FQ: Your previous novels are best described as political thrillers while Overlord takes a bit of a different focus as we see the fallout from climate change. Why the change? Was the urgency of needing to do something about climate change the impetus for writing your newest book?
FULLILOVE: Well, political thrillers and science fiction. There has always been an undercurrent of social justice issues in my novels, and climate change is already having a disproportionate impact on the poor and most vulnerable. And I’d seen other fiction talking about smaller scale climate events including, for example, flooding impacting NYC.
My sister-in-law, Mindy Thompson Fullilove, is a professor at the New School and coined the term Root Shock for large-scale social disruption events – like urban renewal in the 1960s that disrupted primarily black inner city neighborhoods by labeling them “blighted” and tearing down the existing infrastructure and replacing it with…nothing. So, the combination of all those things and my fear of how events like what happens in Overlord would go down prompted me to write the novel, because if we are wrong about the near-term timing of catastrophic climate effects, the impact will be devastating and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
The evidence of climate impact is multiplying, and our continuing debate about whether certain things work or don’t work is influenced by the erroneous notion that we actually have time to have these debates. I don’t think we do. And if you think that’s climate alarmism, well, I am alarmed, and I think everyone should be motivated to some level of action if possible.
FQ: Your vision of our future, due to climate change, was fascinating (and frightening!). Do you think that presenting such future visions of our world will help push readers to get involved?
FULLILOVE: I hope so, but I am skeptical because individual efforts on climate change seem about as impactful as dropping a single penny in the ocean. Our individual ability to have a meaningful impact seems quite limited, so when confronted with the reality that things are changing, what can one person do?
My answer is to begin to think about how we live, how we consume, and how we can begin to prepare for a starker, more challenging future. I’m not talking about renouncing civilization and going off to live in the woods (although I watch the survival series Alone and think, well, when the S**T hits the fan these are the people who will rule), but I am talking about thinking about what we have now and starting to take tiny steps to lower our impact even if the solutions seem big, scary and beyond the grasp of us as individuals.
Think about water usage, for example. I am becoming more conscious of how many flushes, how I do the dishes, how I consume water in a single use plastic container, etc. And I am starting to make simple incremental changes not to save the world, but to begin NOW to adjust to the world that is likely coming, where water use is much more restricted.
FQ: Can you discuss any real-world events or scientific research that influenced your portrayal of this bleak future?
FULLILOVE: Well, I looked at the research about the ice at the poles melting and figured that was not enough of a sea level rise to get the impacts that I needed for Overlord. (And now we’re seeing more alarming statistics about the poles melting and Greenland losing its ice cover, etc.)
So I needed something more dramatic, e.g. a reason for the ice at the poles to melt, and an unexpected tertiary effect of the poles melting, and I came up with the North American tectonic plate, upon which the US sits, dropping in response to the release of weight on the poles as sort of a conservation of momentum.
FQ: The book touches on themes of climate change, environmental catastrophe, and ethical dilemmas. How did you approach the research and world-building to make this central to the narrative?
FULLILOVE: The main research was in coming up with something reasonably plausible (but totally fictional) to cause the impacts that occur in Overlord that dramatically rewrite the American landscape. The ethical dilemmas came naturally as a result of my supposition that catastrophic effects would have a disproportionate affect on the poor and less well-to-do.
But the final straw, the one I was most concerned with and the one I thought would be far more controversial than it has proven to be, was the villain’s need to leverage existing hatreds of certain groups in order to pull off the revolution that is required for his plan to succeed and some version of the US to survive...somehow.
I used to play a video game where you are the pilot of an aircraft during a war, and one of the possible mission outcomes was SUCCESS/DEAD, meaning, the good news is that you completed the mission, the bad news was that you, as the pilot, didn’t survive your wounds. Sort of the ultimate Pyrrhic “victory.” I intended Overlord to be the ultimate Pyrrhic victory for the villain, forced into horrific choices because he’s the only one who sees what’s coming and understands that the ramifications of rapid onset climate change have to be mitigated at all costs.
FQ: Overlord features quite a diverse cast of characters and I found them all to be interesting and realistic. Can you discuss your process for crafting these characters? Was there a process to help you keep them all separated in your mind, making sure that each one stayed consistent in temperament, etc.?
FULLILOVE: First, I’ve written female-centric fiction before, so a female lead felt like familiar ground. The initial idea for the storyline of Madison and her crew was a New York Times Magazine article some years back that depicted incarcerated women who were working as firefighters to combat California wildfires, and the article was driven by the fact that one of these women had died in the line of doing that duty.
The ultimate irony, for me, was the fact that because these women had criminal records and were being asked to risk their lives for the good of the state of California, they could never be actual firefighters when they got out.
To me, this was the very embodiment of crime and punishment without redemption or acknowledgement that someone had paid their debt to society, even risking their lives to do so, without any hope of using the skills they had acquired serving the needs of the state.
So that’s where the idea that a displaced people would be imprisoned and then sacrificed in impossible salvage missions for the good of the state came from.
FQ: As a woman, I loved the character of Madison Cervantes, that she was the main protagonist, and also one heck of a tough lady. I find that a lot of male writers have trouble creating believable woman characters, but you pulled it off beautifully. Do you find it more of a challenge to write female leads, or is it something you prefer?
