Writing climate fiction showed me that a different life is possible ‹ Literary Hub

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In 2014, pregnant with my first child and panicked, I thought I would overcome my fears by writing a novel that imagined the future. Writing has always helped me, not to calm down, precisely, but to make my imagination run wild, until it runs out.

In particular, I worried about the climate crisis, guns and billionaires. I was afraid of not being a good enough mother; and that even if I was a great mother, that wouldn’t be enough to make up for the fact that I brought the world to her, knowing what I did about climate change and other downfalls of terminal capitalism. In the grip of a useless and existential urge to flee – to New Zealand, to the moon – I began in 2033 the story of a family moving to a space station.

Climate change was still abstract to me back then – numbers, reports, bad stuff in the distance. I knew the 2 degree rise and California was still on fire. In a novel, however, intentional vagueness is not enough. To write convincingly about the near future, I had to read a lot of things that I had avoided, perhaps unconsciously, in order to be able to choose to have children.

As you’d expect from a pregnant person trying to write in vivid, chilling detail about the crisis their child was about to grow into, it didn’t go over well. If the writing was good, I was wrecked. Every worry, every regret, and every fear I had known in my life came rushing back to me to land, claws in, until I was a pair of eyes peering through dark feathers. If I was okay, the writing wasn’t, with my characters avoiding any fear and tension.

I’m braver than before I wrote this book, less inclined to wring my hands or look away.

When I had my baby, I learned how much I still clung to abstraction. Once my son was real, every seizure imaginable was also real.

*

I fell backwards. Too much time has passed and my editor has asked to see my first hundred pages. After reading them, she called me, encouraging, but a little tender, worried. It was so dark, she said. Maybe let in some light? After hanging up, I cried, unexpectedly relieved. I let in a little light, then too much light, had a few miscarriages and got addicted to adding more light. I wrapped the story in layers of down for a softer landing.

Then I got a new editor. She thought I should read more detailed analyzes of the climate crisis. The book seemed to avoid major disasters, and my death count seemed low to it.

What you can’t say, when you’ve promised a book like this, is that you don’t want to know anything more.

*

My first book took me three years and changing to write; this one took me seven. The world I wrote it in was noisier and filled with life and change, both in my own home and outside it. I had a child, we moved to another city; had miscarriages; we moved across the country, had a second child, then the pandemic years, the annual California fire seasons: real life.

I worried all the time about not working fast enough, getting bailed out. Not by another writer – lots of people smarter than me write about the climate crisis colliding with personal technology and technocracy, money making the rules – it was a no-brainer. Instead, I feared being caught up in reality. The present was changing too quickly for me to follow. In the first draft of my book, the privacy-breaking technology I “invented” was on the shelves before I finished the draft.

Even once I realized that I needed to push my imagination much further, much faster, the outside world kept catching up with me. 2.6 billion people are creating new realities much faster than a single woman with part-time child care. When the wonders and terrors that became real were the same as I had imagined, I was not so much surprised as overcome. As a writer, I felt like I got it right, but too late. As a mother, I hated that.

I once came home from a masked, socially distanced Black Lives Matter protest to find my husband and kids watching the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on a laptop on the floor. Our son was five, fascinated by space travel, and our daughter was a baby, her eyes wide in the light of the laptop screen. I put up my sign. “She shouldn’t see this,” I said.

My husband turned around. “Why?”

Because babies aren’t supposed to look at screens until they’re two years old. I realized the stupid desperation to hold that line at that particular moment and didn’t answer, just sat down to watch with them. Protesting that Black Lives Matter at a busy intersection while my kids watched Space-X launch a useful tool for human escape – temporary, expensive and paid, but escape anyway? The convergence of these bodies seemed important.

I don’t confuse my book with action, and if it’s a call to action, the first person to hear it is me.

I wrote this scene in my novel. My editor withdrew it: too much on the nose. She was right. It was one of those cases where real-life collisions and coincidences are too perfect for fiction. When fictional situations line up so well that the meaning is inescapable, it’s overwhelming and we don’t like that.

*

Every time I set out to write a book, I hoped that writing it would change me. With my new novel, A house between earth and moon, I was asking for a lot of change, because the stakes of my future fictional world are the stakes of my real world. The children in my novel are of the same generation as my own children, and the book and its author wanted to know if they would be okay.

I’ve been thinking about the year 2033 for seven years, both as a writer and as a mother. At the end of my working day, I pushed back my chair to leave the near future that I was writing to find the near future that I evoked, the near future building a LEGO catapult in the garage and the near future that woke up grumpy from her nap and didn’t like the way her babysitter peeled an orange. I call out their names like I’ve been gone for days, pick them up and swing them, press my daughter’s sticky cheek to mine and try to shake the future.

Writing this book took me, as they say, to a dark place, but its characters, both those who do and those who don’t, lifted me out of it. The end of this book was for the book, but after writing it, I experienced it as a sort of self-reproach. This novel took me from someone writing about a need for change to someone desperately trying to bring those changes to life. I started a path of climate activism through the gardening of native plants – for biodiversity, for carbon capture, to reaccustom people to the more than human world around them – and that path felt like a kind of hello. I’m braver than before I wrote this book, less inclined to wring my hands or look away. I don’t confuse my book with action, and if it’s a call to action, the first person to hear it is me.

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A house between earth and moon by Rebecca Scherm is available through Viking.

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