Eco-Fiction Rising

The inspiration for this post came from my just having finished Tobias Buckell‘s Arctic Rising. I have been a fan of Buckell’s work ever since I read Crystal Rain. Arctic Rising is part mystery / thriller, part what Yannick Rumpala has called eco-fiction (as opposed to strict science-fiction, like Crystal Rain), borrowing the term from Christian Chelebourg’s Mythologies De La Fin Du Monde. Eco-fiction refers to these stories that refer to a future where environmental collapse has dramatically altered societies, leading to dystopian social formations.

Arctic Rising takes the reader not to a distant future, as his previous novels had, but to a close future where it would still be possible to reverse environmental degradation, but enough damage has already occurred to create ecological damage and transformations (such as warming all the way to the Arctic as well as land loss South due to rising sea levels).

So, new lines of conflicts have opened as new trafficking routes became available (such as the Northwest Passage). New balances of power are being negotiated between declining powers and rising ones (the “Arctic Tigers”). And there are also corporate powers involved as well, in particular, the Gaia Corporation whose name will be familiar to Buckell’s regular readers. And there is also a mystery man from Anegada… there has to be one or it wouldn’t be a Buckell novel!

The Gaia corporation – which resembles a lot a fictional version of Google (I couldn’t help thinking that the name of the founders, gender aside, Ivan Cohen and Paige Greer sounded a lot like Sergey Brin and Larry Paige) with an environmental twist. In the context of generalized legitimation crisis and inability of governments to collaborate to stop the ecological predicted catastrophe, corporate actors decide to flex their muscles, but they are not exactly the good guys.

The atmosphere of the whole novel is that of impending doom as people try to figure out what to do in an increasingly anomic context. That is the backdrop. The main character is Anika Duncan, a Nigerian, bi-sexual, UN pilot (how cool is all this?) whose job is to patrol the new routes opened by the melting of the Arctic to monitor for smuggling. One day, she detects something fishy on a ship, decides to investigate only to have her plane blown out of the sky and her partner killed. She is later herself victim of assassination attempts. All this tells her she has bumped into something big (a super weapon in the form of high-tech terraforming little balls initially designed to stop the warming, it turns out) and soon, she’s on the run trying to figure things out.

The story was a bit too much shoot-‘em up action and there are some convenient plot points (the Anegadan spy always comes up with the right resources at the right time thanks to mystery contacts that just happen to always be available and always come through at the right time with the right stuff). I really disliked the “torturing the torturer” stuff (especially the “I’m so ashamed of what I have done to other that I need to be tortured to expiate my sins” stuff, I really did not like that, it was both convenient – it allowed the “good guys” to engage in brutal violence with immediate moral exoneration – and contrived).

That being said, I really liked the main character, Anika. How often does one get a black woman, with a fluid and non-problematic sexuality, with intelligence and skills as lead? Close to never. I also really liked the whole social / global / environmental background to the story. I wish there had been more of that. But then, I always wish for more context. Part of the issue for me was that, on balance, it was a bit too much on the thriller side, and not enough on other aspects, such as life in the world-risk society. But again, that is my bias.

Actually, Arctic Rising feels like the original point for all the other novels that Buckell has written (kinda like when Brin wrote Startide Rising before Sundiver). I wonder if his plan is to progressively plug the gaps between these two and finally giving us the full story in-between. I certainly hope so.

So, Buckell’s book takes the readers to the turning point, where things still could change but won’t because of political inability to act collectively and globally. This is the time before manure really hits the fans, destroys societies, leading to radical social transformations of the dystopian type which seems to be the theme du jour. But the dystopian genre, very present in the young adult literature, usually picks up at a much later time: all the bad stuff has happened. Society as we knew it has disintegrated into chaos and conflict. Some new power rose to reestablish order, but did so in a not-too-pretty fashion: enter The Hunger Games.

