Premee Mohamed is a Nebula and Aurora-award winning Indo-Caribbean scientist and speculative fiction author based in Edmonton, Alberta. She is an Assistant Editor at the short fiction audio venue Escape Pod and the author of the ‘Beneath the Rising’ trilogy (finalists for the Crawford Award, Aurora Prize, British Fantasy Award, and Locus Award) and novellas ‘These Lifeless Things,’ ‘And What Can We Offer You Tonight,’ and ‘The Annual Migration of Clouds.’ Her short fiction has appeared in many venues and she can be found on Twitter at @premeesaurus and on her website at www.premeemohamed.com.
For our Climate Change series, we’ve been trying to reach out to all different sorts of writers who influence climate change in different ways. The Annual Migration of Clouds (2021) which came out in September, has a lot to do with it. You have said in other interviews that it’s more like you’re talking about climate fiction, rather than like a post-apocalyptic universe – is that correct?
I think I’ve been using the term post-post-apocalypse, to differentiate it a bit from what I usually think of as post-apocalypse novels, which tend to include the apocalypse itself – sometimes happening on page one or just before the start of the narration and then the immediate aftermath. I don’t think Clouds fits quite into post-apocalyptic, because it’s indicated that it’s about 60-70 years after the lights finally went out for good [on Earth]. I think it would be possibly more correct to file it in with climate fiction, although I don’t think climate change is the focus of the book – because the narrator hasn’t experienced the worst of it.
I’ve also heard it being described as hope-punk, something I had never heard before. Do you have any more insights on that term?
Yes. Marketing put that term in the blurb for the book. I hadn’t seen it yet. So, interviewers started asking me about hope- punk. At first, I just sat there: Actually, I don’t know what that is! So I had to do some reading about it. I don’t know that I’m a fan of the term itself, because there is this tendency (in particularly about genre fiction) to just add the suffix punk to anything.
I think it was Alex Rowland who initially said on Tumblr something like ‘hope-punk is the opposite of grim-dark, pass it on.’ And then they wrote an essay about it, going into more detail. It wasn’t until I read the essay that I was like: Oh, maybe. Okay, then, maybe I did write something hope-punk. Yeah.
It is a definition of which seems to be in flux, as people debate it, but it seems to be that pushback against what was seen as a grim-dark trend in writing. In grim dark, people give in to their worst impulses of greed, cruelty, torture, and murder as ways to solve problems, whereas in hope-punk, ideally, the trend is that characters recognize those tendencies in human nature, and try to solve problems another way – with community, negotiation, and compromise. And, you know, just grim, stubborn endurance. I don’t think it’s a naive idea because people aren’t traipsing around going: Oh, there are no problems. Everything can be solved through the power of friendship! I think the punk part of it is that characters can continue to have hope, in hopeless circumstances, when it might seem easier to solve problems with violence and cruelty – but they fight against that, and they keep doing it. In that case, I think maybe that’s what Clouds might have been trying to do, because I have read a lot of post-apocalyptic literature. A lot of it looks like the strong man with his harem of women – and women are resources now, and if you meet a traveller on the road, you’d better kill him, take his stuff, and go find a fortified place and get some guns and some bunkers.
It’s kind of one note at that point, right?
Yeah, and you read like post-apocalyptic, particularly post nuclear stuff – from the 70s and 80s, and you’re like: Come on, this is like the same five books!
How interesting that the book was described in terms of climate disasters that put most people at a point where they can’t have modern society anymore. How intentional was it to write about climate disasters? Was that strange for you?
I guess it was because I started with the idea of the CAD disease [fictional disease from the book] that should be materially the downfall of everything. My thinking was well, why wouldn’t we, with modern technology to just come up with a cure or a vaccine for that? Then I got to thinking that maybe we can’t, rather than don’t want to. Maybe I’ll set the story in the past and that’s why we couldn’t solve it. Then I was thinking, do I want the characters to know something about it and do I want them to do something? So why don’t I set it in the future, but a future in which we’ve lost the capacity to do this kind of research? Then the thing that seemed sort of inevitable to me was that I don’t think it’s possible to write about a future on earth that doesn’t include the impacts of climate change. I think that’s something that I’ve noticed in a lot of climate fiction, is that the climate change problem doesn’t get solved. All the worst effects of climate change and global warming – that are being predicted and modelled – actually happen. Then the book is about people dealing with what happens. So, in that sense, I did spend about ten minutes thinking: well, do I want to combine this with something else? Maybe some other type of disaster? I don’t know. Well, nuclear is probably off the table because, you know, I don’t want to write a book that could have been written in 1975.
