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You Are My Sunshine coverTwo contrasting approaches to climate fiction characterize Octavia Cade’s new book, You Are My Sunshine and Other Stories: the hope of what we can preserve and restore, and the guilt and grief associated with what we will lose.

The eighteen stories in this collection complement and overlap with Cade’s previous climate fiction books, The Stone Wētā (2020) and The Impossible Resurrection of Grief (2021). The Stone Wētā (a shorter, earlier version of which appears in this collection), was released in the second month of the COVID-19 pandemic in Aotearoa New Zealand. Despite the horrors we saw overseas, that period was a surprisingly, strangely hopeful time here. COVID was contained; weeks of lockdown let our air become cleaner, cities quieter; we hoped for a better future. In The Stone Wētā, several women scientists risk their lives to protect and pass on critical climate data through a secret network during a time of government and corporate suppression, in hopes of a day when the world is ready to receive them. By contrast, in The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, we see humans changing themselves and their environment in an attempt to cope—or perhaps a failure to cope—with ecological loss, manifesting as Grief.

The first of those books caught my attention for this hopefulness, its timely and open appreciation for the value of scientific research, and the fact that—like me—Dr Cade is a scientist born and raised in Aotearoa New Zealand. For me the second, although written during the 2020 lockdown, expresses a more recent collective loss of optimism in the push to return to “life as usual” at the cost of social and environmental justice, worsening climate policy, and the climate crisis accelerating faster than forecast. You Are My Sunshine and Other Stories makes that same journey in reverse, from dystopian future and Grief to humans dedicating themselves to building more harmonious relationships with one another and their environments.

But first, we need to establish culpability. The first story, “We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice,” begins:

Look at what we woke.

We feed them lies and watch them burn for it. (p. 6)

This story with “bears” in the title then proceeds to talk about koalas, which are definitely not bears—as the author, who has a PhD in science communication, knows. Experiencing that nominative discomfort is good preparation for this story (and the following few stories) depicting the consequences of our present-day action and inaction on climate change. We move from koalas suffering in wildfires to polar bears suffering during Arctic ice loss, and as the story progresses it becomes more horrific and metaphorical. Yet, despite the implausibility of giant bears of fire and ice consuming our bodies, its core is true to what we know of humanity. There is abundant evidence to set this story in context. Cade intersperses headlines of news articles from our time discussing suppression of climate reporting to break up a narrative that draws on contemporary human behavior—and the fact that so much of this story is a plausible extrapolation into our future forces us to confront our own guilt. “Eight Things We Found Under The Ice, After The Arctic Melted” likewise makes effective use of the accusatory “we.” While inviting the reader in, Cade’s powerful narrative voice again tells us we are all complicit in the damage to the planet.

Shame, it turns out, was buried with all those documents on the future of climate. I’d blame Big Oil … but misinformation and the censorship of data is too vast a conspiracy for the rest of us not to have a hand in it. (p. 22)

The first third of the collection is largely characterized by this guilt and/or darkness. Readers of The Impossible Resurrection of Grief will know the overwhelming climate-associated Grief that grips its human characters, of which we see a new iteration in the titular story, “You Are My Sunshine,” as Cyrus mourns his beloved sea stars. How do we cope with climate grief? What can we give to replace what we took? It might be the sacrifice of our lives and bodies to raise awareness—or, as portrayed in this novelette, in the belief that this may directly benefit even a single species. “Our Flesh was Bred for This,” in a similar vein, considers the moving body disposal practices away from destructive ones, such as embalming, to aid the survival of non-human species. Despite the subject matter, this tangible contribution to species preservation provides a slight reprieve from the gloom of the previous stories.

We kept killing even after we died, our bodies a reminder of the apocalypse we’d brought.

