Can Science Fiction Wake Us Up to Our Climate Reality?
January 25, 2022 5:50 AM   Subscribe

"...I had to remember to breathe, and to blink. Hours passed. I stopped to finish my water and looked ahead to see our destination, a lake glittering in the far distance. Almost all Robinson’s novels involve an experience of this kind—a long, difficult, rocky journey through a mountain landscape, on Earth or elsewhere, accomplished through sustained concentration that lifts one out of time. The main thing is to start, then to keep going, finding your way one step at a time. It never occurs to you to stop. Even if the path isn’t set, the job before you is clear: you have to get down the mountain before dark."

The Best Case Scenario
posted by y2karl (39 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 




I'm just gonna offer some wild conjecture that most New Yorker readers are well aware of the climate crisis, and may have already decided whether speculative fiction will convince them to act.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:33 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]


This is the same New Yorker that happily promoted the planet- and pedestrian-killing Jeep Wagoneer for their festival. Looks like Betteridge's Law of Headlines is in full effect.
posted by threementholsandafuneral at 7:36 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]


No… Yes… Maybe… Who knows?
posted by Omon Ra at 8:20 AM on January 25


I'm not subscribed to the New Yorker, so I had just read the title of the article asking me whether books can fix our climate emergency when I got a pop-up that said:

"You've run out."

Gotta say, it really felt like the subtext was "You've all run out of time," rather than out of free articles. Not feeling super optimistic TBH.
posted by wakannai at 8:47 AM on January 25 [6 favorites]


Ministry for the Future, while probably an important book, to me is not one of KSR's best efforts - the last novel he wrote that I truly enjoyed and would reread again was Aurora. I find his characters sometimes too flat and sometimes have a hard time remembering which one is which, as they all seem to act and speak the same way.

That said, I appreciated that this novel revolved around what efforts to fight climate change would actually look like, instead of relying on magical changes to human nature or society to "solve" these issues - I am increasingly losing patience that what we really need is another conference or accord or viral speech. Of course for any federal law enforcement members reading this, I would never advocate illegal actions, but, just saying...

I also read the new Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock, which covers some of the same ground, but if Ministry is subpar KSR, then Termination Shock is bottom of the barrel Stephenson. To be fair, he really did lose me when he had a thinly disguised Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk try to save humanity in Seveneves. I just haven't been able to accept his characters psychologically since then.
posted by fortitude25 at 9:01 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]


If it was going to do that, it would have happened long ago. I watched a bunch of Twilight Zone reruns when they had a marathon on, and it was both depressing and amazing how current many of them seemed. So, we were warned, we ignored, those in power continue to ignore. Also not feeling super-optimistic, to say the least.
posted by mermayd at 9:12 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


Fiction can catch people's attention and move the course of human events, but it's got nothing to do with how good that fiction is. Uncle Tom's Cabin did it, and we ... do not read that any more. The Jungle did it, although it did nothing for the plight of the workers and everything for food safety, about which the author did not care so much. Jaws made a huge impact on human relationships with sharks and the ocean in general, although nobody concerned wanted to do anything but make money and fill some seats.

It's a combination of luck, zeitgeist, mass media availability, and big, easily grasped images that link immediately to ideas. I don't think Robinson has this going for him, although I have really enjoyed some of his stuff. People seem to be connecting to Don't Look Up in this way, although I don't know how much difference that will make, if at all.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:31 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


I appreciated that this novel revolved around what efforts to fight climate change would actually look like, instead of relying on magical changes to human nature or society to "solve" these issues

But that's exactly what Ministry for the Future is: an international organization established under the Paris Agreement (which was already meeting significant enforcement challenges at the time of the book's writing!) that has actual real-world universal enforcement power, enjoys actual global recognition and cooperation, and has the ability to do things like corral the world's central banks into agreeing to a new carbon-friendly global financial framework?

It might as well have been about unicorns descending from space and fixing all of our problems. I'm continually astounded that this masturbatory dreck is taken seriously by anyone.
posted by star gentle uterus at 9:34 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


I'm not subscribed to the New Yorker, so I had just read the title of the article asking me whether books can fix our climate emergency when I got a pop-up that said:

"You've run out."


