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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Welcome To The Greenhouse

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At the cusp of the twentieth century, the weather, as it was portrayed in utopian fiction, was something of a nuisance, an inconsiderate boor that could, should and would be reformed. Once war, sex and greed had been dealt with, the final item on the agenda in most fictional utopian societies was the control of weather. Thus in William Dean Howell’s “A Traveler From Altruria” series (1892), the visitor boasts about the superior weather on his terraformed world; Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein’s feminist utopia “Sultana’s Dream” (1905) has the guide describe, with similar pride, how in her world, a system of pipes tapped clouds for their water, thus also taming the monsoons; and Maxim Gorky wrote essay after essay describing weather-control as utopian communism’s killer app. As William Meyer, a geographer who’s made a specialty of studying utopian weather, put it: “Utopia, to be utopia, must enjoy perfect weather…”

As the turn-of-the-century futurists had hoped, weather control on a large scale is now indeed feasible. But something funny has happened on our rendezvous with the future. The 19th century environmentalist’s instinctive distrust of science, and by extension, utopian fiction, and echoed in Thoreau’s famous “Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!” has the upper hand now. The trend is to see humanity, not the weather, as the problem. For example, in 1971, noted environmentalist and sustainable land-use pioneer, Ian McHarg, in his influential B. Y. Morrison Memorial lecture, asked if man was “but a planetary disease.” There is a change in both scale and focus. The out-of-control mad scientist has metastasized into an out-of-control mad species, and the battle for control is not over Nature, or its most obvious manifestation, weather, but human nature, or its most obvious manifestation, human behavior.

This anthology of stories, edited by Gordon van Gelder, also treks that grim narrative. But it mostly avoids McHargian extremes. Of its sixteen stories, only seven are definitely on the distal side of optimism; the rest are optimistic in varying degrees. The weather of course mopes around in all the stories.

The first story, Brian Aldiss’ “Benkoelen,” considers the general problem of survival in terms of human particulars: a man, his sister, animals to be saved, hard decisions to be made, and all of it framed by the memory of a now lost childhood. “Benkoelen” is a fine, realist portrayal of the many such particulars that will one day haunt—is haunting—our threatened future. The protagonist meets three people in this story—one is malevolent, the second indifferent, and the third, benevolent. This orients the tale slightly in the direction of a fairy tale, despite the realist touches. Unfortunately, the delicate balance is spoiled by the character of Bainya Hosta de l’Affiche Salle; this creature– “blue of eyelid, red of lip, gold of skin, petulant, prideful, passionate ”– belongs in another story by an another author, not in this story by this author. Mercifully, she plays a minor role. “Benkoelen” is exactly the kind of story Mundane SF movement had hoped to effect: stories situated in the very near-future, probable rather than possible, low-drama, and with a nuanced understanding of human behavior in times of great stress.

Jeff Carlson’s “Damned If You Do” is about the burden of children who exceed their parents’ expectations. While we know children neglected by their parents are raised by monsters, we don’t quite know what happens to parents whose children are raised by angels. Carlson gives us an idea. Reading the story, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Superman. This time, the villain, global warming, gets to kinda not lose. Jack Shofield, the story’s narrator and father of Albert Timothy, the protagonist, is a more poor-South version of Jonathan Kent and his wife Martha is, well, Martha Kent. She’s the kind of woman who wears hats to church on Sundays, nods vehemently at the pastor’s observations and who offers a love that’s instinctively all breast. Though global warming makes for a unsatisfactory super-villain, it’s quite incidental to the tale. The true villain in this story is the real villain of the Bible: us. Albert Timothy would save us, but let’s face it, there’s no straightening our crooked timber.

Judith Moffett’s “In The Middle of Somewhere,” is told from the perspective of a teenager, Kaylee. The global warming setting and Kaylee’s growing understanding of her ’60s-weird mentor, Jane, is perfect for the story’s essential task: a reconsideration of the value of the past. It is odd that we have no problem– at least, Economics has no problem—in calculating a present value for the future. But the idea that the past has a present value too seems to be an ideological statement, not an economic one. The assumption, of course, is that the past is already enfolded in the present and doesn’t need any extra consideration. This story begs to differ.

