Jul 15 2010 7:04pm

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “Global Warming and Science Fiction”

The “Global Warming and Science Fiction” panel, hosted Gayle Surrette, with Paolo Bacigalupi, Paul Di Filippo, Alexander Jablokov and Steve Popkes, was one of the Friday ReaderCon panels that I was really looking forward to. When it comes to territory that seems ripe for the science fiction genre, global warming is an element that really seems to be in its infancy, with only a couple of really notable works published to date. Although this is something that is likely to change.

The panel blurb stated the following: “The dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear war were common themes in mid-twentieth century science fiction, even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The nearest comparable danger today is anthropogenic global warming. It’s our impression that SF has not given to AGW the same level of attention that it gave to nuclear matters in the past, and has more often treated the issue as world-building background than placed it at the center of stories...” This set up an interesting level of discussion, looking at just how nuclear and global warming styles of stories differed from one another.

There are some major differences that were noted between the two; nuclear warfare was generally regarded as an event that was outside of the general population’s control, removed by several levels of authority, while the nature of global warming is something that is really the cumulative result of the general population. Where one is a wholly dramatic, singular (or limited) event with massive consequences at the onset, global warming is something that has arisen slowly, with little attention paid to it and with the general population not likely to take any major steps to change until there are catastrophic results.

This mentality has begun to bleed into fiction. One of the panel members, Paolo Bacigalupi, penned the fantastic novel The Windup Girl, which takes the impact of global warming to its heart. Where the panel looked at world-building as a lesser element to a central story element, I think the opposite is true. World-building is something that impacts characters on every level, informing their actions throughout—this resonates with the “Citizens of the World, Citizens of the Universe” talk that I attended—and oftentimes it’s the impact of said event that allows for compelling stories. In this instance, global warming is a difficult subject to really tackle in fiction because the effects are still being realized and felt across the world, whereas something such as a nuclear explosion is felt right away.

This delay in response also goes to highlight some of the problems in bringing attention to the issue of global warming, of which there is still a considerable amount of doubt about in the general population. Because there are both numerous factors and outcomes that contribute to rising temperatures, it’s harder to observe the entire event, whereas with a nuclear bomb, there is a singular event who’s outcome is not questionable by any reasonable audience. As someone noted on the panel: there would be no doubt that nuclear war was happening, while there seems to be doubt about AGW. That seems to carry the reluctance from the academic circles into the literary ones, where it was noted that it’s very difficult to market such fiction.

Bacigalupi noted that dystopic fiction seems to be the big buzz word for this sort of storytelling, taking in the results of the global warming and utilizing it in the worldbuilding that goes into each story. Like with real people, characters in these stories will have to deal with the impact of global warming as it affects them, which brings the element into the narrative like it should. Any science fiction novel “about” global warming or nuclear war probably wouldn’t be worth reading: the actions of the characters in light of those issues, however, are what will bring in readers.

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer, historian and longtime science fiction fan. He currently holds a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University, and has written for SF Signal and io9, as well as for his personal site, Worlds in a Grain of Sand. He currently lives in the green (or white, for most of the year) mountains of Vermont with a growing library of books and a girlfriend who tolerates them.

1. Shortlink
Joining Science Fiction and Global Warming is nothing more propaganda for Global Warming. In this case, I’m not sure if science fiction is the truthful part or the fictional part of the propaganda. Doesn't it bother anyone that some feel compelled to tie Global Warming to everything from intelligence agency directives to bovine flatulence? I could see having a session on environmental catastrophes and science fiction which will help add to the ranks of SyFy writers they must need to keep up with all their B rated movies.
2. Stefan Jones
Man, who could have predicted that the mere mention of global warming would bring a response like that?
Marlin May
3. zentinal
So predictable, shortlink, so predictable.
Clifton Royston
4. CliftonR
I'm curious: Did anybody bring up Harry Harrison's classic Make Room, Make Room, set in a New York City wracked by both population problems and global warming?

(Even if you had never heard of the novel, I bet you are able to finish a certain phrase from the movie based on it: "Soylent Green is...")
5. Freelancer
Global warming has already been featured in science fiction: The Day After Tomorrow. And the whole concept is as tired and flawed as that sad excuse for a film.


Charlton Heston. ::nod::
6. Stefan Jones

I'm pretty sure that global warming did NOT figure in Harrison's novel.

It was an element of the movie adaptation, as was the subplot about Soylent Corporation's coverup of the death of the ocean ecosystem.

I don't know how much input that Harrison had on the script of Soylent Green, but he was on the set. He wrote about the experience. He had the mistress character bring her own plastic shopping bag to the meatlegger, and answered Edward G. Robinson's question about where his character, "Sol," was coming from: (From memory) "You're me decades from now, as a dying old man."

It wouldn't surprise me if Harrison supplied Sol's rant to Thorn about the greenhouse effect.

As for the oceans dying, could Harrison have known about the contribution of CO2 to ocean acidification, and how it would dissolve the shells of krill?

