Interview with Tony White of Shackleton’s Man Goes South
Tony White is the author of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, which he wrote while a writer in residence at the Science Museum in London.
1. You were writer in residence at the Science Museum in London. Were you chosen among others to fulfill this writing position?
Thank you for asking. I was writer in residence at the Science Museum in 2008. No, this wasn’t an advertised position, rather they were aware of my work–particularly my best known book, my London novel Foxy-T (Faber and Faber), and through a series of conversations about how interesting it might be to do something together, we designed what became a residency.
2. How would you describe your writing residency, and had you done anything similar before?
I hadn’t been a writer in residence before that, but I had a fair sized body of work behind me, a track record. And a novel like Foxy-T is of course very much about a place and time: Whitechapel, London, in the early 21st century. So the idea of a residency was new to me, but the Museum hadn’t really done anything like it before either. They had once had a poet in residence–Lavinia Greenlaw–but there was little or no institutional memory about what that had entailed. This was good, it meant we could make it up. In the event we carved out a bit of time to do some research. I also very much wanted to design some free writing workshops so that other writers might have access to the Science Museum, so I built that in to it. And then I said that I would write them a short story. That’s already quite a lot, so there was no expectation that anything more would come of it.
3. How did you envision this book, given the subject of climate change?
The short story that I wrote during my residency was a piece of parodic Edwardiana called ‘Albertopolis Disparu’, a bit of metafictional ‘steampunk’, about (fictional) lost manuscripts and British SF of the New Worlds era. It was smoke and mirrors, really, but the Museum published it in a beautiful little chapbook edition, and it became a bit of a cult thing. People loved it. One critic said, ‘The campaign starts here to persuade the author, Tony White, to turn this into a full-length novel.’ Which was a great endorsement, but I thought, you know: ha ha! I had no plan to do so. Little did I know.
The thing was though, that having pretended to have found a lost science fiction story from the early 20th century with some contemporary significance, I then really did find one: a (technically) unpublished and very much overlooked science fiction short story from 1911 that had been hiding in plain sight amidst the British polar archives, the vast amounts of literature and ephemera relating to the ‘Heroic Age’ of polar exploration; Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. This story was something that had been written for, and collated into a shipboard scrapbook ‘newspaper’ called the South Polar Times, of which Shackleton had been founding editor.
The South Polar Times was a beautiful little journal that all the expedition members contributed to, and which was typed up and bound, illustrated with lovely watercolours, and then passed around or read aloud on ship. Shackleton thought it would be a morale boost to the expedition, and it became a kind of tradition. A few facsimiles of the collected South Polar Times were made, and one is in the British Library collection, and in there was this overlooked science fiction short by a meteorologist called George Clarke Simpson, a scientist on Captain Scott’s ill-fated mission to the South Pole in 1911. Entitled ‘Fragments of a Manuscript Discovered by the People of Sirius During the Exploration of the Solar System’, Simpson’s story was about melting Antarctic ice, about climate change killing off Humanity. It even uses the formulation ‘climate change’. The process of writing my novel was generated by this discovery.
It’s a long story, but I had been talking and thinking about Antarctica, and how the continent had been represented in literature and film a century ago, thinking about this as a crucible in which to tell a story about climate change now that the continent is at risk. The last thing I expected was to find someone actually writing about climate change back then.
The vertigo created by that collision of past and present is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for as a writer. It’s enough to start you off. The novel was an attempt to explore the implications of Simpson’s story, but I had to do this in two ways, firstly by showing it to contemporary climate scientists and using it as a way in to discussing their work and how we imagine climate change futures now, and secondly by borrowing the melodramatic Edwardian tone of Simpson’s story (and of Frank Hurley’s film footage of the Shackleton expedition 1914-16, which was the first moving image of Antarctica that most people had ever seen) and bringing those historical texts into contact with the current scientific literatures of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Like many people I was dissatisfied by what seemed to be a failure of IPCC reports to tell a convincing enough story about climate change, even though the evidence of climate change is there (the lesson is that if you want a good story, you don’t ask committees of scientists, civil servants and politicians to write it). I wondered if colliding the contemporary science with the language of Edwardian melodrama might enable a different kind of climate change story to be told. So you can imagine this was a speculative process–there would have been no way I could have presented these ideas to a publisher at that stage. I had to fund the research piecemeal, however I could, which is why the novel took a few years to write.
When it was starting to come together I was invited to go and talk about the novel at Glastonbury festival–as a kind of lecture with readings–and that was the first opportunity I had had to test the material and the premise on an audience–and luckily the feedback was incredibly positive, so I knew that I was onto something. By this time I was no longer writer in residence at the Science Museum, but we had kind of kept in touch. The Museum maintained an interest in the development of the book, and at a particular point they said, well you know maybe we should publish it.
The Science Museum had already begun a series of three arts commissions–the Atmosphere Commissions–for art works that explore social, cultural and political implications of climate change. The first of these had been a huge wall painting of a house of cards by British artist David Shrigley.