As part of her school biology project, Kaylee works from Jane’s house, because the older woman’s remotely situated property is home to dozens of bird species. Jane has beehives, strong opinions on flushing and a bacterium’s familiarity with septic tanks. She doesn’t have cable, high-speed access to the net, and unlike Kaylee, samples reality in small serial, analog spoonfuls at a time. She’s not on Facebook, for God’s sake. Nevertheless, what Kaylee learns from this obsolete woman is what economists and calculators might also one day learn.

Moffett smoothly shifts between the present-tense, urgent, hyper-social, distracted-yet-attentive consciousness of Kaylee and the more meditative, amiable-yet-distant one of Jane. It’s a tricky thing she pulls off because Moffett never goes into Jane’s head. Her narrator is closely attached to Kaylee, rarely floating off to make observations about what’s happening. The result is a pair of characters we can believe in.

Matthew Hughes’ “Not a Problem” has an endearing capitalist pig as its hero. It’s the kind of story that’s enormous fun to write and enormous fun to read. Bunky Samson, pudgy, clever and rich, with a comfortable empire and pugnacious disposition, is where he is because of what he is: a capitalist oinker. So when he becomes aware of global warming, through TV, naturally, it is merely another opportunity to make a buck. When told that the world’s best eggheads had failed to make headway on the problem, Bunky decides to invest in SETI. The rest of the story works out the relentless logic of such mischievous decisions. There’s something very Greek about the story’s plot; that is, the story has the feel of a joke wrapped up in a cautionary tale. The writing is cheerful and energetic, reminiscent of Thurber, as perhaps all such stories must be. Is there a moral? Yes. God, we so need more Bunky Samsons. Global warming wouldn’t stand a chance.

Gregory Benford’s “Eagle” takes global warming much more seriously. Or more precisely, his taut, matter-of-fact, detail-rich story takes human responses to global warming seriously. “Eagle” begins with the arrival of Elinor at an Anchorage harbor, and it’s clear almost from the outset that she’s one of those unfortunate people who are untroubled by moral doubts. She knows where she’s headed, she knows what hurdles to expect, and she’s worked out her action’s consequences and those of her opponents, two or three steps into the decision tree.

The story, like all of Benford’s short stories, is told with that characteristic combination of analytic detachment, realism and understatement. I don’t wish to imply that Elinor is a cold bitch. Far from it. Her name lends her a protective grace, of course; it’s impossible to read her name and not think of quests and jousts, virgins and unicorns. But more than that, Benford gives her a rich inner life, one that is on a treadmill of worries, plans, unstated hopes, and at one point in the story, even achieves a small transcendence. She’s a woman who’s made a choice, and if Elinor was an idealist before she made that choice, she’s now a pragmatist who’ll do whatever it takes to achieve it.

It’s easy to condemn Elinor, but condemnation has a shelf-life too. Today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s martyr. Benford is prescient here, I think. The day is not far off when we shall read about Elinor in the news. Let us hope we will remember to condemn her.

Michael Alexander’s “Come Again Some Other Day” turns out to be a different tale than its beginning might suggest. At first, the narrator, Hap, sounds like a jerk; he issues unfeeling comments, reveals flippant disregard for disaster news, and makes snarky generalizations about people and places. But Hap turns out to have a gift that sets him apart from everyone else. Well, not everyone. He works with a colleague, Gladys, who also has that same gift. They are at a certain point in their relationship, the casual, how-was-your-weekend stage. By the end of the story, things are slightly different, perhaps as a consequence of their gift. Unfortunately, the story pays too little attention to the two characters for us to care very much.

That’s fine. This is an “ideas story.” The premise is utterly far out, and all I can say without giving it away is this story has a particularly fascinating antagonist: probability. And it’s not a gimmick, because it enables a lot of fun at global warming’s expense. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t know whether it wants to be a comedy or a farce. The two are not incompatible, of course, but the farcical undertone suggests anything is possible. For this story, that’s an important suggestion to avoid.

