Friday, November 24, 2017
Antarctic End-of-the-World Blues, or, How to Train Your Husky
There's something very clever about how Paul McAuley puts his books together and, in Austral, McAuley makes it look almost easy, such is the skill with which its threads are woven. As with The Real-Town Murders (see previous post on Adam Roberts' novel) we are projected into the not-so-distant future, into a de facto surveillance state. In both novels, when a drone is not actually present in the action, one is not far off. These may be controlled by friends or foes, by state or non-state actors, or by their own (artificial) intelligence.
The specific role, or problem, of the drone in Austral is one of agency. Can this or that eye in the sky help or hinder the actions that will further the protagonist's progress through a landscape very much filled with danger and all sorts of blockages to the fulfilment of a goal. The title of the book takes its name from a part-human protagonist, a genetic hybrid of human and something very much other. This makes her a double outcast because she is also descended from a cultural group known as the ecopoets, responsible in large part for the transformation of the Antarctic peninsula, where most of the action takes place, into a forested ecosystem capable of sustaining large populations of humans and other mammals, as well as other species. In the story, the ecopoets are outlawed because their vision is essentially anarchic, and thus anti-state. In the future, we come to know (and as we know from a lot of dystopian fiction), dissidence will not be tolerated, especially of the kind that takes such an active and positive (independent) form.
We are in a post-climate-disaster dystopian world that has seen through various failed experiments in geoengineering, from the introduction of reflective diamond-crystals into the atmosphere to reflect light and heat away from earth, to attempts to insulate glaciers with blankets of material designed to impede their shrinkage. This places Austral in the genre of climate fiction, alongside works like Clade (James Bradley) and New York 2140 (Kim Stanley Robinson). These are books that get reviewed by the likes of Robert MacFarlane or The New Yorker because they tap into a set of societal fears about what the future holds, with specific reference to the idea of climate change and global warming, and consequences thereof.
Because of this (and for no other reason I can see) books of this genre coming to be known as climate fiction (or clifi) have a potentially popular appeal that more literary and specialised books like the ones Roberts writes don't necessarily have. People want to think about what the future holds in environmental terms, in other words in broad and exotic landscapes and in terms of charismatic megafauna. Like Austral herself, who in terms of the metonymic, action-oriented aspect of the book, drives it forward; but who also, in terms of the metaphoric dimension that gives this book its stratospheric sense of something really extraordinary, is the moral anti-hero and transgressive, anarchic, type many readers in this genre might readily identify with, but not-so-easily be.
Herein lies the drawback. The Nietzschean uber-woman is so exotic and otherworldly, existing as she does in the action taking place in a future Antarctica so almost beyond imagining, that comes to represent the impossible (barred) access to the real, that of actual climate change in the here-and-now. Because (I said this about Roberts too) Austral is about now! Moreover, it is about here in the sense that McAuley has had the good sense not to place the action on another planet, but on the part of our planet that most resembles one. Does this really make a difference? I would argue not. And because not, it means that we are inhabiting a sort of blurry no-mans-land that has dogged science fiction from its emergence in the decades before and contemporaneous with when Wells was writing The Time-Machine and War of the Worlds (Rieder, 2008)
Climate change scientists and theorists have a funny way of reifying not only the present but the future, of regarding that future as a thing, one that can be visited almost as easily as the past. Because, for example, a quaternary scientist can visit the past to examine the sedimentary record, from which evidence and observations about past climate states can be mapped. They then tend to extrapolate or predict into a future trajectory, but, crucially, without distinguishing between the past as fact and the future as speculation. My contention here is that observations about the future, no matter how well grounded in empirical evidential foundations, are always speculative. We have almost no way of knowing what the future holds. The critique of enlightenment thinking is one about breaking apart reifications of the moment whether that is of a present or future shape.
I am no climate-change denier. I think the problem is one of representation. A book like Austral succeeds exceptionally well in offering a vision and thus a representation of the future that, like the work and thinking of the very forward looking (and even at times predicting) Wells, looks admirably accurate. But let's not forget that we actually have very little idea what the shape of things to come actually will be. The crucial struggle is one of imagination, of being able to think so boldy as to literally (by which I mean metaphorically) go where none have gone before. McAuley does this. He imagines that climate change has, for all intents and purposes, ended the world as we know it, and he maps out what the social implications of that realisation are (or might be). There is, however, a very literal sense to the action that unfolds, in the sense that we are there, beside Austral and her little friend/enemy, a child whom the protagonist has kidnapped both opportunistically and with moral intent.
McAuley is no ideological fantasist. A previous work of his, Fairyland, is one of my personal favourites because of the way it combines hard-scientific insight with speculative realism. It is rooted in McAuley's own training as a biologist, with connections between biology and culture couched in terms I can relate to. For example, the idea of a meme, or unit of culture, is a dominant trope in Fairyland, as is the sense that its characters and various hybrid/genetically-engineered creatures are following some kind of map with neural/real-world correlates that are threaded just beneath its surface.
This kind of high-level artistry is also at work in Austral, but I do think the latter represents a significant advance over the earlier work just in terms of straightforwardness of the action. I know Fairyland won the Arthur C. Clarke award, but I think this newer work is equally worthy of similar accolades and/or praise. At any rate I can personally recommend it very highly.
Rieder, John. 2008. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.