Saturday, September 17, 2011

Anti-Copernicus (VI)

Continuing from here a piece on Adam Roberts' E-published work Anti-Copernicus.


“It was not enough, she thought, to flatten the rising curve; human numbers had to be actively reduced. But the group eventually fractured: some stayed true to the group’s original Pimentelist beliefs; some insisted more radical Francipettian strategies were needful, and a small group declaring that mass terrorist action was needed. The bickering depressed and alienated Ange; she distanced herself from her former friends, and moved to a different country.”-- Anti-Copernicus

Anti-Copernicus is scattered with current-day trite SF references, which in the future society of the book have evidently become the cultural referents by which people handle alien contact – itself one of the most hoary, endulled SF ideas. The people in Ange's society keep referring to the Earth as being in an insignificant spiral arm of the galaxy, so Hitchhiker's Guide must be a cultural signifier in their world. The aliens sometimes boom like ents. (Ents are Tolkien. They're trademarked. When they wanted to use them in D&D they had to call them treants.) A Martian town is even Robinsontown, presumably after Kim Stanley Robinson.

If people had to prepare, in a mass cultural sense, for overpopulation in the same way that they “prepare” for First Contact by reading SF, how would they do? Well, as a general mash-up of SF ideas, I'd expect the following from severe overpopulation. First, people would start to go crazy from crowding and begin to kill each other. Then frenzied violence of all against all during the collapse, followed by mass death leaving the survivors at a pre-technical, tribal level, possibly even with the world stripped of all other animal life. Science fiction's ideas about overpopulation are centered on war, violence, and total catastrophe.

This is all, as far as I can tell, BS. We have extensive experience of people dying in famines. There may be food riots during times when prices are rising out of people's reach, but actual starvation does not fill people with the manic strength to go out and kill everyone they see. Resource wars are mostly done by rich groups with the resources to carry out a war. The people who are first to die in resource shortages are usually, pretty much by definition, the least powerful people in society, which generally doesn't have much problem in protecting some resources from them for the benefit of more powerful people. And the technical collapse? As Bruce Sterling pointed out somewhere in the context of Peak Oil, we could drop back in energy terms by more than a century and still have coal-fired trains delivering stuff that people ordered by catalog. Horrible tragedies are quite possible, but they aren't SF tragedies.

On the other hand, I think back to Collapse and reflect that no society is safe from the greed of elites who want to cut down the last tree on the island because it's their tree. Then I think about the wonderful, demonstrated competence of our own elites, and I'm a lot less sanguine about our prospects. But this is basically a matter of politics, which SF fans in general don't get.

I felt a bit of foreboding when I read about how the main character in Anti-Copernicus was a solitude-loving, rather chilly environmentalist once involved with a group attracted to mass terrorist action to reduce population. Because that is where SF goes. Compare, say, George R.R. Martin's character Haviland Tuf, a chilly, solitary ecological engineer who avoids killing off the overpopulated planet that hires him but does use coercive methods to bring them into line. SF loves drama, and SF loves escalation. The most natural solution to the alien contact story is a genocide, and the most natural SF solution to overpopulation is either exporting the problem to other planets – this is explicitly brought up in the text by Ange's annoying crewmate – or by villains and even, mind-bogglingly, heroes taking action via some dump-sterilants-in-the-water method, or even by killing off lots of people off first so they won't die later.

Luckily Ange avoids being quite part of the killer environmentalist cliché through some mixture of the matter-of-fact way that the text humanizes her life, and her ordinary cargo run to Mars. But both of her two crewmates die of accidental drug overdoses. She gets more cheerful after the first death. There's a scene where she wakes up and only then realizes that she's put her spacesuit helmet on automatically in her sleep in response to a loss of cabin pressure. I had to wonder: has she been sleepwalking, or in a fugue state of some kind, and been wandering around killing her crewmates off by arranging convenient overdoses? I decided not, unless the narration is a lot more unreliable than I thought it was, but the history of SF makes it the first thing I think of.

Against my better judgement, I'm going to go into a lengthy digression on how SF handles environmental issues and environmentalists. For a sample, I'll just look at a shelf of the late B's. There's Earth, by David Brin, a 1990 Hugo nominee / lengthy potboiler in which Daisy, the environmentalist, naturally sets out to kill all but 10,000 people in the world. In most of the verbiage written about this book on the Web, people want to mention Brin's technical predictions, but no one seems to want to mention Daisy... John Brunner? His environmental/population books were, as I remember, mostly one horrific, deadly incident of amok violence or industrial / accidental death after another, a kind of futurist nightmare that mostly had middle class viewpoint characters who experienced overpopulation as if they'd suddenly wandered into the bad part of town. The aftermath of mass death is just as bad. Algys Budrys, in what is admittedly one of his worst books (Some Will Not Die) writes a plague that kills off 9/10th of humanity and three years later people are still all individually holed up in their apartments, trying to shoot anyone who passes by. It's just natural, I guess, that instead of people coming together after a catastrophe, they grab a weapon and become individual monads, and the hero has to kill them to unite them. Or something.

