Part of the problem each of us has when it comes to realistically imagining the future is that we ultimately bring our own cognitive biases, our optimism or pessimism, to the question at hand. From the perspective of the types of small societies we evolved out of these kinds of sunny vs gloomy dispositions were no doubt a very good thing. A discovery of a rich patch of good game land followed by feasts necessitated curmudgeons who would remind the tribe that the days of full stomachs would not last. Thankfully, these complainers would not have the final word, and the group would set off again over the next hill assured by the sunnysiders that more of the riches of the world remained on the other side.
Our modern media world, however, tends to undermine this diversity of cognitive biases sorting us into more sharply distinguished optimist and pessimist camps. In our digital echo chambers the future is all good or all bad, utopia or dystopia as the title of my blog says. Lately though, a number of thinkers have been trying to shake us out of our tendency to see the glass as half empty or half full reminding us that the world is more complicated than the illusionist in our heads.
Here I would put the work of Ramez Naam who in his The Infinite Resource faces head on both the enormous problems in front of us- climate change, global food shortages, growing energy needs, and fresh water scarcity while at the same time offering up realistic solutions to these problems without the need for a Deus ex Machina solution such as “our coming super-intelligent AIs will solve these problems for us”. I’d throw Kim Stanley Robinson into this realist camp as well. His most recent novel 2312 gives us a portrait of the next few centuries that is something very far from Shangri-la but isn’t a post-apocalyptic horror story either.
The source of Robinson’s pessimism is the state and probable future of the global environment, especially in terms of the likely impact of climate change. As energy innovator Hal Harvey recently pointed out in this scary, yet even then, not hopeless speech on the climate situation at the Aspen Ideas Festival we only have a brief window in which we can prevent potentially catastrophic climate change from occurring and that window is rapidly closing. 2312 in a sense gives us a sketch of what our world might look like if we do indeed allow Harvey’s window to slam shut.
In the world of 2312 the earth’s temperature has risen by 5 K. As a consequence there has been extensive sea level rise- Manhattan is now like Venice and mass deaths of people on all continents and mass extinctions have occurred. Had the novel focused on this period it would have been apocalyptic, but instead it sets its sight on the post-apocalyptic world that follows our failure to have addressed our environmental challenges in time.
In Robinson’s future- historical scheme only after we are faced with apocalyptic crisis do we marshall a response commensurate to the situation at hand. Humanity tries to set things straight by geoengineering the earth’s climate, a project that ultimately fails spectacularly in the “Little Ice Age”. In a period that becomes known as the Accelerando,a real push is made to settle the solar system. Much of it is terraformed and settled including asteroids which are hollowed out to become biomes holding within them the precious cargo of the flora and fauna that once graced the earth. AIs including quantum computers surgically implanted in human beings know as “qubes” become widespread. Human longevity is increased to the extent that a person is now fit and active into her hundreds.
The kinds of terraforming that are used to transform much of the solar system into areas that are hospitable to human life prove inapplicable to geoengineering the earth back to its pre- industrial state because the blunt force methods of terraforming- slamming comets into planets and the like- are simply unworkable on a planet that already has billions of human beings not to mention other lifeforms most of which are hanging on to life by a thread.
The scale and coordination of the response to the environmental crisis the Accelerando represents does not last, however, and the pendulum swings again humanity falling into two dark periods- The Ritard and Balkanization during which the trends of the Accelerando slow and the solar system becomes divided into competing factions. It is in this world where the earth continues to suffer extreme environmental and economic crises, and the new worlds of the solar system have turned against one another that the plot of 2312 takes place.
Robinson is by his own declaration not a transhumanist. And yet his protagonist, Swan Er Hong can certainly be described in this way. Swan has a qube implanted in her brain named Pauline which makes her a kind of cyborg. She has the genes of songbirds in her that allows her to “whistle” like a bird. She is transgendered with both a vagina and a working penis- a product of the fact that a good deal of the increased lifespan of human beings seen in 2312 has been gained by human beings taking on transgendered features. Something that makes sex scenes in 2312 just a little complicated. Treating the body, and even the mind, as something essentially plastic in this way comes naturally to Swan, for she is an artists and her body itself is one of her works of art she being a practitioner of what Robinson calls in honor of performance artist Marina Abramović “abramovics”.
The plot of 2312 centers around a series of terrorists attacks in the inner solar system and the efforts of Swan the mercurian, the man who will become her lover, Wahram from Saturn, (Robinson is having some fun with astrological stereotypes), and an exiled Martian, Inspector Gennette, along with others try to solve these incidents. Along the way they spark a political movement of sorts setting off the forced return of the earth’s lost animals to the planet as a way to spark the earthling’s desire to address the planet’s continuing ecological problems.
