Against Apocalypse

Anti-apocalypse science fiction envisions a future that is sometimes a utopia and always a reminder that hope isn’t a fairy tale.

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Berkeley in the early 1970s was a hotbed of hope. On good days, the place was like a really nice acid trip crossed with a successful political protest. But for Ernest Callenbach, a science-book editor, the city’s utopianism stood in stark contrast to reality. The scientists he published at the University of California Press were predicting environmental collapse from pollution and wildlife extinctions. Meanwhile, his marriage was unraveling. And yet Callenbach didn’t give in to despair; instead, he decided to remake the world.

Callenbach wrote an odd, awkward little novel called Ecotopia, about a near-future separatist nation comprising Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Ecotopia was run by a female president, and its technology was entirely renewable, with an internet-like network linking everyone and carbon-neutral public transit. The region’s prisons had been shut down by black activists and its economy converted into a stable-state system inspired by recycling. Involuntary homelessness was impossible, because giant 3-D printers extruded biodegradable buildings at no cost. Plus, everyone was having great, consensual sex.

Nobody wanted to publish the book. New York publishers thought it was too political, and frankly not very well written. According to the California literary critic Scott Timberg, Callenbach had painstakingly fact-checked the science in the book, sending out each chapter to researchers for feedback. Unfortunately, he didn’t take the same care with his characters, who feel a little like wooden chess pieces moving through a narrative version of the Green New Deal.

And yet Ecotopia struck a chord with people hungry for a new vision of the future that didn’t involve robot servants and flying cars. Callenbach raised some money from friends and self-published 2,500 copies. The rest is a piece of nearly forgotten science-fiction history. He secured an endorsement for the book from Ralph Nader, who later ran for president on the Green Party ticket. Ecotopia sold almost half a million copies in the late 1970s, and the book’s political ideals strongly influenced activists, futurists, and environmentalists.

Callenbach’s blend of environmental-justice politics and science nerdery is characteristic of a utopian strand of science fiction with roots on the West Coast. Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson are key figures in this tradition, as are Nisi Shawl and Mike Chen. As writers, they’re ruthlessly hopeful, imagining how humanity could right historical wrongs and build better societies in the long term. None of them try to conjure anything close to a perfect world—indeed, they often conjure horrific disasters—but their novels take us off the well-worn pathways that lead to dystopia and apocalypse.

Taking the path less traveled can be rough. Utopian writing has a bad reputation, mostly because it’s not particularly interesting to read about things that are going well. That’s why Le Guin and Robinson often focus on multigenerational narratives in which conflicts break out and get resolved over time. In novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Telling, Le Guin imagines space explorers from a relatively egalitarian society fanning out across the galaxy, making peaceful contact with civilizations mired in centuries of inequality.

The extended time horizon also becomes a useful device in Robinson’s eco-epics 2312 and New York 2140, which turn the slowness of the carbon cycle into action-packed adventures about coping with climate change. As the recent television series The Good Place makes clear, getting to utopia is a lot more exciting than being there. That doesn’t mean utopian sagas are nothing more than dystopias with happy endings. Fantasy author Alexandra Rowland, who coined the term hopepunk, explains that there’s a world of difference between a struggle for nothing and a struggle that brings us closer to justice.

She means that narratively as well as psychologically. There’s a particular shape to utopian speculation, in which time itself often becomes malleable. In Shawl’s novel, Everfair, we find ourselves in an alternate colonial history of the Congo. There, a group of British socialists buy an enormous tract of land for Africans fleeing their imperial oppressors, and these refugees form a new nation called Everfair. Though the burgeoning country promises freedom, it’s still riven by political upheaval. Shawl unshackles her characters from a horrifying past, but doesn’t ever forget that the arc of history still has a lot of bending to do before it reaches justice.

A different kind of time manipulation resides at the core of Chen’s Here and Now and Then, about a time traveler who is trying to help his troubled daughter avoid a dark future of addiction and petty crime. He succeeds, but this isn’t a world-changing event. Instead, Chen suggests, avoiding personal apocalypse provides a template for something bigger. Changing our own lives is the first step toward changing our civilizations.

