Category Archives: Futures

Nightmare on Planet Thanet: Rosa Rankin-Gee’s Dreamland

Anyone of the “climate dystopias are surplus to purpose” school of thought might as well click away now; Dreamland is very much not the droid you’re looking for. A staggeringly bleak extrapolation of post-Brexit Britain, taking as its focus the recently (and probably temporarily) reinvigorated seaside town of Margate as its setting, I’m not sure it would even do good service in the ‘cautionary futures’ category—but it’s a marvellous piece of literature nonetheless. I won’t say I loved it, because love is not a word that feels appropriate to something so unremittingly tragic, but I admire it immensely—not least because of the presumed emotional toll (which may perhaps also have been catharsis?) of writing it, and in doing so refusing to take the route of consolation or happy endings.

Dreamland is a first-person past-tense narrative, in which Chance tells the story of her family’s relocation from an all-too-believable near-future London of hyper-precarious housing for the underclasses to the once-again-declining town of Margate. Long since past its brief Twentyteens renaissance as a cheap alternative for artists and other middle-class DFLs (“Down From London”), a period during which Chance’s mother was an art student there, it’s become a dumping ground for undesirables in an increasingly fascistic Britain of infrastructural decay, rapid climate collapse and state-supported voluntary euthanasia.

Things go from bad to worse, contextually speaking, as Chance becomes a teenager through the first section of the book, but this is very dexterously handled by Rankin-Gee, who manages to walk the tightrope between presenting the situation as normalised to its young protagonist (who has never known any other way that things might be, other than her mother’s memories of what is effectively the reader’s present) and depicting the turning-feral of the entire Thanet peninsula, at first figuratively and then literally cut off from the mainland by both climate change and political abandonment. The middle section is shot through with the light of first love, as Chance encounters and falls for Frankie, a young woman claiming to be a charity worker, who arrives around the time of a gear-shift in the political situation—but by the halfway point it starts to become obvious that not all is what it seems. The third act follows the departure of both Frankie and any pretense that Planet Thanet is still part of the the country beyond, and Chance recounts the horrors of a community cut off from any form of hope or escape, even as she finally attempts the latter.

It’s a masterpiece, a book that forced me to stay up late three nights running in order to finish it—and I suspect that, now I know how it ends, I’ll never read it again. What pulled me through it this first time is the incredible power and control of Chance’s voice as the focaliser of the narrative, which had me gripped and convinced within the first few pages… and the lingering possibility, becoming fainter with every paragraph, that there might be some sort of relief from the downward spiral. But admirably, painfully, Rankin-Gee refuses any happily-ever-afters—although I think one could argue for there being a sort of tragic culminatory resolution for both Chance and one other character at the personal level.

From the perspective of technique, I find myself wondering whether that possibility of relief is (at least in part) a function of the narrative mode. As the mighty Clute has noted a number of times, the past-tense narrative, and particularly first-person versions thereof, imply the survival of the narrator beyond the timeline of the events depicted. This is of course only an implication, and there are fudges and ways around it, particularly in the more inventive forms of sf… but implications are powerful things, and in this case I think that implication plays strongly upon the sort of hope that I often talk about.

An optimist, I suspect, would be unlikely to make it past the first third of this book—and second-hand reading reports, provided by a friend with a connection to Thanet, suggest that people have bounced off it pretty hard precisely for its darkness of vision. Perhaps it’s precisely my commitment to hope, to the possibility of the critical utopia, that kept me reading right up to an ending which drowns even the most partial, contested and hard-scrabble utopian hope in a corvee-dug ditch of ever-rising sea water.

Dreamland is a powerful, ugly challenge to that sort of hope. Nonetheless, I think it stands—for me at least—as a monument to hope’s necessity. A brilliant, terrible book… and a damning document of the time and place of its writing.

as if there was necessarily just one transition

Graeber and Wengrove again, referring to archaeological evidence from the soi disant ‘Fertile Crescent’:

If the situation in just one cradle of early farming was that complicated, then surely it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘what were the social implications of the transition to farming?’ — as if there was necessarily just one transition, and one set of implications.

p250

Mm-hmm. This applies to most talk of sociotechnical transition in the times ahead, as well as those in times past.

a position of negligible influence

Given my line of work, I should probably be among the many people who scour the latest missives from the IPCC as soon as they drop. My reasons for not doing so are two-fold. Firstly, I’m very short of time, and scanning 800+ pages of written-by-committee material in order to confirm the details of what I already know to be the general case is not a productive use of the time I have.

Secondly, I’m aware that the bit that actually gets read by anyone other than the scientific community—the tellingly-named “executive summary”—is bowdlerised to such an extent that it effectively negates the effort of the main report. It’s depressing to have that knowledge reconfirmed, but it is at least heartening to see that the fact of that bowdlerisation—and the people who are involved in making it happen—is starting to become somewhat newsworthy in itself:

Unlike the research-heavy chapters, which are controlled entirely by the scientists who research and write them, the Summary for Policymakers must be approved by government representatives from 195 countries around the world; the approval process for this year’s mitigation report was the longest and most contentious in the history of the IPCC. According to leaked reports, representatives from Saudi Arabia in particular argued for multiple references to carbon capture and storage and the watering down of language on shutting down fossil fuel production.

