Can science fiction awaken us to our climate reality?
“It’s possible it could work,” he said. “At worst, you have to go down with headlamps.”
They conversed and Robinson turned to Biagioli, taking up the conversation on Galileo. A little later, I saw the hikers waving at us from afar. They had begun their journey.
What I wanted was to be reassured. As we made our way through the Sierras, I asked Robinson a lot of questions; one pops up behind them: Will everything be okay? Of course, Robinson has no idea how the future will really unfold. He believes there is is a future, an unknown place yet to be explored. He thinks that mentalities are changing, that progress exists, that necessity drives invention; but also that progress is slow and easily reversible, money talks and disorder is the norm. In 2002, he published “The Years of Rice and Salt”, a novel imagining what would have happened if the Black Death had killed all Europeans instead of a third of them. (Jameson taught this to his students in a historiography class.) In fanciful conceit, the same characters take us from the 14th century to the present day through reincarnation. In each era, they devote themselves to an incessant work of improving civilization. Near the end of the book, a feminist scholar attends an archaeological conference in Iran. Listening to the presentations, she is struck by “the impression of people’s endless struggle and effort”. A sense of “endless experimentation, of humans struggling to find a way to live together,” deepened in her. In a later incarnation, she works for the International Agency for Harmony with Nature – her global version of the Ministry of the Future.
Climate work will be the main activity of this century. Its outlines are already clear. Build wind farms, solar farms and other clean energy sources. Launch a Warp Speed operation for clean energy: improve energy storage and manufacture small, inexpensive electrical systems for rural areas. Tax carbon, reform agriculture and eat less meat. Rethink construction, transportation and manufacturing. Study glaciers, permafrost, atmosphere, oceans. Drive geo-engineering schematics, in case we need them. Re-wild large parts of the Earth. And so on, and so on, and so on. How will all of this turn out? In “The Ministry of the Future,” societies begin to make good choices, in part because citizens revolt against monetary interests that preserve the status quo. But people struggle too. They become frustrated, angry and violent. Some Indian heat wave survivors become eco-terrorists and use swarms of drones to crash passenger planes; no one knows how to stop the drones and everyone is scared. People steal less. They do teleconferences, or take long-distance trains, or even sail. They intervene remotely on transatlantic crossings. This is not how we want change to happen. But, in the end, the era of the jet turns out to have been just that – an era.
We set up camp near a shallow, glassy lake in a hollow, where a single granite shelf sloped into the water like a hard beach. While we were building our stone stove, Robinson and Biagioli were talking about sailing. Biagioli had crossed the Atlantic twice, once with his wife and once with friends; Robinson was a lifelong amateur freshwater sailor.
Robinson said that when he was asked to COPOn the 26th, the climate change conference, he thought, “Well, I have to do it like Greta Thunberg.” (The previous summer, Thunberg had sailed across the Atlantic instead of flying.) He had been surprised to learn that there was no way to register in New York to sail, as a passenger. , to the United Kingdom. “My books have convinced me that it’s so obvious – I thought, surely it’s coming. It’s low carbon, and you’re still traveling the world!”
“Except what Greta did – she cruised in a super-chic sixty-foot carbon-fiber monster,” Biagioli said. “It can do thirty-five knots. She had to go fast, otherwise it would have taken a month.
“But why aren’t there many of these boats? Robinson asked.
“I think they are incredibly uncomfortable,” Biagioli said. “They bounce back. I mean, people wear helmets inside the boat.
“But what if they were bigger?” Robinson persisted. “What if they were like clippers?”
“Well, that would be fantastic,” Biagioli said. He shared a few cubes of parmesan cheese from a small container. “And they would be stable, and you could have sailboats blowing on diesel ships.”
“Club Med, they set sail on their cruise ships,” Robinson noted. “And all of the sail technology, in and of itself, is changing rapidly, because of computer modelling.”
“The problem is the weight,” Biagioli said. “People cross the Atlantic in five days, but that means a boat that weighs nothing. So it’s like here. He gestured to his ultra-light bag.
