Jul 23 2015

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Belated Readercon Recap: Towards a Literature of the Anthropocene

Posted at 4:26 pm under Environmentalism,hm,LCRW 33,Science Fiction

LCRW 33 in my mom's raspberry patch

LCRW 33 in my mom’s raspberry patch

One LCRW theme issue, two Readercon panels and a lot of hallway/bar/dealer’s room conversation (not to mention years of bumping around blindly alone in the dark), have only whetted my appetite for a much broader, sustained conversation about the promise and pitfalls of writing fiction in and about the anthropocene epoch. Don’t get me wrong–the panels were great (see previous post for titles/descriptions) and I even got to moderate one of them. But I confess I am not particularly good at steering discussion, especially not in person, in front of a crowd, with four smarter, more eloquent people all of whom have equally valid and quite distinct perspectives. And there just wasn’t enough time to cover it all. My fellow panelists laid out fascinating ideas, and I got a decent line in here and there, but we barely got into stuff I thought we could have spent a whole panel on, or two, or seven. And I had all these lovely panel notes I didn’t even get to!

One of my hall conversations afterward was with Emily Wagner, program chair, who I asked for more like that next year. “Propose panels,” she said, and I will. But I’m also going to do what I can to get people talking in the meantime.

To that end, I’ve convinced a few of the LCRW 33 contributors to field some questions about how they apply these ideas in their own work. I’ll be posting those interviews here over the next couple weeks, and doing a few interviews myself elsewhere (here’s one with the UK-based Nottingham Writers’ Society).

First, though, I thought I’d recap the Readercon discussion for those who missed it (insofar as I remember it), share some of those notes I haven’t yet managed to get the good out of, and lay out the directions in which I think this conversation needs to go.

  • I opened with a definition of the anthropocene: a new epoch in the history of time in which humans are the dominating influence on the trajectory of life on earth. The concept places us on a level with geological and even astrophysical processes. Part of the point, I think, is to make people realize the scale at which what we do has an impact. There is very little “nature” left in the world that’s the same as it would have been if we hadn’t become what we are: forests, deserts, the ocean floor, as far away from humans as you can get, you can almost always see evidence of our impact. Which presents a fascinating perspective on the way human institutions interact with natural ones. Invasive species, domestication, genetic engineering, breeding, habitat loss, which species thrive, which go extinct, which reach the verge of going extinct and then we rescue. Unintended consequences. Not much of which I managed to say, actually, besides the basic definition. Time constraints, me not wanting to talk too much.
  • Vandana Singh brought up the limitations of the concept of the anthropocene: that it makes humanity seem monolithic rather than complex and incredibly varied. The people most responsible for altering the climate, habitat, animal and human life on this planet are relatively few and immensely privileged. The people who are by far the most impacted are those with the least impact themselves. She mentioned the 18 million Bangladeshis who are already in the process of being displaced by rising waters. Michael J. Daley in the solarpunk panel brought up that William Gibson quote which Readercon’s bylines require be brought up at least once every year:

