On ‘Destroying the Future to Save the Planet’

Red MarsGreen MarsBlue MarsThe Years of Rice and SaltGalileo's DreamAntarcticaSixty Days and Counting The Day After Tomorrow

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.

NEXT: On ‘Nuts and Bolts: Editing YA Spec Fic.

Red MarsGreen MarsBlue MarsThe Years of Rice and SaltGalileo's DreamAntarcticaSixty Days and Counting The Day After Tomorrow

The Australian Literature Review

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13 Responses to On ‘Destroying the Future to Save the Planet’

  1. Michael says:

    Nice write up, although I’m very much interested in who the ‘other panelist’ was seeing as they get a fair chunk of the piece dedicated to their opinions.

    I’d put forward another reason for SF, other than the SF stories used as warnings, obstacles or examples, and that ‘spaceships are cool’. Of course, it doesn’t have to be space ships. It could be ‘genetic;y re-grown dinosaurs are cool’, or ‘aliens that drink human brains are cool’. It’s very much a boyish approach to stories, and one which I’m still attached to at 31, but the sense of wonderment at something which is very unlike our current world and lives is a great situation for a story regardless. Just so long as there’s ray guns.

    • auslit says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      For more on the other panelist, read the other comments on this post.

      Re: such and such is cool

      Sci fi (as well as fantasy and other sorts of fiction) can have a “that’s cool” factor, and provide ways to explore places and situations through fiction that a reader, or viewer, does not experience in their day-to-day life.

      While sci fi has often been associated with males and what many males can often tend to be interested in, I would not necessarily align it to males or famales. Though I understand that many people regard sci fi with a fond (or, to some other people, not so fond) sense of ‘boyish’ adventure or interest in science and technology.

      Planetary scale destruction, whatever else is said about it, can certainly provide a catalyst for all sorts of story conflict.

      • Michael says:

        I completely agree. I know it’s very much my approach to sf and fantasy which tinges my opinion of it. I’m very much a boyish reader in that I will tend to skip any romantic subplots if I feel they’re not adding anything to the character development or story or getting in the way of the explosions and space ships.

        But yes, SF has the potential, frequently realised, to serve as any background or catalyst for pretty much any subject, depending on how the author chooses to use it.

  2. daz says:

    The ‘other panellist’ was John Clute, who is one of the most significant critical voices in the SF community. I think you’ve misunderstood some of his points.

    He opened his remarks saying he was increasingly feeling oppressed by Climate Change (CC), “a global tragedy we don’t even seem to have the words to describe”. SF has had almost nothing to say about CC except as a cartoon disaster. Clute thinks this is because of a particular US outlook, elaborated on below, although he acknowledges it’s possible no literature can deal with the scope, scale and magnitude of CC.

    His comments about America and American writers need to be considered in the context of SF being a US genre, in the way cricket is an Indian game. Remember that Clute is addressing the audience at a Worldcon, and the WSFS is an American organisation. The WSFS rules, where they require balance in ‘regional representation’, define the regions as “Western North America’, “Central North America”, and “Eastern North America”. Of the 68 Worldcons since 1939, 55 have been in North America, six in the UK, four in Australia and two in continental Europe.

    Heinlein, said Clute, is a profoundly influential figure in SF and the SF author who first matured to writing ‘Literature’. His influence in the genre cannot be overstated and his professional background as an engineer informs much of his work. Clute suggests the ‘engineer’s view’ is that the mere existence of ‘a problem’ implies there is ‘a solution’ that can be reached through the kinds of linear, project managed, component optimisation approaches that engineers excel at. The mainstream of SF – American SF – lives in the shadow of Heinlein and it articulates ‘engineers’ visions’ of utopia, which ignores ‘side effects’ that are out of scope of their problem-solution dyad.

    (Note that this ‘engineering problem’ is not the same as the ‘narrative problem’ that drives the story you are reading. It is the engineering problem that is preventing us from reaching utopia. Heinlein, almost uniquely among SF authors, was a political activist, going door-to-door on behalf of the left-wing of the Democratic Party and later the ‘Social Credit’ movement. “Engineers for a political utopia” is how I would caricature Clute’s description of American SF.)

