In between writing and teaching, Chris Vick works for a whale and dolphin conservation charity which has helped inspire The Last Whale, his latest novel. Chris is a member of Authors4Oceans. He is a graduate of the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People and his novel Girl. Boy. Sea. (Zephyr) was shortlisted for the 2020 CILIP Carnegie Medal. He lives near Bath with his wife and daughter.
The Last Whale (Zephyr)
Chris Vick's The Last Whale (Zephyr) is a powerful exploration of our oceans and what links us to them; a story about one family's move from hunting whales to campaigning for them; and a warning of how bad things could get if we fail these ocean creatures.
In his video and Q&A, Chris tells us what inspired him to write The Last Whale, as well as exploring the main themes in the novel and why he feels AI technology could help us to save the planet.
Read a chapter from The Last Whale
Q&A with Chris Vick
1. Can you tell us about your life as a writer and how you got started?
I can't remember not being a writer. It's the thing I loved most when I was young, and I really wanted to 'be' a writer when I 'grew up'. But I put that dream in a box and stored it away and neglected it for a very long time.
Then I read an interview with J K Rowling, who is older than me, but - at that point - had already penned two HP books, so I had a kind of 'chat' with myself.
'Good for her… Actually I've always wanted to do that.'
'So why don't you?'
'I will one day.'
'Which day, as in: When… Precisely?'
'Oh… I see.'
So I started. And I didn't get anywhere for ages (years) but I loved doing it, so I just kept on. And on. I'm lucky because I still love it. Not a given.
2. The ocean features in several of your books, what draws you to that in your writing? Has it featured heavily in your own life?
My grandfather was a boat builder, my uncle a whaler, for a time. We have family connection to Cornwall, where I surf. I worked for years (and still do a bit) in whale conservation. So yes, it inevitably seeps into my writing. Why? What is the 'draw'? That's a good question. The ocean is endlessly mysterious to me; an alien element and seascape. And to me, nothing can compete with the beauty of it and the creatures who live there.
3. What is your new book, The Last Whale, about?
Climate activist, Abi, and her computer, Moonlight, are on a mission to protect the planet.
When they uncover whale song recording made by Abi's great-grandfather, a whale hunter, Moonlight discovers a pattern. The songs are a map, to a future that could rescue the whales and save the world.
4. The Last Whale is a love song to our oceans and particularly, the whales that live in it. What inspired you to write it?
I am lucky enough to have seen whales up close, often in boats much smaller than the whales we were studying. They are terrifying, beautiful and mysterious and when you see nature like that, it can be very raw and make you shake and even tearful. Impossible to capture that in words really, but it's fun to have a go.
Then there is a generation of inspired and inspiring eco activists, Greta and like-minded campaigners, who are creating change.
All of these, and the nature and places of Norway, where much of the story takes place, were inspirations and a real joy to write about.
5. The story explores climate change, and what the loss of our whales could mean for Earth. How much of this is based on fact, and how much research did you need to do to write the book - both into the future and our past history of whale hunting?
It's based on a lot of fact. There is emerging science, indicating how important whales are in the ocean ecosystem and particularly the fertilisation of phytoplankton, which absorbs huge amounts of carbon (as much as 35-40% of the carbon we emit).
No whales = less plankton = less carbon absorption. So we really, really need whales, and they are threatened by fishing nets, noise, pollution, ship strikes and more.
I already had a good grounding in the science. And I already knew a fair bit about whaling, but of course I had to read and google and study. I was careful too, not to demonise the whalers of the past, but to look at the complexities and nuance of human choices and behaviour.
6. Have any climate activists helped inspire Abi, your main character, who is trying to get people to listen to her message about whales?
Well, Greta, of course, but also the whole school strike and younger XR generation, who simply refuse to let their future, and their children's future, be stolen from them. There's Dara McAnulty too, and a generation of young surfers who are thinking about food, transport, materials and more. In schools, I meet many young people who love and care for the natural world. How can I not be inspired by their passion and commitment?
7. The Last Whale also explores how AI might be able to help with some of the causes of climate change. Why did you want to bring AI into the story?
I believe the two biggest changes to our lives will be climate change and AI. They will both affect pretty much everything. With global warming we have some idea of how it may play out, for better or worse (the former if we act). With AI we have no idea.
There's a rule called Moore's law, which states computer speed and power doubles every two years. With quantum, that could shorten considerably. The rule alone dictates phenomenal increases; with AI it's unimaginable. To illustrate: Go to Excel, put 1 in the first cell and a formula to double in each row, so 1 becomes 2 becomes 4, 8,16, 32 and so on. What number do you reach at 100 times the doubling?
Think about the difference computers have made since Turing. What will happen when computers are making that kind of evolution every minute or every day? The human brain is the most sophisticated object in the universe. One day computers may well be able to replicate it, and if they do - will they become conscious? Will they be 'better' than us at valuing the systems that support all life?
The AI in The Last Whale is really about exploring what it means to be conscious, with responsibility and behaviours and actions with consequences; a computer with eco appreciation baked into it, but also one which develops human characteristics, especially curiosity.
There's so much dystopian fiction with computers and robots going rogue, so I've gone the other way. That was partly, too, about balancing danger and despair with real hope.
8. Do you see authors as campaigners? Is it important to you personally that your writing helps raise awareness of the issues dealt with in the book?
This may surprise you, but I actually don't see writers as campaigners. Perhaps paradoxically, I think we have a duty of sorts to write about environment and social justice issues and, of course, these make for really interesting topics to write about and it's great to help raise awareness. But… (deep breath), character and story come first. Not sometimes. Always. Themes are the background. We explore them through the lens of the characters.
In real life I am very much a campaigner, but as a writer I am not offering solutions. As I say, it's great to see 'issues' explored in fiction, but the second I feel a writer is telling me what to think, or offering easy answers to complex questions, I stop engaging. For me, it's about laying out themes and concerns and potential approaches. Hopefully - that gets readers thinking and perhaps questioning. I hope The Last Whale raises a lot of questions rather than offering overly simplistic answers.
9. What are your own hopes and fears for what the next generation will face?
Awareness has increased, but the old guard and interests are powerful. We seem incapable of balancing need with short term thinking. But humans are resourceful, and new tech combined with the determination of the Daras and Gretas could be powerful. Plus, solutions exist. Some, yes, are technical, but some are very simple: change your energy supplier, fly less, eat a lot less meat and fish, stop relentlessly buying 'stuff'. Things will get worse before they get better, but I am essentially an optimist.
10. What are you writing currently? When and where do you prefer to write?
I usually play about with a few things before committing to one. Now, for the first time, I am deep into two works in progress and can't let go of either. I have a feeling I will write them both, but whether simultaneously or in what order, I don't yet know. Watch this space - I'm underway!
As to when: I write first thing, often early. My mantra is: Wake, coffee, read, write. 'Where' changes all the time.
11. What do you enjoy doing when you're not at your desk?
Surfing. I am not very good, but I am very obsessed. I love cooking, and - of course - reading. I like to be active, but as I get older I like to simply sit on the shore with a coffee and notebook and pen and mentally 'wonder and wander'. I read a lot of non-fiction too. And - a twist on Socrates' famous quote - the more I read, the more I know I don't know.