Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Posted on Mar 10, 2008 in Blog, consumerism, green technology, politics, science fiction, Writing | 14 comments

Optimistic CO2 Sci-Fi

Here’s my take on writing optimistic SF— just don’t make it consolatory pap. That’s what advertising, TV and suburban sprawl are supposed to sell.

As an example, here’s the latest on the global warming front. (note: the link is changed to point directly to the Washington Post article as the MSNBC version expired) No big news, but here’s the money quote:

Steve Gardiner, a philosophy professor at the University of Washington who studies climate change, said the studies highlight that the argument over global warming “is a classic inter-generational debate, where the short-term benefits of emitting carbon accrue mainly to us and where the dangers of them are largely put off until future generations.”

When it comes to deciding how drastically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, O’Neill said, “in the end, this is a value judgment, it’s not a scientific question.” The idea of shifting to a carbon-free society, he added, “appears to be technically feasible. The question is whether it’s politically feasible or economically feasible.”

A lot of sci-fi focuses on the technical aspects of a problem. And completely ignores or soft-peddles the human aspects. If you’re going to write realistic optimistic science fiction story about global warming (for example), you have to jump past the bullshit test of human greed and short-sightedness.

It’s not impossible, but first you have to explain how all the yogacizing organic carrot munching Baby Bjorn wearing liberal types who drive four blocks to the video store to get another DVD rental (real person, btw) are going to wake up and smell the coffee. I mean, if a supposedly supportive person (She buys local organic, yay!!!) is still clueless and destructive, how are you going to get the coal miner with the “Piss on Hippies” bumper sticker on his 4×4 (another neighbor of mine) to think sustainably?

Sci-fi’s urge seems to mostly go after the consumer/tech solution, ie we’ll design a better product (we love you Prius) so that we can keep doing our same old destructive things… but now, automagically, it won’t be bad. Makes me think of artificial sweeteners. Sometimes it’s not a magic bullet, no matter how much we wish it was.

So I see the central problem of realistic optimistic sci-fi as being at least two-fold:

  1. We’re all so self-serving.
  2. We seem to be biologically wired not to deal with any problem that’s not an obvious and immediate threat.

These two things seem to apply across the board, the difference between a liberal greenie in a Prius and Redneck cowboy in pickup is basically zero. If you’re driving, it’s a problem. And the last time I checked… all of America is driving, regardless of our political leanings. I’ve met a few fringe people who really do make a pretty good stab at living sustainably, but even they get on airplanes. Myself, I’ve got four cross-country flights scheduled this year. How’s that for hypocrisy?

In order to surmount this, fictionally, it seems that one would either have to pretend that the majority of people are not in fact lazy, self-serving, and most importantly short-sighted (which seems difficult given that these aspects are precisely what has driven us to the edge of the cliff), or you have to come up with a plausible set of reasons for people to change. Kim Stanley Robinson does this by making global warming a crisis. But what if it’s actually a death of a thousand cuts?

I’d love to see good meaty sf that goes after the big questions about where we’re headed and how we’re going to sort it all out, but I have a hard time believing that it’s going to be done by techno-fix alone. And I have a very hard time believing that we’ll do anything before the damage is already enormous. After all, I’m writing this on a coal-burning computer, which will then be posted to a coal-burning web server, and there’s a pretty good chance that you’re reading it on a coal burning computer at your end, too.

At this point, writing realistic optimistic sf feels like another genre entirely– it feels like fantasy.


  1. Why is “Steve Gardiner, a philosophy professor at the University of Washington who studies climate change” a person whose opinion is newsworthy? He studies climate change does he?

  2. A quick Google gives us his CV. You can read drafts of the papers he’s published, if you like.

    But I’m still trying to figure out if you actually disagree with his assessment. To some degree, I don’t care who he is because he pithily describes the problem of global warming: we experience few costs; our children experience many. Doesn’t seem like there’s much to argue with, is there?

  3. Great post, Paolo.

    I fully agree that a techno-fix alone isn’t going to solve our problems. But I’m more certain that doing nothing will be even less effective.

    I did say that writing a convincing upbeat SF story is incredibly difficult. But I don’t think it’s impossible, as your remark:

    “At this point, writing realistic optimistic sf feels like another genre entirely– it feels like fantasy.”

    seems to imply.

    Assume people in general are self-serving, and short-term thinkers. Then think what is needed to get them to adopt more sustainable behaviour. Pinpointing the problem is an important part of the solution.

    Also, no immediate crisis, but — as you say — a death of a thousand cuts (or a ‘slow apocalypse’, as Will McIntosh’s stories go).

    Oil price is over 108 dollar a barrel right now (according to Bloomberg: ). Already an inflation adjusted, all-time-high. Let’s move it up to $150. To $200. Double gas prices at the pump. Triple them.

    Then driving a fuel-efficient car (or living closer to the job, or telecommuting) becomes an economic necessity.

