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Van Gelder, G. (Ed.) 2011. Welcome to the Greenhouse. OR Books, New York. 348 p.
Introduction: greenhouse warming
Carlson: Damned When You Do
Moffett: The Middle of Somewhere
Hughes: Not a Problem
Alexander: Come Again Some Other Day
Sterling: The Master of the Aviary
Green: Turtle Love
MacEwen: The California Queen Comes A-calling
Foster: That Creeping Sensation
Prill: The Men of Summer
Guthridge: The Bridge
Di Filippo: FarmEarth
Vukcevich: Fish Cakes
Locke: True North
Van Gelder: Welcome to the Greenhouse
Unless you’ve lived in a cave for the past several decades, you’ve undoubtedly heard of global warming and the greenhouse effect, but a brief and therefore simplistic recap of the salient points is helpful to provide context for what follows (particularly if you have been living in a cave):
Since the start of the industrial revolution (roughly speaking, the past two centuries), humanity has been pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (mostly coal and oil). At the same time, we’ve seriously damaged many of the systems responsible for taking up that gas, one example being massive deforestation to make room for industrial agriculture. The result of increased production and decreased reduction is that carbon dioxide is being produced at rates significantly greater than the world’s ecosystems can absorb this gas, causing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to rise dramatically. For simplicity, let’s consider some ballpark figures, namely a broadly accepted level of about 260 ppm (parts per million) before 1800 versus a level greater than 360 ppm now—an increase of nearly 40%. At this rate, levels could potentially double from pre-industrial levels by the end of the current century; since the rate of increase has accelerated during the past decade, that’s potentially a conservative prediction. Worse still, with warming temperatures in arctic regions, huge supplies of peat will unfreeze for the first time since the last glaciation, releasing huge quantities of methane as the peat decays. Unfortunately, methane is an even more potent greenhouse-effect gas than carbon dioxide. This may lead to positive-feedback effects that accelerate the rate of change.
These changes create a major problem: both carbon dioxide and methane trap outgoing longwave radiation, much like the glass roof of a greenhouse does (hence the name greenhouse effect). Longwave radiation is what heats our atmosphere and that of a greenhouse, leading to “global warming”. Global warming pumps more energy into the global oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns, which are responsible for our weather patterns, thereby creating more extreme weather events—much like pumping your legs on a swing causes you to rise to ever greater extremes at both ends of the arc. Because of the complexity of global circulation patterns, the changes are not the same everywhere in the world; although the overall temperature will increase, it may increase greatly in some areas and decrease in other areas. Rainfall and snow patterns will also change, and not always in the same direction as the temperature change. This creates a complexity that even most climatologists don’t fully grasp.
There are other complications to consider. We’re currently well into the warm period between the repeated cycles of glaciation and warming that have affected Earth’s climate for as long as our planet has had an atmosphere. Global warming is a natural and expected trend as the cold glacial period recedes. So there are two processes going on here: natural warming that would occur even if we humans weren’t around, and anthropogenic warming caused by humans. I haven’t seen any rigorous analysis of the relative contributions of nature and humans to the overall change, but that’s not really all that important. Despite a high degree of variation in the data, which is only to be expected for any system as complex as climate, the evidence is unassailable: our planet is growing warmer, and potentially doing so at a historically unprecedented rate due to anthropogenic impacts. Over the years, I’ve edited many climate-related papers that have appeared in prestigious international journals. The long-term studies are most interesting, because they provide evidence based on both extrapolations with a heavy theoretical basis (e.g., changes in isotope ratios and tree-ring widths) and directly observed and entirely non-theoretical data (e.g., thousand-year records of when ice melted in a particular Japanese lake and of the dates when plants flowered in many areas of the world). The overall weight of the evidence is unassailable: many lines of evidence converge on a single conclusion, namely that global warming is a fact. Whether or not we humans are the primary factor responsible for this trend, it’s a fact we need to face.
My personal opinion, based on the weight of the evidence, is that we’ve already passed the tipping point, and there’s not much we can do other than to stop pouring fuel on the flames and start preparing for the consequences. Bottom line: We’re working ourselves into a seriously nasty situation, whatever its cause, and we’ll have to deal with this “inconvenient fact” whether or not we believe that we’re responsible for the phenomenon. Sticking one’s head in the sand doesn’t work for us any better than it does for cartoon ostriches: the problem doesn’t go away just because we’re not looking at it. Sadly, we humans are masters of the art of ignoring problems and hoping they’ll go away until things get bad enough that ignorance no longer works, and desperate measures are required. We’re about to find ourselves in that situation, in spades.
Enter the anthology Welcome to the Greenhouse, edited by F&SF’s Gordon van Gelder. Science fiction authors have a long and proud history of considering the effects of science on individual humans and society, whether in the form of creating rigorous thought experiments like those performed by theoretical physicists or simply creating interesting settings for a story. The good stories (and from this I exclude 100% of anything you’ve seen in a movie theater and 99% of anything you’ve seen on TV) have often done a remarkable job of predicting things that scientists confirmed or engineers made real decades later. In coming weeks, I’ll be reviewing the stories in this anthology to see what some of the leading lights in our field have to say about the issue of global warming.
Some of you may know that I’ve been reviewing fiction in Asimov’s SF magazine and F&SF for more than a year. If not, click here to see my various reviews. The criteria I use in reviewing fiction are somewhat complex:
In the context of Welcome to the Greenhouse, I’ve added a fifth criterion: does the author have anything interesting to say about the problems we’ll likely face and how we solve them?
The context now set, I’ll proceed to the reviews.
Benkoelen is a small, rocky island off the coast of Sumatra, increasingly difficult to reach due to the rising sea levels and intense waves created by global warming. We meet the island through the arrival of Coyne, son of western and Asian parents, who has arrived bearing a message for his sister, who runs a sanctuary for endangered great apes (chimps and orangutans) on the island: Coyne’s former lover, who owns the island and has funded the sanctuary, is withdrawing her funding and will close down the sanctuary.
Unfortunately, that’s all there is to Benkoelen: this is a vignette, and a shallow one at that, not a story. We learn little of the characters, they do not change in any significant way during the course of the story, and there is no conflict that is initiated or resolved. The result reads like a good first draft of what will eventually become a chapter in a novel or section midway through a novella. The theme of this anthology (global warming) is entirely irrelevant to the story, since the tale would not need to change in any significant way if Aldiss removed all mention of global warming.
Aldiss is a pro, so he does some things well despite the aforementioned drawbacks. Coyne, for instance, emerges in the space of a few short pages as a self-involved and mercenary character who is entirely heedless of others (after a clumsy attempt at comfort, he entirely dismisses his sister’s pain over the death of one of her beloved orangs). He seems misanthropic and pessimistic about humanity’s chances, and there are hints of a certain sense of British “stiff upper lip” combined with the decadence of an extremely rich society fiddling while Rome burns. But the dialogue struck me as clumsy and the descriptions perfunctory. On the whole, Benkoelen is a disappointing choice for inclusion in this volume and a particularly disappointing choice for lead position, where an uninspired tale like this one might scare away potential readers. Aldiss can do much better, and should have. Fortunately, the next story is a great improvement.
From the first sentences, we know Carlson will be addressing us in high “tall tale” mode en route to delivering a tidy little parable about good deeds: “It was not a virgin birth, I can tell you that much. The boy never could fly or catch bullets with his teeth, and those people who say he was 20 feet tall are full of it.” But the boy can walk (and roll) on water, a talent that comes in useful.
Albert Timothy Shofield is born a literal bouncing baby boy, emerging from his mother in the midst of an earthquake that destroys the hospital, hitting the ground rolling, and never again stopping, apart from a brief interlude when he becomes trapped in a box canyon and the world literally trembles until he’s freed. Albert’s immediately off on his journey into the world, rolling along and gathering his moss, and he won’t see his parents again until he’s nearly 8 years old, by which time he’s become something of a prodigy, having learned dozens of languages and more about science and other “ologies” than most veteran scientists ever learn in a full career. And somehow, he has the power to change the Earth’s rotation, change its climate, and remove greenhouse gases from the air while also possessing the knowledge of how to do so, even at the tender age of a few months. Scientists learn that he’s now the one orbiting the sun, a very solipsist saviour indeed, and that he’s the perpetually rolling stone who’s walking while the Earth is revolving beneath his feet, “like a man on a spherical treadmill”.
Along the long, strange road that Albert travels, people care for him until he’s old enough to care for himself, and he brings out both the best and the worst in people. For every person who feeds him, nurtures him, and thanks him, someone else tries to turn this into a media circus or persuade his parents to accept corporate sponsorships. Albert generally turns his powers of persuasion to good ends, such as convincing those who have been secretly sitting on “green” technologies while they profit from dirty coal and oil into releasing these technologies to help save the world. Yet despite his godlike powers, Albert has his limits; when he confronts the Kim dictatorship of North Korea in an effort to force them to change, plunging the country into perpetual darkness without endangering neighboring lands (clearly impossible, but go with it for the sake of the story), he meets his match. Instead of giving in, Kim sends his minions out into the world bearing vials of plague and killing millions before the nuclear powers bomb him (and, sadly, his people) back into the stone age. Albert, traumatized by this consequence, manipulates the world enough to stop the fallout from killing everyone downwind, then withdraws to the world’s oceans to ponder his sins and seek absolution.
When he returns, he uses his skills to try turning the world into a garden paradise, and he’s largely succeeding. But along the way, he’s caught one or more of those plagues, and he’s clearly dying. Worse, he is increasingly villified by growing numbers of people for the mistakes he’s made along the way. And in the fine tradition of “damned if [when] you do”, there’s no winning these kinds of games: no matter how hard you strive to make the world a better place, and no matter how brilliant you are at doing it, you’ll inevitably screw up something, and even when you don’t, some people will demonize you for even trying. The story’s told by Albert’s father Jack, who recounts the tale in a folksy, straightforward, unaffected tone that easily escapes parody through its sincerity. It’s probably going way too far to accuse Carlson of creating a hagiography of Albert Gore (you know, the guy responsible for An Inconvenient Truth), but there’s little doubt our protagonist’s given name is no accident and that Carlson is having a ton of fun riffing on the recent beatification of Saint Albert.
Tall tales don’t garner much respect, particularly when they seem to be as over the top as this one is, but in failing to take them seriously, we may be forgetting how the best satires make us stop between chuckles and think. Jack makes it clear that he, like everyone else, knew what he was doing through his old, irresponsible behavior, but kept doing it anyway because the immediate gains were simply too convenient to pass up. That’s the kind of message you can’t deliver without preaching unacceptably in any other medium than the tall tale, and it’s an unsubtle reminder that most of us are secretly hoping for some messiah to come and save the world so that we won’t have to. In that sense, Damned When You Do makes a clear point that would be difficult to achieve in any other way, certainly not without the author being damned for what he’d done.
Kaylee is a high school student working on the Cornell “Nestwatch” project, which tracks birds and various of their characteristics such as when they first lay eggs. (That’s the “greenhouse” tie-in: as temperatures grow warmer earlier in the year, eggs are laid earlier in the season.) To help in this project, she’s staying with Jane, a senior who lives alone and “off the grid” in a small log cabin in rural Kentucky. One of the predicted side-effects of global warming will be increased storm frequency and severity, so Jane keeps her radio tuned to the NOAA weather alerts channel, and sure enough, a thunderstorm watch soon turns into a tornado warning. Thus, it’s no surprise when the tornado hits the cabin, and both Jane and Kaylee are hiding in a tornado shelter in the basement.
[Spoilers] After the tornado passes, the two women are trapped in the basement, and cut off from civilization: the storm has knocked out the cell tower, so Kaylee can’t call or text for help. And they’re going to need help, since Jane is bleeding badly from a wound incurred during the damage done to her cabin, which has been crushed by a falling tree. Fortunately, Kaylee is no wimp, and steps up magnificently to her responsibilty. She helps Jane stabilize the wound, gathers the resources that Jane has stocked and that they’ll need to survive for the next few days until rescuers arrive, and even finds it in herself to rescue a nestbox full of hatchlings whose parents have been killed by the storm. (That’s one of those fundamentally human things we do in a crisis: focus on doing something good, even if that something may appear trivial in the larger scheme of things.)