By now, the whole background story is well-known. After The Dark Days (initiated by weapons of mass destruction and environmental degradation), the Capitol rose to claim control over Panem, creating its own world-system, with a strict division of labor between 12 districts (D13 having been destroyed, or so denizens of the other districts are told) who produce everything needed for the Capitol denizens to be a well-kept leisure class.

And every year, each districts has to send two teenagers (boy and girl) to fight to the death in the Arena both as entertainment for the Capitol and clear reminder to the districts that they’d better not mess with the Capitol again or try to rise up in rebellion.

See my comparative analysis of the Hunger Games v. Battle Royale (also a product of anomie and social disintegration where generations turn on each other and adults take it out on teenagers perceived as responsible for the persistent chaos).

In HG, one can detect a theme that one finds in other dystopian, young adult, ecofiction: the rise of the youthful hero, incarnating a rejuvenation of humankind, symbolically, politically, and environmentally. The youthful hero (boy or girl) is always “different”, not politically aware (often thrown somehow against its will into the politics of his/her world), but questioning of the system at the micro level, and somewhat on the deviant side. This is true for Katniss Everdeen in HG, what with her hunting skills that could get her killed. But this is a theme pursued also in Divergent.

Now, as I mentioned in my review, I never made it past the first book of the as-of-yet incomplete trilogy and Roth does not provide much context for the structure of society  but it seems clear that something environmentally catastrophic has happened. And the current social structure, then, is an attempt to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past by avoid them. Hence the different castes, based on which human trait is identified as the one most detrimental to humankind and therefore to be avoided at all costs.

In Divergent, the rise of the youthful hero, always marked for her difference, is clear. The author takes great pains to make her readers understand that Beatrice is special, not fitting in, out of sync with her caste, etc. but bound to have a great destiny.

The theme of the eco-fiction combined with the rise of the youthful here is also what drives Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. In my review, I wrote the following:

JC’s 22nd century America (actually, the Earth) is environmentally devastated. The planet finally has run out of oil which triggered catastrophic conflicts, plagues, mass sterility and death and therefore major population reduction. In this context, human societies have regressed, having to give up most of the oil-related technology. The end of oil has meant major social, economic and political upheavals.

In the United States, political power is divided between the official power structure of the Executive and the Senate, and the unofficial authority of the Dominion, a theocratic organization that rules society and has engaged in tremendous historical revisionism and controls what gets published, and pretty much everything pertaining to culture and religion. Needless to say, it is extremely powerful and fundamentalist and often plays the role of Inquisition, with torture and all against those it defines as deviants.

Julian Comstock, the main character, is the nephew of the current President. Julian’s father, the brother of the President, a war hero, had been executed for treason on trumped charges as his brother feared his popularity. For fear for Julian’s safety, his mother sent him away under the protection and mentorship of a veteran soldier, Sam Godwin. It is in this exile in what is today Alberta. It is there that Julian meets the narrator of the story, Adam Hazzard. It is this threesome that the story follows.

22nd century America is a highly stratified and conflicted society. At the top are the Aristos, those who had property when society collapsed. Then are the leased people, those who lost everything in the collapse and had to sell their labor to the aristos. At the bottom are the indentured servants. This arrangement has the stamp of approval of the Dominion. It is a caste system based on a highly unequal distribution in an economy of scarcity.

On top of it, America is at war with what is now called Mittleeuropa over control of parts of Canada. Resource wars indeed. Julian, Sam and Adam get caught in their attempt to avoid drafting into the war and end up there anyway. Julian becomes a war hero and therefore a threat to his uncle who then puts him in charge a suicide operation with no reinforcement, hoping he will die. He does not but this last maneuver cost his uncle the loss of military support. He is deposed and Julian is appointed President in his place.

Julian always resented the Dominion for their suppression of the past and of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. As president, he takes it on. All the political maneuvering that is required to handle the different power groups (the Senate, the Dominion, and the military) take a toll on Julian and his presidency, along with his life, are short, having only managed to weaken the Dominion but not destroy it as he had hoped. This is a coming of age and its costs story not just for Julian but for Adam, the narrator as well. And Julian also has another reason to resent the Dominion. He is gay.

