Putting the life back in science fiction


Preludes to Sustainability
October 12, 2015, 10:14 pm
Filed under: futurism, Preludes, sustainability | Tags: , , ,

I guess there’s a theme to be mined here.

Going from the same idea as the previous blog post, Preludes to Space, it’s worth looking at how well our society is getting on with that whole, mysterious sustainability thing.

There are two problems with sustainability, at least in my weird opinion.  One is that we know how to do it, if we’re talking about your basic, semi-isolated, neolithic society, with some offshoots to your basic, isolated iron age society, and we’re talking about time periods no longer than a few centuries.  The “high tech” outliers are the Greenland Vikings, who made a go of it for around 500 years, and the Japanese under the Shogun, who pulled it off for around 200 years (note that Jared Diamond got weird about this in Collapse).  Otherwise, again, we’re talking about the Polynesians and other islanders, and all the “primitive” cultures that imperialist forces have conquered over the last 500 years, all of whom were more or less sustainable.  In other words, if we go low tech and low population numbers, we pretty much know what sustainability looks like, because that was the world a few thousand years ago.  With ten billion people and high tech, we’re pretty clueless about sustainability looks like, except we have this feeling that we’re better than we were before, so it should be easier to get to sustainable than it’s proving to be.

The other problem is that we’re kind of in outbreak mode right now, sort of like gypsy moth apes.  Technically, this is called the Enemy Release Hypothesis in ecology, where species that can evade or overcome their natural enemies (predators, pest, parasites, and pathogens) can dramatically expand their numbers.  This is almost always temporary, because eventually the natural enemies find their prey, and prey numbers crash.  In human terms, we’ve released ourselves through things like medicine and public health to control our pathogens and parasites, using veterinary science and plant pathology to help our domestic species avoid predators other than us, killing any predator that comes after us and our symbionts (aka our domestic species), and throwing billions of dollars at the industries that promise to keep doing this for the foreseeable future.

This situation is metastable in many ways.  Medicine’s chief tools–antibiotics–have a short effective lifespan, we’re amazingly stupid about maintaining public health infrastructure like sewers and water lines, and all of it depends on fossil fuel sources that are running out.  We could, very easily, open ourselves to our enemies, and then disease and famine would reduce our population down to sustainable levels of a hundred million or so.

Still, simple-minded sustainability is the notion that we can make our outbreak permanent, keep our population fairly high indefinitely using renewable energy and recycling all our stuff.  Crashing back to sustainability is idea of civilization collapse, which I’m going to get to in the next post.  In any case, there are precedents for us turning the outbreak of a new clade into the new normal.  The cyanobacteria did it, although it took them over a billion years to start running the biosphere’s oxygen atmosphere.  Ants, termites, and bees have done it in the insect world.  Mycorrhizal plants did it 400 million years ago.  There’s no physical reason we can’t keep human populations high and run them sustainably.  However, there’s no physical reason to assume that we can pull it off either.  We’re in unknown territory, and there are many species on Earth right now that can expand into outbreaks but not sustain their high numbers.  Sustainability at high number is very unlikely, but fortunately, it’s not impossible.

What does sustainable technology look like?  The most restrictive case is what I talked about in Preludes to Space: we can only colonize space on a sustainable basis, so if we want to colonize other planets, we have to solve the sustainability problem too.  Still, there are many technologies which are sustainable here but which won’t work in space.  It’s rather more possible that we’ll get to sustainable and find out that we still can’t colonize other planets.

There are huge number of complexities involved with sustainability, but there a couple of general problems.  One is that we have to learn how to power our civilization off renewables, and nuclear fusion, if that’s possible (sorry, I’m not interested in entertaining the eternal nuclear-uranium-thorium-we can do it–don’t tell me to shut up discussion here) . Another problem is that we need to recycle basically every element.  Since we can argue about power endlessly, I’m going to focus on the recycling issue here.

As I’ve noted before, I’ve got a relative who deals with solid waste issues on a regular basis, and I can tell you that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of schemes to recycle just about everything.  Most of them are unworkable, because they demand that the trash coming in is very homogeneous: it has to be all greenwaste from yards, or fluorescent bulbs, or used diapers, or used lumber from construction, or whatever.  Throw a broken fluorescent bulb in the greenwaste, and it’s unrecyclable for both.  The trash stream most cities deal with is extremely heterogeneous, which is why a lot of it ends up in landfills.  Polluters range from careless to stupid to evil, and there are two generally proven methods for dealing with waste: dumping it (which we do with trash and sewage) and hand sorting it (which we do with recyclables, many of which end up in the trash anyway because they’re not cost-effective to remanufacture).  To get to sustainable, we need to be able to recycle everything, so (for instance) nutrients go from farms to food to compost and sewage, to fertilizer back on the farm.  This would be great, if a large hosts of pathogens and contaminants didn’t ride along on the recycling stream and contaminate our food supply and the supply of every other resource.

