James Bradley is an essayist, novelist and critic, and the acclaimed author of several climate fiction novels including Clade, Ghost Species, and the young adult trilogy The Change. In this conversation, James, Molly and Ramanan discuss Clade, capitalism, and the importance of hope in the face of climate disaster.
We asked James to be on our launch episode because he is both an author and a knowledgeable commentator on climate fiction. A great interview, with his selection of five climate change novels, is here; and a very thoughtful essay on what our future might hold (and how to deal with it!) is here.
Thanks for listening to Futureverse! Subscribe here for more episodes.
[00:00:11] Molly: Hello everyone.
We are very excited to kick off the first episode of a brand-new podcast called Futureverse. It is focused on climate fiction. Now, Ramanan and I invest in technology companies with a climate focus, but we also discovered in the course of texting all day, every day, that we both also like to read -- a lot.
In fact, if you know any of my other work, you will know that I specifically came to and got interested in tech solutions to the climate crisis specifically because of science fiction. I have told this story many times. James, pardon me, you probably haven't heard it, but the genesis for me getting interested in who might be building solutions, technological and otherwise to the climate crisis was reading New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, of course.
And there is in this book, sort of an almost throwaway line that's a mention of diamond coating that's put around the bottom of submerged buildings in a flooded New York City that keeps the water out and keeps the buildings habitable. And so that made me wonder, well, is anybody building that? It seems like they should be. And thus, an entire career pivot was born.
Obviously, climate-focused storytelling helps us imagine a way forward. Sometimes those techno-utopian solutions. But of course it's more than that. It gives voice to grief and fear. It helps us imagine emotional resilience and even imagine the unimaginable in ways that give us the tools to deal with a different reality.
[00:01:47] Ramanan: Thanks, Molly. Today we are thrilled to have essayist, novelist and critic James Bradley, who has been incorporating climate change into his fiction since the mid 2000s. He is the acclaimed author of several climate fiction or climate-centric fiction novels, including Clade and Ghost Species and the young adult trilogy The Change. His personal blog, which we highly recommend you visit, is www.cityoftongues.com. Spelled exactly the way I said it. Among other awards and honors, he has received the medal of the Order of Australia for service to literature as a writer and has been twice named one of the Sydney Morning Herald's best young Australian novelists. James, thank you for being that most important of guinea pigs for a new endeavor -- the first one.
[00:02:37] James Bradley: Thank you for having me. It's great.
[00:02:39] Ramanan: I'm gonna kick off our questions. You've done many interviews, incredibly articulate and informative, which left Molly and me coming a little intimidated into this conversation. These interviews are available online and we provide links to them on our interview webpage. Most of them have been with what I describe as literary interlocutors. Futureverse is a little different. It'll take, put it one way, we are evil capitalist plutocrats, and a large percentage of our audience will belong to that subspecies.
The reality of the fight is that those of us who are inside the machine need to effect change from within. So the question for you is, in your work, how do you deal with the fact that the entire structure of human society might need to change? Or have change imposed on it?
[00:03:33] And specifically, how do we take on the idea that capitalism has a level of planetary exploitation built into it?
[00:03:41] James Bradley: That's a great question, and it's a really difficult one to kind of grapple within your work. Look, I would've said a couple of things. One of them is that at a kind of practical level, IPCC's Synthesis report came out this week. I mean, looking at it, we are in desperate trouble. We are nowhere near the track that we need to be on. And there is a way of, we end up in a kind of binary thinking about that I think, where what we're doing is we're thinking either we're heading for disaster or we're going to get it under control. And the reality is that we're probably going to land somewhere in the middle of those two poles.
Because we need to get things back within planetary limits. But, you know, it's a huge task. Now the thing is, that will happen. Whatever happens at the end of the day, the old saying goes, nature bats last. At the end of the day, if we don't get back within planetary limits, the planet will put us back within planetary limits.
You know, that's kind of inescapable and a lot of the solutions look really hard because they involve quite major reorganizations of the economy, reorganization of society, when that kind of notion of everything changes. But I think people get into a thing where they think we get there by flicking a switch.
Like where's the moment when we turn on the growth economics? Where's the moment when we suddenly switch to a donut system? And the thing is, we don't suddenly switch. It is going to be, I mean, revolution is still an incremental process. Does that make sense?
So there is a kind of thing where what will happen is we will go through various stages and we will end up somewhere different. We know that because the technology is there, we kind of know what we need to do to get there, and you can see that the change is beginning to happen. It's happening much too slowly. We're nowhere near the track that we need to be. But what will happen is over time we will start to move towards some of those things.
And I think one of the things that you're doing with fiction a lot of the time is trying to imagine, in a sense, your way into that process, trying to get out of that binary thing. So what you're not doing is saying, it'll be the end of the world. What you're saying is, well, let's think about what it's gonna be like when you're going through that process. So I mean, I do think there's something about getting away from that idea that, you know, we have two options ahead of us. We don't have two options ahead of us. We have multiple options ahead of us and multiple paths that will go down towards them.
