Paul McAuley on the chal­lenge of a new epoch

SFX - - Contents - Aus­tral by Paul McAuley is out now from Gol­lancz.

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.


Nu­clear weapons tests have left a mark on our en­vi­ron­ment.

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