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Welcome to the Greenhouse: New Science Fiction on Climate Change
edited by Gordon Van Gelder
OR Books, 352 pages

Welcome to the Greenhouse
Gordon Van Gelder
Gordon Van Gelder began working as an editor at St. Martin's Press in 1988 right out of college. He attended Clarion West in 1987, and edited The New York Review of Science Fiction from 1988-95. In January 1997, he replaced Kristine Kathryn Rusch as editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and bought the magazine in 2000. He lives in Hoboken, NJ with his wife, Barbara.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Website
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SF Site Review: In Lands That Never Were

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

I am coming to the conclusion that the worst disservice ever done to "science fiction" was saddling it with that name. In particular, the "science" part. It raises expectations and assumptions on behalf of both readers and writers that the genre mostly cannot, and should not, even attempt to fulfil. I have doubts about Robert A. Heinlein's alternative, "speculative fiction," but really, I can see where he's coming from.

As long as we expect fiction to incorporate scientific rigor, we are doomed to disappointment. And if we expect science fiction writers to be better qualified than any other reasonably well-informed member of the public to comment on the scientific issues facing us today, we are deceiving ourselves. The ability to play with ideas does not predicate any understanding of what underlies those ideas; still less does it imply any real life ability to do anything meaningful with those ideas. Science fiction does not predict anything, it does not lay out guidelines for how faster than light travel might be facilitated or how encounters with aliens should be negotiated. Yet we never quite shake off the notion that science fiction is, by its very nature, somehow more true, more useful, more accurate than other fictions.

That self-delusion, in which we have all colluded at some point and to some degree, is evident in the subtitle of this new collection: "New science fiction on climate change." Note that "on" -- we can all rest easy because science fiction is now addressing the issue. It is there in the preface by environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, when she talks about what we don't know about global warming:

As the planet heats up, almost certainly some regions will experience more intense droughts, but which regions, exactly, and how intense will those droughts be? Monsoon patterns will shift, and produce flooding, but which cities will be submerged? Will new heat-resistant crops be developed, and new technologies invented to transport[sic], like floating highways? The greatest unknown of all is, of course, how people, collectively, will respond. Will they be chastened? Genocidal? Or will they just muddle along, behind growing seawalls and shrinking coasts? Science -- even social science -- can't answer questions like this, which is why we turn to science fiction. (9-10)
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Kolbert is, of course, only turning to science fiction for an answer to the last question; but the paragraph is deceptive, it can easily be read as though science fiction can answer all these questions, which, of course, it cannot. It can't even answer the last one. What science fiction can do is produce scenarios for thought experiments: if we assume such-and-such a situation, then we might imagine that people could respond in this way. It is hardly definitive, and in fact science -- even social science -- can conduct exactly the same thought experiments, with perhaps more reliable data as a starting point. To imagine any more than that is to over-sell what science fiction can do. This volume is not science fiction addressing the issue of climate change, it is science fiction playing with some of the scenarios that climate change might suggest. And I wouldn't like to be the climate change scientist faced with taking some of these stories as serious proposals for how the future might look.

Take, for example, "True North" by M.J. Locke, which is, I think, one of the better stories in this collection. It is set in Montana a little under a hundred years from now, a harsh and unforgiving landscape, where a lonely widower helps a group of children. Along the way they encounter a militaristic enclave and a secret scientific hideaway. Well, the militaristic enclave is familiar from any number of survivalist tales or dystopias, while the secret scientific hideaway is nothing more than Asimov's Foundation relocated a little closer in time and space. It's a neat story, fairly predictable in its structure but it has a nice tough guy tone and efficient characterisation; but what does it actually tell us about climate change? Montana's a fairly rugged landscape anyway, but whether it would be affected this way is, as Kolbert points out, one of the things science cannot tell us, and neither can science fiction. What we have here is the old Western myth: a tough land breeds tough people, but with a leavening of sentiment, because the tough guy has to look after the children. That a hero can defeat an army virtually single-handed, and that there is going to be a secret place where scientists will work to put everything right again, is just wishful thinking. So a hard-edged story with an aura of realism about it turns out to be telling us that after climate change myths will come true.