Still, it can be done, and it is routinely done in Third World cities, where sewage is used as cheap farm fertilizer and the desperately poor sort through the trash for anything they can sell.  Our problem in the developed world is that we see the resulting disease, discrimination, and poverty of such cultural recycling as environmental justice issues that often are inflicted on minorities.  We want to find ways for to do it equitably, so that everyone gets to be healthy and not poor, even if they’re dealing with waste.  That’s a much harder problem.

Actually, just keeping streams of materials homogeneous is the most difficult problem here.  Every time we can figure out how to recycle something cleanly, it becomes a reasonably good industry. The problem is when recycables get contaminated.  For example, back 50 years ago, glass bottles for wine, milk, and soda were routinely recycled.  One perennial problem is that someone would, say, use a milk bottle to store used motor oil until he could dump it somewhere. Then he’d turn the polluted bottle back in for a refund, sticking the recycler with the chore of decontaminating the bottle before it was refilled with milk, or throwing the bottle out and losing the resource.  It’s a ubiquitous problem with recycling.  Recycled steel needs to have steel in it and not a lot of silicon from dirt, recycled medical supplies have to be sterile, glass has to be all the same composition, recycled electronics chips have to be pure, and so forth.Again, it’s a difficult problem, not necessarily an impossible one.  We can hope that there are some technical solutions out there, as well as cultural ones.

Still, as with a culture that is preadapted to colonize space, a society that is high tech and sustainable will look strange to our eyes.  Their social mores will be different, especially around handling waste materials.  They’ll be much more sophisticated and thoughtful about recycling, and they’ll probably be disgusted by different things than we are.  Indeed, they won’t be consumers in the modern sense, because consuming stuff and throwing it out won’t be the cornerstone of their identities.  They might come off as a bunch of enviro-prigs compared to us, but they’ll think we’re pretty disgusting too.

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“…a insightful examination of our current culture.”
September 17, 2015, 8:22 pm
Filed under: fantasy, science fiction | Tags: , ,

I have no literary pretensions, so my favorite book review comes from The Onion’s online book review every Monday. Back on September 7, Kyle Fowle reviewed Salman Rushdie’s venture into fantasy, Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights (link to the review). Here’s how the review opens:

“Genre fiction has always been poking around the mainstream, but now more than ever it’s enjoying unprecedented success. Sci-fi and historical fiction, fantasy and bawdy romance, superheroes and dragons, are an integral part of the mainstream media diet, be it in literature, television, or film. Perhaps it’s no surprise that fantasy and sci-fi are enjoying widespread appeal. After all, most can relate to the way those genres explore class division, oppression, economic and moral collapse, and the constant fight between good and evil. Such themes feel particularly relevant and urgent in 2015, and the best fantasy and sci-fi writing isn’t an outlandish exploration of the future or some magical past, but a insightful examination of our current culture.” (emphasis added)

Of course I disagree with that last statement. I’m with Tolkien, in that I’m not terribly interested in writing allegories about the modern age, although I agree that good stories have taken this tack. Perhaps this is an example of someone attempting to turn personal taste into dogma? We can also debate whether LOTR, Harry Potter, ASOIF, Star Wars, or Dune are insightful examinations of the cultures of their times, or just worth consuming on their own terms.

Building on the last blog entry, “White Men in the Jungle, I’d say this perception of what makes quality fiction is another problem with cli-fi. My interest is in exploring what, to me, looks like a very outlandish future, to give people an idea of where we’re headed if we keep blowin’ GHGs and swiggin’ every resource in sight. Cli-fi that’s an “insightful examination of our current culture” is inevitably dystopian, sometimes narcissistically so, all about how we’re screwing up, something that all too often turns into a jeremiad. Indeed, it seems that people expect cli-fi to be about the jeremiad, to explore the ways in which the results of our sins will be visited on our descendants, if not to wallow in it.

But I love real creativity, and I think the most creative solutions happen within harsh limits. For instance, I love traditional Inuit kayaks and Micronesian flying proas, because they’re two examples of incredibly creative people taking almost nothing and making something spectacular out of it. In the case of kayaks, the Inuit took driftwood and seal carcasses and made these beautiful and incredibly maneuverable little boats. The proas are those beautiful outriggers with the asymmetric hulls that were the fastest sailboats in the world into the 19th Century. They were built with driftwood and the things you find on a coral atoll: coconuts (logs and fiber), breadfruit logs, pandanus for the sails, and clamshell adzes, because they didn’t even have stone to shape the wood. And proas sailed rings around European square-riggers when the latter first showed up. To me, these boats represent real creativity, far better than anything I could dream up if I was stranded on an Arctic shore or a Pacific island. In stories, I always love it when the author finds a way to get the protagonists through the impossible limits of a story with grace and creativity, when the book has good characters, good plot, and the literary equivalent of a kayak build as part of the climax.

