More of my springtime writing has found a place to roost. This time it’s a novelette called “Cat Ladies,” and as it says above, it’s going to appear in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2021.
The Clawback is a tough period, riven by human-made disasters, but this is in many ways one of its more peaceful stories, set among a community of lesbians tasked with dismantling Calgary’s suburbs. It has beekeepers and policing robots and sexy sculptresses and–because it’s nominally a Western–a hard drinkin’ garrulous sheriff. But also, because what even is a Western, it has the displaced sister of a pop music sensation.
I’m so happy the story has found a home at F&SF, and pleased and grateful to have sold one last story to Charlie Finlay before he hands over the reins to Sheree Renée Thomas, who is going to be an amazing editor!
November is always the most difficult month for me, creatively, and 2020 has been double November with a side of sad salad. I am researching a few new story ideas and keeping up with my various cheery Twitter projects, like the weather reports, but that aside it has been a month of much teaching and little story.
But one of the great things about writing is its life cycle. Even as you’re wrangling new ideas or struggling with rewrites, work you did months earlier comes back from the past to joybomb you. And so I’m delighted to announce that Sheila Williams at Asimov’s Science Fiction has bought my novelette “The Hazmat Sisters.”
Like my Clarkesworld novelette “The Immolation of Kev Magee,” Hazmat takes place during the Clawback, the period after my Setback novella that kicked off this universe for me. It falls well before the events of my Bounceback novels Gamechanger and Dealbreaker.
The Clawback is a tough period and this is a tough story, about family and safety and pandemics and war and being a good neighbor, and fighting with your sisters for a shot at the shower. But it’s also about cute girls with pluck, determination and pet robots, because that’s fun!
I’m so happy the story has found a home at Asimovs. It’s my first sale to Sheila and I am chuffed!
This summer I was enormously pleased to have a novelette published (and recorded in audio format!) up at Clarkesworld. “The Immolation of Kev Magee” is set in the Clawback, the devastating period of social and environmental disruption before the events of Gamechanger. It features one Gamechanger character if you look very closely, but is otherwise a standalone story about three refugee kids from Detroit trying to chase a dream or two, all while fighting to stay afloat in a very uncertain and dangerous world.
I am writing about the Clawback in short pieces primarily because it is, in my Nice Things universe, the worst period. I don’t want to take you all there–or me either!–for the length of a novel. There are more Clawback stories to come. But if that’s not your thing and you’d rather see more Bounceback era fiction, Dealbreaker continues the adventures of many of the characters from Gamechanger, Frankie Barnes in particular, and is already available for preorder everywhere books can be found. Here’s the beautiful beautiful cover.
I’ve been quiet in this space lately, which is probably a surprise to nobody at all. The pandemic and lockdown have affected my writing practice as they’ve affected… well, everyone and everything…
I hope as you read this you’re safe and healthy and finding ways to fill the hours and take care of yourself and others. Be gentle with yourselves, and on those around you.
I have been incredibly fortunate. I had a lot of works in progress to revise, pieces that were mostly done, when things went to shit. This week, for example, I turned in the final edits on my novel Dealbreaker. The book is the a sequel to my September 2019 novel Gamechanger, and it takes place about 20 years later, following the adventures of a now-grown Frankie Barnes and her various adopted siblings and spouses as the population of Earth pushes out into the solar system.
Another of the things I finished was a novelette called “The Immolation of Kev MaGee” and I’m so amazingly pleased to announce that I have now sold this piece to Clarkesworld Magazine! This also takes place in what I sometimes refer to as the Nice Things Universe, but it’s set during a thoroughly terrible period known as the Clawback.
Readers familiar with Gamechanger may remember that in this particular near future, our present day, pandemic and all, is part of a period called the Setback. This era is a downward spiral, where many of the world’s human-build systems collapse. Capitalism fails, deadly pathogens emerge, and our network of nation-states begins to crumble under the crush of climate change. Then an even more terrible transition, the Clawback, occurs as the bulk of the world’s population decides it has enough and begins the hard work of reorganizing, basically, Everything.