There are a few awkward moments from a fictional/narrative perspective once the immediate crisis is over. The discussion of how global warming affects sea temperatures and thus, storms, emerges more or less naturally from the dialogue between the two women. However, the subsequent discussion of how part of the problem with the public perception of global warming is how far we’ve distanced ourselves from nature (losing touch with what Kaylee and Jane both call “fundamental things”), and of the virtues of Thoreau’s homesteading, self-sufficiency, and the “buy local” movement, felt preachy. I emphatically agree with these sentiments and solutions, but they somehow didn’t seem to emerge organically from the story, and thus felt more intrusive than they might have been. The ending, in which Kaylee begs Jane to stay and repair her home so she can teach Kaylee some of what the older woman has learned, is true to the characters, but seemed somehow flat. Possibly that’s just an early-morning “coffee not yet working” thing.
Quibbles notwithstanding, Moffett does many things very well indeed. Kaylee is a perfectly realized teenager, by turns smart and helpful and then “emo” and resentful, but in the end, she’s a good kid, worrying about her parents and pitching in without complaints to get the necessary things done. Jane’s living the life of Thoreau, mostly self-sufficient and doing conservationist things such as drawing water from a cistern rather than municipal services and raising her own bees. These aspects are explicitly revealed, but others are skillfully left implicit, such as Kaylee’s description of Jane’s antequated computer; Jane clearly doesn’t upgrade to the latest model just because it’s available, and thus keeps using the old computer because it’s still plenty good enough for her needs. Similarly, Jane lacks a clothes drier and dishwasher, both of which would suck more power than her solar cells can provide (a subtle reminder that such things depend heavily on coal-fired power plants in the U.S.). Kaylee, on the other hand, has the latest “SmartBerry” phone, and is continuously in contact with her friends by FaceBook and Twitter even while she’s keeping an eye on the birds she’s been assigned to watch; amusingly, she recognizes that this kind of obsessive multitasking is her generation’s thing (speaking as the father of a teenage daughter: “oh yeah!”) and that for her, it’s difficult to slow down and focus on one thing at a time.
As a simple story, generally well told, about an older woman sharing her wisdom with a younger woman and gradually forging a bond with her, Somewhere works well. As an explication of some of the social factors causing global warming and of possible solutions, it works less well. The larger problem we’re facing is that our population has grown too large for everyone to simply “return to the land”; given the area required to feed a person using low-impact farming methods, the environmental impacts (e.g., the large area of land required) would be prohibitive. Cities, despite their problems, could produce less overall environmental impact than individual homesteads if they were designed from the beginning to achieve that goal.
The larger problems of global warming stem from power consumption by the industrial facilities that permit our current standard of living, a diet heavy in animal protein (methane from cattle farts is about the second-largest source of greenhouse-effect gases), and global transportation of goods that would be produced more rationally (if more expensively) locally instead of burning fuel to transport them halfway around the world. These problems can’t be solved by simple local actions, which can mitigate but not eliminate these problems. Larger measures will need to be taken to solve the problem.
I don’t think I’ve read Hughes writing outside his trademark and delightful “high-Vancean” prose (Henghis Hapthorn et al.), so it was a pleasant surprise to see that he’s capable of equally entertaining material in a very different voice. Or perhaps not so different after all, since Not a Problem is also full of his trademark humor.
Half a century in the future, Bunker Hill Sansom (“Bunky”) is a billionaire who’s grown rich embracing the notion of contrarian economics, which means that if the market is running one way, you run the other way to take advantage of whatever it is that they missed. As the saying goes, “one man’s problem is another man’s opportunity”. Thus it is that when global warming hits hard, with Pacific islands being submerged by rising seas and the Manhattan seawall collapsing to flood the city, Bunky sees an opportunity where others see only looming disaster. For him, the opportunity lies in the stars: Bunky has enough money to fund SETI singlehandedly, confident in the notion that with enough money, they’ll be able to find some civilization that will give him a product he can capitalize on, thereby further enriching him and possibly letting him find a way to rule the world.
[Spoilers] Sure enough, throwing enough money at the SETI problem solves it, and Bunky’s scientists soon start contacting alien civilizations by the handful. Early contacts aren’t very helpful; the aliens are either giant bugs (which Bunky abhors and won’t deal with) or won’t help Earth unless we provide them with “fafashertz”, a transuranic element that’s essential for FTL travel. But soon the scientists find a race of slugs willing the teach them the secret of FTL communication; how such a dialog could be conducted in real-time when the distances to even the nearest star would require round-trip times of years must be handwaved, perhaps by assuming that the aliens are initially broadcasting blueprints for their ansible-like devices and that this is the only signal SETI receives from them, though Hughes should perhaps have made that explicit. To canvass all the visible stars opened up by this technology and look for potential saviors, Bunky “hires India” to man his new FTL call center. And sure enough, they do eventually find helpful aliens, giant birdlike creatures who keep telling the humans that their predicament is “not a problem” and that they’ll soon come to Earth to help.
The problem with the contrarian approach is that it only works if you understand why everyone else is running in one direction and where the real profit opportunity lies. The “not a problem” of the title refers both to the way many capitalists see the opportunity and miss the problem, and how the aliens (not us) are the ones who are going to profit from this opportunity. When the aliens turn out to be flesh-eating dinosaurs (something veteran SF readers will see coming well in advance), the global disaster for humans turns out to be an opportunity for them, restoring the warm and lush conditions that they loved before climate change (to a colder, drier climate) forced them to leave Earth long ago. Bunky is neatly hoist on his own petard—or perhaps skewered on his own sharp wit, as he’s immediately devoured by one of the nominal alien saviors.
Apart from serving as a neat satire of the super-engineer character (often Heinleinian) who can solve any problem through diligent application of science, Not a Problem reminds us that sometimes the solution is worse than the problem, and that it’s wiser to avoid the problem in the first place. All told in a delightfully droll manner, cleverly constructed to deliver a concealed and perfectly timed punchline that arrives with maximum effect. I don’t think Hughes has come up with any solutions engineers will be able to use to solve our problem, but that’s hardly the point; the point is a highly entertaining read and a reminder to relax a little and enjoy life, even if catastrophe looms. In the words of Douglas Adams, “Don’t Panic”: it’s not a problem.
Elinor is a former marine engineer, and is using that profession to reach Anchorage, Alaska, as crewmember onboard a freighter bearing a huge cargo of hydrogen sulfide. But she’s also an environmental activist (more properly, an “ecoterrorist”), and her reason for visiting Anchorage is initially a mystery, other than the suggestion that her goal is to stop something she considers potentially disastrous.
[Spoilers] Elinor arrives in Anchorage and immediately begins the kinds of precautions you’d expect a professional spy to do: using a specialized credit card that releases a virus into the system to wipe her footprints when she rents the car that she’ll be using in her crime; reconnaissance of the lie of the land, both physical and social; social engineering several of the employees at Elmendorff Airforce Base to learn their schedule; and wearing medical gloves in her accommodations and vehicle to avoid leaving fingerprints plus wearing different outfits to confuse her description. By the time she’s done her recon, her teammates have arrived: Bruckner, a hard-case ex-Marine who seems part of the movement as much because he collects grudges and wants to pay them back violently as because he’s a true environmentalist, and Gene, who’s quieter and more of a cipher. In an interesting plot device, the two men sneak aboard a freight train like hobos and ride the rails north inside cars that are being transported to Anchorage; apparently the railroads would rather let the hobos into the cars easily by leaving the doors unlocked than risk having them break windows and crap on the seats, but it seems likely that this would still be a simple way to get around the country if you know how to use a “slim Jim” to jimmy a car door.
Given that we have no reason to doubt Elinor’s description of her past, it’s clear that she’s been very well trained in her role and is being very well supported. The virus wouldn’t be easy to write (credit card systems have no reason to let anything other than your card number into the system), and if you had any doubt, her gang’s possession of high-tech, next-generation shoulder-launched missiles tells you all you need to know about the brains and resources behind her. But Elinor herself did most of the planning, and by the looks of it, she’s a sharp one indeed. She’s also the “Eagle” of the title: a lover of sea and sky, a loner by nature, and someone who has a predatory ability to take advantage of the unprepared combined with the willingness to use violence to achieve her ends.
The mysterious problem Elinor has come to fight isn’t so mysterious if you’ve been reading the science about combating greenhouse warming: release enough hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere, and it will combine with water to produce sulfuric acid, which does a great job of blocking sunlight. (We know this is true from studying the effects of recent volcanic eruptions.) This gives rise to the program’s name: SkyShield. If you do the job right, you block enough sunlight to slow or even prevent warming of the arctic, and since Benford claims the quantity of sulfuric acid required to achieve this goal won’t be enough to significantly affect the background levels of acidity when it falls out of the air, it seems like an environmentally benign solution. (I’m less sanguine about this given how fragile many northern ecosystems are with respect to acidity, but he’s undoubtedly checked the numbers and I haven’t, so I’ll take his word for this.)
The downside of this approach is that it reflects a long-time arrogance on the part of scientists, who tend (as a profession) to believe that once the science has been solved, the engineering will be the easy part. For a system as complex as atmospheric circulation patterns, that’s a seriously dubious proposition, and many of the geoengineering schemes that have been proposed violate my sense of how well we really understand the systems we’re proposing to alter. Benford acknowledges this in a memorable and subsequently significant quote: “The greatest threat to humanity arose not from terror, but from error.” In the absence of any better solutions, it’s comforting to know that we have something we can do—even if that something turns out to be as violent against nature (and subsequently, against us) as Elinor’s violence against her fellow humans.
Elinor’s passion and brains are admirable, but her willingness to resort to even extreme violence to achieve her ends makes it hard to like her. That’s particularly true once we see her chatting up several people from the local airforce base who she may well end up killing the following morning; she shows no trace of regret at any time. This is one of the hallmarks of a sociopath rather than a true believer, though the two sometimes overlap. Her contempt for mainstream environmentalists, who may recycle and drive a Prius but aren’t willing to make the hard choices (i.e., violence), detracts even further from any sympathy we might have for her. When she and her team shoot down two of the aircraft being used for operation SkyShield, we lose what little sympathy remains: one of the air tankers she’s shot down crashed on an Inuit village, killing everyone there. Several of the Inuit, out hunting a rogue bear, survive the crash, and hunt down and kill all three terrorists before they can escape. She’s troubled by the consequences of her actions when the Inuit confront her, but right to the end she believes her principles justified even this high cost.
Eagle is like a far darker version of Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang, with Elinor possibly playing the role of Bonnie, Gene playing the role of Doc Sarvis, and Bruckner playing the role of Hayduke. (I’m probably forcing those parallels to some extent, so take this as a general comparison of the themes rather than a claim of identity between the two stories.) Though the writing is generally simple and effective, Benford reserves his loveliest wording for Elinor’s appreciation of Alaska’s beauty. Elinor’s a fascinating character, if not always in a good way. The science, as you’d expect from Benford, is impeccable (right down to methane bubbling out of tundra ponds as the permafrost melts), but he doesn’t neglect the human side of the equations, such as the notion that if it looks like we have an easy technological fix for global warming, human nature will suggest to most of us that there’s no reason to change the behaviors that are causing the problem.
Benford’s handling of terrorism is particularly thought-provoking: most readers will feel at least some sympathy for the environmentalist ethos, while still being asked to consider the downside of extremism even in such a laudable cause. (The echoes of the “error, not terror” quote are clear. The result is compelling, unlike Niven and Pournelle’s sophomoric and offensive treatment in Oath of Fealty. Eagle is the strongest work in the anthology thus far, combining skillful technical skills (writing, research) with a firm grasp of the complexities of the greenhouse problem, including the human aspects. It’s a great example of how the best SF not only tells a good story, but also explores the impacts of science and technology in a way that gets us thinking about the problems before it’s too late to begin solving them.
Hap and Gladys are CIA intelligence analysts—but with a big difference. Instead of analyzing the same old spycraft stuff, they focus on climate and associated economic and social parameters in a world after climate change has hit big-time. The United Nations has become even less effective than usual, with new alliances forming and dissolving and global corpocracy overtly flexing its muscles; the European Union has been replaced by Eurocorp, for instance, and the political news channel is funded, at least in part, by anti-Israel and anti-U.S. smear advertisements. As Alexander describes the turmoil, with each side looking out for its own selfish interests and to hell with the rest of the nations: “Watching the U.N. is more fun than watching your dog after you give him a mouthful of peanut butter. Like the General Assembly, he just stands there and smacks his lips a lot, then makes a mess on the floor a while later.” The rest of the tone is equally arch, sly, cynically misanthropic, satirical—and outright funny at times.
[Spoilers] The problem with climate change has always been the complexity of the physical system being studied and modeled, which leads to a high degree of seeming randomness that therefore seems to dilute the relationship between cause and effect; as Alexander notes, the correlations between causes (humans dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than ecosystems can remove it from the atmosphere) and effect (warming and wild weather) are clear to scientists and mathematicians, but far less clear to everyone else. (This is a potentially serious problem for scientists. See, for instance, my essay about different languages.) As Alexander notes (though in a different context), “No offense to mathematicians, but most of them don’t have a sense of rhythm.”
