Before the climate crisis kills us all, we'd better listen to Bruce Sterling

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Bruce Sterling is perhaps the most widely consulted and quoted futurist among present-day science-fiction writers. His finger always on the pulse of world affairs, trends in science and technology and the global zeitgeist, he brings uncommon topical expertise to his SF. Now he considers that most ominous of all crises, climate change, in his searing, yet very hip, new novel, The Caryatids.

Assessing the scale and urgency of global warming, Sterling says, "The wolf is at the door. With the possible exception of the nuclear arms race, this is the gravest emergency the human race has had in its recorded history." But humankind is not exactly responding with vigor: "I'd love to say we're 'facing' this crisis, but we're not facing it yet, we just 'have' it."

So should written SF do more to raise consciousness about the crisis and suggest strategies for climate mitigation? Sterling thinks this obligation extends far beyond genre fiction. "The climate crisis is no longer speculative. So the mainstream press should be doing this work. Everybody should be doing it. It's a universal problem; nobody will be spared the effects.

"Also, scientists and engineers should be taking direct action. Leaving this crisis to politicians, journalists and activists was an unconscionable dereliction of duty on their part. I hope the scientific community feels properly ashamed at their failure to grasp the full reality of climate events and the effect that lapse will have on their fellow citizens.

"Finally, anybody anywhere who digs up corpses and burns them for a living needs to wipe the fresh blood off their hands. I know that they excuse their actions as serving light and power to the rest of us. But they've committed a great evil, and their structure of justification grows more flimsy by the day."

But for all this polemical forcefulness, Sterling is writing SF, and he does so with inventive verve, a showman's dexterity, entertaining detail and deadpan humor. The chief viewpoint characters in The Caryatids are three mutually repellent clones of the same woman, with more variant selves lurking in the background. Considerable hectic fun is thus had as Earth totters on the ecological brink. "I do like to tinker with elements of narrative. I know it is somewhat outré and Oulipo to write a novel where the 'protagonist' is eight or nine people, four of whom are already dead. But we can pull that kind of stunt in science fiction; it's a little freaky, but there's nothing stopping us."

Much of the enjoyment in reading Sterling is owed to his expert, but at the same time hilariously irreverent, take on large organizations, whether corporations or governments. The two major bodies in The Caryatids that aim to rescue, or transform, the stricken Earth are the Acquis and the Dispensation. One relies on advanced, essentially posthuman, technology in its projects, the other on a more basic, profit-driven sort of redevelopment. Naturally, the groupings are in conflict: "I confess to a fondness for ideological cold wars. I grew up in the Cold War. The USA has a civil cold war right now.

"Obviously we need global-scale management of some kind, or the unaddressed global problems will do us in. But does that have to be a 'one-world government'—just a nation-state on a bigger scale? No. There doesn't have to be just one of these entities. And they don't have to be nations. Most effective global actors are not governments. The global market's not a government. Global regulatory boards aren't governments either. If the market was in the business of saving its best customers from extinction, then it might look like the Dispensation. If a global standards board existed, then it might look like the Acquis."

Sterling has spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe in recent years, and much of The Caryatids is set in Cyprus, renamed "Mljet" in its drastically altered 2060s configuration. "Well, I'm a disciple of Brian Aldiss there; Brian used to complain that science fiction writers wrote about Mars but had never seen Malaysia. That's a good comment, so I took it to heart.

"If I were writing contemporary realistic novels about Eastern Europe, I think my superficial knowledge there would hurt the feelings of the locals. When it comes to writing futurist scenarios, though, a broad, remote overview seems to help."

In Sterling's imagined future, China is the last surviving nation-state for most intents and purposes. But there's uncertainty in the prophecy. "The Chinese have had a good quarter-century lately, but when it comes to spectacular national turmoil, China's track record is second to none. Yet I'd also point out that, despite their many woes, the Chinese nation has outlasted other nations by millennia."

As for America, The Caryatids points to threats like the giant volcano in Yosemite, solar flares and Californian earthquakes, in addition to anthropogenic climate change. Sterling denies this is pessimism. "I don't think it's 'pessimism' to admit the possibility of supervolcanoes or instability in stars. Supervolcanoes aren't odd Lovecraftian fantasies, they're as real as dirt—ask any geologist. The stars don't exist in order to make us feel optimistic. Our flesh is made of blown-up stars. Ask any astrophysicist.

"The climate crisis is severe. Basically, we've fouled our nest so energetically that our nest is rapidly becoming one big foulness. We brought that disaster on ourselves. But we're not the source of all the trouble in a turbulent universe. If we pull ourselves out of this self-made climate tailspin, maybe we'll be a little less eager to flatter ourselves in the future. We need to become more watchful and alert, more aware that the Earth was not served to mankind on a silver platter. The Earth is a nice place, but Copernicus was right.

"Science fiction ought to be more open-minded toward uncomfortable realities than mysteries, westerns and romances. After all, we have the word 'science' in our name."

So Sterling sees The Caryatids as SF par excellence, yet restrained by some standards. "As a visionary text, my novel is mild stuff compared to Wells' War of the Worlds or Stapledon's Last and First Men. Our genre's best practitioners a hundred years ago were gutsy guys, willing to upset the paying customers.

"Maybe science fiction went a little fat-headed and numb from the End of History and the Washington Consensus. In the immediate future, though—after what just happened to our publishers and our bookstores?—I don't think complacency is gonna be a problem for us.

"I don't idealize science fiction: I know that it is what it is—but I know for a fact that science fiction can do things that other literary forms balk at, fail at, and just can't handle. And it should do those things—it's a moral responsibility."