*Sigh* I saw that movie as an eleven year old, and to this day when I hear Beethoven's 6th my mind's eye still sees that scene where Sol is watching footage of unspoiled nature in the euthenasia chamber.
Allison Lockwood Hansen
7. Talisyn
"Bacigalupi noted that dystopic fiction seems to be the big buzz word for this sort of storytelling"

3 really excellent books:

Far North by Marcel Theroux
A Friend of the Earth by TC Boyle
A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright
8. Teka Lynn
What about Kim Stanley Robinson's Climate trilogy?
Craig Pay
9. craigpay
Waterworld, 1995. "In a future where the polar ice caps have melted and most of Earth is underwater..."
Eli Bishop
10. EliBishop
Stefan @6: I didn't know that about Harrison - thanks!

Teka @8: And it's also a pretty big deal in KSR's Mars series, even though what's going on on Earth isn't shown but only heard about.

Here's another:  Bruce Sterling's "Heavy Weather", the earliest fiction I know of that looked at the more chaotic side of destabilizing climate, rather than an oversimplified picture of hotter weather and higher water.  It has a throwaway line about how the characters accepting that the weather will be crazy for the rest of their lives. The eventual fate of the planet isn't really discussed, but that's how it'll be for the rest of their lives. That really got to me, especially since the book is far from a worst-case scenario.

BTW, not to detour the thread, but does anyone else think "Freelancer" must be a parody? I mean, I can sort of imagine being so uninformed that I thought global warming was a "tired" concept and couldn't think of any example of it being used in science fiction other than The Freaking Day After Freaking Tomorrow. But I honestly can't imagine being such an ideologue that a mention of "Soylent Green" would inspire no reaction except a shout-out to Charlton Heston (because he's a conservative hero, or just for his pretty face, I can't tell). I'm picturing F. taking the same approach elsewhere: "Touch of Evil? Yeah, Charlton Heston! ... Hamlet? Mel Gibson was in that."
Eli Bishop
11. EliBishop
Also... I don't know if it makes sense to treat "global warming fiction" as a completely separate thing from the broader realm of "ecological disaster fiction", which has been a very prominent thread in SF since the 1970s. Books like The Sheep Look Up and Timescape differ from more recent cautionary tales in the details of the problem-- they were more concerned about industrial pollution in the more obvious sense of dioxins etc.-- but the result is more or less equivalent, i.e. civilization being pushed to a breaking point not by bombs or asteroids or mutant insects or a cool disease, but just by fouling our own nest to the point where we don't have enough to eat or enough places safe to live.
12. wandering-dreamer
Funny, I just read The Windup Girl and didn't realize that it was also supposed to be dealing with the side-effects of global warming, I suppose I should've guessed with the rising oceans but with all the talk of evil calorie men I was lost enough as it was.
13. Jim Henry III
Teka @8: And it's also a pretty big deal in KSR's Mars series, even though what's going on on Earth isn't shown but only heard about.

If I recall correctly, it is shown to some extent, in the third book when some of the Martian colonists go to Earth to negotiate with Earth governments or corportations on behalf of the new independent Martian government.

Another novel in which global warming plays a major role is John Barnes' Mother of Storms.

I have a vague recollection that the apocalypse that Hal Clement's The Nitrogen Fix was a post-apocalypse of had something to do with really catastrophic global warming, resulting in an unbreathable atmosphere, but I haven't read it in so long I'm not sure. When I asked Hal Clement to sign my copy at a con in 1995, he said he was embarrassed by some major scientific mistakes that he and his beta readers hadn't noticed until after it was published, but I don't recall what they were.
14. Kvon
Would you count stories about desertification and water shortage as about global warming? It's the main element of Mary Rosenblum's Drylands collection, 'Water Rights'. Also 'Juniper' by Kate Willem I recall as having increasing desert area as a background.

In the graphic novel 'V for Vendetta', the background to the fall of civilization and the rise of fascism was climate change.

For me I think the fact that climate change is a process, not an event, makes it more difficult to tell a story around.
Rich Matarese
15. Tucci78
Friday, 9 July 2010 - the day of this panel at Readercon 21 - was more than eight months after Tuesday, 17 November 2009, when hit the 'Net and the whole world got a look into what the administrators of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit had been withholding - in criminal violation of the U.K. Freedom of Information statutes - from inquirers filing lawful FOI demands.

Had every single member of this panel and every person in the audience kept his or her head shoved into a bucket of cement for more than eight months preceding, or is the phrase "willful ignorance" not applicable here?

The anthropogenic global warming (AGW) conjecture started out in the late 1970s as a massive blunder into which academically credentialed incompetents like James Hansen had stumbled, immediately bloody preposterous on its face.

As political opportunists like Algore perceived advantage in this "We're All Gonna Die!" bogosity and funnelled billions of taxpayer dollars in research money to the climate charlatans, it grew into the greatest single fraud in the history of science.

Piltdown Man was a playful hoax. The "man-made climate change" malevolence has been a criminal fraud perpetrated to accomplish theft of value, "A false representation of a matter of fact—whether by words or by conduct, by false or misleading allegations, or by concealment of what should have been disclosed—that deceives and is intended to deceive another so that the individual will act upon it to her or his legal injury."

Every person participating in this 2010 Readercon panel must henceforth be considered tainted, morally and intellectually, until public amends have been made.

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