Human society will look like something in a hundred years. It will not look like what it does now. And I think one of the things that you're trying to do when you're writing fiction in this space is to think about both where we might end up, but also how we might get there.
[00:07:09] Molly Wood: I wanna ask you, how you came to writing so much about climate. You've sort of said in the past that it was a part of your writing as far back as 1999 and it really started to infuse your work in the 2000s. And I wonder what brought you to that point?
[00:07:27] Was there some tipping point where you said, okay, this is what we're doing now and I need to write more about it?
[00:06:45] James Bradley: I suppose there was, I mean, it was one of those things I'd always been thinking about. I mean, I'm old enough to have been at university. I was a lawyer in another life. I remember being at university in the 1980s and studying the sustainable development stuff in environmental law, you know, that the UN was doing as far back as then. So I mean, it was a kind of issue on the table 30 years ago, 35 years ago. And it was certainly something that I'd kind of thought about in my work.
There's references to it in a book I published in 1999 called The Deep Field. But I guess in the late 2000s I started to find, I'd like to claim that I had a kind of moment of reality about the climate, but it was more about my own work and I found that I was not liking the work that I was doing.
And I remember thinking if somebody came to me and said, I don't like the work that I'm writing, what should I be writing? I would say, write about the thing you care about. And I thought, well, the thing I really care about is kind of environmental crisis, climate crisis. People aren't talking about it enough. It's a really important thing that we need to be thinking about. So why don't I start trying to work out how I would write fiction and other things in that space?
So once I started to do that, I guess like a number of other people who were doing that reasonably early, I started to realize that, you know, lots of those questions about how you do it were quite complicated. One of the reasons that people weren't doing it was it was really hard to do, and so you had to kind of think up new, I guess kind of fictional and narrative strategies to kind of encompass these questions.
[00:08:13] Molly: You have also said you gave an interview with the Sydney Review of Books. I thought this was fascinating. You wondered why we privileged stories of collapse, kind of to what we were just talking about, as opposed to adaptation.
[00:08:27] I could see why collapse is an easier story to write, and tell me more about that, why it's important to kind of, in some ways, imagine a future in, as you described it, a more unsentimental way.
[00:08:40] James Bradley: Hmm. Look, I think one of the things, you know, there's that old Frederic Jameson line about, "it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism". And I do think that's one of the things that goes on in this space. We get into, as I said before, a kind of binary thing where we think our options are only collapse or more of the same, or total transformation.
I think there is something quite difficult about trying to think your way past that barrier. I mean, you talked before about kind of being in the machinery of capitalism and there is that kind of notion that once you live in a capitalist society, it kind of fills everything to every horizon. It becomes very hard to think of alternatives to it, which aren't things like going back to the land and living on a farm and honestly, with 8 billion people on the planet, that is not a solution. Maybe it's a solution for privileged white people in, you know, first-world countries, but it is not something that's going to transition a big city in Asia.
We need to be looking at solutions which are about reorganization of economy. They're about adaptation, and they're about economic reorganization. Now, I think one of the things that's really fascinating about a lot of that collapsed stuff is that we actually have an experiment that's been being run in real-time on this question, and that's the Little Ice Age.
So between about the, depends a bit on how you date it, but between about the 16th and the beginning of the 19th century, you have a drop in temperatures across the world. This pushes most societies into crisis, so in the really cold bits, which are called the Grindlewald Fluctuation, and the Maunder Minimum, which sound like Harry Potter characters to me.
But, you know, you have just absolute disaster taking place in Europe, in India, in North America, over in China. Crops are failing, societies are in crisis. You have kind of internal instability, peasant uprisings, all kinds of things going on. But in the middle of that, what you see is some societies are flourishing, so the Dutch particularly are flourishing.
It's the Dutch golden age, you know, and there's a very interesting historian who's tried to think about this, and one of the things he points out is what the Dutch do is they adapt really quickly. They had a society that was strikingly non-hierarchical. It had a very flat kind of social structure. It was not incredibly held by religion. It was an early kind of capitalist society. But what they did was they adapted, you know, and so they -- part of it was about building colonies, but they kind of developed things like shipping insurance. They brought in new devices that did things.
So you have this kind of adaptive process going on, but what you see at the end of the Little Ice Age is that the societies come through all of that chaos and at the end of them, the societies are transformed. They have not fallen over. They have changed often, almost beyond recognition, but they've changed, and so what you see is a kind of real-time experiment in what happens to societies when they're placed under that kind of environmental pressure, which is that social organization changes, economic organization changes, technology changes, and what comes out the other end is something different.
