Ring of Swords, my last novel from a New York publisher, came out in 1993. In 1994, the same publisher turned down the sequel to Ring. The manuscript quietly gathered dust for more than a decade, until Timmi Duchamp at Aqueduct Press expressed an interest in it. I went back to it and discovered it needed a lot of work, partly due to structural problems, and partly because my vision of the future had become unlikely, even impossible.
This is what I want to discuss in this essay: how fast the future changes these days and how difficult it is to keep up.
Ring of Swords is set about 150 years in the future. (Somewhere in the book is an exact date, which I can’t find at the moment.) The sequel Hearth World is set fifteen years later. The huge problem I discovered, when I went back to the manuscript, is how rapidly Global Warming is happening and how badly the world governments are reacting—or rather not reacting—in the face of a climate that is obviously changing and warnings from climate scientists which become increasingly dire.
According to Ring of Swords the population 150 years in the future is nine billion. This figure is still used by people paying attention the population growth, but not to Global Warming. According to James Lovelock, the scientist responsible for the Gaia Hypothesis, the world population is likely to drop to one billion by the end of this century. This will be a result of drought, flooding, famine, disease, and war. Will this happen? I’m not sure. But it sounds more likely than my vision of nine billion people getting by on the home planet.
Even without Lovelock’s dire prediction, human population is likely to drop dramatically. A more humane future, which is possible, would see women liberated and educated. This is a very effective way to bring birth rates down, as UN studies have shown. Or the governments of the world might decide a one-child policy is necessary. This could be coercive or a communal decision, depending on the kinds of governments. In any case, the human population is likely to be far smaller than nine billion people.
There are other problems, which I underestimated in the novel. Peak oil. Peak water. Shortages of all kinds of essential minerals. Copper and phosphorus, for example. How do we farm without phosphorus? How do we maintain a high tech civilization without copper and rare earths?
Right now the US is getting oil and natural gas by fracking, hydraulic fracturing. But this requires a lot of water, and once the water is used for fracking, it is toxic and cannot be reused. It’s pumped back into the ground, where it can pollute aquifers. We are poisoning an essential resource long-term in order to get energy short-term, and making the problem of peak water even more serious. (I mentioned fracking in a previous essay. I worry about it a lot. It’s a crazy reaction to Global Warming.)
Rare earths are actually common, but they require a lot of processing and this is polluting. Right now, China is the main source, because it’s willing to live with the pollution. What will we do in the future? Give up rare earths, which are essential for high tech? Or live with—and die from—pollution?
At the same time that our problems have increased, fascinating technologies are developing. Solar power has become far more efficient, and wind and solar power are actually happening, even in the retrograde US. There is a line of giant modern windmills on Buffalo Ridge in western Minnesota, extending as far as the eye can see either side of I-90. A lot of wind comes off the Dakota prairie.
Desalination plants already exist, and we may need a lot more of them in the future. (I don’t know what the problems with them are. Most likely, power. Every new technology has at least some problems. Windmills, which I love, kill migrating birds and bats, which I also love. Every solution requires more solutions. This might be Hegel’s dialectic. Or maybe not.)
Scientists are imagining truly science fictional solutions to Global Warming. My favorite is space parasols—structures like gigantic parasols that would be put in orbit between Earth and the sun to reduce the sunlight reaching Earth. I suspect parasols are doable now, and I want them badly, mostly because they are neat. What I like most about them is they don’t involve changing Earth. If they don’t work as hoped, we can simply fold them up.
Mining the asteroids or the moon would get us some of the raw materials that are becoming rare on Earth or which produce too much pollution when they are mined. Mining projects are already in the works. Per Wikipedia, “On April 24, 2012 a plan was announced by billionaire entrepreneurs to mine asteroids for their resources. The company is called Planterary Resources and its founders include aerospace entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis.”
Space manufacture could draw on unlimited solar power and would need to worry far less about pollution, though we’d have to be careful where we aimed the waste. We don’t want the home planet surrounded with orbiting frozen pollution. Someone might run into it.
