Ian McDonald (@iannmcdonald) is most recently the author of Luna: New Moon. His other books include King of Morning, Queen of Day (1992), River of Gods (2004), The Dervish House (2010) and the Everness YA series (2012-2014). His novels and stories have won the Locus, BSFA, Theodore Sturgeon, and Hugo Awards, among others.
This conversation was conducted by email in March 2016.
Stephanie Saulter: So, energy and SF. It strikes me that one of the standard assumptions in a great deal of far-future science fiction is the existence of some as-yet-unavailable source of energy that powers everything from spaceships to entire civilizations—and that few assumptions (faster-than-light travel is another) are handwaved away with as little explanation or exploration. Yet we know that energy technologies and industries and the political and economic structures that flow from them are central to the development and organisation of human societies, and have been ever since we learned to turn wood into charcoal and denuded vast swathes of European forest as a result. What's your take on the topic?
Ian McDonald: Yes, the magical power source that will shoot us to the stars. At least Avatar was honest enough to call it unobtanium. Or the magic naqadriah in Stargate. Or matter/anti-matter in Star Trek—at least that has some rationale to it, being not Made of Magic—though they all try to get around the Laws of Thermodynamics by having them output more than goes into them. It will take considerably more energy to make anti-matter than we will ever get out of it, never mind that, using current technology, it will take ten billion years to manufacture a gramme of anti-hydrogen. Of course, we may well develop some fantastic future power source that will enable us to more efficiently manufacture anti-hydrogen—oh hang on . . .
We're energy-dependent societies—I was listening to dire predictions of energy brown-outs next winter due to under-capacity and over-demand. I think we lose sight of the truth that our fossil fuel resources are so efficient because they have matured, developed, and concentrated their energy density over a long time—millions of years. And we can't help but be addicted to fossil fuels because they are pure energy crack. We're spending an energy capital we can't replace. In Ireland we strip-mine bogs and feed them into power stations: the replacement rate is three millimetres per year. When they're gone, they're gone. And it's arguable that Ireland's bogs developed after another energy raid—clearing the trees from arboreal Ireland, and of course using them as fuel. We're tremendously bad as a species at weighting long term against short term. And I feel that, like QWERTY typewriter keyboards, our society is so invested in an established—maybe inefficient—technology that it's going to be very difficult to change. What do you think?
SS: I think that humans en masse are never going to voluntarily accept anything that feels like a reduction in convenience or quality or capacity. You're right to characterise it as an addiction; vast quantities of instant energy have become something we simply take for granted, that we think we have a right to expect. Even societies that don’t yet have universal access to instant energy regard it as a benefit that is due to them, along with the highly developed economies, improved life chances and creature comforts that the rest of us take for granted. It is—quite reasonably in my view—a universally understood measure of global equality. I can't see us becoming similarly invested in any technology that feels like it's delivering a lower return than what we've come to regard as normal and equitable. Which suggests two possibilities for the future: either we transition to a form of energy that delivers a similar level of instant power as fossil fuels, or we are going to have to face the shock of withdrawal. It won't be immediate, we won't have to go cold turkey, but the consequence of not finding a like-for-like replacement will be a diminution in the level of what we think we're due as a society, as a species. And that possibility is just not on anyone's radar. It's literally unthinkable. I mean, I work in the energy industry now, and while energy efficiency is a big issue, all we're really talking about there is not wasting it. No one—including me!—is seriously suggesting we should anticipate having less stuff, going less fast, staying less warm.
But that's significant, because what most people use energy for isn't a rocket, or rocket science. It's switching on the lights, the heat, starting the car, charging the phone. Getting to the stars is all well and good, but what we really need is to get to work. Aviation is the most energy-dense technology your average punter engages with on a regular basis; arguably a power source that can keep planes in the sky and get satellites into orbit will satisfy our expectations. Anything less will be unacceptable. Now that may sound a bit picayune to the SFnal crowd, but it's enough of a challenge to hopefully drive some really interesting, if down-to-earth, technology. Like better batteries.
IM: Yes, I can't see us giving up a high-energy-use society. Look at the furore (stoked by the evil fingers of the Daily Mail) when the EU tried to "impose" low-energy toasters on the long-suffering Brits—if we can't even agree to that, I see very little prospect of us reducing energy use to reduce carbon emissions. I think the best we can hope is a swift transition to renewables, but there will always be applications—aviation is one—that will require high-energy-density liquid fuel. Give me my Tesla, but leave my Boeing triple 7 alone. (Can't wait for the self-driving car. Driving is such a staggering waste of time.)