I also kept thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), which I actually really liked. Part of what I really liked about it is that it’s never said what actually happens. I read it twice in very close succession – I read it the first time thinking I probably just missed what happens to cause this awful dystopian landscape but, you know, it doesn’t actually say in the book. It just says that everything definitely burned and at one point, there were lights in the sky. That could have been anything. Then I thought the upcoming climate disasters that are being predicted are enough on their own. Everything is just stretched, so thin and delicate right now: we’re even seeing this with every type of global supply chain. This book was written in 2019, when we thought our supply chains were pretty robust.
The CAD disease reminded what we are going through with the pandemic. What were you thinking when writing this as pandemic happened?
It was written in the summer of 2019 and it was acquired by the publisher in December 2019. I didn’t know that it was going to be coming out into a plague. Then my first thought was oh, no, this actually is a disaster! This is a plague book coming out during a plague!
You’ve put some of your own experiences into the characters, it’s a character-driven book. There’s talk about leaving home and dealing with change and adaptation, not only in terms of the environment and disaster, but hoping for positive change. What did you really envision for the theme of change, adaptation, and leaving home in the book?
I guess there has been a lot of positive feedback about the book being character-driven. I guess that was partly because I didn’t necessarily want it to be a disaster book. I did want it to be about a young person, or young people – if we’re talking about both main characters, dealing with things that young people are dealing with now. I wanted to come at it from a slightly different perspective. Obviously, this is fiction – I’m not writing an autobiography, the characters aren’t me, they’re not meant to be me. Growing up, I did see a lot of my friends being very excited to get out of the house and go to the city. Their parents joking about oh, finally, we’ll get our lives back! and just this general atmosphere of not being able to wait to move out of the house. Whereas for my family, and for a lot of immigrant families, that’s a weird concept. You’re expected to live at home as long as possible. For various branches of my gigantic extended family, the understanding is that you live at home until you are married. There is a collective versus individual thinking. But Western society in general is really, really individualistic. I had people commenting about the book saying “you know, Reid’s [main character] decision is stupid. If you get the chance to leave home, why wouldn’t you just leave it?” I wanted to probe into that a little bit – for millions, if not billions of people across the world, the decision wouldn’t be that easy. You’re leaving your family, your community, your responsibilities. I wanted to show a society where, because of scarcity and need, and this potentially disabling disease, everyone is pulling together to be more collective and less individual. In the book, Reid is trying to make herself be something she’s not, in order to leave home. That is someone who is thinking of her own future as an individual, instead of her own future as part of a larger group.
You are also a scientist. What kind of scientist are you and how does that influence your writing and your work?
My first degree was in molecular genetics and my second was a land reclamation degree – I usually shorten it and just say environmental science; heavily focused on soil and hydrogeology. I currently work as a government scientist for the Government of Alberta and my team is in land policy. A lot of what we currently do is try to write policy for an Alberta that’s going to look different in the future, measurably different, particularly for its lands. We do that to avoid tweaking and updating policy, environmental policy, every two years or whatever. I do look at a lot of modelling data, a lot of climate and monitoring data from surveys.
For this book, the influence is one of those things where writers have this running gag – we’ll read 75 books and consume ten million words of research, and it’ll appear in the book in five-ish sentences. That’s what happened with Clouds. I didn’t want to write a climate change book. I didn’t want to write a textbook. I just wanted to say what we can predict (with about 80 to 90% accuracy) is going to happen with Alberta in the future, in the next 60 – 70 years, in terms of stream flows, precipitation, and glaciation. Also, the movements of plants and animals, loss of soil fertility, and changes to rivers and such. I just put that all in there as part of the challenges the characters face. So that’s all based on real science.
For a lot of these climate scenarios, for instance, the paper says we’re going to lose 80% of all glacier cover in Alberta, by 2050. Then another paper says we’re going to lose 80% of all glacial cover in Alberta by 2075. They both have a lot of math and a lot of modelling to back it all up. But the nice thing for us is that, honestly, you can almost flip a coin at this point, on an aggregate basis worldwide – practically everything that is currently being predicted about climate change is going to happen. That means that a lot of things that are not predicted are also going to happen. So, if you put them in a book now, you actually probably won’t be wrong. There’s all these tipping points, which once they tip over, we actually can only predict two or three steps beyond them. We can’t predict anything past that because there’s just too many variables. I guess that’s one way my science influences what I’m writing. But in a more general sense, I think it’s been useful – or had some kind of utility – because of the way it trained me to think, to gather that data, to summarize it, to organize it, to be able to know where to find research, and how to vet it for its quality, to dig through the acknowledgments.