    Members of the SF community often claim that SF plays as important role in helping us understand the future. But Clute makes what I think is a powerful point – that SF has missed everything that is important today. The internet, miniaturisation, the social impact of cars were held up as examples of SF’s failure to spot the *huge* trends. SF, says Clute, is really not helpful as a tool for understanding the future or the present.

    Clute then moved to a deeper historical view of the genre. Around 1800 is when ‘we’ (as anglo/euros at least) began to understand that “we live on a planet, not in a world” and that “we are caught in time, not in timeless stories”. The monster in Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is new, it is repeatable, it is a tabla rasa, it learns quickly. The apparatus of the Old World is no longer necessary. And the story does not have a happy ending.


    • Michael says:

      It looks like Clute made some excellent points. With regards to SF missing the major advances in modern technology, I think the SF author treads a very fine line trying to predict technological advancements: aim too soon and publication date could overstep the tech itself. Aim too far and the tech would be too alien for the reader to associate with today’s.

      • auslit says:

        Predicting something before it happens or providing the inspiration for something to be developed is a solid foundation for a story to go on to be considered a classic.

        At least if you take a punt on technological advancements that don’t pan out you can still call your story fantasy, alternative history or describe it as having a stylised or ‘heightened’ realism.

      • daz says:

        auslit, can you give us a couple of examples of classic SF stories that meets those criteria?


  3. daz says:

    There were also two other panellists: Glenda Lamke, an accidental environmental scientist by way of a history degree and a love of bird watching in Malaysia, and fantasy author, and Johnathan Cowie, an ecological scientist and author of two University texts on Climate Change. No disrespect to them, but KSR and Clute were the two powerhouses on that panel.


  4. auslit says:

    Hi Daz,

    Thanks for your thoughts, and for taking the time to read and comment. 🙂

    Yes, as you say, the other panelist mentioned was John Clute.

    For anyone else reading this, you are welcome to add your own thoughts – whether you agree or disagree with either myself or with John Clute or with Daz on any or all of the points raised.

  5. daz says:

    I was at the con by myself, with no one to talk to for four days. If you write up a session I was in, you’re likely to be on the receiving end of my pent up brain slush. Which is a relief for me. For you, probably not so much. :^)


    • auslit says:

      Sure. There are 23 articles to come, and interviews with a range of the conference participants, so there is a good chance there will be a number of sessions you attended and interviews with a number of people you met or saw speak on a panel.
      There will also be a Twitter discussion each night from 8-8.30pm on the day’s article, using the hashtag #aus4project. The Australian Literature Review’s Twitter name is @AusLit. You are welcome to join in throughout September.

      • daz says:

        Thank-you, you’re very kind.

        8-8:30 is peak ‘getting the kids to bed’ time so I am not likely to participate. But thanks anyway.


  6. auslit says:

    Hi Daz,

    Re: sci fi classics in which technological developments are predicted

    This is not necessarily a criteria which most classics have or that will guarantee a story of becoming a classic but it use of a major technological development which then actually occurs is something that will bring a story to a lot of people’s attention.

    Synthetic life was featured in Frankenstein, although the element of a human rather than a God being the one to create life is arguably only a small step away from the ancient Greek story of Prometheus in Hesiod’s Theogeny – and a step many people are likely to have made in their minds in the several thousand years between the writing of Theogeny and the writing of Frankenstein.

    A submarine was featured in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

    Cyberspace/computer-based virtual worlds were featured in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

    In film, Voyage to the Moon featured space travel via a manned space capsule (although it was fired from a large cannon, without an explanation for why the initial velocity needed to launch it did not crush the people inside). Also in film, Destination Moon featured a space station in orbit which rockets could dock to, which is close to what has happened but they had it happen on a faster timescale.

    In the event that humans travel to Mars, whichever sci fi story or stories which closely match key details what actually happens are likely to gain renewed prominence.

    The following two articles are about sci fi predictions come true, from a laptop sized computer to wall-mounted flat-screen televisions to a Segway scooter style mode of transport. Whether or not each of the stories involved in these articles are classics is another question, and there are various degrees of how closely details match what actually developed.



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