And I do think that when you're thinking about collapse, that's one of the things to think about. Now, none of this is for a moment to minimize the scale of what we're heading into. And whether that's hopeful or not, I'm not sure because, you know, it's a pretty messy process, but I think there is something hopeful there about looking at it and saying when placed under that pressure, change does happen.
[00:12:01] Molly: Yeah.
[00:12:02] Ramanan: And there's a consistency. You know, what you just said is obviously consistent with things you've said elsewhere, and in some ways it's also consistent with Clade, which we'll get to in a second. Before we get to Clade, a quick question about the different forms of your work. You write both fiction and non-fiction. Your fiction has mostly been novels. Your non-fiction is primarily articles, reviews, essays.
[00:12:28] In your view, what are the pros and cons of each and can you tease our audience with when we might see a long-form non-fiction work from you?
[00:12:40] James Bradley: I'm excited that I sound consistent. I don't know that consistency is one of my strengths.
[00:12:43] Molly: Inconsistency is just adaptation.
[00:12:46] James Bradley: Inconsistency is just adaptation.
[00:12:49] Ramanan: I think that's the tagline for this episode.
[00:12:55] James Bradley: Yeah, look, I do kind of write across all of those forms. So to answer the last question first, I'm in the process of editing a long form work of non-fiction called Deep Water, which will be out early next year. Which is a series of essays about the ocean, which is trying to think about, I guess to use the ocean as a lens to think about a series of questions about history, environmental crisis, colonialism. But also about trying to use the ocean to think of it as a way of imagining different forms of connectivity, you know, relationship to other species and I guess a different way of kind of being in the world.
I mean, I think one of the strengths of fiction is that it's not a terribly discursive form. It lets you do kind of emotional things, which are really interesting and it lets you imagine things. But one of the things you realize very quickly if you're writing in this space is that things are moving extraordinarily fast.
And fiction has a really long lead time, whereas non-fiction has a much shorter lead time. And one of the things that will allow you to do, I think, is to use fiction as a way of, I suppose intervening as a way of speaking where you don't have a lead time of three years, which is what it takes to write a novel.
So non-fiction lets you kind of come at the questions in a much more direct and, I guess, timely way than fiction. And it is one of the things that's really weird about working in this space. One of the more alarming things is that with a book like Clade or Ghost Species, the novel that comes out of it, there are things that happen in those books that I put in them that were either meant to be off 20, 30 years in the future, or that in a couple of cases I just made up.
And in the time that they've been in the world, you can actually watch the things that are in those books coming true, and that sense of being overtaken by reality is really disturbing. Clade has, amongst other things, a pandemic that starts in China and there's lots of argument and doubt about whether the pandemic came out of a lab or was a natural thing. I remember when in reading it and looking at it in 2020 and thinking --
[00:15:02] Molly: Yeah, it's a documentary. Let's talk about the documentary that is Clade.
[00:15:10] Ramanan: So give us, if you wouldn't mind, we'll switch to Clade here. I think for the audience that may not have read the book, and I would strongly urge them to read the book because it is a remarkable book. Could you give us your, the author's no spoiler summary of the book?
[00:15:31] James Bradley: Sure. And thank you very much. So the book begins kind of now. So I was writing it back probably 10 years ago now, but it begins, you know, in a world that's kind of on the brink of kind of climate crisis and it follows the story of a family across about 70 years.
So you watch multiple generations of this family and the way that their lives, I guess, intersect with aspects of the world changing. But the book remains kind of focused on the characters rather than what's going on around them. Because what I wanted to do with it was find a way of, I guess, capturing that kind of what I thought the effective experience of going through climate crisis would be like. Because when I began writing it, one of the things I was thinking was when I try and imagine what the world's gonna be like in a hundred years or what the world's gonna be like for my kids, I would run up against this kind of psychic barrier where I'd go, "I can't imagine that."
You know, like, how is it going to be different? And so in an odd kind of way, the book was a thought experiment about trying to think about, what's it going to be like to live through that? Not "what are the arguments around this?", not "what are the kind of technical questions that we'll be dealing with?", "what will it be like as an individual to live through this experience?" And so it kind of follows them from about now, 2015, 2020, 2023, forward to about the 2070s as the world kind of changes around them.
[00:17:01] Molly: It's very much, you know, to borrow from Hamilton a sort of "dying is easy, living is harder" sort of story. And it seems to me that as we sort of alluded to at the beginning, and one of the reasons we wanted to do this podcast is that it feels really important to imagine that, to push through that barrier that you're describing. And imagine a world not where we all just sort of wink out of existence because that's not what's gonna happen. You know, we're not gonna just lay down and die. We are going to adapt and try to fix things and change the way we live and migrate and have terrible things happen to us. And it seems like the sheer act of imagining that, as scary as it is, is really important to being able to survive it.