Enough Bs. Special mention has to go to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle “environmentalists are New Age anti-science non-slans, and if civilization broke down they'd turn into rampaging cannibals. By the way, did I tell you about my global warming denial?” That some part of SF fandom still considers these people to be leading hard SF writers is expected, but absurd.

How about some better authors? Herbert's Dune was a standout book in part because it was set in an actually different environment than the landscapes that SF readers were used to, and because the novel centered around an environmentally produced source of power. But it also posited that sand dwellers would be forced by the hazards of their environment to become incredible warriors, instead of – as in reality – being limited in numbers by that environment to irrelevance. The tribes sweeping out of the deserts that you read about were nomadic pastoralists, not sand dune dwellers. Ursula Le Guin's The Word For World Is Forest? It's a book that might have been used as a template for the movie Avatar: invading people-like-us fail to understand ecologically different natives, sympathetic viewpoint character helps them, natives repel people-like-us through violence. But, as in most of the stories from that time I can think of, the sympathetic viewpoint character doesn't start out as an environmentalist to begin with; it's a realization that they come to when they see something different than they're used to. They start out clueless.

Have there been SF books where the heroes were environmentalists as such? I can think of two, offhand. One was Kim Stanley Robinson's “Science in the Capital” series, where the viewpoint character is employed by the National Science Foundation. I had high hopes for that, based on KSR's past work with similar themes in his Mars and Gold Coast trilogies, hopes sadly dashed by the amazing and nearly complete failure of the work. Mostly what that work tells us is that if you take sociobiology too seriously, you'll turn yourself into a kind of sociopath who justifies your misdeeds through BS Just So stories about how primitives act.

The other was Zodiac, by Neil Stephenson. I have to admit liking Zodiac in some ways: the hero is instantly identifiable as a certain rare type of Greenpeace staffer, right down to the authorial admission in the acknowledgements that the character is an asshole. But Stephenson can't resist SF's love for drama, and escalates to a world-threatening biological release and nuclear weapon use considered to destroy it, and all kinds of other overly thrilling stuff that never happens. The French government deciding to sink a Greenpeace ship and killing people in the process did, of course, actually happen, so maybe Stephenson gets a bit of a pass.

I'm tempted to go on about popular written tropes around environmentalism – did you know that both the first James Bond book, Dr. No, and one of the first trashy legal thrillers by John Grisham, The Pelican Brief, both involve evil masterminds who come to the attention of the good guys because they get rid of presented-as-nutty people who want to protect birds? – but I really should stop and focus back on the main point. Why does SF do so badly on overpopulation, specifically? Other than its general love of dramatic stories, that is.

I think it has something to do with engineering culture, a part of geek culture. And geeks confront overpopulation, when they happen to think about it for some reason, like this. “You can't have infinite growth on a finite planet!” This is true, but also very obvious, so obvious that the only people who you have to explain it to are mainstream economists. And it's not much of a constraint on anything. Nine billion people by 2050 and ten billion by 2100 is not exactly ever-expanding growth, much less the exponential growth that people dimly remember being warned about with the whole bacteria in the petri dish metaphor. But an appropriate got-to-do-something atmosphere has been created. Then the mind naturally turns to engineering solutions, i.e. getting rid of people. The staggering cost and practical difficulties of shipping people off-planet probably having been realized by even the most stubborn fans by now, some massive technocratic solution is the only way to go. The whole bit about why people have children and what kind of normal social processes might cause them to have fewer of them is, after all, a big mystery.

Anti-Copernicus doesn't really have these problems. But as is every case where common tropes are ironized, it's difficult to say exactly where irony blends into straightforward use.


  1. I have always liked CHILD OF FORTUNE by Norman Spinrad (1985). His utopian ideals are more anarchistic than others, and the searching for the psychedelic flower planet seems to me to be something i would have liked to have been able to do.

  2. Thanks, spyder. Spinrad's The Iron Dream is one of my all-time favorite SF books, for certain specialized reasons. I haven't been as much into his other work; his intentions were great, his ability to carry them out often seemed to fall short. But I'll keep an eye out for Child of Fortune.