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Whole Earth: Sci-fi authors look for hope

Troye Fades of Sacramento leads the drumming with Samba da Terra, a Brazillian dance class offered through the UC Davis Experimental College. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | May 12, 2013 | Leave Comment

It’s hard out there for a leftist utopian science fiction writer, but Kim Stanley Robinson hasn’t given up on humankind.

Stanley was in the right place on a hot Saturday afternoon as thousands on UC Davis’ Quad basked in the celebratory atmosphere of the 44th-annual Whole Earth Festival. They bobbed their heads to jangling music, watched dancing, drummed, chowed down vegetarian food and wandered craft stalls hunting for Mother’s Day gifts.

Robinson, a Davis resident, joined fellow science fiction author Tobias S. Buckell inside Young Hall, speaking to about 50 people about climate change two days after scientists in Hawaii measured carbon dioxide pollution at 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history.

“There is no one single answer” to climate change, said Robinson, whose “Science in the Capital” trilogy of novels dealt with the subject, as did his most recent, “2312,” which is now in the running for six major science fiction awards.

The focus of every level of society — from individuals and families to national governments and international bodies — must be brought to bear on a rapid shift from carbon fuels to a variety of clean-energy sources and to clean living, Robinson said.

“I think we have to consider that we are writing the novel that is history itself all together, as a project, and that’s why it’s such a messy and confusing novel, because we’re all tinkering with it simultaneously.”

Robinson dismissed the notion that human beings can’t change their ways or plan ahead to avert disaster. Reforms must be made in an economic system that sees the rich consume too much and the poor causing deforestation and other environmental damage, he said.

“There are a lot of people who say, ‘If we have to change capitalism, well, OK, we’re doomed, because we can’t change capitalism.’ But we can. It seems to me that science and democracy together are actually capable of changing the laws for the sake of our survival and the sake of our kids and their descendants.”

Robinson said that he disagreed with scientists resolved that the best tack is adapting to climate change, rather than trying to halt it or reverse course.

“They look at me like I’m an old hippy utopian idiot and say, ‘No matter what you think, we’re at 400 parts per million. Nobody is stopping using carbon at any successful rate. In fact, it’s going faster than ever. We’re just being realistic, and you’re the one being unrealistic.’

“And then I say, ‘No, no, no, you’re the one who is being unrealistic. You’re being pseudo-realistic, because you’re saying the future is certain.’ I’m saying as a science fiction writer, nothing is certain.”

Buckell, a Caribbean-born New York Times bestselling author whose novels include “Arctic Rising,” set in a future in which the arctic ice cap has all but melted, sounded a less optimistic when speaking about the 400 ppm milestone.

“We have to stop thinking that things are ever going to be the same,” he said.

Buckell said that the negatives of climate change, including the loss of the way of life of native peoples as well as the loss of polar bears and other wildlife, as well as the jostling of countries for control of arctic waters, outweigh the positives, there are some, like an increase in arable land and more efficient shipping routes.

Both authors expressed skepticism about geoengineering — a “fetish” for science fiction writers, Buckell called it — as a magic bullet. Most proposed large-scale interventions either won’t work or, like a solar sun shade, could be used as a weapon, he said.

There’s at least one proposal that Robinson said he believed would work: capturing and burying carbon dioxide, though it would require infrastructure on the scale of that now fueling the world with oil and coal.

Buckell found reason to be optimistic in the way Africa and other parts of the developing world have shown they can leapfrog older technologies, embracing cell phones and, increasingly, solar power. In that way, they may help avert worst-case scenarios.

So “grim” have forecasts of the future become that science fiction has been steadily shrinking in market share — especially when compared to fantasy novels.

“When you go into the fantasy world, things like ‘Harry Potter,’ suddenly the good guys are very distinct from the bad guys,” Robinson said. “You can go to the bad guy and cut his head off with an ax — it’s real simple and effective. There’s magic, so if you have a terrible plot problem you can get out of it. And also you get to spend a lot of time outdoors riding horses, which is exactly what the young people sitting indoors, in classes, behind their screens, or at home, are wanting to have without knowing they want to have it.”

Science fiction still has a role to play, Buckell said.

“It’s important to look at those scenarios,” he said, “because even if we’re wrong, it’s important to strike those off the list.”

The student-run event continues Sunday at 10 a.m. The closing ceremony is set for 5 p.m. For a festival map and schedule, see http://wef.ucdavis.edu.

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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