Interview: J.K. Ullrich Author of Blue Karma

Finalist of the 2015 Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Independently Published Book

In a future where water is Earth’s most coveted resource, three young lives collide in a tempest of choices and consequences: Amaya, an environmental refugee who survives by poaching Arctic ice; Logan, an AWOL polar soldier who discovers a mysterious lake in his drought-stricken hometown; and Paul, the heir to a powerful hydrology corporation. Against the forces of climate and conspiracy, they fight to save what matters most. —JKU

Shelf Unbound: Blue Karma is a “cli-fi” novel in which water is in very short supply. What interested you in writing about the climate?

J.K. Ullrich: I’ve always felt strongly about environmental issues, but I started writing cli-fi by accident. As a teenager in the early 2000s, news of the terrible Australian droughts made me wonder how people lived in a place where water was a rare commodity. Then I got a glimpse for myself: A hurricane temporarily cut off the running water in my neighborhood. For the first time in my life, nothing happened when I turned on the tap. The experience transformed my perspective on water as a finite resource. Soon after that, I came up with the idea for Blue Karma. At the time I considered it science fiction, a near-future story with ecological themes. In the decade it took me to finally write the manuscript, climate change surged to the fore of public consciousness. Fiction became a form of activism for me. Books like Blue Karma give readers an opportunity to consider how the future might unfold, but I don’t write with a political agenda in mind. My goal is always to tell a good story, and climate scenarios provide fertile ground for conflict, drama, and adventure.

Shelf Unbound: Tell us about your main characters and how you developed them.

Ullrich: I didn’t strive to make Blue Karma’s protagonists likable so much as interesting. Their world is broken and flawed, so why should they be any different? Each of the three main characters occupies a position where the cli-fi landscape impacts their daily lives; however, I let their simple human motives drive the plot. Amaya steals water to provide for herself and her sister, the only family she has left after a freak weather event destroyed her country. Logan’s deployment to guard water reserves seems wasted when he discovers his hometown on the verge of desertification. Paul, whose water company controls the fate of millions, feels torn between winning his mother’s approval and acting ethically. I like working with adolescent characters because they have tremendous capacity for both drama and development. Many of their experiences—from their first kiss to their first betrayal—are firsts, so reactions are more extreme. They can be impulsive and sometimes make poor decisions. But the consequences help them grow as the story’s crucible forges their true adult natures.

Blue Karma’s protagonists are all products of their relationships with water. Logan and Amaya mirror one another: Lack of water defined his youth, while too much water destroyed hers. They survive at opposite ends of the hydrological spectrum. Together they’re volatile, shifting between allegiance and antipathy. But both are stubborn and would sacrifice nearly anything for their families. Paul brings a very different perspective, grasping the scope of the water crisis and its dire implications. While the other two must focus on their immediate survival, his privileged position allows him the luxury of morality. This made him a much more dynamic character than I expected. I thought Amaya would end up my favorite character for several reasons: I adore tough, smart heroines, especially in sci-fi, and I drew inspiration for her relationship with Sayuri from experiences with my own sister. But Paul turned out to be the most interesting to write. He’s caught between two identities: the executive who supports his company even in ethically ambiguous territory, and the uncertain young man struggling to define his values. The winner of that battle ultimately decides the fate of all three characters. 

Shelf Unbound: What appeals to you about writing science fiction?

Ullrich: Science fiction offers me unique intellectual challenges. It asks me to look at the world as it exists now and extrapolate what it might become, building a new reality upon plausible foundations. No other genre invites such informed creativity. In The Language of The Night, a marvelous collection of essays on science fiction craft, Ursula LeGuin writes, “at this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence.” With our knowledge and technology evolving almost daily, today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact. How can we explore such rapidly expanding frontiers, save with imagination? Part thought experiment and part social examination, science fiction reflects our fears about the future but also lets us find hope within it.

Shelf Unbound: You’ve traveled all over the world; would you travel to outer space if you had the opportunity?

Ullrich: Yes, with a caveat. If space tourism becomes a reality, I’d jump at the chance to ride a “space elevator” to geosynchronous orbit. A jaunt to the moon, or even a few months aboard the International Space Station, would be a breathtaking experience. I wouldn’t turn it down. But if the opportunity demanded an extended trip—a multi-year mission to Mars, for example, or decades in stasis to reach a distant star—I don’t think I’d be brave enough to leave my family behind. Time dilation is the toughest science fiction meme for me to read: The thought of returning from a space journey to find all my loved ones gone tears my heart. But if I could bring them along, then pass me a spacesuit. My husband and I are hunting for our first house; what’s the real estate market like on Kepler-452b?

Shelf Unbound: Your next novel, Book 1 of the Darksider Trilogy, comes out next year. What’s it about? 

Ullrich: The Darksider Trilogy embraces more classic science fiction tropes than Blue Karma, although environmental undertones remain strong. After an ecological disaster reduces the human race to a few hundred lunar colonists, teenaged “divers” scavenge Earth’s ruined biomes for species to use in terraforming. Book One introduces Ash, the most successful diver of his generation. When Skye—a captive girl from the secessionist “Darksider” group inhabiting moon’s far hemisphere—offers the location of a lost gene bank on Earth, Ash can’t ignore the opportunity to advance his colony’s project. But nor can he trust Skye, who is pursuing a secret agenda of her own. Their mission to Earth quickly turns disastrous. Forced to work together, Ash and Skye make a discovery that raises questions about the past and frightening possibilities for the future.

Book One is a twist on the “first contact” narrative: Instead of exploring an alien planet, humans rediscover their own and find it very different than they expected. The sequel deals with the consequences of this revelation, and the conclusion finds the characters fighting for the fate of their species. So far it’s a lot of fun. 

Read an Excerpt:

Featured in Dec/Jan 2016 Issue: 2015 Indie Best Award Winners

They drove in wordless discomfort, listening to the truck rattle. Miles of baked, cracking asphalt spread out in front of them like a dark scar across the land. Mel fiddled with the satellite radio until she found a popular tune. The empty lyrics and catchy beat melted into the next song, one after another until they saw the ridged white line of the Vein etched against the sky like a giant serpent’s spine. 

The massive pipeline ran to the horizon in front of them and vanished in the eroding hills behind, carrying processed ice water from the Arctic into America’s farmland. The discontent seething in Logan’s brain all day suddenly coalesced into a plan. He jerked the wheel and swerved off the road.

“What are you doing?” Mel yelped as the movement threw her into her brother’s lap.

“Getting some water.”

She stared from the pipeline to Logan and back again. “What about the patrols?”

“They can’t guard the whole four thousand miles.”

Reckless determination bubbled in Logan’s blood. Plumes of dust spewed behind the tires. In a few minutes, the Vein was almost over their heads.

“Damn,” Mel breathed. She stretched across Logan to stare out the window at the massive structure. “I can’t believe they originally built this for oil.”


They parked and piled out in the pipeline’s shadow….

…Climbing the service ladder, Logan knocked on the bottom of the pipe. The vast metal shell absorbed the sound. He imagined thousands of liters of fresh water churning over his head every second.

“Get the toolbox,” he ordered.

From Blue Karma by J.K. Ullrich. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

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