Paul McAuley on the challenge of a new epoch
Paul McAuley tries to get his head around a new era of humanity.
Earlier this year, an international group of scientists declared that Earth has entered a new, human-dominated epoch in its geological history: the Anthropocene. From around the middle of the 20th century, burning of fossil fuels, use of nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers, the ubiquity of plastic waste and spread of radioactive carbon isotopes around the world by atmospheric nuclear tests have begun to leave indelible marks. Significant areas have been transformed by the spread of cities and agricultural land, a multitude of species have been driven to extinction, and we need new words for the new kinds of weather caused by Anthropogenic climate change. Our footprints and fingerprints are found on the highest mountains and in the deepest ocean trenches. We’re reshaping the planet towards an unknown end point.
These changes have long been part of the background hum of most near-future science fiction, and their effects are the subject of an increasing number of science fiction and mainstream novels. (Although, as Amitav Ghosh has pointed out in his recent book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change And The Unthinkable, few contemporary mainstream novels acknowledge the effect of climate change in the happening world.) Many, from Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From to NK Jemison’s The Broken Earth trilogy, are explicitly dystopic. The collapse of civilisation and the end of nature. Ruin-porn futures depopulated by disaster and plague. Authoritarian polders isolated in howling wildernesses. Arenas where libertarian fantasies flourish, or YA heroes assert themselves.
But is it possible to write about a good Anthropocene? I don’t mean a blind or passive optimism, or denial of changes that are happening right now. Nor do I mean to underestimate or erase from history the inevitable damage and costs, human and otherwise, of wild fires, floods, trains of hurricanes and all the other disasters that are currently battering us, and will batter us ever faster and harder if we don’t try to do anything about it (and maybe even if we do). But perhaps we can embrace change and try to work with it, try to ameliorate the worst effects by deployment of technology and adopt new ways of living.
So far, only a few Anthropocene novels have addressed directly how we might overcome the challenges of the new epoch. Published back in 1985, Ursula K Le Guin’s Always Coming Home presents a detailed low-tech alternative to our present hyper-capitalism. More recently, James Bradley’s Clade follows several generations of a family through the tribulations of climate change to a hopeful new accommodation. Alastair Reynold’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy is set in a utopian near-future in which geoengineering has repaired Earth’s climate. The New York of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 has adapted in ways large and small to a significant rise in sea levels. And in my own novel, Austral, melting of polar ice has enabled colonisation and regreening of part of Antarctica, creating new biomes that act as refugias for existing species and those brought back from extinction. These novels variously and vigorously explore ways by which their characters try to overcome consequences of mistakes made by people who lived at the beginning of the Anthropocene, and were best placed to prevent the worst of it. Namely, ourselves. And all suggest that if we are to survive, we must accept our agency and the responsibilities that come with it, and act accordingly.
“PERHAPs wE cAN EmbRAcE cHANGE AND TRy To woRK wITH IT”
Nuclear weapons tests have left a mark on our environment.