(This post appeared on my Patreon page on the 18th of this month — my patrons see posts 3 days early. When I publish a new ebook, they get a FREE copy THIRTY DAYS EARLY even if I charge for it everywhere else! Even a pledge of a single buck per month gets you those benefits — and you also get the pleasure of supporting a financially struggling self-published author whose wife, 3 kids, and self insist on extravagant luxuries like “food” and “electricity” and even — GASP WHAT FRIPPERY — a 20 year old minivan. We’re such softies.)
So, I’ve gotten in the habit of posting a substantial companion ramble/rant/essay/callitwhatyouwill with these 13 word stories. I couldn’t sleep last night, so I propped my chest up on my zafu (stiff meditation cushion, usually for butts & not writing in bed, for anyone who hasn’t run into that word before), nudged myself over perilously close to my restlessly sleeping 2 year old boy where the dim light of the nightlight was brightest, and proceeded to write about 700 words longhand. I’m sure that was wonderful for my eyes, probably aged them an extra year and I’m already in progressive-lens trifocals. Sign me up for a writers’ purple heart, I suppose.
After a bit of editing, as my edits usually go, the companion post ended up expanding to 805 words. Plus all these words I’m typing here. I’m a glutton for composition.
Without further ado, here’s the post:
We talk and think a lot about the end of the world. For my and my parents and grandparents’ generation (once that last passed through the Great Depression and World War II) the vision of the end of the world is tied up in Cold War visions of nuclear holocaust. I don’t know about you, but this Gen Xer has a copy of The Day After on DVD – the movie, which I saw in its original airing on television when I was 13 — was a distillation of all of the vague fears of death at the hands of Soviet ICBMs that occasionally haunted my nightmares and daymares. I’m sure I’m not the only one with those experiences.
Today that nuclear war specter is still around, a shade still fearful but overshadowed by younger, more vital terrors, banished to the edge of consciousness. We’ve become comfortable with our eternal wars waged against small nations lacking nuclear arms, and even with current events in the Middle East and the South China Sea and Crimea, few even bother to wonder if a third world war might be in the making, or to fear the potential for a mass detonation of thermonuclear weapons.
Pollution as a human-world-ender, too, has lost some of its former luster. Russia has survived the worst of messy Soviet industrialism and Chernobyl as well – few pay attention to what aftermath there might be. The same for Japan and its Fukushima, China’s current smogs and rare-earth-mine pollutant pits, the Flint, Michigans and flaming fracking faucets of the United States, the landlocked oil spills and leaky pipelines the petroleum multinationals have splotched major portions of several nations in Africa with. Even the once-vivid fears of bioengineered, weaponized anthrax and smallpox have faded.
These confidences that the old dangers no longer threaten hold their own danger – that if a danger does arise from those quarters, we’ll find it easy to overlook until it’s too late.
Today, we sublimate all those fears, along with our fear of civil unrest and mob rule, into zombie fiction, as far as I can tell. A nice, safe end of the world, one unrealistic enough yet barely plausible enough to allow suspension of disbelief and provide a nice, safe thrill, like a rollercoaster with a secure safety caged seat.
But unlike we older folks (though many of us are catching on) the Millennials and – have we decided on a name for those following them yet? The Trans-Millennials being born now, like my littlest sons – have a world-ending specter as vivid and potent as any child of the Cold War ever had: climate change.
It’s easy for some of us olders (and a few youngers too) to downplay or ignore climate change – though I’m given to understand that the United States is among those nations of the world in which the sport of ignoring scientific consensus is most popular. Some even like to chalk up the very concepts of climate change and global warming and rising carbon dioxide levels to a shadowy cabal of academics thirsty to line their pockets with grant money. As if that were actually lucrative – a local district manager for a snack food distributor stands to better that “fortune” by exceeding sales quotas. Some even go farther and more wildly afield into theories about Illuminati – but we’ve pretty much always had those. Before the internet the Illuminati or similar “explained” Cold War threats as the fruits of conspiracy as well. Those theorists and their imaginings come and go like the dew, appearing to explain what’s “really behind” each new dawn.
But climate change, like nuclear weapons, will not be going away. And nuclear war, except in its most extreme Cold War incarnations, is not a threat on the same enduring and growing levels.
If climate change is the existential threat the Millennials will grow up with – and it is – so will their great-grandchildren and those great-grandchildrens’ great-grandchildrens’ great-grandchildren.
Climate change may or may not develop into a truly existential threat in itself. But if it heads into Venus-greenhouse territory, or even becomes enough to shift the wheat belts to the poles and drive the subtropical and tropical rice bowls into trans-tropical heat and weather pattern, whatever those might be, the worldwide struggle to adapt and survive may well add nuclear war and disregard for pollution in favor of short-term industrial advantage and wars fought with engineered plagues.
And if the end of humanity does come at the hands of a climate-change driven complex of disaster, by simple extinction or reduction to the stone age or pre-intelligence as a species, perhaps in time another species will evolve to occupy the intelligent builder niche we humans failed to hold. Squirrels are as good a candidate as any – I welcome Earth’s new squirrel overlords, assuming we do screw things up badly enough.
Recently, I got hold of a copy of Year’s Best SF 17 from 2012. I’m about halfway through it. Judith Moffett’s The Middle Of Somewhere brought up some old thoughts from the venerable ‘genre wars’ — the eternal debate as to what constitutes a science fiction story, a speculative fiction story, fantasy, mainstream fiction, literary fiction, and… and… and…
Well, writers and readers are always debating about which story counts as what. The ones who aren’t are apt (but not bound) to declare, “ah, screw it. A story is a story, and genre is for marketing types, not writers and readers.”
