Can Science Fiction Wake Us Up to Our Climate Reality?

“It’s possible it could work,” he said. “Worst case, you have to descend with headlamps.”

They conferred with each other, and Robinson turned to Biagioli, summarizing the conversation about Galileo. A little while later, I saw the hikers waving to us from a distance. They had started their journey.

What I wanted was reassurance. As we picked our way through the Sierras, I asked Robinson lots of questions; one loomed behind them: Will it be all right? Of course, Robinson has no idea how the future will really go. He does believe that there is a future—an unknown place yet to be explored. He thinks that attitudes shift, that progress exists, that necessity drives invention; but also that progress is slow and easily reversed, that money talks, and that disorder is the norm. In 2002, I published “The Years of Rice and Salt,” a novel imagining what might have happened if the Black Death had killed all the Europeans instead of a third of them. (Jameson has taught it to his students in a class on historiography.) In a fanciful conception, the same characters take us from the fourteenth century to the present by means of reincarnation. During every epoch, they engage in the ceaseless work of improving civilization. Toward the end of the book, a feminist scholar attends an archaeological conference in Iran. As she listens to the presentations, she’s struck by an “impression of people’s endless struggle and effort.” A sense of “endless experimentation, of humans thrashing about trying to find a way to live together,” she deepens in her. In a subsequent incarnation, she works for the international Agency for Harmony with Nature—her world’s version of the Ministry for the Future.

Climate work will be the main business of this century. Its basic outlines are already clear. Build wind farms, solar farms, and other sources of clean energy. Start an Operation Warp Speed ​​for clean power: improve energy storage, and make small, cheap power systems for rural places. Tax carbon, reform agriculture, and eat less meat. Rethink construction, transportation, and manufacturing. Study the glaciers, the permafrost, the atmosphere, the oceans. Pilot some geoengineering schemes, in case we need them. Rewild large parts of the Earth. And so on, and so on, and so on. How will all this happen? In “The Ministry for the Future,” societies start to make good choices, in part because citizens revolt against the monied interests that preserve the status quo. But people also thrash about it. They grow frustrated, angry, and violent. Some survivors of the Indian heat wave become ecoterrorists and use swarms of drones to crash passenger planes; no one can figure out how to stop the drones, and everyone gets scared. People fly less. They teleconference, or take long-distance trains, or even sail. They work remotely on transatlantic crossings. It’s not how we want change to happen. But, in the end, the jet age turns out to have been just that—an age.

We made our camp near a shallow, glassy lake in a hollow, where a single shelf of granite tilted into the water, like a hard beach. While we built our rock stove, Robinson and Biagioli talked about sailing. Biagioli had crossed the Atlantic twice, once with his wife and once with friends; Robinson was an amateur freshwater sailor of long standing.

Robinson said that when he was invited to COP26, the climate-change conference, I thought, “Well, I gotta do it like Greta Thunberg.” (The summer before, Thunberg had sailed across the Atlantic instead of flying.) He’d been surprised to learn that there was no way of signing up in New York to sail, as a passenger, to the UK “My books have convinced me that it’s so obvious—I thought, it’s surely gonna come. It’s low carbon, and you’re still doing world travel!”

“Except, what Greta did—she sailed in a super-fancy, sixty-foot carbon-fibre monster,” Biagioli said. “It can do thirty-five knots. She needed to go fast, otherwise it would’ve taken a month.

“But why aren’t there lots of those boats?” Robinson asked.

“I think they’re incredibly uncomfortable,” Biagioli said. “They bounce. I mean, people wear helmets inside the boat.”

“But what if they were bigger?” Robinson persisted. “What if they were like clipper ships?”

“Well, then, that would be fantastic,” Biagioli said. He shared some cubes of Parmesan from a small container. “And they would be stable, and you could have sailing ships that blow by diesel ships.”

“Club Med—they’ve been putting sails on their cruise ships,” Robinson noted. “And the whole technology of sails, per se, is rapidly shifting, because of computer modelling.”

“The problem is the weight,” Biagioli said. “People cross the Atlantic in five days, but that’s predicated on a boat not weighing anything. So it’s like here.” He gestured to his ultralight pack from him.

