Sci-fi and dystopian fantasy novels often offer a bleak view of the future. But that doesn’t mean that they’re meant to leave us feeling hopeless. A Women’s Thing spoke with Kat Ross, author of the dystopian sci-fi novel “Some Fine Day,” about why imagining worst-case scenarios can help us better the world we live in.
“I’ve always been drawn to apocalyptic scenarios. There’s something fascinating about wiping the slate clean,” Ross begins our interview. Her debut novel, “Some Fine Day,” begins with a dark premise: it is 2084 and the world is submerged beneath water after massive superstorms known as “hypercanes” swept the earth. Inspired by climate change, Ross’s book falls into an emerging sub-category of sci-fi known as “cli-fi.” Having begun her writing career as an environmental journalist, she was interested in exploring the effects of climate change through fiction.
To accurately describe the likely impact of climate change, Ross prefers to use the writer Margaret Atwood’s term “everything change.” “Climate change touches every single aspect of human civilization, from the food we eat to how we get around, to the houses we live in to the diseases we’re susceptible to,” she says.
Even within her fictional universe, Ross grounds her writing in research and facts. “If you’re going to write sci-fi, having a great idea is just the beginning. You have to be prepared to do a lot of research to make your world as real and plausible as possible,” she says. “The more far-fetched it is, the more you need to fill in all of these details.”
Writing within the realm of possibility, she says, is a “cardinal rule” of sci-fi. It’s also what distinguishes it from the fantasy genre. “It was really important to me that while my story pushed the boundaries of science it never broke them,” she says.
The post-apocalyptic setting is typical of both the sci-fi and fantasy genres, and a large part of their appeal. But that doesn’t mean these novels are always pessimistic. In fact, doomsday scenarios can offer a strong sense of hope, according to Ross. “While it’s quite dark on some levels I think my story is ultimately about human resilience. It looks at two very different societies that emerge from the ashes, one primitive and one high tech.”
“It’s no accident that the “Hunger Games,” which is about as dark as it gets, was so wildly popular,” she adds. ”But there’s also a strong element of hope in those books, and in mine.”
“Some Fine Day” shares another similarity with the “Hunger Games” trilogy: a brazen young protagonist. “As a writer, I hope my stories both entertain and encourage a sense that rebellion doesn’t have to be vague or pointless and can in fact be indispensable,” Ross says.
Ross points out that climate change is making the type of post-apocalyptic scenarios historically explored in sci-fi much closer to reality. Sci-fi novels not only encourage young readers to question authority, but also to consider new ideas that may help them change the world. “People who read sci-fi and dystopian are more willing to embrace new technology and new ideas, and I think we need that desperately right now,” Ross says.
There’s also a social component. Ross believes that novels provide singular insight into other people as well as other worlds. “Fiction puts you into someone else’s shoes in a way that no other art does, especially first-person fiction,” she says. “It invites you into the head of a character that might be a different gender or race or class or sexuality, which I think can be a really transformative experience, especially for young people.”
For inspiration, Ross turns to writers like Atwood and J.K. Rowling, whom she admires for their unique take on imagination and empathy. As Rowling remarked In a 2008 Harvard commencement speech, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation.”
The “Harry Potter” author’s rise from poor single motherhood to bestselling success has been well documented. But on the subject of real-life failure, Ross shares that seeing her novel through to publication has not been the stuff of fantasy. “I had a bumpy ride,” she says. “My first publisher abruptly folded weeks before the release date.” Luckily, she secured the rights again and found a home for the novel with Skyscape, Amazon’s teen and YA publishing imprint.
Unlike many other female writers (including Rowling) who have been pressured by publishers to write under pseudonyms or their initials to increase their appeal, Ross chose to use a pseudonym in order to keep her journalism separate from her fiction. She thinks that a lot of progress has been made in the past couple of decades for women writers, but notes that women are still largely ignored and excluded from literary awards, especially if they write from a female perspective. Novelist Natalie Griffith recently analyzed the winners of prestigious literary awards in the last 15 years and found that many, including the Pulitzer, awarded no prizes to women writing fiction from a female perspective.
The good news, Ross says, is that girls are big readers and are showing no signs of losing their appetite for fiction.
“When I’m writing girl characters, I always have my daughter at the back of my mind,” Ross says, pointing out that the media, adults and other kids tend to wear away at girls’ self-confidence during middle and high school. For that reason, she likes to create feisty female characters who refuse to internalize other people’s judgments.
“Not that they’re perfect or never have an insecure moment,” Ross says. “But they think for themselves and they tend not to be traditionally ‘girly.’ It’s why I also feel strongly about diversity in the YA movement: kids need to see themselves reflected in fiction, just as fiction should reflect the world, not just one little slice of it.”