Given that one problem with the conventional greenhouse dogma has been the seemingly weak correlation between cause and effect, Alexander takes that notion, does a delightfully Ruckeresque sidewise leap of logic, and turns the notion on its head: What if the real problem is not complexity, but the source of the weather? Gladys reveals the source of the story’s title: the childhood rhyme that begins “Rain, rain, go away”. Just precisely where does it go? That leads to the suspicion that someone from the future is sending their climate problems back to us so they won’t have to deal with them. Indeed, this proves to be the true source of the problem, and armed with this insight, it’s not long before the CIA sets up its own cross-time climate management program. Soon, Gladys and Hap are shifting bits and pieces of bad climate from around the world into the past, thereby saving the world but also creating such historical anomalies as (for example) the unexpectedly sudden end of the previous ice age. (In this story, it results from excess heat from the present being dumped there.) Of course, the law of unintended consequences sometimes intrudes, leading to occasional collateral damage, such as sending a series of category 5 hurricanes into the U.S. east coast and accidentally shutting down the Gulf Stream and plunging Europe into a new ice age. (On the plus side, polar bear migrations become a popular tourist attraction, and Eurocorp is lobbying hard not to restart the Gulf Stream to protect their new business interests.)
Of course, all SF readers know that when you tamper with time, you also tamper with causality, and here, the unintended consequences include a rapid rise in the frequency of improbabilities, such as the Tsar of Russia (!) converting to Orthodox Judaism (!!!). This is the clue that sets Gladys on the path to a solution: if the problem is that the improbabilities are accumulating in time, then perhaps the solution is to cut them out of time and let them accumulate in space. As Alexander notes, it’s one of those “headslapping moments” (“facepalm” moments if you're one of my younger readers), where the solution is obvious in hindsight. So the two propose a trial, the government accepts, and suddenly the surplus warm temperatures are on their way to Mars, creating an ad hoc terraforming project. Of course, the law of unintended consequences will not be denied, and one can only imagine what will await humanity when we finally reach the Red Planet. (I’m betting on Tars Tarkas on a thoat, which reminds me that it’s time to re-read my Burroughs Mars stories, which make for delightfully light and “retro” summer reading.)
The story is based on a classical SFnal premise: “What if [insert unlikely thing here]”? Having established that premise, Alexander then explores it rigorously. The premise doesn’t bear overly close examination from a scientific standpoint, but the only real slip is that in a world undergoing such international conflicts, it seems unlikely the CIA wouldn’t immediately weaponize this technology and start using it against their perceived rivals and enemies instead of allowing Hap and Gladys free reign to save the world. Possibly the most delightful moment in a story filled with delights comes when scientists who have begun finding strong evidence about the alarming rise in improbabilities sound the alarm. Having learned nothing from global warming, the world governments ponder the cries of alarm for a moment, then (predictably) suggest that the situation needs “more study”. It’s a pungent insight into human psychology, and fully consistent with an entertaining satire about our current problems.
Mellow Julian Nebraska is a perpetual bachelor, philosopher, and master of the aviary of the title. He has lived simply and alone for most of his life, focused solely on intellectual pursuits and surrounded by students who attend upon him as if he were a postmodern Socrates. His lives in “Selder”, in Colorado or possibly Nebraska, a corruption of the Old Proper English word “Shelter”, and it is the only city its inhabitants know of that has been built from scratch since the greenhouse effect turned nasty and the new Dark Ages fell. Selder is ruled by “the Godfather” and his council of 40 men in red, much like a Mandarin emperor and his circle of Confucian scribes and advisors—or perhaps more appropriately, like the Greek oligarchs of Athens, right down to the seemingly nonexistent social status they award to women. The setting is (nominally) 1000 years after the fall of our civilization, and all that remains of that civilization are ruins and long-abandoned grassy highways, lurking beneath the encroaching vegetation like the Roman roads of Europe. Along those roads come few travellers, mostly vagrants from the west, savages from the east, pirates from the north, and nothing from the baked deserts of the south. Along one of those roads comes a small group of Chinese refugees, presumably from Oregon, fleeing war and plague. Bili, one of Julian’s students, takes pity on his master’s solitary life, and despite Julian’s protests, purchases one, a starving but still healthy older woman, to serve as Julian’s servant.
[Spoilers] Julian names his new assistant "House Sparrow Oregon", and Sparrow, initially illiterate and fearful, gradually becomes his domestic servant as he teaches her the tasks of daily life, including caring for his aviary of birds. She also learns the most sacred of tasks, transporting “grey” (used) water from the town’s cistern to an uphill reservoir so that it can run downhill through canals and filters until it arrives, clean again, in town. Citizens are entitled to one bucket of clean water for every bucket of dirty that they pump uphill. Ironically, in a world where the greenhouse effect destroyed civilization, it is greenhouses that now sustain the citizens of Selder: all crops are grown indoors to protect them from extremes of weather, ranging from baking hot summers to dust storms, and from the hordes of locusts and mice that invade the town whenever their other food supplies wither. But despite her growing comfort, Sparrow remains illiterate and largely unable to speak the local language, other than a few words of Old Proper English. Possibly this is because Julian doesn’t care enough for her to teach her anything, let alone to take her (or anyone else, for that matter) as his lover.
When the current Godfather dies, possibly of natural causes, a succession struggle begins. Julian has long tried to distance himself from the corridors of power, where he once served as a valued scribe and orator, but it seems unlikely he’ll succeed, since he wields considerable influence among the sons of the wealthy and powerful and will therefore be courted by the contenders. When asked to enlist on the side of the favored of the two oligarchs, a weak man who nonetheless has the potential to replace the old Godfather in a peaceful transition, Julian refuses to get involved; he hopes he’ll be seen for what he really is (a harmless scholar) and simply left alone. But like Socrates before him, that seems unlikely at best. The more militaristic of the oligarchs soon seizes the throne, having rallied the people (and their police) to his cause by inciting them to fear and hate foreigners, both the street thieves who have no alternative but thievery if they are to survive and the wealthy established foreigners who are more interesting targets because there’s more booty to be had. Like many a demagogue before him, the new leader follows the oft-repeated historical pattern of choosing the low road and demonizing a minority to unite the populace rather than trying to win on his own merits.
Julian is arrested and imprisoned—and is reminded that the victor’s family once suffered at his hands. Julian’s eloquently written condemnations led to their execution; indeed, they were such good rhetoric that the new Godfather will be using them against Julian and his students. The new Godfather has a long memory and no fear of using the nastiest tricks he can imagine to repay those who once harmed him: Sparrow will be executed as a foreigner, but Julian has a choice of execution, a tour of duty in the new army that the Godfather is raising (which is likely to kill him), or, if he wants to save Sparrow, he must endure having his hand maimed so he can never write again or he must marry Sparrow. The lack of courage that was only hinted at by Julian’s earlier actions now emerges fully into the light: he selects a tour in the army as the easiest path, leaving Sparrow to an unpleasant fate. Two years later, he goes AWOL and eventually finds a village that will give him decent employment as a scribe and bureaucrat. But then he is “rescued” and commanded to return to Selder by one of his students, who remained behind, patient and subtle and invested in local politics until he found a way to inherit the throne from the evil Godfather, who died while campaigning against a neighboring community. Under its enlightened new leader, Selder is undergoing a renaissance and becoming a place of culture, research, invention, and respect for knowledge—even women are being given a say in the new society.
Sterling sets us up neatly for the shock of Julian’s betrayal of Sparrow. Descriptions that initially seemed to paint him as an amusing and generally inoffensive eccentric suddenly take on far darker import in hindsight when Julian is finally forced to make a stand—and fails the test. Master is a striking reminder of how a safe, secure, pleasant civilization can turn into something far nastier almost overnight if a despot with no scruples has enough of a brain to manipulate the majority who would prefer to sit back and watch. To succeed, the despot requires that potential opponents provide a textbook example of Burke’s maxim that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Had Julian possessed the courage to support the less-violent oligarch early in the struggle, and throw the weight of his students behind that support, a peaceful transition would have ensued and poor Sparrow might have lived. In the context of the anthology’s theme, it’s also a reminder that those of us who sit by the sidelines and watch things go to hell instead of taking arms against our host of troubles may prove to be as culpable as the true villains in the end. Sterling may also be taking a covert poke at the last decade or two of American politics, or that may just be my prejudices talking.
Sterling is clearly preaching, but he does it so well you might not notice if you’re not paying attention. He also has a gift for slipping in the occasional memorable phrase. For example, when Julian describes one of his more annoying students, he notes “Bili had never been the kind of kid you could hit just once.” Julian is also far too clever for his own good, and less wise than he should be in using that cleverness. This may be part of what blinds him to his responsibility to take an active role in the story’s events instead of watching from the sidelines. Later, when he pleads for his life with the Godfather, he notes how useful he would be if left alive to immortalize his patron, but goes a step too far:
Julian: “Someone will [speak for you to future generations] and they’ll need great skill.”
Godfather: “I hate a subtle insult... I can forgive an enemy soldier who flings a spear straight at me, but a thing like that is just vile.”
The accumulation of such lines is entertaining in its own right, but more importantly, it gradually builds a picture of just how self-involved Julian is, and how rarely he turns his intellectual power to pondering anything important. Early on, in an amusing and seemingly throwaway line about the kind of Socratic dialogue his students want him to engage in, he raises the cynical question: “What is a gentleman’s proper relationship to his civic duty, and how can he weasel out of it?” That proves to have far darker meaning when he turns away from his own civic duty.
Sterling gets the science mostly right. His description of a post-greenhouse world seem reasonable, and the details of sustenance seem right; for example, there are no dogs or large domestic livestock, and most meat comes from rabbits, guinea pigs, and mice, all animals that take little space and can survive neatly on scraps that humans can’t use. (Indeed, it’s been suggested by some proponents of urban farming that hamsters and guinea pigs would be the perfect meat sources for an urban civilization.) The use of the village grey water to dispose of (recycle) the dead and all other wastes is a great idea in a climate where water and other modern resources (such as fertilizer) are scarce. On the other hand, the lack of cats seems unlikely, since cats have a long history as our allies against rats and other vermin.
Dates are always tricky, but if the claims of 1000 to 3000 years post-collapse are correct (and they’re probably vague and exaggerated estimates), it seems likely most ruins and and highways would long since have vanished, leaving traces visible only to archeologists. Our building materials are far less durable than those of the Romans. Given some of the relics that have been carefully preserved for the puzzlement and amazement of Julian and his students, such as an aeolipile and magic lantern (these of all things!), it seems likely that no more than a couple hundred years have passed. It’s an open question whether the climate will have begun to recover hundreds of years in the future. With no large-scale civilization burning fossil fuels, the natural cleansing mechanisms of the world’s ecosystems would begin rapidly removing carbon dioxide from the air, removing much of the impetus for climate change. But if the world’s systems tip into what ecologists call an “alternative stable state”, the consequences may last very long indeed.
Master succeeds on many levels, including as an entertaining story on the surface and morality tale beneath, but it’s also a masterful example of characterization that isn’t what it seems until suddenly, with perfect hindsight, Julian comes into unpleasantly sharp focus.
Stephanie and Amos Byers are Floridians, living in a coastal area near Cape Canaveral during a time when rising waters are threatening all coastal homes. They’re decent people and very environmentally aware, witness their adoption of young twin girls from Guatemala (Jada and Janine, now 17) rather than having kids of their own and the fact that they own both a hybrid and an electric car. Though the billions of dollars invested in Cape Canaveral, which is still being used as a launch platform, justify its protection with a seawall, the couple’s house and those of their neighbors simply aren’t worth enough money for saving them to be economically justifiable for the government. So the government implements “eminent domain” on a historically unprecedented scale and forces the abandonment of millions of homes, including theirs, that are threatened by rising seas and other hazards, and although it’s willing to pay homeowners the equity value of their homes, it won’t pay for the land. It’s a reasonable, if painful, form of triage when you can’t save everyone but still must still try to save what you can.
Stephanie works at a local university as a wildlife biologist, specializing in the local sea turtle species and researching ways to protect them from the rising seas. Turtles, like salmon, return to where they were born and if those beaches are submerged, the turtles may have nowhere to lay their egss; thus, Stephanie moves the eggs farther up the beach, to the estimated high-tide line in 20 years when the turtles will return. Amos works as a hydrological engineer for the Department of the Interior’s “Holland Corps”, so-named because the engineering challenge of the century will be to wall off the U.S. from the rising seas by surrounding it with sea walls. He’s working at the Kennedy Space Center, abandoned after the manned spaceflight program was cancelled. (If that’s not a poke to get readers riled up and yelling at their elected officials, I don’t know what is.)
