What comes first for an author, the genre they want to write or the story they want to tell? Here, Grant Price discusses how his passion for communicating the threat of climate change led him to speculative fiction and to write By the Feet of Men.
You might say I’ve been obsessed with climate change for the past four years now. Even so, the topic is so huge, the ground to cover so vast, that I barely feel as though I’ve made a dent. I’ve stressed myself out reading about the scourge of pesticides in Silent Spring, turned myself off from eating altogether thanks to The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eating Animals, watched documentaries that have left me mentally and physically numb, and run the dystopian fiction gamut from The Death of Grass to The Three-Body Problem. And I’m still on the lookout for texts, perspectives and stories that wrestle with the issue of global heating, whether on a scientific, existential or esoteric level. As the defining issue of our time, I want to find out as much as I can about the climate crisis. And I want to write about it, too. Fiction represents a very different voice in the conversation about a very real threat faced by all of humanity. It can offer a glimpse into possible futures. It can take the dry facts and turn them into something accessible. It can make the abstract concrete. It can wake people up. And that makes it an essential tool to use as we try (or not) to steer ourselves away from disaster.
In all honesty, when I came to write my novel, By the Feet of Men, my ambition wasn’t quite as lofty. What actually happened was that I watched the movie Sorcerer by William Friedkin and then the movie it was based on, The Wages of Fear by Henri-Georges Clouzot, and I thought the narrative blueprint underpinning the two works—four people risking their lives to make a delivery while grappling with fate and destiny and free will along the way—was so hard-boiled and plain entertaining that it was worth revisiting again. I decided to put my own spin on it and, with a little luck, get published along the way. What I needed, though, was a reason for my particular set of characters to be driving from point A to point B. At that time, I was in the middle of reading The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard and so, idea thief that I am, I hit on the following: my desperate band of drivers would have to embark on a journey through a world ravaged by the cumulative effects of global heating.
What I gradually came to realise during the writing process was that my book could indeed make its own little contribution to the global discourse on the climate crisis. What fiction offers is a chance to take the dry, indigestible or sometimes disorienting data presented in media reports, scientific journals and so on, extract its essence and repackage it in an engaging way for the general reader. Here’s an example of what I mean: when we read a report announcing that abortions have been made illegal after six weeks in the state of Georgia, we respond with shock. We tweet, we shake our heads, we talk about it around the water cooler at work. At the end of the day, though, it’s one report, destined to be crushed under the treads of the media machine. By contrast, an entire novel about women being subjugated by men and turned into child-bearing vessels isn’t quickly forgotten: it becomes a bestseller and a cultural touchstone, a benchmark in feminist fiction and a torch around which for people to rally. Another example: ask somebody about their opinion on totalitarianism and it’s quite possible you’ll be met with a shrug. Ask somebody if they’ve heard of 1984 and the answer will more than likely be ‘Yes, of course’. This is the great novel on the subject, one so well known, so accessible and so vivid that many of the words, phrases and ideas used in it have long since entered our collective vernacular. Even the author’s surname has been transformed into an adjective that serves as shorthand for the complex themes in the novel.
In the same vein, fiction can be applied to motivate people to genuinely engage with climate-related issues. Instead of telling people what they have to do (stop using plastic, stop flying, go vegan, sell your car, avoid fast fashion)—an approach which is guaranteed to make us combative and, in some cases, want to do the exact opposite of what we’re being passive-aggressively commanded to do—an author can craft a narrative that is free to explore these themes from whatever angle it chooses, embed them in a setting that is neither threatening nor imposing to us, the readers, and above all entertain us. Hopefully, if the approach is right, we might just come away thinking about the author’s motivation for writing the book. Yes, you could simply urge somebody to switch to sustainable forms of energy; they may listen, they may not. Alternatively, you could recommend that same person read a novel about a floating city in the Artic Circle which uses sustainable energy sources to survive when the rest of society has collapsed. One approach is much more likely to generate the desired response than the other.
Speculative fiction, in particular, is able to offer wildly different visions of Earth’s future, usually with the core message of ‘You don’t want it to turn out like this’. In By the Feet of Men, there is no specific antagonist in the book, no heroes or villains. It is about people who have to decide between doing the right thing—or what they believe to be right—and becoming so wrapped up in themselves that it manifests itself as a kind of nihilistic inertia. This has its parallels in society today. More than once I’ve heard somebody say to me, “Ah well, what’s the point? It’s too late, anyway. Nothing I can do.” But that’s taking the easy way out. The very luxury of still being able to produce and read fiction that addresses and engages with our fears surrounding the climate crisis means that it is not too late at all. And perhaps, if someone were to read the book and see their nihilistic attitude contrasted against the hope expressed by some of the other characters, it might lead them to reconsider their stance.
The more channels of communication that we use to convey our collective need to take climate action, the greater the audience reached. Writers have a fantastic opportunity right now to grapple with these issues, safe in the knowledge that their story will be relevant to someone, somewhere. After all, they have a potential audience of 7.8 billion people. And if they can succeed in getting even one more person to climb aboard the climate train and help stoke the engine that will drive us toward finding long-term solutions to the problems the planet is facing, then theirs is, in its own way, a great piece of work.
Grant Price is the author of Static Age and By the Feet of Men. He lives in Berlin, Germany.
About By the Feet of Men
The world’s population has been decimated by the Change, a chain reaction of events triggered by global warming. In Europe, governments have fallen, cities have crumbled and the wheels of production have ground to a halt. The Alps region, containing most of the continent’s remaining fresh water, has become a closed state with heavily fortified borders. Survivors cling on by trading through the Runners, truck drivers who deliver cargo and take a percentage. Amid the ruins of central Germany, two Runners, Cassady and Ghazi, are called on to deliver medical supplies to a research base deep in the Italian desert, where scientists claim to be building a machine that could reverse the effects of the Change. Joining the pair is a ragtag collection of drivers, all of whom have something to prove. Standing in their way are starving nomads, crumbling cities, hostile weather and a rogue state hell-bent on the convoy’s destruction. And there’s another problem: Cassady is close to losing his nerve.
By the Feet of Men is published on 30 August by Cosmic Egg Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing.
This topic is everywhere—with Greta on the school strike, the Chernobyl series on Netflix, actual plastic reportedly already in our mountains…Scary stuff. I am very excited to read this novel; the first was thrilling and I’m looking forward to seeing how he writes this one.
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I’m looking forward to it too. I like the idea of a story based around a delivery.