This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
About the Expert
Bianca Nogrady is freelance science journalist who writes for national and international publications on everything from climate change to obesity to native foods to supernovas. In any one week, her work spans the length and breadth of science, medicine, and the environment, and she’s never met a piece of research she didn’t find fascinating.
Bianca has written two non-fiction books: (1) The Sixth Wave, which she’ll talk about in a bit, and (2) The End: The Human Experience of Death, which attempts to answer the question, “what is death like?”
Her adult science fiction novel BIOHUNTER, set in North America some 250 years in the future, was the submission I chose to mentor in Pitch Wars 2014. It’s currently standing outside the great big sweet shop that is the publishing industry, nose pressed against the glass, waiting to be invited inside.
Near-future Scenarios for Humans and Planet Earth
For me, one of the greatest privileges of being a writer is being able to explore the ‘what-ifs?’.
These might be small what-ifs, like exploring what happens to fish larvae if marine noise pollution stops them finding their way back to their reef. They might be quirky what-ifs, like finding out how the waxing and waning of campfires influences our social development.
But sometimes—and this is happening more and more lately—my work as a writer forces me to confront the really big hairy scary what-ifs. Like, “what if the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide climbs above 550 parts per million?”, or “what if we don’t reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in time to adapt to renewable energy?”, or “what if the world we are leaving our children is so harsh that many of them won’t survive it?”.
Over the last ten years of writing as a science journalist, a non-fiction author, and a fiction author, I have noticed some dramatic shifts in how I feel about the near-future prospects for our planet and our species.
Ten years ago, there was a lot of doom-and-gloom in the science media about our prospects, and dire warnings being thrown about that we were steering inexorably into an environmental hell-hole. Many of the stories were about peak oil, peak phosphorous, peak everything-of-mineral-value; about the melting of polar ice caps and permafrost; about soaring carbon dioxide levels; and about how we needed to act.
Then I had the privilege of co-authoring a non-fiction book The Sixth Wave with my friend Dr. James Bradfield Moody (who also happens to be an engineer, an innovation theorist, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and supremely clever fellow). This book put forward the idea that we are at the beginning of a huge wave of innovation that, like the Industrial Revolution, will transform our way of life and our economy, propelling us into a glorious new paradigm of sustainability.
The Optimistic Scenario
We envisioned a world in which waste is an opportunity, in which nature is a source of inspiration for innovation, in which the digital and natural converge, in which information is global but stuff is local, and in which we shift towards service-based thinking, rather than product-based consumption.
It was a wonderfully optimistic book. Despite the lack of initiative being displayed by governments around the world at successive climate summits (at the time and still now), it gave me hope that we may yet innovate to meet the challenges of climate change and peak resources.
While researching The Sixth Wave, I learned about some of the extraordinary innovations that are already a reality, like wave farms, plastic wood, landfill mining, the pricing of ecosystem services, green chemistry, car-sharing, software-as-a-service, smart fridges, aquaponics, and green super-grids. These innovations are elegant, simple, and sustainable. So many of them caught my imagination not only as a journalist, but also as a fiction writer.
When I learned about kite power—which takes the principles of wind turbines, but gets rid of all the unnecessary structural components—I immediately pictured a horizon dotted with the swirling waltz of high altitude wind power kites. I saw a design for large, gourd-shaped bamboo water collectors, which condense water out of the air, and knew I just had to find a place for those in my writing.
For a long time, I was actually excited about what the future would hold for humanity.
The Pessimistic Scenario
When I began researching my science fiction novel BIOHUNTER, all of that changed. I wanted to explore what might happen if our greatest fears came true. What would our planet and our civilization be like if the worst of climate change came to pass, and if the resources that our world is founded on became too difficult and expensive to extract any more? What if we didn’t have oil or coal or LPG, or iron or silver or rare earths? What if the polar ice caps largely melted, and sea levels rose tens of metres? And what if temperature and rainfall patterns changed so much that large parts of the world became effectively uninhabitable?
I read a book called The Long Descent by John Michael Greer (up your antidepressants before reading it, people. Trust me on this), which explores the theory that we are seeing the beginning of the end of our civilization. As has happened to so many other grand civilizations before ours—such as the Aztecs and the Romans—Greer argues that all we see around us will one day decline and rot. He predicts it won’t be the apocalypse so many of us fear, but more a sad, gradual sequences of crashes and contractions as we descend back into a dark ages. Would the last person to leave New York please turn out the lights?