[00:17:48] James Bradley: I think that's right. And one of the things I would say is that in the kind of 10 years since I wrote the book and it came out in 2015. But I was writing it 10 years ago. A lot of things have moved so fast that I think we have kind of stepped into that space now. So the book was imagining a lot of things that are now real.
I'm talking about the atmospheric rivers in California, but I mean, the same thing here in Australia. We've just had one thing going through after another over about the last five years. And it's been one of the things, interestingly, one of the things I think the book captures, which I don't know that I was thinking about explicitly, but I think one of the things that, looking back the book does capture is that it's not the mega cyclone that goes through that devastates your city that gets you, it's the accretive kind of paper cut after paper cut after paper cut, and I guess the kind of psychic and real-world cost of that process that gets you.
A friend of mine lives up in Brisbane, in Queensland, in Australia, and they've had flood after flood after flood up there. And she was saying that when the first really big floods went through in 2012, 6 months later, her street was all back in their houses. Everything was fixed. She's saying that after the last round of floods, six months later, half the streets still got tarpaulins on the roof. People aren't back in their houses. People are talking about selling up, and you can kind of see that up and down the east coast of Australia now.
I mean, we had fires in 2019 and 2020. Lots of the people who were in those fires are still not back in their homes, you know? And they've been flooded out, even if they have, because then there's been floods in those areas as well. So there's this kind of, that accretive nature of the disaster, I think is very powerful. But I think you're right. I think there is some--
[00:19:29] Ramanan: I wanna make a quick interjection to say what you just said about Brisbane for Molly and me living in the Bay Area in different parts of the Bay Area, that sounds very familiar.
[00:19:42] Molly: It's, yeah. You know, and it's everywhere. We're in two places.
[00:19:46] Ramanan: Yep. Completely different places. And it's the paper cut after paper cut and the accretive, it's, as you said, I think climate disasters are envisioned, as you know, a tornado sweeps through town and every building is flattened. But that's not what's happening. What's happening is the paper cut after the paper cut.
[00:20:05] James Bradley: Mm-hmm. Well, in fact, what's happening is both, but you know, I think you're right. You know that that's ended up not being the thing that's getting us. But I do think, going back to what Molly said about the book, I think one of the things that's really important is occupying that space, thinking about it. And that's both because I think it breaks you out of that kind of weird cognitive dissonance. I mean, we live in this strange state where the world's kind of unraveling around us, but on a day-to-day level, our lives are kind of still normal. And I think there is, that's one of the things that makes that jump to what's going on quite difficult.
And I think fiction and the act of imagining that, not just in fiction, but also in television and film is one, and talking about it is one of the ways we make it real to ourselves. But it also, I think the thing that it does that's really important is it brings us back from apocalyptic imagination.
So, you know, we are worrying about the tornado that flattens everything. And you know, if you are in Africa, that's an issue. If you are in parts of New Zealand, which has been hit one by one, that's an issue. But it gets us back to a place where we have to go, "what will this really be like?" You know, because there is something about imagining the end of the world that, I think this is what you said, Molly, imagining the end of the world gets us off the hook about imagining the fact that the world might not end.
[00:21:23] Molly: Mm-hmm.
[00:21:24] James Bradley: And it's actually trying to work out what we do with a world that doesn't end, that is harder than, "well everything's gone, we just have to start again". Does that make sense? And I think fiction is one of the ways that you can do that in a really granular kind of way.
[00:21:39] Molly: Yeah. It's processing and catharsis and not a small amount of terror in reading Clade. And so that brings me to the topic of parenting. Certainly we see the characters in the book, you know, wrestle with this question of like, what we owe each other, the ethics of having children, what to do about mass climate migration.
[00:22:01] I believe all of us are parents. How do you think about that?
You have now imagined a future in which generations later, a party is still happening on a beach. It's just very different.
[00:22:15] James Bradley: Yeah. And I think, I do think that's one of the things I wanted to do with that book. And one of the things I like in, I guess, science fiction, I'm generally more attracted to kind of science fiction, which includes that kind of human element. Because it does seem to me that although the cultural expressions of it change, our kind of basic natures don't change all that much. You know, we love, we live, we fear, and those things continue, those things are not going to stop, those basic human kind of urges and desires and, you know, the good and the terrible things that we do to each other. I mean, it's one of the things that became very clear over the years of the pandemic is that humans need contact with each other. Humans need kind of physical and kind of social contact with each other, and that's something that we've been trying to tell ourselves we don't need for years and years and years.
And suddenly we discover that that's absolutely fundamental to our nature. But I do think that there is something about, look, my children were very small when I was writing the book, and I find trying to think about the world that they're gonna grow up in really difficult. I must say I've spent the last few months thinking a lot about artificial intelligence and what it's about to do to the white collar job market, which is really quite disturbing.
