James Bradley is the author of five novels, Wrack, The Deep Field, The Resurrectionist, Clade and Ghost Species and a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus. Set in Tasmania, his latest novel Ghost Species (Hamish Hamilton) follows scientist Kate Larkin, who joins a secretive project to re-engineer the climate by resurrecting extinct species. Once there, Kate becomes enmeshed in another, even more clandestine program to recreate our long-lost relatives, the Neanderthals. But when the first of the children, a girl called Eve, is born, Kate cannot bear the thought her growing up in a laboratory, and so elects to abduct her, and raise her alone. Set against the backdrop of a hastening climate catastrophe and an unravelling civilisation, Ghost Species is a deeply affecting exploration of connection and loss in an age of planetary trauma.
KYD publisher Alice Cottrell spoke with James on the phone from his home in Sydney.
KYD: Can you start by telling me the genesis for Ghost Species? What came to you first—plot, character, theme…?
I started writing the book round about the time my Dad died…I was in the kind of space where you’re thinking a lot about grief and loss. The thing that came to me first was the idea of this Neanderthal child. I was interested in the idea of that child as an isolate, someone who was unlike anyone else. I was also really interested in the idea of a bond between a mother and a child who is not entirely human. Someone who is like us but not quite us. What must it be like for that person to be navigating a world filled with us?
The parent/child relationship in the novel is interesting and complicated on lots of levels, but I was most struck by Kate’s grappling with the ethical question of bringing Eve into the world, and whether that’s the right thing to do. That’s similar to a question that many people are facing today, the ethics of bringing a child into the world with a forthcoming climate catastrophe. I wondered if that was an issue you specifically wanted to explore, or something that just came out naturally in the process of writing.
Probably a bit of both. I’m not sure it’s a forthcoming climate catastrophe, I think it’s already here! It is something that I’ve thought about a lot, and it’s certainly something I was trying to think through in my last book, Clade, as well. I have kids. My oldest daughter is nearly fourteen and the youngest is ten. People do come back to this question again and again and again…is it ethical to have children? To bring them into a world where you know that the world that lies ahead is probably worse than the world that lies behind? Is that a reasonable thing to do to a child?
Like lots of people, those were questions I grappled with. It’s hard. I wonder whether I would make the same decision now ten or fifteen years later. But once you’ve got kids they put a floor on your despair. Because despair is not an option if you’ve got kids. You’ve got to engage with the world and try and make it better. There’s no room for retreating and throwing your hands up and saying it’s all too hard.
Despair is not an option if you’ve got kids. You’ve got to engage with the world and try and make it better. There’s no room for retreating and throwing your hands up and saying it’s all too hard.
You wrote a wonderful but terrifying essay for Meanjin titled ‘Unearthed: Last Days of the Anthropocene’ in 2019, in which you wrote: ‘We are, quite literally, watching geological time collapse into human time…We can hold it in our heads intellectually, but making emotional, affective, lived sense of it is all but impossible’. I wondered if writing Ghost Species and your last novel, Clade, too, was a way of investigating that, of putting yourself into these emotional experiences.
Absolutely. With Clade, which I began writing about ten years ago now, it was very much ‘What’s this going to be like? I can’t make sense of it when I try and think about it’. I think like a lot of people who write fiction, the way I think about things is by writing about them. Clade was me trying to find a framework that would let me think about those questions without either collapsing into despair or lapsing off into denial.
One of the things that has changed over the years since I published Clade is that back then I think it was easy enough to believe that perhaps we’d turn it around, and I think that has gotten harder and harder to believe as the years have gone by. At what point does remaining positive about the future become a kind of denial in itself? That essay was about trying to work through those ideas, and Ghost Species was very much about that as well. It was me trying to say, ‘So what happens if the worst happens? What is that going to be like? What sense can we make of that?’ And it seems to me that something fiction does really well is give us a way of thinking about these things, which is actually quite difficult to do. Fiction’s good at exploring emotional truth and complex truths that don’t necessarily boil down into binary positions or simple propositions.
You mentioned that fading belief that maybe we can turn things around, but a lot of people do place their faith in technology to save us from ourselves. In Ghost Species there’s a character named Davis Hucken, a tech billionaire and social network founder. He’s got that kind of arrogance of tech that all problems are solvable. There are some really interesting questions raised about the role of biotechnology and genetic engineering in the novel—were those concerns you were already thinking about?
My honest rational position is that technologies are a really big part of any solution. What we need are economic, social and technological solutions which will allow us to manage a transition to a low-carbon economy that will take 8 billion people with it. That’s only going to happen with better economics, and it’s only going to happen with better technology. But I think there is also a tech-head tendency to think that all of the solutions lie in letting capitalism go free.
The character of Davis in the novel is a product of a system that has produced these amazingly wealthy billionaires. They have this hubris that somehow their immense wealth and success makes them visionaries, when all it really does is reflect a kind of regulatory environment that allows people to get rich in that way. You know that old line: ‘every billionaire is a policy failure’. With the character of Davis what I was trying to play around with was that idea of allowing the problem to be redefined as the solution, but also, I think, the notion that this is a problem that we can fix by mastering it. I think that’s been one of the problems all the way through, that we think we can control natural systems, but I’m not convinced that we actually can. Nature always bats last.
Can you tell me a bit more about your choice to set the novel in Tasmania?
That was really deliberate. When these kinds of stories are told there’s a real assumption that they’ve got to take place in California or somewhere like that…that sense that the real world is happening over there somewhere. I have a real thing about if you’re in Australia writing about the future you should be writing about it here in Australia. This is where I come from, this is the world I know, and it seems to me that it is as legitimate to write about the near future here as it is to write about it anywhere else.