This is a pity, because of all the philosophical concepts, the idea of probability has perhaps received the least noteworthy treatment in SF. True, there are plenty of stories about quantum physics, but they are mostly stories about its cool paradoxical effects, not about the subtleties in the concept of probability itself. It’s as if we had zillions of stories on all the cool things that could happen with time travel, but not Proust (if this sounds like an invite to clue me in, it is).

Bruce Sterling’s “Master of the Aviary” is set in a world three thousand years in the future, a world ruined by global warming. But for what Sterling’s story sets out to do, it really only needs what Lewis Mumford, and before him, his mentor Patrick Geddes, called an “eotechnic” world. In such a world, there are towns and merchants, princes and courtiers, rigid poetry and galvanic frogs. An eotechnic world has one language for the elites and another for commoners. It’s a world that tries very, very hard to remember because all of future’s promises were once realized in the past. As Mumford pointed out, it’s a world that knows the value of the past. Knowledge is no longer a secret nor an inheritance, and so we find science and dissections, heresy and repression, masters and disciples. We find the world of Sterling’s Mellow Julian and his students.

Sterling fleshes out Mellow Julian in considerable detail, observing at him at just enough distance for us to understand Julian, but not empathize. We quickly realize there is something very wrong with Julian. The figure of the teacher, though important in any age, has a particular significance in an eotechnic one. In such an age, the teacher unites in his person both the practical as well as the theoretical arts. Later, his students will become mostly thinkers or mostly doers, but for now, the two kinds of knowing co-exist, seed and womb, in the teacher. Julian is such a teacher. He’s also mellow. The task of this story is to make us understand why this benign, even desirable, quality is a character flaw in an individual who’s placed at so critical a juncture in history.

However, Sterling chooses to make Julian’s mellowness an essential flaw rather than a situational one, and it simplifies Julian unnecessarily. He’s a pathetic rather than tragic figure. Sterling also lectures Julian, and so Julian’s left without an advocate. In real life, it’s usually a chosen student who becomes the teacher’s great opponent as well as his great defender (as Mumford was for Geddes). Though the story has such students, they are Sterling’s students, not Julian’s. I found the final sections of the story a disappointment, despite the glorious last line.

This may not seem like a story about global warming. But it is. It’s about the ethics of knowledge. The fact that we, the educated, all know what’s in store and yet mostly choose to do nothing, that we are mostly all so mellow about it, and that we are what this story talks about, makes this tale a disquieting one.

Joseph Green’s “Turtle Love” is so goddamn optimistic it made me laugh out aloud. It’s the love child of Rosie the Riveter and John Campbell. Green envisages an America that, like Rocky in the third act, manages to get its act together. Sample:

“The crime rate fell to its lowest point since national records were kept. Factories sometimes quiet for decades roared back to life, to produce the needed machinery….The unemployment rate fell close to zero….The country had not been so unified or busy since World War II, a hundred years ago. Congress had just passed a series of new taxes and surcharges to pay the huge bill, with little protest from anyone.”

There’s a half-hearted mystery thrown in as a sort of fig-leaf to hide the story’s throbbing arousal, but it’s futile, utterly futile. Actually, Green’s utopian scenario is not at all implausible. In fact I’m convinced America will respond in exactly the manner described. That said, after the world’s been reset to Jan 1st, 1950, then what?

The next two stories, Pat MacEwen’s “The California Queen Comes A-Calling” and Alan Dean Foster’s “The Creeping Sensation” are also near-future stories. In both stories, global warming is a recent fact with mostly manageable consequences and plays a relatively low-key role. In MacEwen’s story, it has created a California of port harbor towns, and the story is about the restoration of law and order. If the scenes remind you of Maverick and other old Westerns, then it’s because there are many similarities. Life is cheap, food is scarce and children are a luxury. Varmints abound, as do cannibals. Fortunately, MacEwen’s heroine, Taiesha, is as competent with California case law as she is with a nano-needle-loaded gun.

All stories with cannibals in them give me the creeps, and MacEwen’s story was no exception. It’s odd that it felt like a lurid touch, because cannibalism does appear to manifest in human populations in times of extreme scarcity.

