In this episode EJ Swift describes her deep time speculative approach to climate fiction and the effect of content on form in speculative nested or fragmented narratives.
[Narrative Futures Intro Music]
Chelsea Haith: How do the stories we tell shape how we think about the future, the present and the past. What is speculation for? And how might we construct better narratives for a better future?
Narrative Futures is a podcast coming to you from Futures Thinking, a research network housed in The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities.
My name is Chelsea Haith, I’m a doctoral researcher in the Faculty of English, here at the University of Oxford. EJ Swift joins us on this the sixth episode of Narrative Futures to discuss climate fiction, nested narratives for deep time speculation and how she negotiates the politics of form and content.
This podcast is interactive. Following the interview you’ll be treated to two writing prompts designed by novelist and creative writing tutor extraordinaire Louis Greenberg. We invite you to share your responses to these with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll share these on the blog, where you’ll also be able to find the full transcript of each episode with links to the books, writers and ideas that we discuss. As the world so radically changes we hope these conversations and ideas give you insight and inspiration to think about how else we might live and create collectively, going forward.
EJ Swift is the author of the climate fiction trilogy, the Osiris Project, featuring the novels Osiris, Cataveiro and Tamaruq. Her short fiction has appeared in Interzone magazine and in anthologies from Salt Publishing, Jurassic London, NewCon Press and Solaris, and has been translated into Chinese and Polish. Her short story ‘Saga’s Children’ was short listed for a BFSA award, and the ‘Spiders of Stockholm’ was long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG short story award. Her latest novel, Paris Adrift, a speculative, time-travel tale is set in an apocalyptic City of Lights and is another example of Swift’s careful interweaving of politics and speculation in fiction.
What you’re going to hear now is a short extract from Swift’s novel, Cataveiro, the second in the Osiris Project trilogy. This extract is an example of Swift’s nested narrative style to produce deep-time speculation. Following this we’ll launch into the interview.
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EJS: I’m going to read a short extract from Cataveiro, this extract is a radio story which is being broadcast to the people in the city on Station Cataveiro.
[Extract from Cataveiro]
CH: Really, really beautiful.
EJS: Thank you, I was trying to find something quickly that would work, so—
CH: No, it’s so gorgeous. And I think it’s really emblematic of the… lyricism in your—in your work. So, we first met in February 2019, in Oxford, where you’d been invited to contribute to a panel on feminist science-fiction that I was chairing. And I recall your reading of ‘The White Fox and the Red’, and that was so beautiful. The room full of eager undergraduates listening intently, the snow drifting gently outside the window. And that was my first introduction to your work, which I’ve now since discovered varies quite widely across genres, but sort of within the speculative… fantastic space. And ‘The White Fox and the Red is a climate fiction short, and so is the Osiris Project trilogy climate fiction. But they engage with these kinds of ecological concerns in very different ways. When you’re plotting a story, or novel, what kinds of concerns of form do you take into consideration?
EJS: When I’m thinking about fiction, for me it tends to come from… either the character, or a sort of concept of a place, or an idea of place. And it’s those things that really influence, then, what kind of form I’m going to take. I think with the Osiris Project trilogy… I’d always conceived it as the three books, but I think what was quite important to me was the way the voices within—across the novels widened, as the perspective of the novels widened. So, in the first book, you’ve got very much a sort of “star-crossed lovers” scenario. And the two perspectives are limited to those of Adelaide and Vikram on either side of the city, the “has” and the “has not”. When we moved onto Cataveiro and Tamaruq, the third novel, I introduced gradually more voices throughout those. So, they had a slightly different feel in terms of their—their structure. And that kind of correlated with the—the perspective on the world widening. So, you saw these different nations and cultures, as the trilogy expanded. So, I think it does tend to come from the character, for me.
CH: I really love that, and I think it’s kind of part of what we are seeing in the… kind of growing renaissance of science-fiction, perhaps, or of speculative fiction. Where stories are focused around characters rather than about world-building. But you build your world so perfectly into your characters’ experiences of it. I think it’s an incredible feat, given that this is your first trilogy.
