Science fiction often taps into preoccupations of the day, from the existential threat of nuclear war to the rise of advanced AI. But when it comes to climate change, humanity is on such a clear trajectory that dystopian fiction is no longer required to picture where we might be heading, according to one of the world’s most celebrated science fiction writers.
Speaking before the opening of a science fiction exhibition at London’s Science Museum, Kim Stanley Robinson said now that climate change is a reality rather than a hypothetical “what if?” scenario, writers should turn their imaginations to the question of how a better, fairer world might emerge on the other side.
“Dystopias are no help at all,” Robinson said. “I think we’re already scared enough so if you write a story where everything falls apart and people are eating their children and their shoes … then everybody just gives up and young people say, ‘Well, let’s go out and party, we’re doomed’.”
Robinson, a veteran of the science fiction genre, has increasingly focused on climate change and his 2017 novel, New York 2140, features in the exhibition, Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination. The book is set in the next century when cataclysmic climate change has wreaked havoc and destruction on the world. Sea levels have risen 50ft and New York has become SuperVenice, with residents commuting between half-drowned buildings on boats or along “skybridges”.
But life is not all bad – a surprisingly utopian society has emerged with free universities, flourishing cooperatives and economic innovation.
“A utopian climate fiction is going to say we’re going to have losses, it’s going to be a wicked battle, but we can still come out with a good world,” said Robinson. “People are really hungry for that kind of story – urgently hungry. It’s like a life raft.”
He hopes that the genre will inspire today’s teenagers, many of whom are gripped by “climate dread”, to stand up for change.
“I feel that once you’ve acknowledged the [implications of climate change] you have to devote a fair bit of your life to working to avoid it,” he said. “Every job can be trained on good results rather than bad. There’s hardly any field where you couldn’t be working against the disaster and against the mass extinction event.”
“Scientists are telling us we could still make it through, but we have to change fast and we have to change profoundly and we’re not good at that.”
This change will centre on reshaping the economy, rather than new futuristic technologies, the US author argues. “We need to pay ourselves to do work that isn’t immediately profitable and isn’t immediately on the wishlist of people at Christmas time,” said Robinson.
“It’s like building a big sewage system. It’s not that nobody wants it, but it has to be paid for so the finance is the crucial.”
Robinson’s work is highlighted alongside JG Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World, another extreme climate scenario in which London is transformed into a tropical lagoon, and the Kenyan sci-fi film Pumzi, set after ecological devastation and water wars have torn the world apart.
“With an issue like climate change, we’re told what’s going to happen, but it’s so vast that it’s hard to comprehend,” said Dr Glyn Morgan, the lead curator of the exhibition. “Science fiction is a tool that we can use to think imaginatively about our futures and it allows us to instil those scientific predictions with an emotional resonance.”
The exhibition is an immersive experience in which visitors are taken on an imagined interstellar voyage and which explores connections between science and science fiction on themes including space travel, cyborgs, alien life and threats to humanity. At one point visitors “touch down on an unexplored planet” and encounter a swarm of bioluminescent creatures who interact through a collective hive mind.
Along the way, commentary is provided by a fictional female AI agent, Alann (Algorithmically Autonomous Neural Network), whose disembodied face appears on computer screens throughout the gallery, and a variety of objects are on display, including a Star Trek costume, a Dalek and Darth Vader’s helmet and a model radio telescope used by scientists searching for signals that could indicate the existence of advanced extraterrestrial life.
Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination opens on Thursday 6 October at the Science Museum in London.