Cascade: Writing the Apocalypse

Cascade was never meant to be a work of climate fiction.

My meandering novel of magic, monsters, and machinations grew its themes organically. Not everything, even in a novel about politics, needs to be a political allegory. Sometimes the tentacle of a long-dead god emerging from the bottom of the ocean is just a tentacle of a long-dead god emerging from the bottom of the ocean. But the further I wrote, and the more IPCC reports were released to resounding global silence and inaction, the more it became obvious that the apocalypse that threatened the world of Cascade was a one not dissimilar to the one that imperils our own.

This led to one of my many bouts of soul searching while writing the novel. Could I even finish the book, let alone the series, before reality rendered it irrelevant? Was it selfish to care about that? Was it even ethical to write a book—which, for all its topicality, is a work of entertainment—when our planet is on fire? Surely my time was better spent at a pipeline blockade or, at the very least, marching in the street.

It may disappoint you, gentle reader, that I don’t have those answers. But I have done a fair bit of thinking about the role of artists, and other creators, during a climate apocalypse.

If you follow Writer Twitter, it’s hard to avoid discourse about new (or new-ish) trends in science fiction and fantasy and how they reflect real world crises and trauma. From hopepunk to squeecore to sweetweird, there is both a hunger for, and a revulsion towards, media that engages with the problems of the world in an optimistic way. The options as presented seem, to me at least, binary and unsatisfying. Either the role of the artist is to present reality unflinchingly, in all its maturity and horror, to withhold from the reader the catharsis of a happy ending such that the reader is compelled to seek out their own solutions. Or, it is the duty of the creator to provide a light in the darkness, be it found family or self-empowerment or even escapism for marginalized readers weary of pessimism and grimdark fiction.

At the risk of strawmanning both sides of the argument and sending the entire internet gunning for me, I’m not a huge fan of didacticism in art. When I hear the phrase “art should,” I cringe. I’ll take Lissitzky and Rodchenko over socialist realism any day. I like SFF because it can confront sociopolitical issues at an oblique angle, and it can offer perspectives that realist fiction can’t. I don’t need to be uplifted, or depressed, by my fiction to be spurred into action. Activism comes from what you do in the streets, in the workplace, and on the land, not the media that you consume.

Not to mention that when fiction does attempt to address the question of “well, how do we fix things?” it gets it horribly wrong. Too often fiction offers the easy answer of a singular hero, or a singular head of the hydra that can be severed. I don’t expect most SFF novels to be how-to guides to how to create fully automated luxury space communism, but a certain honesty in addressing the path from here to there is important in avoiding disappointment and burnout.

When future historians, be they advanced AI or sentient cockroaches, sift through the ashes of our civilization to review books of our era, I suspect they’ll be shocked at how little fiction there was about the climate apocalypse. Surely it must influence every story, even if it’s through its absence.Watching millions of Hunger Games fans remain silent on real-world police brutality and income inequality suggests that fiction alone can’t change the world. 

That said, stories have power. To the degree that creators have a responsibility to any audience, there is a duty to engage, to observe, and not to flinch away. Fiction can make readers who are engaged in activism feel less alone in the struggle. They can lift up marginalized voices and nurture empathy and solidarity. They can, in the most idealistic scenario, light the match that ignites the imagination and shows us a better world.

Cascade comes out today. You can buy it at your favourite digital bookseller here, or in paper form at one of the companies most responsible for burning the world.

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