Coming up — Four Years of Inspiration for SF Writers

It’s hard to believe that this country’s most significant and dangerous step into the future is only a day and a half away. The writer in me rejoices, not that I’ve been lacking for ideas. But the humanist in me shakes with dread. Will it be a never-ending nightmare in which the future is the blackest of black comedies, or a black comedy that makes every day a nightmare?

Humans, as a species, aren’t good at facing reality, and the next four years may be the ultimate proof of this failing. Global climate is, in a way, the metaphor that illustrates what such blindness will cost. It is proof that when faced with an unacceptable reality, humans are perfectly capable of rejecting what they see with their own eyes and experience with their own bodies, and retreating into a fantasy world in which bad things simply don’t happen. There is factual, real-life evidence, from every part of the world, that processes we can’t stop are already underway, and that they are proceeding at a much faster rate than scientists were willing to admit until very recently.

There is no shortage of rose-colored visions of a future that won’t be as bad as the worriers and Cassandras predict. Wishful optimism fits both climate change and the upcoming administration. The belief that raising buildings a few feet will defeat the incoming waters, or that the man moving into the White House will, sooner or later, start acting more “presidential,” are dangerous delusions. What will happen, sooner or later, is that the wearers of rose-colored glasses will be the first to scream, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” And they will be looking for someone to blame.

Treasure for SF Writers: Creeping Dystopia

“Creeping dystopia” came to me yesterday as a way of describing more likely future  scenarios than the oh so popular and mostly fantasy-based post-apocalyptic scenarios that would-be-SF writers churn out. Creeping dystopias can result in conditions just as catastrophic as those of the PA variety, and probably will, but they will do it more slowly. They will also be more difficult to see, particularly for those writers who draw their inspiration from movies and television.

If you don’t bother to read fact-based articles on climate change, you are probably unaware that conditions at both the poles are changing so rapidly that predictions for sea rise are constantly being revised–for the worse. You may be unaware that millions of trees in the US are dying or already dead, due to drought, and to damage and disease from insects accidentally imported from other countries, and which are thriving in the warmer temperatures at increasing high altitudes. You may not know that increasing numbers of animal species are in danger because their food supplies are changing their migration and seasonal blooming patterns.

These are “little” details that don’t interest the mainstream media because it’s assumed they won’t interest the public. But small details add up to cumulative effects that will eventually reaching tipping points. Only when such a point is reached will the public take notice, and then the world will scream about an apocalypse, as if it was a sudden event, all the while wondering how the hell this happened. No wonder writers prefer pandemics and meteor strikes–thrills and chills, dread anticipation, and the creation of heroes who single-handedly save the world.

Watching the real world change is too much like watching paint drying. The public is trained to want ACTION, to be thrilled with the horrors of what might be but that will always remain in the safe world of fantasy. And most SF writers are happy to pander to that desire.

“Creeping dystopia” shouldn’t be just a term I thought up. It should, but probably won’t, be a call to action for SF writers.

Free Download of Climate Change Anthology

Everything Change, an anthology of climate fiction short stories is now available in either PDF or ePub format from Arizona State University. Twelve stories, with a forward by Kim Stanley Robinson, and an interview with Paolo Bacigalupi. I downloaded the PDF version a couple of minutes ago, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the stories, but with two well-known SF authorts attaching their names to it, it isn’t likely to disappoint. The stories are winners in a contest held by Arizona State.

It’s somewhat interesting that it will also be available soon in Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo digital book stores, but no mention of Amazon. Makes sense if they’re planning to keep the book free, and available in as many stores as possible. Maybe there will be a Kindle version somewhere down the road.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Oh, that eternal question that besieges writers. Why would anyone even ask unless they can’t dream up ideas with any regularity (if they’re writers) or stand in awe of such mysterious creativity (if they’re readers)? What’s mysterious to me is why anyone would sign up for something like NaNoWriMo and then post on the forums complaining that they can’t think of a good idea for a novel.

You just never know where a story idea is going to come from. In my world, they crawl out of the woodwork, pop up from drains, blow in with the wind, populate the spaces between the lines of almost every news story that I read. They’re like bedbugs in being where you’d least expect them (fine hotels are the physical world equivalent) and it’s impossible to stop them breeding.

I do not need any more story ideas. I do not want any more story ideas. But the little monsters keep coming. The latest one just sprang from a blog post by Peter Watts, one of my favorite SF writers (and thinkers). The bulk of the post (you can skip the intro about his dental implant) was about The Walking Dead, a show that I probably wouldn’t watch even if I still had a tv. But that didn’t keep me from reading.

“…those who complain about the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of Sanctuary-found-Sanctuary-Lost are completely missing the point. It’s almost as though they think The Walking Dead is a show about zombies or something.

“It’s not, of course. It never has been, any more than The Road was about asteroid impacts. The Walking Dead is about lifeboat ethics— about what people are willing to do, to sacrifice, to stay alive.”
Modern life is increasingly becoming about lifeboat ethics, and that simple idea can lead in many directions, including some very bizarre ones. Watts goes on to say, “(Here’s a new direction for you: The Bobbing Dead, the upcoming second season of the WD spin-off Fear the Walking Dead. Survivors on yachts, safe from zombie depredations until bacterial methane bloats enough walkers to let them float out to sea after the escapees. Tell me you saw that coming.)”