This depressing vision permeated my thoughts so much I began to have apocalyptic dreams of running, clutching my children, as a rising tide of oil pursued us across a barren landscape under a filthy sky. I found myself wondering how I and my family would survive in a world without oil, electricity, or even clean, fresh tap water. My little vegetable garden took on a whole new meaning, as I began to imagine what life would be like if we relied entirely on it for our food.
Predicting The Human Reaction
With these scenarios in mind, I began building the world of BIOHUNTER. I pictured a world where melting ice caps and glaciers had led to the flooding of most of the world’s major metropolises, most of which had already been emptied by extreme weather events. Heat and drought had rendered large parts of the world’s food-producing regions barren and uninhabitable. Governments had fallen as they became unable to provide their citizens with even the most basic infrastructure. The internet and cloud had vanished like dust in the wind as grid-fail took down global electricity networks.
As populations migrated inland in search of reliable sources of fresh water and agricultural land, they formed their own self-governing, self-sustaining settlements, powered by renewable energy harvested from the sun and the wind, with not a fossil fuel in sight. Settlements grew and raised what they could to feed themselves, and traded for the rest.
The World of BIOHUNTER
In the world of BIOHUNTER, while there are now far fewer of us left alive, thanks to the pressures of famine, disease, and war, but there’s still not enough to go around. Resource wars rage, but instead of wasting precious metal on bullets and bombs, conflicts are settled with bioweapons. They’re easy to brew, don’t take much material, and they’re a guaranteed way to clear out a nice settlement and move in.
I thought this was all very depressing and apocalyptic, until I had a conversation with a friend who commented that everything (apart from the biowarfare) actually seemed quite utopian.
When I began to think about it, the world of BIOHUNTER was also the world of The Sixth Wave, although it reaches that relative utopia only after having gone through the wringer of Greer’s Long Descent. I began to see that many of the innovations that James and I had envisaged when writing The Sixth Wave were manifesting in the world of BIOHUNTER.
It’s still a harsh, cruel world. Civil conflict rages between settlements over resources that we currently take for granted: clean water, arable land, salt, flour, or even human resources. And biowarfare is brutal and indiscriminate. It’s no longer about soldier fighting soldier. It is an outright war of attrition where the victor takes all. The weapons are deadly and invisible, which makes them very difficult to protect against. The current epidemic of Ebola provides a clear example of just how much damage something as minuscule as a virus can inflict on a population.
The Rise of Solarpunk
And then I discovered solarpunk. It was one of those serendipitous moments where my day job (journalism) and night job (aspiring novelist) came together.
The editor of an environment news service asked me to look into the nascent solarpunk movement for a feature. I discovered a young sub-genre that is reaching for a more positive, sustainable, and realistic view of humanity’s near-future. While Biohunter shows a world rising from the ashes, solarpunk wills for us to achieve the same result without having to hit rock-bottom first.
As solarpunk advocate and brand strategist Adam Flynn wrote, in a post on the Heiroglyph website, “We’re solarpunks because the only other options are denial or despair.” The solarpunk movement, which is unique in having emerged largely as a hashtag on Tumblr and Twitter, takes some inspiration from an article written by author Neal Stephenson in the World Policy Journal in 2011, which called for science fiction to deliver some much-needed ‘techno-optimism’ to the population, and enthusiasm to scientists and engineers.
So, after all these ups and downs, I’m now allowing myself to feel a little bit of optimism that we may yet find our way to a positive future.
Read More and Share!
If liked what you read about BIOHUNTER, check out Bianca’s entry for Pitch Wars on Brenda Drake’s web site. And please share this article with your writer friends! Feel free to use one of these ready-made tweets:
|Click to Tweet Near-future scenarios for humans and planet Earth, with science journalist @BiancaNogrady: http://bit.ly/1tE8JYP #ScienceInSF w/ @DanKoboldt|
|Click to Tweet Optimism vs. pessimism for our planetary future: http://bit.ly/1tE8JYP with science reporter @BiancaNogrady. #ScienceInSF #writetip|
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