And I’m next, so Shackleton’s Man Goes South is published by the Museum as their Atmosphere Commission for 2013. The Museum is a publishing house, and they’ve been publishing for a century or more, but this is the first novel that they’ve ever published.
4. You seem to be getting some good press about the book. Will it remain a free book?
Yes the response has been amazing, and because of how it has been published–given away on the Museum’s website and in the gallery (as well as via a limited edition paperback that’s only available in the Science Museum)–the press response was immediately international–the first review came out in Spanish a week or two after publication: amazing! I’ve also been doing events and talks–at literature festivals and elsewhere–and the response to those has been very enthusiastic too.
Giving the novel away is a key aspect of how Shackleton’s Man Goes South has been published, and builds upon what we learned from the publication of that first short story ‘Albertopolis Disparu’. Working with an institution of the scale of the Science Museum, with such a massive number of visitors, allows one to experiment in a way that would not be possible in a bookshop, for example. Importantly, too, giving the novel away echoes the sharing ethos of the South Polar Times. For the moment the plan is to keep it free–at least until the end of April .
International readers may not be aware that there is an exhibition about the book in the Museum, which is on for a full year, and runs until the end of April. The exhibition includes a facsimile of Simpson’s South Polar Times story from 1911, and various other things. Our big innovation is a touchscreen ebook dispenser, where Museum visitors can email themselves a copy of the book, also for free. A lot of resistance to giving books away free comes from the idea that writers need to be paid. Well, quite right, and this is what I do for a living, but in this case I’ve been paid AND we’re giving it away.
5. I noticed that the book is part-fiction and part-non-fiction. I think it’s interesting how you accomplished telling a story this way. Do you have any insight about how you decided to narrate the book this way?
Yes, there was no other way to do it. On the one hand the novel tells the story of Emily and Jenny who are fleeing to the safety of Antarctica and who wash up in a camp on the island of South Georgia deep in the south Atlantic. They are boat people, refugees, who are known in their post-melt world as ‘mangoes’, a corruption of the saying ‘man go south’. Alongside this I tell the story of George Clarke Simpson writing about climate change in 1911, and of my conversations with contemporary climate scientists.
Each strand illuminates the other–the actual ‘story’ is located somewhere between the two, until, at a particular point these two storytelling modes collide, propelling us to a very different place. Since you ask 😉 the structure that I used to do this–a dual, converging, fiction-nonfiction narrative structure–is one that was pioneered by the French novelist and Oulipian Georges Perec, who used it for his novel W.
6. I like how the story covered preservation of documentation and publishing, from the South Polar Times to the Cartoneras, both in somewhat extreme environments, where people find a way to publish, write, illustrate, and spread their stories and news in less than easy times. Do you have any thoughts on this sort of word preservation?
I’m glad that you noticed this, as it is a vital thread in the novel. That people will always find ways to tell and read stories, in whatever circumstance, from the South Polar Times of the Shackleton era, to the Cateronera movement in South America right now, or to hand-written newspapers pinned to trees during the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
The second of these, the Cartonera scene, is a kind of low-tech but incredibly vital street publishing that emerged during the Argentinian financial crisis of 2003, and quickly spread to almost every city across that continent. This is reflected, as I’ve said, in how we published Shackleton’s Man Goes South, but I have also put Cartonera publishers in the South Georgian refugee camp of the novel, and given the prisoners we encounter later in the book a theatre, and a creative life.
It seems that it is too easy–within the usually racist discourses around migration, to falsely homogenize migrant communities as ‘illegals’, ‘economic migrants’ etc (these are terms in common use in e.g. the UK and Australia today). These are designations that are designed to stigmatize migrant groups and to deny them agency, and thus they should be resisted in works of fiction as much as in life.
The question of libraries and archives is an important one too. Within the novel there is also–I don’t know if you noticed–a fleeting image of a bird trapped in a flooded library, but there is also a grain of optimism in the suggestion that libraries survive, that they outlive the camps, to the extent that someone in the future is able to find (and albeit misunderstand) a document from our own time that speaks to a future liberation movement, in a way that echoes the found manuscript in Simpson’s story.
7. Speaking of that, I guess you could tie in the past and the future with the way your story is built (the relation of past, as in real history, and future, as in imagined scenarios) in order to build consistency in the novel. How hard was it to relate the past/future, real/imagined? For example, I noticed some repetition of things in your story: Browning (both the poet Robert Browning and the character Bosen Browning), the pearl as a symbol. Did you consciously write this way, and why?
The story of Emily and Jenny flips the polarity of the Shackleton myth–they are escaping to Antarctica instead of from it, in a hot world instead of a cold one–so in writing their future I was consciously refracting the past, and in a way that was deliberately satirical, but importantly the past that I’m carefully refracting and projecting into the future in the novel is one where people were already thinking about climate change and trying to imagine climate change futures and pasts.
