How global warming is turning a genre once filled with pipe dreams into a pipeline of ideas.

Climate change has inundated parts of the world in the board game “Antarctica: Global WARming.” Courtesy of Savita Games, Inc.

Before World War II, science fiction was scorned as “that Buck Rogers stuff” for its allusions to fictitious rocket ships and atomic weapons. Then V2 rockets whizzed across blitzed cities and an atomic bomb ended the war. Suddenly, the genre gained some respect.

“After WWII, it validated its visions, and people began to look at it as a fiction which deals with impending problems,” said James Gunn, veteran science fiction author and director of The Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

And then science fiction grew to be a little bit darker. The future became dirtier, dystopic. One of the real world themes that fits this adopted motif is climate change. More than ever before, global warming is leaving its mark on works of science fiction.

Sure, The Day After Tomorrow flunked climate predictions, but the premise held true: Warming combined with ice melt in the north Atlantic may very well slow down the thermohaline circulation. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld tanked at the box office, but sea levels promise to recreate the movie’s set in Bangladesh if they rise by even 1 meter. A recently released board game, called Antarctica: Global WARming, is similar to the game RISK, but is in the future—when the melting of East Antarctica has caused sea levels to rise by 70 meters.

A growing list of books have accompanied this barrage of visual media, including J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.

“The genre of climate change fiction is accelerating, and I expect it will accelerate at the same rate as the scientific evidence becomes solider and solider,” said Mark Tushingham, an environmental scientist who’s studied climate change since the 1980s and published his first science fiction novel, Hotter Than Hell, last November.

But the biggest service these writers provide may not be sheer entertainment—or even a roundabout public service announcement.

“They’re trying to dramatize the human potential of what we now only see as scientific possibilities,” said Gunn, “because, as humans, we don’t really see how it’s going to affect us unless we see it enacted in fiction and in film.”

Perhaps, science fiction writers will get the world to start thinking ahead more often.

If science fiction can be a bit dysptopian, it seems that the genre can also lend a realistic and creative hand. It may even improve the outcome.

“I’m trying to get people aware not of the physical characteristics of climate change but the social consequences of climate change,” said Tushingham, who is scheduled to finish a sequel to his debut book this spring. “We’re doing an experiment, and we don’t know what the results will be. And we’re just sort of crossing our fingers.”

John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine during its heyday in the late-‘30s through the ‘40s, once said that science fiction allowed people to practice in a no-practice area. These days, climate change is making that no-practice area more of a reality.
Veteran science fiction author Gregory Benford is one example of a writer who’s taking his ideas from the realm of fantasy to the real world. The University of California Irvine physicist and author of countless titles, including Timescape, announced his bid to cool down the world at the Skeptics Conference hosted at the California Institute of Technology last June. His idea is simple: Launch particulate matter high up into the atmosphere where it will reflect back UV rays before they get inside the greenhouse that is our world.

“The costs we estimate are trivial,” Benford told DeSmog Blog at the conference. “It’s on the order of a billion dollars a year—to save the whole world!”

If science fiction can be a bit dysptopian, it seems that the genre can also lend a realistic and creative hand. It may even improve the outcome.

As futurist and environmentalist Jon Lebkowsky puts it, “How can we get the best possible future?”

Lebkowsky is the webmaster for Bruce Sterling’s Viridian Design Movement, an online green art movement that has spun off sci-fi-like gadgets such as a sponge phone and spore ink.

“Science fiction gives us a class of people who have their heads in the future all the time,” said Lebkowsky, who also serves as a consultant to WorldChanging, a community that seeks to arrive at a better future using the ideas and tools around today. “And you know, it may be a fairly fantastic future—one that’s not as likely—but it could actually incubate some real thinking and some real futurist planning.”

Originally published October 16, 2006

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