Here’s a quick list of climate change highlights from the three and a half years between June 2004, when “Forty Signs of Rain,” the first installment of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about global warming, was published, and last week, when the third volume, “Sixty Days and Counting,” arrived in bookstores.
The Kyoto Protocol came into force, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, crude oil prices went on a sustained rise, “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, investors madly poured money into “green technology,” and, last but not least, the midterm elections of 2006 booted James “global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” Inhofe from his Environment and Public Works Senate committee chairmanship. Paging Michael Crichton! Kim Stanley Robinson just kicked your ass all the way from the White House to a melting ice cap and left you there, alone with a bunch of starving polar bears.
The “debate” is over. The culture has changed. Three and a half years ago, carbon offsets, cellulosic technology and peak oil were not the stuff of cocktail party conversations. Today you can’t click three times across the Web without a flame war on the net energy efficiency of corn-based ethanol breaking out.
What does this mean for a science fiction writer exploring the question of how humanity will confront the challenge of climate change? For starters, it results in all three novels becoming so tightly coupled to current circumstances that as I read them I felt as if I was inhabiting some weird limbo land in which it was impossible to distinguish between what Robinson was reporting and what he was prophesying. The climax of “Forty Days of Rain” is a huge storm that floods Washington, D.C., and changes, once and for all, the political calculus of climate change. By the time the novel came out in paperback the next year, Hurricane Katrina was in full effect. Even if we can’t directly connect the destructive force of Katrina with rising temperatures, the symbolic power of the disaster is undeniable.
That tight coupling also raises the question of whether the trilogy should even be considered science fiction. Robinson has always focused on ecological themes in his work, and has always made scientists and engineers his main characters. But in the past, he took us to destinations that are clearly out of this world, such as Mars, or so exotic to our daily lives — Antarctica — as to be substantially fantastic. This time around, the scientists are at work at the National Science Foundation, holding meetings, reviewing grant proposals, jumping ship from academia to biotech start-ups and back again — all while hard at work figuring out what can be done to give humanity a chance to survive its own mess. That’s hardly science fiction! That was the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference that I attended two weeks ago, where I amused myself by figuring out which of the panel members I listened to matched best with Robinson’s characters.
Perhaps the most fantastic aspect of Robinson’s trilogy is that a president gets elected in the United States who intends to actually do something about climate change, and makes some headway. There’s also a charming Buddhist subplot that takes reincarnation very seriously and gives some quality time to the Dalai Lama. Oh, and there are some bad guys intent on manipulating election results through computerized voting machines. Wait, didn’t that already happen? Or did it?
Perhaps the best way to put it is that these novels are not fiction, even if the characters are all made up and the action scenes cry out for some state-of-the-art Hollywood treatment. But then again, who needs a movie to tell this story? Just look outside!
My last point: if you like How the World Works, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest effort will be to your taste. Even when he gets didactic, the ranting draws blood. Take, for instance, the following passage, in which a troubleshooter for the new president loses his cool when meeting with some officials from the World Bank, one of whom has just pooh-poohed the possibility that any other source of energy could be “competitive” with oil over the next 30 or so years.
Charlie’s pencil tip snapped. “Competitive for what?” he demanded.
He had not spoken until that point, and now the edge in his voice stopped the discussion. Everyone was staring at him. He stared back at the World Bank guys.
“Damage from carbon dioxide emission costs about $35 a ton, but in your model no one pays it. The carbon that British Petroleum burns per year, by sale and operation, runs up a a damage bill of fifty billion dollars. BP reported a profit of twenty billion, so actually it’s thirty billion in the red, every year. Shell reported a profit of twenty-three billion, but if you added the damage cost it would be eight billion in the red. These companies should be bankrupt. You support their exteriorizing of costs, so your accounting is bullshit. You’re helping to bring on the biggest catastrophe in human history. If the oil companies burn the five hundred gigatons of carbon that you are describing as inevitable because of your financial shell games, then two-thirds of the species on the planet will be endangered including humans. But you keep talking about fiscal discipline and competitive edges in profit differentials. It’s the stupidest head-in-the-sand response possible.”
The World Bank guys flinched at this. “Well,” one of them said, “we don’t see it that way.”
Charlie said, “That’s the trouble. You see it the way the banking industry sees it, and they make money by manipulating money irrespective of effects in the real world. You’ve spent a trillion dollars of American taxpayers’ money over the lifetime of the Bank, and there’s nothing to show for it. You go into poor countries and force them to sell their assets to foreign investors and to switch from subsistence agriculture to cash crops, then when the prices of those crops collapse you call this nicely competitive on the world market. The local populations starve and you then insist on austerity measures even though your actions have shattered their economy. You order them to cut their social services so they can pay off their debts to you and to your financial community investors, and you devalue their real assets and then buy them on the cheap and sell them elsewhere for more. The assets of that country have been strip-mined and now belong to international finance. That’s your idea of development. You were intended to be the Marshall Plan, and instead, you’ve been the United Fruit Company.”
Kim Stanley Robinson is pissed about what humans have done to the world, and he’s not mincing words. But he also believes deeply in our capacity for change and rebirth. He thinks we can do better.
But we’d better get our asses moving.