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Can Science Fiction Help Us Wake Up to Climate Reality?

Can Science Fiction Help Us Wake Up to Climate Reality?

Can Science Fiction Wake Us Up to Our Climate Reality

“It’s possible it could work,” he said. “Worst case, you have to descend with headlamps.”

They conferred with one another, and Robinson turned towards Biagioli, resuming their conversation about Galileo. A while later, I noticed the hikers wagging at us from a distance. They had already started their trek.

Reassurance was what I needed. As we walked through the Sierras, I asked Robinson many questions. One loomed behind us: Will it all be alright? Robinson has no idea what the future holds. He believes there will be a future. Is a future—an unknown place yet to be explored. He believes attitudes change, progress exists, necessity drives invention, but also that progress is slow-moving and easily reversed. Money talks, and disorder is the norm. In 2002, he published “The Years of Rice and Salt,” a novel imagining what might have happened if the Black Death had killed all the Europeans instead of a third of them. Jameson taught it to his students as part of a class in historiography. The same characters are able to take us from 14th century to present day by reincarnation. It is a fantastic conceit. During every epoch, they engage in the ceaseless work of improving civilization. A feminist scholar is shown attending an archeological conference in Iran near the end of the book. As she listens to the presentations, she’s struck by an “impression of people’s endless struggle and effort.” A sense of “endless experimentation, of humans thrashing about trying to find a way to live together,” deepens in her. In a subsequent incarnation, she works for the international Agency for Harmony with Nature—her world’s version of the Ministry for the Future.

This century will be dominated by climate work. Its basic principles are well-known. You can build wind farms, solar farms, or other sources of clean electricity. Operation Warp Speed: Improve energy storage and develop small, affordable power systems in rural areas. Reduce carbon emissions, tax carbon, and reform agriculture. Rethink construction and transportation. Study the atmosphere, the oceans, the permafrost and glaciers. In case we have to, we can try out some geoengineering techniques. Large areas of the Earth can be rewilded. And so on. How is this possible? In “The Ministry for the Future,” societies start to make good choices, in part because citizens revolt against the monied interests that preserve the status quo. People also thrash around. They become angry, frustrated, and violent. Some Indian heatwave survivors become ecoterrorists. They use swarms upon swarms to crash passenger planes. No one knows how to stop them, so everyone is scared. People fly less. They teleconference, take long-distance trains or sail. They work remotely on transatlantic crossings. It’s not how we want change to happen. But, in the end, the jet age turns out to have been just that—an age.

We set up camp near a shallow, clear lake in a hollow. There was a single shelf made of granite that tilted into water like a hard shore. Robinson and Biagioli discussed sailing while we were building our rock stove. Biagioli had already crossed the Atlantic twice, once together with his wife and again with friends. Robinson was an avid freshwater sailor.

Robinson stated that when he was invited to speak at COP26, the climate-change conference, he thought, “Well, I gotta do it like Greta Thunberg.” (The summer before, Thunberg had sailed across the Atlantic instead of flying.) He’d been surprised to learn that there was no way of signing up in New York to sail, as a passenger, to the U.K. “My books have convinced me that it’s so obvious—I thought, it’s surely gonna come. It’s low carbon, and you’re still doing world travel!”

“Except, what Greta did—she sailed in a super-fancy, sixty-foot carbon-fibre monster,” Biagioli said. “It can do thirty-five knots. She needed to go fast, otherwise it would’ve taken a month.”

“But why aren’t there lots of those boats?” Robinson asked.

“I think they’re incredibly uncomfortable,” Biagioli said. “They bounce. I mean, people wear helmets inside the boat.”

“But what if they were bigger?” Robinson persisted. “What if they were like clipper ships?”

“Well, then, that would be fantastic,” Biagioli said. He shared some cubes Parmesan from a small box. “And they would be stable, and you could have sailing ships that blow by diesel ships.”

“Club Med—they’ve been putting sails on their cruise ships,” Robinson noted. “And the whole technology of sails, per se, is rapidly shifting, because of computer modelling.”

“The problem is the weight,” Biagioli said. “People cross the Atlantic in five days, but that’s predicated on a boat not weighing anything. So it’s like here.” He gestured to his ultralight pack.

