Imagining our future: science fiction and climate change | A conversation with Emeritus Professor Andrew Milner

As 2017 begins, we reflect on the beginnings and evolution of our ideas on utopia and dystopia today. From Star Wars to Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest film on climate change, we sat down with Emeritus Professor Andrew Milner, at Monash University’s School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics (LLCL), to talk about his research into science fictional texts, films and comics – and importantly, how this impacts our future imaginings and humanity. Listen to his interview about how understanding science fiction can help us understand climate change. 

You have a book due out in 2018, Science Fiction and Climate Change, to be co-authored with your research assistant James Burgmann. How does that relate to your activities here? And why science fiction and climate change?

I taught a course on Science Fiction as part of the old Comparative Literature major, so I suppose my teaching and research were inevitably intertwined. I confess I’ve always been interested in SF but I didn’t teach that particular subject until quite late in my career. Literature departments and literary critics were very often a bit snobby about SF, so I ended up teaching other things. My PhD wasn’t on SF at all, it was on John Milton the English poet, although I do now see the connections between them. In Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost, one of the central pieces is the war in Heaven between angels and devils, which is really an early version of Star Wars. I’ve always thought literary critics were rather unkind about SF. It’s actually become the main place in our culture where people who aren’t experts get to think about alternative futures. Where is our society going? Where is our culture going? Will it be better or will it be worse?

It’s actually become the main place in our culture where people who aren’t experts get to think about alternative futures. Where is our society going? Where is our culture going? Will it be better or will it be worse?

All societies have ways of doing this, but it used to be done either through religion or through secular utopias. The word utopia comes from Thomas More’s Utopia, which was first published – in Latin – 500 years ago this year. Today, however, people don’t write utopias in the way they did 500 years ago or even 200 years ago. If we’re going to write about a radically better or radically worse world – that is, a utopia or a dystopia – then we tend to do so in science fictional terms.

Until the mid-late 19th century, utopias were normally set on Earth, in their own time, on their own planet. Five hundred years ago Europeans had no real idea of what much of the planet was like, so readers could plausibly believe in the possibility of a good society somewhere else on Earth. More’s own Utopia was actually in the South Pacific. That state of affairs continued until the late 19th century. Many 19th century utopias were set in Australia precisely because it was one of the last places to be explored by the Europeans. So it was still possible for them to imagine that there might be utopian societies here.

Photo: Matteo Botto

Photo: Matteo Botto

But once the Europeans had explored the whole planet, they’d either conquered or at least visited everywhere but Antarctica. So they ran out of places they could fictionalise. You can still write utopias or dystopias, but you have to set them in the future or on other planets. So SF replaces utopia, which is why I think it’s so important. SF isn’t just about science and technology, it’s also about the kind of society that uses the science and the technology. You can see that very clearly in 1984 and in Brave New World, both of which are set in their futures. Huxley and Orwell were each imagining a new society, new social and political arrangements, nasty ones. So SF becomes the place where we see the future, both in our cinemas and in our literatures. It is the most important place in our culture for imagining alternative futures.

they ran out of places they could fictionalise. …. So SF replaces utopia, which is why I think it is so important. SF isn’t just about science or technology, it’s also about the kind of society that uses the science and the technology …

It is the most important place in our culture for imagining alternative futures.

That explains the connection between SF and climate change. I know there are those who deny that anthropogenic warming is occurring, but I think they’re quite wrong. I’m persuaded by the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – why wouldn’t you be? –  if anything, I fear their predictions are over cautious and that reality might prove worse than their worst case. I’m currently reading Peter Wadhams’s A Farewell to Ice, which came out a couple of months ago – it’s here on my desk. He’s a very prominent English academic scientist, Professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge, and the book makes for very depressing reading. Let me give you a few quotations. He begins by noting that in summer the Arctic, the North Pole, now looks blue not white from space. By the end of 2015, he writes, a total of 238 ships had sailed through the once impassable North West Passage. In September 2012, sea ice covered only 3.4 million square kilometres of the Arctic ocean surface, down from 8 million square kilometres in the 1970s. Scared? Well if you’re not, you should be. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that this warming really is happening and that, in some respects, it’s already too late to mitigate it, we have to adapt to it.

I see. That’s what you’re looking for in your current research into science fiction and climate change. That’s the important question isn’t it – how are we going to adapt?

Yes, that’s what interests me: how SF writers, broadly defined, people like Margaret Atwood in Canada (who, by the way, doesn’t like the term SF) and David Mitchell in England, how they depict the ways we might adapt to climate change. I’m interested in both the so-called ‘literary’ writers and the ‘genre’ novelists. One of the most famous American SF genre writers is Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote the so-called Science in the Capital trilogy. His stuff is really interesting, realistically pessimistic about our chances, but full of hope nonetheless. I’m also trying to look at work in other languages, for example Frank Schätzing in Germany and his Der Schwarm [The Swarm], Jean-Marc Ligny in France and his climate trilogy, Hayao Miyazaki in Japan and his graphic novel Kaze no Tani no Naushika [Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind].