There’s no waste like that now, not even for all the dead who want to go back. (p. 66)

Shifting away from apocalyptic dystopias and attempts to mitigate extinctions, the following two stories prompt us to consider the emptiness of having nothing left to save. “Tidemarks” depicts near-future species loss as it affects later human generations: how do we recapture what’s missing, when we never knew it ourselves? The psychology of loss is explored in greater detail in “Gone to Earth,” through the eyes of an astronaut returned from Mars: “Born to a living planet, how could he process such a land of lack?” (p. 83). Although the focus is on the emotions experienced by the returnees as a result of the barrenness of Mars, it’s the abundance of Earth that makes Mars such a horror.

More and more often, he found himself barefoot, taking the dark path down to the rātā, wanting to feel the Earth beneath his feet, to hear the small sounds of night, the feel of the flowers on his palm. (p. 78)

The desperation with which the returnees cling to the still-thriving ecologies they grew up with—losing themselves in those environments—is a reminder that we are also now undergoing the sixth mass extinction in the history of our planet: that the barren landscapes humanity is creating are right here. Readers can put themselves in place of the characters seeking out familiar trees, marine life, and mountain lichens—their colors, tastes, and textures. For much of the story, we are immersed in what I found a very familiar Aotearoa setting—so for my part, I read this story listening to ruru calling softly in the gully outside, wondering how desperately I would hold onto the environments I knew.

But increasingly, as we move through the book, there is hope: rewilding cities, humans connecting with one another and their ecosystems, and clear visions of a future. Throughout the collection we have characters lending their own bodies—through severing body parts (“You Are My Sunshine”), their deaths (“We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice,” “Our Flesh was Bred for This,” “Tranquility”), or child-bearing (“You’re Not the Only One”)—to social and environmental causes. This becomes more purposeful, and peaceful, as they embrace sometimes heart-wrenching sacrifices with the support of their communities. And despite being almost entirely set in the future, in sometimes-bizarre circumstances (zombie starfish exist in our present world; ghost penguins do not), You Are My Sunshine and Other Stories portrays the world as it is—the contradictions and the consequences of our actions.

The next set of stories—“Inside the Body of Relatives,” “Pollen and Salt,” “The Streams are Paved with Fish Traps,” and “Resilience”—marks a positive shift in the tone of the collection. Some of these are heavy on science detail, but they all feature almost contemporary characters and concerns in near-future Aotearoa. We could be living in this world. “Inside the Body of Relatives” is a remedy for the melancholy of the first third of the book. An elderly narrator muses on the connections between all living things, and the dead things that were derived from the living; we contemplate loneliness and sentience through their conversations with their AI house, and are left with a sense that things will be okay. “Pollen and Salt” gives us an inseparable blend of individual grief with climate grief, in a quietly reflective piece full of coastal scene-setting and scientific detail. “Fish Traps” is more didactic in a policy sense. It depicts rewilding, in the form of supporting native eels to occupy city stormwater drains, that could one day be feasible in our urban communities. A sweet human story of partnership and mutual care provides the backdrop for the positive, rewilded future that recurs through several stories, including “Resilience,” an upbeat snapshot of two strong-minded children making friends.

There is a smaller shift in the collection with “Tranquility,” which takes us further from conceivable futures, yo-yoing between scientific detail and unexplained ideas. Humanity is taking extreme measures to re-seed distant planets, though it seems that human activity on Earth continues as normal. Is it fear of extinction that has prompted the desire to create new life on other cosmic bodies, via human bodies? That question aside, we once again have a very human story: a woman approaching the untimely end of her life hopes to do something good, and to do it with dignity. Trying to do good remains a theme through this second half of the collection, as does contributing to one’s social and ecological communities.

“The Stone Wētā,” from which the 2020 novel originated, portrays a politically bleak but hopeful future. Like the other stories with human characters at the center, it features people trying their best, at risk to themselves, and although we only briefly glimpse each of its scientists’ lives, its optimism fits well alongside the likes of “Fish Traps,” “Resilience,” and the stories that follow—especially “You’re Not the Only One,” which also depicts sacrifices, big and small, made for and with the support of a strong community. “Indicator Species,” another near-future story, gives a glimpse of Niall’s life and his relationship to the natural environment. In keeping with the concerns of this part of the collection, it focuses equally on how his rewilding work has healed him and his human community, and the degraded river they tend. In “Metamorphosis,” drawing on the Kafka story, personal (fantastical) life again blends with rewilding. Gregor Samsa’s sister overcomes a common revulsion to insects, reminding us that they are crucial to thriving ecosystems, and manages her sorrow over her brother’s fate.