By the time Gamechanger begins, capitalism has been seriously upheaved, international cooperation has been set into place to allow massive climate remediation, everyone has a universal standard of living, and the police have been all but written out of existence—though at a massive cost to privacy. Things seem to be improving, and the characters in that book have a lot of reason to be optimistic. Humanity goes from Clawback to Bounceback.
The novelette for Clarkesworld, on the other hand, is one of a trio set during the trashiest of trashfire days of the Clawback, a period where the U.S. is plunged into multiple localized civil wars and corporate oligarchs are attempting ever-more-bizarre ways to preserve their fortunes and privileges. “The Immolation of Kev MaGee” is the first of these novelettes to find a home and I’m incredibly happy about it. Clarkesworld has been on my bucket list for some time!
(I would never choose to live through a real world Setback or Clawback, if I had a choice! But I am trying with these stories to imagine optimistic but credible possibilities for the human race to shoot the rapids of looming disaster in this century, so we can all sail through to a better future. I believe we have to imagine good outcomes to achieve them.
Manwhile, this pandemic is teaching us all many many lessons we weren’t looking for, both about our potential to work together as a global population to stop a threat—and the horrors on offer when we fail. Cooperation is something we need to level at, desperately. It’s riveting and saddening and scary and inspiring to see us attempt it.
As a science-fiction writer my stock in trade is imagining world-changing events exactly like the ones unfolding around us now. It is a very strange kind of privilege to be hunkered down in my home, watching Setbacky events unfolding in realtime, observing it and trying to write about parallel events and better outcomes.
I have been writing Clawback stories for about eight weeks, which is just a little longer than the period I’ve been in super-privileged lockdown here in Toronto.
For those of you who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, the Clawback is the period after the events of my novella “Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling” and before the events of my 2019 book Gamechanger. It’s the stretch of time between when climate change and the societal trends we’re seeing now dip to their lowest, most violent and depressing point…and it’s where humanity claws its way back from the brink and builds a sustainable, though never Utopian, society.
They’re grim stories, these things I’m writing, and I’m looking forward to moving on to something more fun.
Little surprise then that one of the most dour scenes in Gamechanger is its Clawback opening, set well before things start to get better. Decades before the action of the novel takes place, it shows a trio of orphans whose principal problem is plague. Well, plague and tornadoes. Plague, tornadoes, and a fanatical devotion to capitalism? (Okay, I’ll stop.)
That opening is very much a worst case scenario scene. It shows people choosing to sacrifice the sick to the healthy, shows millions of refugees crammed cheek by jowl in camps guarded by autonomous gun platforms, all hoping desperately to get vaxxed (as they say) and relocated before the next bug hits.
The idea that disease outbreaks would be part of the twenty-first century disaster bundle was so obvious to me that it didn’t feel that much like SF extrapolation. It was informed by books I’ve been reading for just about ever—books by scientists, like Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague and books by historians like Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the end of the Roman Empire By William Rosen and even novels by SF authors, like Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. I read a lot about pandemics. I came of age during the early bloody emergence of AIDS. Of course it seemed like real-world stuff rather than far-future blueskying.
Of course it’s infinitely more pleasant to be reading about old, long-over outbreaks—or even to be writing about upcoming imaginary ones—than to watch one unfold in real time just down the block from your actual house.
The season of plagues in the Clawback does end. Not neatly, not miraculously, not even just by running its course. It ends after the world pulls together to establish a global minimum standard of public health. When the various factions and governments running our international commit to an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination.
Am I saying that because I got the outbreak of deadly disease right in my near-future SF book, I’m also right about the better world around the corner? I would love for the Bounceback to come, for it to be miraculous, inevitable, and easy. But some of the good things in that future? Aren’t impossible. Look at us playing with variations on Universal Basic Income as the economy goes into paroxysms.
Some countries are cooperating. Some good things are happening. And if you live in a place where your votes matter and/or your spending habits influence the corporations that decide so much policy these days, keep an eye open for chances to jump in: to donate to causes, to amplify voices. To write to elected representatives, to shame corporate profiteers.
A better future isn’t never a gimme, not for anyone. But working toward it, asking for it, trying to build bridges instead of burning them—you can have a part in that. You know it, and you probably already know how.