One of the best Australian climate change novels is George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, first published in 1987. It was very well received originally, but then went out of print, was reissued in 2013 and has been well received again. It’s set in a future Melbourne that’s been flooded by rising sea levels and it’s a very astute book. In 2013, when I was visiting Professor at the Freie University in Berlin, I gave a public lecture on Turner at the Australian Embassy. In the novel, large numbers of climate refugees come from the Pacific to Australia. After the lecture, a New Zealander got up and said, “every time I hear Australians talk about climate change, they’re always thinking about how there’ll be all these climate refugees trying to get into Australia. What makes you think that your problem will be people wanting to get in and not you trying to get out? New Zealand is a lot higher than Australia and a lot colder. Your problem is going to be whether or not we will let you in.”

“What makes you think that your problem will be people wanting to get in and not you trying to get out?” … But we do also have to worry about the Pacific Islanders, …  it’s a problem for all of us.

Photo: Jordan Whitfield

Photo: Jordan Whitfield

I hadn’t thought of that before, but Australia does indeed have a desert at its heart and, if we go on warming, the desert will spread. And most of us live on low-lying ground near the coast, so it won’t take all that much melting ice to threaten many of those coastal suburbs. But we do also have to worry about the Pacific Islanders, even the New Zealanders, it’s a problem for all of us.

SF genre writers have taken this issue much more seriously than ‘literary’ writers and I’m interested in how and why that’s happened.

What have you found so far?

We began by looking at the history of writing about climate in the Western tradition, which took us back to the ancient flood narratives, Gilgamesh and Genesis. Then we traced it through to modern SF. We’re going to include a chapter on dystopias, since most SF novels are dystopias in which things are clearly getting worse. But we also plan a chapter on utopias, because some of the novels do involve serious attempts at imagining how we might actually produce better societies out of the climate crisis, ones that don’t simply ruin the Earth.

Photo: Tim Marshall

Photo: Tim Marshall

And it’s not just novels, by the way, it’s films as well. It’s easy to forget that until quite recently SF cinema almost always looked like Star Trek. Everything was gleaming, shiny, and new. It was only with Alien and Blade Runner, both directed by Ridley Scott, that the future began to look as if people lived in it – things were damaged, battered, things went wrong. Those two films aren’t primarily about climate change, of course, although in Blade Runner it is raining all the time; and it doesn’t really rain all that much in Los Angeles, it really doesn’t.

There is now already quite a substantial body of academic SF criticism, but I’m worried about how prescriptive it tends to be. The main concern is with what is and isn’t good, what are the best SF books and films, what are not. But it seems to me that it’s not that important to work out what are the best ones, really what we need to do is to map the whole field.  We need to map the stuff we don’t like as well as the stuff we do. And that goes for climate change in particular as well as SF in general.

… it’s not that important to work out what are the best ones, really what we need to do is to map the whole field.

There are denialist SF novelists and we’re going to discuss them as well as the mitigators and adaptors. The most obvious example of that kind of denial is Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. Crichton simply didn’t believe there was a real problem and so he’s very critical of the whole discourse about climate change. Al Gore specifically took issue with Crichton’s novel, saying that when you’re ill you send for a doctor not for an SF writer. He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t mean that you can ignore the SF. Crichton’s novel is almost certainly one of the most widely read of all climate fictions. It sold extraordinarily well and has had very negative effects on the debates about climate change in the United States – because its central argument is that this is all a bit of a hoax by scientists in pursuit of research grants and environmentalists in pursuit of power. So we’re going to look closely at the book even if we do disagree with it. I’ve mainly spoken about novels, but we’re also looking at film, television and comic books. Maybe even SF music: Pink Floyd and David Bowie. When you think about how the genre actually works, it clearly crosses all these boundaries.

Crichton’s novel is almost certainly one of the most widely read of all climate fictions. It sold extraordinarily well and has had very negative effects on the debates about climate change in the United States…

But it seems that novels do hold a special place in your approach. Why?

Many climate scientists say that people don’t take climate change sufficiently seriously because they don’t understand the science. And SF is obviously a way of popularising the science. It’s not the only way, but the fact that SF writers and filmmakers are starting to talk and write about climate change is having an impact. By the way, there is very little television, lots of books and quite a few films, but not much television. So I was very disappointed when HBO decided to pull out of their deal with Darren Aronofski to make a TV miniseries based on Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. People do take things seriously if they see them on television. And I’m in favour of having scientific ideas popularised into SF literature in part because such a lot of television and film is based on the novel. The novel is not the central cultural form it was in the 19th or early 20th century. But it’s more important than people sometimes think because so many films are adapted from novels. So writers can ask questions in novels that then lead on into films and television.