In any event, I approached Alan Dean Foster’s ominously titled story with some trepidation. What now? Cannibals with wings? Nothing of the sort. Here, a nod of thanks to the editor is definitely due. Foster’s “The Creeping Sensation” is exactly what is needed at this stage in the anthology. Lock and load guns. Velcro that chill suit. Check the oxygen tanks. Lower the visor. Ready, men? Very well then. Amp the juice. Now, let’s go kick some insectoid ass! In Foster’s setting, the world is drowning in oxygen. Higher levels of oxygen allow for slight increases in body size, and the story rather enjoys itself with extra large cockroaches, bees, wasps, scorpions, fire ants, centipedes and dragonflies. The rest of the story is mostly about eliminating what has been dreamed up.

There’s an old-fashioned “boy’s adventure” feel to both stories, and despite all the mega stingers, mandibles, claws, pincers and cannibals, we know there’s no real danger. We know the bugs will eventually learn who’s daddy, people will eventually stop eating each other, mortgages will again be sold, and we will resume our lurch to the next apocalypse.

David Prill’s “The Men of Summer” is a very different bird altogether. It opens with a fragment from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Eight Sonnets,” a lovely heartbreak poem about people who refuse to get dumped. Prill’s story is a mood piece and he’s fashioned a beautiful story that’s worthy of Millay’s fragment. It needs to be read in a meditative state of mind, so I’m not sure if it’s ideally placed in the table of contents at the moment.

Marion, Princess of summer, wakes up to youth, sunlight, and life’s glad, golden tree. Even though Prill describes the world from her point of view, we’re always looking at her rather than with her. That is how it should be because she doesn’t really exist outside of the male gaze. As the Bard wrote in his famous summer sonnet,

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

That’s Marion in a nutshell. Prill describes with considerable precision the kind of male gaze that aches to consummate without permitting the object of the gaze to get soiled in any way. Marion ostensibly lives in a world of surplus choice, sunlight, good coffee and uncomplicated sex.

Ostensibly. As Prill’s story shows in a deft twist, Marion’s world is nothing of the sort. That twist is why this is a story about global warming. The world has ended, we’re surrounded with hate, necessity and death, and so Prill, in one of Freud’s three casket inversions, speaks instead of love, choice and life. Prill is suggesting, I think, that if one must become the corpse that the world might become, if we wish to taste its death, then let us find our happiest moment in youth’s brightest day and stand with our faces turned upwards to the golden sun. Of all the stories in this collection, I think Prill’s story allowed me to taste that bitter moment the best.

George Guthridge’s “The Bridge” is set in Anchorage, Alaska and is a story as grim, cold and hopeless as the place looks on TV. What set this story apart from the others is that the prospect of ruined world is designed to effect a very different emotion: satisfaction. If we victimize people enough, we may create a mind in which helplessness, rage and humiliation produces a desire to annihilate oneself and the world with it. Nothing else will do.

Guthridge’s orphaned, desperate and brutalized female protagonist, like her father, is driven to the “the ends of the earth.” The story uses an interesting and effective swirl of first and second person shifts, so the reader slides in and out of her mind. We have raped the world, says the story, and laughed while we did so.

The story was a hard read. I do not believe that individual sins, no matter how horrendous, ever justifies collective punishments. So I was unable to step off with the heroine from that ledge at the end of the world. Yet Guthridge achieves something remarkable. Later, it reminded me of the moment in Unforgiven when Clint Eastwood levels the shotgun against Gene Hackman’s chest. “I don’t deserve this… to die like this,” says Hackman’s Little Bill, “I was building a house.” Deserve, growls Eastwood, has nuthin’ to do with it. What Guthridge achieves is this: we understand that bullet’s unforgivingness even as we brace our chests.

Paul Di Fillipo’s “FarmEarth 257” has a world that is adjusting quite well to the global warming crisis. FarmEarth is a game, a sort of Sim City on steroids. We learn that “playing” the game materially affects real world objects. “FarmEarth 257” revolves around a bunch of students—the main ones are Crispian Tanjuatco (boy) and Anuta (girl)—who want to do the things grown-ups do, namely, help in fixing the earth’s little weather problem. The kids are tired of just “riding herd on a zillion hungry bacteria.” Enter Adan, ex-con and brother of one of the posse, who offers them a way to make a real difference. The rest of the story is exactly what it should be.