EJS: Thank you, I mean, I… yeah, it’s—it was very challenging to work out where to go from Osiris, I think. But it was really driven by the geography and the geopolitics of the world. And I think once I had a sense of what that world looked like, there were so many different stories I could have told within that space. It was almost trickier to decide how I would limit those stories, in a sense. There’s other ways where I think I could have done stuff differently, looking back. And it’s very much a classic trilogy, in the way it expands and is set up, and I think… in another life, I might have done something different with the third book. But—but there it is.
CH: [Laugh] Yeah, I mean—let’s talk a little bit about those geopolitics. When you were sort of world-building the Osiris Project through the, I suppose the multi-vocality of the… of the focalising characters. What kind of research did you—did you do to build the various locales? I have images of you kind of trudging around Chile….
EJS: Oh, I would have loved to go to South America. I couldn’t make it there, mainly due to funding. But one of the things, certainly, for the second novel, because as you say, it’s set in South America, moving from Patagonia—where in the trilogy, the majority of civilisation in South America is located there—across the belt of the Amazon, which is now a desert, up to the Panama exchange point, which is the kind of point between the powers of the North and South in this radically altered world. One of the things I did at the time, was read a huge amount of South American fiction, as much as I could, and—really just to try and sort of soak up some of those amazing writers. Not consciously trying to emulate what they were doing, but just to sort of absorb something, and hope that might feed into the work in some ways. And I remember being hugely influenced at the time, by Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, which is these sorts of nested stories. This extraordinary work. Beautiful, lyrical. But in times, these crazy flights of fancy as well. And I think books like that sort of fed into that storytelling culture that I tried to imbue in Cataveiro, so, you have these stories on the radio.
I also did quite a lot of research for that book, into the Nazca Geoglyphs, of which there are so many theories. But one of the theories is that they were part of a… network for conservation, and they were linked to the conservation of water. And in this world, which is set three, four hundred years from our world. Those Geoglyphs have become a new, kind of, not so much religion, but sort of tenets of living, of which the first principle is the conservation of water. So, I was taking inspiration from, again, those geographical features, from other writers. So, broadly for the trilogy, I was looking at… climate writers such as Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees, which was hugely influential. There was a particular story in New Scientist, about sort of, “Earth One Hundred,” with this map that I remember looking at and thinking, “Yes, that’s sort of how the world must look.” So, I was working on climate science at the time. Obviously, that has hugely moved on, even in the last ten years. So, it’s interesting to consider, if I was writing the trilogy now… how it might look different, based on the new knowledge that is publicly available.
CH: Yeah, absolutely. I think climate fiction has been growing in popularity in recent years. But there’s also kind of the—the realities of climate change, as you say, in the last decade have changed drastically. So, I think—if I think about your own trilogy and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 and the Three Californias trilogy, Paolo Bacigalupi’s novels, Claire Vey Watkins’ Gold-Famed Citrus, et cetera. What do you think is happening in that genre-space? What do you think is the intention? Do you think there’s a zeitgeist, given the looming climate disaster? Or—or I suppose, and-or is there something, kind of, more political going on?
EJS: I think if you’re a writer, writing speculative fiction in at least, the near future, it feels to me that it’s almost impossible to ignore climate breakdown. But I don’t really see how you can write anything set sort of near-to-now, and not acknowledge it in some way. Even if it’s very much in the background, and it’s not the sort of main thrust of your story and your narrative. So, I’m not surprised that we are seeing it more thematically across literature, both within speculative fiction, but also in what we might refer to as “mainstream” fiction.
One of the things I do find really interesting about a lot of these novels, is there’s often a tendency towards a sort of disruptive narrative of form. And I think that’s partly because the whole concept of climate change is so huge, and it can feel so paralysing, this immensity of scale. Both in terms of scope, and in terms of time… that these sort of, perhaps, more fragmented narratives—I’m thinking of novels like Clade by James Bradley; a novel like The Swan Book by Alexis Wright, an Aboriginal Australian author, which takes a completely different approach to time. There’s—there’s something interesting going on there formally, I think in some of these works.