[Spoilers] As the story begins, Amos has received a threat letter from what appears to be a religious nut who sees in Amos “the face of the enemy” and someone who’s opposing God’s will. And as he and Stephanie arrive home from a foredoomed court appearance that fails to convince a judge to save their home, they find a “gutter” (someone who guts abandoned homes to sell the valuable materials) in their kitchen, already scoping out what’s worth salvaging after the couple leaves. He flees, but it’s a clear sign their home will soon be an abandoned wreck, stripped of anything salvageable by ordinary citizens, since the government doesn’t consider it economical to do so; all they’ll do is bulldoze the stripped remains of former family homes and other structures to turn them into riprap for the future seawalls.
The ending, in which the Department of the Interior offers both Stephanie and Amos new work on the west coast in a project to dam the Columbia River and create a massive reservoir that will sustain drier adjacent areas and that will employ Stephanie managing a seal preservation project, seems a bit pat. There’s certainly still plenty of work to do in Florida, and it seems likely there’s no shortage of equally qualified workers nearer to Washington and Oregon, so why move them across the country? It’s certainly possible that after more than a decade, Stephanie has grown tired of her turtles (thereby invalidating the story’s title), but it seems unlikely; most of the scientists I’ve known who persevered long to get their PhD were so passionate about their field that few would voluntarily switch subjects. Moreover, the couple’s teenage twins seem unlikely to accept the change as readily as they do; they’re right at the age when it becomes crucially important to retain the social group they’ve formed during the preceding decade.
This and related problems arise because the story arc is too shallow, largely because of Amos’ lack of affect as the POV character; he seems largely unmoved by events, including the series of progressively more aggressive death threats from his mysterious nemesis. Even the eventual attack from the would-be killer (who turns out to be Greg, Stephanie’s ex-boyfriend from many years ago), comes off as flat. Greg’s armed with a pistol but seems unready to use it; though shots are fired, nobody is harmed except Greg, who inadvertently shoots himself—unlikely, since we’re told he’s been a hunter most of his life and should handle a firearm better than that. Since we mostly see Stephanie through the eyes of Amos, her own emotional journey feels equally flat, even though the heart of the story is how she must pass through despair over the loss of her beloved home, one she’s lived in for much of her life, so she can emerge on the other side, ready to live in the new world. She succeeds, uplifted in part by the joy of watching her latest batch of turtles hatch and shepherding them past predators on their way down to the sea, where they’ll spend the next two decades growing large enough to return and lay their own eggs.
As is often the case, most of the decisions the government is making are based on economics, and such decisions inevitably benefit the rich over the ordinary citizens simply because the rich have a larger economic investment at stake. The point isn’t lost on Green, though he leaves it carefully implicit. The larger issue of the economics of simply abandoning homes seems unlikely; a government faced with the need to relocate—and house!—millions of its own citizens would need all the building materials it could get its hands on (as Green notes), and it would certainly be wiser to use citizens who lack other employment to legally extract those materials from the abandoned houses and move them to the areas of new construction. That’s particularly important for strategic materials such as copper that are increasingly expensive and therefore well worth recovering (enough so that there’s currently—pun not intended—a thriving black market for the copper stolen from power lines). Green alludes specifically to such possibilities when he mentions that the nation’s prisons have been emptied of minor offenders in exchange for the kind of Public Works Administration projects Roosevelt used to keep hope alive through the Great Depression. Possibly this is just a cynical approach based on the notion that the government can buy these materials cheaply from the gutters on the black market, but that seems a stretch.
The larger question of whether the U.S. government has enough money to buy out millions of homeowners and fund such massive undertakings as the national “Save America” program is harder to answer. If the U.S. withdraws from its current trillion-dollar foreign adventures, that will free up an astounding amount of money to spend on its own citizens, despite an economy being rapidly marginalized by the explosive growth of China and the growing strength of the European Union. But as I was writing this review, the U.S. national debt was within a year of equaling the national GDP, one of the red flags most economists use to describe a country rapidly approaching national bankruptcy. Green ends with the observation that the government is raising taxes to fund all these efforts, largely without protest, but that seems both unlikely and inconsistent with statements earlier in the story about significant tax protests even before the new taxes were added. Green seems to believe that this utopian marshalling of the nation’s resources would create the same sense of shared purpose that existed during World War II, but that seems more like wishful thinking than a consistent extrapolation from the story’s premises.
The description of the consequences of global warming seem quite realistic: the crisis is becoming serious, though with no Day After Tomorrow special effects, and the government is finally taking action when even the deniers are having trouble claiming that the problem isn’t real. The solutions are also the kinds of things governments will have to seriously consider, and like all good SF, Green has some suggestions that will be well worth considering. Whether the people responsible for the seawall construction will do the job right is something that many people reading this review will live long enough to learn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers certainly has the brains and expertise to do so, but as Hurrican Katrina proved in New Orleans, political interference and an unwillingness to spend the money required to do the job right are likely to undermine their efforts. I’d like to think they’ve learned from that experience, but I’m too cynical to assume they have.
On the whole, Turtle Love is skillfully written, with interesting protagonists, a well-described situation, and the optimistic message that the future won’t be a Mad Max scenario, but will instead feature people working together effectively during a crisis. But too many details seemed incompletely thought through, and the emotional tone seemed too flat to make those aspects of the story work as well as they could have. Not a bad story by any means, but one that needed more incubation and revision.
The California Queen of the title is a paddleboat charged with bringing the legal system to communities in the Sovereign State of California that have been isolated by rising sea levels and the spread of an inland sea that has cut them off from the big cities. As such, the story fits between the flat-out Mad Max post-catastrophe tale and Green’s Turtle Love (see the previous review in this blog) in terms of the impacts on civilization: things haven’t entirely collapsed, yet the American union has fallen into independent states due to the central government’s inability to hold things together. Yet despite this, California at least is trying to keep things together. This has led to resurrection of the original form of circuit court, namely the kind that brings justice to each community via a traveling judge and court, something that’s more important than you might at first think. Maintaining the rule of law is a key step in protecting communities well enough that they can begin the long journey back to civilization. The resulting story context evokes images of the glory days of colonization of the American West, with the primary civilization back east separated by long distances from small cities that are only slowly growing in remoter areas.
Taiesha Daniels is a Black woman who’s lost her husband and child during the violence that followed the initial phases of the collapse. She’s part of the California Queen’s crew, and a public defender. It’s not an easy life; the story begins with an attack on the Queen by pirates, clear evidence that although things may be holding together in the cities, they’re very much more fragile on the fringes. Taiesha handles herself admirably, shooting two of the pirates and defeating another in hand-to-hand combat when her gun jams; this is just one example of how skillfully MacEwen slowly reveals information that will prove to have ample justification once the explanation emerges later in the story. For example, when she shoots the first pirate between the eyes, this might be an example of someone who either hasn’t been trained in firearms (when in doubt, professionals aim for the center of mass) or someone who’s been trained very well indeed (a head shot is difficult when you’re reacting fast to an attack). We soon learn the truth: she’s ex-military, and was trained later under the G.I. bill as a public defender.
[spoilers] The plot gets rolling when Taiesha is required to defend Eric Moreland, mayor of the town of Atwater, against a charge of murdering Ramon, a 9-year-old refugee child who he accused of attempting to steal food—yet it turns out the boy may only have been catching rats for his family’s sustenance, thereby protecting the warehouse he was accused of planning to rob. Eric is a racist, sexist, violent man who’s set himself up as a local Boss Tweed. All these traits should immediately set us against him, yet Taiesha honors her responsibility to defend him under the law until he’s received a fair trial. But things are more complex than they seem.
We soon learn that there may have been extenuating circumstances, since vigilante justice is endorsed by the California legal code when it comes to pirates and thieves; if such forms of cheating are left unpunished, the State believes, many innocent citizens will starve. Moreland is outraged by his arrest, at first seemingly because his authority is being challenged, but there are hints he really believes he was doing what’s best for his people by shooting a thief. This is, after all, a survivalist situation, and his town, though doing better than most, has little margin of safety. In fact, they may only have survived as long as they have because Moreland raised an army large enough to steal a desalinization plant from a nearby gated community; the State may have looked the other way because Atwater’s farmers were more important to the State’s survival than the dead “yuppies”.
A final twist comes when we learn of the laws that have been implemented to keep the population below California’s agricultural carrying capacity. All children must be registered, with their identities established by DNA fingerprints, and even refugee children must undergo DNA testing so they can be entered into the public rolls and receive education, health care, and legal protection. Everyone is allowed a single child if it’s their own clone, or two if they produce their children naturally with a partner, but all additional children receive no legal protection whatsoever. (It’s a chilling echo of China’s one-child policy, gone one step more sinister.) When Taiesha completes one of her duties by DNA-testing the mother and siblings of dead Ramon, she discovers that all three were the children of Ramon’s bereaved mother, who had claimed one of the children to be her sister’s child. Taiesha turns this evidence over to the Judge, knowing that it will force the mother to make a terrible choice: register her two surviving children so they will be protected by the law, or register only one of them and dead Ramon, thereby rendering Moreland vulnerable to prosecution for Ramon’s murder. In the end, she chooses to protect her surviving children, even though it means Moreland will go free. But Taiesha can’t accept this outcome, and murders Moreland in a way that makes it look like he’d fallen into the river and drowned after a drunken binge to celebrate his release.
Unfortunately, her colleague Iain MacClure has been following her, and witnessed everything. MacClure’s role and origins have been unclear to this point, as he’s a Scot who retains his accent and therefore isn’t local. But how he’s managed to find his way here is a mystery. He works alongside Taiesha as an “auditor”, though what he audits is initially unspecified. We later learn that it’s the members of the ship’s crew he’s been auditing. Taiesha’s relationship with him is fraught; she clearly despises him, but the reasons aren’t clear, other than that he may remind her of the White mob that attacked her family. MacClure reveals that he’s an agent of the U.N., not California or the federal government, and that he’s here specifically to evaluate Taiesha: he needs someone with her unique abilities and personal moral code who can honor the forms of the law, but who can step outside it when necessary to see that killers receive the justice they deserve. It’s not a remotely plausible setup, as the U.N. would have many larger and more urgent crises to deal with; a simple fix would have been to make MacClure a “black ops” agent of the California government, which would have been logical and easy to swallow.
For me, the heart of the story revolves around the fate of the refugees. As in many semi-legal or extra-legal immigration contexts, the immigrants aren’t being integrated with local society, making it difficult for them to survive without stealing. The pirates are by no means sympathetic (routine testing by the court demonstrates that they’ve become cannibals), yet what choice do they have if no community will accept them, and the only alternative is starvation? This isn’t a trivial problem invented for dramatic stage-dressing, but rather something integral to the greenhouse context. As large populations are displaced by rising seas, lethal droughts, catastrophic rains, and other climate disasters, we’ll face a difficult choice of how to deal with growing numbers of refugees: leave them to die so we can focus on our own survival, allow token numbers into our country but make no effort to integrate them, or make them part of our society, like our own immigrant ancestors. How much misery and crime could be prevented if we embraced our immigrants and helped them find homes and jobs, rather than isolating and alienating them? Lest one think this is all purely hypothetical, it pays to consider the current situation of Hispanic and Latino immigrants in Arizona, a situation in which the immigrants face harsh problems even though they pose little to no threat to anyone and the pressure on society is far lower than it will be when entire nations (Pacific islanders, Bangladeshis) arrive en masse at the borders of developed nations, seeking safety.
The notion of capital punishment comes in for questioning too. In a survival situation, it’s hard to justify imprisoning and feeding murderers when honest citizens are doing without food. Yet Taiesha asks the difficult question of “how long it will be before we can afford not to kill everyone we convict.” The rule of law is something most of us take for granted, yet as the continuing attraction of the vigilante (whether Mad Max or Batman) and the Marshall or Sherriff in “Western” movies shows, it’s something we’ve been able to take for granted for a surprisingly short time. MacEwen reminds us of just how fragile our society is in the face of disruption, and how vulnerable society’s lower classes are, as recently became clear to Americans when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.