We don’t have to give in to tornados, germs and multi-national serfdom. Right now, you’re on lockdown, and you’re not dead yet. Perhaps one of the most powerful things you may have left is your voice. If you’ve got the energy and the time, reach out and speak up. Shout the future, and thereby summon it into being.
A few months before Gamechanger came out, a headline crossed my feeds about the prospect of wild card would-be terraformers launching backyard rockets bearing high-altitude balloons. Their purpose: to spew a payload of particulate intended to work much as a volcanic ash plume might, changing the mix of earth’s upper atmosphere.
Why would anyone do this? Well, plumes can be cool, and I mean literally. In 1991, the eruption of Mount Pintabo created aerosols that lowered average global temperatures by one degree Fahrenheit… for several years.
Which sounds great, right? Just what the Doctor ordered?
The allure of being able to DIY a little global cooling, to play deity in your own backyard, is obvious. We all have moments when the idea of launching a rocket into the teeth of climate change takes on an intrinsic rightness, a sense of being so much better than scrolling through endless retweets about record summer heatwaves. What if you could do something more than just grinding your teeth and reckoning your distance from the seacoast as the oceans rise?
And while it may sound like it, the possibility of lacing the upper atmosphere with sun-reflecting silvery particles, or otherwise simulating the outcome of a massive volcanic explosion isn’t pure flummery. Climate change scientists and experts at NASA have already gathered a lot of data about potentially geoengineering the atmosphere in exactly this way. In the coordinated, upscale, governments-signed-off-on-it sciencey version, high-altitude jets would do the spewing, targeting upwards of 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide gas in service of achieving a Pintabo-scale cooling effect.
(They’d do it in a concerted way, of course, not piecemeal.)
The thing is, geoengineering doesn’t come without trade-offs. Does anything? In fact, it’s pretty dangerous dynamite to be playing with. In this case, that sought after, oh-so-sexy cooling effect on the surface of the planet comes bundled with damage to the ozone layer. That alone is enough to ensure that the idea of solar radiation management (SRM for short) is seen by many scientists as a desperation gambit, a card to be played only when slash if things get really dire. So it isn’t hard to imagine why ecologist blood runs cold at the idea of you and me and everyone’s cousin with questionable judgment being able to order up a backyard balloon kit full of ozone-destroying gas.
Imagine! Click here to upgrade to free-one day delivery! Your neighbor doesn’t believe in climate change… so why not compensate and order two? We’ll even give you a BOGO deal! Amazon would do that in a heartbeat, amiright?
Part of what I love about this news item, despite the fact that it is objectively terrifying, is it’s such a fundamentally science fictional idea. The terrain of our present and our future is strange and hard to survey, but I could write a hundred stories from this single jumping off point. So could, I suspect, every other writer I know.
People ask sometimes where writers get our ideas, so here’s one now: as more and more people become convinced of the severity of the climate crisis—as their anxieties sharpen into outright terror—science fictional-sounding climate quackery, DIY quick fixes for global warming could easily permeate a certain portion of the consumer market.
Imagine—snake oil save the planet panaceas, becoming big business! You too could buy the ecosphere equivalent of the everlasting pill. (Remember the everlasting pill? It was a lump of antimony people used to take in Victorian times, a little bauble of poison that would trigger a purgative round of vomiting and diarrhea. If the patient didn’t die from the cure, they would either barf up or pass the pill, which could be washed and saved for the next family member who needed it. Sorry—make that “needed.”)
Imagine the earth-scale equivalent of an everlasting pill, easily purchased, deployed using easy-to-follow instructions, or even an app. Now imagine twenty competing eco-placebos. Their chief effect? Creating a sense in the buyer of having damnwell done something about the planetary carbon budget. The emotional uplift would come whether they worked or not, and despite the science. People believe what they want to believe—look how long it has taken some of us to buy into the need for social distancing.
