I’m so pleased to talk with Tory Stephens, who I worked with recently to syndicate two stories from Grist’s Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest. This is Imagine’s third short story contest celebrating stories that offer vivid, hope-filled, diverse visions of climate progress. This year’s judges were Paolo Bacigalupi, Nalo Hopkinson, and Sam J. Miller.
These stories are not afraid to explore the challenges ahead, but offer hope that we can work together to build a more sustainable and just world. Through rich characters, lovingly sketched settings, and gripping plots, they welcome you into futures that celebrate who we are and what we can become— and, we hope, inspire you to work toward them.
Imagine 2200, Grist’s climate fiction contest, celebrates stories that offer vivid, hope-filled, diverse visions of climate progress. Discover all the 2024 winners. Or sign up for email updates to get new stories in your inbox.
Mary: Tell us something unique about yourself.
Tory: 12 years ago, my partner and I owned a streetwear clothing company, called False Prophet. Our brand was a blend of political rebelisness mixed with hip hop and gothic undertones. People used to call it blvck fashion. That style is still around. A quote by the philosopher Albert Camus defined us and what we represented. It’s something I still ruminate on. It goes, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” We rode the Instagram wave, our designs catching fire, but behind the scenes, the textile industry’s underbelly churned with environmental toxins and exploited labor. It really hit home when we asked a supplier to send us a value statement on how they treat their employees, and they said they didn’t have one, nor did they know who made the clothing. The one thing they did note, was that they were out of Bangladesh. I of course started to read up on Bangladesh and its role in the textile industry. I learned a ton about how the garment industry works, but once I read about child labor, workers’ ill health, and work-related death, I decided to exit the business. We had a good run, but it was mainly a hobby that brought in just enough income to keep it going. We care about people and understand solidarity means making hard choices. This one was easy.
Mary: Building a just and sustainable future through the power of fiction sounds incredible! Would you mind sharing how Imagine 2200 originated and what kind of impact you hope these stories will have?
Tory: In spring 2020, I had the incredible privilege of helping plan and gather climate and justice leaders for a retreat. Our goal: using collective visioning to explore what a clean, green, and just world truly meant. Then, the pandemic hit. Our in-person, outdoor retreat transformed into a Zoom gathering. The platform was new to most of us, so Zoom fatigue wasn’t a thing, and transitioning the retreat online was something everyone was into.
In a way, Zoom became our refuge. Over three days, the group dedicated itself to collective visioning. We even designed a climate role-playing game to facilitate the process.I had never done collective dreaming or visioning, and at the beginning I was very skeptical. We tasked the group to chart the next 180 years of climate progress in vivid detail. They visualized a complete societal transformation: the dismantling of borders and parties, reparations, ancestral lands returning to Indigenous keepers, restorative justice over prisons. Food sovereignty bloomed, heirloom seeds replacing monoculture. Restoring the environment transformed the economy and was fueled by mutual aid and care work. It was beautiful. We also spent time discussing non-traditional ways we could help other people see the possibilities of these futures, and one of the ideas that came up was a climate fiction contest. Not just to paint a picture of a better world, but to build it, story by story, within the fertile landscapes of our imaginations.
The core of what Grist publishes is journalism about climate justice and solutions—non-fiction reporting rooted in the present. The idea of pairing that with a type of storytelling that looks beyond the current moment to spark imaginations was new for Grist, and for me as well. And it was exciting.
Driven by a hunger for futures that resonated with me, I devoured climate fiction. Yet, dystopia often clouded the horizon, and characters rarely reflected the vibrant mosaic of human experience. I craved stories I could see myself in, futures I could inhabit. Inspiration arrived in the vibrant hues of Afrofuturism and solarpunk. Afrofuturism, with its celebration of Black narratives, offered a cultural authenticity absent from much of the genre. It opened doors to a universe of other futurisms: Latinx, disabled, Asian, queer, Gulf, and Indigenous voices weaving new worlds into existence. Solarpunk, meanwhile, married egalitarianism with hope, envisioning communities thriving on renewable energy, their spirits as bright as the sun that powered them.
These influences, combined with the collective dreaming and intellectual conversations from the retreat, coupled with the stimulating conversations and ideas of my colleagues, provided fertile ground for Imagine 2200 to take shape.
Our goal for the initiative, but specifically the contest, is to create a space where hope blossoms, and people can imagine a future in which solutions to the climate crisis flourish and help bring about radical improvements to our world
Mary: We need climate storytelling more than ever. Why, to you, is fiction so powerful?
Tory: Climate fiction and storytelling has never been more crucial. Its power extends far beyond simply raising awareness—it lies in its unique ability to ignite empathy, foster connection, spark action and shift narratives. Fiction on its own has the power to change history. Think Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and how it brought slavery into the American home and even played a major role in fueling the abolitionist movement and the outbreak of the Civil War. Think of George Orwell’s book 1984. It warned against the dangers of mass surveillance and totalitarian governments. Or about Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale. That novel has become a rallying cry for activists fighting for reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. Fiction often engages with political issues, critiques power structures, or focuses on or characterizes social problems. With climate fiction and storytelling we have an opportunity to envision the world we want and deserve, and seed the world with clean air, green landscapes, and just societies. News, facts, research and statistics are obviously necessary and important, but they can sometimes bounce off our hardened shells. But stories have a way of sneaking past our defenses and lodging themselves in our hearts.
