In Cold People (Scribner, Feb.), Smith imagines a future in which significant gene manipulation may be the only way for humanity to survive.

Cold People is very different from your earlier novels. Why the departure?

One of the amazing things about fiction, and science fiction in particular, is that you can take an idea that’s very controversial, very naughty, very provocative, in the present, if you look at it in the context of real world politics, and make it, not an aggressive piece of positioning, but just a way of thinking about, “Oh, what if this happened to all of us?” What if you took it out of some of the specifics of the day, and thought about things without having to align yourself with a politician or a position?

What real-world issues drive the plot?

One is adaptation for the future. Because of the climate situation, we’re going to have to do some pretty radical things. Part of that can be daunting, but part of it is very inspiring. Human ingenuity is kind of amazing. So I’m interested in exploring that from an optimistic point of view, as well as from being worried about it, too. I also thought about the migration story. The 2022 UN Climate Change Conference predicted that a huge percentage of the world’s population will have to start migrating from places impacted by climate change.

How did the idea of migration influence your story line?

I was just thinking about what it means to think that this is your home, and then suddenly, a week later, you’re somewhere completely different and thinking I have to rebuild my life. With Ukraine, there were people who were in Kyiv, and then suddenly they’re finding themselves being looked after in the U.K. or in Germany, and it’s so radically different so quickly. I find that story really interesting.

Why did you have your refugees, not driven by climate change, resettle in Antarctica?

Obviously it’s an incredible landscape and an incredible environment, but the psychological impact it has on people is really interesting—who can survive down there and what does it take to survive? Often in science fiction you’re exploring ideas that are beyond our reach right now. We could genetically engineer people right now, we’ve just decided ethically not to do it. But I thought, well, within the book’s reality, some of the red lines that we’ve drawn would disappear. Then what naturally arose from the question of what it takes to survive is what it is to be human, what makes us human?