A Texas-Based Author Tackles Climate Fiction

A Texas-Based Author Tackles Climate Fiction
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Carbon credits allow the wealthy to continue polluting while poor Black neighborhoods continue suffering the continuing effects of climate change. A child and his mother must don respirators to find the ingredients for a simple birthday cake. Houston suffers a hurricane more devastating than Harvey.          

These stories — woven in The Free People’s Village, Real Sugar is Hard to Find, and Depart, Depart!, respectively — are the work of activist, educator, influencer, and USA Today bestselling author Sim Kern. Climate change and the related concerns sit at the forefront of their works, exploring how the grim reality (and possible grim futures) overlaps and intersects with queerness, poverty, race, gender, and other socioeconomic factors. 

“I've always had a lot of climate anxiety since I was in eighth grade in 1999. That was when I became this teenage ecowarrior-type kid. It was just always a big concern of mine,” Kern says. “I was a teacher for 10 years here in Texas, and then when I gave birth to my first kid, I ended up quitting and decided to focus on writing… The year that I started writing was the year we got hit by Hurricane Harvey. That was a huge wake up call, and really influenced my sense of urgency around doing this kind of work.”

Climate fiction” is the term used to describe a subgenre of speculative fiction that reflects on what the world may look like if climate change is allowed to continue with little to no human intervention. It examines how communities adapt to the extreme weather conditions, poor air quality, pandemics, and limited resources that result from a destabilized global ecology. 

Despite increasing concerns over the effects of climate change, climate fiction is not a new movement that suddenly burst onto shelves. Octavia E. Butler, considered one of the most groundbreaking and influential sci-fi and fantasy writers, envisioned a dystopian America drought by natural disaster and disease in 1993’s Parable of the Sower and its sequel Parable of the Talents five years later. Frank Hebert’s seminal Dune series was heavily inspired by environmental scientists and analyzed the consequences of humanity trying to outclass nature, though media critic Rebecca Long points out that the recent film adaptations glossed over these themes.

Kern previously belonged to a climate fiction book club that aimed to read the classics, such as the aforementioned Butler novels, as well as contemporary works by Aya de Leon, Jeff VanderMeer, Octavia Cade, Richard Powers, and more. This immersion helped define their own work as they launched their own writing career. 

“I think that over the last seven years, climate change has become so much more apparenteven more than it was in 2017 — to people outside of places like Texas, where we're really on the frontlines. We're seeing the effects all over the country now with wildfires and high heat days and drought and all these effects, they say. “I think that there's so much more [climate fiction] now, because it's really come to occupy a very central place in more people's minds. Obviously, there's still climate change deniers out there, but a lot of people creating media these days are incorporating those themes into their work.”

Depart, Depart!, Kern’s debut novel, released in 2020. It follows protagonist Noah Mishner’s experiences as a queer, transgender Jewish man who evacuated to Dallas ahead of a deadly hurricane. He struggles to survive in a shelter where his marginalized identities put him at risk of harm from his fellow refugees.

Real Sugar is Hard to Find followed in 2022, and compiled Kern’s short stories in both climate fiction as well as other genres. In the eponymous tale, what’s now a daily consumable eventually requires seeking out dangerous smugglers operating in poisonous air. Something as simple as baking a birthday cake could cost a loving family their lives.

2023’s The Free People’s Village landed them on the USA Today bestseller list. Taking place in an alternate future version of Houston, Kern offers thoughtful critiques on the failure of carbon credits, wealth disparities, and how overdevelopment harms low-income communities of color as well as the environment.

Aside from select stories out of Real Sugar is Hard to Find, which dissects climate change as it may impact the author’s native Midwest, Kern’s oeuvre largely takes place in Texas — and for reasons beyond the fact that they live in Houston.

“Increasingly, in Houston, which is so humid, there's such a concern about the wet-bulb temperature and how many days out of the year it's really unsafe to be outside because of the heat and humidity,” they say. “So we're the state that probably contributes the most to climate change, because we have the largest petrochemical industry infrastructure in the country.”

According to Climate Central and reported by Houston Public Media, the city’s average summer temperature rose by 4.2 degrees between 1970 and 2022. Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Harvey, Winter Storm Uri, and what meteorologist Matt Lanza referred to as “the hottest summer on record” in 2023 have become disconcertingly common along the Gulf Coast. Houston’s size, density, and ecology makes it especially vulnerable. 

“Just living around all that industrial pollution and petrochemical infrastructure, you're really seeing the causes and the effects of climate change firsthand in Houston,” Kern says. “I really take the time to learn about the really unique biome that we have here in southeast Texas… The coastal prairie? There's less than one percent of this biome left. It’s a stopping off point for many species of migratory birds going from North to South America. It's an estuary for the entire Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. There's just so much diversity of life here and I think people don't appreciate the coastal prairie ecosystem.”

Yet despite the frightening scenarios they envision, Kern doesn’t write to elicit nihilism. They wish to encourage readers to fight the encroaching dangers. In fact, they point to the “popular uprising right now that is standing against very organized, very powerful forces of capitalism and authoritarianism and white supremacy” and “shift[ing] the narrative” toward a more equitable world. Said “popular uprising” involves collaboration between groups concerned with not only climate change, but Palestinian liberation, prison abolition, anti-racism, and LGBTQIAP+ rights as well, among others.

Such intersectional cooperation forms a core component of The Free People’s Village. Despite the bittersweet personal elements in the ending, there’s also an air of community and hope, that positive change is possible. But first, it requires personal reflection on one’s anxieties. Climate fiction provides a safe space to do so, since it looks at potential futures that may be prevented, not the present that can’t.

“It is important that we confront those emotions and feel them and acknowledge them and have a space to process them,” Kern says. “I think fiction can help us do that, and that can help us transform despair into action.”