MacEwan’s writing is mostly straightforward, with no attempts at grandstanding, but there are a few nice turns of phrase. A particular favorite comes when Taiesha describes the mob and its potential for violence: “It wasn’t a happy noise... A herd of cattle about to stampede sounded like that—a low, uneven grumbling that kicked her heart with a cowboy’s spurs”. The last part initially seems like it should have been cut to simplify and improve the phrase, but once we learn that Taiesha and her family were attacked by a starving mob, and that her husband and child may were either lynched or eaten, it makes perfect sense. California Queen is one of the darker tales in the anthology thus far, and raises difficult questions about how we’ll treat our future refugees and what proportion of the rights we take for granted are luxuries that we may no longer be able to afford when the fate of New Orleans is re-enacted at a national scale. All things we need to be discussing now (i.e., before the questions become more than hypothetical), prompted by authors who have raised the questions most of us don’t want to face.
Foster’s chosen a very different “what if?” than the other authors in this anthology. His starting premise is that increased warmth and atmospheric CO2 have recreated a climate much like that of the Carboniferous period, with temperatures often in the 90s (F) and relative humidity well above 75%. More drastically, atmospheric oxygen contents have risen to more than double current levels—presumably as a result of what’s known as the “CO2 fertilization effect”. Plants take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and emit oxygen and water as their primary byproduct. If you’ve encountered the tropical vegetation in a hot and humid greenhouse or have visited a tropical rainforest, you can imagine the consequences of these conditions for plant growth, and the more the plants grow, the more oxygen they pump out.
Thus, it’s not at all farfetched to speculate that plant growth would explode, pouring oxygen into the atmosphere. That’s not in any way a good thing, since one result would be catastrophic fires, since combustion is often limited by constraints on the fire’s oxygen supply. (Cylinders of compressed oxygen are often the most dangerous equipment in a modern laboratory for that very reason—they eliminate those constraints.) Another problem is how difficult it would be to breathe in such an environment, requiring the use of what Foster calls “reducers” to cut the oxygen down to manageable levels; apart from gettng “drunk” on the oxygen, high-concentration oxygen is highly corrosive, and damaging to the human body (mostly due to the presence of powerful oxidants such as free radicals). Talk about too much of a good thing!
[Spoilers] The side effect that Foster’s chosen to focus on is the enormous increase in insect sizes that could potentially occur in this context. Insects lack lungs, and breathe passively via oxygen diffusion through their “spiracles”; thus, their size is limited by the oxygen concentration in the air. You won’t see an insect much larger than about an inch in diameter simply because diffusion is so slow that larger insects would die of suffocation. (This is one reason why most insects are so spindly: being thin makes it easier for oxygen to reach all tissues.) But if you double the oxygen concentration, you’ve got the potential for the 3-foot cockroaches and 6-inch bees of the present story. And indeed, it’s the bees that our protagonists, Sargent Lissa-Marie and Corporal Gustafson, military contractors and high-tech exterminators in Atlanta, have come to fight, armed with poison and armored kevlar suits.
The two exterminators take a beating, despite their armor, but their attack on bees swarming a home that they hope to turn into a hive succeeds, with the aid of the 1-foot yellowjackets that are natural predators of other insects, including bees. Defeating a 3-foot scorpion is equally uneventful. But things turn nasty when the partners go to evict a 6-foot centipede from a family’s basement. Modern giant centipedes can kill mice and bring down small birds and bats, so you can imagine how nasty their Godzilla-scale future versions might be. (I don’t even want to think about jumping spiders, which are possibly the feistiest creatures you’re likely to meet despite their diminutive size, typically less than a quarter inch. A six-inch jumping spider would make a pit bull tuck its tail between its legs and run, provided the spider let it escape.) Fortunately for Gustafson, Lissa-Marie has enough experience to be ready when her much younger partner isn’t, and she blows it in two with her gun. Most insects aren’t too bright, and won’t miraculously become brighter as they grow, but it’s worth remembering that social insects such as bees are brighter than the average bug, and if you increase their brain size by more than 600%, there will be consequences for their intelligence (something Gustafson alludes to). But the real threat will come from ants, which are perhaps the most ubiquitous insect on Earth, and a highly effective foe because of how well they cooperate in foraging for food and in colony defence. Six-inch ants would be a major threat to us.
Foster, as one might expect, is unable to resist slipping in some of his familiar humor, such as when an emergency call over the radio turns out to not to be a “42A” (boy stepping on scorpion), but rather a “42B” (scorpion stepping on boy). I’m not sure I want to live in a world where there are (at least) 42 different categories of invertebrate emergency, but it may be a problem our grandchildren may face. Describing the scorpion’s corpse as “chelatinous” (a combination of “gelatinous” and “chel” from “chelicerae”, the fanglike appendages of an arachnid’s mouth) is downright clever, if not likely to be something the protagonists would come up with. Last but not least, there’s a clear tip of the hat to Atari’s venerable video game “Centipede” when the bisected centipede continues attacking even after being blown in two; I was charmed to see that Centipede is still available. Very retro!
The CO2 fertilization effect is a much debated aspect of the greenhouse effect. The basic premise is certainly true, but the extent to which plants will be able to adapt to the combination of rapidly rising temperatures and high CO2 is much less clear. Thus far, the evidence is decidely mixed. For example, rice plants are highly sensitive to heat, which can drastically reduce their yield of rice grains, and elevated CO2 levels increase leaf and stalk growth in some cultivated varieties at the expense of grains. Other crops face similar problems, and fighting these problems is a major focus of scientists and breeders who are striving to ensure that our crops will continue to feed us in a future greenhouse climate. Foster’s right on the money when he notes that other plants are likely to take over, as they did during the Carboniferous, and this is a broadly neglected potential side-effect of greenhouse warming. His take on the effects on insects is equally sound, with side effects including not only increasing conflict with humans, but increasingly severe predation of birds. Whether oxygen levels would really rise this high is something I’m not sure how to calculate; oxygen production is limited by the amount of CO2 available to feed photosynthesis, and too much oxygen can also be toxic to plants. But these are easy quibbles over which to suspend disbelief for the sake of an entertaining and provocative “what if?”
On the one hand, Creeping is a minor tale, with no major narrative arc or dramatic character transformations. But on the other hand, it’s fascinating because it is (to the best of my knowledge) the first story to explore a previously neglected aspect of greenhouse warming. The only significant flaw is that there’s too much infodump, probably because Foster wasn’t confident his audience would buy into the notion of giant insects without some technical justification; that would probably have been better handled as a brief “afterword”, with only the most important points hinted at and the details left implicit.
Marion’s a romantic heroine living alone in a kind of Bradbury-esque world of endless summers (the greenhouse tie-in) and sweetly asexual trysts with an endless series of the “boys of summer”—not the baseball players who gave rise to the phrase in Roger Kahn’s book of that name, but rather the kinds of summer “loves” that are placeholders and time-wasters while you wait for The Real Thing to come along.
[spoilers] Marion’s so jaded about the whole serial dating thing that she can carry on the pre-first date conversations in her sleep, and even the initial excitement of a new face and new smile has begun to fade. It’s gotten so bad (she’s dated so many men) that she’s had cards printed up for them with her name and phone number, and gets “a discount when she ordered a box of 500”. She hungers after true romance in an enervated kind of way that leads to solitary reading of Flair, host of such trenchant articles as how to conceal skin cancer scars (not really a predicted greenhouse effect) and how to make heat stroke “work” for you, while filling out the banal kinds of quiz you find in these magazines. (I had two sisters who read Cosmopolitan. ‘nuff said.)
At the end of each brief fling, Marion brings her discarded boyfriend du jour to a tent city she refers to as “Camp Marion”, a tent city where her castoffs gather to worship as members of the cult of Marion. She’s so self-absorbed that she thinks their obsession with her is vaguely sweet; their obsession is so great that they don’t even notice her enter their Bible revival-like meeting until, suddenly a bit freaked by all this worship, she yells at them to stop this and move on. But rather than being chastened, they are delighted to see her, shouting out heartfelt poetry and their protestations of love, and she flees, pursued en masse back to her home. When she calls 911 seeking help, the woman on the other end of the line chastises her for forgetting how rare love is, and for being unwilling to nurture it. Marion breaks down, crying, and we realize that the real problem may be that she fears true love more than she desires it. Unwilling to face that possibility, she flees in her car, driving until she’s exhausted. In the town of Bloomer where she finally stops, she meets Rey, a cute and decent-seeming guy, and falls in love with him, inverting her usual pattern thus far—right up to the point where Rey dumps her at “Camp Rey”, bringing the story full circle.
Prill’s writing is smooth and fluid, without the sepia tones of Bradbury but with the same sense of longing and more innocent times. He has a nicely and effectively cynical tone in places, such as his invention of Marion’s business cards and his description of the Flair articles. There are nice touches that hint at post-greenhouse consequences, such as the stink of the unwashed bodies in unlaundered clothing at her favorite coffee shop, presumably because of water restrictions combined with frequent “greenouts”; cousins to brownouts, greenouts would seem to represent power outages that result from a need for power plants to shut down when they’ve generated their maximum permitted daily allowance of carbon dioxide. And Marion’s fugue-like existence is neatly summarized by my favorite pull quote: “Marion could scarcely remember the last time it rained. It was during Craig...”
This doesn’t strike me as a major tale, despite its clever critique of the shallowness of summer love and how we fool ourselves during our obsessions. But it is skillfully crafted, a pleasant read that moves smoothly through to its denouement and—dare I say it—one that probably makes for perfect light summer beach reading.
Andromeda is the child of a White teacher and an Ingalikmiut woman who has long since left them to live in Anchorage; her father was originally attracted to her because of her abiding sorrow and the fond but misguided notion he could bring her enough happiness to pull her out of it. Years later, her ex and children still live on Little Diomede Island, in the middle of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. In the wake of greenhouse warming, this part of the ocean has been ice-free throughout the year for long enough that the U.S. and Russia built a bridge connecting the two countries. (The 80-km bridge would be quite the engineering feat, but feasible enough that it’s been seriously proposed in the past; the water depth would be no more than a couple hundred feet, even accounting for the predicted sea level rise.) At one point, heavy trucks used to bring goods back and forth between the two countries, leading to a measure of economic prosperity for the islanders, but troubles in both nations have caused the traffic to vanish. Now, the islanders survive mostly on the government royalties from oil sales that all Alaskans receive.
The story begins with a present-tense narration, with the unnamed narrator watching a teenager, 17 and already pregnant with her second child, her father and brother “gone”. She’s filling out an unspecified checklist that seems like make-work, and resenting it, and possibly considering throwing herself off the bridge to end it all. The split between this omniscient third-person POV and subsequent first-person accounts is jarring and confusing and may throw you out of the story if you’re not willing to persist, but persist and you’ll be rewarded—just not in anything resembling a pleasant way. [If you have a sensitive nature at all, stop reading this review now and don’t read the rest of the story. The story’s wrenching, even stripped of nuance and detail as it must be in a review.]
[Spoilers] Two of the locals, Preston Robert and Mukta, have found a way to supplement the village’s income—by selling their emotions and sensations over the Web to people who are curious about how the Ingalikmiut perceive their world. They do it using the computers in the middle of Andromeda’s father’s classroom, entering and leaving with no concern for whether this might disrupt classes; like many natives, they resent the White man in their midst, have no desire to show him any respect, and constantly rub his nose in the fact that he doesn’t belong here, despite his self-avowed mission to rescue the children through education that will give them hope of something better. Though he’d like to keep them out of his class, he’s been warned that they are “untouchable” because of the income they bring in. But their occupation is hazardous, and when Mukta’s work triggers a seizure, Andromeda’s father tears him away from the computer and keeps him alive until the village medic can take over. Enraged by this close call, Andromeda’s father locks the doors to the classroom and denies access to the computers to anyone but the students, enraging Preston—who gains his revenge in short order by killing the teacher and making it look like he fell into the ocean and drowned.
But it gets worse. Preston gains his first revenge on the teacher by raping Andromeda—repeatedly, initially with a condom but later getting her pregnant. She is unable to bring herself to turn him in because he threatens to harm her family if she does, and when Preston kills her father, this leaves her with an enormous burden of guilt because she could have stopped him. We soon infer that the woman the narrator was watching in the opening passages is Andromeda herself, though we don’t yet learn how she’s able to watch herself: Is she reliving memories from a safe distance, or distancing herself from events the way many trauma survivors do?
