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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Science Fiction and Green Politics in the 2020s and Beyond: Thoughts on Gibson’s The Peripheral

When I began writing science fiction just before the beginning of this last decade, I had a mission. It was related to the mission that drove me into environmentally-relevant scientific research and later into education: being a force propelling change. In the oughts and tens, the major challenge was to wake the world up to the impending climate catastrophe and educate people to the point that they believed the scientists.

Speaking for the millions of folks involved in these efforts at various levels, mission accomplished. The rate of climate change denial among the young is negligible. Most of the world appreciates the existential threat it poses to human existence, and politics is beginning to move. Glacially, but movement can be detected.

However, it was too little, too late to forestall major damage to the world’s ecosystems. There will be extinctions. There will be much land lost to rising seas. There will be refugees on an unprecedented scale. There will be major disease outbreaks, the fall of governments, starvation, and everything else dystopic science fiction has ever imagined.

The question now is timing. These disasters spread out over one hundred years would leave human society with functioning governments, economies, and social support networks. Over twenty years, you would see the death of 80% of the world’s population.

Or so predicts William Gibson in his novel, The Peripheral. Dismissing him as merely a science fiction writer is perilous—this is the guy who predicted the world wide web and coined the word “cyberspace” with his writing in the 1980s and predicted everything from augmented reality to advanced data mining with his writing in the 1990s.

After a career of pioneering new science fiction tropes and conceits, he falls back on a standard one: time travel. Well, a version of it. Even if wormholes exist, and even if transport through them is possible, it is not believable that human beings will use them for transportation via spaceships. However, I’m not willing to rule out the transport of photons and/or electrons. If these can move back and forth in time, so can communication. (Indeed, I published a story based on this conceit in 2018: here’s the link to the anthology on Amazon.)

With this in mind, Gibson came up with the peripheral: a partially organic robot controlled by thoughts emanating from a different time. In this fashion, Gibson allows his story to take place in two eras: before and after the “jackpot,” a gradual catastrophe of climate change denial leading to political inaction leading to climate change with its consequent deaths by severe weather, viral epidemic, and loss of ecosystem services. And that 80% reduction in the world’s population.

This is Gibson, so of course, the reason for communicating backward in time is the action of criminal syndicates. And researchers/aficionados of primitive culture—a twist I’d expect from Neal Stephenson but was pleased to find in a Gibson novel.

The point I wish to make is that The Peripheral is typical of what I’m seeing as a trend in science fiction—life after the catastrophic change being possible. Difficult, sure. Differentially terrible—this is the guy who said in 1993, famously, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed”—absolutely. But possible.

I believe that is the message that now must come from writers, educators, and scientists. Having recently been subjected to a week of near-constant FOX News as background noise (don’t ask), I can verify that there are, at least in the US, still folks propagandized into thinking that there’s nothing we can do about climate-related change. What will happen, will happen. And our friendly oil and natural gas companies (whose consortium buys feel-good propaganda ads on FOX at a rate surpassed only by those hawking pharmaceuticals or spurious investments) will help us through this transition.

This generation of kids is growing up anxious and depressed, now that we have convinced them that they are screwed. The righteous anger needed to mitigate climate change in whatever way possible—giving the world the one hundred years to react rather than only twenty or so—is bleeding away, as reactionary governments disseminate pablum and hate in a disturbing number of major countries.

The solarpunk message—gee whiz, boys and girls, science will solve everything—is demonstrably false. The Golden Age nostalgia science fiction—let’s escape into space—is also garbage. When Kim Stanley Robinson found that perchlorates were up to 0.5% of Martian soil, he revised his estimate for a Mars base from twenty years in the future (the present at that time being the 1990s) to two hundred years. We are stuck on this planet. The escapism of science fantasy and space opera is also reactionary (except when it isn’t, as it can be used to criticize dictatorships—the Chinese audience goes for that sort of stuff).

A new challenge for science fiction: recognizing that the next several decades will be truly awful and dystopic, but also spreading the word that radical action right now can lead to a path out of the darkness.

In The Peripheral, science was critical to developing technologies that meant it was only 80% of the world’s population that perished and the remaining 20% rebuilt society. For the criminals. Who, along with the economic speculators bankrupt of ethics (more prominently lampooned in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140), power-hungry politicians (a staple of science fiction and society since either began), and the military-industrial complex, are likely to dominate.

In the real world, climate action merged with justice—social, racial, economic, and every other sort—could lead the way out of both types of dystopia. But the next generation is having a hard time even imagining this sort of future.

And so, I write. I and lots of others, many more prominent, many with a greater reach, and certainly some who are better. (I work on the last point, hoping to close the gap—I am a much better writer than I was ten years ago, and I hope to be able to say the same in 2030.) As the world needed education in the oughts and tens, the world needs imagination in the twenties. And conversation right now, among the imaginative.

So, let’s have it with that conversation. Thoughts? Comments? Criticisms?

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