Everywhere in energy policy and planning are unintended consequences: biofuels were going to save us; instead they created price hikes in food staples. I was in Malaysia last year and saw the endless kilometres of palm oil plantation. Not only is our technological society so complex that it is a classic complex system—one whose behaviour can't be predicted from the inputs—but I suspect it can't be unwound to a lower tech state. Not without a lot of violence.
I'm very fond of Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home, a piece of reverse-time sociology in which she explored the Kesh people of central California in an unspecified distant future. The Kesh make wine—they have access to advanced information technology and healthcare but choose not to use it: they spend most of their time (it seems to me) exploring the interactions of their various lodges and orders. There's a lot of singing, and poetry. And it all sounds—well, a bit boring to me. There will always be the kid who wants the muscle car. And though I love the book, I'm suspicious of how we get from here to there. That's the problem with Utopias—even low-energy ones. I always wonder where the bodies are buried. I'm being terribly pessimistic here. I think the best we can hope for is a largely renewables-based world, with some oil for the Special Stuff, though renewables create their own geopolitics. If you convert sizable areas of the world's deserts to solar arrays, that's a new politics. There are still suppliers and dependants, and the resource curse that goes with that.
But I'm always for better batteries.
SS: I don't know that Le Guin story! Still slowly working my way through her massive oeuvre. The utopia that I both really want to live in and to peek beneath the bonnet of is Iain Banks's Culture: I love it, but my pragmatic soul can't quite buy it. I haven't read all of the Culture novels yet either, and I live in hope that somewhere in one of them he's going to explain how these people can have so much, and do so much, and be so much, and apparently not have to pay the piper in terms of resources. It may well be the single most futuristic element of those astonishingly futuristic books; so much so that I struggle with it a bit.
Energy politics is such a rich vein for writers. It was thinking about the better batteries problem, along with pondering what domestic politics would actually be like if vast swathes of arable land and economic activity were given over to growing biomass, plus contemplating the potential of the vast swathes of the planet—the oceans—that we barely use at all, that triggered the burgeoning energy revolution that underpins the plot in my last book, Regeneration. I was interested not only in the disruptions that would be generated by new technology, but also by how disruptive it would be to people's sense of what constitutes a functional, habitable geography; of their own status and potential; of territory. I thought it would be interesting to construct a plot around the fear that would accompany an expanded awareness of where power (and yes, there are umpteen layers of metaphor here) might come from. Were you thinking along similar lines when you came up with the mining colonies in Luna?
IM: Ah, the Culture. An intellectual conceit of staggering genius (and Banks never shied away from Where the Bodies Were Buried)—but like you I did wonder how it all worked. Really.
I (ahem) haven't got to Regeneration yet—but I certainly got from Gemsigns and Binary that we do seem to think along similar science fictional lines—it's the unforeseen consequences of energy policy on, as you say, entire biosystems, and human social systems and, ultimately, what concerns us as writers, individuals. The terroir. Science fiction only needs to exist if it's about the people, I increasingly feel. So: that's a warp to top of TBR pile (it's actually much less theatrical in e-book form). Things connect, things extend. Consequences reach across space, people and time. This is why I'm sceptical about "cli-fi" as a Thrilling New Sub Genre, as if climate change is the only thing we really have to worry about. Add antibiotic resistance (that's really scary), mechanization of jobs, global population increase, possible singularity . . . In the real future, we get all of these at the same time, and the SF that addresses that world needs to be broad, not narrowed on one fine detail. It's shitstorm after shitstorm after shitstorm out there.
I'm interested in the way that SF reabsorbs its mutant children: the neon novelties of cyberpunk became part of the background of all SF (unless you're Connie Willis and have to find a way to get rid of modern communications technology to make your book work—it was a major problem for crime writers as well, that too many mysteries or tense scenarios can be solved by the simple application of a mobile phone); and climate change, in time, will become part of the wallpaper, because it's part of the real world we live in. Like IT.
Luna: nothing so grand as solid energy speculation—I wanted a high-value, monopolisable commodity for a Mafia—Sicilian lemons, drugs, Helium 3. Something to get shiny people behaving very badly. But at the heart of my thinking about life on the moon is that energy is easy to obtain; the physical resources that sustain life, not so easy. Once you've got a dichotomy, you got drama. On Earth it's different: the materials of life are ubiquitous; accessible energy isn't.
SS: It's a really smart setup, to make people have to think very hard about things that we're used to taking for granted. So you've got familiar human behaviour—the urge to monopolise, to claim and hold on to power—playing out against a reversal of the usual resource dynamic. In narrative terms that's a very attractive prospect (probably not so much in real life).