Oil company representatives were also included in this process as both authors and editors of the report, which has been the case since the IPCC began. For the latest report, a senior staffer for Saudi Aramco – Saudia Arabia’s state-owned oil and gas company – was one of the two coordinating lead authors, a position of considerable influence, for the chapter on cross-sector perspectives. A longtime Chevron staffer was also the review editor for the chapter on energy systems.

Fellow academics sometimes take me to task for my flat-out refusal to cater my work to audiences in the policy and business sectors; this is exactly why I stick to my guns. The revolving door between those two assemblages means it’s wasted effort.

Better, then, to build a mandate from the ground up by understanding the social side of the problem. Which is what many of us are trying to do… but while I was aware that the distribution of resources for that struggle were unevenly distributed, to say the least, the numbers are even worse than I would have guessed:

Social scientists hoping to make further inroads into not only the IPCC process, but policymaking more broadly, have a chicken-and-egg problem, according to Dana Fisher, director of the program for society and the environment at the University of Maryland and a contributing author to chapter 13. Fisher’s research focuses on the impact that activism has had on climate policymaking.

“We have insufficient funding to support the sort of large-scale research that enables you to have high confidence in your findings,” she says, which limits the amount of social science research that can be used in the report.

Less than 1% of research funding on climate from 1990 to 2018 went toward social sciences, including political science, sociology, and economics. That’s despite the fact that even physical scientists themselves agree that inaction on climate will probably not be solved by more scientific evidence.

Less than one percent. In the accounts of most big firms, that would be considered a rounding error, hardly worth a footnote. Which is exactly how most social scientific research on climate change is treated in the IPCC reports, funnily enough.

But like I say, perhaps our relentless messaging is paying off a little bit; we make that <1% work pretty fucking hard, after all.

“Back in the 80s, we believed in the information deficit model of social change, and that if we could only get the information to policymakers they would do the right thing,” says atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, senior scientist for Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy. “And now we see that really it’s not about information deficit, it’s about power relations, and people wanting to keep economic and political power. And so just telling people some more climate science isn’t going to help anything.”

To see someone publicly knocking the information deficit model—which was already discredited in medical science by the mid-1980s, incidentally—is always nice; to see it coming from a representative of one of Wild Billy Gates’s foundations borders on cognitive dissonance. Gates’s projects are, unsurprisingly, profoundly solutionist in their approach to the issue, due to solutionism being a load-bearing plank of the paradigmatic episteme; it’s not malice, it’s just the way people think about these things in this period of history. So for one of his people to be talking about the problematic sustainment of power relations is therefore kinda weird, though I’m confident that Breakthrough Energy has some palatable pretzel logic through which “not needing any more climate science” converts neatly to “unquestioned roll-out of disruptive and innovative solutions from the private sector”. Which is to say: they’re still working on the info deficit model, but in a way that builds on the expertise of the tech sector for selling solutions. Everyone’s aware of the problem; a market has been created. The opportunity which recognises itself is doing what it does best, unable to confront the possibility that its self-recognition is the root of the problem it’s trying to solve.

Ah, well—there ain’t much point in bitching. The only thing to do is to do the work… though sometimes a bit of bitching into the aether is what you need to be able to pick up your shovel and wade into the sewers once again. Selah.

changing phases

I seem to have gotten myself published again, in the fiction qua fiction domain*.

Talk about TOC imposter syndrome… I had no idea I’d be appearing alongside that roster of names! (Click through above to see it in full, but it includes Corey J White, Eugen Bacon, Paolo Bacigalupi, Greg Egan, Simon Sellars, Cat Sparks, Grace Dugan… I mean, c’mon now.) Many thanks to Matthew Chrulew for seeing some merit in the thing I cranked out, and for being forgiving on deadlines for a contributor who lost a week to The ‘Rona.

(Yes, this was one of the many things I had to write very quickly in January—and almost certainly the most enjoyable, given the others were job applications.)

Here’s the cover in full, courtesy artist Perdita Phillips on the birdsite:

If you’re wondering where and when you can get a copy, well, so am I; that news is not yet out. I would point you at Twelfth Planet Press’s website, but it doesn’t seem to have been updated for a couple years, so best follow their birdsite account as embedded above, I guess? I’ll point to more concrete things when I know where to point.

[ * I say “fiction qua fiction” because so much of my academic work tends to have fictional, or at least speculative, elements in it these days… but the irony is that my fiction, when I have the time to produce it, increasingly includes non-fictional and/or academic forms and styles, and this piece is no exception in that regard. But if you want to know what I mean by that, well, you’re just gonna have to buy the book, aren’t you? ]