In this story I’m spinning, we might posit that buy-in to ecological placebos would be all the stronger in wealthy nations, where we’ve laid the groundwork by creating a culture of remedial consumerism. A certain amount of the environmental message over the past couple of decades has suggested that privileged shoppers—those with the biggest carbon footprint—can A/S/S/U/A/G/E/ O/U/R G/U/I/L/T/ make a real difference to the planet’s feverish future … all by shopping green. Never mind giving up our cars—if our diapers are unbleached bamboo cotton, if our organic foods have been sprayed with naturally derived pesticides, and our lightbulbs are LED rather than incandescent, our carbon footprint will naturally shrink.
Right? We’ve been primed to love a socially conscious shopportunity.
Now, this may seem a little ranty, I know, so don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everyone can or should abandon their motor vehicle, or that intelligent low-footprint consumption is a bad thing. But the ecological value of green shopping has been consistently oversold in recent years. It’s not the answer. Green consumerism exploits all our complicated buyer feels about the environment, extracting the conscience dollars wherever it can.
Those emotions will ever easier for advertisers to play, like an orchestra of violins attached to ApplePay devices, as they get stronger. After all, if the people with the most disposable income perceive that nothing significant is being achieved by our corporate stakeholders and their kept government departments—if the semi-anonymous “they” who rule us aren’t seen to be doing anything substantial to keep the planet and our grandchildren from frying—why shouldn’t we buy a hundredth of a volcanic plume online?
The part of this that really bites my toenails is that I love the idea of widespread buy-in to climate remediation technology. I heart a clever gadget. I have a weakness for eco-tech Kickstarters. And in Gamechanger, there’s a lot of this: one small change, repeated a billion times over, by people actively working to roll back the carbon clock. Emissions are down, but a certain amount of geoengineering is in play.
Pretty much everyone comes out of my future equivalent of high school, for example, knowing how to grow and bank a ton of carbon, how to recycle a suburban ranch house for land reclamation efforts, and how to build a low-end freshwater harvester out of an old wine bottle and repurposed nanotech.
I like this vision of the world, which is why I created it. I want to think it’s not impossible that one day everyone with a yard or even patio space may willingly give some of it over to devices that turn air pollution directly to propane. (Yes, that tech is under development!) Maybe water recapture-unsexy as it sounds-is something that could be installed, one conscientious household at a time, to create bulwarks against desertification.
But how to get there in a world where you’re just as likely to buy a volcano balloon as a water recycler? If inventions come along that actually could work a change when deployed in a widespread, one-in-every-home distribution pattern, it’ll matter whether we can distinguish between them. How can we know which items that might be worthwhile and which will be ineffective, ill-advised or even downright harmful?
See? The problem is never having story ideas. It’s choosing.
And that’s before we even move from individual buyers to super-consumers. Think about the great white mostly-males. The Bruce Waynes. What happens when a mega-philanthropist buys into a backyard balloon volcano paradigm? What happens when their billionaire rival goes for the climactic everlasting pill?
Here’s one real world geoengineering idea, a big high-concept pitch, that’s shopping for a moneybags sponsor. Like the volcanic plume stuff, there’s real research behind this one. We could conceivably make it happen.
In 2018, The Atlantic ran an article by Ross Andersen, “Welcome to Pleistocene Park.” The story tells about a conservation park created by a father and son team, Sergey and Nikita Zimov, whose plan, for decades now, has been to increase the density of wildlife in Siberia’s tundra to 8000 BCE population levels. This is a serious project. The park has been crowdfunding an effort to rewild bison, sourcing the animals from North America and moving them to Siberia. Other ecological niches have been filled with muskox, wild horses, and reindeer. The endgame for this intriguing experiment is to simulate ecological conditions in the muskeg 10,000 years ago. If the Simovs and crew pull it off, the tundra will revert to a type of grassland that is colder and more resistant to melt. And why is this desirable or important? Because, as you probably know, melting tundra releases methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Again, potentially sexy science on the literal hoof this time!
There’s one big problem here, too. The keystone animal in that ecosystem is the woolly mammoth. And it turns out we are fresh out of those.
