Does science fiction have anything interesting to say about whether politics will consume itself instead of solve global challenges?
I had been waiting for John Scalzi’s The Consuming Fire to come out in paperback since late last year. Some science fiction authors I will buy in hardback. I couldn’t wait for the paperback of N.K.Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? And besides i presume that authors get a slightly bigger slice of the commission pie if they sell hardback units so i grabbed that, even though it wasn’t in the 20% discount for new hardback titles at Barnes and Noble (they have some calendar thing where for a certain time new releases have a discount, then they don’t).
Scalzi is one of those science fiction writers who i will happily read everything he writes, but probably not in hardback. That’s just an economic decision, based on the fact that i gobble up his novels in like two days. I don’t know when The Consuming Fire, Book Two in The Interdependency Series, comes out in paperback in the US. I was lucky enough to be traveling through Helsinki last week and there it was in the airport bookstore, and what’s more it had been available since last November, which was probably when i bought the Jemisin hardcover.
It’s worth the wait, but i am glad i didn’t have to wait any longer because like The Collapsing Empire, the first book in this series, it takes just two pages in before you end up getting excited by how much fun it is to read. The snappy, snarky, barbarous dialogue reads like a Veep script with a high preponderance of fucks given by people who don’t give a fuck.
One of the sub-genres of science fiction i really enjoy are political plots but in science fiction pulp, the culmination of politics usually centers around murder and espionage, and so it is here, where despite all the machinations and various chessboard-like reorganizations, at the core it is a series of assassination attempts. The villains are ruthless and often use each other to move their queens across the squares, but then turn and reframe their bishops as pawns and kick them off their own side of the board. The twists come quick and unexpected so when you are about to put the book down for the evening, along comes another gruesome space death, so okay, i will read just one more chapter and then go to sleep. (Yes people, readers can binge also.)
The Interdependency Series focuses on a far-flung future in which wormholes (not wormholes but lets call them wormholes) act like tunnels between various planets in the Interdependency Empire so that all the human colonies in space can travel relatively quickly, communicate across the galaxy, and trade. No one planet or space colony is completely self-sufficient so everyone needs to trade and pay taxes in order to manage their economies and that has given rise to a series of guild houses that each manage a planet/colony and are represented on the Interdependency Council board. There is a separate religious wing that is low on the dogma, but gives people solace. Technically, the head of the Interdependency is both head of the church and head of the Council, but mostly the guild houses run things politically. That is all changing as the wormhole systems, which no one really understood the science of completely as they were a natural phenomenon, are now starting to collapse. So the head of the church/Council is one of the first to get the data with probabilities on the collapses and everyone else is arguing whether they are really collapsing, or just adjusting, or could be explained by some other cause. The church/Council head (monikered under the gender-neutral Emperox, a nod to gender identity politics in the future, and incidentally this is another novel with great gay characters in it because LGBT people will exist in all the futures) now needs to corral the empire’s populations into understanding what the impacts of the wormhole loss could be on each planet’s ability to survive if they cannot trade in what they don’t produce. So of course, politically everyone just decides to assassinate or otherwise sideline her and get on with the main priority task which is jostle for power and control.
Climate change as metaphor
That’s about where the metaphor with climate change stops and starts really. The wormholes represent a kind of climate change impact in the Interdependency Empire: a colossal, impactful event that will require science and politics to work together to solve, even though we know far less about it than we think. In Scalzi’s world, much like this one, politicians instead focus on how to sit on the throne, while scientists pick apart the data on the basis that it is outside their area of expertise so doesn’t take into consideration whatever they are expert in. Luckily, in our world, mostly the scientists (over 97% of scientists apparently) have gotten past the idea of arguing about the overwhelming amount of data that inconclusively proves that climate change is happening, is significantly contributed to by humans, and are instead trying to alert the general public and the world political system while the media says hang on, even though there is now irrefutable proof from the bulk of science, we need a counter-opinion so we will give equal air time to some fringe flat earthers to create a dialectic. (There are currently 130 members of US Congress who do not believe that climate change exists or that, if it does, that it is a problem.)