FULLILOVE: I think for me, female leads are more interesting and carry the potential for a more nuanced story line in the right circumstances (meaning the right circumstances for me as a writer). I know and respect my limits, however, which means I tend to write female leads in action stories with a tightly prescribed radius of situations that I’m comfortable writing about. I could, for example, never write a female lead in a romance novel because it wouldn’t be convincing and I’d be out of my depth.
But a female lead shouting dialog during a fierce gunfight? Sign me up!
FQ: The genetically-engineered polar bears add a terrifying dimension to the story. What inspired their creation?
FULLILOVE: A couple of things – I wanted a misguided be-careful-what-you-wish-for effort to save a magnificent creature from inevitable extinction with catastrophic effect, and I wanted an irresistible force against Madison and company’s immovable object in their desire to survive. The sequel will include some additional focus on the polar bears – how they escaped the lab, how they developed, and the intense pressure on the tribe to...feed.
FQ: The novel addresses issues of governance and the manipulation of racism, which I found particularly engaging and realistic. What commentary do you wish to convey to readers?
FULLILOVE: Some of the editorial comments I got from the people who helped round the manuscript into shape involved disbelief that racism, and/or hatred of immigrants, could be so profoundly engrained into US culture, and particularly the military.
As a person of color, I am convinced that these things actually are deeply ingrained in US culture for multiple reasons. Look no further than conservative media and right-wing political figures to see it manifest itself. Look no further than the disproportionate impacts of certain kinds of police violence against people of color. (And don’t buy the statistical smoke and mirrors about black and white people being equally likely to be shot by cops during the commission of a crime – people like Breonna Taylor were not killed during the commission of a crime and therefore aren’t in those statistics...)
This isn’t to say that everyone is racist or that all cops are terrible. But we as a society have significant issues with power dynamics that manifest clearly in race and ethnicity issues – and in lots of other places too.
What I am suggesting is that when people have the opportunity to play God in the lives of others, there is a distinct distortion in everyone’s perception of who they are that is harmful for everyone involved in such a dynamic. The police and minority communities are just one set of such dynamics that manifest in our society. Flip the script and look at the impact on police officers who are charged with life and death decisions (i.e. God-like power) that have to be made in a split second – look at the impact on their health, incidence of divorce, suicide, and illness/life expectancy to understand that life and death power sickens and kills some of those who wield it.
Then think about all the other power dynamics that we’ve seen play out in the last decade or so – the power dynamic of the patriarchy over women that just goes on and on and on...
The ability to play God in the lives of others carries a deadly weight that permeates our society. Who is to say that this dynamic doesn’t help fuel the lone gunman/mass shooter phenomenon that we’ve seen play out too many times in our society; that last desperate attempt for someone feeling powerless and hopeless to even the score and yield life and death power if only for a few clicks of a trigger...
FQ: The concept of "coasties" and the treatment of displaced individuals in the novel raises thought-provoking ethical questions. Can you discuss the social and political commentary you intended to convey through this aspect of the story?
FULLILOVE: A displaced people relies on the largess of the rest of or surrounding society to accommodate them. In general, that largess is extremely limited and extremely disruptive. (Just look at other mass immigration movements occurring today, both towards our own borders and in Europe and other places.) In Overlord, the reality is that movement of many millions of people off of the drowned coasts simply is not feasible for the remaining land mass to accommodate. This is the reality we would face if the events in Overlord were ever to come true.
This is the reality that is going to play out globally as sea levels rise. I chose to illustrate this using the US so the ‘what if’ would really hit home and not just be someone else’s problem.
FQ: Having published several books already, I have to imagine that you have a new one in the works. If so, would you like to share with our readers a little about your next project?
FULLILOVE: First, Overlord is the first of a trilogy (I hope) so two more books are coming. But the immediate next novel Atmosphere is going to publish from me is called View to a Kill, which is a return to a story line that I started 30 years ago in my first published sci-fi novel Circle of One (Bantam Spectra, now out of print).
That is a different storyline that takes place in the 2050s (which seemed a lot farther away when I wrote Circle in the 1990s) but featured a couple of things that I wanted to revisit. First, in that ecosystem, I took it for granted that most people would have chips (e.g. the equivalent of your smart phone) implanted in their heads that are directly accessible via thought.
I began thinking about what that would mean and decided that in order for the government to sanction such devices they would have to be completely unhackable.
So part of the premise of the novel - what if someone finds a way to hack the chips in people’s heads? Would it produce some sort of mind control?
Also, when it comes to different adoption rates of technology, I postulated that in this future part of the appeal of chip implants would be so that normal people could compete with AI/robots for jobs. But...
There would be different adoption rates/models for chip technology driven by class, e.g. that poor people would perversely only have access to overpriced crappy chip technology even though the tech is vital to complete for certain kinds of jobs.
The second aspect of that novel that I thought was pretty far-fetched when I wrote it 30 years ago but highly dystopian:
By the 2050s in Los Angeles and other cities, most poor people inhabit utterly segregated walled ghettos called Zones where there are no services, no police presence, and residents need papers certifying they have jobs in the real world in order to get in and out of the Zones.
So you put all that together and...
When a titan of this chip technology mysteriously turns up dead on the eve of the sale of her company, and her wealthy family wants the murder solved quickly to allay fears that the murder is indicative that the chip technology has been compromised (even though it has been compromised), where does LAPD go to quickly manufacture a case and produce a suitable perpetrator that ends the questions about the technology and the business sale?
View to a Kill is a thrilling race against time to unravel the mysterious death of a tech titan and stop an expedited death row execution of an innocent man as part of a cover-up of a much bigger, more frightening plot against humanity...