    “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

  • We talked about climate change and its impacts, about the viability of various technological solutions/mitigations including nuclear power, solar, batteries, desalination plants. Gwendolyn Clare brought up geoengineering: ejecting coolant chemicals or particulates into the atmosphere to dim the sunlight/mitigate greenhouse effect. To me, that’s a terrifying prospect, useful only as a threat, “Here’s what we might have to resort to if you people can’t get it together and stop using fossil fuels,” but Gwendolyn seemed to consider it a viable option. I would have loved to ask her more about that but did not manage to corner her in the halls.
  • We talked about the dominant narratives of climate change, the propaganda and PR, how wrong and blindered they are and why. It’s hard to change those narratives because the institutions that support them (corporations, governments) are so huge and we rely on them for so much. The cruise ship metaphor came up: the world is too big and has too much momentum to turn or stop on a dime. A change in trajectory takes time. The implication being that we’re pretty much doomed to slam into that iceberg and take to the lifeboats.
  • We talked about science fiction’s strong tendencies to dystopianism and escapism and how those tendencies can gloss past the real problems we’re facing rather than encourage practical thinking. Michael J. Daley, in both the anthropocene and solarpunk panels, brought up the problem of presenting utopian visions of society in fiction, the fact that utopia doesn’t necessarily include a conflict that can drive a story. In neither panel did we get too deep into the ways around that problem, but I think it was Max Gladstone who said that a setting is just a setting, the conflict and the story comes from the people you place in that setting.
  • We talked about reader expectations. People who’ve been brought up on a steady diet of the dominant narrative expect more of it, and it’s a very delicate, limiting thing trying to address those expectations while also providing counter-narrative. Vandana Singh talked about teaching climate change to kids, how she found she needed not just to provide information but to address the emotional impact of that information at the same time. Finding out that humanity is destroying the world isn’t an easy thing. It was Max Gladstone again who tried to bring this back around to story and character–but I don’t think he quite got the chance to make the connection that right there in those emotional consequences is a way to tell a compelling story.
  • We talked (a little in both panels, but much more in the solarpunk panel) about progressivism in the history of SF and previous forward- (and backward-) looking movements in the genre, particularly cyberpunk and steampunk. This was surprising and enlightening for me: in my preparations I spent some time thinking about classic SF and how it almost incidentally influenced the trajectory of technology: not spaceships or flying cars, but ipads and cellphones. Star Trek was a naive form of social SF: a black female officer on the bridge of the Enterprise. Cyberpunk, though, was way more prescient; it was depicting a future nearer to hand and actively pushing forward technological concepts as well as social structures that had already been demonstrated in their infancy. Whereas steampunk seems to represent the opposite tendencies: the real world is increasingly shitty, technology’s advancement has outpaced our capacity to adapt to it socially, so let’s escape back to a simpler time and postulate this vast, utterly impractical escapist utopia. Advocates of the nascent solarpunk movement want something that combines the utopian aesthetics of the latter with the practical forward-thinking of the former. I went into that second panel with some healthy skepticism, but listening to them talk about it, it started to sound like a pretty solid idea. Though I wish they’d decided to call it something else–the word “solar” is too limiting. Ecopunk.
    Ecopunk?

    Ecopunk?

  • Towards the end of the anthropocene panel, I slipped in part of an idea I had. Earlier, talking about the value of the anthropocene as a concept, Vandana Singh brought up the question of what separates us from animals and how the answer keeps slipping the more we learn. First it was tools, but now we know all kinds of animals use tools. Then we thought it was language, but birds and apes and even insects maybe have language. I suggested the concept of narrative. There’s some debate as to when the anthropocene epoch began: the ’70s? the industrial revolution? But as far as it applies to narrative, I feel like there’s a strong argument the anthropocene began with the dawn of the dreamtime, the origin of metaphor: let’s say 40,000 years ago. It began when humans first started to ask themselves that perhaps most arrogant of questions: what separates us from everything else?

By any measure it was all very left-leaning, progressive discussion. Not once, thank Pan, was it suggested on either panel that global warming wasn’t real or caused by human beings. I believe communism was even mentioned without anyone in the audience getting up and leaving. From Readercon, I would have expected no less. And yet for me it didn’t go far enough. No surprise, I guess. I am a radical when it comes to this stuff. Not a revolutionary–I’m too meek and polite for that, unfortunately–but the new world order I’d create if you made me dictator…let’s just say I fear the average Readercon liberal SF fan would be plotting my assassination.

At the top of the list of things we failed to address fully are science fiction’s blind spots. Let’s be honest, despite or perhaps as a prerequisite of genre’s recent, much-boohooed explosion into mainstream culture (I was relieved, when reviewing the Readercon program, that they left off the “Did Fandom Lose By Winning” panel this year), science fiction and genre on the whole remain the purview of the white, affluent and privileged, and the thing about the white, affluent and privileged is that there’s nothing forcing them to look at the world from outside of their own experience. In my opinion genre itself ought to be doing that, but to some extent, as with the dominant narrative and global warming, there’s a positive feedback loop. You grow up in a bubble of privilege, that’s what you know to write about, that’s what your fans get to read about.

Vandana Singh touched upon this in the anthropocene panel, and I think would have gotten further into it if we’d let her. Later, in the hall outside the dealer’s room, I was telling her my line from the LCRW 33 editor’s note about how great and eye-opening it was to see all those diverse viewpoints in the submission pile, and she said (again I paraphrase), “This is what people don’t seem to understand about We Need Diverse Fiction–it’s not just about fairness or letting everyone have an equal chance, it’s about exposing people to different viewpoints.” Shall I pull out the inbred royalty metaphor? Ages ago, an innovative thinker came up with the ideas for spaceships and FTL drives, and everybody liked it so much that they kept doing it long, long after it ceased to be an innovative or even inspiring idea. The field needs new, different voices with new, different ideas, or the bloodline will thin until every novel comes out anemic.