So what’s the plan at Pleistocene Park? It takes us back to SF rather handily. Are they dreaming, a la Michael Crichton, to find wooly mammoth DNA in amber or old fossilized tusks? Oh, no. This is a go CRISPR or go home scheme—they’ll bioform existing Asian elephant genomes to make their offspring hardy enough to survive the Siberian winter. What we get, if we do this, isn’t Wooly Mammoth 1.0. It’s a reverse-engineer, a reasonable facsimile. A gene lab in Harvard, under the direction of geneticist George Church, is already working on making it a reality.
Boggle at it! Editing the genes of an elephant that might otherwise become extinct (because of humans) to make it more like a distant relative that did become extinct (because of overhunting, in other words because of humans) so that it can occupy a landscape in a way that increases collective human longevity. This is both way out there science fiction stuff and it’s real. What’s more, the biggest roadblock to giving it a try may be money.
So imagine that Bruce Wayne type, getting the hard-sell from Harvard rewilding guys, and throwing a few of his hard inherited billions at a project to build a better elephant. Should he do it? Pleistocene Park has some pretty good researchers in the mix, and they’ve been working on this and thinking about it for a fair while. Maybe the question is: Can it hurt? Maybe the follow up is: Sure, but how much? Perhaps they can throw an extra billion at finding a way to ask the elephants what they think of the whole deal… but let’s be honest, we don’t really want a pachyderm veto to nix the whole thing.
The present is always scary, the future always uncertain. What’s alternately exciting and frightening about climate change is how much effect humanity can potentially have on the landscape. We have a strange simultaneous sense of being powerless, whilst still coming up with ways to radically change the survival game, whether for better or for worse. One of the best things about being a futurist in the now is getting to see all these possibilities, flawed and freaky though they seem, as people scramble for inventive answers. Geoengineering is just the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. If you’re anything like me, you’re just waiting—and hoping—for the next headline to erupt across your screens, raising some hopes, dashing others, and either way melting your worldview to slag once again.
One of the dumbsmart PR things governments—at least in comfy, privileged nations like mine—do from time to time is to declare war on nouns. War on Poverty. War on Drugs. War on Botulism.
So it’s unsurprising—inevitable, even—that if you google the phrase War on Climate Change, you get lots of hits. Lots of ‘em. What’s weird, though, is they don’t all mean the same thing.
If you see the phrase War on Drugs, frex, you can usually take it to mean some variation
on Prohibition. It’s an indicator of legally constituted agents of government,
identified by acronyms (ATF! RCMP! CDC!) trying to prevent the manufacture,
sale and use of controlled substances.
But when CNN or heads of state say War on Climate Change! half of them mean
taking steps to slow the human-triggered transformation of the planet into a
bright blue Easy-Bake oven. The other half are actually government officials or
influencers of various types trying to deny the evidence—essentially, to stick
their fingers directly into our voter ears.
Now, it’s not surprising that public figures resort to War on Gluten, War on Loitering, War on Photofilters rhetoric, because that language evokes all sorts of things many of us think of, vaguely, as laudable. War in this context means a total commit! Big resources! Much serious effort. It tries to stake out the ground of a stern daddy figure, making tough choices for the whole human family.
Sure, there may be tough choices ahead. Here’s a
tweet of mine quoting Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article of September 6.
Sounds like the sort of thing I mean, right?
Virtuous self-denial, for altruistic reasons.
But on the way to the photo op, the folks who
employ War On language conveniently
step over all the war things that have, y’know, bad optics. Like murdering
people, destroying lives, plague, genocide, war profiteering, censorship and widespread
environmental destruction. (And did I mention murdering people?)
Admittedly, it might seem rather pedantic of me to come over all huffy about how a press statement about a war on Cannabis or Climate Change or the Youth Using Whatsapp isn’t actually armed conflict. We all know that, kind of. (Random aside: for kicks I just looked up War on the Anthropocene and I’m not getting any hits. Please let me know when the politicians jump on this bandwagon, so I can invoice them heavily. )
Kidding aside, the reason this is more than mere
wordplay—the reason it fucking matters–relates to another mendacious aspect of
getting up in front of the world and breaking off diplomatic relations with,
say, poverty. Oooh, poverty is the enemy, and we’re gonna end it!
