Climate Change and Science Fiction

March 1, 2012 at 2:12 am | Posted in Essays, Science Fiction | 3 Comments

On the Strange Horizons blog Niall Harrison surveyed books of genre criticism and found their treatment of climate change lacking. Mark Charon Newton responded with the following thesis:

I wondered if there was little criticism because there simply isn’t much Science Fiction being written about the real effects of climate change in the first place? That there isn’t much to really interest Science Fiction writers?

He goes on to argue that climate change is too slow, too incremental…too boring for science fiction. In his response, Niall argued this sells science fiction short, and I agree with him (as did Mark, in the comments). But I do think Mark was right that science fiction writers don’t seem all that interested in climate change, and I think the limited ambition of Niall’s response to this specific point (well, Night Shade has published three climate change books recently) illustrates the issue. Obviously there are science fiction novels that involve climate change, but we need only compare with other tropes to see how muted the genre is on the subject. Zombies, anyone? Yes, most zombie fiction is probably best considered fantasy, but there are plenty of science fictional approaches to zombie fiction at the moment. How about spaceships? Pretty common, yes? And yet for decades it has been obvious that manned space travel of the sort envisioned in the heady early days of the space program quite distant from the present, and science has very little to say about zombies no matter how much authors might wave their hands about viruses or genetic engineering. In comparison, climate change is not just an important area of cutting edge science with large implications for the near future, it’s constantly in the newspapers and on television as people debate the extent of it and what ought to be done.

As always in these genre discussions, there’s a frustrating lack of empirical data to work with, so whether or not you find the above paragraph persuasive, concede for the moment that climate change is underrepresented. Why might that be? Is it just because the process is too slow and subtle? That doesn’t help, I suppose, but I’m willing to go a lot farther and assert that concern about climate change is philosophically alien to most science fiction authors and readers. Before I go into the reasons why, I will disclaim that this is going to entail the sort of unprovable, sweeping generalizations that tend to piss people off, especially those who feel said generalizations leave them out. The SF community is diverse (at least in some dimensions) and I’m not saying there aren’t people who love SF and are enormously concerned about climate change. I’m saying a subset of the community would prefer to read and write about something else. How large and influential the cultural subset I’m describing is (and whether it exists at all) something you’ll have to decide for yourself when I’m finished.

Here’s the short version of my argument: Science fiction is the literature of change, but the modern environmental movement is fundamentally conservative.

I expect the second clause requires some explanation, as I’m using “conservative” differently than the political definition in America or Britain. When he founded the American conservative magazine National Review, William F Buckley’s lighthearted description of its mission was to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” I’m not enough of a historian to say whether that was a good description of his movement in 1955, but it certainly has little to do with today’s American political conservatism, which has fundamentally revolutionary impulses. It’s a fantastic description, however, of the modern environmental movement, and in particular its campaign against carbon emissions. I would summarize the core climate change activism argument as follows: “Human civilization is emitting more and more carbon dioxide and, if this goes on, the result will be calamity. We must take swift measures to reverse this trend, and though the lack of fully developed substitutive technologies means this reversal will cause significant economic pain, the alternatives are considerably worse.”

Even though science fiction ought to be home court for any “If this goes on…” setting, I think there are many reasons why many in the science fiction community, even if they accept the conclusions of climate science, would prefer not to dwell on this argument:

  • SF doesn’t have a strong naturalistic tradition. Yes, Dune is the most popular SF book ever, but vast numbers of SF books take place entirely within wholly artificial environments. Nature has, from the start, been something largely relegated to fantasy, where Lord of the Rings planted a strong ecological note deep within the genre’s subconscious. Unfortunately, fantasy is so conservative that it only rarely deals with the industrial revolution, much less climate change, but it does frequently put forward restoring balance to nature as an important goal, an idea that goes all the way back to the ancient polytheistic traditions. Science fiction, for its part, has from the start almost always rejected balance in favor of change.