Another related blind spot is SF’s tendency to resort to technological solutions. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Yes, development of cheaper, more efficient solar technology and next-generation battery storage and etc will doubtless help curb global warming, and we should absolutely get the hell off fossil fuels. But there are non-technological solutions already available and in use by enormous swathes of the human population of the earth–it’s just that those people don’t happen to own cars or ipads or rely on fast food for their sustenance or feel the need to water their driveways and feed their lawns better than they feed their kids. On the anthropocene panel, Gwendolyn Clare pointed out the very real threat of food shortages posed by climate change. For every degree that we warm the planet, we lose 6% of our global yield of wheat. One solution would be to let the corporations that brought us Roundup-ready corn engineer a more heat-tolerant wheat, thereby subordinating farmers even further to that corporation’s draconian intellectual property litigation. Another would be to adapt away from corporate monoculture and turn to the thousands of varieties of wheat and other grains humans have developed through conventional means over the past 9,000 years of agriculture. I’m afraid that because that’s not a technological solution, it falls squarely into the blind spot. Michael J. Daley brought up the myth of the mad scientist, the lone inventor who singlehandedly saves the world with his brilliant scientific advance. And yes, that archetype certainly speaks to SF’s penchant for the heroic. But it strikes me as rather narrow.

Something the wonderful Emily Houk said to me as the solarpunk panel was getting out: “I was wondering why nobody talked about using plants as technology.” And she’s right. Plants are a freaking amazing technology developed by mad scientist earth over billions of years. Why cast that aside? Because it doesn’t prop up the dying myth of the hero? It’s so simple: as long as there are enough plants on earth to balance out the CO2 generated by everything else, the climate stays stable. But it can also be incredibly complex. The earth’s enormous biodiversity, which we are winnowing down by the minute, includes granular solutions to a host of problems we haven’t even considered. Just one example I learned about the other day: the osage orange tree, a springy, resilient hardwood that makes giant ugly fruits like rock-hard, bitter oranges. Before European colonization its range was restricted to a small area of northeast Texas and its wood was prized by Native Americans for use in bows. In 1934, FDR’s Great Plains Shelterbelt project planted 220 million trees stretching 18,000 miles as windbreaks to combat the erosion that caused the Dust Bowl. Now they’re everywhere.

I know it’s not fiction’s responsibility to come up with these ideas or to encourage people to think differently. You’ll hear that repeatedly from some of the LCRW contributors whose interviews I’ve got lined up for the next few weeks. But there’s also nothing stopping us. There’s no reason fiction can’t be a source of inspiration for change that will make the world a better place. And if we can, why wouldn’t we want to?

In another way, this is an answer to the question of how to get readers excited, how to make them care, how to inspire them to think for themselves about these issues. For the most part I think both panels spent more time talking about the ways that didn’t work and couldn’t be done than how it could. But inspiring, surprising ideas are one of the things that got us into genre in the first place. The sense of wonder: there’ve been plenty of Readercon panels on that too over the years. Yes, the chance to see for the first time the surface of Pluto is indeed mindblowingly cool and amazing, and SF has the capacity to approximate that on the page. But I’d argue it can be just as if not more inspiring to discover a real-world solution to a real-world problem tossed away as an aside in a book about the human heart in conflict with itself.

Which of course is the other way to get readers excited, the same way you get them excited about any story, by writing brilliant, strong characters and putting them in impossible situations and showing us how they react. And here’s another way that diverse perspectives in fiction can help us. To a lot of us in the privileged affluent white first world, global warming is still an abstract problem, something that may be coming a few decades in the future. But to tons and tons of people in the world now, more every day, global warming is a real threat, a source of anger and grief and devastation, a source of real conflict, the stuff epic drama is made of. I want to see that in fiction, to teach those of us sitting here sipping lemonade in our hammocks what that feels like. I think that’s what the solarpunk advocates want too. Though I still wish they’d change the name.

To come: LCRW 33 contributor interview #1: Giselle Leeb!

Update: Hey, you didn’t even have to read my recap, because both panels are online. Though I’m glad you did anyway. Here, I made a playlist:

And hey, if you happen to be one of those people whose opinions I have horribly mangled and misused in the above, I would love to be corrected. Really.

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