And then, in the end, we don’t. We don’t actually obliterate these alleged social ills we want the people to agree are in need of a serious effort.
If somebody declaring War on the Anthropocene was all it took to actually get a society-wide massive commitment to the continued health of the planet… why, I might even be for that! In fact, I think that as things deteriorate climatewise and we all move into the period that, in my book Gamechanger, is described as the Clawback, it’s very likely going to come to that. The surplus production of most of the planet’s peoples will eventually be recruited into ecological mitigation projects and geoengineering on an unheard-of scale.
Will this manifest as some kind of reasoned and
measured choice, deployed with a bit of logistical elan, or as a desperate last
resort? And what would it even look like? Let’s talk about just a few of those
big, heavily romanticized military-style commitments:
Wars draft people. They impress them into armies and force them to
work for months and years, not on their own hopes and dreams, but on the
national project at hand. In a few decades’ time, will most adults be expected
to put in a few years among armies of tree planters and eco-rehab labourers? It’s
Land use is one of our many nested climate problems. We need to start clawing back acreage for forestation and rewilding—remember the trillion threes thing? Somehow, we have to achieve projects like that without sacrificing agricultural output.
In Canada in World War II, 1.1 million volunteers
and draftees eventually served in the various branches of our armed forces.
Imagine that many people tasked to topsoil generation, tree planting, land use
assessment, urban farming startups, and carbon banking. To seaweed farming,
Arctic and Antarctic ice propagation, to anti-erosion measures. To demolishing
selected suburbs and helping people relocate to places with infrastructure for
more sustainable, denser populations living within ever-smaller footprints.
This isn’t a new concept, of course. The Civilian
Conservation Corps in the New Deal-era U.S.A. was the same thing. And
interestingly, one of their projects was replanting the Great Plains after
over-farming caused the Dustbowl. We have historical precedent, in other words,
for drafting terraformers to reverse our collective environmental folly.
We already have climate change refugees. Soon we may also, as we did in the Dustbowl, have climate change draftees.
State micromanagement of agriculture and food distribution: Even green armies need food, and green armies that are trying to figure out what to reforest and what to leave for crop production? Are gonna need oversight. Plus food production is likely to drop as we lose arable land to warming and erosion. So… will we need to start rationing again, as places like the UK and Canada did in 1939? There’s a BBC series called Wartime Farm that shows how little a family had to live on, week to week, during that period… and how much the government expected of farmers during that era. It’s illuminating, and it starches the romance right out of those sepia memories of rationing books and chin-up togetherness. (Check it out on Youtube).
State-directed production of green tech and
carbon remediation: The next time you are feeling as though our
collective human efforts couldn’t possibly make any difference to climate
change now, think about bombs. Think about how many bombs, in how many shapes,
sizes, and configurations, the industrial nations of the world have produced
over the years. Add in the chain-of-production stuff: the full-time miners who
dug up the resources, the folks who refined the steel, the scientists who improved
their effectiveness at killing—that was one fast product development cycle!–
the trucks that got them to the people who were going to drop them on… well,
on other people and their stuff.
Then add in the delivery systems—the planes, the subs, the tanks. The
mechanics who tightened the bolts on same. The gas that fuelled them and the
people who got that to the airfields.
Remember that all that material, all that spending, all those hours on the factory assembly lines, resulted in no significant long term benefit to humanity. We make these things to throw them away, in a particularly horrifying and destructive fashion. Producing bombs is basically a way of flushing precious resources just to see if we can stop up the toilet.
So next time someone tells you we don’t have the wealth to tackle climate change, remember this and tell ‘em that it’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s just that we don’t want to. Enough. Yet. We totally have what it takes to farm atmospheric and oceanic carbon on an industrial scale.
Wartime production of all the machinery of combat skyrocketed during both twentieth century wars. We suddenly needed (well, let’s add air quotes to that “needed”) the stuff… and we made it happen. Innovation leapfrogged too, because the resources was pouring in and the tech—tragically—was getting lots of testing. Those bombs got better and better at it because, we were making an effort, paying attention and spending, spending, spending.