“Hmm,” Robinson said. He smiled, enjoying the conversation. “Well, but if you go back to—look, my Atlantic crossing is gonna take me two weeks, and I’m gonna be Internet-connected the whole time. And say you have a big boat, a passenger boat.”

“Then that would be no problem,” Biagioli said. “I even think you could do something really comfortable in not even two weeks. It could be ten days. The people who have a lock on the technology are the French.”

Robinson laughed. “What are our billionaires doing?” he said. We talked a bit more about the idea, and about the prospects for airships, which might replace short-hop jet flights, then went to sleep.

In the morning, we set out for Thunderbolt Pass. The climb began immediately. We ascended a series of steep slopes to the vast, mirrorlike Barrett Lakes, navigating around their rocky shores. The pass looked serious: it was about twelve thousand feet high, and made entirely of rock and sand. We started climbing, sometimes pulling ourselves up with our hands, sometimes slipping between narrow gaps. I looked back to find the lake where we’d camped the night before; it was like peering from an airplane and trying to spot my house.

Eventually, we reached a rock shelf about a hundred feet wide, where hulking boulders had been deposited by some vanished glacier. We passed a lone climber with a tent hanging from the sheer rock wall. The sun seemed to radiate more strongly. It was a long, challenging climb to the very top, where we rested in a small sandy spot, closed in by rock on two sides, like a little room.

“Now, this descent,” Robinson said, while we drank water. “It’s the most technical, meticulous part of our trip. There’s nothing you won’t be able to do. But you’ll have to go slowly, and be careful.”

I looked out over the other side of the pass, which led back to Dusy Basin. The landscape yawned downward over a couple of thousand feet. A field of boulders came first; beyond it was a rib of rock, which we could use to descend part of the way. The rib ended in a broad slope of fine-grained talus. We could navigate this by glissading—a kind of sliding, as though we were on snowshoes. That, in turn, would bring us to an ocean of smaller rocks. The first step was to traverse sideways across the mountain, over the boulders. I was nervous.

“Just go slow,” Robinson said.

We started to cross the boulder field. The rocks were huge, with big gaps between them. Sometimes we clambered forward over empty space, touching four boulders at once. Then the rocks got smaller. I turned to face the mountain, my back to the sun. I moved laterally to my left, wondering how far it was to solid ground; I stepped carefully onto a funny-shaped rock that moved beneath me.

“Uh-oh,” I said, louder than I meant to. “I don’t like that.”

All four of the rocks I was touching were moving.

“Don’t look up!” Biagioli called.

I looked up. An apparent infinity of similar rocks was stacked above me on the hillside. By a trick of perspective, they seemed ready to fail.

I moved along. We reached the rock rib and crossed it to the long slope of talus. We glided down in zigzags through the lunar powder. At the bottom lay the ocean of rocks, small and sharp. They cast harsh shadows, creating pockets of darkness, and crossing them required intense attention. I had to remember to breathe, and to blink. Hours passed. I stopped to finish my water and looked ahead to see our destination, a glittering lake in the far distance. Almost all Robinson’s novels involve an experience of this kind—a long, difficult, rocky journey through a mountain landscape, on Earth or elsewhere, accomplished through sustained concentration that lifts one out of time. The main thing is to start, then to keep going, finding your way one step at a time. It never occurs to you to stop. Even if the path isn’t set, the job before you is clear: you have to get down the mountain before dark.

Robinson had been right. The descent had been difficult and doable—an ideal combination. Back in Dusy Basin, we watched the sun set from atop a high rocky outcropping. The lakes far below us glowed silver in the light.

“What a planet!” Robinson said.

The next day, we hiked out. It was a long, easy walk, over Bishop Pass and through the picture-postcard forest. Robinson was sad to leave, and worried about the wildfires.

“What do you think?” I asked, finally, as we made our way down an ordinary rocky slope. “Will we be all right?”

“We’ll have to make some big changes,” he said. “I just hope that we won’t have to make them so quickly that we break everything.”

I wondered what he meant by “everything.” jobs? Currencies? Supply chains? Coastal cities? beaches? Food? ecology? Societies? I looked around at the Sierras. Water stretched wide to my left, and pins framed a blue sky overhead. Songbirds were in the trees. It occurred to me that he meant everything. The whole world. All of it could break. Then, lost in thought, I slipped. ♦


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