Friday, May 20, 2016

A Light in the Dark: An Interview with Not Dark Yet author Berit Ellingsen

Not Dark Yet is a stark, gorgeous, eerie and thoughtful novel that at once tells the story of a man attempting to cope with his violent tendencies and explores the devastating repercussions of a world in the grips of unnatural climate change. Less an apocalyptic foretelling and more of a quiet, emotional examination of relationships (including our relationship with the environment), Not Dark Yet was truly fascinating and uncharted territory for me. I was thrilled to be able to catch up with its brilliant author, Berit Ellingsen, and dive deeper into both the story and the important topics presented in the novel. Read on….

Steph Post: Not Dark Yet takes place in an unnamed country. We know that it has mountains, a coastline and is cold. The cities are unnamed, the university has no designation, a war is alluded to, but never specified. Only the characters are named, and even then, their inclusion is somewhat spare. Overall, the setting is familiar, but also a blank. This is a clear stylistic choice and one which I think adds to the stark, eerie tone of the novel. Why did you choose to create a world which has no explicit identity? Or is there an identity, but one that has deliberately been kept from the reader?

Berit Ellingsen: I chose not to name the towns and cities and continents in Not Dark Yet, but instead refer to them as for example "the Southern Continent" and "the resort town on the coast." I did that to give the sense that the story could take place anywhere in our globalized world, where big cities, at least their new parts, have started to look rather similar no matter which continent you're on, and where you can find almost the same types of shops and restaurants and brands, and people working in similar kinds of jobs, from Vancouver to Mumbai.

The second reason for doing this was to not have readers think "well that kind of catastrophic climate change can maybe happen there, but it can't possibly happen here" and believe that they may remain unaffected by climate change.

Some of the places that inspired the towns and cities in Not Dark Yet are, in no specific sequences: Vancouver BC, Frankfurt, M√ľnchen, Copenhagen, Bergen, Portsmouth, the Alps, the Norwegian central mountains, and the Scottish Highlands.

SP: As strange as a world without designation is, the settings are still familiar to the reader. The technology used by Brandon and the other characters is nearly identical to what we have now and items like food and entertainment are recognizable, even if they are often only vaguely alluded to. There is evidence in the novel, though, that the climate has shifted and this suggests that the story takes place sometime in the future. How far from now is Not Yet Dark actually set? How realistic do you believe the future that you present to be?

BE: The world of Not Dark Yet is our world, just maybe next year or the year after that.

When I wrote the book, which is now three years ago, I tried to make the effects of climate change in Not Dark Yet as realistic as possible with the climate data and projections available at the time. Since my day job is science writing, I follow general science news and that includes climate science, so the information wasn't hard to find.

I imagine that the world of Not Dark Yet has passed to the stage where climate change has "gone exponential," meaning that many climate variables, such as atmospheric CO2, ocean temperature, sea level rise, ice cap melting etc etc, are changing exponentially instead of linearly as they have done so far, due to reinforcing feedback mechanisms in the Earth's global systems. Thus, the climate and biosphere in the world of Not Dark Yet has changed a lot in recent years, but also in less apparent ways decades before that, until catastrophic climate change starts to make itself known.

The Paris climate deal tries to limit the rise in global mean temperature to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, because at temperatures higher than 2 C the Earth's weather will become noticeably more dangerous, and not only in warm places along the equator. But we've already passed 1 C and the window for 1.5 C is closing very fast.

Some things are going the right way, such as the world wide interest in renewable energy, and the deal in Paris last year. But changes take time and so far, every single climate variable, from ice cap melting to ocean warming, has gone faster than the scientists anticipated. I don't know of any climate change factor that has changed slower than it was believed it would.

It's hard to say how close we are to the world of Not Dark Yet, but according to recent science news, we just passed 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere also for the southern hemisphere. That means there is now more of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere than there has been for as long humans have existed.

Already, several low lying islands in the Pacific have vanished and about half of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by coral bleaching, ie the corals losing their photosynthetic ability and starting to die.

Catastrophic climate change for inhabited areas may be closer than we think. And it is already a catastrophe for the many animal and plant species that are struggling right now.

SP: The novel's main, and dominating, character is Brandon Minamoto. Though much of his past is shrouded, we know that he has committed violence in the name of military operations and we know that he has cheated on his boyfriend. He considers joining his friend Kaye on an undetermined political mission that most certainly will involve more violence. Yet, as with any complex and complicated character, Brandon has his good side and, more importantly, invokes pity from the reader as he struggles with personal, mental and physical issues throughout the story. Are readers supposed to sympathize with Brandon?

BE: They don't have to, there is certainly no requirement for that. A sort of understanding was more what I was aiming for.

I didn't set out to make him unlikable on purpose, it was more that I wanted him to be so used to living under dangerous and strenuous conditions during his military profession that he has to push his own limits. He's also used to staying in the background and making difficult decisions by himself, so he doesn't let other people in on them. Some readers found him too distant and ghost-like.

Personally, I thought Kaye would be seen as unsympathetic and ruthless, but few readers have said they disliked him. Maybe because it's somewhat understandable why he does what he does.

