By Vinay Menon
Apr 20, 2012
Before robots, submarines, cell phones, radar screens and moving walkways appeared in the real world, they existed in science fiction.
From Jules Verne to H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke to Hugo Gernsback, ideas conjured by imaginative minds — ideas that seemed patently absurd when they first appeared in print — are now a routine part of our lives.
So we had an idea.
To commemorate Earth Day Sunday, what if contemporary sci-fi writers turned their imaginations toward climate change? What kind of environmental solutions might they dream up when reality is the least of it?
Here are the responses of 15 authors (okay, one is a television host and another writes comedy). Who knows, some of these ideas might one day seem like a routine part of our lives.
Genevieve Valentine: Terraforming
The best way to cut losses is to eject humanity from the planet wholesale. If we build a ship to Mars and start terraforming, so much the better; we have enough experience at flooding an atmosphere with greenhouse gases and mining for resources that hitting underground ice and beginning atmospheric restructuring would be no sweat. Until then, everyone loves a bubble city, and we’ll bring some Mariana Trench algae to seed the planet with suitably sturdy life. (If we haven’t built a ship, humanity’s ejection into space will be awkward but brief.)
Genevieve Valentine’s first novel, Mechanique, is a Nebula nominee.
Tobias S. Buckell: Solar Farms
I imagine a clever trick would be to relocate power generation and carbon-intensive activities completely off-Earth and into orbit. Massive nuclear power stations or solar farms in orbit that beam power back to earth via microwave relay would be expensive upfront. But when you consider the cost we’re paying in human lives in bad health from pollution (asthma, birth defects), crazier and crazier weather, and worse to come, it might end up being more rational on the accounting side when you look at it from the big picture.
Tobias S. Buckell’s latest novel, Arctic Rising, an eco-thriller, is just out from Tor Books.
Ryan Oakley: Organic Houses
The destruction wrought on the so-called natural world results from the false division between humans and it. Humans need to fuse with nature. Using biotech, houses should be grown not built. Towns designed with no clear line, aesthetic or technological, between human and environment. Euclidean geometry must be overthrown. Only by reaching such a state of obvious symbiosis can we end this conflict with the world we inhabit.
Ryan Oakley blogs at The Grumpy Owl and is the author of the Aurora-nominated Technicolor Ultra Mall.
Karl Johanson: Underwater Turbines
Similar to wind power is the idea of using underwater turbines in places like the Gulf Stream to make electricity. Arthur C. Clarke talked about extracting minerals from seawater in the Tales from the White Heart series. Now we have the technology to extract uranium from seawater with no need for countries to fight wars over supplies of it. The supply of uranium is renewed by rivers all the time, so there’s enough for all of our power millions of years. There’s also around four times as much thorium as uranium in the Earth’s crust and in the oceans. That can be used for power plants as well.
Karl Johanson is the editor and science writer for two-time Aurora winner Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine.
Robert J. Sawyer: Space Clouds
Sadly, we may have already passed the tipping point for easy solutions to climate change. The anti-science propaganda from Big Oil, Fox News and others has delayed action enough that simple solutions may no longer be possible. We need only look at Venus, currently burning brightly in our evening skies, to see the aftermath of a runaway greenhouse effect; lead ingots would melt on its surface. But there are still grand steps that we might take to mitigate the problem here, including the one proposed by my colleague, science fiction writer and physicist Gregory Benford: loft a cloud of one-micron particles into the stratosphere and let them reflect a portion of incoming sunlight, cooling the planet. The system could be maintained for about $1 billion a year and might do the trick.
Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel Triggers is just out from Penguin Canada.
Madeline Ashby: Smarter Grids
We need to focus on: 1. Cutting subsidies to fossil fuel and coal companies. 2. Carbon sequestration. 3. Repairing the energy grid and replacing parts of it with smarter technologies and sources like thorium-232 reactors. 4. Investing in the clean energy economy at the local level to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and coal while giving people jobs. These aren’t fictional solutions — they’re what I’d tell one of my clients if they were looking to diversify energy strategies.
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and strategic foresight consultant living in Toronto. Her debut novel, vN, will be available this summer from Angry Robot Books.
Paolo Bacigalupi: Rocket Stoves
Any good techno-fix has to solve more problems than it creates. I’ve always been a fan of the idea of widely distributing rocket stoves in developing countries. It’s an elegant technology that reduces the amount of wood needed for cooking and so can slow the rate of human-caused deforestation, reduce the amount of carbon we throw into the atmosphere, and improve human health with reduced particulate emissions. It’s a triple-win: People, planet and biosphere.