    Let’s move electricity prices up: burning coal isn’t cheap. In the meantime, let’s see prices for photovoltaic cells go down, especially if they become mass-produced. Then using solar energy becomes an economic necessity.

    Let’s see farmers growing more and more biofuel because that’s bringing in more money. Food prices rise, and growing/using organic produce may become an economic necessity.

    Play devil’s advocate, and try to think up developments that will force people to become less self-serving, and make them think long term.

    It’s an enormous challenge, but I hope more than just a fantasy.

  4. How much doom and gloom is there really in current SF? All SF set beyond the near future implicitly assumes that humanity survives global warming, the end of oil, etc. The current trend of singularity SF is even more optimistic in its assumption that humanity will not only survive, it will transcend the basic limitations of the human condition. One could certainly argue that such SF is not realistic, but in what sense is it not optimistic?

  5. I dpn’t dissagree with his assessment but with the relevance of it. Being a phlosophy person who studies climate change means to me that he studies the philosophical aspects of the situation.

    Why is the newspapery thing not talking to the author of “the tamarisk hunter” who has also methinks studied climate change…

  6. Jetse,

    I like that. Write a believable story about successfully mitigating climate change that assumes that people are selfish and short-sighted, and where the mechanics of climate change are such that global warming will cause a gradual destruction of many things we value about the planet, but nonetheless will leave us alive and kicking at the end.

    So climate change will wreck a lot, but it won’t kill us; and yet we still step up to save the polar bears.

    That’s a challenge, all right. The only way I can see it happening is if we suddenly discover a taste for Artic polar bear bred at the pole, and so we suddenly have to save the ice caps so we can farm more of them. Then we could get the stock market involved, investing in carbon sequestration as a necessary step in order to cash in on the exploding value of polar bear meat. :-)

  7. Paolo,

    I think we might stand a better chance with farming them for their fur – the meat would just be a useful by-product to feed to our meat-farmed herbivores and posssibly other polar bears. Of course, following this line of thought, it might be only a matter of time before clubbing becomes fashionable, again.

    I’m supposing Jetse’s optimism to be about reclaiming the sense of wonder (of various spellings) that people always go on about when talking about the 40s, 50s and 60s sf, without actually redoing it.

    We could always do the Antartica = Atlantis idea to death to comfort ourselves over melting ice.

  8. Paolo,

    Come on man … optimism has nothing to do with reality. Seriously.

    If you want optimism go watch “It’s a wonderful life” or better yet “Life is Beautiful”.

    Optimism is a state of mind. People for as long as their have been humans have been struggling with, what seems to be, your primary issue here: change.

    We don’t have any idea what is going to happen, what horrors we will face, or what horrors our children will face, we only do know that there will be horrors. What would a good SF story be without them?

    You, as a SF writer, have a wonderful opportunity to make believe a different future (fantasy). Tailor the characters if you care about optimism. Happiness is always in play no matter what the game.

    Have fun, :)

  9. Hi,

    I’m pleased to find a blog with interactive comments here. I looked around a couple of years ago after I encountered Paolo’s stories, but didn’t find this.

    As a self-professed sustainability advocate, I often feel caught in the middle of a tug o’ war between two factions: people who can’t or won’t imagine the existence of serious problems, and people who can’t or won’t imagine the existence of worthwhile responses.

    One contributing factor I notice is that (in daily life) we’re often rather cavalier about converting our perceptions of probability to statements of certainty. As in: This WILL happen. That WILL NEVER happen. Both are casual assessments of probability, but we talk about them as absolute certainty.

    As a way to maintain my own sense of coherence when I switch between those two distinct audiences, I try to stop myself from making leaps to certainty. I focus on possibility rather than probability. Ryan’s comment and Paolo and Jetse’s conversation about change suggests to me three separate, but related, concepts:

    Possibility of change
    Probability of change
    Mechanism of change

    Making a probability seem concrete and real is one way to think about SF, it seems to me. Describing a plausible mechanism goes along with that. I’d like to think there might be ways to hold up possibilities for examination that might make for interesting prose. Both of the tug o’ war factions I encounter seem to crave certainty, a detailed blueprint for life. But I doubt that our kids need a blueprint for their lives. (I get the impression many don’t want one.) All I want to do is to offer them an option to live differently, to offer them a plausible possibility to modify the default blueprint our culture provides now.

    I guess that’s kind of involved for a just-stopping-by-to-say-thanks comment. It’s just coincidence that this current blog post invokes some things I think about a lot and deal with often. I appreciate the quality of your prose, Paolo. I’ll keep reading. And if you find a way to write some stories about possible worthwhile responses, it’s possible that would lead to another audience to appreciate your prose also.

    Thanks again, and cheers

  10. I think this is a subgenre of stories really worth exploring and a lot of my recent work has been in this kind of idea – I call it ‘transapocalyptic’ because I’m bored of stories where the catastrophe or apocalypse has already happened and the characters look back with wisdom or ignorance on the failed society before them.

