Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Our Future on Earth: Fab or Scary?

This week, our future is the talk of the town, from Tokyo to Lima.The message from the Japanese designers show, “The Fab Mind”, is positive, it’s a fab future: “fixing stuff, repairing the world” as Alice Rawsthorn, a British design critic wrote in the New York Times (see her article  here).

Repairing? Not quite, Takram, a Japanese design engineering firm, has produced a visualization of the impact of rising sea levels, heightened radiation and dwindling resources on Earth 100 years from now. More scary than fab!

As to the show in Lima, it’s the Climate Change Conference organized by the United Nations,  called in UN-ese language: “the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC” – and here the future is definitely scary. The goal is to build the foundation of a new climate agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions before it’s too late — an agreement to be struck in Paris next December and take effect in 2020 (for more, read this Newsweek article here).

Will it happen with American climate deniers stomping around?

I have my doubts. The recent agreement between Obama and the Chinese President to curb their greenhouse gas emissions over the next five years has encouraged environmentalists. But this is without counting on a Republican-controlled Congress that is bound to block any progress towards global climate measures. In America, financial interests in keeping the way things are have become so politically strong, especially since the Supreme Court opened the door to the financing of political parties, that we cannot reasonably expect  any rational decision-making from the US. Yet America matters, it may only be 5 percent of the world population, but it accounts for 25 percent of total carbon dioxide production. It’s still the world’s top polluter and China comes second.

Yet, for years now, if you’re surfing the Net for pictures of the future, you’ll find plenty of evidence, and most of it is the stuff of nightmares. Here’s a photo of today’s coastline in Spain, snapped in 2009, and what, according to Greenpeace, it will look like 100 years from now as a result of rising sea levels:

This was part of a photo album Greenpeace had put together, hoping to sensitize the Spanish to the effects of climate change (it worked, at least in Spain).

Unfortunately, and in spite of mounting evidence, lots and lots of people in America still don’t believe it’s happening. They claim there’s no scientific proof even though top American scientists, from Princeton University to the Goddard Institute Space Studies, say otherwise. By now, the climate models run by hundreds of scientists prove beyond any possible doubt that climate change is with us and that it has become irreversible.

It’s no longer a question of “will it happen” but of “what can we do to mitigate the effects”.

For those still hesitant, I urge you to watch this Discovery Channel video about “what you should know about global warming”. Done under the guidance of  American news anchor Tom Brokaw, one of 19 recipients of the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed on “inspiring, bold Americans”, I think it’s one of the best films on climate change. Even though it dates back to 2012, it is still, alas, exceedingly topical:

It will take an hour out of your life to watch, but it really is time well-spent. I predict it will change your understanding of what is in store for mankind, particularly the latter part of the video…

You’ll learn about “feedback loops” that can kickstart and accelerate change in unexpected ways. Carbon dioxide by itself cannot cause global warming, it’s those feedback loops that make the difference – for example, with the increase in water drops in the air (clouds), heat will be trapped in the atmosphere and you could get a rise of between 4 and 6 degrees in this century. And of course, as spring comes earlier and summers last longer, whole species of plants and animals will disappear, polar bears and corals will be no more – yes, the 6th Extinction is upon us.

At the same time, a warmer climate will favor certain species like insects. Expect them to multiply and insect-borne diseases like malaria to rise (by the way, there are new strains of malaria that cannot be treated – at least for now). Humans of course won’t be spared, drought will cause famines, wars will be fought on whatever productive land is left.

So are we doomed?

To figure this out, you need to take into account two other big trends besides climate change:

  • increasing income inequality, as described by Thomas Piketty in his now-famous book that has become a number one best seller in economic history on Amazon;
  • the fast pace of technological change: the digital revolution is accelerating; there is absolutely no stagnation in technical progress, as shown in this masterly book written by two MIT professors: “Race Against the Machine”.

And of course, it’s not just the digital revolution. NASA with its recent Orion test is giving us an exciting glimpse of the future.  The test was a big success,  a flight to Mars by 2040 – that’s just 25 years from now! – is very much in the cards. Here is the key moment when the Delta IV rocket lifted Orion on December 5, 2014:

And here, some 4 hours later, is the recovery of Orion – the spacecraft withstood amazing temperatures (up to 4,000 degrees Farhenheit) and landed in the Pacific exactly where it was supposed to be, 600 miles from San Diego:

So the future is going to be highly technological, profoundly unequal and…very hot!