This approach to storytelling has its origins in what Michael Chabon has called the “utopian world” of the Bay Area and other metro regions along the Pacific coast. California was the birthplace of the modern environmental movement, thanks in part to conservationist John Muir. Without environmentalism, the Bay Area would no longer have its Bay—activists prevented developers from turning swaths of it into landfill in the 1960s. Mix those politics with the West Coast’s high-tech economy, and you have a recipe for green futurism. But this ecotopian sensibility has moved beyond San Francisco, Seattle, and everything in between. It’s part of a new wave in anti-apocalyptic American writing.

One of the best-known examples is N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which won three Hugo Awards and has inspired countless writers in the genre. The story tracks the rise and fall of multiple civilizations on a planet tormented by environmental instability and political oppression. Jemisin begins her saga with The Fifth Season, just as the planet is undergoing catastrophic climate change for the fifth time in several million years. The planet’s elite classes know their world is unsustainable, and they cope with this existential uncertainty by hoarding resources and relying on slave labor.

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Jemisin’s main characters are known as orogenes because they have a special power called orogeny that allows them to control the earth and the climate with their minds. Kept as prisoners by a government that exploits their skills, they are reviled. The books give us an unvarnished look at environmental racism in which marginalized groups are put on the front lines of climate change and forced to deal with floods, toxic waste, and blighted land. The orogenes rip their bodies apart to save the planet, while their privileged brethren live in ignorant prosperity.

Still, the Broken Earth books also offer a way to imagine resistance. Some of the orogenes escape their forced labor and figure out how to build a new kind of community. Like Everfair, this community is hardly perfect. But it’s built by people who understand the power of nature and recognize how the history of their civilization has shaped the oppression they’ve endured. Jemisin’s unwavering assertion that the world does not end is itself a utopian gesture. Her characters may suffer, but they don’t give up. They claw their way toward justice.

We see similar kinds of utopian scenarios in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, in which a long history of galaxy-level imperialism culminates in colonial uprisings. The narrative spirals outward from a long-ago humanitarian disaster on a planet occupied by an invading force. Over the centuries, this incident has had residual effects that change the fates of elite families, farmers on plantation planets, and intelligent spaceships whose sentience has yet to be acknowledged. Leckie’s broad timescape allows us to see the consolidation and fragmentation of a vast colonial power.

Leckie shows us the big picture, in which empires fall and ancient crimes are revealed. To be sure, there are small moments of personal transformation in the Radch books. There are betrayals and failures. But the thousand-year view is what enables Leckie to suggest that personal sacrifices are not in vain. Eventually, the power of the monsters who rigged the system will evaporate. Their reputations will lie in ruins. They will become footnotes in a history whose protagonists don’t profit from stolen resources and forced labor. There is a genuine thrill in watching a colonial empire crumble under the weight of its corruption.

We see similar messages in the work of other authors. There’s P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Civil War history of Caribbean mad science, The Black God’s Drums, and the environmentalist time travelers of Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. In Tade Thompson’s Wormwood Trilogy, a strange alien utopia infects Nigeria, while in K.M. Szpara’s Docile, debt slaves rebel against their corporate overlords. Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle imagines a future global democracy, as well as the heroes who will need to save it from election meddling. Each of these narratives plunges us into unimaginable crises, only to introduce characters who save themselves or their communities. From these scenarios, we learn that hope isn’t a fairy tale. It takes work, and that work is never done.

In 2008, when a new edition of Ecotopia was published, Callenbach said the book was meant to serve as a blueprint for the future. Speaking with Timberg, he added, “It is so hard to imagine anything fundamentally different from what we have now. But without these alternate visions, we get stuck on dead center. And we’d better get ready. We need to know where we’d like to go.” Anti-apocalypse stories put us on the road away from past injustice. Maybe we’ll never make it to the “good place,” but we’re sure as hell getting out of the bad one.

Annalee Newitz is the author of the novels The Future of Another Timeline and Autonomous, which won a Lambda Literary Award. As a science journalist, they are the author of the forthcoming Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. They are the founding editor of io9.

Explore the complete Science Fiction Special Section in Alta’s Summer 2020 issue. 

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