CH: I think the “deep time” approach, particularly for someone like Alexis Wright, who is kind of pushing back against the terra nullius sense of—of Australia… and I think that—I mean some of that is represented in the theory about indigenous futurisms, by someone like Grace Dillon, for example. But then I think about your short story—I’m going to go back to it, because it struck me and it stuck with me, obviously, for years but ‘The White Fox and the Red’. And that is a kind of human climate fiction, kind of hybrid and… the really small—it’s a small story, but a really, really powerful one. And yeah, and I’m kind of wondering about where that came from, I suppose. And how that kind of feeds into the broader kind of grand narratives of, you know, “The world is underwater, and everyone has had to move South.” You know, living on Antarctica, for example. And yet, there’s—you know, in your world-building, there is the—there is a smaller story. I suppose, character-driven, like so much of your work.
EJS: Yeah, I think with the—'The White Fox and the Red’, that was inspired by a—just by a photograph. It was one of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year finalists, or possibly even the winner that year. And it’s a… photo of a red fox… holding a dead white fox, which is the result of environmental chains, essentially. The red foxes are moving further north. The Arctic Fox territory is shrinking, and it’s utterly tragic that these red foxes predate on the white, because they’re smaller. And I think I’ve always had a huge love of the natural world, a love of animals in particular. And… more recently, I’ve become more and more interested in… how we look at animal intelligence, how animal intelligence differs from ours. New science that’s being… scientific studies that are exploring this area. I guess I’m interested in that sort of concept of animism, and how we relate to other, non-human beings, I guess, as a sort of concept of how we look at those other people in the world. And I think the story was… was perhaps tapping into that. That area of interest. So, taking the perspective of—not just the people living there, that the—of those other beings that we share the world with. And thinking about how… you know, interconnected we are. And I think, again, that’s—we’re gaining more and more of an understanding of how our own future is inextricably connected with these other non-human beings that we can’t separate out the two in how we think about; how we address climate breakdown. We can’t look at climate breakdown without also looking at, you know, re-wilding, for example.
CH: It’s a really interesting kind of fictional representation of kind of what’s happening in academic theory about non-human… animals, or human animals, kind of theorised by someone like Amitav Ghosh and The Great Derangement, thinking about how—when we think about climate change and these concerns, as you say, we cannot ignore questions of re-wilding. And, you know, creating alternative ecologies. And I’m thinking a little bit now about the kind of characters that function as… sort of political, or politically engaged vehicles for… for a different kind of political narrative, or alternative political narratives. Your characters are all kind of politically engaged, and I would argue that The Red Fox and the White are, equally, kind of representations of—not, perhaps, “Political” with a capital P, but “political” with a small, lower-case p; political viewpoints. And, you know, they are all forced into… a kind of political engagement. But, as with The Red Fox and the White, and with so many of your—so many of the characters in… in the Osiris trilogy, they tend to work outside of the systems they’re in. Which seems to—seems to be a kind of position that… that I suppose my—I, as a reader, am assuming on your part as the author.
EJS: Yeah, I guess I don’t sort of think consciously about that, and it’s really interesting that that’s something you’ve picked up. But I suppose in terms of characters, I am drawn to characters who are outsiders. Perhaps, purely because there’s instantly a source of friction there, in terms of the sort of plots that you’re trying to create, and the power dynamics that you’re—you’re looking at. Someone is operating outside the—the system…. But I think also… the way I see… sort of speculative fiction in the sort of small-P “political” sense is really a sort of “thought experiment” angle. You know, the idea that fiction… can… sort of pose a blueprint, can ask questions, can put forward possible futures or ideas, can ask questions of the reader. I don’t see fiction as being there to give answers, but I think it can… you know, in creating a sort of dissonance with our own world, it can offer up ideas that might otherwise seem inaccessible or impossible in some ways. Perhaps that’s why they’re—they’re operating outside of… their recognisable systems.
CH: Yeah, I love that. That your characters, much like the form in which they’re represented are operating outside of a recognised system. And thinking—I think a lot about what we—what we do when we pretend that art is not political; small-P “political.” And I’ve been thinking a fair bit about HG Wells and Henry James’ argument in 1915, where Henry James said that, “Literature is art, and art is,” you know, “Art for art’s sake.” And HG Wells said, “No, it has to be for something higher. Literature is like architecture.” What do you think about the implications, or what do you think are the implications of treating a novel like a piece of political philosophy?
EJS: I think fiction is… is both. And I think there’s an opportunity for fiction to put forward ideas for discussion, for consideration. But I also think there’s a danger in treating fiction as pure philosophy. You know, any—any novel, once it’s out there, is open to the interpretation of the reader. And that could be interpreted in so many different ways. I think it needs to be considered as a sort of open… an open hand, in a sense, an open question rather than a dogma, if that makes sense.