I have a certain sympathy for the ‘a story is a story’ anti-genre-definition point of view. I’d hate to miss reading a good story because it didn’t fit into the ideas of what genre X should be, and I’d hate to miss writing one for the same reasons.
But why, you ask as you read this, am I telling you all this?
The Middle Of Somewhere is well-written. I enjoyed reading it; my experience of it was an ‘easy read,’ meaning it just sort of pulls you in and you keep reading until the story’s over, at which point you’re startled out of the book by the story’s end wishing there was more. It’s the story of a young technophile connected to social media at the hip growing closer to a mildly technophobic ornithology enthusiast elder whose rural Kentucky home is run over by a tornado.
It’s one of those stories that inhabits the DMZ between genres. I have absolutely no doubt that quite a few readers double-checked the cover to make sure “SF” was on it, because this particular story is not quite science fiction as it is often defined: “a story in which some element of scientific speculation is central to the story.” It’s not that. You can call it speculative fiction, a very broad category in which the qualification is ‘something in the story is different than it is here and now’. The tornado is chalked up to the influence of climate change. The elder character remarks on tornadoes having become more common and more violent. The younger character’s parents are climate change denialists, but she thinks there’s something to climate change, especially after the tornado.
That’s the speculative element, in total. The parts regarding climate change aren’t even central to the story, they’re inconsequential asides without which the story would be as strong and would make as much sense. The story might even be improved by removing those small digressions, without any effect on the plausibility of the story, because Kentucky has had no shortage of tornadoes in the past. The tornado in the story is an F3; Kentucky has had F3s and F4s before.
Obviously, the editors of the anthology didn’t feel that the slenderness of the speculative element was grounds to exclude it — because it was there.
I’m torn, myself. I’m glad it was there because otherwise I might have missed it. But I don’t think it’s a strong example of science fiction and therefore isn’t an example of one of the best science fiction stories of 2012. And I guarantee that there are plenty of science fiction fans who would say that it didn’t belong there, but perhaps belongs in a literary collection, or in a collection of Judith Moffett’s fiction, or in a speculative fiction collection about climate change, which is exactly where this story first appeared.
If I had been among the editors of Year’s Best SF 17, I think I’d have voted against including it. And then I think I’d have started asking, “who can we recommend this story to, so the readers don’t miss it?”
Because regardless of genre, it’s a damn good story.
The atmosphere’s warming trend slowed suddenly, tapering to a halt in only twenty years. Ocean temperatures shifted their immense inertia to follow suit. The icecaps began to regain weight. The composition of the upper atmosphere changed subtly, and excess carbon precipitated in tiny flecks, staining rains faint gray.
Climate change deniers crowed victoriously. Look how our god provides for us with a repaired environment!
When the aliens arrived demanding slave levies and mountains of resource tribute or else they’d turn off the weather control they’d been exerting from beyond Mars for thirty years — oh, how the deniers wailed and wilted!
Oklahoma is just the latest locality to enact legislation that penalizes individuals for using solar or wind power to supplement power from local utility companies. Oklahoma’s SB1456 requires a person installing solar panels (or any other item that generates power on site, if you can install a windmill, geothermal plant, or hydroelectric generator in your backyard) to pay a ‘tariff’ to the electric company if you remain on-grid.
Okay, you say. When you install solar, you’re prudent to retain your connection to the power distribution infrastructure. You can sell power back to the electric company if you generate more than you use. You have power if your solar doesn’t generate enough to run your home all by itself. And it costs a lot of money to maintain that infrastructure. Never mind that you subsidize a lot of that infrastructure as a citizen through your taxes either directly or by subsidizing the natural gas or coal that runs a lot of traditional power plants.
Well, not okay, I say. Natural gas and coal generate pollution and come from finite reservoirs within the earth. Nobody’s putting them back. An adherent of an apocalyptic religion might feel the world will end before we run out of oil, natural gas, and coal. Well, hypothetical adherent, I don’t share that belief and I’d prefer to hedge that bet, thankyouverymuch.
Discouraging people from shifting to renewable energy is a disservice to the future. I know, I know, we’ve built up a system that urges us not to worry about tomorrow. Too many of us live for the moment in a bad way, unable to distinguish it from the good kind of living for today that urges us to not worry ourselves to distraction and death about things we can’t anticipate, yet plan and prepare for what we can. Too many of us think, ‘hey, I’ll be dead by the time it matters, so why should I worry?’
I don’t know what to tell you, if you don’t care about what happens in the future, if you don’t care about what kind of world we’re leaving to our great-great grandchildren/nieces/nephews or simply fellow human beings who haven’t been born yet. I don’t know how to address that degree of insularity, how to turn around the ‘screw you future buddy, I’ve got mine’ attitude that doesn’t see a need to knock off burning the fossil fuels to run cars and factories and cool computers that fit in the palm of your hand (and I’m not knocking them, I enjoy the hell out of my smartphone).
I simply don’t know what to say to the people who think we shouldn’t switch to clean sources of power that damage the environment far less than fossil fuels and which are quite capable of running our present electric civilization and then some the same way it’s been sustaining a planet full of plants and proto-plants for about three and a half billion years now.
Stop being a short-sighted jerk?