I’m happy to reboot our Indie Corner this month with a spotlight on Aleksandar Nedeljkovic and his novel ALT (Atmosphere Press, 2022). ALT offers a glimpse into a perilous near-future version of our world—one we feared would come for us but desperately tried to ignore. Civilization has entered a nearly irrevocable downward spiral following a history of misguided priorities and the corrosive effects of unchecked greed, political polarization, our reckless dependence on fossil fuels, and a flagrant disregard for the importance of maintaining a harmonic balance with nature.
Our last hopes lie in Sundance—a radical new technology aimed at harnessing solar energy through artificial photosynthesis—but time is running out. Sundance’s original design was destroyed under suspicious circumstances along with its inventor, Augustus Smith. An intrepid band of scientists attempting to resurrect the project have called upon Augustus’s son, Theo Smith, a brilliant computer scientist, to help—but dark forces threaten to stand in the way.
At its core, ALT is a warning about what awaits us if we fail to rein in our worst impulses and examine the unintended consequences of technological development, and ignore the signs of a planet in crisis. It’s also a plea for change—so we can hand down a better version of the world to future generations.
Mary: Congratulations on your debut novel! What led you to write this book?
Aleksandar: Thank you. ALT has been long time in the making, and it feels good to finally bring this story out into the world.
I think in the beginning, it was a way for me to collect my own thoughts about the zeitgeist anxieties that are looming over us: climate change, political divisions, economic inequality. Then it became a search for answers. What can we do about it? What can I do about it? I felt a certain sense of duty to do more than just acknowledge the hard facts and unpleasant truths, so I sat down and wrote a book.
The message I wanted to convey with ALT is that there is an invisible, slow-motion catastrophe brewing under the surface of our lives, and that we need to shake off our complacency. We need to accept the reality that the only way to stop this oncoming disaster is to move away from our utter dependence on fossil fuels and find a new, cleaner way to generate energy.
At one point in my career I was editing a lot of documentaries. I even produced and directed a couple of documentaries myself. After I finished my second documentary, I wanted to do another one on alternative energy and Peak Oil, which is a theory originally introduced by American geophysicist M. King Hubbert. Hubbert correctly predicted that the US oil production would peak in the 1970s, but his models only included the data that related to the conventional method of oil extraction. Now, with the introduction of new technologies like fracking and oil sands extraction methods, that bell curve has been stretched out a bit. But while the global oil production peak has been delayed a few decades, make no mistake: it is coming. The simple fact is that these resources are finite. Sooner or later we will run out of oil; there’s no doubt about that.
The question that kind of scared me when I was contemplating all this was: what then? What happens when we run out of oil? Because whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we are so completely and hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels. Our entire civilizational model is built around it. Fossil fuels provide about 80% of the world’s energy. Eighty percent! And that’s only the energy generation part of it.
Our food supply chain is also heavily dependent on fertilizers, which are, for the most part, made from fossil fuels. There are almost eight billion hungry mouths on the planet that we have to feed every day, and almost every bite we take has a bit of oil in it. Add to that millions upon millions of products that in one way or another exist only because of readily available fossil fuels… you get the picture. One can make the argument that everything we’ve built in the last 150 years or so we owe to oil. I don’t think this is much of an exaggeration. Fossil fuels, primarily oil, are the heart and blood of our existence, a difference between light and darkness, prosperity and hunger, life and death. Take oil out of the equation and the entire engine of progress grinds to a halt and the economic, political and cultural consequences of that are unimaginable.
But it gets worse, right? Climate change. Of course, now we know that our use of fossil fuels is the main contributor to global warming, which degrades the conditions of our very existence here on Earth. So we’re stuck in this vicious cycle: we desperately need fossil fuels to maintain our way of life and the trajectory of progress we’re on, but at the same time we are destroying our habitat with our reliance on it.
These are gravely serious issues that, for whatever reason, we, the collective WE, still fail to take as seriously as they need to be taken. We have to move the world to action and find our way out of this unsustainable and very dangerous model of living. It’s an incredible challenge that we have to face, sooner or later, because the consequences of inaction are going to be very, very high.
Mary: Can you explain what’s going on to our readers?
Aleksandar: ALT is a novel set in the near-future in what’s now the United States.
The world of ALT is similar to ours but obviously different. I think a good comparison would be, for example, 1992, which fundamentally doesn’t feel that much different from 2022, but surely, in so many ways, it is very different. Similarly, ALT is set a few decades from now, not too far into the future.
That near-future world is at the same time a shabbier and yet more exquisite version of today’s world, depending on what side of the tracks you live on. If the economic and political trends of today continue unimpeded, chances are that we are going to end up in a world where the difference between haves and have-nots is going to be even greater, to the point that these two groups might not even directly interact with one another anymore.
