Monday, July 02, 2007

I’ll see what I can do

Some years ago, I wrote my (not very good) MA dissertation about science-fiction being more fiction than science.

Yes, you might get a wheeze for a story by reading the news in New Scientist, but then your story is still all Made Up. Yes, sf writing worked out geostationary orbits and old Star Trek used things like mobile phones. But at the same time we don’t commute on inter-city travelators, nor drive atomic-powered motorbikes and flying cars. More’s the pity.

This cropped up recently when Michael Crichton’s State of Fear was lauded by those who profit from denying climate change. The book is about a conspiracy of leftie scientists who have dreamt this whole global warming thing up to get us to raise taxes. “See?” said those who would like this to be true. “See – it’s there in black and white. So leave the free market alone.”

Something is not true just because it is written down, especially when it is a story. Stories can include accurate details and philosophical truths, but they remain works of fiction, the worlds described in them entirely the creation of an author.

Science fiction sometimes claims otherwise because some of its authors care so much about the details; the description of, say, the engine on an atomic motorbike shows off lots of high-calibre research. But suppose we apply the same thinking to some other genre, where authors don’t need to rationalise the props. Because John Buchan describes trains and motorcars accurately in The 39 Steps, does it then follow that – as in the book – the Jews started World War One?

That would be silly. (Though I have spoken before about how it might have been a train what done it.)

Anyhow. With this in mind, what are we to make of Sixty Days & Counting, the latest from Kim Stanley Robinson and the last of trilogy about climate change and politics? Well, first off, the indicia make plain that, “This novel is entirely a work of fiction… Any resemblance to actual… events or localities is entirely coincidental.” It might well be a model with which to discuss the real world, but it is not the real world itself.

Just as Crichton assumes that climate change isn’t a reality, Robinson assumes that it is. The first book in the trilogy sees Washington DC suffering unprecedented floods, and that’s swiftly followed by freakish and extreme weather and whole countries disappearing. It’s iconic, science-fiction-movie stuff – and as Crichton’s heroes would have it, blatant scaremongering.

Robinson also has a not-entirely-likely device of a US President blogging quite freely on any matters that take his fancy. With 5 million responses to any particular post, his communications directorate is in unsurprising meltdown. But this allowed Robinson to make explicit points about our attitude to the environmental problem:
“People were asking: Is it too late or not? And it seemed like this:

If it isn’t too late, we don’t have to do anything.

On the other hand, if it is too late, we don’t have to do anything.

So either way, don’t do anything. That was the problem with that way of putting the question. What we came to realize was that it was a false problem and not a question of better or worse. It was more a question of, okay, how fast can we act? How much can we save? Those are the questions we should be asking.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days & Counting, p. 330.

To explore these questions, Robinson has two sets of protagonists both linked to the new President who reappraise their contributions to society. Charlie wants to advise on policy but he’s also stay-at-home dad to two sons. Frank thinks happiness can be found in a (literally) aping a lifestyle more like our ancestors had on the savannah – running, throwing stones and living in treehouses. But in doing so, he’s caught up in a hi-tech and nasty intelligence scam – a paranoid conspiracy.

For all it’s ostensibly about the scientific community and the practical solutions to problems based on evidence, Robinson also works in a lot of magic stuff via some Buddhist monks. I felt the shadow of his earlier The Years of Rice and Salt, though here we’re never sure whether to take the grand destinies and reincarnation entirely seriously. But there is evidence – for all Charlie wants to deny it – that there are evil spirits at work. I liked a last sort-of twist about whether his son Joe is really possessed…

I guess, like a lot of Robinson’s work it’s about trying to live a more enlightened and elegant life. Seriously liberal families work out their carbon footprints and realise they need to move house, while specific scientific projects to trap carbon in fast-growing lichen are matched by more philosophical stuff.
“The Dalai Lama talks about the situation they find themselves in, ‘a difficult moment in history’ as he calls it, acknowledging this truth with a shrug. Reality is not easy; as a Tibetan this has been evident all his life; and yet all the more reason not to despair, or even lose one’s peace of mind. One has to focus on what one can do oneself, and then do that, he says. He says, ‘We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. Try to be at peace with yourself, and help others share that peace. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.’"

Ibid. p. 308.

But more importantly, I think whereas Crichton’s book seems to say “we can’t prove it’s happening so don’t anything”, Robinson’s point is “we shouldn’t just change our lives because of the weather.” I think both authors understand that combating climate change means radical changes to the economic models of modern society. And rather than being about scientific fact, their positions are defined by political instincts.

By the end of the book, President Phil is also hooked on Emerson.
“One day [the President] laughed, beating her to the punch: ‘By God he was radical! Here it is 1846, and he’s talking about what comes after they defeat slavery. Listen to this:
“Every reform is only a mask under cover of which a more terrible reform, which dares not yet name itself, advances. Slavery and anti-slavery is the question of property and no property, rent and anti-rent; and anti-slavery dare not yet say that every man must do his own work. Yet that is at last the upshot.”’”

Ibid., p. 406.

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