Friday, August 31, 2018

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (19)

Photograph by Shirley Baker, 1966.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018


When I was writing Austral, the idea in the next century or so parts of Antarctica might become warm enough to support forests and fjords was a deliberate heightening of climatic trends: setting the novel in a near future that otherwise hadn't drifted too far from the present meant that the narrative could keep the effects of climate change in the foreground. Three years later, things have changed. A group of scientists has suggested that even if we're able to keep the rise in average global temperature to less than 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, as per the Paris Accord, it may not be enough to prevent a catastrophic domino effect that could push the planet's climate system towards a Hothouse Earth. And throughout the summer of 2018, catastrophe and climate change have been inextricably linked in the news headlines, suggesting that some kind of tipping point may have been reached. That some kind of new normal has been established. Higher than average temperatures across global land and ocean surfaces, devastating wildfires in Canada, California and Europe, the breakup of old, multilayer ice in previously frozen waters in the Arctic, and much else, have helped to drive home the idea that global warming is real, with serious consequences in the here and now. It's even informing the fake news fantasies of far-right pill-peddling hucksters, who claim that weather-controlling weapons based in Antarctica are firing powerful energy beams that can split hurricanes in two. Somehow, Senator John Kerry and a buried alien city may be involved. I missed a trick or two, there.

Not for the first time, the present has overtaken the speculative scenarios of science fiction. Closed the weirdness gap between now and what might be. At the end of The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner's multistranded novel about environmental and societal collapse, the smoke from the bonfire of America civilisation drifts across the Atlantic to Ireland; this summer, smoke and other pollutants from extensive wildfires in Canada reached northwest Europe. It's hard, now, to imagine any kind of plausible near future that doesn't foreground the effects of climate change; it's increasingly difficult to distinguish headlines in the happening world from scenarios lifted from fictional dystopias and catastrophes.

But although climate change is reshaping the happening world and casting a long shadow across the future, its endpoint remains unclear, and there's still space for speculation about how we might survive it, and how it might change us. Kim Stanley Robinson's heterotopic New York 2140 and the hypercapitalism of Sam J. Miller's Blackfish City are interesting, and interesting different, explorations of how society might be reshaped by climate change. N.K. Jemisen's triple Hugo winning Broken Earth trilogy may be set on a far-future Earth where magic operates, but its magic system is at service to a kind of geoengineering, and its plot turns on the lengths to which people must go and the sacrifices they must make to save a world broken by catastrophe: hard lessons that have critical relevance to our present predicament. The future may not be what it once was, but creating human-shaped possibilities is still a good way of discovering what we think is important, here in the present. And of reminding ourselves that any new normal is only temporary; that there is no constant now, except for change.
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