I like to make those surprise-connections, which is how the disease in this book was made. It wouldn’t be a weird thing if it actually showed up. It’s based on a lot of traits of real diseases. In all my work, I read a lot of science, then I sort of cherry-pick the things that go together – but I don’t know that they go together. That’s something I do at work, too, because we’re trying to find connections in regulation, policy, and in science.
You are taking that extra effort to put in accurate scientific projects of the climate. Do you think about how that could impact a young person reading your book? How your background could be impacting your readers?
That’s actually a really good question. I guess I was thinking of it that way. Again, there’s always kind of the concept of people who are reading fiction – they know it’s fiction.
But in this case, because it is set in a real place, and a potentially very real future, people who live there – people in Canada – are aware of its relevance with climate change in the energy industry.
Living in and working for a petrol state is never lost on my mind, but I don’t think I wrote a manifesto. I do think it is good that if younger people are reading it, and thinking to themselves “hey, I wonder how likely this future is?” Maybe they look me up and see I’m a scientist and go, “oh, maybe this is more likely than I thought.” Maybe that’s a useful work for them to read then in that sense. Maybe they’re also having a change of mind, or maybe it’ll make them interested in going into environmental science or studying soils. At the same time, in that hope-punk mindset, they’re also thinking of how to make a better future based off of this – they also find out that this could actually happen.
You have the scientific data and research, which you’ve fictionalized to some extent, then you have the personalized experience, the characters’ development, and the struggles they go through in the book – they want to survive and hope for a better tomorrow. Are the Winter birds that are in the book reminiscent of being a survivor?
Yeah, I was thinking specifically when I started writing that I didn’t know how much wildlife I was going to leave in the book. But birds seemed like an obvious one and the magpies in particular, because they survive over Winter here. They are just a part of me as every Winter – I’ve studied them, I’ve taken classes, but every Winter I’m like, how do you guys make it? I don’t understand it. What are they eating? Look at these little brown birds, little sparrows. They don’t look like they should live through the Winter but they evolved here. Sparrows didn’t, but a lot of the other local birds evolved here. They can make it through the Winter. We humans have also been here for a really long time. We’re very adaptable and we can make it through Winter.
Part of it was the idea that the end of the world wouldn’t come at the same time for everyone, because, of course, it wouldn’t – nothing happens worldwide at the same time for everyone. I’m sitting there thinking that billions of people worldwide are living without electricity, Wi-Fi, a car, or a house – I have ancestors in India that are living in slums, and they don’t have electricity. They live exactly the way Reid and her family do in the book, with subsistence farming and sharing everything they’ve got. The only difference is that, in the book, I’m careful to point out that Reid is angry about this, because this technology or luxury is something she thinks that all people used to have, and was taken from her. So, I assume that the reception for the book would be very different from people that are not Westernized and are not used to living the way we live. I was looking at it from my point of view – when my power goes out for half a day, and I’m sitting here in -40 Celsius weather in Edmonton, wrapped in a blanket and crying. I am not a survivor. I am not cut out to live in this place and, if the world ended, I would just be with my same sad tropical Caribbean blood. Why did my parents come here? Then the electricity comes back. Never mind. Good.
It bears thinking that whenever we read these end-of-the-world books, they don’t consider that for many the world, they wouldn’t notice a loss of electricity. It’s all down to what you’re used to your context, I guess.
You said the reception of the book might be different for Western and Eastern audiences – have you had any experience of people giving you different opinions of it yet?
Not yet. I think that’s because it’s published by the Canadian Press. Technically, it’s available worldwide – but most of the feedback that I’ve been getting is from Canada, America, and the UK.
The vast majority of it has been from Canada and I think that’s because my publishers are pushing it here. So, I haven’t heard from the rest of the world. I would be very curious to see what they think about yet another end-of-the-world book that says the end of the world looks like your everyday life.
I wonder what they would think about it.
I wonder, too. I was trying not to be insulting about it because I’m so aware of it – but I have read a lot of end-of-the-world books, post-apocalyptic books, “we got hit by an asteroid” book, “we got hit by a nuclear bomb” book, “a super volcano went off” book. The end result is that people live a lot like my ancestors lived a couple of generations ago, and how they are probably still living today – it would be very surprising to discover that, say, all of North America now lived like this one village in India, and they would ask what’s the big deal. This is their entire lives, this has been their entire lives for thousands of years.