Both space mining and manufacture will probably require space elevators, as the only economic and environmentally safe way to move lots of material up and down through Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, we don’t have the cables for an elevator yet. But I live in hope.
Some of the technology has been around a while and is pretty low tech. Insulate buildings. Put gardens on rooftops or paint roofs white. Build more mass transit. Make cities denser. Turn suburbs back into agricultural land. Eat less meat. Move coastal settlements inland or—in the case of large cities—build dikes and levees around them. The ocean is likely to rise a lot more than I thought when I first wrote Hearth World, and the climate—already changing—is likely to remain unstable for a long time. I didn’t put storms like the ones we’ve had the last few years in Hearth World, because I did not imagine them. The Mississippi is at flood stage right now in July, and there’s a logjam in the river at St. Paul.
In addition to technological changes to be considered as I rewrite the novel, there are economic and political changes.
Hearth World assumes a more or less recognizable version of the present in the future. Capitalism still exists. The society on Earth is something like Nordic social democracy. This might have made sense 20 years ago. Over the past two decades, however, neoliberalism has eroded much that was decent about European and American society. Even the Nordic states are less kind and equal than they used to be.
How can I extrapolate from current society to a livable future?
I have to assume the world edges back from the current abyss. With luck, there will be political and economic changes that allow Earth to deal with Global Warming, environmental damage, and peak everything.
But thinking this through, imagining a future which is an improved version of the present, is difficult. It’s easier to imagine a radically different near future, either dystopian or utopian.
Ring of Swords was set far away from Earth, and we aren’t told a lot about what’s happening on the home planet. So I am able to make changes to Hearth World without worrying about being in conflict with the universe established in the first book. But I am stuck with a home planet that has a large population and is still livable. I’m stuck with a government that is more or less like the best governments on Earth in 1993.
This is why you should never wait 20 years to write or rewrite a sequel to a near future science fiction novel.
I want to move now from my personal problems to a larger question. How does one write near future science fiction?
I subscribe to New Scientist and Technology Review. The flood of information I get—about biotechnology, nanotechnology, cybernetics, materials science, theoretical physics, you name it—is overwhelming. I cannot imagine how to extrapolate all this into the future. In addition to technological changes, there will be social and economic changes. It is nuts to assume that a vastly different technology will support exactly the same society we have now.
Worst of all, this is all happening at once. A reasonable picture of the future needs to contain all kinds of changes happening simultaneously. This is a lot to ask of a science fiction writer.
I see one scenario that can be imagined: a breakdown of world civilization, a planet with a vastly reduced population, living on the edge of death, and—here and there—armed and armored enclaves of the rich, their servants and soldiers. We are moving in that direction now, as wealth is shifted to the upper classes, wealth they can use to build their armored cities and hire their servants and soldiers.
This future does not require large technological changes, since the breakdown of world civilization will reduce the speed of technological change.
So that is one option for a writer—a near future dystopia, and these are being written. Another option is to set one’s fiction in the more distant future, after the current mess has been solved. In some ways, this is just as difficult, since the technological and social changes are likely to be even greater. For one thing, how does one predict paradigm shifts? A science fiction writer in the nineteenth century could not have predicted Einstein or quantum physics or modern cosmology.
Science fiction writers in the mid-twentieth century did not predict cell phones. Heck, I did not predict cell phones in Hearth World.
Far future science fiction has to rely on science that (the writer knows) is going to be out of date and on a lot of hand waving. This is not bad. There is nothing wrong with hand waving.
I may try far future science fiction sometime. Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are certainly wonderful. But right now I am interested in the next few hundred years, and I don’t want to write dystopias. Instead, I want to think about how we can get out of the current mess. So I am stuck with too many changes happening too rapidly. These changes—many of them—give me hope. We almost certainly have the resources to solve our problems. But the changes make it hard to be a science fiction writer.
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