The globe is rocked by an energy crisis caused by perpetual oil shortages, and the world is scrambling to find alternative sources of energy in time to fend off the rapidly approaching civilizational collapse.
We start off in Concord, a small town in the Bay area in California, which is now an independent country, following the dissolution of the United States. Specifically, the home of Theo Smith, a computer scientist who is trying to recreate his father’s long-lost invention. His father, Augustus Smith, was a pioneer in the alternative energy sector who lived in our times. He invented “Chorus,” a new generation solar panel that captures the sun’s energy through chlorophyll and a resonance energy transfer mechanism, a process known as artificial photosynthesis. However, a month after Augustus presented his findings, his laboratory burned to the ground and he died under suspicious circumstances.
Now, a group of scientists is working with the Atlantic Commonwealth, which is a loose political union of some of the Eastern American States, to develop “Sundance,” a solar energy collection and delivery system that promises to solve two of the biggest challenges faced by civilization: the global energy crisis and climate disruption. But in order for the project to work out, they need to recover the original design of “Chorus” that Augustus devised, and they can’t do this without Theo’s help.
When a private security corporation gets involved all hell breaks loose, setting off a dramatic chain of events that involves industrial espionage, alternate reality states, a cross-continental road trip, captivity, use of high-tech devices and self-learning algorithms, and far-fetched ideas that go terribly wrong and others that hold the great promise of salvation.
Mary: Would you consider ALT to be solarpunk? The reason I ask is because it offers one mitigating solution against climate change in a new solar technology.
Aleksandar: ALT could be classified as an climate/eco-fiction, speculative fiction, hard science-fiction, or even a techno-thriller. It has elements of all of those genres. But, to your point, despite its dystopian undertones, ALT just might be a solarpunk novel because the resolution of the book is decidedly optimistic and it offers hope that we can put ourselves on the right path to sustainable living in time to avoid the worst consequences of the current flawed civilization model.
Mary: How did you come up with this tech, and how realistic is it?
Aleksandar: The only way we can achieve sustainability is by fully understanding the laws of nature and abiding by them. Everything else is a half-measure, a hack that falls short of truly solving the problem. I think this quote from ALT where Augustus Smith presents his revolutionary Chorus solar panel to the potential investors best illustrates what I mean:
The human condition is a struggle with natural forces from birth until death. Everything we have achieved so far as a species exists because we wrestled it from nothingness with our bare hands, our will, and our intellect. The hard way. But nature is still a great, dangerous mystery to us only because we often perceive it as an adversary, something outside ourselves, something to conquer and overcome. We will not be able to understand it fully and be one with it until we start obeying its laws. The truth is, we have already been given everything we’d ever need to sustain our precious opportunity to exist on this planet. We just have to attune ourselves with the divine harmony of nature and reap the benefits. Every single day, the sun sends us a gift of limitless power, more than we’ll ever need for any task imaginable. Our only challenge is to properly harness it.
So, the technological concept for Chorus that I came up with in ALT came out of this line of thinking. Photosynthesis is the foundation of all life on Earth. There is a greater truth hidden somewhere in that process of converting light energy into chemical energy that we haven’t stumbled upon just yet, which I think might be the key to devising an efficient, renewable, carbon-free source of virtually limitless energy. I wish I was a scientist or an engineer, so I could tell you how realistic this concept is at the present time, but who knows what will happen in 20, 50, 100 years from now. There could be a whole new future waiting for us, one in which progress will not be constrained by energy scarcity.
Nikola Tesla once said, “When the laws controlling their appointed work in the Universe have been mastered, the making of the proper machine to act in harmony with the laws is comparatively easy task.” But mastering these laws of the Universe is not going to be easy by any means. We have to mobilize all scientific and technological resources across the world, beyond nations, and approach our search for cleaner sources of energy as a sort of world’s Manhattan Project, because we’re all in this together and no one will be better off if this gets beyond repair.
We need critical mass to generate enough political will to move our governments to action. A project of this magnitude will be possible only if the world’s governments take the lead. On the positive side, we’re not starting from zero. We made solid advances in the alternative energy field with PV solar panels, wind turbines, geo-thermal, and of course nuclear technologies, but what we accomplished so far is not even close to enough. To me, and I followed this idea in ALT, solar is the most obvious way to go. Solar energy is abundant, safe, readily accessible and completely carbon-free. It doesn’t get better than that. Our only job, and it is a big one, is to find a way to capture it effectively.
Mary: Do you have any more thoughts on creative arts blending with scientific information? How can we best engage readers to be interested in climate change, especially through the arts?