I can see the confusion but I can also see someone being upset by it. I could see that being rude or insulting depending on what part of the world you come from.
Yeah, it seems insulting. For example, if aliens came and looked at us and said “you people are so primitive, you still cleanse your bodies with water?” It would be condescending – I would be insulted. My feelings might be hurt. We consider ourselves to be almost the pinnacle of what human technology and advancement are capable of, and these aliens would just look down at us.
This is making me think of the term cultural-relativism – even if you don’t agree, you have to learn to understand these relative differences, and focus not only on the differences, but also the similarities between cultures.
I guess it’s also this idea of colonization, too. It’s in the back of my mind – I’m not conscious of it, but I’m actually thinking about it all the time. John A. McDonald arriving and saying, “well look at these uncivilized indigenous people living here, I will take the Indian out and leave only the man.” The British going to India thinking what they did for those poor savages, giving them railroads – and I presume my people thought “we didn’t want railroads, you just put them here!” The British colonized my family twice – India and Guyana. Possibly three times, because of Canada. If the British could stop following my family around that would be great [laughs].
The idea that Reid has in the book is similar. She has the CAD disease – she is biased and upset about it, and it affects her life. Also, there is this idea that she didn’t consent to having the disease invade her. She didn’t consent to having it change her behaviour and change her thoughts. So, whatever the disease is doing in her is unknown. The indigenous people in Clouds very sensibly just pack up and leave. They just go back to the life they wanted to live before Europeans showed up on the continent. Reid has got pretty conflicted feelings about that and, as a white person, I think she should.
There is so much wrapped up in the book about immigrant story, colonization, having hope, and reflecting on your life relative to another person’s experience.
Yes. I also think that climate change in general is not just about climate change. It is intersectional that everything is causing it and is affected by it – that includes things like colonialism, historical atrocities, the way countries are relating to each other economically and politically.
Reid is thinking about how she is going to present herself to the people at the university she has been invited to go to, and leave her town. The people at the university are going to look at her the same way I explained with the alien example, or how European settlers looked at indigenous people in Canada. It is a chain that Reid is fearful of never being broken. She will show up and feel like their pet, they will feel sorry for her, and they will try to civilize her.
Maybe I tried to cram too much into a novella, but my editor and I agreed that we did want to keep it at novella length. It’s an amount of story that fits into the length. There was a lot that could have gone on, but I wanted to keep the focus small.
Why did you choose to write speculative fiction?
I don’t think there is much of a difference between literary fiction, contemporary realism, and speculative fiction as people think there is. I think there is a lot more leeway to explore ideas and concepts in speculative-fiction. It removes some of the limitations of contemporary realism. I think there is a lot to be said for the deliberate and studied removal of those limitations, which is what I’m trying to focus on.
There is a freedom there.
Yeah, there is a freedom.
Do you think that climate fiction will become a more popular genre going into the future?
It is hard to say, but what I actually expect is that cli-fi is going to disappear as a genre because reality is going to catch up to it. People who are writing contemporary-realist books are going to have to include the impacts of climate change, because they are just going to be constant after a certain point – and you aren’t going to be able to avoid it. The comparison I can think of is, for example, in 1942 you could write a book set in London, England and maybe have it be a murder mystery, and then the main character has to go and solve the mystery. You could write that whole book and never once mention the Blitz or WWII, but it would be a little weird. Every single character in the book would not have mentioned the most impactful event in their immediate lives – that would be strange. That is what is probably going to happen. Since climate change is going to become the new normal, it is just going to be subsumed into what people write about.
That being said, I would like to see a cli-fi book written where human beings have prevented climate change. None of the books out there ever do. I would like to see it explored more in fiction and have a book set in 2080 where all the skies are clear, there is no more air pollution, Co2 has dropped back to 300 ppm, everybody is happy, biodiversity is coming back, and glaciers are reforming, with normal weather patterns re-establishing. I never read those books. We can’t even imagine humanity solving the problem. Why are we assuming that we are going to fail? I would like to write a book where the climate change problem gets solved in some global and communal way.
Interviewed by Evan Mardell
Edited by Hope Latta and Bruna Swerts
The Canadian Writers’ Exhibition
Showcasing Canadian writers from coast to coast