I think one of the things that's very striking about a lot of the fiction in this space is that one of the recurrent images, one of the recurrent kind of tropes or metaphors that you see people working with are questions of family and questions of the disruption of family. So what was really fascinating to me when Clade came out is it's a book with a missing mother.
And at the same time there was book after book coming out with missing mothers, missing children, missing parents. And I think it's something about that sense that the sequence of inheritance is disrupted by climate. Something about that sense of the connections we have to other generations are disrupted and that's both, I think, emotionally very shocking to us.
But I think there's actually something deeper about it because it kind of severs our connection to past and future, you know? And I think that's one of the things the book was trying to think about, but it's also one of the things that you see going on when we think about climate.
And when we look at our kids and we go, well, what kind of world are you gonna grow up in? And, and as I said before, one of the things I was doing in the book was trying to think, well, what will that world be like both in good ways and bad?
[00:24:51] Ramanan: I'm gonna go off script here because the next question is about parenting as well, and I think I'm gonna replace it with something about race.
[00:24:58] Molly: Always go off script.
[00:24:59] Ramanan: You know what's very interesting, as someone with a long and unpronounceable name, I am more sensitized than most people to how English language writers depict or characterize foreign names, just to put it one way. And I remember many years ago seeing one author use the name Raj Khan, which if you know anything about that part of the world, those two names don't go together. You know, Raj is one kind of person. Khan is another kind of person, and they don't, that name doesn't exist.
[00:25:34] And what was really interesting about Clade was the easy way in which you depicted a complex multiracial setting and kind of got it all right. And I want to express admiration and at one level, thanks for that. Where does that come from?
I mean, what is it that you have lived through that gives you that? Or is it simply, you know, Australia has now become so multicultural that it's all around you.
[00:26:10] James Bradley: First of all, thank you. That's really, I appreciate that. I guess in my books, in fact, for a really long time, I've taken a view that I want to depict some stuff as unexceptional. Does that make sense? So in my first novel, you know, one of the main characters is first of all, a young woman of color, but you know, she's also a kind of doctor but that's unexceptional within the book, if that makes sense. So, I wanted to, you know --
[00:26:46] Ramanan: It completes it.
[00:26:47] James Bradley: Yeah, yeah. And in Clade, it's not just about ethnicity, it's also that, you know, when they're in a hospital, the nurse is a man. You know, there's moments like that. And what I wanted to do was to make, and I guess it is a kind of deliberate strategy to make unexceptional the diversity of society. Does that make sense? You know, so that it's not something that I guess you're pointing to. It's quite a difficult question to answer. What I want is to have a sense of the diversity of the society they live in, where it is not, in a sense, the point of what I'm writing about. Does that make sense? It's just kind of subsumed into the fabric of the book.
[00:27:28] Ramanan: It makes complete sense. And I have also been on the receiving end of works where it's clear that, y'know, here's the token Midwesterner name, and here's the token Indian name, and here's the token Vietnamese name. In Clade, it just comes across as this is the world we live in. This is the society we live in. If you're depicting a first-world society of the kind that Australia or the UK or the US is, so thank you for that.
[00:27:54] James Bradley: I'm actually really delighted that you think that. Thank you very much.
[00:27:59] Molly: It's really of a piece, I think with the whole book, isn't it? I mean, you talk about this unsentimental sort of depiction of the world that these characters are living in. There's this very matter-of-fact portrayal of them as being diverse. It's not something that has to be called out. It's just simply reality. And it does sort of help to make the entire thing feel more real. Like, well, millions of people have died in floods and bees are gone and the nurse is a man and you have this kind of drip-drip of matter-of-fact occurrences that are so real that again, you get this sense.
And I wanna reiterate for people, this might have gone by quickly, the book came out in 2015 and reads like a recitation of what's happening today. So it's really a success. And the other thing I wanna ask you about in that way, is that there's also a sort of matter-of-fact lack of solutions.
There's not like, you know, there's not a big, we figured out fusion situation here. It's just this kept happening. We tried various things. Some worked to various degrees, others did not.
[00:29:11] Was that a deliberate choice on your part to sort of ignore the idea that, you know, we're out here trying to fund a million startups that are gonna just make it all better?
[00:29:21] James Bradley: Somewhat, I mean, the book also, it's not just about ethnicity. One of the things I tried to do in the book was to not overemphasize things like technology. So what I wanted to do was to bring home that sense that when you live in a world, the world around you is normal. So it's not something that you really talk about.
You know, so people have virtual reality and things like that, but people aren't kind of pointing to the goggles and saying, well, here they are. It's just part of the kind of fabric of their world. And I think that goes partly to the solutions thing that you're talking about. What I wanted to do was to kind of show that that stuff kind of is going on in the background. And as you say, some of it's working, some of it's not working. And it's what I was saying before about adaptation. Adaptation is a messy process. We're gonna try lots of different things. Some of them are gonna work, some of them aren't. Some of them will make things worse, you know?