    I think optimism is part of it but I think the most important function of these stories is that they are set during a slow-burning crisis. So far, much of the work about global warming is either hopelessly pessimistic/we’re going to die, or set so long after that it’s merely backstory, positive or negative outcome.

    I like the idea of a story that is both optimistic and realistic – parts of the cities and world are damaged by the changes in climate and resource scarcity, whilst others thrive on the changes. Portraying society during this upheaval is the most interesting part. I just submitted a story in this mould to WOTF much rewritten following Jetse’s excellent comments when I submitted it to Interzone. I’m going to explore this subgenre more but I’d also love to see some more established writers do the same.

    More than anything I think it’s important we write these things to give people an idea of what the world in climate change will be like. Science and Al Gore documentaries give people the fear, but they don’t give them any idea what their lives might be like in the GW scenario. SF is excellently placed to do that.

  11. What a great post, and perhaps the catalyst for the type of conversation I never seem to be able to have. This, by the way, is my first foray into the “blog” setting.
    I came to your work a few weeks ago by way of the book Wastelands, which only happened to cross my path by connecting to the post-apoc-a-lit that I usually read. This is a completely different realm for me, and it has it’s treasured place in my mind as much as decently done zombiework does.
    I can devour both, as I’m a hybrid myself. Local,organic food, mixed with being a gun-nut, tossed with the driving of a Ram pickup, sprinkled with concentric social circles of both self important liberals at the local, non chain coffee shop, and the gir-er-done types at the shooting range.
    So far, of your work, I have enjoyed most Calorie Man, Pasha, and Sand and Slag. Leastly has been Pocketful of Dharma. I am a couple of pages into Pop Squad and am getting mixed feelings about what my take will be.
    Perehaps it is because I vastly prefer the wasteland approach to the dystopian one that I find myself at home with neither group of people that I mentioned above. I love the dystopian approach, set in a shit hole, not a mile-high organic structure.
    With that being said, and having just finished Calorie Man a little bit ago, I have decided that that story may be one of my new favorites, and it led me to actually seek out, for the first time, a writer of the actual things I read.
    Perhaps I can follow up with a posat about your actual thoughts on the story itself. The GMO situation, and thoughts on any “conspiracies” that may exist with their never ending encroachemnt upon the world.

  12. I am about half way through your book Pump Six and Other Stories and am really enjoying it. Writing is about problems, if there isn’t a good problem to solve or face it usually isn’t worth reading.

    I can understand an optimistic ending. We all like living “happily ever after”, but if it is a mainly optimistic thread through the whole story it tends to get on my nerves.

    Conflict is what it is all about. Having a mox of viewpoints optimistic and pessimistic in your characters creates conflict which makes for good stories.

    However, I can’t really imagine a very good purely optimistic story about global warming…

  13. How to make people think long term? A medical breakthrough that extended the average lifespan to oh say 120-160 yrs might do it (global warming won’t kill your children or grandchildren dude, it’ll kill *you*).

    Of course given our current environmental, population, economic and political problems it would be a rather mixed blessing… but essentially optimistic nonetheless.

  14. In Brave New World Revisited (40 years after BNW), Huxley pointed out that as population increases, rules, regulations and laws increase. But we know we can’t regulate massive population gains indefinitely. It’s been said that the problem is not that we have too many people; we have too few people who control too many resources and processes.
    I write about elite, top-caste humans controlling and suppressing the masses–including GMH (genetically modified humans), and some activists attempts to upset the balance.
    Climate change? Here’s an optimistic reframe: What if global warming works to prevent the return of another Ice Age? What if it makes some areas of the earth more fertile? Coconuts in Oregon. The Earth has been covered in ice from pole to pole three times in its life. Once for up to 40 million years. Snowball Earth. Total sterilization of all life but seeds. But mostly it’s been a tropical world, with no ice even at the poles. How bad can global warming be? I imagine a future society that is thankful for the ancients (us), who warmed up the world and prevented ice two miles thick from moving out from the poles and covering 2/3 of North America, most of Europe, northern areas of Asia, turning India into cool temperate lands… And similar ice coverage in the Southern Hemisphere. Now that would be a serious sterilization of vast areas of the Earth. Talk about catastrophe!
    Maybe we’re unconsciously terraforming for a warmer, more fertile world. The big issue would be changes in coast lines and the swallowing up of islands, thus relocations and migrations and extinctions of some peoples–and turf battles. Otherwise humans adapt.
    Pollution? Food for new organ adaptions, the first crude attempts of which are our current cancers. Don’t steal this idea, it’s been done by Octavia Butler in Xenogenesis. The first organisms were anaerobic, and one of their toxic discharges was oxygen. They poisoned themselves back from some niches, and aerobic organisms used that waste as food to fill the niches. We might do the same with dioxin, BPA, gly-phosphate (Roundup) and all the rest.
    Just thinking outside the media box to find some optimism. Who says global warming is a problem? It’s a hot wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.


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