Translating Science for the Heart: Andri Snær Magnason Interviewed by K.B. Thors

A nonfiction project that uses inventive storytelling to create a new thought paradigm about climate change.

On Time And Water3

Andri Snær Magnason has written fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, poetry, plays, and in 2019, a eulogy for Okjökull, Iceland’s first glacier lost to climate change. His sci-fi novel LoveStar won the 2013 Philip K. Dick special citation. Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, now also a documentary, drew attention to Iceland’s environmental issues and has since contributed to shaping new Icelandic energy policy. Magnason’s work highlights the common ground between science and fable—Rebecca Solnit has referred to him as the “The love child of Chomsky and Lewis Carroll.” Magnason not only articulates the fight against climate change, but also the power of storytelling to make sense of our human role in earthly history. The only writer to have won the Icelandic Literary Award in all categories, Magnason ran for president of Iceland in 2016, coming in third (out of nine).

Magnason’s latest book, On Time and Water (Open Letter) is a direct and empowering take on the environmental challenge that unites our species. Combining inventive narratives through family photo albums with historical analysis, Magnason illustrates that just as energy and transportation were revolutionized during our grandparents’ lifetimes, so can we build new sustainable norms. From folk tales to the Space Race, humanity knows how to rise to an occasion. Here, the writer discusses his personal approach to climate action, the importance of preaching to the choir, and strategies for care and change so that we don’t go the way of an algae bloom.

—K.B. Thors

K.B. Thors You’ve written in many genres—and ran for president!—but this book really feels like you are letting readers in, inviting us into your world as a human and parent, literally doing the math to figure out what kind of planet your children and their children could be living on. It includes sequences of photographs: Grandma Hulda with one of Iceland’s early glider planes, uncle John and the reptiles that inspired his crocodile conservation successes, your grandparents’ badass wedding photo, taken on Vatnajökull in the early days of the Icelandic Geological Society. Was it daunting, letting readers into so much of your family history? Do you think such familiarity is essential to connecting over a reality as huge as climate change? 

Andri Snær Magnason Climate change has often been framed as something about polar bears, faraway islands or something that will only become serious in the year 2100. I wanted to bring it closer to the heart. I wanted to tell stories and use the timescale of people like my grandparents, I was lucky to have all of them until very recently. I use stories from people I have known and loved as a unit to understand the time of the people I will know and love in the future. One of our great failures culturally is a lack of long-term thinking. 2100 is not far away, and we are reckless against the people who will be living then, and these are the people we would love the most in our lives. And that is the fundamental idea, to attach these issues as close to the heart as possible, without going into propaganda. I was urged by climate scientists to write an unusual climate book because the field has been disconnected from culture, mythology, and language. I saw a review recently saying, “people interested in climate change will like the book.” As though climate change will not happen to those interested in vampire golf books. A good symbol of our corporate algorithmic thinking, like climate change was an “interest” and how this is still an “issue” in our culture, not the fundamental reality of everything, the issue beneath all issues, a hyper-issue, to use Timothy Morton’s language. 

These are stories that I have collected for many years, many of them you could say “core stories,” stories I wanted to tell since I was a child, like the four-week glacier honeymoon. Family mythology. The daunting task was to make them all fit in a single book and have it make sense in a narrative thread. How can you fit two Dalai Lama interviews, a glacier honeymoon, Oppenheimer on the operating table and climate science into an arc that makes sense? I also wanted the stories to make people think of their own stories from grandmothers and old relatives. People have asked, Are you sure these are not five different books? You have to focus. Then I added crocodiles to the story, and everything came together. 

KBT This book will definitely speak to people interested in climate change, but its appeal is broad! How do we avoid preaching to the choir? Has your experience in other forms—fables, children’s books, documentaries—given you insight into questions of audience?  

ASMI have always worked in marginal forms wanting to reach a new audience, so children’s books, poetry, sci fi, documentary film, all of these forms are traditionally more marginal than the mainstream novel. The same emotions and truths can be told in fiction or nonfiction. In my book, Dreamland, I was writing about the highlands of Iceland, an issue that I felt was super important but did not get attention. How do you write about terawatt-hours and aluminum in an interesting way? I am attracted to challenges like this, breaking through target groups, Amazon website silos, and algorithms. I believe that at the core, we are not as different as we make ourselves think we are, and strange things are not really so strange. 

Poetry makes me sensitive to language and intolerant of worn-out phrases and ways of talking. I think good literature appeals to everyone, regardless of the issue, not just those that are interested in the subject. But on the other hand, I felt a civil duty to lure the reader into reading about the essence of climate change, the strange dilemma that you have to use the force of storytelling to get the reader through all the science. Climate change is a boring and gloomy subject and easy to let it to other to understand or be worried about. And preaching to the choir is also important, the world often changes through small groups of people, and that group needs language and stories and perspectives to continue the work.  

Andri Snaer Magnason Author Photo Credit Gassi Olafsson1

Photo of Andri Snaer Magnason by Gassi Olafsson.

KBT On Time and Water hails a new paradigm in which our human lifestyles are integrated into healthy global ecosystems—a green future. Yet the book is also a dive into the past, from Viking age Iceland to your grandparents’ love story. The chapter called “A mythology for the present” includes your aunt Arndís’ account of her time as a nanny in Oxford, where she taught Tolkien’s children songs about rings in meadows—an incredible example of mythology in action! Indigenous peoples have been fighting for alternatives to colonial capitalism for ages, and the past year has proven that change can happen faster than Western markets might like to admit. What is new and what is traditional about this project?