That’s been one of the problems all the way through, that we think we can control natural systems, but I’m not convinced that we actually can.
One of the things I wanted the novel to touch upon is the connection between colonialism, climate and extinction, which I think are deeply connected and all profoundly important. Tasmania is the place that people say ‘we’re going to run away from climate change’ to. It’s become this odd symbol of climate refuge, but simultaneously the history of Tasmania means that as soon as you invoke it as a place there is this incredibly dark history sitting there behind it. I wanted that duality to be there in the use of that location, around our fantasies of escape and refuge in a climate affected world, but also then this darkness sitting there in the background. To me you don’t even need to signal that in the text, I think it’s just there what you’re talking about Tasmania.
You’re obviously very knowledgeable about climate science and biotechnology, and you’ve written about some of those issues in non-fiction form. I wondered what the process of melding technical information or science into a fictional narrative is like.
I’m always really wary when writing non-fiction of pretending to have expertise that I don’t have. I’m an educated layperson, if that makes sense. You always want to defer to the experts and people who actually know what they’re talking about. It’s one of the things you realise really quickly if you interview scientists… your understanding is always so much less sophisticated than theirs.
There’s a fair amount of imagination in the science in the book. That seems fine to me. I made a decision quite early on that I didn’t want the book to be about the technicalities of the question, so I didn’t foreground any of the technical stuff, I foregrounded the relationships and the other kinds of questions. Simultaneously I have a real thing about the use of science in literature because it seems to me that you can use it in all kinds of ways. You get someone like Kim Stanley Robinson who does these carefully thought-through, scientifically plausible books and then you’ll get someone like Jeff VanderMeer who’s doing stuff which is completely insane. But what they’re both doing is trying to find ways of talking about the understanding of the world that science and technology gives us at the moment. So you have a sense that you can use the science and it becomes a kind of metaphor, something you can use to tell stories.
I tend to take a fairly flexible attitude. There’s a bit in the book where the sea levels rise several metres in the space of year or two, and that’s not going to happen. But it seems to me that when you’re writing a novel you can just amplify things a little bit. I say that’s not going to happen, but I have to say one of the lessons of the last ten years seems to be that everything we think can’t happen in fact does seem to be able to happen.
Yes, the whole ‘the worst-case scenario is now too optimistic’ thing.
Yes! It keeps being our discovery that we think, ‘well, the worst-case scenario is this’, and then we discover that we’re on the bleeding edge of that worst-case scenario over and over again. It’s really quite terrifying.
The novel is structured into halves, the first written from Kate’s perspective and the second from Eve’s. Was that always something you intended to do? And did you find it easier to write one perspective than another?
It was something I wanted to do from early on. It was really, really important to me that the character of Eve have a voice within the novel. I didn’t want her just to be spoken about, I wanted her to speak, I wanted her to be there as a character. It seemed to me that the novel divided quite neatly into those two halves once I started writing. One of the sections I wrote really early on was the one where Eve is a teenager. As a teenager you’re so weird anyway, so I loved the idea of ‘what is it like to be a kind of teenager who is actually weird?’ That seemed to me to be really fascinating.
As a teenager you’re so weird anyway, so I loved the idea of ‘what is it like to be a kind of teenager who is actually weird?’
I’m not sure that I found either of them easier or more difficult to write. What I did find through the writing of the whole book was that as I wrote something happened to my method. I could feel stuff from my own life being processed into the book in a really direct kind of way, which was interesting. It’s not narrowly autobiographical, obviously, but there was a sense that the emotional structure of the book was flowing and the boundaries between the writer and the book started to break down.
That leads me into my next question, which is was what kind of writer are you: organic or a planner? There seems to be these two camps, people who plot very accurately and then and those who let it flow and find out what happens along the way.
I’m probably more at the free-ranging end. I know some of the things I want to talk about, and I will often have a sense of the shape and the feel of the book, but I very much write, particularly with first drafts, looking for the tone, the energy, the feeling. I guess in a weird way I don’t think very much about plot. What I’m always concerned about is rhythm and feeling. I want the book to feel and sound a particular way, so I’m always very concerned about: What does the language sounds like? What does the language feel like? What does this section feel like? So yeah, it tends to be a much more organic kind of process than a planned process. I wish I was more of a planner, I really do!
I’ve written a series of YA books recently which are kind of all plot, and that was a really interesting experience for me because I’d never done anything like that before. The book I’m writing at the moment is a crime novel, so it’s a much more plot-driven thing than I’ve written before. But it’s still all about the process of just writing until it works.
Climate fiction is becoming increasingly popular as a genre. Did you read any other books that were grappling with similar material while you are writing Ghost Species, or were there others that inspired you along the way?
It’s interesting, when I was writing Clade (2015) there was really almost nothing in that space, so there weren’t really any models for what I wanted to do. One of the things that’s been really fascinating about the last five years is watching that whole conversation blossom. There is an emerging literature about climate and environmental crisis more generally. That’s been really fascinating to watch and really interesting to be involved in. One of my issues with that term ‘climate fiction’ is it seems to me it pushes you towards a very narrow conception of what the work is, but there are a whole lot of people doing fascinating work that isn’t narrowly conceived…people in Australia like Jane Rawson, who is doing terrific work in that space, Meg Mundell, Kate Mildenhall’s got a book about to come out which is really interesting. The Jenny Offill book that’s just come out [Weather] is very impressive.
The sense that this crisis is now an integral part of our lives has invaded fiction everywhere, it’s invaded the tone of it, the subject matter offered…and that’s good because it means people are thinking about it. It’s really interesting and exciting.
Ghost Species is available now from your local independent bookstore.