Paolo Bacigalupi is a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, and an American National Book Award Finalist. His newest novel, The Drowned Cities, launches on May 1.
Hayden Trenholm: Paintable Solar Cells
Work being done by Dr. Ted Sargent, Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology at University of Toronto, may be our best hope. Paintable solar cells, tuneable across the electromagnetic spectrum including the infrared, have the potential to produce electricity cheaper than the dirtiest coal plant. Automobiles or ocean-going tankers, coated in electricity-generating paint, could solve the most intractable carbon emission problem: transportation. Incorporated into clothing, we could all become cell-phone rechargers just by walking around.
Hayden Trenholm, the author of The Steele Chronicles, is editing a short-story anthology, Blood and Water, about future resource conflicts, that will be released by Bundoran Press in August.
Teddy Wilson: Bio Domes
Don’t even get me started on how beneficial super-storms could be for the wind turbine industry! But before we even consider reaping green energy from environmental disaster (ah, sweet irony) we’d have tosurvive the extreme weather. For that, I take a page from Logan’sRun. I’m talking DOMES! Domes will be our salvation, protecting us from heat, wind, corrosive rain, radiation and more! And if overpopulation is also an issue we can just mandate that no one will be allowed to live past the age of 30, like in the film. This environmental stuff is easy!
Teddy Wilson is co-host of InnerSPACE on Space Network.
Jean-Louis Trudel: Artificial Trees
If we lack the will to use known technologies today, we may well opt tomorrow for expensive solutions involving new technologies, such as artificial trees that would take carbon dioxide out of the air more efficiently than real ones. Such devices might rely on chemical scrubbing, by getting carbon dioxide to react with sodium hydroxide, or on isolating carbon dioxide for long-term storage, either below ground or in the ocean depths.
Jean-Louis Trudel is a science fiction author currently living in Quebec City.
Julie E. Czerneda: Planetary Segregation
E.O. Wilson, in his book The Future of Life, proposes setting aside 50 per cent of the planet for humanity and the rest for true wilderness, especially around biological “hotspots” like estuaries and forests. Why not? Climate change to some degree is most likely beyond our ability to fix or recall. If we preserve enough living options, ribbons of green could flow across continents, connecting vast, dynamic reserves.
Julie E. Czerneda, a former biologist, is the author of Species Imperative from DAW Books, a trilogy featuring the establishment of immense bioreserves on Earth.
Rob Ziegler: Orbital Mirrors
My favourite thing to imagine, when thinking of big tech ways to mitigate climate change, is a series of enormous but lightweight solar panels launched into orbit. In my fantasy, these panels would shade a percentage of the polar regions while simultaneously generating electricity to be beamed back to the ground. Without also changing the way we live, however, any big tech solution is exactly that: a fantasy.
Rob Ziegler is the author of Seed, a novel about a near-future U.S. devastated by climate change. He lives with his wife in Colorado.
Robert Charles Wilson: Permafrost Storage
The Norwegian government recently funded a seed bank, buried in permafrost on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, where samples of seeds from more than 300 species of plant are maintained at a temperature of -18 degrees so they can be retrieved in the event of a global ecological disaster. I’d like to see nations that are well placed to endure climate change — not least Canada — adopt a similarly far-sighted strategy.
Robert Charles Wilson is the author of 15 novels, including the Hugo Award-winning Spin. His most recent book is Vortex.
Suzanne Church: Atmosphere Scrubbers
We could develop nanite technology that we could seed into the atmosphere to “consume” the extra carbon emissions. These tiny bionic organisms could essentially eat all of the “bad” gases accumulating in the atmosphere and excrete “good” gases that would return the air to a healthier state. Once the pollution-as-food runs out, the nanites would starve and simply fall back to earth with the rain where they would biodegrade.
Suzanne Church is an Aurora-nominated speculative fiction writer living in Ontario.
Rob Kutner: Brain Mining
We already have all the electricity we’ll ever need in one convenient place: stupid human brains. Stupid brains are one resource America is a leading producer of — and it also means today’s school kids aren’t spelling our doom. They’re spelling our future! (Hopefully for our purposes, they’re spelling it “F-Y-O-O-C-H-E-R.”) Mining humans for power is also great for reducing pollution. Sure, we expel our share of greenhouse-warming methane and CO2. But both of those can be controlled — the former by Gas-X, the latter by stringing stupid people along in a series of romantic relationships that are never quite “the one” (the CO2-mitigation technique used in the movie Waiting to Exhale).
Rob Kutner, a former writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Conan, is the author of the satirical Apocalypse How: Turn the End of Times into the Best of Times.