But I suppose, I mean, I've actually talked quite a lot about that kind of what you call the lack of solutions and I guess that was partly deliberate. It was partly probably that when I was writing the book, I didn't really know what any of the solutions were.
[00:30:22] Molly: Mm-hmm.
[00:30:23] James Bradley: But it was actually that I was trying to do something slightly different, which was one of the things I wanted the book to do was to open up a space for kind of political possibility. And I felt very much when I was writing it that we'd gotten into this thing where as I said before, we're in a kind of binary mindset where either the world ended or things went on exactly as they were, and it seems to me that we don't end up in one of those spaces. But what I wanted to do was to kind of, and it's one of the things the book does in the last half where it kind of pushes the kind of temporal line outwards, and you have this kind of expansion of time, was to create this sense that in fact, if you look at large scales, and the book's very much about scale, what you see is that within large scales, human society is completely contingent. Like we don't have to be living in the world that we are living in. You know that there's that marvelous line from Ursula le Guin where she says, the divine right of kings seemed immovable, but now it's gone. You know, like anything that humans make can be changed by humans and, and what I wanna do is to kind of create a sense that once you get a hundred years, or 200 years, or 300 years into the future, the social and economic arrangements that we think of as completely unchangeable in our society are all in flux.
They all change. Everything changes over time. And it seemed to me, While the book doesn't kind of say, well, we need to build giant machines that will suck carbon out of the atmosphere or to put, you know, umbrellas over the Great Barrier Reef. What it does do is say there is space for change. There is room for change. We can actually alter the world we live in through human agency. And that seemed to me, in a sense, to be at a kind of conceptual level, almost as important as the other end of it will. I wonder if I was writing a book now, whether I would be that focused on that question. Cause I do think that there is more of a sense now, 10 years later, that things are up for grabs.
But certainly back then it didn't feel that way.
[00:32:22] Ramanan: I'll just make one minor comment. I mean, there's no question. Molly and I now occupy a space in which there is a clear sense that things can be changed. And this is a minor obsession of mine, and I frame it a little differently, which is everything has a history and that means that everything can be changed.
And in fact, that's my Twitter header for what it's worth. So raucous agreement. Thank you.
[00:32:50] Molly: And I think what we have just said speaks to the point you made earlier about how fast things are changing, at the time that you were writing this, and in fact actually at the time that I got interested in writing about, as a journalist and then eventually an investor, climate tech solutions, I pitched this entire line of coverage to my editors that frankly did not exist.
And that was 2016. Like it just wasn't, you know, certainly some of it had been imagined in some sci-fi here and there, but then the companies that we're seeing now, the things that people are starting to do with mushrooms, you know, turning feedstock into, or food waste into fabric using fungal processes. Like there's sort of all this magic that's being imagined now and actually implemented that even four or five years ago couldn't have been imagined. So on that level, I think there is maybe more hope and some cooler books.
[00:33:49] Speaking of hope, evidently someone described Clade as a hopeful book. It sounds like you, at least, judging from some interviews do not agree. I certainly do not agree, but where do you think that that came from?
[00:34:06] James Bradley: I think hope is a word that people throw around a lot. I mean, it would seem to me that hope is an active state rather than a kind of passive state that you inhabit. It is a kind of orientation to the future. And look, I think one of the things the book tries to say is that, you know, despair is not an option. I think despair is particularly not an option if you have children. So I think children put a kind of floor on despair. You can't give up.
It is interesting the book does get described as hopeful. I'm not sure that I would call it that, as you say. But I do think, as I said before, that one of the things the book does do though is to say: this is survivable. It does say societies can change. It does say that there is room for political possibility.
And they seem to me to be kind of orientations to the future, which are positive rather than negative, if that makes sense. And I think at the moment I think quite a lot about hope. If you spend a lot of time in this space, it's a pretty psychologically difficult space to inhabit a lot of the time.
But having said that, I mean, I spent some time last year with a man called Yessie Mosby, who's one of a group called the Torres Strait Eight, and they're a group of Torres Strait Islanders. Torres Strait is the section of water between Australia and New Guinea, and there are a number of islands there, which are very low.
So they're only a middle or two above sea level, and these are their ancestral lands. And he and the others have sued the Australian government now successfully at the UN saying that their human rights are being infringed by the lack of climate action because their island is literally washing away.
[00:35:49] Ramanan: Mm-hmm.
[00:35:49] James Bradley: And, you know, because their cultural identity, their kind of existence as a people is tied to that place. It's, I mean, it's disappearing at the rate of meters a year. And this island is just washing away. You know, he got involved because the ancestors of his people are buried through the island and they're literally, the bones are washing out after high tide events onto the beaches and having to go around and pick them up and rebury them.
