Heat waves, record-breaking temperatures, forest fires, diminishing biodiversity, rampant viruses, resource scarcity – and a heap of anxieties for what the future may hold. It is easy to despair yet Cecil Castellucci, Flavia Biondi, and Fabiana Mascolo have channeled those anxieties into an intriguing parallel worlds story with Shifting Earth, from Dark Horse Comics’s Berger Books imprint.
Beatster Dean Simons chatted with writer Cecil Castellucci about the genesis and themes of the story and its importance for today.
Dean Simons: Shifting Earth introduces two parallel worlds. One seems based on a possible future Earth and the other a place quite different. Each seem to have quite different societies. What would you say are the fundamental value systems between these two worlds?
Cecil Castellucci: I would call the Earth that Dr. Maeve Lindholm comes from a near future Earth, one that is recognizable to us, where the Climate Crisis has not been addressed at all and subsequently all of the consequences of doing nothing are starting to really be a part of day to day life. There’s toxic air, failing plant life, diseases. The parallel Earth evolved differently, so the forces pulling on it are different and the way that they’ve organized society is different. Yet, it too, is familiar. And while Earth 2 has grown to adapt to their world using more of the natural elements for power, they have different struggles in their attempt to survive. Because of the way that they have organized, they seem ahead and behind, because they do as all humans do, use what is around them. Our world, or in this book, I’d call it Earth One, is more individualistic and profit based, and Earth Two, due to its environment, must work together as a whole and as a community. Every person is needed to survive. They don’t look at the planet to serve them, they look at each other to try to survive. Both Earth’s way of surviving has their dark sides if taken to the extreme.
Simons: I am curious about this concept of ‘Use’ that is part of life in this other world. Can you elaborate further on it?
Castellucci: I guess the best way to answer the idea of use was that I wanted their world to not only be different in the way that they evolved due to their physical attributes, but also to have a different economy than we do, one that would seem utopian and fair at first, but had just as much potential to be messed up and cause world problems. It is something that stems from their necessity to depend on each other to survive the elements, and the idea that the way they think of family is completely different than the way that we organize familial units on our planet, but is something that could go horribly wrong and cause a lot of disparity in the world, just as our systems go wrong and can be exploited, but in a wildly different way. So rather than currency, they look to usefulness and community as currency.
I hope this makes sense! Something that was recognizable but different.
Simons: We live in turbulent and scary times – an ongoing climate crisis and a global pandemic – and Shifting Earth definitely draws from that. When did you start formally working on the story beyond the initial idea stage? What news was most prominent in your mind at the time of writing?
Castellucci: Two weeks before lockdown, Karen Berger and I had lunch in Los Angeles. We have always wanted to work together and were kind of trying to see if there were any ideas that might be a good fit. We were going to meet again at Emerald City to further talk about story ideas, but that didn’t happen, so we kept emailing.
While in lockdown, I was attending a lot of lunch time science lectures and doing a lot of gardening using seeds from my kitchen scraps as a way to get through the days. It made me think about the Svalbard Seed Bank and botanists who go around and try to find wild seeds to bring biodiversity to our plants. There were also a lot of fires and drought and all of those things put together got me thinking about how to be hopeful in trying times. Karen and I had continued to email and I mentioned how I was thinking about what would happen if you had the chance to save the world and, if you could see it from a different angle, how would you choose which world to save. We kept developing it, a thankful lockdown distraction and then suddenly we were ready to go.
Simons: How much research was involved in developing the book?
Castellucci: Of course, my book is fiction, so there is some hand waving with the science, but as the daughter of scientists and a science nerd myself, I love talking to scientists and reading up on science news. So I did speak to an astrophysicist and a botanist to try to round out some of edges of the idea that I had to try to see how I could make it springboard from a plausible place.
I became fascinated with this event that happened in 1859 called The Carrington Event, where an enormous solar flare, that was observed from Earth, wreaked havoc on the technology of the day. As we know, solar flares if they happened while pointed at Earth could cause major problems in our tech heavy world. Imagining that an event like that happened in a near future Earth, I used that as my entry to open a door to a parallel world.
I also researched what Earth would be like if we had two moons, and how that would affect tides, weather, and land mass on Earth. From there I started spinning out the story and building the world.
When I talked to a botanist, I had a lot of questions about how maybe plants would evolve a different kind of resilience on a world like that, and how those traits would be of use to make the plants on our world more robust to survive the extreme effects of climate change. We very much need to be thinking about more than just technology in the coming years, but also of how we care for the planet, vis-à-vis seeds and agriculture and other good green practices. It certainly has me looking at my garden and dealing with my waste differently.
Simons: How did you find Flavia Biondi, your artistic partner for the story? Did the plot of the story change much over the course of your partnership? Had you worked together before?
Castellucci: Shout out to Flavia Biondi and her beautiful art on this book. She came to the book through Karen Berger who had worked with her on the book Ruby Falls. We had never worked together, but it was a delight, especially as the world building is so hard and Flavia was so game to look at all of the endless Pinterest’s of green architectures and cool new ideas for a sustainable future that I made.