Fiction, especially speculative and futurist fiction, allows us to envision possibilities beyond the present. It allows us to explore hypothetical scenarios, experiment with different solutions, and even imagine a future that is vastly different from the one we currently inhabit. This imaginative capacity is essential for tackling complex challenges like climate change, as it helps us break free from the constraints of our current thinking and explore new pathways towards a more sustainable future.
Imagine 2200 is a fiction contest that allows people across the world to play in this speculative space. And we intentionally ask folk who engage with us, to write stories where hope is the driving force, and characters grapple with the full spectrum of the human experience. And we mean the whole human experience. Most people care about more than a single social or political issue. And often the most salient issue people care about is related to their positionality in society or their identity, or both. Our initiative is intersectional, meaning we want stories that focus on the ways various social identities overlap and influence a character’s experiences. We want stories that recognize that individuals aren’t defined by just one single identity, such as race, gender, class, or sexual orientation, but rather by the complex intersection of these and other factors. This intersectionality, in turn, shapes how they navigate the world and face challenges.
So in our stories you may see LGBTQ+ characters navigate their identities against the backdrop of a changing climate. Issues like abortion, healthcare access, and racial justice find their place in these speculative landscapes, reminding us that even in the face of environmental upheaval, the human condition still pulsates with complexity.
All of this is why fiction is so powerful. The right imagination can take all of these issues and complex human interactions, emotions, and perspectives and weave a narrative that can motivate people to take action and change the world.
Mary: How do you find authors to participate in Grist’s contests, and is interest growing?
Tory: We’ve relied on marketing, collaboration, and partnerships to spread the word about Imagine 2200. It’s worked well. We’ve received close to 3,000 short stories in the first three years! However, reaching a diverse audience in a crowded market has proven challenging.The main challenge is that we are looking to publish a collection that is diverse in a multitude of ways. We want solid representation from across the globe, and we want to ensure we have stories that reflect the diverse human experience. I talked about this before, but it bears repeating. We want intersectional characters and stories, and it’s not always easy to find these types of stories. To help ensure we are receiving the right stories we make sure the language we use is clear, and talks about the importance of intersectional characters and stories. We also partner and collaborate with writing affinity and community groups, and let their audience know that Imagine 2200 exists. Each conversation was unique, and the trust levels varied, but once folk knew we were an ally the conversation started to flourish, and organization and people wanted to help get this opportunity out and into the world.
Particularly, given the changing landscape of social media, partnerships and collaborations have become the most important place for us to lean in.
What’s the feedback and/or impact been so far?
Tory: Imagine 2200’s impact has far exceeded my wildest dreams. My boss at the time of the first year’s call for submissions said the project would be successful if we received 200 stories. That year we received more than 1,000 stories. That was the beginning of our impact. Getting that many people to write stories that depict clean, green, hopeful, and just futures, and have others read those visions, was a feeling like no other. Over the course of three years, close to 3,000 stories from nearly 100 countries have graced our inbox. From classrooms in Rockport, Maine to prestigious universities like the Rhode Island School of Design, educators are using Imagine 2200 stories in their curriculums to teach climate fiction, and writing. But the ripple effect extends beyond writers and readers. As the creative manager, I’m regularly invited to podcasts, interviews, and platforms like yours. These opportunities allow me to champion intersectional storytelling, the power of hope-filled narratives, and the transformative potential of climate fiction. In short, I get to lift up a powerful, yet underutilized climate solution and spark crucial conversations about the future we want to build.
What do you see in Imagine 2200’s future?
Tory: Our 2023 print anthology, Afterglow: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors (featuring all year one contest winners and finalists), kicked off our journey in physical books. Now, we’re working with publishers to bring even more intersectional climate fiction to the world, including an upcoming short story collection. We are working on developing a collaborative visioning workshop to help writers and non-writers alike harness the power of imagination to explore their own futures. And we’re continuing to develop partnerships and collaborations that let us bring Imagine stories and principles to new audiences, new platforms, and new mediums.
Of course, we are also continuing to pursue the primary goal of bringing into the world vivid, beautiful storytelling that offers diverse, empowering visions of climate progress. We’re already working towards launching our 2025 contest, and will have lots more exciting news to share on that soon.
The interview gave me a chance to share my passion for the future and the vital role stories play in shaping it. But words can only do so much. If you’re ready to experience the future through the lens of imagination, hope, and intersectionality, then immerse yourself in our latest collection. Let these stories transport you, enlighten you, and empower you to become a co-author of the future we all deserve.
Tory Stephens creates opportunities that transform organizations and shift culture. He is a resource generator and community builder for social justice issues, people, and movements. He currently works at Grist Magazine as their climate fiction creative manager, and uses storytelling to champion climate justice, and imagine green, clean, and just futures. In another life he owned a kick-butt streetwear company, and he would have gotten away with eating the last cookie too, if it weren’t for his three meddling kids.