  • Environmentalism tends to be pessimistic about technology. Technological change created the means for our vast increases in carbon emissions, the ubiquitous technology of our daily lives requires energy usage we can’t sustain without carbon emitting power, and for a variety of reasons (some good, some bad) most environmentalists are deeply hostile to geo-engineering approaches to halting global warming, insisting on emissions reductions as the only answer. Dune, for all the power of its ecological content, looks very favorably on geo-engineering, and to a lesser degree so do the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars books. On the other side, Iain M. Banks was channeling the conservative nature of the environmentalist movement when he posited that in his enlightened far future, terraforming will be forbidden as an ecological crime, but unlike other elements of the Culture setting this idea doesn’t seem to have proved influential.

  • Carbon emission arguments, whether by coincidence or some sort of psychological deep structure, strongly resemble religious arguments: “Certain things you like doing are, in fact, bad. If you continue in your wicked ways, nothing obviously bad will happen to you immediately. Maybe not even in your lifetime. But eventually the price must be paid. The details are complicated, but scholars far wiser than you have ascertained these truths. If I do not convince you, then you should read their writings, for not only does your sin imperil you, it endangers the entire community, and therefore we must urge you to help us spread these important truths to others. If people will not voluntarily comply, they must be compelled for their own good.” It has often been observed that science fiction has, at best, a distant relationship with religion, and while this is sometimes overstated it has been and remains true that most science fiction will at best avoid it. While the personal right to religion is widely accepted, if a character in a modern SF novel strongly believes that society should reflect the sin/punishment axis they are almost certainly a villain, or indoctrinated by a dystopian society.

  • Climate science, at least in applied form, is the science of constraints. Science fiction is the literature of possibilities. Much as some might wish otherwise, SF is usually happy to ignore science when its constraints are getting in the way of a good story. The obvious analogue is relativity, a theory far older than climate change science and one universally believed among the SF community. Needless to say, relatively is depicted more frequently in the breach than the observance.

Those are all reasons why climate change might not resonate with some readers. Beyond those, there are also reasons particular to writers:

  • Climate change is perhaps the broadest collective action problem ever encountered and, as such, the responsibility for both the problem and any eventual solution is inevitably diffuse, spread across both enormous populations and time. This is just a refinement of Mark Charon Newton’s original point, but while Niall is right that SF can still depict the effect of climate change on individuals, but if we want novels that are “about” climate change instead of novels that incorporate a changed climate into the matte painting behind the characters, it would help if there was a way for a protagonist to defeat it. Or even affect it in any measurable way. By making climate change the central “enemy” of a novel, the author renders the protagonists helpless. It’s true that literary fiction has produced a long line of helpless main characters, but popular fiction has always preferred active protagonists who are able to at least try to change their circumstances. Science fiction is widely considered a populist genre no matter how vibrant its literary wing has become, and American science fiction in particular tends to be strongly individualist and distrusting of collective authority. Even leftist science fiction routinely sets up dystopian rightist governments for its protagonists to fight.

  • Climate science is changing far more rapidly than virtually any other branch of science (considering science, here, as distinct from technology). For rhetorical reasons, the popular literature of climate change emphasizes the science as “settled”, and indeed the idea that global warming is happening and it will be very, very bad if it continues is pretty settled. But bad in what way, for whom, when? These are enormously complicated questions to answer and scientists do not agree. Popularizers tend to wield worst-case scenarios, so the moment some scientist publishes a scenario worse than the one they’ve been trumpeting, they switch to the new one. This makes plausible extrapolation difficult. When I reviewed Rob Ziegler’s Seed for Strange Horizons, one problem I had with the book was I didn’t find its depicted climate plausible, to the point I at first assumed the author had intentionally invented an unrealistic climate. An interview he gave convinced me that, no, he believed it was quite plausible. Was he right and I wrong? I spent some time researching the question since I was reviewing the book, but ultimately I’m not a climate scientist. Unfortunately, in writing the appearance of implausibility is just as dangerous to writers as the real thing.

  • Finally and perhaps most importantly, fairly or not climate change remains controversial, particularly in the United States. On any controversial issue, writing with an activist stance alienates those on the other side. Readers are hard enough for most writers to find as it is. Ambitious writers have an enormous incentive to smooth over any edge even a relatively small minority of readers might consider rough.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable, as demonstrated by the success of The Windup Girl, but I think it’s going to be a while before we see climate change crowding out spaceships and dystopias in genre bestseller lists.

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