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.