Andromeda’s situation grows ever worse. Their father did not change his life insurance policy after his wife left him, so Andromeda’s delinquent mother receives all the money and will not share it with her children. They have no way to survive, as the community support net that once existed has long since been destroyed by the endless grinding hopelessness resulting from the destruction of the traditional native way of life and the lack of any viable alternatives. Gwimaq, her twin brother, must turn to selling his emotions over the Web, though it may be killing him and though most of the money goes to Preston’s gang. One day, when Preston reveals his plans for Andromeda and Gwimaq can endure no more, he sets out to kill Preston and his cronies. He fails, and flees across the bridge to Russia, abandoning his sister to their tender mercies. After Preston rapes her again, this time for all the world to see (and pay for) over the Web, Andromeda commits suicide by chaining herself naked outdoors so the cold will kill her. She hopes that when the police investigate, they’ll find her pregnant, figure out who the father is, and bring Preston to justice—but she’s forgotten the ever-hungry birds, who soon strip her corpse and leave no evidence behind but the bones. Andromeda has moved on, becoming part of the northern aurora, watching from above, but it’s not a hopeful transcendence: what sustains her is anger and a desire to watch vengeance slowly unfold as her village slowly sinks beneath the sea.
The Bridge is unrelentingly depressing, immersing us ever deeper into the grinding hopelessness of Andromeda and hinting that the other villagers may fare no better. There are scant moments of grace that give Andromeda strength to carry on. She and her father seem to have had a loving, heartwarming relationship, playing at games together such as walking together into the snow, then backtracking carefully in their footprints so it seems like they vanished at the end of the trail. She’s obsessed with or perhaps possessed by numbers, making her seem “slow” to outsiders, when in fact she’s able to perceive the auras and emotions people have and the endless stream of numbers that makes up the world, and it’s a source of beauty of a kind; this explains her passivity to some extent, since the description sounds very much like a form of autism. She wears three watches on each arm so she can track elapsed times from key events, such as the date of her first rape and the arrival of the telescope. They’re probably gifts from her father since she would have had little money of her own. Her father was fascinated with astronomy, and shared that love with her when the two pool their scant resources and purchased each other a telescope as a mutual gift. When she tells us of how she finds her father drowned, with his “glow” gone, she compares his corpse with the dark heart of the Andromeda galaxy that is her namesake, and she thinks of it as the place “where numbers go to die” (a clever, if chilling, description of the black hole at the heart of the galaxy).
Guthridge’s descriptions of the aurora and northern climes reminded me profoundly of their cold beauty, though in my case I’ve only seen it from northern Ontario rather than the high Arctic. It’s spectacular enough from that distance that it must be mind-boggling farther north. The descriptions of traditional aboveground burials because the ground is frozen too hard to excavate (though by the story’s time, it would no longer be frozen that hard during the summer) and of covering the coffin with stones to protect against bears (which are long gone, dead, or migrated) are poignant reminders of traditions that have persisted through the ages long after their original reasons are gone.
But these are rare grace notes in the progressively deepening horror of Andromeda’s life. The biographical note tells us that Guthridge has lived the life of the teacher he describes in this story, so he knows what he’s describing when he tells us of the life of the villagers; the hopelessness and endless tragedies of life in remote settlements that I’ve read about almost defy comprehension to a privileged child of the middle class like me. (His descriptions of the people rang very true, both the good and the bad, based on the aboriginal Canadians I’ve known over the years.) What he’s accomplished in this story, if you’re willing to let yourself feel it, is to make you feel in unflinching and inescapable detail what it feels like to be a native in such a community—and there’s no small irony in how this echoes the way the Ingalikmiut sell their own stories over the Web to survive. (To be clear: that’s not a criticism. Understanding and a desire to help begins with empathy, and Guthridge establishes that empathy.)
It’s masterfully done, but it’s not a journey for the faint of heart to undertake. As the only story in this book that deals with the plight of the disenfranchised aboriginal people who will reap what we have sown, it’s a brutal reminder that bad as our situation may become, many others will have it far worse.
It’s probably a good thing that a Di Filippo story follows The Bridge, since he’s an author who always brings a smile and a wink to his work. But I’ve often criticized his work because it strikes what is, for me, an uncomfortable balance between humor and the serious issues he sometimes addresses; the result often falls uncomfortably between the two extremes, never quite satisfying either humor or seriousness. I deliberately let some time pass before embarking on FarmEarth simply to ensure that it wouldn’t strike me as inappropriately glib in juxtaposition with The Bridge. That turns out to have been a wise choice, since it let me assess FarmEarth more objectively on its own merits.
Crispian Tanjuatco is 13 years old at the time of the study, living in a near-future world where implants (auricular for sound and cellphone, “memtax” for visual and Web interface) are common and genemods (such as “kymes” = chimeric chimps, presumably with human DNA added to make them more intelligent and useful to us) are becoming ever more common. His half-brother Benno, for example, has had his brain “overclocked” (like many computer fans do with their CPUs), and while it makes him brilliant, it also gives him an autism-like affect during interpersonal interactions. Crispian’s family is a polyamorous “polybond”, with Darla as his egg-mom (egg donor?), Kiana as his mito-mom (host womb?), and Marcel as his “lone” father. Darla’s an osteo-engineer and a quant girl (i.e., someone who loves her numbers); for example, when Crispian bemoans the fact he’ll have to wait six more months until he’s ready to play FarmEarth, she points out that this is only 4% of his life thus far. Kiana works at the NASDAQ casino (a notion that had me snorting in mirth) as a hostess, and she’s good at her job: she sells more drinks than any other worker, and that takes more than just interesting cleavage. Marcel’s what we’d call a house-husband, who spends his day managing the family’s needs and “playing” FarmEarth in his spare time.
[Spoilers] So what exactly is FarmEarth? It’s Di Filippo’s pastiche of FarmVille (in case you’ve been living in a cave and haven’t heard of it, it's an online simulation), and though it’s pitched as a game, it’s a serious attempt to reverse the impacts of more than a century of cumulative environmental damage. Kids are trained in all the rudiments of ecology (right down to the genetics and -omics of individual organisms) until they master these concepts well enough to join the FarmEarth community. At that point, they begin remotely managing Earth’s ecosystems by means of teleoperated effectors of various sorts. Beginners get the short end of the stick while they’re learning, and can only manipulate minor things like bacterial colonies that need human assistance to move to the next pollutant hotspot; specifically, beginners take on tasks that can’t cause much harm if you make a mistake. (“It was basically like spinning the composter at home: a useful duty that stunk.”) In contrast, experienced Master-level “farmers” get to play with more complex systems, from herds of large wild animals right up to large chunks of an ecosystem; for instance, when we meet Benno, he’s working to enhance the root systems of a forest that is serving as a sand-control barrier in Mali. As you might expect, the possibility for seriously screwing things up means that there are many rules and restrictions, which is precisely the kind of constraints you’d expect an overeducated, exceptionally bright group like Crispian and his friends to rebel against.
And rebel they do: they decide to hack the system so they can play free of those constraints. Their opportunity comes when Adán, the brother of Crispian’s friend Cheo, gets out of prison early for good behavior. Four years ago, he was imprisoned for misappropriation of FarmEarth resources (using his skills to grow drug crops instead of protecting the endangered animals he was responsible for), and this quite rightly raises a red flag for Crispian when Adán offers Cheo and his friends illicit Master-level access to FarmEarth in return for performing some unspecified work whose purpose he refuses to explain. Adán is associated with Los Braceros Últimos (perhaps “the ultimate workers” or “the strong arm of Gaia”?), a group that is frustrated with FarmEarth’s “slow but steady” approach to saving the world; they’d prefer faster and more radical interventions. But despite his reservations, Crispian bows to peer pressure (and the lure of a free ticket to Master level) and is drawn into the plan.
The plan turns out to be tunneling with “molebots”, mining machines that could be operated easily enough by artificial intelligence—if not for an unfortunate incident when some AI demolition machines were hacked and used to destroy a VIP’s home, leading to a legislated ban on the use of AI for FarmEarth and other systems. The destination of the tunnels is concealed by Los Braceros, for good reason as it turns out: when Benno discovers what Crispian is up to (presumably Master-level players have better monitoring tools and more skill at using them than most other players), he forces his half-brother out of the system. Crispian resents his brother, and resists, but Benno has been indulging in martial arts sims for many hours, and easily defeats and immobilizes his younger brother. Benno reveals that the Los Braceros plan is to release the pent up lava beneath an Icelandic volcano in a single massive outburst, creating what is called a “Pinatubo Event”, named after the 1991 Philippines eruption that filled the air with ash and other stuff that reflected enough sunlight to significantly cool the planet. It’s a risky proposition at best, and likely (as in the case of the real Pinatubo) to produce only short-term benefits; more importantly, the plan shows a flagrant disregard for the Icelanders who would be killed by the eruption. Benno quickly pulls in his mother, Zoysia; both are such experts at FarmEarth that they have “God-level” access to the system’s controls when they need it, and they quickly and nastily shut down the Los Braceros operation.
It’s probably too optimistic to project polybonds as the social norm, particularly given how increasingly reactionary (not less) societies tends to become as the world becomes a scarier place or descends into outright crisis, but given that this is SF, it’s fair to project what we’d like to see happen in the hope that maybe it will inspire our readers to make it happen. (Worked for the space program, right?) It’s also utopian to assume that anything as powerful as FarmEarth wouldn’t be aggressively exploited by organized crime or by national espionage agencies, respectively for profit or to take down international rivals. We’ve already begun seeing organized efforts by (for example) China to hack into American government systems, and although we haven’t seen the Russian Mafiya clean out any major banks, it’s only a matter of time. The one truism in the war between computer security professionals and crackers is that the crackers always find a way in eventually. That’s germane to the story because there would be awfully tight controls on Master-level user accounts to prevent such abuses. Presumably, this is how Benno discovers what Crispian is doing.
One of the biggest problems I have with Di Filippo’s writing is the excessively high idea density. It’s not the ideas per se that cause the problem, since we always have lots of fun exploring them with him; rather, the problem is that he often can’t resist the urge to make them explicit so that we, as readers, will understand the source of the science or technical knowledge that gave rise to the ideas. Sometimes this (mostly) works, as in the following example: “Instantly we were out of augie overlays and into full virt.” (That is, Crispian is describing the shift from augmented reality, with a heads-up display adding information to what he can see with his own eyes, to a fully-immersive virtual environment displayed exclusively inside his head.) Too often, this leads to awkward infodumps, as when Crispian describes the living sponge the kids are using as a hackysack, and it can also lead to overdescription using terms that real people would never use outside of an engineering conference: the Coke machine is described as a “solar-butane fridge” and the “faintly flickering OLED” of Crispian’s memtax is another example. This is precisely the kind of thing everyone in the story world already knows and therefore would never explain to anyyone else... “as you know, Paul.” *G* After all, when was the last time you told your Mom or yourself that you were testing beta release 1.7 of Windows 9 running in a virtual machine on the second core of your Core i7 processor? (Okay, maybe as an SF reader you do talk to your mom this way. *G*)
A lesser problem is a recurring theme in the stories I’ve read, namely that the primary female protagonist seems always to be gorgeous and well-endowed while also being brilliant. It’s laudable that Di Filippo is willing to treat beautiful women as highly intelligent until proven otherwise, but I’d be more comfortable with this if (i) he wore this less overtly on his sleeve and (ii) an occasional example of his really intelligent women wasn’t so pneumatically enhanced. The goal is laudable, but somehow it comes off as forced.
Many of my criticisms of Di Filippo’s approach amount to differences in personal taste, and should not be taken as condemnation. He has a unique style that is not without its pleasures, even if it’s not always to my taste. The teen characters in the story are reasonably convincing and his description of their group interactions doubly so. The pleasantly multi-ethnic group of protagonists is also a nice change from the status quo. The notion of an older person running a gang of early-teen hackers might seem unlikely, but it turns out to be very realistic. (When I was in university, an online friend in Toronto suddenly disappeared; years later, I learned that she’d been arrested for organizing exactly this kind of hacker gang.) Di Filippo also tells an interesting tale, clearly and economically written, and the idea density makes it great fun for your inner geek. His satirical poke at the NASDAQ casino is funny precisely because of how true it is. Still, despite these virtues, I always seem to leave a Di Filippo story feeling vaguely unsatisfied. That’s too bad, because there’s much here to like.
Riki is a biological researcher who lives in the Kaimai Mamaku Forest of New Zealand, on a hobby farm where she raises alpacas. Her life changes in an instant when she receives a call from a friend, an astronomer at the Mauna Loa observatory who reports that his satellite measurements show the solar constant has dropped by more than 30% in an hour and is continuing to drop. Recognizing the implications, Riki immediately gathers survival supplies and flees, abandoning her farm, her alpacas, and her old life.