I must admit that I had some difficulty with the novel’s plot. There were numerous points where I had to engage my “willing suspension of disbelief” not because the technological or social situations seemed so “out there” as the experiences of the quite empathetic and rounded characters were squished into predetermined unfolding of the overarching story of the novel.
There are three ways it seems to me one can make the experiences of characters realistic in the context of a grand future-historical novel such as 2312. The least interesting is to tell the story from the perspective of the people at the top- the most historically important characters whose decisions therefore have the biggest effect on how such narrative unfolds. The second way is to give witness to the fact that small characters can unleash the forces of history in the way an otherwise very insignificant man like Gavrilo Princip set off World War I with his assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The third and probably the best way is to take historically insignificant characters and see how the grand narratives unleashed elsewhere affect them. The best moral judgement of the decisions of elites or the injustice of a system is how it impacts the lives of people who have to live closest to those impacts.
When one tries to see in the lives of historically marginal characters, which is really what Swan should be considered, experiences that reflect decisions of world-historical significance one is left with the impression that the character is suffering from paranoia. This at least is what I thought when Swan encounters an extremely proficient “lawn bowler” whose style of play mimics the terrorist “pebble attacks” and who does indeed end up a central character in the plot.
That said, 2312 did something few other books are able to do so easily, it changed the way I looked at the world. Robinson is a superb travel writer and made our solar system, a place I had long thought of as quaint or “dead” come alive as a wondrous imaginative palette upon which our future is yet to be written.
Yet, amazingly enough, Robinson most affected my view of living on earth. It’s hard to remember that we live on a very special world that is so much different, so much more a home, than any other place we know. While reading the novel I started to pay attention to Luna in the sky and the glories of the setting summer sun. I had the urge to take more walks and one night saw a doe grazing in a field watching me curiously and had the urge to chase or run with it, like Swan.
What Robinson is trying to do is find that sweet spot in the future that is at the outer reaches of our understanding and therefore our agency. This is much better than something like my Far Future’s Project which I am wrapping up this week, or Stewart Brand’s Long Now because we really do have some degree of agency over, and therefore some responsibility for, what happens a century or two in the future. If writing about the future is really just turning up the volume on the present then we can only be confident in these sorts of limited time frames that we will be playing anything like the same score.
It is when thinking in terms of this near term and intermediate future that our tendencies for optimism or pessimism need to be set aside and the search for realism engaged. One can be a long term optimist or a long term pessimist when it comes to the the human future but both are mere waking fantasies, whether exhilarating or frightening. At the end of the day we can never actually know.
Neither long term optimism nor pessimism frees us from our responsibility to act so as to positively shape the future right now. There are all kinds of ways we need to do this as political, economic and socially beings in response to the future society we are likely to live in or the decisions and sacrifices taken today that we bequeath to our future self.
We can also decide to make investments in the future to a world we are unlikely to live in. Here we have everything from our response to climate change and environmental issues to social legacies. The question of what can we and what we should leave for our great or even great-great grandchildren in light of the nearly endless possibilities of what the world they will be living in will actually look like is one that we should be asking because it may serve as a better way to frame the question of what kind of future is it exactly that we hope for and should be working towards in the first place.
Still, if Robinson gives us a realizable version of the future with much of the transhuman in it, he is, as was mentioned, decidedly not a transhumanist. Part of this stems from his fear that transhumanism might come to represent escapism. There are also his views of what transhumanism means in light of a document few of us have probably heard of and even fewer actually given a second thought- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Essentially, Robinson thinks transhumanists are getting ahead of themselves. We are nowhere near achieving the kind of worldwide realization of the promise of conditions supporting self-actualization for all promised by the Declaration and transhumanists have already moved the bar.
Robinson is not alone in seeing our current failure to realize the promises of the Declaration as a challenge to the transhumanist project. The social epistemologist Steve Fuller believes positions on the Declaration will be a major area of friction between transhumanists and others, especially those on the left. It is, therefore, an important issue but for a latter time.
The kind of realistic science-fiction offered to us by Robinson where greater than light speed and settlement of “the stars” remains what it is today- a mere fantasy- nevertheless expands our and deepens our canvas to embrace our second home in the solar system. It is a canvass certainly large enough for the human story to play itself out.
The claim idea that our filling in of this canvass through the settlement of the solar system and terraforming its bodies constitutes the “arrogance of humanism” as Ernest J. Yanarella did in Strange Horizons has things ass-backwards. The arrogance of humanism lies in assuming that on a cosmic scale our endeavors are much more than one of Swan’s performance pieces such as her “painting” of a field with a rainbow of fallen autumn leaves. Like Swan, all we can do at our best is create beautiful objects that live a short moment only to be undone by the wind.