CH: Yeah, absolutely. Dialogic, as opposed to… prescriptive.
CH: And when you were writing dystopia—when you are writing dystopia, which I suppose is kind of what—what writers tend to do at the moment when they are writing about the future; no more of the 1970s feminist utopias. So, writing a dystopia—you’re making kind of particular formal choices which we’ve discussed, but what draws you to the dystopic, or I suppose, to the speculative?
EJS: I think it’s… quite interesting how my thinking has changed around this in a way. I think at the time I was writing the Osiris Project; dystopia did very much feel like the way to go. It felt like the way to express these ideas. I think there’s a huge attraction in the idea of the beautiful ruin, I think China Miéville’s written on this. That sort of sense of something that’s broken and gone, but retains its beauty somehow, like the sort of lone wanderer making their way through this world. And in a sense, that’s—that’s how Ramona is operating. I think since writing that… that trilogy, I… want to move my work in a direction where it both recognises… the stakes of climate breakdown and what we stand to lose, whilst also presenting a future narrative that identifies where we could get to.
And that’s certainly the approach I’ve taken in the novel that I’m looking to place at the moment. Which is based on the Great Barrier Reef. I think dystopia… is weirdly comforting in some ways, because it’s got that focus on the lone survivor and that sense of individualism. It doesn’t really ask us to… think collectively or find solutions. And I think that’s something that, for example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s work very much does. It looks—well, you know, this, “These terrible things are going to happen, but how do we—how do we work from there? How do we get back to—to a better way of living?”
CH: Yeah, Robinson loves a committee!
EJS: He does that! [laughing]
CH: [Laughing] Yeah. I mean, I’m equally kind of more—I’m more interested in the individual experiences of the larger thing. I mean it’s the great question of, you know, of Western modernity, “How do we get back to collective living?” And I think that the pandemic is forcing us to think really seriously about that. And to think about local… living and community living, rather than, like, slightly more individualised but global experience of—of the world.
But I wanted to talk a bit more about your latest published novel, Paris Adrift, which is also very political but a city novel, an ode to the City of Lights, Paris… and a time-travel novel! And those are really… I mean, novels about Paris, and time-travel, those are kind of really important traditions in… you know, twentieth and twenty-first century literature. And you bring those traditions together really interestingly. And it’s kind of a departure from the Osiris Project, and some of your short fiction, though not all.
EJS: Yes, it is one of those novels that… it’s a bit of an anomaly, I think, from the rest of my work. It was a novel that I just felt I had to write. I think everyone has one of those, something you have to get out of your system. I lived in Paris for about eighteen months. I worked a night shift in a bar for most of that. There’s something very surreal… slightly dissonant about working… the opposite time of the day to everyone else. In that sense, it’s kind of emerging into the day after a long shift, and seeing everyone on their way to work, and smelling the fresh bread in the bakeries.
And I think I just saw something in that experience that could be linked with the speculative. You know, what happens if you expand that experience further, if the world literally turns upside down, if you literally find yourself falling through time. So, I think it was pulling something out of that particular sort of atmosphere, or feeling, that led to the idea of introducing time-travel. It does pull together a lot of different strands, and I think it’s one of those books that either works for readers or doesn’t? It’s a bit of a Marmite one, I think.
CH: [Laugh] And looking forward, what kind of narratives about the future do you hope to see or write? You said you’ve—you’re currently looking to place a novel? Any… any hints about what that’s about?
EJS: …So the novel I’m hoping to place is set on the Great Barrier Reef. It… has three storylines. A… nineteenth-century strand, a present-day strand and a future strand. And… that’s kind of exploring some of the ideas I’ve talked about, so, very much a climate breakdown novel, focusing on the… impact of climate breakdown on the reef. I’m very interested in those different intelligences. I think in terms of what I’m reading about the future, I love Yuval Noah Harari’s work, I find that incredibly… just easy to engage with, and very clear-sighted, and so many different ideas in there to think about. I’m reading a lot of environmental works, again thinking about rewilding. Isabella Tree’s non-fiction book Wilding, about the project at the Knepp Estate in Sussex is—it feels like a sort of blueprint for the future. In terms of the fiction I’m reading, I was recently really inspired by reading This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. And that presents in a really beautiful, stylistic, illusory sort of way to possible pathways for humanity. And I think that type of fiction… it’s—it doesn’t have that sort of—it’s not taking that grounded, realistic approach of Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s taking a much more evocative sort of way of conceptualising the future. I think both those approaches are fascinating in kind of unpicking what—where we might be going.
