Monday, August 6, 2018

My current thoughts about “New York 2140” concerning character and the problem of global warming

First, character. I know that the book has been criticized for having thin characters. The issue has been raised in the current group reading being conducted by Bryan Alexander. Is this typical of Robinson? I’ve read the Mars trilogy, but that was so long ago that I have little recollection. Anyhow, whether or not it is typical, what of it?

The novel has ‘classically’ been seen as a genre for the exploration of inner life, and that requires rich character development. Consider Pride and Prejudice, which seems to have become THE paradigmatic novel. The objective, of course, is to marry the girls off, Elizabeth in particular, for she’s the central character. She gets a rude awakening midway through the book and has to rethink both herself and Mr. Darcy. It’s only in the wake of this revision that Austen can steer her story to a successful conclusion.

How would that sort of self-discovery and revision work in NY2140? Note, that in the first place, marriage is NOT where this ship is headed. It’s not headed toward a personal goal for any of the major characters. And the plot depends much on chance occurrence (so does a Dickens plot, but there’s chance and there’s coincidence–a difference requiring some explication, but not here).

What if one (or more) of Robinson’s characters were to have a major remake in the course of the story? If that remake is essential to their contribution to the overall plot, then that makes the resolution of the story – such as it is – contingent in personal growth. I don’t think Robinson would want that. It betrays the underlying logic of the narrative, the myth logic, in you will. (I suppose I should say more about the, but not now.)

On the other hand, if one or more characters should undergo personal transformation that plays no role in the overall plot, then what’s it doing in the book? It requires a lot of work to make such things compelling. Why under take that work if it is only incidental?

* * * * *

On the problematic of writing a story into global warming, I continue to like the line I took in New York 2140: Will the future ever be the same? Most science fiction is written on a blank slate, by which I mean a future in which humans are the most powerful actors. Sure, there may be nasty and powerful aliens, a wormhole may collapse on you, whatever. But always the humans will somehow overcome.

And, of course, it would in theory be possible to treat global warming like that. But the fact is, it is all too real, and we don’t know what to do. Are we wise and powerful enough to overcome? We don’t know. And, what’s worse, we seem to have brought it on ourselves. Writing fiction into that, that’s different.

I close with the paragraphs from an article in Slate by Shannon Osaka:
“Why didn’t we act?” Rich asks, almost plaintively, in his prologue. He argues that the primary barriers to inaction today — widespread climate denial and propagandizing by far-right groups and fossil fuel companies — had not emerged by the mid-1980s. “Almost nothing stood in our way — except ourselves,” he writes.

Rich has already come under fire for this perspective. Many writers have complained that he is letting fossil fuel companies and Republicans off the hook. But is it true? Is human nature itself to blame for inaction?

A fair number of scholars agree — to a point. For a long time, climate change has been called a “wicked problem” or even a “super-wicked problem” by behavioral economists and policy experts. As political scientist Steve Rayner has written, climate change has no simple solution, no silver bullet. It is scientifically complex and comes with deep uncertainties about the future. It cuts across boundaries, both disciplinary and national. Its worst effects will occur in the future, not in the here and now. And it requires large-scale, systemic changes to society.

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