Wrap your head around what we could accomplish as
a species if we directed one tenth of every nation’s bomb-building capacity
into cooling the planet.
International Climate Crime Tribunals. You wanna declare war on climate change? What
if, when the dust settles a bit, we start going after the citizens, human and
corporate, who did the most damage? Just a thought. I’ll leave it over there in
Lots of people, me included, love consuming
stories about events like the Battle of Britain. Whether it’s Foyle’s War or Squadron 303 or a nice documentary, all that working together and
plucky can-do spirit in the face of adversity looks great on the screen. A
cause you can get behind is a unifying and validating thing. And we know how
the story ends, which doesn’t hurt.
We have whole fandoms built around the romance of
mid-twentieth century fashions, dance crazes, and the events of those troubled
decades. The stirring speeches! The great songs! The esprit d’corps and tales
of derring do!
The thing is, we can have all that stuff again. We do have all that stuff. Thinking about Winston Churchill makes you mist up? Look at Greta Thurnberg, y’all. Better yet, listen to her. She’s trying to save you, your kids, and your little dog too.
Effort. Commitment. Pulling together. Doing your bit. These are laudable things. How about instead of blowing hot air at focus groups and press conferences, we jump on that bandwagon now, and give it a big wholehearted embrace. But at the same time, let’s decouple the idea of massive society-wide effort from the Be Patriarchy, Do War! narrative. That’s the part we don’t need, the part whose only real capacity, at this point, is to make things even worse.
Here’s a secret: you are the center of a parallel universe. Your sister was wrong; it’s all about you! As a kid you tried to learn some humility, but you are the Big Bang, the axis on which all tilts.
I had been playing with the underlying concept in
Fourth Rider as a possible story idea for some months when I found myself surprised–and
more than a little delighted–to realize it could fit rather handily into a
poem. And surprised and very delighted sums up my feelings about having it published,
With HBO‘s Chernobyl having conveniently put the dangers of nuclear power and the horrors of radiation poisoning so brilliantly on the radar of TV viewers around the world, now seems like a great time to talk about how hope can spring from even the most unexpected and terrifying of sources.
A few years ago, I went to a focus group. You know the kind of thing I mean: someone literally hands you a small envelope full of cash in exchange for two hours of your consumer feedback on a particular product or, in this case, hot button political topic. I went to this thing with few expectations beyond getting money and maybe a bad sandwich. Very quickly it turned out that our topic was the storage of nuclear waste from a reactor within my immediate voting vicinity.
What was cool about this, of course, was that I learned some new things about fission and radiation. What was vastly less cool was observing the various ways in which the people running the focus group were nudging us all toward a positive opinion about a public policy decision that had, almost certainly, already been made. I concluded rather swiftly that the group doing the focusing didn’t necessarily want to find out our opinions so they could change their plan. No, they wanted to know whether or not they were effectively selling what they’d already decided. Barring a public outcry, the fait was already accomplis.
Here in the present day, remembering this experience makes me wish I could see footage of someone running those same nuclear waste questions past people who’d just seen the HBO miniseries.
It doesn’t take a focus group to tell someone with even a basic grasp of grade school science that nuclear reactors make electricity, and the byproduct of that electricity is dangerous AF for basically ever. Creating nuclear waste has been one of the many devil’s bargains humans have made in exchange for our incredible society. Electricity at this point is demonstrably more important to us than breathable air or food security. In pursuit of it, we burn uranium and create an apparently insoluble problem whose dimensions extend from now to the end of human memory.
One way or another, it has been reasonably safe to assume, for all of my lifetime at least, that all the nuclear waste in the world was going to end up cached in remote holes in economically marginal regions, and left there until such time as somebody forgot about them entirely. At that point, they’d become a toxic gag gift for whatever unlucky beings—sapient raccoons, anyone?—bored down through the concrete vaults, failed to decipher the safety warnings, and uncovered a huge load of future death.
Paradoxically, this problem is now one of the reasons I believe we can have not only hope but real optimism about terraforming the planet so that it remains habitable by humans.