ASM The book is in many ways traditional and old-fashioned. In a way, it’s a tribute to plain old storytelling, I felt that I had a duty as an author, as a citizen to understand and write about the findings of climate and glacier scientists. I noticed that language seems to fail us. I can’t say the situation is enormous to the 12th degree. How do you write about the foundations of our existence? That is how mythology enters very naturally into the story, because history is about ideas, religions, empires, wars and culture. Mythology is about the fundaments. Sun, moon, wind, oceans, great floods and tragic gods neglecting the warnings of Kassandra. Leaders of the world are now meeting to talk about how they are making oceans out of glaciers with their superpowers. The megalomaniacs in history, Napoleon, Cæsar, Genghis Khan, and Ramses II did not talk in those terms. We are living in mythological times, where we are shaking the fundaments.  

Much of the book is about language, how long it takes for words to be understood, asking what language is appropriate against this mythological dilemma we are in. Oil, coal, and gas gave us temporary superpowers, we made a deal with the underworld. And like in a fairy tale—it is time to pay. What created us will destroy us. But we need energy, we can’t be without it. 

I saw myself as part of a big movement, creating a new paradigm of thought, maybe to be a translator between science and the heart. Climate change is very much about the future, but that is always speculative. I wanted to write about the future by writing about the past, remembering why we love grandmothers and why glaciers and crocodiles are important in the whole system.  

KBT Carbon footprint is now a common term. Flygskam—flight shame—is a word, at least in Iceland. Ocean acidification is one of the most important concepts to human survival on earth, but a relatively recent term. You are walking the walk, using tales to stir human hearts, but what about non-writers? How can we use language to mobilize toward change?

ASM I think writers still have a role, of taking lots of time and creating thoughts and stories that eventually float and become useful in the larger context. Like mansplaining by Rebecca Solnit has been useful to frame a certain behavior and make it less possible. I was in a restaurant the other day, offered “deconstructed Snickers.” I remember when I heard it first in literary studies, I thought deconstruction was the most academic stupid word I had ever encountered, and then in the workers strike an elderly lady said they would not be “marginalized” anymore—another word I thought was super academic thirty years ago. In my book I write about ocean acidification—the biggest word in the world, only coined less eighteen years ago. As we live in democracies, the public needs to understand what is at stake and vote or run for office.  

KBT The memorial stone for Okjökull glacier includes the figure 415 ppm, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the time of Okjökull’s demise. In September 2020, New York’s public art piece “The Passage,” a set of large LED digits, was turned into a Climate Clock. The numbers that previously “told time” now represent the days, hours, and seconds we have to reduce the amount of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere before the planet will be warmed by 1.5℃ (2.7℉), a key threshold for life as we know it and the goal of the Paris Agreements. Should we be putting up more clocks? Is there some kind of public-plaza way to communicate that, as we learn in On Time and Water, American electricity needs could be met with solar power using a sixth of the country’s parking lots? 

ASMWell, as the question is about the fundaments of everything, then of course, we need lots of effort if awareness does not tip us over into addressing the issue. This is maybe some kind of test for democracy, can we make the future of everything interesting enough to make us care and change? Or will our collective intellect in the end be similar to the intellect of an algae bloom, growing into the maximum of the resource we have—just to fall back to our original state? 

KBTThe book addresses how we might take shelter in irony and apathy, or be seduced by the siren song, tempting us to give up and admit we’re a minor animal in the big picture—the earth and universe will go on without us. How can we live joyfully while getting real about ecological precarity? 

ASM I think we want to believe we are making the world better for our children. But science tells us now that this is not the case. We are undermining the future and the serious thing is, of course, how the merchants of doubt have prevented progress during the last thirty years. While things are still not falling apart, working on solutions is fulfilling. Local groups in rewilding or climate awareness, innovation in technology… I imagine it’s more fun working for Tesla than making old-fashioned Ford Pickups. We need to change almost everything in the next thirty years, all transport, fashion, food systems, farming, city planning, etc. That is all about doing things and normally this is something that is fulfilling and joyful. To have a higher meaning is something we strive to have—and this is the biggest cause we can imagine. I focus less on the doomsday clocks, even if we only had a 1% chance—I would still bet on it rather than going into apathy.  

KBT On Time and Water ends on fiery notes of optimism after outlining climate change as the grand, life-or-death storyline that it is. The book centers the power of the people in the mythological story—if carbon is a beast that must be captured by all of us, not just scientists and politicians, we must respond together. Your work cultivates an almost Pokémon-esque, gotta-catch-em-all attitude to greenhouse gases. That playfulness seems in keeping with the Dalai Lama’s laughter in the book. How does hope-driven narrative spur us to make drastic lifestyle changes? 

ASM Well the Dalai Lama is very lighthearted in his interviews without diminishing how serious the Tibet or climate issue really is. I don’t think that has to be contradictory. The issue is serious and to make a silly joke one minute and be serious the next is probably an evolutionary survival method. So, the hope is based on science and what humans have achieved until now. And the generation that is now in the universities has a totally different challenge or paradigm than my generation had. I was educated into a growing neoliberal world of nations competing on the global markets. The next thirty years are all about finding balance between humans and our planetary boundaries, and the generation being educated now will be paying into pension funds that will cash out in the year 2070, at a time when most of earth’s systems might be going off the rails if we do nothing now. This generation will take all this very seriously and it needs global collaboration in a race where either everyone wins or everyone loses.

On Time and Water is available for purchase here.

K.B. Thors is the author of Vulgar Mechanics and the Icelandic-English translator of Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s Stormwarning, nominated for the 2019 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation and winner of the American Scandinavian Foundation’s Leif and Inger Sjöberg Prize. Hailing from Treaty 6 land in what’s also known as Alberta, Canada, Thors’s work revolves around embodied environmental health, from fracking to gender fluidity on the frontier.

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