I’ve been participating in Bryan Alexander’s discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. One participant, Tom Haymes, brings up one of those “old time good ones”, to borrow a phrase from Louis Armstrong: “All good speculative fiction ... is really about the realities of today transposed on a vision of tomorrow.” I’ve already discussed more or less this issue, twice, and now I’m going to do it again.
Two old discussions
But first, some links and quick reminders: In Getting from HERE to THERE: New York 2140 I raised the issue directly, arriving at the idea that whoa! this isn’t about the future, it’s about the present!–as Tom and I’m sure many others have thought. But just what IS the PRESENT?
What time scale do we use to measure the present? There’s a body of research in psychology that pegs the perceptual present at about three to four seconds. That’s certainly not the appropriate scale. But what is? A year, a decade, a century?
Things are in motion over a wide range of time scales. What’s the time-scale of global warming–years, decades, centuries? We’re dealing with waves. Where are we on the wave, the leading foot, the crest? What possibilities for change exist at each phase angle, they vary, no?
And then there’s New York 2140: What IS fiction, anyhow? Didn’t the so-called “new journalism” of the 1960s and 70s blur the line between fiction and reality? Is historically accurate fiction less fictional than fantasy because, well, it’s less fanciful? The alternative scenarios posed by a futurist are offered as explorations of future reality, and yet they must, by nature, be fiction, no? Where’s the line between such prognostications and KSR’s novel?
And now, a more “classical” take
Consider, for example, the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. It seems to me that they are unproblematically within the scope of that old, that “classical”, observation. They really are talking about more or less (possibilities inherent in) our present world, but just transposed into different “skin”. We are told that the Star Wars world is set in galaxy long ago and far away, our Earth doesn’t figure into it at all, but still the settings are earthlike, no? In contrast, the Star Trek franchise is geocentric and some of the action, even whole episodes, takes place on earth, though most takes place elsewhere. Both franchises feature physically implausible technology – warp drives in both, the transporter, replicator, and universal translator of Star Trek – while Star Wars is suffused with mystification and mysticism more typical of fantasy. Moreover, as I believe the late Harlan Ellison pointed out, the Star Wars universe is top-down and authoritarian while the Star Trek world is more friendly to democracy. Which is to say, he’s looking at them as reflections of existing social realities. The tech is irrelevant.
And so it is with the Blade Runner universe (I’ve not yet the novel from which it derives), which is pretty near term (2049!). It’s not so technically distant from us as those other two are, no so far in the future as the Star Trek universe is, but, still, the tech is beyond what we’ve currently got, the replicants, permanent habitation of space, the flying cars. It’s a surveillance state. We recognize that, don’t we? But just what’s up with those replicants? I don’t see any near term technological prospect of such beings, but that’s not the point, is it? Who cares whether or not such beings are possible, ever? What issues do they raise, what current issues do they speak to? (Identity?)
And then we have Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There we can look back and see that Kubrick blew it on a lot of the tech. But that’s hardly the point, is it? There’s that prelude in the prehistoric and the star-child finish, it’s almost as though the whole thing is a myth, even an allegory. Or a cosmology? It’s a vision of the world, not of the future.
And what of Man in the High Castle? That’s set in the third quarter of the 20the century, but in an alternative history where the Germans and Japanese won WWII. Tech is not at all an issue. Society is. The difference between that world and ours is simply who won the war–not at all a simple matter, but let’s just say THAT’s about military power and leave it at that. How do Americans live under the heal of totalitarian rule? (Who knows, maybe we’ll find out in the not so distant future.)
What’s the Difference?
And so, New York 2140. That world looks pretty much like our world but with different geography (higher seas) and weather patterns, some different tech (most obviously in building materials and construction) and familiar social arrangements. There’s a bit more localism in the cities, more boondocks, weakening of the central government, but the split between the super-wealthy and the rest of us abides, as does world rule by finance.
What of the Mad Max universe? Technology’s been blasted back to the 19th century, large scale societies are gone, but the remaining tribes seem familiar enough.
Are we really just stuck with the same old same old but dressed up in different costumes?