How come? Because physicists have recently worked out that if you take a small amount of radioactive material, make a radioactive diamond out of it, encase it in a second diamond layer to contain the energy and include a couple of wires in the mix, you can make a diamond battery. This is an item that will emit a small amount of power for as long as the battery is radioactive, or at least three millennia.
Using radioactive decay to create electricity isn’t a new idea. It’s a cornerstone of the space program; batteries using radioisotope power systems power Voyager One, and the Mars Rover Curiosity. The latter has been tooling around gathering data for over 2500 days now.
But the diamond batteries could be deployed here on earth. They could could sit in your unprotected hand. They could be embedded in your life-saving pacemaker. And as they did so, they’d be giving off about as much radiation as your average banana.
So take that in for a second. I know, I thought it was a lie, too.
Imagine a future where factories spent however long it took to turn all of that forever poison from all of our reactors into a new source of effectively inexhaustible power.
In my novel Gamechanger, the bugs have been worked out of this system. Product development has had a bit of time to mature, and now this tech is getting deployed in quantity. The goal is to reclaim all the waste. The batteries are being constructed and gathered in stacks. Each one isn’t emitting much power, but collectively, they’re a significant and growing public resource. And since the powersphere is valuable and an obvious target for crime, most of the stones are embedded in permanent structures. In other words, the first deployment of diamond battery tech is in a place called Blingtown, a carbon remediation project that makes beautiful structures on a monumental scale while also ensuring the security and longevity of the power stacks.
This is what science fiction writers do with research. It’s what SF prototyping means. Basically, I decided: if the diamonds are going to last thousands of years, and pyramids last thousands of years, and you can probably in this day and age find a corporate sponsor to make the outsides of monument-scale structures beautiful to boot, why not kill the pollution bird with a massive amount of aesthetically kilned and tourist-friendly stone?
Pie in the sky? For sure. But until recently, remember, we thought that saying yes to a question like “can we do something positive with nuclear waste?” was chirpy fucking nonsense.
When optimists and hopepunkers talk about innovating our way out of the climate crisis we have created, critics point out that the technologies we hope to use to save ourselves are still under development. That some of them are hypothetical. That others might come with insurmountable knock-on effects of their own. (Hank Green, for example, posted a video this summer about the possible need to continue or expand fracking, even as we recognize the need to deal with the horrendous environmental consequences.)
Even when we come up with inventions that do have the potential to make a huge difference, doomcryers say, we may not be able to deploy them before we run out of the very resources we need to scale them up.
All these arguments are totally true. There is validity and an important warning in the too little too late position.
It’s important to remember that—like those anonymous policymakers who were trying to figure out how to spin their plan for containing irradiated Canadian graphite—we have already decided our collective survival will hinge on a cluster of whizbang technological breakthroughs.
No, we have! You and I may not feel personal ownership over the the crappy policies that have cooked our atmosphere, but we’re part of the system… and we’re past blame now. If we were going to globally rein in our oil-burning ways on a scale that would make a difference, we’d have done it decades ago. Letting something happen is a choice and humanity has let this happen. The plan now is to science the living shit out of the human-made atmospheric carbon surplus.
Admittedly, this wasn’t the best idea. Terraforming the earth into a crisis and then trying to terraform it back… this isn’t a scheme that comes with guarantees. The odds on it, though, still seem better than those of plan Move the Rich to Mars! or plan Hope we all Get Lucky in Spite of Ourselves!
The inventiveness, the near-miraculous potential of a technology like diamond batteries, and the paradigm shift it represents, not only provides us with a new option for producing electricity but seriously changes the game on the forever problem that was nuclear waste. This should straight up blow your mind. We didn’t think a single thing could be done. Bury it and look away. That was the answer. And people, we were wrong.
Humans are, at core, bogglingly inventive creatures. Diamond batteries and artificial leaves and topsoil generation are not enough to get us back into balance with our ecosystem. They’re starting points, fragile seeds of potential success.
We need solutions to forever problems, and it’s just gonna squash us problems, and there’s no way we can ever manage it problems. And we can find them. The key is celebrating and supporting the scientists and dreamers, the eighteen year old start-up folks and all the people in labs, working together, the unsung heroes who have already embarked on the quest.