Hey, wakannai, my apologies. I got that, too but refreshed and just bulldogged through. I don't recall subscribing but maybe I did and forgot it.

At any rate, here's the archive link. My apologies for not including it.
posted by y2karl at 9:43 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


The people with the money control the people with the guns so our future is pretty clear, unless a protracted general strike makes the money go away.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:47 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]


From the article:
And yet, because the stakes are so high, our skepticism threatens to become nihilism—an acceptance of the inevitability of civilizational disaster. Ultimately, this nihilism is a kind of sin against the future—a “betrayal,” as Greta Thunberg puts it—and so reading “The Ministry for the Future” is a charged experience. It’s normal, when taking in a science-fiction story, to wonder whether the future it depicts is plausible. It’s unusual for the future we wonder about to be our own...
Not to mention Gramsci's “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." To which we can add the nihilism of the all too well informed, I guess. Well been there, done and still doing that but still, on the other hand, grasping at straws all the same am I. Got to get through the day...
posted by y2karl at 10:05 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


I enjoyed Ministry for the Future. But at the book's beginning, the horrible deaths and suffering during the mega-heat wave are the turning point for getting people to do something... and of all the things that require suspension of disbelief, that one goes on the list now too.

Here we are in year three of a global pandemic, with 5.6 million dead and people in power still equating mask mandates with tyranny and vaccination with genocide, and forcing schools to not protect students and teachers.

My prediction: Manhattan could be under three feet of water and there would still be politicians saying it's our God-given right to burn as much fossil fuel as possible. We are heading for the Mad Max future, not the Star Trek future.
posted by Foosnark at 10:08 AM on January 25 [12 favorites]


We are heading for the Mad Max future, not the Star Trek future.

As always, here to remind people that the Star Trek future grew out of the ash and rubble of a third, nuclear, world war that nearly destroyed all of humanity.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:13 AM on January 25 [11 favorites]


But that was only because literal aliens came to Earth to save us after being attracted by humanity's first successful warp drive test. I guess we could try gambling on that.
posted by star gentle uterus at 10:19 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]


I'm just sayin, when people say they wish we were headed for a Star Trek future, they should know exactly for what they're wishing.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:27 AM on January 25 [9 favorites]


My prediction: Manhattan could be under three feet of water and there would still be politicians saying it's our God-given right to burn as much fossil fuel as possible.

Ah, the A.I. Artificial Intelligence future...
posted by y2karl at 10:31 AM on January 25


Empty half the Earth of its humans. It's the only way to save the planet.

So, the Blade Runner future it is, then...
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:40 AM on January 25


Which was when, exactly? Oh, yeah, three years ago.

Of course, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- the Earth was depopulated after World War III, between China and the USA, if I recall correctly -- Funny how that has yet to work out.

I still long for a movie to be made from that book, to be honest.

Just not as a documentary, to be sure
posted by y2karl at 11:52 AM on January 25


I thought the point of Ministry for the Future was that the organization couldn't actually get anything done without its unacknowledged terrorist arm taking out all the billionaires who didn't immediately stop polluting. Did I misread it?
posted by joannemerriam at 11:52 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


Empty half the Earth of its humans. It's the only way to save the planet.

Covid's working on that, I'm sure.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:15 PM on January 25


Like a wet firecracker.
posted by y2karl at 12:22 PM on January 25


wasn't there a story about turning an ocean planet into a desert.

and there would still be politicians saying it's our God-given right to burn as much fossil fuel as possible.

Damnation Alley VS. Snowpiercer!
posted by clavdivs at 12:24 PM on January 25


fanfare for The Ministry for the Future
posted by chavenet at 1:25 PM on January 25


joannemerriam: "I thought the point of Ministry for the Future was that the organization couldn't actually get anything done without its unacknowledged terrorist arm taking out all the billionaires who didn't immediately stop polluting. Did I misread it?"

