03 May 2013

An Interview With Gareth Renowden


Gareth Renowden is a writer, photographer and truffle grower based in the Waipara Valley, north of Christchurch. In nearly 40 years of working with words he's written for and worked on newspapers and magazines in New Zealand, the US and the UK. His small farm is the only property in NZ to produce three species of truffle: the PĂ©rigord black, bianchetto and Burgundy truffles he produces are used by New Zealand's finest chefs and restaurants. He's written books on olives, truffles and global warming, and runs the Hot Topic blog covering climate science and policy from an NZ perspective.

Gareth, what led you to make the move from journalism and nonfiction into fiction?

It's not really a move, more a change of the material I'm working with. Journalists talk about working on stories, after all. In anything more than the most basic news reporting -- any kind of longer form writing -- you have to tell a story. You have to lead the reader through a sequence of events, and you have to do it in a way that makes them want to reach the end. There has to be some kind of narrative for them to follow. The big difference, for me, is that when you write fiction you have a much bigger palette to play with. That's exciting and difficult -- and more than a little addictive.

The Aviator was born out of my writing about climate change, and my experience in what passes for debate about the need for action. I wanted to paint a picture of the sort of world we're heading towards, and at the same time examine some of the science and politics that's taking us there. We're on the cusp of remarkable developments in technology and biology, but there's a race going on between mankind's attempts to stuff up the planet and our ability to develop and apply technologies that will fix the problem. I could write lengthy and learned dissertations that no one would read, or I could write a sci-fi book that would entertain and inform, and that no one would read. I chose science fiction because it was more fun, but remain to be proved wrong about its readership... ;-)


Did you have any role models in terms of writing a novel built around the effects of climate change?

As a child of the 50s and 60s in Britain, I grew up reading Dan Dare in The Eagle, and watching scratchy old black and white Doctors doing battle with daleks on cardboard sets. I read Biggles and WE Johns' lesser known sci-fi series (http://www.wejohns.com/SciFi/), graduated to Jules Verne, HG Wells and John Wyndham, and then on to Bradbury, and the great British sci-writers of the 60s -- Aldiss, Moorcock (especially the Jerry Cornelius books), Ballard and so on. Wyndham was certainly influential. His books are sci-fi thrillers -- a sort of prototype for Michael Crichton when he was good -- very much of their time. Aldiss called them "cosy catastrophes", which is very apt. I re-read The Kraken Wakes recently, prompted by this interview (you were wondering why it took so long to reply), and reminded myself why his stories were so memorable.

The Kraken Wakes is more or less a retelling of The War of the Worlds, with aliens arriving from some unspecified planet and setting up camp in the ocean deeps. Havoc ensues, with the last third of the book devoted to the collapse of civilisation as the aliens flood the planet by melting the ice at both poles. To a modern reader, the writing seems a bit stilted, the plot forced by the narrator's need to be at the heart of the action (he's a radio journalist, of course), but it's a wonderful imagining of catastrophic events set in a world emerging from the Second World War and teetering towards the Cold War, where ocean liners plied their trade, the airline industry was just beginning to ramp up, Britain still had delusions of grandeur, and television was something new and hi-tech and used only to try and spot the aliens in the ocean. There was humour in there too -- much play made of the Russian reaction to events, and the vagaries of the British media of the time. Wonderful, in other words.

I first read TKW in 1968, probably around the time that I read Ballard's The Drowned World. The Beatles' White Album would have been the soundtrack. Both books could be described as early climate fiction, but at the time everybody expected an apocalypse to be triggered by all-out nuclear war. The threat of nuclear annihilation was a potent and realistic fear that informed all sorts of creative work in the 50s and 60s - it was the zeitgeist. At the time, nobody would have thought that burning fossil fuels might be the agent of dramatic change or a threat to civilisation. For that you needed aliens or bombs.

In the novel, New Zealand and much of the US are still relatively liveable, despite the drastic effects climate change is having on other parts of the world. Do you expect NZ and the US to be less affected, at least initially, than other countries?

New Zealand, yes, at least at first. But the USA will be vulnerable to rapid change because the whole of the northern hemisphere is going to see changes we can only guess at because of the loss of the Arctic sea ice cover (which will happen before too many more years pass).

Rapid climate change doesn't necessarily mean devastation. It more likely begins with dislocation and attempts at adaptation, which in some places will work, and in others turn out to be impossible. The one thing you can't escape is the rising ocean, so anywhere where there are lots of people living on a big river delta there are going to be problems. There will be forced mass migrations.

With a partial exception in the US scenes, formal Government doesn't play much of a part in the book - in particular, the New Zealand Government seems to have disappeared. Is that partly so you can use the book as a test-bed to see what different social structures might form in such a world, or is it just that you think governments won't survive the effects of climate change?