If it really is the case the science fiction is but the current world in different guise, then why expect anything different from Kim Stanley Robinson? Why even bring it up?
Why even raise the issue?
It’s almost as though the issue arises precisely because Robinson makes so little effort to disguise (disguise?) the continuity of NY2140 with the present. That is, in all of the cases above – Star Trek, Star Wars, Blade Runner, 2001, High Castle – we are presented with a world that’s sharply different from our world in an obvious way. Star Trek/Wars has flashy tech & mysticism, Blade Runner has those replicants (really, sharply different?), 2001 (star child), in High Castle the bad guys won, and Mad Max is blasted.
But NY2140 doesn’t present us with that (comforting) sharp difference. Or at least not sharp enough. The possibility/probability of global flooding is now very real, too real–remember, I live across the Hudson from Manhattan, and we got flooded out by a hurricane, first time ever. Robinson is writing in to that reality. And that changes things, doesn’t it?
That is, the prospect of global warming changes the nature of the future. The future is no longer a blank slate onto which we can freely project whatever we will. It’s a slate that’s filled with an ominous something that’s not yet (fully) formed, something we don’t like. When you write a story about that, that THING, that’s different from writing on a blank slate future.
It’s as though by inscribing a familiar NY2140 on that not-yet-fully-formed monster KSR forces us to confront the monster. If he’d offered us some flashy tech, well we could gobble it up. But this?
Do I believe that? I don’t know, I just now thought it up. But the idea that writing into global warming is different from writing into a blank slate, that seems worth pursuing, worth developing.
For it does seem to me that Star Trek/Wars, Blade Runner, 2001, and Mad Max are all inscribed on a “blank slate” future. Of course High Castle isn’t inscribed on the future at all. But it is precisely because it didn’t happen, that’s what “protects” us.
Blank slate? Perhaps by that I mean a world with a ‘clean’ split between nature and culture. Fiction written on such a slate is all about culture. Global warming has obliterated that split, thus changing the ‘nature’ of the future.
Will fiction ever be the same?
It’s a half day later and I’m still liking it. But I have a refinement. The phrase “blank slate” puts the emphasis on the fact that global warming is there. But then I write that global warming has obliterated the nature/culture distinction. Those are two different things and, in the abstract, they are separable. One can accept global warming without dropping or somehow problematizing the nature/culture binary. And one can call that binary into question without a thought about global warming.
So, which is in question in NY2140? Or is it both?
See this article by Amitav Ghosh from 2016: Where is the fiction about climate change? He says:
See this article by Amitav Ghosh from 2016: Where is the fiction about climate change? He says:
Here, then, is the irony of the “realist” novel: the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real. What this means in practice is that the calculus of probability that is deployed within the imaginary world of a novel is not the same as that which obtains outside it; this is why it is commonly said, “If this were in a novel, no one would believe it”. Within the pages of a novel an event that is only slightly improbable in real life – say, an unexpected encounter with a long-lost childhood friend – may seem wildly unlikely: the writer will have to work hard to make it appear persuasive.
If that is true of a small fluke of chance, consider how much harder a writer would have to work to set up a scene that is wildly improbable even in real life. For example, a scene in which a character is walking down a road at the precise moment when it is hit by an unheard-of weather phenomenon?
To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction. [...]
This, then, is the first of the many ways in which the age of global warming defies both literary fiction and contemporary common sense: the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability. Indeed, it has even been proposed that this era should be named the “catastrophozoic” (others prefer such phrases as “the long emergency” and “the penumbral period”). It is certain in any case that these are not ordinary times: the events that mark them are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction. [...]
There is, however, an important difference between the weather events that we are now experiencing and those that occur in surrealist and magical realist novels: improbable though they might be, these events are neither surreal nor magical. To the contrary, these highly improbable occurrences are overwhelmingly, urgently, astoundingly real. The ethical difficulties that might arise in treating them as magical or metaphorical or allegorical are obvious.
But there is another reason why, from the writer’s point of view, it would serve no purpose to approach them in that way: because to treat them as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling – which is that they are actually happening on this Earth, at this time.