As for the story, it basically stayed the same from the start and the end but as always when writing a comic, things change and how you get there morphs. Flavia really brings a lot of great drama to the characters and whenever I saw her pencils, it made it all really come together as an intimate story within an epic sweeping story.
Simons: You have worked with theatre, prose, music, and comics – what made this story a better fit for this medium? Is there a set of requirements that help you know what medium a story is appropriate for?
Castellucci: When I get an idea for a book, I often ask it what kind of a story it wants to be and then move forward from there. It really springs forth from how I think the story would be best told, and as I’ve been growing as a writer, I’ve been expanding the way that I tell stories so I just follow that thread.
For Shifting Earth, it seemed like it being visual and really seeing the differences between the worlds would be essential. I want to give a shout out to Fabiana Mascolo here for her real care with the colours. When you’re dealing with two parallel worlds that have different environments, having the colours really show that difference is key.
Comics has this way of getting a lot of information across in a few panels that helps with the world building so that the reader has a short hand for what’s going on. This book was always best as a comic book and like every comic book writer, I only wish I had more pages so that we could have had more big two page spreads of the world and their sustainable practices.
Simons: The plot of Shifting Earth revolves around a set of geographically separate characters and their different viewpoints to build out a larger narrative – what made you choose this approach over having the story simply fixed on Maeve, who we are introduced to at the start of the book? How much of the story would change if it were focused on one character?
Castellucci: I really wanted there to be a parallel between these two formidable women scientists from different worlds who were trying to advance their worlds to be better. Since there were two planets, it seemed natural to have both Maeve and Dr. Zuzi Reed be sort of co-main characters. They are similar in a lot of ways in that they both have a lot to fight against and are struggling to be heard. They are both dreamers who are thinking of the long view and coming up against short sightedness from their governments. They each think it might be better elsewhere.
By the end of the book, they both must take up the mantle of really putting into motion what they believe in, and do what they said they would do, and push their ideas all the way. Their convictions and passion for their worlds and their science make them take actions in a way that they do that is beyond what they both thought they would be ready to do.
I think that if you only had one side of the story, then it would kind of be giving one Earth more weight or importance than the other. And that’s just not the case, and both planets and both characters are worthy of being the star of the story. So, while it may feel at first like its Maeve’s story, it’s only that it was natural to start there because she comes from our world, but it’s truly both of their stories. Also, when you get to the end, you can kind of see the reason why it makes more sense to pretty much stay on one planet.
Simons: How did you get involved with Berger Books? Had you worked with Karen Berger previously? What was the experience like?
Castellucci: I’ve known Karen since I first started writing comics with the book The Plain Janes (in collaboration with Jim Rugg) which was on the Minx Line at DC Comics which was the Vertigo Imprint.
While we’d not worked together before, she kind of took me under her wing when I first started in comics, and I learned so much from just sitting and talking with her for all those years that we’ve known each other.
It has long been a dream to work with her. We’d gotten together over the years trying to make something happen, and happily it finally did. She’s such an amazing editor, I learned even more about writing comics by working with her. A true legend.
Simons: The story’s four parts have a certain quality that seems to benefit from breaks between to digest – with time jumps and the overall plot spanning about a year – was this planned to be a monthly book or was the story written to give a strong sense of direction for each chapter?
Castellucci: It was always the plan to have it come out as one book, but I felt that since I had a certain page count, that it made more sense to divide it into chapters, or to have breaks, to help have some time jumps and move the story along more easily. I also had the idea for the little prose parts in there to kind of give you a sense of emotions at the heart of the story and that really lends itself to having breaks.
Simons: Who is your ideal audience for the book and what do you hope they take away from it?
Castellucci: I think the book is for anyone who is looking for stories on how to dream up hopeful futures and then take positive action. Diminish your food waste! Plant a butterfly and bee garden! Compost! Do all the little things that you can to help make a better world for us now and for a thousand years from now. I really believe that if we think about these things and talk about them in our stories, we can start to move into action. For me it’s a book about hope and what actions of hope might look like.
Simons: Would you revisit the story of Shifting Earth? What are your forthcoming creative plans?
Castellucci: I am always game to revisit a story if I feel that there is more to be told in that narrative world. Right now, Shifting Earth feels like I’ve left it at a good place and that story is told. But you never know! There is certainly room for expanding on it down the line.
I am currently working on a new opera with composer Andre Ristic and am writing an aria with composer Rose Hall that involves my love of outer space. Book-wise, I have a YA graphic novel I’m writing called My First Monster with artist Shazleen Khan coming out [from] Little Brown sometime down the line and I’m also writing a YA graphic novel based in the Miss Fisher Modern Mysteries world. Out very soon are my Critical Role Mighty Nein origin story about Yasha Nydoorin and a couple of issues in the Star Wars: Hyperspace series, both of those books are out on Dark Horse this fall.
Shifting Earth will be available from all good comic book stores from August 10 and bookstores from August 16.