Future Tense

Imagining Geoengineering

Why science-fiction writers find it so hard to discuss climate tech.

Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the few sci-fi writers to seriously consider the actual potential and dangers of geoengineering. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via Creative Commons.

Geoengineering occupies a peculiar space in the scheme of tomorrow’s technologies, at once fundamentally practicable and largely untested. A catchall term for a wide array of technologies designed to counteract the damage of climate change, geoengineering has only gradually found its way into mainstream scientific conversations, often over the vehement objections of prominent researchers. Surprisingly, that general neglect extends to works of fiction: While I was researching pop-cultural representations of geoengineering for our first Futurography cheat sheet, I was struck by how scarce they were.

Though geoengineering showed up here and there, it almost always served as the ironic cause of the very catastrophes it had been deployed to prevent, sometimes bringing on new ice ages, as in Snowpiercer; sometimes accelerating apocalyptic weather patterns, as in this short story from Slate’s Eric Holthaus; and almost always serving as an agent of chaos. Skeptical as scientists are of geoengineering, authors and artists seem to be even more so. And while there are real reasons to worry about geoengineering, it was rarely those practical concerns that showed up in these more fantastical sites. How, I wondered, had potentially transformative technologies become sources of such widespread disdain?

Some of that cynicism is surely a product of hard-won experience. Chris McKay, a NASA planetary scientist who works on Mars mission planning, pointed out to me that many of us are all too aware of our poor record where the climate is concerned. “There’s a perception in the general public that human influence on climate is always a bad thing, an implicit assumption that we can’t do anything but mess up,” he told me. That’s probably why science fiction’s rare attempts at imagining positive climate meddling tend to unfold on other worlds, generally as stories of large-scale terraforming rather than simple geoengineering. Here on Earth, McKay joked, we’ve been the proverbial bulls in a china shop, but on Mars we’d be “bulls in an open field.”

That more positive experimental spirit mostly holds for the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, who’s worked through some of the consequences of terraforming in his Mars novels and other works. Much of the science in his Mars books, he told me, “is applicable to Earth.” As McKay would point out, however, extraterrestrial narratives still underscore the difficulties of thinking realistically about climate modification technologies. We could, McKay explains in a document that he sent to me, bring Mars’ temperature to Earth-like levels within 100 years or so, a time frame that’s comprehensible from the scope of an individual human life. Giving it a breathable atmosphere, on the other hand, could take 1,000 times as long.

While geoengineering doesn’t present such daunting issues of scale, these kind of chronological concerns still present narrative difficulties. There are, of course, science-fiction novels that play out over centuries or millennia—Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker comes to mind, for example—but even shorter scenarios can be harder to shape into stories. “A lot of these things are happening on a decade scale,” said Robinson, author of Green Earth, one of the few science-fiction novels to seriously consider the actual potential and dangers of geoengineering. This makes it difficult for authors trying to weave scientifically plausible narratives than are also dramatically compelling. That’s all the more problematic in relation to the more pressing crises of climate change, which are clearly shaping our lives here and now in ways that can be terrifying. “My head exploded multiple times trying to come up with interesting novels about this stuff,” Robinson said. Similar concerns may have kept other authors from attempting to tell stories about geoengineering in the first place.

To be fair, geoengineering isn’t the first technology to receive such a chilly welcome—over the years science-fiction writers have greeted numerous other technological novelties—genetic engineering, cloning, artificial intelligence, and so on—with similar concerns and questions. Robinson describes this attitude as the “Frankenstein response,” suggesting that it stretches back to the origins of the genre itself. This has always been science fiction’s paradox—as a first responder on the scene of new technologies, it at once celebrates their arrival and worries over their ascendance. Even in this context, however, geoengineering has encountered uncommon resistance, as Robinson knows well. Echoing McKay, he links this culture of contempt to the very novelty of the topic. “It’s so new,” he told me, that we feel “we’re sure to fuck it up.”  

The aura of fatalism that hovers around climate change more generally further illuminates this popular skepticism. While we are, as Robinson put it, “just now coming to grips with the climate change problem more generally,” those who have long paid attention often fear that we’ve already gone too far to pull back from the brink. In this regard, the very plausibility of geoengineering may be its undoing. We need a miracle if we want to make a real difference, the thinking goes, but there’s nothing especially miraculous about most geoengineering proposals. To the contrary, most of them comprise large-scale applications of basic scientific principles and processes, meaning that for many they tend to feel inadequate at best. In this regard, Robinson noted, geoengineering proposals may also pose a moral hazard, since they potentially pull focus from more difficult endeavors like promoting universal decarbonization.

The best representation of this dilemma plays out in a subgenre that should, in theory, be ideally equipped to grapple with geoengineering. So-called climate fiction, or cli-fi, encompasses a body of narratives—frequently targeted at young adults—in which the central conflicts derive from environmental concerns. In his new book Ten Billion Tomorrows: How Science Fiction Technology Became Reality and Shapes the Future, the science communicator Brian Clegg acknowledges that these narratives almost invariably tend toward the apocalyptic, offering little room for more proactive possibilities. “Climate change rarely makes for enjoyable reading,” Clegg writes in his chapter on apocalypse, “but it has fostered many a disaster novel.”

Clegg has his own theories as to why climate fiction tends to focus on disaster and its wake. In our correspondence, he insisted that science fiction’s apocalyptic fixations are primarily a product of filmic science fiction. Where “movie science fiction, which tends to go for the big spectacle, is over-dependent on large-scale disaster,” he wrote, “science fiction as a whole is a far wider genre, where you will get every possible shade of storyline.” But once you focus in on a topic like climate change, you need a crisis, a central concern to motivate that action. “You aren’t going to have a story based on the impact on human beings of pleasant beach weather,” he told me. Environmental collapse furnishes the necessary narrative drive, serving as the motor that moves the plot along, even if it doesn’t directly steer the story’s course.

Here, however, there’s a real risk that climate fiction’s pervasive negativity might actually contribute to broader cynicism about climate change. Some science-fiction writers and commentators argue that the genre has an ethical responsibility to help us imagine plausible scenarios for a better future. As embodied by the Project Hieroglyph, those who take this position—including writers like Neal Stephenson—aspire to resist the impulse toward dystopian visions in the hopes of helping us create a better world. (Disclosure: Project Hieroglyph is administered by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination; ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) The idea isn’t that we’ll realize the exact technologies that science-fiction writers dream up, only that those technologies might encourage us to focus on solving problems rather than meekly submitting to them.

Some have suggested that the very act of discussing geoengineering might serve a similar purpose. In an excerpt on Slate from his new book The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton writes: “Thinking about geoengineering is … an exercise in building up the imaginative capacity needed to take on board these deep changes the world is going through.” By generally declining to consider geoengineering, and tending toward the negative when they do, science-fiction writers may be limiting our ability to contemplate solutions. This may be all the more worrisome in climate fiction, a subgenre targeted primarily at the young, those who will have to confront the realities of what older generations wrought. With such works, we may be telling them that their stories—like those of their heroes—can only ever be tales of survival.

And yet it’s possible that this preponderance of apocalypses isn’t the end of the world. Ramez Naam has argued that “smart, thoughtful, prescient dystopias” can actually stave off grim eventualities, preparing us to prevent disaster in the first place instead of turning us into simple preppers. Given that we may have to commit to geoengineering of some kind if we hope to meet the accords established at the Paris climate change summit in December, such cautions may be exactly what we need. Indeed, we may want to incorporate it into more catastrophic scenarios—not to dissuade us from trying it at all, but to encourage us to be cautious when we do.

This article is part of the geoengineering installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through May 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on geoengineering:

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.