I was amused by the utopian setting and its necessary program of weather control. Perhaps the weather is to us what sex was to the medieval period. The adults in this story mostly resemble the wise elder aliens of Star Trek SF. They watch over the kids, give them menial but useful tasks, and are suitably indulgent when things screw up. Though there’s terrorism in the story, terrorism of the religious variety seems to be a distant memory. The races mingle. Bollywood is still around. It’s a nice world. Wish I lived in it. I’m hoping the kids who’ll read Fillipo’s fun tale will go and build it, so that at least I’ll be able to enjoy it in my dotage.

The story has one technical misstep. One of the characters makes the claim that AI (the only time the word appears in this collection) has been banned from FarmEarth. I highly doubt that’s possible; for one thing, Google would go out of business. And let’s face it, if Google has gone out of business, then global warming is the least of their problems.

Chris Lawson’s “Sundown” has a group of humans clinging to survival in Rotorua, a geothermally active site in New Zealand. Unlike in the other stories, the world here experiences a global cooling. For unspecified reasons, the solar constant, the amount of solar radiation on a unit area, decreases by some 30% in an hour. As the world freezes over, most sources of energy—nuclear, electric, coal, wind, animal— prove to be unviable. Geothermal energy offers the only way out. Sundown is narrated as a reminiscence—someone is being given an explanation that is also, we eventually discover, something else.

It’s a familiar setting in some ways, but the details and pacing is such that I found myself unable to stop reading. There are interesting nuggets of information– I have oodles more respect for algae now—and the story doesn’t hurry over how the survivors manage to survive. If they survive. I find stories that blot out the sun far more terrifying that stories with global warming; with the latter, billions might die, but humanity probably isn’t going to go extinct. But take away the sun, well, it’s time for the violins. “Sundown” may be a great tale to use in grades 7 and up; kids may struggle with the ending, but hopefully, the critters will take the world a little less for granted.

Ray Vukcevich’s “Fish Cakes” is an excellent read and achieves exactly what it sets out to do. But it’s something of a misfit in this collection. In the story, the only real effect of global warming has been to make people—North Americans– hole up in their rooms and deal with others through souped-up avatars. We don’t need global warming for that.

The story has a hero (Tyler) and heroine (Ilse) who are mostly separated throughout the story in the “real” world, but know each other intimately in the virtual. Tyler’s off to visit his warrior princess, rescue her from sun-blasted Phoenix Arizona and bring her home to his apartment in Eugene, Oregon. Vukcevich makes Tyler’s trip sound as hazardous as that of a loggerhead turtle’s migration, but we hardened reader-travelers– groped and x-rayed, de-shoed and un-buckled, bent-over and arms-extended, fingerprinted and flight-canceled— will probably grunt more in callused recognition than in sympathy. Welcome to the monkey house, kid.

When Tyler and Ilse do meet, the nuanced dialog is a pleasure to read. It’s what dialog should be. The odd thing is that this conversation felt different from the conversation between the avatars. More authentic, perhaps. I’m not sure if posing— the natural behavior of avatars—rules out real conversations. I suppose it doesn’t. After all, the “real” Tyler and Ilse are also just phantasms in our minds. But I felt they were somehow more substantial than the virtual avatars. This is an interesting story for those who like to think about how consciousness gets embedded in fiction. And though the keyboard-bound geek-in-love setting is getting a bit dated, the story is a fun read.

M. J. Locke’s “True North” paints a rich portrait of a man who has nothing to live for but does so anyway. The chaos provoked by global warming accentuates the nothingness but is not essential for the first half of the story. However, it is essential for the second half. The chaos, that is. Locke’s protagonist, Bear, is the kind of man who builds dams, sets up highway systems, invents arithmetic shortcuts, has a few solid friends, and loves one lucky woman all his life. I warmed to Bear immediately and could easily sympathize with his existential crisis.

Bear is working his way towards a permanent exit when he’s faced with a moral responsibility in the form of a teenager, Patricia Vargas, and a brood of refugee children. We know of course what Bear will do. For me, the second half wasn’t quite as effective as the first half, since the story turned into something of a survivalist adventure. It provides an all-too-easy answer to Bear’s original question: what is the point of living without love? Perhaps there isn’t any point, and a graceful exit is an honorable, if not crowd-pleasing, option.