Aleksandar: Along with building a near-future world that seemed realistic and credible, the biggest challenge while writing ALT was figuring out how to blend the scientific facts and technological concepts into the story without choking the narrative or making parts of the book read like a dissertation. It’s tricky. You have to find the right measure; otherwise, you’re going to overwhelm the readers (or underwhelm them, as it happens sometimes). You also want to trust your readers, that they’re in there with you every step of the way, that their interest and expectations go beyond entertainment or amusement.
It’s important that we know all the facts so we know what we’re up against, but how many times can you watch An Inconvenient Truth without getting seriously bummed out about our future prospects as a species? People also need reprieve and hope. And that’s where the arts come in.
We need to tackle the issues of climate change and alternative energy in every possible way, and the arts should be instrumental in supporting that effort, in all its forms and formats, because they can all contribute something different.
ALT itself went through a few different formats before it became a novel. It grew out of my research for the Peak Oil documentary, but as I dove deeper, I thought that this story could be more effective if told through a dramatic vehicle, in the form of a movie set in the near-future, where all the looming problems of today have become a reality. So, I decided to write a feature film script instead. Halfway through writing the script, I realized that there was no way to effectively say everything I had to say in that format. Film has its advantages as a medium but also its shortcomings. It’s visceral, so it’s a very good vehicle to convey emotions and action, but it can be cursory and somewhat superficial. In order to say what I needed to say, I had to go into more detail. Really explain not only the consequences of these big problems, but also the roots.
An interesting thing about this transformation from a script to a novel is that movie scripts are written in present tense, because they are happening “right now.” The action develops in real time in front of our eyes. So, when I started adapting the parts of the script I’d already written to a novel format, I kept the present tense narration and ran with it, which ultimately gave the book a sense of immediacy and urgency you would find in a movie. That, combined with probably my overall cinematic sensibility, makes ALT sort feel like a movie at times, at least the action parts. ALT is not a small book, but it reads very fast because that present tense narration drives the reader forward. That’s the legacy of that first script draft.
But it needs to go beyond books and movies and TV series. We need to mobilize the entire intelligent enterprise of humanity. We need to come up with scientific studies, technological innovations, business white papers, product design improvements, comprehensive ways of shifting our way of living toward sustainability, and raising awareness about overcoming energy insecurity and climate change challenges, so that we can collectively process the immensity of our predicament. And then move toward solving it.
Mary: Since your background is in the TV and film industries, I wonder if you see much happening there with ecological/climate changes and fiction?
Aleksandar: Not nearly as much as it needs to be happening. Film is struggling greatly. Other than the Marvel cookie-cutter superhero sagas and an occasional tired franchise movie, there’s little else coming out and most of it is through on-demand services, too.
The on-demand streaming service model clearly won but the subscription wars between them are still going on. In one way, it’s a really good environment for content providers because there’s a lot of demand, but the problem, in my opinion, is that they’re all doing the same thing, in more or less the same way.
You have your flagship fantasy series like Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, or Outlander, then you have the crime dramas—drug dealers, terrorists, small town murders, robberies, charismatic thieves, weirdo villains, wholesome cops, crooked cops, etc. Then there’s the comedy section, interpersonal and family drama, political intrigue, legal thrillers. There are all these checkboxes that the on-demand streaming services need to check off to justify the subscription cost. So they have to play it safe to capture all of the eyeballs and offer something familiar for every mood you might be in. But, by playing it safe, they fall into a trap of mostly repackaging the types of stories that have been proven to work in the past. That doesn’t leave much space for novel stories that dig under the surface and try to tackle difficult themes.
To be sure, there’s a lot of good content on streaming services nowadays—some of it original, some of it a refreshing take on a known narrative—but most of what’s offered is aimed at just entertaining people to oblivion because that’s the business model. Other than the Norwegian Netflix series Occupied, there’s really nothing out there that explores the subjects of energy insecurity and climate change in depth. I like some of the themes that Black Mirror, Mr. Robot, Devs, and some other series delve into. Still, it’s negligible compared to how much content is put out every day. The most important issues of our time hardly get any airplay.
There’s a need and an appetite for more complex thematic engagement that hasn’t been addressed. Viewers are ready. We just need the content acquisition directors to make a few brave decisions for this to change.
Mary: Wonderful insights! Thanks so much, Aleksandar.
Aleksandar Nedeljkovic left his native Serbia in 1993 and moved to New York City, where he established his creative voice in the TV and film industries. Although the seeds of ALT have been quietly germinating throughout the author’s life, the sense of growing civilizational emergency ultimately compelled him to write his first novel and his impassioned plea to spread warning of the perils of climate change, economic inequality, and political discord. Aleksandar lives in New York City with his wife Sarah and their son Luca.