Science-fiction author Brenda Cooper’s new book is Wilders:
Coryn Williams has grown up in the megacity of Seacouver, where her every need is provided for—except satisfaction with her life. After her parents’ suicides, her sister Lou fled the city to work on a rewilding crew, restoring lands once driven to the brink of ecological disaster by humans to a more natural state. Finally of age, Coryn leaves the city with her companion robot to look for her sister.
But the outside world is not what she expects—it is rougher and more dangerous, and while some people help her, some resent the city and some covet her most precious resource: her companion robot. As Coryn struggles toward her sister, she uncovers a group of people with a sinister agenda that may endanger Seacouver.
When Coryn does find her sister, Lou has secrets she won’t share. Can Coryn and Lou learn to trust each other in order to discover the truth hidden behind the surface and to save both Seacouver and the rewilded lands?
In the following interview, we discuss Cooper’s concerns for the future, and whether or not she considers Wilders a work of “cli-fi”.
Unbound Worlds: It seems that your more recent fiction is focused on changes that humanity will have to deal with sooner rather than later: artificial intelligence and transhumanism, ecological damage and remediation. Have your interests or concerns changed over the years? Are you more comfortable addressing them now?
Brenda Cooper: Good question. A lot of my broad interests have been fairly steady. Technology fascinates me. I wrote early stories about uploading (with Larry Niven) such as “Finding Myself.” Edge of Dark and Spear of Light are clearly conversations about transhumanist ideas. Wilders is set closer to now but I do have hints of AI in the megacities and a strong subplot about dependency on technology. I have been interested in the natural world as long as I’ve been interested in technology. The books (other than Wilders) that explore the relationship of man and nature the most are Mayan December and The Silver Ship and the Sea. I’ve also written about inequality and imbalances of power in the Silver Ship Series and in The Creative Fire. Sometimes when I write about a topic I want to approach it from more than one direction as a way of really digging deeper. Most of my books explore more than one theme. Sometimes I write around multiple takes on the same topic, kind of as a way to explore ideas. Think of it as futurist scenario-building. POST is a YA novel set in the same place and timeframe as Wilders, but with a very different future scenario about what happens in the fifty years between now and then.
I hope I’m more comfortable as a writer. Certainly, I’ve persevered through a lot in this industry and I really think the more you write, the better you get. At least as long as you stretch. I try to learn something new with each novel I write.
UW: A lot has been written about climate fiction, or “cli-fi” as an emerging sub-genre. Is Wilders part of that wave?
BC: Yes. On purpose.
Causing so much damage to such a beautiful and complex place is a moral travesty. Anything I can add to that conversation is good. Every species we drive to extinction is a stain on our collective souls. We can probably engineer a future for humanity, or at least for some of humanity, but frogs not only can’t build a spaceship, they don’t know they need to.
The problem is bigger than climate. It’s toxicity, habitat destruction, the introduction of non-native species, and the simple act of not even noticing what is around us — much less caring. So how we treat the natural world is the biggest problem facing us. It could kill us. But it’s not insolvable. We’re going to have grow up and work together as a global population to solve it quickly enough to avoid far more serious disaster. That’s going to take innovation, technology, brilliance, empathy, and maturity. We do have those traits.
I do want to note that I don’t think climate fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction. It’s more like a shared pool of wisdom and concern that writers from many genres are exploring. Science fiction is contributing great writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Tobias Buckell to the pool. Fiction is contributing Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Rick Bass, and Jim Shepard. Poets are writing about climate change, and so are playwrights and songwriters. Documentaries abound. This discussion is – rightly – mixing and connecting writers from many walks of life.
UW: When Coryn Williams leaves Seacouver, she discovers that her ideas about the outside world and the people that populate it are misguided. Without giving away too much of the plot, can you tell me a little bit about that? More broadly speaking, have you ever experienced a similar realization about a place or group of people?
BC: Well, in Wilders, the city is actively withholding information about Outside. Even her sister is hiding information from Coryn. So she has been fed false information. It’s no wonder she leaves with a particularly naïve viewpoint. Also, before she leaves, she’s a truly a half-formed person. In spite of the bad things that have happened to her, she has always had food and a roof and medical care and many other basic needs met. Her problems in the city are real, but they’re also developed-world problems. The problems Outside are more visceral.
And yes, I’ve been surprised about people as I learned more about them. Both ways. As I’ve studied some of the real-life villains in our current world, I’m finding they are worse than I imagined. I’ll leave them nameless, less this devolve into politics (and don’t we have enough of THAT right now?). But most of the time what I learn about strangers is that they are better and kinder than I expected, and more like me than I expected on fundamental levels. Most people are good. Most people want the same things: love, safety, family, security, things to be interested in, and ways to bring value to the community.
UW: There are some fantastic themes to explore in Wilders: the rift between urban and rural communities, and the balance between technological advancement and resource management. These are some of the major issues we’re dealing with right now in America, and perhaps the Western world as a whole. Were these things you consciously wanted to address going into the novel, or did they evolve organically as you wrote the story?
BC: Both. I did set out to write climate fiction about the near future, and I set out to balance between hard things and hopeful things. Other than POST, Wilders is the only novel-length science fiction I’ve set in such a close timeframe (well, Mayan December is set on Earth, but in the Yucatan and mostly in the past). That’s riskier than writing about the same issues set in an indeterminate time in the future on a colony planet. It takes more research and more careful world-building and is more likely to be undone by current events. Some things did evolve though. I knew I wanted to discuss rewilding, but at first I wasn’t as ambitious. But most of the way through the first draft, I read E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, and I made my wild spaces bigger and more dramatic.
UW: What do you really want people to know about Wilders?
BC: Wilders is about some pretty important human relationships—to technology, to the natural world, and to each other. I tried hard not to make it preachy, but rather to take a basic human instinct – love of family – and create a story about two sisters that is set against a larger backdrop. I really hope that people love Coryn and Lou, and that they enjoy reading about their adventures.
Thanks for very much for inviting me to your site.
Author photo: Mary Cooper ©