Book cover

Since its founding in 1998, McSweeney’s Publishing has been a vital groundswell for innovative and timely literature. The publishing house began with a quarterly journal that’s still produced today – this month gave us Issue 58. Titled 2040 A.D., the issue is dedicated to climate fiction and was produced in partnership with the leading environmental organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

2040 A.D. features some of today’s most incisive writers: Tommy Orange, Claire G. Coleman, Birna Anna Björnsdóttir, Luis Alberto Urrea, Elif Shafak, Abbey Mei Otis, Asja Bakić, Rachel Heng, Kanishk Tharoor, and Mikael Awake – most of whom have never before tried their hand at writing climate fiction.

Each writer was assigned a location (Australia, for example) and a consequence of climate change (the bleaching of coral reefs), and was paired up with an expert, who consulted on scientific details as necessary. The results are dazzling: Each story stands alone as an outstanding example of climate fiction, but together, the collection illuminates the interconnectedness of climate change, and how a climate-related event on one side of the planet can affect events on the other side.

I spoke with the issue’s editor, Claire Boyle, about how climate fiction can help readers to better imagine the effects of climate change, how different literary styles can evoke different responses to the crisis, and whether she personally feels hopeful for the future.

Amy Brady: In the intro you write that the worst climate-related predictions for the next 20 years are hard to “wrap our minds around.” Why do you think this is?

Claire Boyle: We receive such torrents of information on a daily basis, and have acclimated to information being sensationalized or simplified in order to compete with the noise. Sometimes I fear the true direness of climate news is undermined by this chaotic information landscape. We’ve blown out our ability to hear the alarm and so, as the scientists continue to ring it, we’re dismissive or oblivious.

Amy Brady: How can the stories collected here help readers to imagine such a future? And why is that important?

Claire Boyle: Stories slow the coverage about climate down, so that we can’t slough it off along with the rest of the information we navigate each day. They take a warning – that by the year 2040, say, we could see mass destruction of the coral reefs around northern Australia – and they force you to imagine that. To sit with it and feel all of its implications, to consider how that might affect government oversight; what activism, and the efforts to squash that activism, might look like in the face of that; the toll it might take on industries and livelihoods, on infrastructure and public health. In drawing these warnings out into stories, they’re personalized. They open a space that can be not just understood but inhabited. They show that these concerns are not theoretical, but material, personal, and deeply threatening.

Amy Brady: Each contributing writer of this issue was paired with a scientific expert. Why did you make these pairings, and what kind of work did you hope would come out of it?

Claire Boyle: So much of climate fiction gets its power in the details, the small considerations and cause-and-effects we as laymen would never expect, and no one understands those better than the experts, especially the experts at NRDC, who deal with these things every day. We saw the science as a backbone to the issue – holding it up, allowing it to search around for stories that were bracing and affecting.

Amy Brady: Despite the differences in these stories, many contain several similarities. Could you discuss your editorial mandates? Did you require the writers to write toward any specific themes or conclusions?

Claire Boyle: That was one of the most interesting, and illuminating, outcomes of this project. We assigned each author a very specific region and event warned about in the report – coastal flooding, extreme heat waves, coral reef destruction, climate migration. In truth, none of these events occur in a vacuum but are instead intimately causing and being caused by each other. And so of course a story about the destruction of the coral reefs, which when healthy protect the shore from storm damage, becomes a story about coastal flooding – which, in turn, makes those coastal communities uninhabitable, and then you’ve got a story about climate migration. There’s no way to pull one thread without unraveling the whole thing, which is really important to understand, and I think the authors powerfully expressed that.

Amy Brady: I love, love how “weird” some of these stories get. What do you think fictional stories – especially those that stray from straight-up realism – can show or tell us about climate change that perhaps scientific reports can’t?

Claire Boyle: We felt strongly that these stories, though working in a particular genre, should maintain the aesthetic of the magazine. Ultimately, this is a literary project. We asked, What can McSweeney’s add to this growing tradition of climate fiction? How can we push the boundaries of what climate fiction can look like? We invited people to participate who wouldn’t typically think to write climate fiction, and I think as a result they approached the genre in a really different and adventurous way.

Fiction grants the freedom to follow the story to its most emotionally resonate form in a way that science doesn’t, creating the circumstances for powerful illustrations about climate.

But I also think the prompt of climate fiction, and especially climate fiction that isn’t restricted to “realism,” can create circumstances for really interesting literature.

Amy Brady: Given the dire news surrounding climate change, are you hopeful for the future?

Claire Boyle: I’m certainly no expert, but when I see the work that amazing organizations like NRDC are doing, it makes me hopeful. It seems unavoidable that we need enormous and immediate shifts, and that we can’t expect a future that reflects our current level of ease and convenience. But it feels to me that momentum is swelling, and I hope that projects like 2040 A.D. contribute to that in some small way.

2040 A.D., Edited by Claire Boyle (McSweeney’s Publishing, published December 5, 2019)

Reprinted with permission of Amy Brady and Chicago Review of Books, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.