So with cli-fi, we could make it a dystopian examination of our current culture, and that might be insightful, if a little tedious and self-absorbed. Or, just perhaps, we can look at it as an exploration of those strange worlds on the far side of hell that could just be our deep future.

Do you have any preferences?



White Men in the Jungle, and other Cli-Fi issues
September 5, 2015, 12:02 am
Filed under: book, deep time, fantasy, fiction, futurism, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing | Tags: , ,

Perhaps I’m borrowing trouble here, but one thing I started thinking about is how much stereotypes and standard tropes underpin science fiction and especially fantasy. Even though educated people know about the Medieval Warm Period, so much fantasy contains the equivalent of Game of Thrones’ “Winter is coming.” Yes, this is great escapism in the middle of summer, but still, there are a huge number of tropes that show up when dealing with fantasy: medieval, Europe, wintry, or mysterious, oriental, and so forth and so on. You’ve seen them, you know them, and writers too often depend on you knowing them.

Yes, I can think of more than a few books that break tropes, but equally, I run into people whose take on writing is conditioned by the metaphors and tropes conjured by words, and this makes communication difficult. One example was when I talked to a writer (with a strong humanities background) online, about how I, as an ecologist probably wouldn’t name plants that were growing in a vacant lot in southern California as a way to describe the scene. Why not? came the question. Well, I replied, because I suspected that the names wouldn’t paint the scene for anyone who didn’t know the plants already. This was scoffed at. Okay, I wrote, the plants I’m thinking of are black mustard and ripgut brome. Oh, those are so evocative of doom, decay, and violence. Perfect for a vacant lot in Southern California. Well, I replied, that’s exactly my point. You just misled yourself, I replied, and you have no idea of what I was actually trying to describe…The conversation deteriorated from there. Yes, this conversation has been changed somewhat, because I want to use it as an illustration, rather than to embarrass someone. The miscommunication is the point.

The idea I’m chewing on, the trouble I’m borrowing, is how to deal with climate change in fiction, “cli-fi” if you want a newish shorthand. If you’re writing about a climate changed world and thinking like an ecologist, it makes perfect sense to talk about a tribe of white-skinned people living in a jungle, because tropical forests are predicted to grow north into modern Oregon if we go in for severe climate change. If you’re not thinking metaphorically (would that be trope-ically?), it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about the descendants of today’s Portland hipsters living a barbarian lifestyle in the coast ranges, in a dense forest of bamboo, briars, kudzu, and naturalized street trees, hunting feral pigs and settling all too often for grasshoppers instead.

The problem is, if someone who reads metaphorically sees this, all sorts of problems jump out. Is it cultural appropriation or imperialism to put white men in jungles? Or to have them happily eat the foods of other cultures, like grasshoppers, which are edgy and taboo in today’s America? Or to work with bamboo? I don’t know. But jungles bring all sorts of cultural baggage and expected tropes along with them. Any place does. That’s why fantasy castles are set so often in fantasy Europe, rather than in the fantasy Amazon, fantasy Congo, or fantasy Zomia. Especially if the characters are white.

Climate change violates these tropes, moving climates, and eventually the plants and animals they support, to different places than they occur in now. That’s why I’m interested in cli-fi, really, because a climate-changed future gives you a huge new palette of possible realities to explore. The jungles of Cascadia may be a real place in 300 years.

The shortcoming of this new palette is that it violates expectations, and I suspect this is one reason why people tend to think of post-apocalyptic stories as set in a ruined version of today’s world, rather than in something much stranger. It’s easier to think of such stereotypes, rather than to confront how strange the world could get.

And it does get more complicated. If you want to write a story set, say, 10,000 years in the future, humans probably won’t have the races or ethnicities we have now. And there’s a whole other set of expectations, stereotypes, and tropes associated with race, especially in America and most especially now. If you want to write a story set in the truly deep future, you can legitimately jettison today’s races and start over. However, how do you write the resulting story without it being seen as a commentary on today’s racial politics? I have no idea. Maybe you don’t. Thing is, it’s unrealistic to assume that today’s racial, ethnic, even gender identities have any sort of permanency. Is talking about this a reflection on today’s racial politics, or just some naive white dude (that would be me), trying to think about what the future might hold? It can be read both ways.

And so it goes. I don’t have any answers, only questions. Authors don’t get complete control over what people read into their work, and readers bring a wide variety of preconceptions with them to any work. Still, if you’re going to play outside established tropes, I don’t think it’s overly paranoid to at least think about how things can be misinterpreted, and possibly to take some steps to head off the worst problems.

Or perhaps I’m just borrowing trouble where none exists. What do you think?