I could talk more about the way these futures echo through each other, and through our present, but I don’t want to give the story away! Enough to say that at a particular point, the (metaphorical) camera pulls back, as it were, and the reader realises, perhaps, that maybe what they thought they were reading is not the real story. Some reviewers want to resist that–it is not a comfortable transition–but I’m afraid it is inevitable.
As a writer, especially when writing a novel, you need to have the courage of your convictions in order follow the logic as it unfolds, even as it takes you (hopefully) to somewhere unexpected. I want the reader to become attached to the characters in my fiction, especially here in Shackleton’s Man Goes South. I want these characters to get under the skin and stay with the reader, but remember I was trying to use melodrama to tell a new kind of story about climate change, not to simply write another melodrama.One thing I’m suggesting with the novel, I suppose, is that different ways of imagining climate change futures are needed. A multiplicity of stories for an exponentially growing number of reasons, including the simple need to to break away from the false ‘debate’ funded by a suicidal petrochemical industry on the one hand, that is desperate to wring every last dollar out of carbon while it can, and which is represented in the media by climate change denying ‘flat earthers’, and from what seems to be the current political consensus (which is heavily influenced by this) that right now we should prioritize economic growth at any cost, whilst paying lip service to IPCC emissions reduction targets, so that climate change can be imagined into something that we can worry about in the future, when we’re richer.
The surprise–to me, at least–that came in the writing of Shackleton’s Man Goes South was that dramatic climate change is happening now, and that it doesn’t look like it is supposed to.
8. Are you working on any other literary projects at the present time?
Yes I am always working on something new. Right now I have a couple of short story commissions that just came out, and I’m promoting a new paperback edition of my novella Missorts Volume II and preparing for ebook publication in a month or two of another recent novella (about the Chernobyl disaster) called Dicky Star and the Garden Rule. I am also deep in research for a new novel, or a new prose work at least, and am currently midway through another residency, at King’s College London, which has been a way of supporting my research on that new book.
9. At Eco-Fiction, we’re asking people to provide some quotable insights about climate change in literature. Please give some of your thoughts about this new genre and how you hope literature might change people’s ways of thinking?
To my mind climate fiction echoes the way that in the 1980s when K.W. Jeter and his pals Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock were forced to come up with the term ‘steampunk’ in order to draw the attention of the science fiction community (particularly editors and reviewers at that time who were fixated on the ‘cyberpunk’ of William Gibson and others) to their work, which was being ignored because it was oppositional and contrarian. They were writing parodic Victoriana and Edwardiana about steam-powered computers, etc.; revisiting H.G. Wells.Interestingly though, everyone has now forgotten about ‘cyberpunk’. It has mainstreamed its way into invisibility, even while if you look closely at our mega-capitalist surveillance society you can see that ‘cyberpunk’ did what Kim Stanley Robinson says that SF and thinking about the future is for, i.e. ‘cognitive mapping’. As he puts it: ‘We think about the future in order to figure out what we do right now.’
But it is also interesting and relevant that steampunk–this weird, oppositional form of self-description–has become a massive international subculture, and one which far transcends its literary roots. There is a lesson here, too, a risk that the energy can get sucked out of a genre. So, with respect to fellow authors, some steampunk fiction today can feel like a checklist of received ideas. That’s why going back to a real Edwardian science fiction story made such a powerful impression on me.
There are no airships in Simpson’s story, no brass goggles and clockwork rayguns, but there are surprises, even in such a very short story: his use of the formulation ‘climate change’, a note of homophobia, the understated eugenicist assumptions. Stuff that needed to be explored and aired.I do feel that literature finds new ways to respond to the present as it continually unfolds into the future, that at its best, literature can reject the received wisdoms of the near past and find new ways to tell the stories that we didn’t quite realise that we needed or wanted to tell. (Any novelist will recognise this: you get to the end of a novel and if its any good, you will think, like the person in the Talking Heads song, ‘My God! What have I done?’)
Right now it would seem that there is a need to prepare for the worst, both in order to address climate change and to acclimatise ourselves, but also to–as Stanley Robinson says–‘figure out what we do right now.’ And maybe stories in the broadest sense are a big part of that, they are doing society’s ‘dream-work’, telling us about ourselves. I suppose I would also note that ideas around literary genres can be a two-edged sword, on the one hand writers and readers can use a genre designation as a form of self-description and as a search criteria, both rallying cry and signpost (as is the case with your excellent website), but others might use genre as a reason to diminish or dismiss particular literary works as being of niche or minority interest–there can be a tension between ideas of what constitutes ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’, and who gets to decide.
Climate change gives us a world in which the stakes have never been higher, whether for species and biosphere survival or for complete inaction, so perhaps one can expect resistance from those in power. Right now climate fiction is all of these things and none, and simultaneously it is all of these things and more. It is only just being recognised, and maybe it could be dangerous, it has not yet ossified, so can go where-ever anyone wants to take it. Watch this space, maybe, but also, watch out!