In many ways, the rise of the youthful / rejuvenated hero as legitimate ruler on the ashes of a decaying world ruled by illegitimate tyrants is  a theme out of the medieval mythology (all the way back to Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable). Take this scene from John Boorman’s Excalibur where, having drunk from the Holy Grail, Arthur, the legitimate king, is back in the saddle and nature recovers as he rides into battle:

I had issues with the war hero theme of the book and the fact that military exploits seemed a bit repetitive to me. But Yannick Rumpala had some stronger issues with the book. His blog is in French so, I’ll just summarize his thoughts: the book never really explains how total resource depletion of fossil fuels would lead to such a dramatic technological regression. Basically, it’s back to horse and buggies, and old-fashioned trains (like in the old Westerns). Electricity seemed to have completely disappeared from collective conscience of the majority of the population, especially in rural areas. Rumpala asks how it is possible to so completely forget all accumulated knowledge so quickly, even in the context of the dominance of religious fundamentalists. It seemed the past just disappeared, leaving no traces whatsoever, ruins of any kind. Where are all the abandoned cars, planes, etc.? Was nothing recycled?

And then, there was Ship Breaker. As I wrote before, the setting is a dystopian future where climate change has run its course and drowned parts of the Earth and civilization has run out of oil. It is an environmental and social mess of a world with extreme stratification. At the bottom of the social ladder are the ship breakers, who dismantle old oil tankers – remnants of what people call the Accelerated Age, our age – to scrap for whatever is valuable for larger scavenging firms like Lawson & Carlson.

The ship breakers themselves are divided between heavy and light crews (mostly kids small enough to crawl through pipes and small spaces). This is work highly reminiscent of The Devil’s Miner. The main characters of the book are kids from one such light crew, mainly Nailer and his friend Pima.

Nailer’s world is one that is dangerous for poor kids like him, subjected to violence at the hands of a variety of adults, including his father and his crew employer. The work itself would never lift anyone out of poverty and is highly dangerous. At the same time, to be part of a crew means to have taken a blood oath and involves some mechanical solidarity and Gemeinschaft-type bonds between crew members (“Ship breaking was too dangerous to not have trust.” Loc. 634). There are strong sanctions imposed on those who break these loyalty bonds, as one of Nailer’s crew learns the hard way after leaving Nailer to die in an oil tank still full of oil.

Geographically, the story takes place mainly in the Gulf Coast. New Orleans has disappeared under water and in its place is a bunch of slums where people eke out a living. This is where Nailer ends after he and Pima rescue a “swank” girl (one of the über-wealthy few that manage to make tons of money through maritime freight using clippers). She and Nailer become crew and he calls her ‘lucky girl”. She herself is the victim of a corporate conspiracy to overthrow her family’s control of a giant shipping corporation. This is what the action in the book revolves around: getting Lucky Girl back to a ship whose crew is still loyal to her father. It does not turn out that way and the adventure begins, as they say.

But as Rumpala asks on his blog, does the post-oil age doom us to dystopian futures? Is there no collective, ecological imaginary where everything does not collapse miserably? For Rumpala, there is a literary, imaginary space to be occupied that would envision a more positive, non-dystopian future where sustainability would have won the day. Why does it matter? Rumpala argues that the science-fiction or eco-fiction of today can shape the technological imaginary of tomorrow and related concrete technological developments. After all, the dystopian terrain has been pretty well covered by now.

I would argue, though, that a less-dystopian future is not necessarily a matter of technology, but of political legitimacy as well. In these dystopian futures, the issues are not predominantly technological (technology still exists but is restricted in HG and Divergent). They are social and related to concentration of power in few illegitimate hands. And I also think that there is still territory to cover on the dystopian side especially as the reality of climate change and peak oil sets in, where world risk society meets legitimation crisis and economic stagnation for the masses.

And I also think there is a lot to investigate on the Planet of Slums theme, as was done in Metatropolis, in the urban-fiction genre.