Though to be honest that's a far more realistic take on things than some of the stories included here. "Damned When You Do" by Jeff Carlson has a holy child able to change the rate of the world's spin just by walking around the equator, until common humanity knocks him off course. Frankly, if that's the most likely solution to global warming that our science fiction writers can come up with, we're doomed. Or maybe the solution is to contact aliens, as in "Not A Problem" by Matthew Hughes. This isn't the most reassuring scenario anyway, particularly not when Hughes's aliens turn out to be dinosaurs who eat us. This is not addressing climate change, this is not conducting thought experiments about the way the future might be, this is simply throwing up your hands and retreating into fantasy.

What these stories are doing is using global warming as a background, or even just as an excuse, for a fairly standard sf story. The genre has been doing post-catastrophe stories for 200 years, so it is very easy to file off the serial numbers, rename the catastrophe "climate change" and away you go. How many post-catastrophe stories have you read which effectively extol the virtues of authoritarianism by featuring strong-willed characters who restore order by taking the law into their own hands and then bending everyone else to their will? Here it's called "The California Queen Comes A-Calling" by Pat MacEwan and it features a paddle steamer sailing about the Inland Sea that is what California has mostly become, bringing frontier justice to isolated communities. It's a story we've read many times before, in one guise or another, and like so many American post-catastrophe stories it assumes without question that the mythical "West" will be the model for American reconstruction.

The 16 authors represented in this volume are pretty much in agreement about what the world will look like after global warming. The seas will rise and the land will become a desert (the exception is Chris Lawson in "Sundown," who perversely decides that the earth will freeze over); so the stories follow a similar course, recounting the new difficulties that must be faced. Other than Carlson and Hughes, the only contributor who contemplates finding a solution to global warming is Gregory Benford, in what is, to my mind, the best story in the collection, "Eagle." It approaches its subject obliquely, not directing our attention to the technology of seeding the clouds, but to the terrorists who want to prevent it for extreme ecological reasons. It is also the only story in the book about the approach of global warming rather than its after-effects, and as such in this very contentious area it allows for the fact that nothing is settled, that everything is open for debate. I suspect that when it comes to the political confusion that surrounds the science of climate change, I am probably not in the same camp as Benford, but here he engages with the issue in a far more open fashion than anyone else, and that is what makes this such an interesting story.

It is interesting that Benford does engage with the issue, because that is far from a given, even in a narrowly defined theme anthology such as this. You could hardly say that David Prill engages with the issue in "The Men of Summer," for instance; in the opening lines of the story we are told how hot it is, and that is practically the only point at which the climate impinges upon the action, which is a rather slight and surreal story about summer romances gone wild. Reading between the lines of Ray Vukcevich's "Fish Cakes" we might work out that the rather peculiar mode of travel that occupies the mid-point of the story is a result of cutting the environmental impact of air travel, but it is tangential to the story and any impact it might have had is dissipated in a somewhat inconsequential tale. Meanwhile the giant insects that threaten small town America in "That Creeping Sensation" by Alan Dean Foster suggest that global warming might play the same part that atomic power once did in films like Them! without actually addressing climate change in any direct way.

Along with Benford's "Eagle," then, the most interesting stories here are those that keep their attention close to the onset of global warming. Once it has happened, once the story is all aftermath, then the scenario becomes a variation on the familiar sf catastrophe story and time and again we see how little of interest can be wrung from the theme. (The exception that proves this rule is "The Master of the Aviary" by Bruce Sterling, which comes close to the Benford as one of the best stories in the collection. But this is set so far after the event that we have gone well beyond survival mode and an elaborate social system has become established; and Sterling's story is far more about this Renaissance-like society than it is about climate change.) Keeping close to when global warming is actually happening, keeping the focus tight, allows a more open ending. In "Turtle Love," for instance, Joseph Green keeps his attention on the beachfront communities being lost as sea levels start to rise, but in particular he concentrates on the effect of rising sea levels on those turtles that lay their eggs in the sand above the high water line. While in "The Middle of Somewhere," Judith Moffett looks at two disparate women in an isolated house in the path of a tornado, These are hardly wide-ranging thought experiments about the long-term social, cultural, political or economic consequences of global warming, but they do speak on the human level to what some of us might be facing over the coming years. And that is what makes them powerful and effective stories.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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