And there it is, another plot bunny, bedbug, story idea. No, not floaters. I’ll leave that to Watts. Lifeboat ethics and the coming great flood of climate change. We know there will come a day when tourists visit Miami via scuba diving gear, but what will happen when incoming waters chase the very rich out of their seaside gated compounds? Will they settle peaceably for having one less mansion? Maybe, but not likely. After all, the whole point of living on the Florida coast is access to sun and surf. They’re entitled to private beaches. Their bank accounts tell them so.

Their bank accounts always come in handy when dealing with local bureaucrats, and this dire situation is no different. Suddenly, inlandish neighborhoods are condemned for reasons that you have to be a lawyer to understand. Clear the bastards out, tear down their pathetic middle class shacks, and rebuild to your own specifications. Lifeboat ethics at its very best.

Thank you, Peter Watts.

When Future Fiction Becomes Today’s Headline

This was originally a very short post that I wrote for Google+. I’ve expanded it to reflect how I’ve been thinking about near-future science fiction as a form of prediction. And how that was suddenly forced to change. It’s possible to write about one specific set of facts and give them many different outcomes, none of which will actually happen. SF sometimes attempts to be predictive, but it’s more pure luck than prescience at play when that pans out.

The novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo this year is taken from news headlines and from quieter news that was barely noticed at the time I started working on it. It looks into a future about 40 or 50 years on, assuming that some current trends would continue and have major consequences. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years, off and on, making notes, doing research, thinking about what I want it to show and say.

There was no way that I could imagine its central idea showing up in real life any time in the very near future. Or in today’s news. I don’t know how to feel about it when I write a detail that I’ve never read about anywhere, and then see something very similar in the news.  The novel is set in a male-only internment camp, since separating single men from refugee women, children, and families is supposed to make the so-called transit camps safer.

The headline that provoked this post: “Canada’s Syrian refugee plan limited to women, children and families.” Single Syrian men will not be allowed to enter Canada. Granted, parallel isn’t exact. The current threats are far more serious than those in my novel, but it’s still disturbing, and not something I imagined could come about in today’s world. But that was naive of me, since it already happened, during WWII. While Japanese/American men were fighting in our armed services, their families and friends were being viewed as possible traitors and rounded up to be locked away in internment camps.  Japanese-Americans, both naturalized citizens and American-born, were torn from their homes and their jobs and treated like prisoners of war. Most of them lost everything they had worked for over the years, as their homes and possessions were stolen or sold off.

The parallel between the men of my novel and the Syrian men currently being denied admission to Canada is exact in one way: they are all refugees. My characters are homeless, having lost their livelihoods in a collapsing economy, or driven from the coasts by rising waters as climate change continues on its destructive path. News headlines that we see today are predicting the future when masses of refugees, whether from climate change, economic failure, or war, try to find safety somewhere far away from their troubles, and are refused, just as they are being refused today. We will see more internment camps, more mass drownings, and more murders as a response to “invasions” by foreigners.


NaNoWriMo – Seven Billion and Counting

I guess it’s kind of appropriate — the official announcement that world population has reached 7 billion comes one day before NaNoWriMo starts and I begin my science fiction novel. While the world celebrates the birth of the seven billionth baby, an event that should be mourned, I’ll be examining a near-future world in which sheer desperation has driven more than one government to institute compulsory sterilization programs.

Some form of population control is in our future, even though it will be too little and too late. What form it will take is unpredictable. Will it be China’s unsuccessful ban on more than one child in a family, or something more draconian? And just how desperate do we have to become before people understand that the right to have as many children as you want can’t continue?

Discussions of population concentrate on the reduction in family size over the last few decades, even in some nations that have historically encouraged large families. That’s supposed to be good news. But it ignores the reality that the reduction isn’t enough to stop the increase in world population, and that population will continue to increase, even if the rate of increase slows down.

A factor that’s seldom taken into account and certainly never mentioned by mainstream media is the coming impact of global climate change. Disease vectors are changing, some of them spreading to new areas of the world. The eventual flood of climate refugees will overload some areas, bringing people into ever closer contact and making serious epidemics far more common. Food shortages will place more people under the threat of malnutrition and susceptibility to disease. In short, we have created a world in which we have returned to Nature the power to control population.

Some day, we might understand that the personal and political concerns that have made real population control impossible were the cause of the worldwide suffering that is bound to come.

Irene and NaNoWriMo

I don’t generally expect Mother Nature to come along and lend a hand with my novel research, but that may happen this weekend. I’ll try to keep the novel in mind as the next couple of jittery days go by until I know exactly how much damage a hurricane can do this far inland — about 55 miles from the Atlantic coast. One reason I never quite finished my 2009 NaNo novel was the research for the hurricane chapter. I have the memories of living through several strong hurricanes, but those are a child’s memories. And the state was Florida, where hurricanes sweep through in all their awesome force.

The novel supposed that climate change was devastating the US and that hurricanes had changed their nature, becoming stronger, and taking paths that they don’t normally take. When a declining inland town in the northeast is sideswiped by one of these monsters, the devastation seals its fate and sends its residents scattering to seek new, less dangerous lives. I have no background for the effects of a hurricane’s outer winds on a town full of wood-frame Victorian houses. Hence the delay.

Climate change and hurricanes are, of course, only one of the features of modern life that most of us would rather ignore as long as possible. But head-in-the-sand has never worked very well, especially when it comes to change that comes slowly and seems less critical — at least until it bursts over our heads and turns our lives upside down.

This year’s NaNo novel will cover different but equally devastating change, the kind that is at work right now, largely obscured by sensational headlines focusing on personalities and exciting events rather than on meaning or long-term consequences. I have to wonder just how much of it will already have shown its teeth by the time the novel had gone through several drafts and a final editing.

May you live in interesting times.