Nope.
posted by chavenet at 1:29 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


At the risk of stating the obvious, emptying half the Earth of its humans isn't the same as emptying the Earth of half its humans.
posted by Slothrup at 1:43 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


Empty half the Earth of its humans. It's the only way to save the planet.

So, the Blade Runner future it is, then.


Surely that fraction makes it the Thanos future?
posted by biffa at 2:19 PM on January 25


If we're picking futures, I'd like the Culture one, please. AKA: Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism.
posted by signal at 2:23 PM on January 25 [8 favorites]


With anti-gravity lawn chairs no doubt.
posted by y2karl at 3:42 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Get your chairs off my anti-gravity lawn!
posted by mubba at 4:54 PM on January 25 [3 favorites]


I dunno, I don't think a Mad Max future would be so bad. As far as we know, it only affected Australia. I don't live there, and only even met, like, two people from there.

There wasn't even a nuclear war, it was just a fuel crisis. The rest of the world got over that in the '80s. People are like, "Long lines at gas stations sucked, but only lasted for a year. Australians went right to gangs in war paint and Thunderdomes. What is with those people?"
posted by riruro at 4:58 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Covid has taken away any hope I had that we could solve this problem.
posted by interogative mood at 9:43 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


As far as we know, it only affected Australia.
Though the nature of the apocalypse or at least the aspects that are focused on change to resonate with contemporary audiences (helped by Mad Max being a series that doesn't bother itself too much with continuity), I don't think you can say "there wasn't even a nuclear war". (Unless you mean just the first film, then I might agree. I've seen it argued that viewers from elsewhere misinterpreted rural Australia as being mid-collapse/apocalypse).

However, "for reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war, and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all" in the opening narration to Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) is clearly meant to imply that the Cold War went hot (leaving aside the reliability of the Feral Kid as a narrator).

In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Aunty's line "Except on the day after, I was still alive." also could be taken to imply a nuclear exchange (and this is the entry released in 1985, just a year after Threads and two after The Day After among many others). I don't think any other collapse would be as clearly delineated by who did or didn't live through a certain day.

Though the focus is placed largely on water, the audio clips and the footage used in the intro to Mad Max Fury Road imply that the oil and water wars were nuclear. The two-headed lizard that Max eats, the use of the term "half-life", and Nux's tumors all back this up, I think.
posted by Strutter Cane - United Planets Stilt Patrol at 11:19 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


A nice epigraph for our time:

“Now, this descent,” Robinson said, while we drank water. “It’s the most technical, meticulous part of our trip. There’s nothing you won’t be able to do. But you’ll have to go slowly, and be careful.”
posted by doctornemo at 8:27 AM on January 26


An article about Robinson that's based on hiking is probably the most KSR-appropriate article.
posted by doctornemo at 8:28 AM on January 26


we don't have to look to speculative sci fi to find out how humans adapt to a nightmare climate and apocalyptic inequality and depravation. just look to, i dunno, europe in the dark ages. not to mention, say, anywhere humans lived on earth in the winter of 6000 b.c.e. or thereabouts. That time was tens of thousands of years after modern humans had evolved, so we're talking about people who were humans just like us, but who lived longer ago than the entire time our civilization has existed. so i'm confident whoever is around in 500 years will figure something out. and i'm equally confident that it will probably be terrible.
posted by wibari at 10:26 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


As always, here to remind people that the Star Trek future grew out of the ash and rubble of a third, nuclear, world war that nearly destroyed all of humanity.

Yet, as the evidence within Startrek Enterprise amply demonstrates, said nuclear third world war never mentioned, and too, somehow San Francisco survived intact. Plus an ancestor of T'pol was on Earth in the 20th Century, which implies the Vulcans later just sat around with their thumbs in their butts while humanity blew themselves to hell. Some saviors them then. It makes you wonder who was in charge of continuity at the very least.
posted by y2karl at 11:03 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Well, thanks to my phone's tracking everywhere I go, I see how wrong I am. *sigh*
posted by y2karl at 7:22 AM on January 27


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