People do take things seriously if they see them on television. And I’m in favour of having scientific ideas popularised into SF literature in part because such a lot of television and film is based on the novel. The novel is not the central cultural form it was in the 19th or early 20th century. But it’s more important than people sometimes think because so many films are adapted from novels.

As an academic I’m interested in explaining how all this works, but as a citizen I also want to encourage the development of better climate fiction. It’s a bit of a cliché, I know, but I want to do what I can to make the world a safer place. I’m alarmed by global warming, I have a new granddaughter, and I don’t want her to grow up in a drowning world.

What do you think are the main obstacles to this? Do you think perhaps the genre itself discourages people?

One obstacle is resistance to SF. It might be better to have climate fictions marketed as eco-fictions – in Germany many of them have been so labelled –  or just as novels. But SF is still reaching out to a wide audience, much wider than many other genres.

Photo: Jakob Madsen

Photo: Jakob Madsen

Another problem is the sheer difficulty of writing climate fiction, as compared to, say, nuclear war fiction. At the height of the Cold War, there were a lot of SF texts dealing with nuclear war, both novels and films. A very good example is the Australian Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, which was set in Melbourne and later made into a film by Stanley Kramer, the American film director. But in some ways it was comparatively easy for Shute and Kramer because what happens in a nuclear war is really quite simple: you fire the weapons and bang it’s over. So you have a crisis and its consequences, which can be represented fairly straightforwardly in a film or novel. The problem with climate change, by contrast, is that it’s a comparatively slow process. Of course, it’s happening too fast, the sea levels are rising and it’s getting hotter – the top ten hottest years on record globally have all been since 1998. But it’s nonetheless a relatively slow process by comparison with a nuclear war. Climate fiction has to deal with this longer term. Most novels and films tend to depict processes that take place within the timespan of a human life. So I think there’s a specific problem with climate change that writers and directors have got to find ways of representing long-term processes, whilst still making them seem urgent. So we need to write novels and make films that typically cover the lives of many generations. But I do think this is now being done, I think there are some interesting examples actually.

I think there’s a specific problem with climate change that writers and directors have got to find ways of representing long-term processes, whilst still making them seem urgent.

What are some of these examples?

David Mitchell’s novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, but also the film of Cloud Atlas directed by Lana and Andy Wakowski. A lot of people didn’t like the film, which I can understand because it’s very difficult to follow unless you’ve actually read the book. But it was trying to represent a history that spanned multiple generations. And if you’re going to deal with climate change you’re going to have to do that.

Turner’s The Sea in the Summer has a different solution. The core of the novel is set in the mid 21st century when Melbourne is in the process of flooding, but the opening and closing chapters are set a thousand years later. In the 21st century, they’ve had to build a concrete wall to keep the sea out of the bayside suburbs. A thousand years later, Melbourne has been relocated into the Dandenongs. It has a university, although it’s not clear whether or not it’s Monash, and a Professor of History whose specialist field is the “Greenhouse Culture” of the 21st century. She’s a submarine archaeologist, exploring the underwater remains of old Melbourne, which is, of course, our Melbourne. And she’s being visited by a playwright from Sydney who wants to understand how the 21st century people could have been so stupid as to let this happen. The planet has cooled in the intervening thousand years, but the flooding still hasn’t repaired itself. That’s how Turner deals with the problem: some chapters a hundred years into his future, some a thousand years, the two set against each other.

What do you think about Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest film (Before the Flood directed by Fisher Stevens)?

I approve of it wholeheartedly. It’s easy to pour scorn on him because he’s so well off, but actually he could do other things with his money. He’s a successful actor but that doesn’t mean what he’s doing is trivial, I think it’s important.

Yes … sometimes I wonder if people simply don’t care?

I’m not a pessimist myself – because it does seem to me that people are still willing to try to change things. Not everybody, of course. Some have a vested interest in denying climate change, most obviously the coal and oil industries and the politicians they fund. And some people think there’s nothing they can do about it. To the latter, I’d only say what about your grandchildren? Is there really nothing you can do for them?

Photo: Chad Stembridge

Photo: Chad Stembridge

But sometimes the problem is simply that of our addiction to overconsumption. The notion that we can have whatever we want whenever we like remains credible only if we use a whole lot of fuel to transport things around the world unnecessarily. There’s something utterly crazy about transporting food – Italian tomatoes, for example – across the globe to Australia. We’ve got to cut down on unnecessary emissions. Yes, we’ve been burning fossil fuels for the last 200 years, but it’s still possible to cut emissions and to at least slow the rate at which the planet warms.

… sometimes the problem is simply that of our addiction to overconsumption.

In the book, we accept that some changes are probably already inevitable, that it’s already too late to prevent them. But we’ve still got to think about slowing the process and then about adapting to it creatively. SF climate fiction – cli-fi some people call it – deals with the latter, with how people are going to live in a warming world.

Professor Andrew Milner is Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, Monash University (since 2013) and Honorary Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies, Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick (since 2014).

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