If I had wished for anything more from this collection, it would have been to see more characters like me—specifically, more characters coded as people of color and from non-westernized backgrounds. Most stories seem targeted at a science-interested middle-class audience—or at least that was where I could connect best with the characters: as part of the accused “we” in “We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice,” or the international group of scientists smuggling climate data in “The Stone Wētā” and less so among the children, mothers, partners, and older folk who feature in the new, rewilded future that Cade envisages. This was my reaction to a cast with many common English or Irish names, and the fact that it is those of us in wealthy westernized countries who contribute most to, and are harmed least by, climate change. Over half the collection appears to be set in Aotearoa, and local readers may envisage a typically diverse cast regardless of character names. However, ethnic and cultural diversity are especially important in the context of discussions around colonialism in science and in environmental movements. Cade writes authoritatively and in detail about the science of climate change and its impacts on various species or ecosystems; some stories are almost a hybrid between narrative and essay. Some species are named in te reo Māori, although place names are generally in English, perhaps reflecting common usage among Pākehā New Zealanders. It is unsurprising that the majority of stories feature Western science and academia, because that’s how environmental conversations are still centered in colonized countries—but altering that mindset is also important.

That’s where “Come, Water, Be One of Us” reminds us of a new direction. This piece also reads in part like an essay with Cade telling us about the Whanganui River gaining legal personhood in Aotearoa in 2017, and the inevitable consequences of river-as-person in speculative fiction:

.. a person, we think, should have personality, and there’s more to that than the way they look after storms, or the color they turn in sunlight. Personality has quirk and vengeance and responsibility, the ability to choose. The ability to walk away. If a river is a person, it could walk away. If it’s a person, well… how badly can you treat a person before they decide they just don’t have to take it anymore? (p. 163)

Here, history, policy, and speculation come together in an explicit move away from the colonial and towards indigenous values.

Also offering models for how we perceive the natural environment, albeit not explicitly tied to any specific culture, are “The Body Politic,” the twelfth story, and “The History of a Coral Future,” the final one. “The Body Politic” describes a human body as a dying reef damaged by fascism, capitalism, and monoculture. It’s far more abstract than the other stories, but nicely matches “Coral Future”—which, describing a speculative future as it does, is more a worldbuilding essay than a story. “The Body Politic” could be considered an afterword from the author: an aspiration. The “we” here is now inviting, rather than accusing. Having read of these possible futures—having seen how we can suffer, inflict suffering, and still find meaning—how could the future look if we saw ourselves as reefs, each individual a thriving ecosystem with its microbiome, working with the others?

Coral does not empathize, perhaps; but if companionship can support microbial diversity, then reef systems—strong in their variety and with webs of relationships embedded in ecosystem—can form sympathies that can characterize any community. (p. 198)

This is a nicely put-together collection: thematically cohesive, educational (there is no shortage of scientific facts), and wide-ranging in tone and setting. It’s a book for when you feel a little fragile, thinking about the Anthropocene and the future—you’ll find others who feel fragile, and who cope. It’s not a book for when you feel too fragile, unprepared to confront guilt and desolation. Several of the futures it offers are bleak; others are beautifully hopeful, though also hard work. They all ring true to human nature.



Tehnuka (she/they) is a writer and volcanologist from Aotearoa New Zealand. She likes to find herself up volcanoes, down caves, and in unexpected places; everyone else, however, can find her at www.tehnuka.dreamhosters.com. She was the winner of the 2023 Sir Julius Vogel award for Best New Talent in speculative fiction.
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