“Hmm,” Robinson said. He smiled, enjoying their conversation. “Well, but if you go back to—look, my Atlantic crossing is gonna take me two weeks, and I’m gonna be Internet-connected the whole time. And say you have a big boat, a passenger boat.”

Cartoon by Rozchast

“Then that would be no problem,” Biagioli said. “I even think you could do something really comfortable in not even two weeks. It could take as little as ten days. The people who have a lock on the technology are the French.”

Robinson laughed. “What are our billionaires doing?” he said. We talked about the idea and the potential for dirigibles to replace short-haul jet flight. Then we went to sleep.

We set out early in the morning for Thunderbolt Pass. The climb began immediately. We climbed up a series of steep slopes that led to the massive, mirror-like Barrett Lakes. We navigated around their rocky shores. The pass was twelve thousand feet high and made entirely from rock and sand. We began climbing, sometimes lifting ourselves with our hands and sometimes sliding between narrow gaps. I looked back to find the lake where we’d camped the night before; it was like peering from an airplane and trying to spot my house.

We eventually reached a rock shelf measuring about 100 feet in width, where we found hulking boulders that had been left behind by a vanished glacier. One climber was alone, his tent hanging from the sheer rock wall. The sun seemed to shine more strongly. It was a difficult climb up to the top. We stopped at a small, sandy spot that was enclosed by rock on two sides. It felt like a little room.

“Now, this descent,” Robinson said, while we drank water. “It’s the most technical, meticulous part of our trip. There’s nothing you won’t be able to do. But you’ll have to go slowly, and be careful.”

I looked out at the other side, which led me back to Dusy Basin. Over a few thousand feet, the landscape began to descend. A field of boulders was first, and beyond it was a rock rib that allowed us to descend part the way. The rib ended in a broad slope made of fine-grained Talus. We could navigate this by glissading—a kind of sliding, as though we were on snowshoes. This would then take us to an endless ocean of smaller rocks. The first step was to cross the mountain sideways, over the boulders. I was nervous.

“Just go slow,” Robinson said.

We began to cross the boulder field. The rocks were massive, with huge gaps between them. Sometimes, we had to climb over large gaps and touch four boulders at a time. The rocks became smaller. I turned my back towards the sun and turned to face it. I moved to my left, wondering how far it was from solid ground. I stepped carefully onto a strange-shaped rock beneath me.

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“Uh-oh,” I said, louder than I meant to. “I don’t like that.”

All four of the rocks that I was touching were very moving.

“Don’t look up!” Biagioli called.

I looked up. I looked up to see an infinity of rocks stacked high above me on the hillside. They appeared ready to fall by a trick in perspective.

I moved along. We reached the rockrib, and crossed it to the long slope made of talus. We glided down in zigzags through lunar powder. At the bottom was an ocean of sharp and small rocks. They cast harsh shadows, creating pockets of darkness, and crossing them required intense attention. I had to remember how to breathe and blink. Hours passed. I stopped to finish my water. Then I looked ahead to see our destination. It was a sparkling lake in the far distance. Almost all Robinson’s novels involve an experience of this kind—a long, difficult, rocky journey through a mountain landscape, on Earth or elsewhere, accomplished through sustained concentration that lifts one out of time. It doesn’t matter how far you go, the important thing is to get started and then to keep going, one step at a. It doesn’t occur to you to stop. Even if the path isn’t set, the job before you is clear: you have to get down the mountain before dark.

Robinson was right. The descent had been difficult and doable—an ideal combination. We watched the sun set over Dusy Basin from a high rocky outcropping. The light glowed silver on the lakes below us.

“What a planet!” Robinson said.

The next day we hiked out. It was a pleasant, long walk over Bishop Pass and through the beautiful forest. Robinson was sad that he had to go and was worried about the wildfires.

“What do you think?” I asked, finally, as we made our way down an ordinary rocky slope. “Will we be all right?”

“We’ll have to make some big changes,” he said. “I just hope that we won’t have to make them so quickly that we break everything.”

I wondered what he meant by “everything.” Jobs? Currencies? What are the supply chains? Coastal cities? Beaches? Food? Ecologies? Societies? I looked around at Sierras. I looked to my left and saw water stretching out. The sky was blue above me as pines framed it. The trees were home to songbirds. It occurred to him that he meant everything. The entire world. All of it can end. I was lost in thought when I fell. ♦

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