And I found, Yessie, he's just such an extraordinary figure because there's just this kind of, he says, look, unless I do this, my children will not have a home. Unless I do this, my people will disappear. And there's something about that, you know, he knows the scale of the fight. He understands the scale of the fight, but he doesn't back away from it.
He just continues on with it. And that seems to me to be an expression of that orientation to the future. You know, that kind of sense that we do what we can. And sometimes that's about kind of denying what we know intellectually, but it's because we have to do it, you know? And I think the book probably tries to occupy some of that space, right?
[00:36:57] Molly: Right. Hope is work.
[00:36:59] Ramanan: Hope is work. I'm gonna move us into our home stretch here. And starting with these questions about hope.
[00:37:08] Do you think you might write something a tad more utopian in the future, where some of some of the positive contingent stuff gets foregrounded? You think that is within you as a fiction writer?
[00:37:24] James Bradley: So I've thought about this question quite a lot actually, because one of the things I have been aware of is that as a writer, I end up writing stories, which are kind of set in the midst of change. In the midst of disaster, there about, you know, what goes on. And I wonder a little bit about, I guess, as you say, is there a way of writing a kind of more positive fiction around this and yeah, look, I think I would like to write that.
I actually wrote a story, which is in an MIT collection, which came out last year, which is set kind of a hundred years from now. And it's in a community where they're planting mangroves and things to try and slow down the effects of sea level rise. I'm not sure it's terribly utopian, but is it set in a world where they've managed to do some of the things that we need to do. I think that kind of fiction is interesting and necessary because it does do a kind of work and I wish there was more of it. I think there are people like Kim Stanley Robinson who are doing it very well. There's people like Annalee Newitz, I just started their new book. And they're clearly trying to write into that space.
I think that kind of fictional exercise is really important. How do you imagine a world where we kind of got it right, you know, and I would love to write, I think the short answer is I would love to write fiction in that space. There's a bit less of it at the moment, but in the 2000s there was a rash of kind of really interesting planetary science fiction, a lot of which was being written by, so Kim Stanley Robinson was writing some of it obviously, but there were people like Paul McAuley and Alastair Reynolds, mostly British writers who were writing into this space where you've got a kind of planetary science fiction where it's like the expanse. We've expanded out and filled the solar system but not gone beyond the solar system. And what they had to do to do that was to jump about three or 400 years into the future. And so they kind of pass over the climate crisis and come out the other side.
And I always found those books really fascinating cause there was something about the active imagination of a world which had kind of got through this and found ways of dealing with it on the other side. So yeah, look, I would love to write in that space.
[00:39:25] Ramanan: I would just say, look, everyone doesn't have to do everything, right? I mean, there's room for James Bradbury and Alastair Reynolds, and Iain M Banks to all coexist, so to speak on intergalactic scale. But thank you. Thank you for that.
[00:39:41] Molly: And then lastly for me, I think, is to bring us back to this, what you were just saying, this idea of imagining these different realities. And I think we could probably all agree that the storytelling of, for example, the media, and this comes up a little bit in your book, right? This sort of ongoing, the idea that there is validity in debate about this issue, framing it as politics, as opposed to survival. All of those things are perhaps not helpful. But that fiction and particularly the type that you're writing and particularly science fiction, is helpful in imagining and maybe even surviving this crisis.
[00:40:18] And I wonder how you, what do you see out there are more people starting to do this as we grapple with it. And how important is it to tell these stories, if only to make people realize that they're sort of our reality?
[00:40:33] James Bradley: I think there is a lot more of it, which is really exciting. I mean, I think there's been such a wave of writing in this space, and I think there's now... one of the things that would worry me about a lot of the kind of earlier wave of fiction in this space is it's pretty white, it's very middle class, it's very first world and you are now seeing kind of writers from other backgrounds coming into that space and having different conversations, which is really important.
But one of the things I think is really fascinating is that it's not just that you've got work in a sense, which is kind of deliberately trying to grapple with these things to kind of overtly grapple with them. It's that you are finally beginning to see it bleed outwards into everything else. So it's very, I mean, I would've said 10 years ago, I don't understand how you can write a contemporary novel which doesn't in some way include questions of climate, environmental crisis. But what you're seeing now is that kind of bleed out, I think. And so it's really hard to pick up a novel which doesn't feel aware of that sense of impending crisis, which doesn't feel aware of kind of weird weather and extreme weather, you know?
And so I think the fiction is beginning to register the degree to which this now permeates our lives. And it's just part of the air that we breathe to use a slightly labored metaphor. And I think that's been really, really fascinating.
[00:41:56] Molly: I'm thinking about how William Gibson often says that he can't be credited with accurately imagining the future because in Neuromancer he didn't have any phones. There weren't cell phones. And so he is like, nope. It's a giant mess. Complete fail.