That’s something that is a matter of concern to me, as a mother and grandmother.

In what kind of world will our grand-children and great-grand-children live? Since I also happen to be a fiction writer, I tried my best to imagine the future, when global warming has wrecked havoc to the fullest, when plants and animals are headed for extinction and whatever remains of mankind is trying to survive the best it can on the little good land left.

I figure all that won’t happen tomorrow morning, nor will it happen all that fast. Give or take another 200 years before we have to face full extinction. At that point, global warming will no longer be a subject of debate, it will be a given. That is the setting of my novel Gateway to Forever – and in that sense, the book can be said to fit into climate fiction, or cli-fi, a word coined by Daniel Bloom, to define what is fast becoming a hot new genre in both books and films.

Gateway to Forever for Twitter
Available here

What will the world be like?

You have to remember the two trends I mentioned above. There will obviouly be a handful of super wealthy individuals facing impoverished masses; the rich will enjoy all the benefits of science, the others won’t. That means it will be a world divided not only between the rich and the poor, but the technologically advanced and the backward. The impoverished masses will live in medieval conditions, some worse off like cavemen, others slightly better like the middle classes today.  The rich, the One Percenters, will live in gated communities that will provide them with a perfect, pollution-free environment. They will enjoy the benefits of an Age Prevention Program that will keep them looking young till they drop dead at a ripe old age. They will take control of the only virgin land left on Earth, Antarctica, and they will be able to travel to other planets, even traveling faster than light as the technology to compress space and time becomes available.

In short, they can escape while the rest of us can’t.

That makes of Gateway to Forever a very unusual science fiction book.

Fans of sci-fi love to imagine a robotic future where the machines are king, but in my book, what matters are not the machines but the machine owners, the One Percenters. I’ve even had one reader comment that the future I depict in my book is not “futuristic” enough! But that’s the whole point: the future will not be “futuristic” at all for the poor masses, only the rich elite will live a futuristic life. They will have the possibility to avoid extinction and take refuge in space, nobody else will. And that’s what the book is about: how can mankind survive, and in particular, how can one very pretty girl called Alice escape when she wasn’t born a One Percenter?

Gateway to Forever is exceptionally available at the giveaway price of 99 cents from 9 to 12 December. Hurry, grab your copy here, and find out what happens to Alice…

This is the portrait I made of her, fiery and defiant, staring at a dead world:

Yes, come and imagine the future with Alice!

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Speculative Writing: the Next Big Trend in Publishing?

The Book of Strange New ThingsOver the week-end something big happened to our culture. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber was reviewed by Marcel Theroux for the New York Times (see here).

So what, you may ask?

First, the reviewer, Marcel Theroux is someone worth listening to. He is a successful broadcaster and author in his own right. The son of American traveler and writer Paul Theroux, he works in television (for example, in 2004, he presented on Channel 4 The End of the World as We Know It, part of the War on Terra television series about climate change). His fifth novel, Strange Bodies, won the the 2014 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Not unsurprisingly, this is a speculative novel that explores identity and what it means to be truly human.

Two, this is not Michel Faber’s first book, but his eighth – he has written in many genres, and  his brilliant debut novel, Under the Skin, that also happens to be sci-fi like this latest one, was shortlisted for the Whitbread when it came out (in 2000). Under the Skin inspired a fascinating movie that came out in 2014, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson.  Here’s a video clip that highlights how profoundly different this movie is from the usual sci-fi run:

It is basically, a search for identity, and yes, you “don’t want to wake up dead!”

Reading Marcel Theroux’ s review of The Book of Strange New Things, you can tell he was knocked off his feet. For those who don’t like sci-fi, Theroux says, “give it 10 pages, it doesn’t start with aliens, it’s about a man going on a long journey to a planet light years away and saying good-bye to his beloved wife.”

Indeed. Here are the first lines from Chapter 1, Forty Minutes later he was up in the sky:

‘I was going to say something,’ he said.
‘So say it,’ she said.
He was quiet, keeping his eyes on the road. In the darkness of the city’s outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.
‘God may be disappointed in me for even thinking it,’ he said.
‘Well,’ she sighed, ‘He knows already, so you may as well tell me.’