CH: I’m really interested in that idea about where we might be going as a… as a sort of springboard… from speculation. Some of my researchers suggested to me that the word “speculation,” through very many round-about—sort of etymological sort of links… comes from, “Theros,” for theory. And so, we’re theorising about what might come. Which is about storytelling… essentially. Which goes back to these kinds of smaller stories, the personal stories. You know, this is how people communicate their experiences. They’re going as far back as The Decameron, you know, which is a moment of shaping what comes after the Black Plague, and what—you know, the rest of European Renaissance was going to look like. But when you think about—about narrative, I mean, how—how—I suppose it’s a fairly leading question, but [laugh] how do you see the role of narrative when we think about the future? And what kinds of narratives sort of dominate for you as potentially influential, or dangerous?
EJS: That’s a really good question. Thinking about the types of narratives… I think narrative’s something we have to be very careful in how we’re using. I think it’s hugely important that you remember—that we remember the power of words and of what a single word, or a single tweet, or a single image can do. Thinking most recently about, for example… the kind of horrific narrative we’re seeing around migrants arriving in the UK and acknowledging why and how those narratives are being used. You know, why are we suddenly having stories about this on the front page, other than to detract from everything else that is… that is sort of breaking down right now.
So, I think as writers, we have a responsibility to think about… how we’re using narrative; what we’re trying to say; how it could be… interpreted and co-opted and…. And at the same time, I think we—we have a responsibility to be true to ourselves, to talk about the things that we’re passionate about and not to feel constrained… as writers, whilst also taking the respect and responsibility that we owe to the treatment of the subject we’re addressing.
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CH: For those writers and speculators listening, stay with us now for writing prompts and exercises designed to encourage putting pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, as well as reflection on the writing process. This section is designed and presented by Louis Greenberg.
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Louis Greenberg’s writing prompts:
- Character and place inform form
Our first exercise this time is a technical one.
EJ Swift says that in her practice, the characters or setting informs form. In other words, we can shape and structure our writing according to the content.
Let’s play with this idea a little, merging it with a few techniques we’ve tried in other episodes.
Start by writing a couple of paragraphs about a busy market square in a place you’ve never been to. It might even be on a different planet.
Describe the sights and smells and sounds. Describe the activity. Include some dialogue.
Pause now and write.
Suddenly, an unexpected event happens. A troupe of dancing elephants might come through; there may be a loud noise, an attack; there may be an apparition of some sort.
Pause now and write.
Now make all the characters – human, alien, animal – disappear. Pause, write and then come back.
Describe the scene. is it silent and still or is something still moving?
Have the tension and pace increased or decreased?
From whose perspective are we seeing the scene? Is it first or second or third person, an omniscient narrator? Who is viewing the scene if there’s no-one there?
Re-read passages from some of your favourite books and consider how the form matches content.
- Building a nest
Like other writers in this series, EJ Swift plays with temporal structure – she blends time and nests narratives in an ecological context.
To experiment with this technique, outline a story with nested timelines – but not just any story. It needs to have an animal as the central protagonist, describing how they build their nest.
Consider the onion layers of the story: you might go backwards or forwards in time or generation, going one layer deeper each time, and then coming out again.
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CH: That’s it for this episode of Narrative Futures. Thanks to EJ Swift for a brilliant discussion, and as always to Louis Greenberg for his thought provoking prompts. In the next and penultimate episode, I’ll be chatting to Ken Liu about realism, alternative technologies, and imagining a future we might not be around for.
With thanks to EJ Swift for being our guest on this episode.
Music credit: The sounds used in this podcast are Technological Vibe and Cyber Technologies by Ricky Rombino, sourced from Premium Beats.
Production credit: This podcast was devised, recorded, and edited by Chelsea Haith. All writing prompts were designed and presented by Louis Greenberg.