Global warming (or climate change, as you prefer) fills the news, the blogs, and the agendas of many an international conference. In public perception, it looms as one of the gravest new threats we face. As our understanding of climate science is refined over time, the nature and shape of the threat slowly comes into focus. Unfortunately, in Gordon Van Gelder's themed anthology Welcome to the Greenhouse, that threat is refracted through a lens formed from the combined clichés that populated the genre from 1929 to 1979. I often felt like checking the copyright page to remind myself that these stories all have 2011 copyright dates and aren't Golden Age or New Wave reprints. Only a few stories out of the sixteen in this volume feel like truly contemporary approaches to this entirely contemporary threat.
The creaky feeling starts immediately, since the book leads with a Brian Aldiss story. "Benkoelen" is a story with a classic apocalypse structure: two people (here a brother and sister) struggle to reconnect as the world disintegrates around their ears. The sister heads an animal sanctuary on a rocky island. Two things threaten it: sea level change may inundate the island, and economic upheaval means that she has lost her main source of funding. Her brother travels by boat to give her the bad news—on a piece of paper. "I pulled from my pocket the official form, rumpled, still slightly damp" (p. 22). That detail threw the story back in time for me. I understand the impulse to deliver bad news in person, and to want to connect with a loved one face to face. But there's no acknowledgement in the story that the paper is an archaic throwback, that this conversation could have happened via sat phone or email, or that the paper form could have easily been an email attachment. The characters also turn on the TV to catch the news, instead of checking the Internet. The fact that forty years' worth of advances in communications technology seem to have passed this story by was a real warning sign for me.
Bookending the collection is "True North . . ." by M. J. Locke. This story hews even closer to the tropes of the classic apocalypse tale. An old man has buried his wife. They lived in the Northern U.S. and survived the complete collapse of civilization because they'd laid down decades' worth of food and medical supplies in their remote house. The house burns down and the man joins a group of young refugees fleeing from work camps in Denver and trying to make it to Canada. There's a rumored research station, Hoku Pa'a, that has plenty of supplies and some vestiges of civilization, up in the former antarctic tundra. Unfortunately, the Mounties are trying to keep the Southerners out, there are roving gangs operating under warlords, and one of the warlords has gotten the crazy idea of trying to restore the prestige of the United States by nuking Canada from a zeppelin. The man and the kids have to a) survive, b) stop the crazy Dr. Strangelove guy, and c) get to Big Rock Candy Mountain—sorry, Hoku Pa'a. From reading these two stories, we have to wonder: is the onset of global climate change any different from the nuclear holocaust (or other apocalypse) of yesteryear?
In this volume, not so much. Which is a shame. I don’t think that I'll personally end up living through an alien-zombie-plague future, but I’m pretty sure that I’ll be living through at least the beginnings of a climate change future. While this will likely work huge changes on the world, it will also take a relatively long time to unfold. Most traditional SF apocalypses occur as a short sharp shock: the bombs fall, the plague hits, the aliens invade, and then everyone has to adapt. Global warming only happens that way in really bad movies like The Day after Tomorrow (2004). While it will be a time of tremendous change in geological time scales, it will still take several generations’ worth of human lives to fully develop. We'll be living through and adapting (or not) to this new reality for decades and centuries to come. So when you see stories told as if it's already "happened," they don't seem to fit with the coming reality.
Thus I find that my favorite stories of this anthology are the ones that feel the most like today. Judith Moffett's "The Middle of Somewhere" concerns a social-media-obsessed teenager forced to learn from a wise-in-the-ways-of-the-land older woman, thanks to a strictly local catastrophe. I was grateful to see some acknowledgement that there will still be communications technology in the future, and that much of what we think of as "climate change" will express itself in exactly these kinds of localized emergencies (in this case, a tornado). The story is quietly well told, with both characters feeling fully fleshed and learning from each other. Gregory Benford contributes a very different tale of eco-terrorism, "Eagle," told in a thriller style, where a guerrilla group attempts to stop a large scale geo-engineering project to reverse global warming. I appreciated this story as the only instance in the collection of humans attempting to stop or reverse the warming trend. I was less enthused by the overly moralizing ending that reminds us that Terrorists Are Bad, no matter what their motivations.
My favorite story here is "Turtle Love" by Joseph Green. This is fundamentally the story of a husband and wife and how their relationship must evolve as their circumstances change. However, in the background, we see the government making desperate attempts to save parts of Florida with an enormous seawall while sacrificing other parts, and the effects that those decisions have on real families. The wife works as a wildlife biologist, the husband works at NASA, and the loss of their home and so much coastal land means that they have to uproot. This story more than most seemed to really engage with the fact that there will still be governments, that they'll act in different ways in different places, and that people will have time to make decisions about their own fate that don’t have to involve becoming survivalists in Montana.
Unfortunately, these few contemporary stories are surrounded by temporal throwbacks: Matthew Hughes's jokey Golden Age story "Not a Problem" about a billionaire harnessing SETI to ask aliens for the answer to our climate problems, which feels like a parodic update of Heinlein's D. D. Harriman, the Man Who Sold the Moon (1949); Michael Alexander also making a joke about time travelers attempting to "export" bad weather to other times and places in "Come Again Some Other Day"; Pat McEwan's post-apocalyptic Western tale of frontier justice "The California Queen Comes A-Calling"; and Jeff Carlson's uber-mensch tale “Damned If You Do,” coming straight from the same mold as Philip Wylie's Gladiator (1930) and Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935).
In the Acknowledgements section, editor Van Gelder thanks authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, Alastair Reynolds, and Kim Stanley Robinson. I sorely wish that I could have read the anthology in an alternate universe in which those estimable authors are in the table of contents instead of the end notes. I understand that there are all sorts of reasons why an editor might not get all the authors he may want in a specific anthology, but Welcome to the Greenhouse leaves the reader with many wistful thoughts of “could have been.”