It is so real, so human! Isn’t that just the sort of thing you say to your loved one as you go off on a trip?  This sort of fiction is linked to the here and now, as we live it, with our anxieties and doubts, our loves and regrets.

The key descriptors here are “possible” and “plausible”. That very plausibility is what turns this kind of sci-fi thriller into emotion-laden explorations into the human condition. Our Earth is recognizable but it’s much worse, battered by climate change and geo-political instability. And in that sense, this book links up with the basic tenets of climate fiction,  a rapidly rising genre, ever since Dan Bloom coined the term in 2008 (and he’s a vocal part of the debate in that New York Times piece, Room for Debate, published in July 2014).

Theroux in concluding his review of The Book of Strange New Things  reveals how he really feels about it and let me quote him:

Since the critical and commercial triumph of Hilary Mantel, the historical novel is newly respectable. One hopes that Michel Faber can do something similar for speculative writing. Defiantly unclassifiable, “The Book of Strange New Things” is, among other things, a rebuke to the credo of literary seriousness for which there is no higher art than a Norwegian man taking pains to describe his breakfast cereal. As well as the literature of authenticity, Faber reminds us, there is a literature of enchantment, which invites the reader to participate in the not-real in order to wake from a dream of reality to the ineffability, strangeness and brevity of life on Earth.

This amounts to a major recognition of the speculative dimension of science fiction that has been often ignored, as millions of readers have become entranced with Star Wars and Ender’s Game. However, the escapist, irrealistic aspect of this kind of sci-fi has also turned off just as many people. Result?  Sci-fi has become classified as a commercial “genre”: pure entertainment and nothing else.

Will Faber, with his book, help to make sci-fi  “respectable”, repeating what Hilary Mantel did for the historical novel?

I believe he could, because, in fact, Faber is not alone in doing this. Other major writers are doing it too, in particular  Margaret Atwood (MaddAddam Trilogy, inter alia) and Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior). Of course,both writers are also considered climate fiction authors, but Margaret Atwood for one has always argued that her fiction is “speculative”.

In my view, regardless of terminology, this is speculative writing of the highest order – it ties back to the founding masters of the speculative sci-fi genre, George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) who always started from highly plausible premises. And that’s why their books fascinated and scared a whole generation that was feeling under the threat of totalitarian communism.

Today, we are under the threat of global warming with big corporations that won’t do anything about it (because they profit from fossil fuels); we witness increasing geopolitical chaos, especially in the Middle East but other places too as Islamic Jihad spreads; we watch helplessly as income inequality takes hold everywhere, including in places like the United States, where chances for the young to “make it” are growing slimmer by the day unless they were born into “big money”.

Speculative authors (like myself) take this world of ours as the starting point for our fiction. And we try to look into the future to figure out what awaits us and our children.

Given current trends, where are we going?

Such questions need to be asked. And as our world continues to unravel, they will become evermore urgent.

That is why speculative fiction is going to be the Next Big Trend in Publishing.

Just one sad last note: Michel Faber has told the press (see here) that he won’t write another novel, he’s been shaken by the loss of his wife Eva who died of cancer as he was putting the last touches to The Book of Strange New Things. I sincerely hope he will change his mind, it would be a terrible loss to literature.

Post Scriptum: If you’re curious about this kind of fiction, my own speculative novel (just published) is free for 5 days, starting today November 4, don’t miss the chance, I’m not going to do it again! Click here to grab your copy before it’s over.
We mortals dream of immortality. What if there was another option? The power of money could make the difference. A few win, the great majority loses, but humanity is saved, or is it?

Gateway to ForeverExcerpt from reviews:

– A prophetic view of our future. Compelling from start to finish (Lit Amri)

A cast of characters that range from fascinating to despicable (Marsha Roberts)

– A very plausible future, scarily plausible (Bob Rector)

Published May 31, 2014. 326 pages.

UPDATE ON FREE CAMPAIGN:

On Day One (November 4): 264 units were downloaded and that shot the book up to:

Major author and playwright Bob Rector (who reviewed the book, see here) just posted the following on his Facebook page:

Great opportunity to grab one of my favorite books for free. If you like storytelling at its very best, I urge you not to pass this up.

Thanks, Bob, I hope many will follow you and read the book. And I know you love Alice, the protagonist of whom I made a portrait, so I am including it here:

Alice in the desert

 

 

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