The following is based on a discussion panel between Kim Stanley Robinson (K.S.R.) and others on the first day of AussieCon 4.
K.S.R. claimed at the start of the session: “Science fiction has always been about the fate of the planet.” Perhaps this is an overstatement, depending on what you consider to be science fiction and what you consider to be “about the fate of the planet”, but there have certainly been instances of planetary scale events effecting the Earth in fiction, written with a level of insight that could be called scientific, for at least hundreds of years. K.S.R. cited Lord Byron’s poem Darkness and Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (audiobook) as examples of science fiction raising possibilities for destruction at a planetary scale. The scale of destruction is obvious early on in Lord Byron’s Darkness. It begins as follows:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
However, the potential for planetary scale destruction in Frankenstein is more complicated. In Frankenstein, there is certainly potential for planetray scale destruction of a way of life following the development of technology to bring human remains back to life. There is also potential for destruction of humanity through conflict between synthetic and organic life, or through viruses or diseases transmitted from synthetic to organic species.
Two specific ways of using a story of destruction were discussed:
– Stories of destruction can be used as a warning.
– Stories of destruction can be used as a spectacle.
Of course stories of destruction can also be used in many other ways – for example, to provide a challenge for a character to overcome, to provide a situation which keeps lovers apart, to provide an ethical dilemma for a range of characters to attempt to deal with, and so on.
K.S.R. told of a two-month trip he took to Antarctica. On that trip he asked the Antarctic scientists if factors such as a diminished ozone layer over Antarctica might trigger rapid melting of Antarctic ice. He was told that that this could theoretically happen over a period as short as 1000 years. This is quick in terms of geology or planetary science, but not quite a timescale that would make for an exciting story.
K.S.R. went on to explain that in 2002 a scientist studying ice core samples suggested that there may be indications of a change from a “hot-wet” climate, like Earth at present, to a “cold-dry” climate. Quickly following this suggestion, a range of speculation about “abrupt climate change” took place. These ideas were much more amenable to exciting stories.
One hypothetical explanation for the core sample, which K.S.R. brought up, was the idea that the Atlantic Ocean gulf stream, a large-scale ocean current had slowed down, disrupting the movement of heat around the oceans on Earth, resulting in a rapid cooling of much of the northern hemisphere.
An extreme version of this abrupt climate change due to a slowed gulf stream (or Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) in the Atlantic was the topic of the movie The Day After Tomorrow. However, the slow down is just a hypothesis and NASA scientist Josh Willis, who tracked buoys in the Atlantic ocean between 1993 and 2009 to get an indication of Atlantic currents, concluded that the gulf stream had not slowed in that period but that measurements were consistent with an increase in the rate of flow during that period. Josh Willis had a paper on his research published in Geophysical Research Letters and this has been discussed in an article at spacedaily.com.
One pitfall of science fiction based on speculative theory is that the theory could be proven wrong, meaning your story would no longer be considered as a plausible possibility. Science fiction based on major future developments which then do not occur, or lacking major future developments which go on to occur, has the same issue. It may then be considered obsolete, quaint, no longer relevant, or an alternative history instead of science fiction relating to a version of a possible future. It may have been intended as a warning but becomes thought of as spectacle when the situation warned about is no longer considered plausible.
K.S.R. said he likes to look at the effects rather than the causes of the destruction in stories of this kind. He also said he prefers to provide practical and pragmatic portrayals of the effects of a situation – for example, if portraying a fictional situation in which use of resources is rationed out then also portraying the limitations on personal freedoms which go along with that.
Another panelist claimed that “American science fiction is to prepare us for the future” and that the future, or at least a version of the future that might happen unless it is averted, “is a nightmare from which we have to wake.” This too closely matches a standard, often repeated but much less often backed by claims of evidence, anti-‘American Dream’ rhetorical argument for my liking. He claimed that, since science fiction “did not capture” developments such as motor vehicles, miniaturisation and the internet, that science fiction had failed to perform its role for humanity. However, he did not explain why “the role of science fiction” was to predict future developments for humanity and why it had an obligation to predict everything in order to fulfil that role.
A strong case could be made for some kinds of science fiction that they can be used as a way of working through potential opportunities, problems and complications that might be faced in the future. This could help to inform if or how something might be done, and what the most preferrable way of doing or not doing it could be.
This same panelist criticised science fiction author Robert Heinlein as having an engineer mentality to science fiction writing, posing solvable problems and then solving them. However, it was unclear to me what he preferred as an alternative; posing unsolvable problems and failing to solve them, posing solvable problems and failing to solve them, or not posing a problem (and, presumably, telling a story without any conflict)? To pose an unsolvable problem and then solve it is, by definition, impossible. Someone who thinks they have done this would have either misjudged their assessment of the problem as unsolvable or misjudged that the problem had been solved.
He claimed that “we are caught in time; not endless stories”, suggesting a concept highlighting that people are situated at a specific historical period and presumably that the most appropriate ways of thinking and behaving should take the specific situation of that time period into account rather than being fixed for all time. He also claimed that “we are caught in a planet; not a world”, suggesting that people do not live in an illusion created by their minds but inhabit a physical planet. A more encompassing statement would be that we inhabit a physical planet in the physical universe. Other implications can be dran from this, such as the finite nature of a planet and that what each person does will have impacts on the physical planet also inhabited by other people. The two sayings above, understood in the right context, highlight truisms but has anything profound been said by stating them or is it just stating the obvious?
By destroying something in fiction, we can encourage people to think what it would be like if it were destroyed and about whether they want change their thoughts or behaviour with that in mind. It can also be exciting and interesting for readers to read or an audience to watch a story of destruction and how the characters behave in that situation.
The Australian Literature Review