This month, my interview is with Tory Stephens, of Grist’s Fix Lab. He and his team launched a hugely popular climate-fiction contest for writers whose stories seek to find ways to subvert systemic oppression and offer optimism for the future. Accompanying Tory is one of the contest winners, Lindsey Brodeck, author of “Afterglow.” Together, they discuss Brodeck’s short story and what makes it such a powerful example of climate fiction.
Tory, remind us of the purpose of this contest and the types of stories you hoped to see submitted.
Tory: Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors is jam-packed with a few calls to action. First, we want to lift up short stories that are grounded in hope, environmental justice, climate solutions, and intersectionality. Second, we want to create a space for people to tell stories that challenge systems of oppression. In our call to society, we articulated being interested in writing that confronts structural racism and white supremacy, settler colonialism, heteronormativity, xenophobia, misogyny, and ableism. Anything oppressive. Full stop. Third, we asked Afrofuturist, Latinx futurists, disabled futurists, Asian futurists, queer futurists, Gulf futurists, Indigenous futurists, and solarpunks to come play with us and showcase what is possible with climate fiction.
Our hope from the beginning has been to grow the genre, make it more inclusive, and lift up culturally authentic stories. I love some of the stories in this genre at large, but at times I can’t relate on a cultural level. We want people to see themselves in these stories, and I think you do that by asking folks who have that lived experience to write their heart out.
Lindsey, what inspired your story and your decision to submit it?
Lindsey: Back in January, my MFA thesis advisor (T. Geronimo Johnson) alerted me to the Imagine 2200 short story contest. After reading the prompt, I was beyond energized and excited to write a story with the criteria Fix was looking for. As someone who writes cli-fi and has a background in biology and environmental studies, I was really drawn to the solutions-based nature of the prompt. I find a lot of inspiration from nature writers / climate non-fiction, so I dug out my favorite books (Rambunctious Garden, Staying With the Trouble, Braiding Sweetgrass) and got to work. I am also a huge fan of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, so I knew that had to be in my story too.
What do you think this story does best in terms of communicating the urgency of the climate crisis?
Lindsey: The climate crisis is complex and multifaceted – because of this, it demands multifaceted solutions. I’m hopeful that my story communicates the need to think creatively, and on multiple levels. What can we do right now in our communities? How can we change our relationship with nature, and how does language factor into that relationship? What is our collective vision for a just and regenerative world, and how can we get there? There is no one right way to tackle the climate crisis, but one thing is for certain: everyone has (and must have) a role to play in imagining and crafting a better future. We all bring different strengths to the climate justice table, and like Talli [the story’s protagonist], I think we can only discover these strengths by following what we’re naturally curious about.
In many ways, we’re already past the tipping point; we’re already living in the “after,” and I think it’s important to get comfortable with that idea, instead of getting paralyzed by it. When writing “Afterglow,” I knew what the title was going to be only a day or two into writing it, which is pretty uncommon for me. “Afterglow” kept showing up in my story, both explicitly and implicitly. The word can evoke something tangible – streaks of color remaining in the sky – and something more abstract – a feeling of happiness and relief after some event has transpired. This world is set just a little more past the tipping point than where we currently are, and Talli is learning how to live in the “after.” We need to learn how to do that too.
Tory: “Afterglow” shows us that we all need to get one thing straight, that the earth is the most viable option for us. So many of the submitted stories focused on leaving earth. That’s not hopeful to me. Sadly, there’s this pervasive idea that the earth, nature, and everything is disposable. Call it consumer culture. Call it modernity. Call it extractive capitalism. It’s essential that we move away from this extractive and disposable culture. The earth is life giving and if we are in the right relationship with her we can all live in abundance. I don’t believe the earth is a lost cause, and I love that the heroes in “Afterglow” don’t believe it’s a lost cause either.
There’s also this strong theme of community in the story. At first Talli’s is alone and isolated, but then they find a community who has similar feelings as them, and the community is warm, helpful, and has similar values. We’re going to go through some tough times and I know many people feel isolated and overwhelmed. We need each other to tackle this crisis. We’re in this struggle together. Find your community.
What role do you see fictional storytelling in general playing in our larger, public conversations about the climate crisis?
Lindsey: This reminds me so much of Ursula K. Le Guin’s quote, “Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.” I come back to this quote often; I even have it engraved on my favorite pen! Writers have the power to create new ways of seeing and sense-making, and cli-fi is especially powerful because we can give readers tangible ideas of what a more climate-just future could look like. It’s pretty amazing – even magical – that storytellers can use words to combat climate doom, and create resilient characters living in flawed-but-hopeful worlds.
Tory: Climate fiction and fictional storytelling more broadly can be a place of transformation and liberation from the dark-ism that plague our society. Stories have immense power. But, today many of the stories society creates and is interested in are violent, dystopian, and enforce norms that perpetuate a lot of the oppression this initiative is interested in dismantling, like misogyny, anti-Blackness, and ableism, to name a few. I believe climate fiction can shift the narrative from one of doom and gloom, to one of hope, optimism, and solutions. The public needs more stories with characters that are not set in some broken planet, fighting for scraps. I want the public to see, touch and feel what an abundant and healed planet looks like. I want this subgenre to grow and be the genre that activates the public imagination for good and inspires us to act. I want more people to say another world is possible. I believe fiction can do that, and should do that!
What surprised you most about the stories submitted to this contest?
Tory: Everything. This is our first go at this. It was extremely nerve racking to launch a new initiative focused on creating imagined worlds. And then on top of it all, ask people to push back against all these dark-isms. At first I was surprised this panned out at all. Then, after reading through hundreds of submissions, the next thing that surprised me was how many of the writers met the challenge head on. The imagination is a powerful place, and when you use it as a launching ground for transformation, liberation, and hope, amazing stories come to life. Deep down I had a fear that hope-filled stories wouldn’t be as good as the dystopian ones that litter the climate fiction genre. I was dead wrong. Many of the stories submitted positively broke me of this misplaced belief.
Lindsey, do you plan to keep writing climate fiction? Anything else in the works you’d like my readers to watch for?
Lindsey: I am currently working on a cli-fi novel set in the same universe as “Afterglow.” The novel follows the humans and non-humans involved in first contact with Kepler-452b. I’m also excited about my latest story, which I just submitted to a speculative fiction short story contest. It’s quite different than “Afterglow,” but it similarly explores the ending of a relationship and the beginning of something new. Regardless of how it does in the contest, I’m really excited about its surreal, visceral quality, and how it combines nature writing with extraterrestrial sci-fi. I’m hopeful it will find a home somewhere.
(Top image by Carolina Rodríguez Fuenmayor.)
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.