Thanks again for doing an interview with Cli-Fi Books. We first talked last October about your book 500 Parts per Million. It was a great interview, and I was intrigued by your comparison of proactive youth in the 1960s compared to modern day–especially now when we face the biggest environmental crisis of the planet: climate change.
The sequel, Cli-Fidelity, was published after our last interview. Let’s talk about that book.
Mary: You describe Cli-Fidelity as being a sequel to 500 Parts per Million but say that it can be read independently. How closely are the two related?
Peter: As a sequel Cli-Fidelity obviously has to link with 500 Parts per Million, but I hope there’s enough differentiation of place and characters to make it independently readable if that’s what the reader wants to do.
Marc, the main character in 500 Parts per Million, also appears in Cli-Fidelity, but this time the story focuses on what happens to his girlfriend Dayna and her sister after the mega-storm hits Europe and the US in 2050. Marc and Dayna are separated in 500 Parts per Million and reunited in Cli-Fidelity, but events take an unexpected turn, and it’s Dayna’s sister Zeta who takes a prominent role in the story, accompanied by a scientist with an unusual passion.
So in both novels the aftermath of the mega-storm forms the centre of attention, but each tells the story from different perspectives. 500 Parts per Million is set mainly in the UK and US, while the story in Cli-Fidelity takes place in the UK and France. It’s a sort of UK, US and Europe triangulation.
At some point in the future there’ll be a third novel to complete the trilogy. Attentive readers will note some deliberate loose ends in both 500 Parts per Million and Cli-Fidelity that I’ll be tying up.
Mary: Cli-Fidelity takes place in a climate-changed world, and it’s an eco-thriller revolving around a nuclear reactor that’s tethered under the sea. What inspired you to take this direction for a sequel?
Peter: There’s a saying that “truth can be stranger than fiction,” and when I first read about the French government pumping research funding into trying to develop underwater nuclear reactors I thought it was one of those April Fool’s stories, but it isn’t. France relies heavily on nuclear power for its electricity generation, and underwater reactors have certain advantages over their above-ground relatives. The sea water provides a natural cooling system, for example. And from a climate change point of view, nuclear power is less damaging than burning fossil fuels.
So there’s an interesting link between climate change and the potential development of underwater reactors, and my title Cli-Fidelity refers to the name of one of these reactors operating on the sea bed off the north coast of France in 2050. The title is a pun on hi-fidelity, but in the context of the novel it’s also a reference to the future French government’s desire to stay faithful to the idea of using nuclear power not only to generate electricity but also to reduce CO2 emissions.
Having said all that, there are disadvantages to underwater reactors, as you can imagine, and the plot of the novel is based around this.
Mary: We didn’t talk much about the characters in your novel the last time. Are any characters from the first novel in the second novel–and, what is your process for creating these characters? Are they inspired by people you know?
Peter: Marc is the main character in 500 Parts per Million and he also appears in Cli-Fidelity, but the sequel begins with a focus on his girlfriend Dayna and her sister Zeta. Dayna is a medical student in London, Zeta is a journalist, and Marc works as a risk analyst in a big insurance company.
These characters are what you might call “conventional,” but there’s nothing conventional about the problems they have to deal with. I also like to have unconventional characters in my storylines. In 500 Parts per Million it was GM Joe, who hooks up with Marc and manages to mess up his plans to return to the UK, and in Cli-Fidelity there’s a scientist called Professor Jules Lafont who manages to mess up just about everything. Both of them have what might be termed an “attitude problem”.
I don’t tend to create the characters, but rather the characters create themselves as I develop the ideas for the story. They’re not based on people I know – that might lead to some awkward moments for me – but I do like to take certain traits I see in people and mix them up into a single character.
There is one key aspect of the character creation in both novels, however, and that is their age. The main characters are in their mid to late twenties, and that was a deliberate choice for me because I wanted to target my novels particularly to readers currently in that age group. They’re the people who by the year 2050 will be feeling the full effects of our warming climate unless we do something serious to address the problem. But there are plenty of older characters as well, so whatever your age there’s something for you.
Mary: Using nuclear power, some say, is environmentally cleaner than oil and coal–is this the direction your novel takes? Or can you tell us, without spoiling your newest novel? It seems something more ominous is going on!
Peter: I don’t want to give away too much of Cli-Fidelity’s plot, but it explores the pros and cons of nuclear power, particularly as a means of curbing CO2 emissions, and the tensions between the two camps. But as you’ve guessed, there are a number of problems in locating a nuclear reactor underwater, and there are certainly ominous signs of these in the novel.
Mary: In our last interview, we talked about your work in economics and research and how you decided to turn to fiction to continue your work, specifically in the realm of climate change. This is just a philosophical question–but, as an author, do you feel your aim is to inspire people to care about climate change? Or do you just want to write a good story that reflects our reality? Or a little of both?
Peter: I like to think I could do a lot of both. The science on climate change doesn’t always make it into the mainstream media, and when it does there are vested interests that manage to blur the message or smother it entirely. The classic example is the media interview where two scientists, one a believer and the other a denier, are questioned by an interviewer who probably doesn’t know that much about the technicalities of the debate. It seems to the casual observer that the scientific community is equally split on the issue, whereas the scientific consensus is now almost overwhelming that global warming is happening and that it poses a serious threat to our well-being. Even the term “climate change” is a nod to the power of lobbies that want to play down the message on global warming, so the debate can be confusing to the general public.
This is where I feel fiction, as well as faction, has a role to play in getting the global warming message across. It can engage with people who might not be comfortable with the dry, technical details of scientific papers and reports.
But, for me, the more important thing is to write a good story. Unless you have a good story to tell, people won’t read it anyway, no matter how important the subject matter!
Mary: Along with the last question, have you gotten any feedback from either 500 Parts per Million or Cli-Fidelity that gives you hope that you have motivated someone to help mitigate climate change?
Peter: I’ve had some excellent feedback from readers who’ve enjoyed the writing and the storyline in the novels, and this is very satisfying as a writer, but I must confess that no-one has come to me and told me that I’ve changed their outlook as far as global warming is concerned. But I live in hope that one day I might succeed. I guess we all have to try and do what we can, no matter how small and trivial our efforts seem at the time.
Mary: Are there any more thoughts you have that you would like to share about your two novels?
Peter: Some readers label my writing as sci-fi, as well as cli-fi, because the stories are set in the future. But I don’t really consider them as sci-fi novels: there are no aliens or time travel in them, and I like to base my plots on events that have a credible basis. People have said to me that writing about underwater nuclear reactors must be sci-fi, but I don’t think it is because they’re a credible possibility. But what’s in a name? Whether you’re sci-fi, cli-fi or any other fi, I hope you would enjoy reading both novels.
Before all this gets to sound rather worthy, I should add that I like a dose of humour running through my stories. I try to entertain, not preach.
Mary: Are you working on another sequel or any other novel?
Peter: Yes, my third novel Frack That is set in the present and explores the controversies surrounding the process of fracking for shale oil and gas. It’s set in a sleepy village in the south of England which wakes up to the prospect of drilling rigs and convoys of water tankers threatening its green and pleasant landscape. There are people on both sides of the argument, and things get heated, not just the climate. The book should be ready next year.
And one day I hope to begin the novel which completes the trilogy started with 500 Parts per Million and Cli-Fidelity. Fingers crossed.
Mary: Thanks so much, Peter! A pleasure, as always.