[Spoilers] As in Niven’s chilling Inconstant Moon, only in reverse, something has changed drastically in the Sun. In this case, it’s not a solar flare, but rather a drop in heat output this will precipitate an ice age literally overnight. Riki is smart enough (and strong enough) to force herself to instantly drop everything, and rather than bemoaning her fate, she cuts her losses and immediately flees for Rotorua, where the hot springs will provide heat long enough for people to build something that will let them survive. It’s a fortunate coincidence that Riki’s area of research is nutritionally complete algal food sources, with the goal of sustaining long space missions such as a mission to Mars using food grown onboard; with luck, her genetically engineered algae will provide enough nutrients for survival even though the rest of Earth’s food chain has been erased in a single stroke.
Another fortunate stroke is that she’s been working on microorganisms suitable for terraforming cold planets such as Mars, a related area of research; releasing these microbes into the newly frozen world means there’s a chance of eventually restarting Earth’s ecosystems and giving humans a chance to survive. Perhaps most important of all, Riki is smart enough to immediately start gathering the experts that her small enclave of humanity will need to survive: she includes the obvious ones like engineers and medical professionals, but also remembers crucial roles such as the planners and organizers who are often neglected in disaster stories. Having chaired (and endured) numerous committees at research institutes, I can attest firsthand to the importance of such people and can also state that even the brightest scientists (perhaps particularly them) are not always the best choice for such roles.
Lawson accomplishes a potentially difficult task, namely making the human cost of the tragedy clear and something we can empathize with, yet without being manipulative; this is done by describing in simple, unadorned words consequences such as the loss of distant loved ones, inability to save friends who won’t be able to reach the Rotorua sanctuary in time, and listening by radio as other enclaves of humanity gradually lose power, are unable to produce enough food to survive, and succumb to these and many other death sentences. Talk about “cold equations”! Those who survive the initial crisis may not survive much longer if they cannot develop some kind of sustainable food source, so Riki and her colleagues set about planning to bring them her algal food resource as soon as the New Zealand enclave has ensured its own survival; this is as much about ensuring that enough genetic and intellectual resources remain to preserve humanity as a species as it is about concern for others. That makes Riki an interestingly complex character: she has sufficient strength of character (possibly even enough outright coldness) to cut off her emotions and do what’s necessary in a crisis, yet at the same time, she mourns her abandoned alpacas and wishes she’d stayed long enough to shoot them so they wouldn’t suffer; keeping them alive simply wasn’t in the cards, and unlike most of us, she understood this and made the necessary sacrifice.
Except for a couple (brief) didactic chunks, Lawson maintains a tight emotional focus on the human tragedies at the heart of the story and does so effectively. It’s a sobering tale, and doubly so because of Lawson’s rigor in following through the harsh premise to its logical conclusions. Told from the perspective of one of the survivors, speaking to an adopted child (possibly because the narrator has lost their own child or that child has lost their parent), Sundown becomes an effective and moving “founder myth”—and a celebration of the human will to survive even the worst catastrophe.
The contrast with the other stories in this anthology, all of which feature greenhouse warming, is striking, and represents one of the things I love about SF/F: the ability of an occasional author to subvert the standard assumptions and try something new. Lawson also reminds us, without preaching, that even if we don’t manage to destroy ourselves with greenhouse gases, Nature might still manage the trick for us. Even after decades of research, we still understand the sun so poorly that without considerable additional study, our only hint that something bad is about to happen will be when it smacks us upside the head, as in this story and Niven’s story. Moreover, space opera notwithstanding, there’s not much we can do to alter the behavior of something as large as a star, and it will be centuries or longer before we develop that capability. There have been many pleas by scientists to increase funding to study our sun, and given the importance of variations in its behavior for life on Earth, we’re overdue to start some serious investments in those studies. With enough warning, we might survive such a catastrophe. Without that warning...
Several someones, scattered around the world, are working on projects similar to Riki’s project, so it’s not a stretch to think that her algae might soon be available. The notion of terraforming Earth is a bit more problematic, since the microbes Riki has been working on must first survive, then multiply, and any way you slice it, terraforming will take an awfully long time. The rest of the science and its consequences are highly plausible, though with a few footnotes. The biggest one is that a global ice age this severe would leave few to no refugia for plants and animals, although the plants are more important in this case. Unless tropical refugia exist, there won’t be enough plants to replenish Earth’s oxygen, and people may even suffocate before they starve. If the sun’s output drops so dramatically, radio transmission and reception might become impossible other than for short distances. (If memory serves, long-distance radio transmissions require the ionosphere, which would dramatically shrink or even vanish if solar output drops sufficiently.) A third concern is whether it’s realistic to think that with no advance warning, even Analog-style scientific and technological heros could bootstrap a safe enclave on (literally) a few hours’ notice that would survive the near-instant plunge into an ice age long enough to build something more durable. The complexity of such an undertaking is not to be trivialized.
As always, there are nits to be picked, but none that seriously detract from the story. I don’t know whether Lawson has considered expanding the story to novel length, but that would provide a fascinating opportunity to explore all the characters and human tragedies—and triumphs—implied in this short story in greater depth.
Tyler and Ilse are online buddies—fellow game-players in an online game “Still Burning”, former (online only!) lovers, and now BFFs. They’re living in a world steeped in pervasive computing. Tyler goes everywhere with his augs (augmented-reality tools that overlay his virtual world atop the real world), when he goes anywhere at all. Mostly, he works at home, in a small apartment integrated with a shopping mall so that he rarely needs to leave the complex. (That’s a shame, because he lives in Oregon, which is one of God’s many countries.) When Ilse’s grandmother dies, Tyler decides on a noble gesture: to actually fly down to Phoenix to meet her in person and help her through her grief, though he’s not at all clear on how he’ll help; most of her other friends are content with adding “sympathy” to her blog. It’s all very modern.
[Spoilers] Let’s get a key point out of the way right from the start: the mysterious fish cakes of the title, Ilse’s Gram’s secret recipe that she’s handing down to her granddaughter, postmortem, are largely a red herring*, though Vukcevich builds a surprising amount of interest while we wait to learn the secret ingredient: fish flakes, but the kind you feed to tropical fish rather than people, and they turn out to be fairly appalling stuff unless heavily masked by other flavors. (I’ll take Vukcevich’s word on this one. Blech!) The larger point is twofold: first, that Ilse is willing to share both the secret and the last supplies of fish flakes with Tyler, and second, that there’s a viral video making the rounds of a guy eating sushi, and it’s almost a pornographic experience, since tuna and salmon are either extinct or available only to the very wealthy.
* No, I’m not at all repentant.
The tech is very well handled, in terms of both the thought given to the technology and its impacts on people. Tyler’s small apartment, for instance, has display screens on all four walls so he can alter the look of his physical environment at will whenever augs aren’t what he needs, he must “turn off the [virtual] cats” before he leaves to meet Ilse, and he has an exercise bike with a generator that is tied to the grid so he can earn electrical credits to power his virtual world. (Vukcevich remembers this detail well enough that later, when Tyler arrives in Phoenix, he’s unable to take a rent-a-bike from the bus stop to Ilse’s house: he rarely leaves his apartment complex, so the only bike he’s ever ridden was in VR or safely attached to the floor.) The current buzz over “the cloud” is well-integrated with the story; Tyler’s data and software are all stored online, so his travel augs are completely disposable; they can be easily and cheaply replaced whenever necessary. And necessary they are, because Tyler and his generation rarely want to deal with unaugmented, non-multitasking reality. When Tyler takes off his augs, a “single sharp and chilly aspect of the Multiverse seized him as if he’d been tossed into a cell and someone had slammed the door behind him.”
The larger point of the story is how all this tech affects the humans. Vukcevich carefully considers the impacts of our increasingly networked and virtual world on humans and their relationships. As Tyler preps himself for the flight to Phoenix, he makes a telling remark about the stress this will cause him: “Inside [his] room, Tyler was like a brain in a skull—his little you, the classic homunculus”, and leaving the apartment is about as attractive as a brain transplant. Indeed, most of his friends refer to getting together in the flesh as a “meating”, and find it impressive (if vaguely creepy) that Tyler’s willing to do this at all. As one notes, referring to the Quixotic physical visit, “he’s killing windmills for her”.
On another deeply human note, Phoenix has shrunk to 20% of its former size because the desert has become almost unlivable, with temperatures well over 100°F even in the winter—as Vukcevich notes, this desert city never made much sense, and makes even less sense now—yet many people (including Ilse) still cling to their city simply because it’s home. When Tyler meats [sic] Ilse for the first time, there’s a wistful sense that she might accompany him back to his home in Oregon, but the closing line of the story soon disabuses us of that notion and remind us of the kinds of people we’re dealing with in a single, neatly turned phrase:
“You’re not coming back to Oregon with me, are you?
“No,” she said, “but thanks for almost asking.”
There’s a subtle amusement at and affection for his characters that runs throughout Vukcevich’s story, but the only overt humor comes when Tyler passes through airport security: he’s stripped of his clothing, cavity searched, stripped of his augs, sedated, shackled to a gurney, and loaded aboard the plane like cargo, clad only in paper disposables that make hospital gowns seem like carefully considered examples of superior ergonomics. (Tyler, of course, knew nothing of this before arriving at the airport, since his only experience of air travel would be what are presumably highly retro online simulations.) The humor works so well because it’s played entirely straightfaced, both for the author and for Tyler, who simply accepts this dehumanization like all the rest of us sheep currently do. I can easily imagine air travel becoming this bad; it’s already more than halfway there. Were I the cynical sort, I’d be tempted to speculate that Homeland Security is a secret ploy by the Democrats to eliminate any incentive to travel by air, thereby helping to meet the U.S. commitments to reduce carbon emissions without the Republicans catching wise. But that would be silly, right?
Fish Cakes is a fascinating blend of Asimov’s Naked Sun/Caves of Steel sequence and Niven and Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty, though considerably more skillfully written than either and with better attention to the human implications of the story context. It’s not so much about the greenhouse world of the anthology’s theme (eliminating any greenhouse reference would require only minor changes to the story), but to be clear, that’s not a criticism; though climate change is mostly backgrounded, it’s nonetheless well integrated with the story. Fish Cakes shows Vukcevich at the top of his form: it’s wry, insightful, and thought-provoking in a low-key way.
Lewis Jessen is nicknamed “Bear” for a reason: at 7 feet tall and with a build to match, even half-starved and 67 years old, he’s a giant of a man. In 2099, he’s homesteading in northern Montana, near the Canadian border, when just about everyone else has moved away or migrated north in the hope of getting into Canada, which still has a liveable climate. He’s getting by, but the fat he’d stored up over a lifetime has evaporated and he’s gone gaunt. Orla, his wife of 42 years, died of lung cancer just 4 months earlier, and Bear is despondent. Without her, and with no other humans anywhere nearby, he has no reason to live but for one: he promised her he would not kill himself after she died.
Some might persist from faith, but that won’t work for Bear: “Bear still believed in the Protestant God of his youth... but it was not a worshipful relationship.” By this stage of climate catastrophe, things have fallen almost completely apart, with billions dead or still slowly dying and predictions before the great die-off suggesting that fewer than 100 million people would eventually survive, most of them living within the Arctic and Antarctic circles. Like Bear’s slow slide towards death, the human world is headed downhill fast too, with not much to look forward to and no hope of reprieve from a higher power.
[Spoilers] Into this gloom comes a refugee, so starved and filthy and small Bear initially mistakes her for a 13-year-old. Patricia Vargas is actually 18, Hispanic, and clearly far from home. One night, while Bear sleeps, she invades his cabin and begins rummaging for supplies. He wakes, and he’s willing to let her take what she needs right up until the moment when she accidentally knocks over one of Orla’s vases, one of the few tangible mementos he has of his wife, and in his rage, he seizes the girl; she tries to kill him with a knife, but fails by chance and authorial intent. (A belly slash is a nasty wound, no matter how many rolls of loose skin you might have; unless he was sleeping in a parka, she should have hurt him badly.) Though he’s repeatedly considered suicide, having no reason to live anymore, he “didn’t want to make a murderer out of her for his own convenience”. Bear’s rage fades, but when Pat realizes what she’s done, she returns the next night while he’s asleep and fixes the broken vase with some of his last glue.
By a combination of luck and his creation of a wide fireline (i.e., an area with no trees), Bear’s cabin has escaped the periodic wildfires that sweep through northern Montana even now, but his luck eventually runs out. He sees the fire coming from far enough away to do something about it. Two trees still stand by his house: an old aspen by his bedroom window, and a giant ponderosa pine. Despite his despair, he chooses to make one last stand, and fells the aspen to protect his home—but he can’t bring himself to kill the pine. (I loved those trees when I was in Montana, and couldn’t force myself to kill it either.) Whether it’s that decision, or pure bad luck (wildfires can send burning debris flying for miles), his house catches fire that night, as does the pine. (Ponderosa pine is a fire-adapted species, and usually survives moderate-intensity fires. Sadly, it seems unlikely to survive future high-intensity fires.)