And in political systems around the globe, systems of government prefer to focus on who should get to sit at the top of the pyramid. In the UK, over a full year has been taken up on the Brexit discussions. Now a few months can be taken up with choosing a new leader and then they can go back to more Brexit deliberations for another half-year. While jostling for popularity in the Brexit stakes, climate change policies have only been able to extend to the point of setting broad targets for 2050, what is missing is implementation plans for each department that describe how those goals will be realized. Department ministers have been too busy changing seats or caucusing for votes to actually lead.
Australia is even worse, the recently returned government, itself mired in political infighting, got back into power because the opponent wanted to talk redistribute wealth so everyone got a fairer share of the country’s resources. The Australian public would prefer an infighting, directionless mess to having to give up any of their comforts so others can prosper as well, so the government that was re-elected was chosen even though just prior to the election, they released a climate change plan that the climate action tracker said confirmed “that the Government is not intending to implement any serious policy efforts.”
In the US, the Affordable Clean Energy legislation has just replaced the Clean Power Plan, and is expected to result in increased carbon emissions.
What will it take? How bad does it need to get before governments take pre-emptive measures? I feel like we are going to use up all of our time and then it will be necessary to take “austerity measures”.
In the meantime i can only do what i am personally capable of, but like the Interdependency Empire, everything is connected. So i wonder if my recycling is of any use given that it is dumped on Asian and African countries. I try to reduce my use of plastic overall. I have to drastically reduce my intake of red meat, given its carbon footprint. I haven’t started on reducing my airflights (which is why i am buying pulp science fiction in Helsinki airports), but i do need to look into that, although that’s tough as i travel for my job often.
My take on the social media era is that no one needs to hear your opinion or for you to parse the latest news headlines with your own canny insights. Either you are participating in the solution or you are grumbling from the sidelines. Of course, we can’t be involved in every cause. I have picked a couple that i am seeking to contribute to with my time and efforts. For everything else i need to just live responsibly within my means and not contribute more to the issue. For now, climate change has been one of those secondary issues that i devote my time towards, but i do need to educate myself more and find ways to participate more actively in being part of the solution. I don’t know that any of us can afford to treat this as a secondary issue. Also, i am being a little hypocritical in wanting governments to make climate change a first order concern when in my own life i have just said i have decided to focus on other issues and to just do my best not to exacerbate the impacts.
So far our governments have demonstrated they are not interested in tackling this: in the Climate Change Action Tracker, the only countries that seem to be taking sufficient action are Costa Rica and Morocco.
It is a challenge to work on this on a personal level. Recent articles promoting what individuals can do note the limited impact that recycling and reducing plastic can play when the main challenges to progress are tax incentives for fossil fuels, and whole industries trying to apply last century practices until someone really makes them budge. I read the other day that they are making it a jailable offense in Missouri to call a food product a “burger” unless it includes slaughtered animal. I am not going to buy any meat that is produced in that state now if that’s the last century-type business practices the cattle industry lobby wants to play. I know that’s not enough, but i don’t vote in Missouri so i am limited in how i can be vocal against that kind of decision-making that is focused on preserving special interests over preserving the planet. One other thing i can do at the moment is switch all my energy supply over so that it is only drawing from renewable/clean energy sources.
A sudden ending
It may have been my love of the plot, dialogue and characters in The Consuming Fire, but i wanted this second volume in the series to be longer. The resolution was a little too quickly wrapped up for me and the final ten or so pages felt a little bit rushed, almost as if they were the plot outline for another forty or fifty pages of walking the reader through the denouement but were then just cleaned up and turned into sentences, using some nifty writing style techniques to move everyone ahead in the plot enough that the big reveal could be made, before a few lines then given to set up the third book in the series.
We won’t have that luxury with climate change. Last minute policy will be too late. This isn’t an ending we can rush, it needs to be plotted out and stepped through now. Meanwhile, increased extreme weather events show that climate change itself seems to be following Scalzi’s writing technique: a lot of dot notes on impacts get turned into a sooner-than-expected ending, in which almost everyone gets fucked.