone enjoys The Swimmers, what speculative novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one? And extra points if it has a strong connection to some other non-sci-fi novel.
The best recent novel I’ve read is Rita Indiana’s Tentacle, which is not obviously related to other non sci-fi novels, but is very much its own thing. It’s amazing, and dystopian. Very dystopian.