“Hmm,” Robinson said. He smiled, enjoying the conversation. “Well, but if you go back to…listen, my crossing of the Atlantic is going to take me two weeks, and I’m going to be connected to the Internet all the time.” And let’s say you have a big boat, a passenger boat.
“So it wouldn’t be a problem,” Biagioli said. “I even think you could do something really comfortable in less than two weeks. It may take ten days. The people who have a lock on technology are the French.
Robinson burst out laughing. “What are our billionaires doing? he said. We talked a bit more about the idea and prospects of airships, which could replace short-hop jet flights, and then fell asleep.
In the morning, we leave for Thunderbolt Pass. The climb started immediately. We climbed a series of steep inclines to the vast mirrored Barrett Lakes, cruising around their rocky shores. The pass looked serious: it was about twelve thousand feet high and was made entirely of rock and sand. We started to climb, sometimes pulling ourselves with our hands, sometimes sliding between tight spaces. I looked back to find the lake where we had camped the night before; it was like looking out of an airplane and trying to spot my home.
Eventually we reached a rock platform about a hundred feet wide, where huge boulders had been deposited by a vanished glacier. We passed a lone climber with a tent hanging from the steep rock face. The sun seemed to shine brighter. It was a long and difficult climb to the top, where we rested in a small sandy place, closed by rocks on two sides, like a small room.
“Now this descent,” Robinson said, as we drank some water. “This is the most technical and meticulous part of our trip. There is nothing you cannot do. But you have to go slowly and be careful.
I looked across the pass, which led back to Dusy Basin. The landscape yawned downward for a few thousand feet. A field of rocks came first; beyond that was a rock hill, which we could use to descend part of the way. The rib ended in a wide slope of fine-grained embankment. You could find your way there by sliding, a kind of slide, as if you were on snowshoes. This, in turn, would bring us to an ocean of smaller rocks. The first step was to cross the mountain laterally, over the rocks. I was nervous.
“Take it easy,” Robinson said.
We started to cross the boulder field. The rocks were huge, with large gaps between them. Sometimes we climbed the empty space, touching four rocks at once. Then the rocks got smaller. I turned to face the mountain, my back to the sun. I moved sideways to my left, wondering how far he was from solid ground; I stepped cautiously over an amusingly shaped rock that moved beneath me.
“Oh-oh,” I said, louder than I wanted to. “I do not like it.”
The four rocks I touched were moving.
“Don’t look up! Biagioli called.
I looked up. A seemingly endless number of similar rocks were stacked above me on the side of the hill. By a turn of perspective, they seemed ready to fall.
I moved forward. We reached the rocky rib and crossed it to the long slope of the embankment. We slipped in zigzags in the moon powder. At the bottom lay the ocean of rocks, small and sharp. They cast harsh shadows, creating pockets of darkness, and walking through them required intense attention. I had to remember to breathe and blink. The hours have passed. I stopped to finish my water and looked ahead to see our destination, a shimmering lake in the distance. Almost all of Robinson’s novels involve some such experience – a long, difficult, rocky journey through a mountain landscape, on Earth or elsewhere, accomplished through sustained concentration that lifts us out of time. The main thing is to start, and then continue, finding your way step by step. It never occurs to you to quit. Even if the path is not marked out, the task which awaits you is clear: you must descend the mountain before nightfall.
Robinson was right. The descent had been difficult and doable – an ideal combination. Back at Dusy Basin, we watched the sun set from atop a high rocky outcrop. The lakes far below us shone silver in the light.
“What a planet!” said Robinson.
The next day we went hiking. It was a long, easy walk, over Bishop Pass and through the Postcard Forest. Robinson was sad to leave and worried about the forest fires.
“What do you think?” I finally asked as we descended an ordinary rocky slope. “Are we okay?”
“We will have to make big changes,” he said. “I just hope we don’t have to do them so fast that we break everything.”
I wondered what he meant by “everything”. Works? Currencies? Supply chains? Coastal cities? Beaches? Food? Ecologies? Companies? I looked at the Sierras. Water lay to my left and pine trees framed a blue sky overhead. The songbirds were in the trees. It occurred to me that he meant everything. The whole world. It could all break. Then, lost in thought, I slipped. ♦