IDEA WATCH 10•16
Science Fiction in the Anthropocene
The ultimate literature of the imagination calls upon us to do more than merely invent or imitate the apocalypse
By Vandana Singh
When I stepped off the small plane and took my first steps on the snowy tundra, I thought about the strangeness of the world. Here I was, an Indian expat living in the US, born under the hot sun of Delhi summers, stepping into a place that knew no sunlight for six months of the year. The northern edge of Alaska is well within the Arctic Circle, and here there are no trees. Moments later, when I stood at the edge of the frozen Arctic Ocean, I thought of Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a world in which a human is both an envoy and an exile, and the planet is called Winter.
Science fiction asks us to look deeper, to destabilize old ways of thinking and free the imagination to posit various futures, so we may better inhabit the real world, the present world.
I was here at the end of the world, to study the end of the world. Such endings are the stuff of science fiction, which exceeds any other literature in its fondness for apocalypses of various sorts. Apocalypse and dystopia have been used as a critique of human social mores and values as well as our problematic relationship with the rest of nature. In this very real way, science fiction is not necessarily, and not under all lights, about the future. The literary snobs who equate it with futuristic imaginings populated by green-skinned aliens and ray guns may as well scoff at some trashy airport best-seller as a stand-in for all literature. At its most magnificent, at its truest, science fiction is about us, here and now, even when it is set on another world in the far future.
In one sense, science fiction can be considered as an exploration of our relationship with the nonhuman universe—from animals, aliens, and others to the physical universe itself, including technology. Most of the rest of literature labors under the absurd delusion that human beings live in a bubble isolated from the rest of nature; with nature reduced to a commodity, it can then be forgotten. Go to any bookstore and browse the fiction shelves, and you will see dramas that are exclusively human. Yet consider this: the tilt of the earth determines largely the amount of sunlight that falls on various parts of it, rendering the poles so cold that we have extensive icecaps in both the North and the South. The northern ice cap floats entirely and wonderfully on sea water, while the Southern one sits atop land, the continent of Antarctica. In the North, under the floating sea ice the greenish-brown sludge of ice algae forms the basis of the food chain in the Arctic. From such humble beginnings arises the bewildering variety of species: tiny shrimp, fish such as the Arctic char, gentle, long-lived behemoths like the bowhead whale, and, atop the ice, the ringed seal and polar bear. The Inupiaq Eskimos of northern Alaska depend on the other creatures for sustenance—spring whaling and the hunt are still important, despite modernization. Think how intriguing it is that the earth’s tilt as it dances around the sun gives rise to the ice, which in turn gives rise to such things as ice algae and polar bears, bowhead whales, and a language that may well be the most precise in the world. In an environment where knowing the sound ice makes under different conditions, where a tendril of wind can warn you about a killer storm—in such a place the languages, too, are uniquely and perfectly adapted to their environment. You can’t set a novel among the Inupiat and restrict it to merely the human—unless, of course, it is a bad novel.
I was here at the end of the world, to study the end of the world. Such endings are the stuff of science fiction, which exceeds any other literature in its fondness for apocalypses.
The strange thing is that what’s true in northern Alaska is true everywhere else—we depend on other species, we depend on the biogeological forces that move mountains and unleash the vagaries of weather and climate. We depend on these for our very survival. The trouble is that modern civilization conceals and dismisses these connections, so that between jobs and hanging out with friends in bars, and worrying about love lives and children, we forget that with every breath we take, we owe ocean plankton for over 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe. There is something pathologically wrong with a paradigm that obscures the deepest and most essential connections between ourselves and the rest of nature. Science fiction, while remaining mostly mired in similar distortions of perspective, at least offers us the possibility of a way out—not merely though cautionary tales of apocalypses and dystopias, but through the intelligent and wide-ranging exercise of our most powerful tool, the imagination.
The trouble is, sometimes life imitates art exceedingly well. About 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that climate change is serious, human-caused, and—in the absence of meaningful actions—likely to end up in disaster. Disaster means extreme-weather events such as typhoons and drought, inundation of coastal cities, new pests and diseases, wildly varying weather and its consequent effect on crops and food security, mass extinction of species, and mass human migrations. That this process has already begun is not in doubt if one reads beyond celebrity headlines and political shenanigans. Sometimes life is stranger than, and more terrifying than, art. Due to its complex nature, the climate system has nasty little features such as tipping points—which, if passed, can change things very fast and usually in an irreversible manner. We are facing our own apocalypse in a manner that makes Nero look deeply concerned at the conflagration of Rome.
The way I see it, science-fiction writers have always been ahead of the game in recognizing our entanglements with the nonhuman. Humans create technology, but it is equally true that technology creates us—it changes and controls how we think, what we eat, how we communicate, where we live. We change the world, and that changes us. We buy the second refrigerator or the fourth TV, and the Greenland ice shelf begins to melt. Who can tell these stories better than science-fiction writers? In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin imagined a world of hermaphroditic humans living on a planet with a much lower average global surface temperature, so that much of the inhabited part was covered with ice. In reality most humans are not hermaphrodites, but gender is an oddly fluid thing; in some lights, at certain times, we recognize in the fictional characters some affinity with ourselves. Similarly, the bleak world of the planet Winter brings to mind the frozen reaches of our own planet. Now, however, the tundra is melting. In the remote north where I visited last year, the sea ice is retreating, shrinking, threatening an entire ecosystem, a way of life, a people.
Science-fiction writers have been writing in increasing numbers about climate change. From the Science in the Capital books of Kim Stanley Robinson to the works of Tobias Buckell and Karl Schroeder, the real-life dystopias and apocalypses are being brought into the light. The ultimate literature of the imagination calls upon us to do more than merely invent or imitate the apocalypse. It asks us to look deeper, to destabilize old ways of thinking and free the imagination to posit various futures so we may better inhabit the real world, the present world. Yet there is something missing in the works about climate change that I’ve read. They are all situated mostly in the so-called developed world and are therefore limited in their sociological imagination. They generally do not explore the perspective of the other Other—the human who is not privileged and not Western, and the animal that is not human. I am starting to explore in my own work a different kind of science fiction to do with climate change, and I believe that Indian writers have much to contribute.
Can science fiction save the world? Certainly not by itself. But it can shine some light upon who we are and where we might end up if we choose this path or that one. Science fiction is the literature of “what-ifs”—what if some people, somewhere in the world, found ways to speak to other species, or to generate electricity from the tides, or to live in ways that left the lightest possible footprint on the earth? What would that take? Science fiction is story, not a blueprint for the future, but it holds the rare possibility of freeing the imagination itself. Things don’t have to be the way they are. Is there a more revolutionary statement? Sahir Ludhianvi wasn’t thinking of science fiction when he wrote the words quoted below, but they are so appropriate that I will end with them:
Aao ki koi khwab bunein, kal ke vaaste
Come, let us weave dreams for tomorrow’s sake.