The change of climate around the world brings a wide spectrum of thoughts and strategies about it — no less in fiction writing than anywhere else. In Real Sugar is Hard to Find, author Sim Kern is thinking about their own thoughts and strategies to bring the topic to their own writing, and what their own choices here mean.
Get two climate fiction authors together, and you’ll hear a debate about the most useful kind of climate fiction. We don’t fear the criticism of being “too didactic.” Rather, many of us have explicit agendas that we’re happy to debate at a moment’s notice—whether to communicate climate science, inspire people to action, or even dismantle global racial capitalism. One of my favorite cli-fi authors, Aya de León, author of A Spy in the Struggle, calls herself the “Minister of Climate-Justice-Fiction Propaganda.” We agree that everything is a culture war; stories are the most powerful weapons in a culture war; so if you’re trying to change the world, you better think critically about your themes.
Among sci-fi writers of climate fiction—those of us rendering how the biosphere and humans might adapt to climate change in the years to come—the recurring debate is: dystopia vs. utopia. Which genre is a better kind of propaganda?
There’s no question that dystopian worlds dominate both science fiction and near-future climate fiction. The old adage holds true: it’s easier to publish the end of the world than the end of (extractive, oil-soaked) capitalism. Solarpunk, however, is challenging dystopian domination. Mostly coming out of small presses or short story outlets, authors are increasingly envisioning radically optimistic, abolitionist, anti-capitalist, green and sustainable futures.
Dystopian cli-fi authors, meanwhile, are doing important work translating scientific climate predictions into narrative; setting urgent, human stories in hothouse, fire-drought-and-flood-ravaged worlds. A dystopian-leaning editor friend of mine recently announced he’s no longer interested in stories set in utopian worlds, because he just can’t suspend disbelief that our fossil fuel addiction gets magically solved in the next few years.
In this debate, I agree with everyone, even when their points are contradictory, because my feelings about climate change are contradictory. It isn’t useful to ask us to choose one modality over the other—despair or hope. I feel a huge range of emotions about living through mass extinction. I want to write and read stories that let me feel all the things. Real Sugar is Hard to Find, my collection of cli-fi stories, contains both dystopian and utopian worlds, and stories that fall somewhere in between.
The titular story, “Real Sugar is Hard to Find,” follows a mother and son’s quest to bake a cake for their suicidal family member, in a world where common baking ingredients are scarce. The story explores how climate change will disrupt agriculture and food supply, but it’s also a reminder to the climate nihilist inside me that there will be cake—and birthday parties, joy, jokes, dancing, babies, and falling in love—even during environmental collapse, even after 2 or 3 or more degrees of warming. For as long as there’s a handful of humans left, there will be joys worth celebrating.
“The Propagator” comes from a place of screaming rage about living under the threats of rising sea level and rising Christofascism. Set in a flooded, future Houston, a woman who is forced to carry an unviable pregnancy to term turns to a life of crime: propagating houseplants. In the soilless city, all reproduction is tightly controlled under a carceral surveillance state. Written in 2018, the story has proven horrifically prescient, as the protagonist mulls a cross-continental journey to obtain an abortion, fears even searching the term on the internet, and her job takes her to a designated “repro crimes” ward at a county jail.
We also need stories that don’t ask us to force a smile, or call us to action, or do anything—stories that simply let us grieve. “The Listener” is born from the grief I felt in the drought of 2008, when 300 million trees died across the state of Texas. The protagonist is a queer, closeted scene kid, kicked out of her house and in love with her best friend, who eats too many mushrooms and gains the ability to talk to trees. At a really bad time.
“The New Nomad” and “The Night Heron” unpack the torments of parenting in a time of ecological collapse, while the last two stories in the collection are wildly, unabashedly utopian. More than out of any political allegiance to the solarpunk movement, I wrote them because I was tired of both living in a dystopia and trying to imagine even-worse-dystopias in my head. Ironically, the less hope I feel for reality, the more I’m called to write optimistic futures. It’s looking increasingly likely that I won’t live to see a better world, but at least I can escape to one in my mind.
“The End of the Nuclear Era” presupposes a green, anti-capitalist revolution that’s already occurred, and explores what would happen if children had the right to free themselves from abusive, neglectful families. The story kicks off as a runaway teen approaches the gates to a “Children’s Center,” where any kid can show up and find food, lodging, safety, and education—no questions asked.
I dreamed up “The Lost Roads” while buckling my three-year-old into her car seat in the blistering Texas heat. The premise is: What if there were no roads? Fuck car culture. Fuck asphalt. What if we figured out green mass transit and purposeful communities, so we could dig up all the roads and rewild them? It’s a story of unbridled hope, joy, and reconciliation with the natural world and each other.
Whatever you feel about climate change—despair, denial, grief, rage, hope, and fear—all those feelings are justified and valid and needed. So I guess my overarching “agenda” for Real Sugar is Hard to Find is to invite you to feel those feelings along with me. Hopefully, these stories offer some badly-needed catharsis as we stand amidst climate change and mass-extinction and wonder how much worse things are going to get before (and if!) they ever get better.