Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Most Important Book of the 21st Century

Climate change is not coming. Climate change is here and it's a motherfucker.

That is the single undeniable truth at the core of Loosed Upon the World, a science fiction anthology in the best tradition of the genre. Writers from around the world exploring possible near futures on this rapidly warming world, some more optimistic than others, but all grounded in very harsh realities.

Rains are a common motif. The entry by Kim Stanley Robinson begins with a flooded Washington DC, punctuated by a light political joke which doesn't keep with the overwhelming new normal of the District swallowed by the Potomac. Rain is desperately prayed for elsewhere, such as in the parched Amazon Basin of Vandana Singh's "Entanglement." We're already experiencing this reshuffling of the rainy seasons, with droughts across the hot countries while the wealthy Nor'east drowns.

Smog makes an appearance too, especially in stories by Chinese authors. Sci-fi is a growing thing in Chinese lit, from Cixin Liu's space opera to Ken Liu's silkpunk (no relation), but "The Smog Society" by Chen Qiufan is as much about the alienation of modern cities. A toxic atmosphere, both literal and metaphorical, chokes the life and joy from everyone, depression fueling sickness in a feedback loop similar to the one increasing particulate matter and necessitating the face masks that are already so popular in China.

And then there's the plain weird and gross speculations of a future world closer to Earth's primordial era than are temperate modern world. The aptly title "That Creeping Sensation" by Alan Dean Foster postulates a world where rising carbon dioxide energizes soft plant matter - like kudzu - causing a spike in the oxygen percentage in the air. We only breath about 20% of the stuff now, more being both flammable and discombobulating. And it makes insects grow larger. Foster's post ice cap world doesn't just feature wildfires and humidity, but footlong wasps and dog-sized cockroaches - all desperately culled by an elite US Army exterminator division. It's a losing battle, though, especially as the ants - already organized - get big enough to start making plans...

Gross-out shock stories like this are good fun - and drive home the horror of global warming far better than rising sea levels - but let's return to Singh's "Entanglement." It goes well beyond the dried Amazon, looking in on an arctic researcher and a Texas widow-turned-activist, among many others. All united in a mission to make the world more livable for one another and future generations. Of all the stories here, it best contextualizes the global nature of global warming by presenting a global response. Not the technocratic geo-engineering of Robinson and other hard SF guys - and yeah, that's always guys - but through an international solidarity that puts every socialist movement to shame. More than a vision of the future, Singh's single work of fiction provides a blueprint for facing down the biggest existential threat to human civilization.

And there's so much more here. Not since the most pessimistic fiction of the Cold War has fiction been so close to fact. And so necessary.