Bear escapes, still half asleep, but is overcome by despair at losing the last trace of his connection with Orla. He considers throwing himself back into the fire, but Pat pulls him back and he lets her; a small troupe of equally starved, equally filthy children that she’s responsible for are watching, and he can’t imagine leaving them with the memory of his fiery death. Inevitably, Bear gets sucked into the task of caring for the children by the horror of their condition: the iconic images that extend in an unbroken chain of disasters from the Biafran conflict of the late 1960s to today’s ethnic cleansings, some are so starved they have distended bellies and one has eyes “that crawled with flies”. The supplies Bear and Orla had stockpiled in the cellar have survived the fire (not unreasonable), and he gives the children a small but restorative feast.
Pat has already traveled thousands of miles from Mexico City to reach this point, and she’s heading north to the Arctic ocean (almost as far again) to reach a sanctuary her wise grandparents and many others began preparing nearly 80 years earlier, confident the government wouldn’t act until it was too late. Her parents fled urban chaos in Mexico to keep the sanctuary running, but lost Pat in the process. And it’s here that Locke’s story runs completely off the rails after accumulating a powerful head of narrative steam. Pat rescued the children from the local warlord, Colonel O’Neal, who is capturing refugees and using them as slave labor in his factories. It would be uncharitable (and incorrect given the lack of resemblance on any other level) to accuse Locke of deliberately creating an airforce colonel with the same name as the protagonist of Stargate SG1 (but for one letter), but it’s an unfortunate choice of name because the remaining plot descends into bad Stargate pastiche, minus the aliens. (I like many things about Stargate; their understanding of military matters isn’t one of them.)
The children clearly need Bear’s help to reach the Canadian border, as he knows the local land intimately and is a wilderness expert, but they face insurmountable obstacles: all roads are patrolled by the Colonel’s troops, who capture or kill travelers, and the Canadian border is tighly controlled to keep out refugees. It seems unlikely Bear would have night-vision binoculars or that they’d survive the fire, but he does have them and they let Tommy, an older child and skillful scout, spot an ambush by two soldiers, children Bear used to know who have grown up and fallen into bad company. Bear tricks them into lowering their guard, and kills one with his knife; Tommy kills the other before he can shoot Bear. The group finds their way uneventfully to the border, where they’re promptly captured and turned over to the Colonel. Because they were carrying his men’s salvaged equipment, O’Neal wants to punish whoever killed his men.
O’Neal’s a cardboard villain, shooting a refugee to punish Bear when he won’t talk (not to mention enslaving people to run his factories). It’s never clear whether he’s a civilian who rose to become a warlord and somehow captured key military resources that should have been desperately defended by their owners, or a fallen professional; the former seems most likely given that his troops are poorly trained amateurs with little discipline. That makes it implausible he could have captured such significant military resources. Various useful civilians have accreted around O’Neal’s camp, including Desmond Marcus, Bear’s former pastor and a former friend; their friendship ended when Bear could no longer accept Marcus’ blithe optimism over God’s plan for the world. (Sadly, Marcus is the standard kind of stereotypical religious nut from central casting that infests too much SF/F.) Because Bear is an engineer, and would therefore be useful, O’Neal will employ rather than punish him for killing the two men, and will even spare the children from servitude in his factories if Bear toes the line, but Pat will become the Colonel’s personal property. (Why he’s interested in a half-starved 18-year-old girl when he has his pick of the civilian population defies reason: she’s too old for this to be pedophilia and too young to have developed much skill in bed.)
O’Neal’s plans would embarrass a Bond villain: he will use a military-grade blimp to invade Canada bearing nuclear weapons his men have unearthed. (For the record: “Blimp” is the wrong name, as it refers to a class of non-rigid airships that are limited too a small size and low cargo capacity for engineering reasons. “Zeppelin” or “airship” would be a better description, since only this class of machines are large enough to contain all the facilities Locke describes.) For this to be plausible, we must ignore two inconvenient facts: modern nuclear weapons are tightly locked down to prevent domestic terrorism (you can’t use them without high-level access to the necessary codes that O’Neal could never have obtained), and no large airship can be fast enough to deploy a nuke and escape the blast radius. Hollywood rears its ugly head as Bear overpowers O’Neal and binds him and all his guards singlehanded. (A lesson to budding writers: Always play-act your key stunts. Here, hold a prop gun to the head of a friend and try binding his arms and legs one-handed, even if he merely resists passively. Next, bring in two more friends as guards and a third as your captive’s executive officer in the same room, all armed, and remind them that the exec is a cold-blooded killer with no qualms about killing his commander and taking command for himself. Now try binding all five of them. The scene simply doesn’t work physically or logically.)
Bear frees Pat, who in turn frees the children, and they plot their escape. Bear’s had experience with explosives in his engineering career, so it’s plausible he could set demolitions charges—if he could somehow evade the guards at the weapons repository. Fortunately, they’re drunk enough that he can do this, but would anyone really risk drinking on duty given the punishment any leader as brutal as brutal as O'Neal would deal out? As a skilled hunter, Bear might be very stealthy indeed, but given the number of guards, it seems unlikely he could wander around a busy military camp undetected. When the charges detonate at the crack of dawn, Bear and the children rush to the airship hangar, only to find O’Neal’s exec has escaped and is waiting for them with his men. Bear continues to use O’Neal as a shield, and we’re told that Pat and the children move out of range—which is just plain silly. Men with rifles could take down Bear before he could kill O’Neal, and a trained rifleman (Locke uses the term “snipers”) could easily and reliably hit targets 100 yards away indoors with no wind, which is farther than the longest dimension of even the largest hangar. The good guys escape, but Bear’s shot three times before they clear the hangar; fortunately (deus ex machina time), there’s a fully equipped surgical suite aboard the airship, and a surgeon there to staff it (even though the theft of the airship occurred at 6 AM). The point here is to achieve a happy ending, no matter how it might defy logic. Also, need I mention that even modern airships generally can’t take off and land by themselves; all types that I’m familiar with require a large support crew on the ground.
The final strike is an intrusive and clumsily executed delivery of the story’s message: “Why had nothing been done while there was still time to act?” I emphatically support the message; as I noted in the essay that began my reviews of this anthology, I think we’re already long past the tipping point, and that it’s time to begin planning survival strategies rather than debating whether we can halt global warming. My only objection is how clumsy Locke’s delivery of the message felt.
From a larger perspective, I find the whole notion of local warlords in a modern nation unlikely. I’ll accept them as a fictional device, but it’s far more likely that as things collapse, local military units will be detached from central command and control, and assigned to local civilian command, with their circle of influence steadily narrowing to the area surrounding the civilians they’re protecting. All of the military men I’ve known (mostly Canadian, one American, most officers) have been consummate professionals, and without falling into hero worship, I believe they are profoundly committed to their service. I have a hard time imagining them suddenly becoming pirates; discipline is the foundation of a modern army, and what separates (say) the U.S. army from your typical banana republic crowd of thugs with rifles is discipline and a profound devotion to protecting their civilians.
Speaking from a Canadian perspective, I also couldn’t buy the notion that Canada (my home) could remain an independent nation in such a situation. In the otherwise lamentable film The Day After Tomorrow, the U.S. relocates en masse south to Mexico as the north freezes; in a rare note of realism, the Mexicans, not being fools, welcome them. In Locke’s story, the U.S. leadership would relocate northward en masse, and Canada’s government would undoubtedly welcome them with open arms rather than publicly admitting they had no alternative. Our armed forces have world-class training, and are respected internationally for their quality, but they’re a small force (far less than 10% of the U.S. staffing level), and their equipment was state of the art—for 50 years ago. Recent history (water rights, softwood lumber, electricity exports, forced import of fuel additives banned in the U.S., Arctic sovereignty) have convinced most Canadians that the U.S. largely does what it wants and ignores Canada’s concerns. As a former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau noted with his trademark wit: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
Bear’s a likeable curmudgeon, nothing new under the sun but still well described and a pleasant POV character. Locke gets many details right, as when he eloquently describes Bear imagining his wife’s likely reaction to a situation and the way that old couples nurse their arguments: “Eventually, he figured, he’d either get over being mad at her for dying first, or die too, and end the argument that way.” He also has a cynical and often amusing way of looking at the world; for example, the fire has destroyed (Pooh) Bear’s “hundred acre wood”. Locke also has a gift for the occasional memorable phrase. My favorite is undoubtedly the finest description I’ve read of the ecologically unsustainable modern consumer society: “Human civilization had collapsed under its own weight, the way Ponzi schemes do.” I’ve seen a great many experienced scientists do a worse job of explaining the problem.
What Locke does well, he does very well indeed. He writes well on a sentence and paragraph level: the words flow smoothly, often eloquently, and create a clear sense of place and of his main character. Bear is an attractive, fully developed character who faces an emotional and physical challenge that would crush a lesser man, and he rises to the challenge and finds a way to restore his will to live by focusing outwards on alleviating the misery of others instead of dwelling on his own despair. That rings very true, and if the story ended there, it would have been one of the stronger contributions to the anthology. But the last half of the story completely erases the gains made during the first half: the plot is sabotaged by poor research (*never* rely on Hollywood or TV for your military education), and by a failure to give the secondary characters any attention, let alone as much attention as he gave to Bear. In the end, True North is a disappointing story that should have been sent back for a major rewrite.
What’s the upshot of this long series of reviews? On the whole, Welcome to the Greenhouse is a worthwhile investment of your time and reading effort. Like any anthology, there are weak stories, including a couple that should have been sent back for major rewrites (Benkoelen, True North). But there are also several very strong pieces that more than compensate for them: in particular, Benford’s The Eagle, Sterling’s Master of the Aviary, and Vukcevich’s Fish Cakes are standouts, though for very different reasons.
The tone of the tales spans the gamut from hard SFnal extrapolation to nearly unalloyed fantasy, and from pessimistic “we’re all gonna die” scenarios to tall tales and humor in the service of a moral. There are tales driven almost entirely by character, tales driven mostly by plot, and some elegant mixtures of the two; the Benford and Sterling tales probably strike the best balance. If you like the range of stories that typically appear in F&SF, you’ll enjoy this anthology too. Foster’s That Creeping Sensation earns special mention (in my entirely subjective opinion) for *ahem* breathing new life (and a scientific justification) into the hoary old notion of giant insects while also exploring this unusual but plausible side-effect of global warming for (so far as I’m aware) the first time.
From a scientific perspective, most of the stories are sound, and take only minor and acceptable liberties with what we know about global warming. A few seem a bit shakier, but remain within the bounds of what is acceptable for the sake of fiction. I still find too many tales for which the author didn’t adequately research the scientific or technical underpinnings of their story or fully explore the consequences of their SFnal premises, but not to the point of undermining most stories or the anthology as a whole.
My take-home message, to the extent that one can do so from what is (after all) a survey of a small sample of stories rather than a formal study of our field is that global warming has emerged from being an occasional blip on the SFnal radar and has become something that will increasingly become part of our field’s literary and scientific dialogue. My experience with a great many scientists over the past 25 years is that most won’t pay much attention to the musings of fictioneers, even to those with distinguished academic credentials (several authors have advanced degrees in various fields, but most notably Benford from the perspective of “hard science”). But a few will, and I have some faint hope that they’ll find inspiration in this collection. In particular, I hope that some will begin working on Plan B, as Locke proposes in True North. That’s a notion I thoroughly endorse, despite my relatively harsh critique of his story.
I particularly endorse disaster planning *right now* because the kind of potential crisis we’re facing is the kind of thing that will take as much as a decade simply to plan, and decades more to implement in anything like a satisfactory way. We have no historical or practical experience with problems such as the following:
There are many other issues; these are just the most obvious. The development of such a plan would be precisely the kind of project ideally suited to a group as diverse as the SF/F community. We have authors who can extrapolate better than many scientists (because they’re less constrained by the need for scientific rigor), including some who contributed to this anthology, but we also have members who can provide the rigorous professional expertise in physics, biology, sociology, psychology, and other fields that will transform those extrapolations into something concrete and actionable. It’s never possible to fully characterize or fully anticipate the consequences of such a complex problem, but putting a large number of minds to work on the project (crowdsourcing!) would help us at least try. If we’re more fortunate than I expect, and all this effort proves to be unnecessary, at least we’ll have encouraged a new kind of international cooperation.
This is precisely the kind of thing that a Wikipedia-like project would be ideal for. Any volunteers?
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