It strikes me that what we take for granted also underpins a lot of the narrative around climate change, in real life and in fiction. The truth is, everyone who's ever existed has lived through some form of it—and we always will, as long as we're on the planet. That's not to make light of global warming or to suggest we shouldn't try to minimise it; it's merely to acknowledge that geologic and atmospheric shifts take place with or without human intervention. Orbits wobble, meteors strike, volcanoes erupt. We've introduced a new variable and we've sped things up, but even knowing that it's difficult for us to connect the puny acts of ourselves and others with the grand scale of landscape and weather.
I've been tutted at from time to time for not making an altered climate more of an issue in my fiction, given that the novels are set in a familiar place in the relatively near future. But: I tell stories from the perspective of my characters, and as you wisely point out, those changes wouldn't be changes for them. They'd be their normal. No one's going to think of the storm they're caught in as being So Much Worse than a storm would have been a century before they were born. They're too busy trying to get out of the rain. No one's going to stand atop the cliffs of Dover gazing out to sea and being upset that water levels are a couple of metres higher than they used to be when the Luftwaffe soared overhead. If they think about it at all, it'll be with passing bemusement that sea levels could ever have been so low, once upon a time. Or that people ever fought wars so inefficiently. Or (hopefully) that they ever fought them at all.
Fiction that addresses the totality of people's experiences and challenges and ambitions and fears is what I want to read, and to write, and I'm increasingly more interested in where we are and where we're going than where we've been. If we accept that we're living in the Anthropocene—and I do—then the triggers and the key attributes of our age all have to do with technology. Viewed that way, science fiction is the seminal literature of the human age, the age of invention. I too have no patience with the mobile phone that is conveniently lost or broken, or the lights that don't work, or the car that won't start. It's such a recursive instinct, to get rid of these inconvenient innovations so we can keep telling the old stories over and over again. I don't really understand the urge to do that. It's anti-SF.
Science fiction when it's done well, when it tells us valuable truths about ourselves, is about the human consequences of technological change. It's about the impact of the new. It's not particularly concerned with the inner workings of the widget, but with what the widget enables. We may have the necessities of life, but that's never been enough for us as a species. We are forever pushing at the boundaries, never quite convinced that we've got what we need to live as we want—and you know, I don't really have a problem with that. I love living in the age of invention, and I believe that everyone should have the right to share equally in its benefits and opportunities. But I do want to know what we'll do when we get what it is we think we want, and what the ripple effects will be, and what we'll decide to want next.
IM: What cheeky buggers got sniffy because ®Evolution wasn't sufficiently cli-fi? This troubles me—at the moment we seem to be writing in an age of On Message: there can be no doubt as to what is being said and we must add little signs to our words to indicate humour or irony. But fiction is more subversive than polemic, because of your very point that we tell stories from the perspectives of characters. All we can do is manifest our issues or messages through credible, psychologically consistent individuals. It's all about the people. We atomise the big stuff into individuals who can often barely communicate, let alone love right, least of all solve their problems and maybe then the world's. Boris Pasternak shows us the Russian Revolution—one of the 20th century's epochal events—through the love and loss of Lara and Yuri Zhivago. It's what I love about writing. I am suspicious of polemics: I think they make great satire but weak fiction. Fiction—Western fiction—by breaking everything down to individuals, yaps briskly at the heels of theory. Which it should do, as theory snaps at the tail of fiction.
Your point about The World As It Is is important—all we have is this world we know, all we have are our families, our friends. Past and future are other countries. The waters are higher than they were when Doggerland stood, they are lower than they will be. This talk of utopias and dystopias, optimistic and pessimistic futures misses the point for me: we will live in the future, and we will make the best of it we can. I would like it to be a richer, more biologically diverse future, but there is nothing harder to change than a society embedded in the freedom of personal choice and short-termism, and I'm not optimistic about human altruism effecting the changes we need to ameliorate the grosser effects of climate when freeloading carries so many benefits and no personal risks. Anything else involves coercion on a scale unacceptable to elective democracies.
Yet, SF for me is still the literature of change—odd for what is often a very conservative form. What excites me in the new wave of mainstream writers utilising SF tropes, is the movement away from the novel of memory (too frequently nostalgia) to the embracing of change. Paul Cornell put the joy of SF nicely—via the Kaiser Chiefs—as the feeling of "Oh my God I can't believe it / I've never been this far away from home." Change, and strange. I wonder if there's an underlying cultural shying away from the strange for the familiar. The future is uncomfortable, here in the Anthropocene (for me, it started with the development of agriculture, but I agree with you, we're in it so let's learn to live with it).
Our need for energy—our strategies to secure that supply, the trust that it will be secure, and the technological superstructure predicated on that assumption—is one of the fundamental drivers of this century (if I don't say the driver, it's because I would add food and water control and security). Insecurity and short-termism; aspiration and interdependency; those are gold to writers. The disconnect you hint at, between what we think we want and what we actually want, is where we come in. That's our job.