SP: One of my favorite parts of Not Dark Yet is the inclusion mid-way of the story of the monk who starves himself and becomes a mummy even as he is still living. Again, because there is no real context of history or cultural, the story is jarringly unfamiliar and unsettling. Where did this story come from and what is its purpose within the novel?

BE: The mummy chapter is one of the things people have reacted the most to, and I actually didn't think they would. I thought people would react more to the military scenes and the political violence alluded to by Kaye. But the mummy chapter probably stands out because it's described in detail.

Mummification in religious context has a long tradition in Buddhism, both Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism, from Tibet to Vietnam. In a few places the local herbs and water were such that certain monasteries and groups of mendicants developed forms of extreme self abnegation that culminated in self-mummification. It was rare and is no longer practiced, and only few individuals were even allowed to start on the path to becoming a mummy. But the traditions and techniques they used are documented and even a few articles about the subject have been translated to English.

The self-mummification chapter was meant to show the protagonist's relationship to his brother and their different attitudes towards the world and the "good life," what we in the modern world think of as happiness. I can see why people react to the mummy chapter though, because such a degree of asceticism is difficult to understand.

Some readers interpreted the mummy scenes as reflective of the protagonist's training for the astronaut selection, and see that too as a sort of self-abnegation process. Others said that mummies can be viewed as a kind of astronaut, someone who leaves the Earth voluntarily to go somewhere the rest of us can't follow. I really like that thought. The Ancient Egyptians for example believed the souls of their mummified pharaos traveled to specific stars.

SP: Without giving too much away, I'll say that Not Dark Yet doesn't necessarily end on a positive note. While Brandon ultimately makes a final choice, the world we are left with is one that is still damaged with seemingly no hope in sight. If Not Dark Yet is portentous, it would seem that the earth is doomed. Is there hope then, for the future?

BE: Both hope as well as certainty of doom carries a sort of blindness. Personally, I try to keep all options open, but it is clear that the window of time for avoiding the first licks of catastrophic climate change is closing really fast and that we may be past it.

There is a slow but growing understanding that we need to switch to renewable energy as soon as possible, but the amount is yet too low and extraction of fossil energy sources continues almost unabated, including shale oil, with all the negative consequences that has for the local as well as the global environment.

I don't see the world as doomed yet, at least not the natural world. Human civilization may not be able to survive a long term global climate change crisis, but I hope that some parts of the biosphere will. Some scientists think the human population will peak at around 11 billion people and then fall due to industrialization. Combined with a worldwide transition to renewable energy, the biggest rise in global temperature might be avoided.

The question is though, what will happen with the methane stores in the Arctic ocean as the temperature rises. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas and the big unknown in the climate change models. I wouldn't have taken the chance on the methane staying put, but that's what we're doing right now.

Climate change as it is now and might become in the nearest few years, will perhaps be a threat to security first and foremost. The conflicts between regions and nations, and the displacements of people that climate change may cause through for example flooding and drought, might be a more immediate threat than one single big disastrous weather event caused by climate change will be.

The wars and conflicts alluded to in Not Dark Yet have been worsened or caused by climate change. There is more of this in my next novel which is a loose continuation of Not Dark Yet.

SP: Not Dark Yet is in the climate genre which, to be honest, I'm pretty unfamiliar with. Many films, from the cartoon Fern Gully to the recent Interstellar deal with the topic of an environmental apocalypse, but it's not a topic I've experience much in literature. Who else is writing in this genre? If readers want more books like Not Dark Yet, what titles or authors should they seek out?

BE: I just read Clade by James Bradley, which follows a branch of the same family through several generations of climate change and technological change. It's a well-researched novel that addresses many of the big issues of today and the near future.

Love in the Anthropocene by Dale Jamieson and Bonnie Nadzam is written by a novelist and a climate scientist and is a collection of short stories set in the era of humankind. Some of these stories deal with climate change as well.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer deals with ecological disaster in a more personal and symbolic way, and shows the effect of such a disaster on the immediate community as well as the human psyche, without turning into a Mad Max post-apocalypse story.

There is a lot of post-apocalypse stories like that, where the apocalypse is caused by climate change or one or two select aspects of it, such as only water shortage or only melting of the poles. They're not very realistic and climate change is mostly a vehicle to set up an apocalyptic scenario or a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

The Dark Mountain Project creates anthologies of writing concerning our age. In their own words: "We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unraveling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it."

Jeff VanderMeer has said that he expects, as climate change continues, it will become a part of all fiction because it will become widespread and felt by everyone. I very much agree with him about that.

For non-fiction, the documentary series The Tipping Points gives a very good overview of the most pressing aspects of climate change. The documentary film Chasing The Ice shows how quickly we are losing the ice caps.

Terje Tvedt's A Journey in the Future of Water and Mark Lynaas' Six Degrees are very informative about the consequences of climate change. This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert might be interesting too.

Thanks so much to Berit Ellingsen for one of the most interesting and illuminating interviews I believe I’ve ever done. Please check out her book recommendations and, of course, get your hands on a copy of Not Dark Yet, available now from Two Dollar Radio, as well as her short story collection Beneath the Liquid Skin and her novel Une Ville Vide. And, as always, go forth and spread the word about books you love. Cheers!




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