[00:42:11] James Bradley: One of the glorious things about Neuromancer is it begins with one of the great images in science fiction, which is the sky with the color of a dead television tube. And you're kind of like, there hasn't been a television tube in 30 years, you know, which is wonderful.
I mean, but you know, to go back to kind of what Ramanan was saying before, about things changing and technology disrupting things. One of the most disruptive technologies in the last 10 or 15 years has been drones. I don't think I can think of any science fiction, although I'm sure there are some, but they are, you know, in the same way that mobile phones are not in Gibson, you have this profoundly disruptive technology, which is just absent from the literature. And that's a kind of reminder that we often don't know what's coming. You know, we've all been worried about super intelligent artificial intelligences. That's actually not what the problem is. The problem is that we've got now these kind of wide, kind of unimaginable things that we're trying to work out how to grapple with. The question is quite often not what we think it's going to be.
[00:43:10] Molly: Amazing.
[00:43:11] Ramanan: I'm gonna push us along to our bit of fun section. Molly, you go for it.
[00:43:16] Molly: All right.
[00:43:18] Well I think the bit of fun is, although I'm imagining seeing this movie and it would take a lot of tissues, but have you auctioned any of your books up to and including Clade for a movie?
[00:43:27] James Bradley: There is a TV series of Ghost Species in development, which I am involved in, but not the principal person in. I'm sitting in the room, but I'm not the story editor and I'm not the producer. I'm just one of the, I'm gonna write an episode. I don't know if it will happen but it's been really fascinating because I'm working with, well, it's been done by people who come out of TV, but they're people who come out of mostly English TV, but they do shows like Line of Duty and Dr. Who and things like that. And so I remember looking at one of the episodes, I said, that looks like a great episode. They said, James, that looks like a good five minutes of an episode. It was one of those moments about the kind of slack plotting of novels as against the plotting of television. But it's been really fascinating to watch them do it and to watch what they need to do to it to make it work, the television show.
[00:44:17] Ramanan: My question, which will be our last question, is the way we found our way to you. And Molly and I just felt so passionately that it would be awesome to have you be our first interviewee was the fact that you are many things. You are an author, you're an editor, you are a critic. And we read your Five Books interview in which you surveyed the field and picked five books that any self-respecting reader should read in climate fiction.
[00:44:51] So the question for you, and we may do a whole other episode with you that focuses on this part of your life, who'd be your top 3, 4, 5, 1 choice for us to interview next, now that you know who we are and what we do?
[00:45:05] James Bradley: Which is interesting because it's a different question from who would be my top. It's a slightly different question to the kind of Five Books question, isn't it? Yeah. Look, I was thinking about this because you've very kindly allowed me to think about this. I mean, there's obvious people like Kim Stanley Robinson who are just kind of obvious things, but couple of people are, I said before I was reading the new Annalee Newitz novel, which I thought was very interesting. I think there are people like Richard Powers who would be remarkable across both kind of information technology, but also I guess what you were talking about right at the start, which is how do we reimagine the world in kind of biocentric terms. I read a fascinating book recently by a guy called Bruce Holsinger, called The Displacement, which is a really interesting novel.
It's a kind of policy driven novel, I guess, and it's about trying to imagine what would happen if Miami basically was wiped away by a hurricane, and you had all of those millions of people moved into camps. So it tries to do this kind of future history about I guess the kind of intersection of policy and politics about trying to deal with migration and displacement within countries.
And it's a really interesting book. And there's a couple of writers operating outside the States, one's Bandana Singh, who is an Indian writer who writes kind of short stories in this space. They're really, really interesting.
And that Chinese writer, Chen Qiufan, I think that's how you say the name. Who wrote The Waste Tide, who's a very interesting writer, and again, is kind of working at that kind of meeting point of technology and fiction, which makes it really interesting.
[00:46:41] Ramanan: Thank you. We will pursue all of these people.
[00:46:45] Molly: Exactly.
[00:46:46] Ramanan: With or without your assistance to the ends of the earth, so to speak.
[00:46:50] Molly: Yes. Thanks for producing our next five episodes, James, and for the time today for helping us kick off this series and really setting the tone of the concept to imagine a future that is all too likely, especially I think now. But also to imagine, and I guess at the end of the day, it is a little bit hopeful to imagine what it looks like to live it.
[00:47:16] James Bradley: Thank you.
[00:47:17] Ramanan: Thank you. And thank you to my co-conspirator Molly. We just whipped each other into a frenzy in this iterative process to launch the series. And here we are, and it's just been wonderful. That's all for our first episode. For the audience, we hope you enjoyed our conversation with James Bradley about his novel Clade, which we highly recommend.
The importance of imagining a way forward, amid all this crisis and uncertainty and the role of fiction in exploring the climate crisis. I wanna repeat, you can find James at his blog, cityoftongues.com. Thank you for listening and we'll be back with many more episodes.
Thanks for listening! Subscribe here for more episodes.