In his introduction, Gordon Van Gelder admits to a certain mild skepticism about global warming. Not regarding its truth as a fact, but as to its proposed causes. He mentions that he’s offering the stories in this volume as a collection of possible questions about the future. In contrast, the climate journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert, says in her preface that she’s hoping science fiction might be able to offer some answers. So what is her question? As she sees it: “The greatest unknown of all is, of course, how people, collectively, will respond.”

The collective answer offered by this volume, I think, is that it’ll be the same-old, same-old response. It surprised me that almost none of the stories suggested human behavior would fundamentally change. Even in the stories where it looks like things will eventually work out, it’s clear the world may have changed but humans will not. This answer is equivalent to silence, for if human behavior will not change then nothing science-fiction can say or imagine will matter. I see this as a failure of the imagination.

A failure, that is, of the environmental imagination. A utopian would have no difficulty— and Green’s Turtle Love comes close—in imagining a new kind of human being, a new kind of consciousness. Indeed, such an imagining may well be one of the responsibilities of speculative fiction. Edward Bellamy, whose Looking Backwards (1887) mostly started the many utopian treatments of weather in fiction, was more confident about our prospects. The weather in his utopia is much the same as ours; its the humans who have changed. So how did we come, in the span of some hundred-odd years, to a fiction where the weather is all different and its the humans who cannot change?

I detected an element of half-heartedness in the stories. I suspect many of the authors do not truly believe in the tired, ruined worlds they write about. Moffett believes, I think. So may George Guthridge. Maybe David Prill. But as for the others, I have my doubts. They know global warming is a serious problem. They know it’s going to change a lot of things. And yet. What they are believe about the future and what they believe about the human-engineered future are two very different things. We may yoke Icarus to the cart, but we shouldn’t be surprised if his eyes remain fixed on the sky.

Environmental SF, I’m beginning to suspect, belong together the way Mr & Mrs Carlyle belonged together. The two words represent, and have always represented, orthogonal, if not antithetical, ways of looking at the world. One focuses on regulating needs, the other on deregulating desire. It doesn’t make for a happy relationship.

This fundamental incompatibility was noted by one of our shrewdest students of utopias. At the end of Barthes’ remarkable essay on Charles Fourier’s Harmony, he lists the different kind of imaginative impossibilities in the utopist’s vision, including total weather-control and transhumanism. But the most “insane” of Fourier’s conceptions had to do with his predicted changes in the way humans used language. Change the way we use language? Why, that would change us completely. In a significant aside, Barthes defined utopia as “the state of a society where Marx would no longer criticize Fourier.” When the philosopher who would regulate need and the philosopher who would deregulate desire can get along, we might indeed have a world where weather and human behavior are no longer at odds.

Barthes understood very well the impossibility of such conceptions. But like him, we can appreciate both Marx and Fourier because impossibility is as much a resource as space, time and randomness. Our utopians threw themselves against impossibilities, and it is insane, yes, but also utterly essential. That kind of imaginative insanity is missing from this volume, but its very absence, I hope, will serve to inspire the next generation of loons.

Publisher: OR Books, New York, 2011
Editor: Gordon Van Gelder
Preface: Elizabeth Kolbert

February 16, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

5 Comments

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  2. Thank you very much for the long and thoughtful review. I appreciate it greatly, and I’ve already heard from several of the book’s contributors who feel likewise.

    If you’ll forgive me for pointing out a couple of little glitches, Paul Di Filippo’s name is misspelled. Also, I don’t think George Guthridge’s story is set in Anchorage.

    —Gordon V.G.

    Comment by Gordon Van Gelder | February 17, 2011

  3. Thanks, Gordon.

    Apologies for the spelling glitch. It’s now been fixed in the document.

    Anil M.

    Comment by Anil Menon | February 21, 2011

  4. A very detailed and thoughtful review — very much enjoyed this.

    Comment by Sam M-B | March 7, 2011

  5. insightful!

    Comment by Gregory Benford | August 6, 2012


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