Governments are mostly shadowy things in The Aviator because that's what they are to most people in everyday life. Lemmy and Kate are trying to lead lives that to them are ordinary, even if they are of necessity extraordinary to us. I suppose I would argue that governments all over The Burning World are being distracted by the need to try and sustain themselves (and perhaps their electorates, or at least supporters) in the face of the immense geopolitical changes driven by rapid climate change. There is still government in NZ -- probably trying to privatise the remaining biofuel plants.

A friend who read and enjoyed The Aviator commented to me that her favourite part of the book was the little section devoted to what became of the climate deniers in this post-climate-change environment. Would I be right in thinking you took particular delight in writing this section?

It's a fair cop. Anyone who follows the online tussling between climate deniers and reality will find much in that section that's familiar. It's the most overtly satirical part of the book, born out of some of the fun I've had with my comic tales of Christopher, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, as seen through the eyes of his manservant, Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer (http://hot-topic.co.nz/monckton-and-the-big-waka/). I enjoy writing to make people laugh, and it's an important part of what I tried to do in The Aviator. It's a gloomy world, The Burning World, and a certain amount of black humour helps to get you through...

I hope it's not doing you a disservice to say that The Aviator reminded me at times of Kim Stanley Robinson's work - though, curiously, not so much his climate change trilogy as his Mars books. Although KSR is an atypical American science fiction author in many respects, he does share that typical American enthusiasm for large scale techno-fixes. Do you think geoengineering, which plays a part in Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change trilogy, has a part to play in mitigating the effects of climate change - and if so, how does the world prepare for that option?

I consider it an honour to be compared to KSR, for which many thanks. I have read his climate trilogy, and while enjoying them didn't think they worked as effectively as Galileo's Dream or 2312. In the latter, KSR's treatment of a climate changed earth is very interesting -- New York as a new Venice, asteroids hollowed out to create refuges for terran biomes: fascinating stuff.

In The Burning World I have geoengineering being tried and failing, but it plays no part in the storyline. That's something for a later book perhaps. In the real world I think it's almost inevitable that attempts will be made to geoengineer the planet to reduce warming. Two reasons for inevitability: at some point, governments are going to panic when the rapidity of climate change becomes obvious. There will be demands to do something, and - because it will be too late to stop change by reducing emissions - geoengineering will suddenly become attractive. Second: techno fixes are already being suggested as the only feasible response to warming. It's argued that it's too expensive and disruptive to stop burning fossil fuels, so let technology solve the problem. Some methods are in the realm of hard SF - space mirrors or sun shades, for instance - while the more likely (or at least affordable) approach would be to add sulphate aerosols high in the atmosphere. That could be done quite quickly and crudely by adding sulphur to jet fuel.

The problem, of course, is that geoengineering with or without big emissions cuts is making a real Faustian bet with the future of the planet. Suppose we do manage to cap warming by spraying aerosols in the atmosphere, we are then committed to doing it for ever -- unless we are also planning to remove carbon from the atmosphere. If for any reason - like war, or cost cutting - we stop spraying the gunk, then we unleash a burst of rapid warming that would be truly catastrophic. There are also other major difficulties - like the ocean acidifying - that won't go away without carbon removal.

Carbon removal processes are therefore more or less inevitable as well. The world will have to go beyond zero emissions to re-burying some - preferably all - of the fossil carbon dug up over the last 100 years. In The Burning World, it's been tried, but the big methane releases from the Arctic have rendered them redundant.

I understand The Aviator is intended to be the first volume in a trilogy. Can you give us any hints of what's to come in the next volume, and when it might appear - or are you operating a strictly "no spoilers" policy?

I'm sketching out the second and third books at the moment, and plan to get down to writing book two in the second half of this year (there's a revised and updated edition of my 2005 book on truffles to finish first). Given that I'm not yet entirely sure what to put in and what to leave out, and that things will inevitably change in the writing, I'm not going to give too much away. It would be safe to assume that Lemmy's boss, whose disappearance triggers Lemmy's travels, will finally turn up. And Lemmy and Kate will continue to tour the world, visiting some of the regions not featured in The Aviator. There will be mammoths, and a singular surprise at the end. 

Book availability details

The Aviator is available as an ebook and paperback, from most major retailers worldwide. More information from the Burning World web site (http://burningworldbooks.wordpress.com/), and Gareth's web site (http://limestonehills.co.nz/books/the-aviator/). From most places in the world, the cheapest way to get the paperback is from the Book Depository in the UK: free delivery and only NZ$18.58. (http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Aviator-Gareth-Renowden/9780987669735/?a_aid=HotTopic) To cut out the middlemen, you can buy the ebook for $6.99 direct from the author... (http://limestonehills.co.nz/books/the-aviator/)

Amazon: ebook: http://amzn.to/Uc6mcx
Paperback: http://amzn.to/PzroAZ



Apple NZ (also available in all Apple iBooks stores): http://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/the-aviator/id557437145

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