A planet that outpaces science fiction
James Bradley's new novel, Clade, is about climate change. He talks to Megan Toomey.
When science fiction writer James Bradley tried to explain the Yellow Pages to his daughter, she became confused. Couldn’t he just look up phone numbers on the internet? When he told her that once upon a time there was no internet she looked puzzled and wary “as if to say, ‘what an insane situation!’” Bradley laughs.
But Bradley, who is nearing 50, says he understands his daughter’s confusion. So much in the world has changed since he was a child 35 years ago, and he’s quite sure that the pace of change will continue so that in another 35 years life will be completely different from now. As a science fiction writer and environmentalist, this insight felt especially profound to Bradley because of the threat posed by climate change. “You have this sense that you’re in this world which is in the midst of a cataclysmic but slow change that we’re driving,” he says.
“A lot of people feel a sense of grief about what’s going on, a sense that something is wrong and that we need to do something about it. And I guess what I wanted to do was find a way of making that make sense to myself.”
So Bradley wrote a book about it.
Clade, published earlier this year, is Bradley’s attempt to imagine climate change in a science fiction novel. He calls his style “geological fiction” – “it’s a genre that explores time scales beyond the human”. This kind of storytelling, he says, gives us the chance to see the bigger picture, in which our lives are part of much larger cycles, times and processes.
Originally from Adelaide in Australia, Bradley didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. While he studied law in Adelaide in his early 20s he dabbled in poetry. When he moved to Sydney to work as a lawyer he kept writing and began work on a novel. After a couple of years he was finding it difficult to juggle the two occupations.
Bradley says his boss at the time was a good man – and, as it happened, he had once been a writer himself. He asked Bradley: did he want to be a writer or a lawyer? Bradley knew the answer and quit on the spot. Then, after picking up a job working nights at a video shop in King’s Cross, he began to write his first novel.
In 1997, Bradley published his first book, Wrack, followed by The Deep Field in 1999 and The Resurrectionist in 2006. All three novels have won or have been shortlisted for Australian and international literary awards. In addition to his books, Bradley has published Paper Nautilus, a book of poetry; edited two anthologies, Blur and The Penguin Book of the Ocean; and writes non-fiction, reviews and critiques on his blog, City of Tongues. In 2012, he was awarded Australia’s Pascall Prize for his critical writing.
“It’s actually much harder to say, ‘The world’s not going to end. How do we find our way through that?’”
Bradley is modest about his success. The work takes a lot of discipline, he says, but he considers himself fortunate to have had such a rewarding career in writing and publishing. “I basically just sit in my room and type. It’s very glamorous,” he quips.
Although he had a difficult time writing The Resurrectionist, “Clade came surprisingly easy,” he says. In fact, it’s now his favourite of all his books. He considers it one of the highlights of his career, the story idea coming “from a kind of deep place, but a good place”, which he attributes in part to becoming a father.
Bradley and his partner, Mardi McConnochie, an author and playwright, are parents to two girls, Annabelle and Lila. Both were born since his last novel was published – one is four and the other is eight-and-a-half years old. His work days now revolve around his children, and he couldn’t help but think about them when he began to write Clade in 2011.
“You just find yourself going, ‘What the hell am I giving to my children? How do I make sense of that?’”
The book, which spans the next 60 years, follows three generations of a family living against the backdrop of a world confronted by climate change. Many issues are tackled within that narrative – biodiversity loss, pandemic, virtual technology, infertility, autism and refugees, to name a few. Bradley is quick to point out that Clade is not about an apocalyptic future. Writing about the end of the world “absolves us of responsibility for it,” he says. “It’s actually much harder to say, ‘The world’s not going to end. How do we find our way through that?’”
There’s also a sardonic twist to the dynamic between technology and reality, one which Bradley explores in Clade and observes in life.
“Our experience of the world is increasingly mediated by technology such as Google Maps, Instagram, cameras on drones and the like.” Yet “there’s a real irony in the fact that we are able to document the natural world in higher and higher degrees of resolution, even as we’re expunging it from the planet.”
As he was writing the book, Bradley was unnerved by the ways in which his fiction found its way into fact. The characters in Clade contend with a deadly global virus, methane explosions in the Arctic and shifts in the Earth’s poles all due to climate change. In the months after he finished writing, news of the Ebola epidemic broke, followed by published studies about our shifting poles caused by melting ice. But news of the crater-causing methane explosions in Siberia disturbed Bradley the most.
“They were one of the scary tipping point indicators with climate change,” he says. He knew scientists were predicting methane eruptions, but these had not happened when he was writing the novel.
“That’s actually terrifying – that sense that the planet is moving faster than science fiction.”