Thoughts in a Time of Drought

“History knows no happy endings, just crises that come and go.”

This summer has been extremely hot and dry here in Sweden. The unusual weather started in May and still continues two months later. Sweden’s meteorological records go back 270 years and nothing like this summer has ever been registered. The scientific underpinning of anthropogenic climate change is strong so I am convinced that mankind is heading into an era of turbulent weather.

(However, if you, dear reader, happen to be a climate-change denier, this blog post is NOT an invitation to enter your objections in the comment field. The post’s purpose will become clear below, and TL;DR is not an acceptable excuse.)

Mythic and Real Climate Horrors
Norse mythology speaks of the Fimbulvinter, a winter that lasts for three years and heralds Ragnarök when the world will perish in storm and fire. Archaeologists speculate that this mythic winter may been a reflection of an extreme cold-weather event around AD 540, caused by volcanic eruptions. I have lived through many harsh winters so I understand my distant ancestors’ fear of that season.

But these days, a Fimbulsommar appears to be a more realistic threat to my country. Warm summers are generally considered to a blessing among us Swedes, but I have endured hot Augusts in the eastern Mediterranean, in Florida and in Afghanistan, so I have come to understand how long periods of drought and heat can be regarded with as much fear as overlong winters. The Sun is not a merciful celestial entity, something that is obvious in descriptions of Apollon, a Greek Sun god that also is the lord of plague, and in the legend of Phaëthon, a demigod whose failed attempt to steer the Sun chariot across the sky almost causes the end of the world by taking the Sun too close to Earth’s surface.

The warming of Terra will probably disrupt the extant political order severely as people and agriculture will have to move away from the expanding tropics. At the same time, the rising oceans will inundate major urban areas like Dhaka, London, New York and Mumbai.

Melting polar caps will reshape our world

American Revolution vs European Evolution
When I was young, science fiction stories often spoke of a future unified Earth, usually considered to be a “good thing” with humanity coming together in a union of regional “states”. Often such a unification was justified by appeals to reason, e.g., as a way ensuring peace and social stability. But the warming of Terra might instead justify a “unification by necessity” scenario: the challenges to human civilization become so huge that long-term transnational efforts are required to ensure its survival.

The European Union can be seen as a case of transnational cooperation originally instigated by the necessity of avoiding yet another devastating European war. Unlike the United States, which was created by a revolutionary declaration in 1776 and by the promulgation of a constitution in 1787, the fusion of Europe’s nations (starting in 1952 with the CECA Treaty) has incrementally expanded in extent and scope, treaty by treaty. This evolution will probably never end and so I dare not guess what a united Europe will look like by the time my children, all born around the millennium, get grandchildren.

In the last thirty years, the European Union has had to find new ways of dealing with some serious and unexpected challenges, for example:
— the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, and the resulting political complications, some of which remain unresolved 20 years later.
— nation-building in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001/02. I went to Kabul ten years ago as a member of EUPOL Afghanistan, a civilian EU police support mission.
— widespread piracy around the Horn of Africa after the internal collapse of the Republic of Somalia in the 1990s. EU has organized the long-term counter-piracy Atalanta and Nestor missions.
— the huge refugee influx caused by the drawn-out Syrian civil war in the 2010s
— the spectre of resurgent European authoritarianism, also in the 2010s.

The EU administration in Brussels has therefore been forced to develop central political and administrative mechanisms for crisis management. Whether those efforts have been productive is another issue, but we can at least commend the EU for trying.

A Green Cyberpunk Setting?
Going from reality to the realm of science fiction, I now envision an EU-inspired setting for an RPG setting, perhaps in 2118. Heroism in small steps might be an apt campaign theme, i.e., determined characters strive to handle minor crises that never stop coming.

The loose Terran Federation is Earth’s dominating political entity. It grows in slowly size as more and more sovereign nations accede to it because they need to join its civilization-saving ventures. The TF’s tasks at hand are immense as agriculture must be reorganized at the continental level and new cities built at Earth’s new coastlines. Its Crisis Investigation Center dispatches intrepid operators to troubled spots around the world. Their job is to check what is really going on and figure out what to do about it, their conclusions sometimes leading to the establishment of specialized operations for handling specific problems.

But serving as an field operative of a cumbersome organization is never a smooth ride; in this particular context, CIC agents often need to come up with creative solutions that accomplish what’s needed, while keeping the home office in a state of semi-ignorant complacency. When hotshot freewheelers, for example militant activists from the Emerald Serenity movement, jump into the fray, the situation of the ground gets even more messy.

Voilà, I have moved from my reflections on this extreme Swedish summer to outlining a setting for a semi-near-future science fiction campaign based on a very troubled Earth, executed as “green cyberpunk”. And that’s the core of this post: a piece of political science fiction inspired by the current grim climate changes.

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The Nakagin Capsule Tower — a Cyberpunk Place?

The Wired website has published a photo essay on a Japanese capsule hotel from the 1970s (link >>>). Each cuboid in the photo below forms one tiny modular apartment.

The Nakagin Capsule Hotel

The Nakagin Capsule Hotel

This arrangement reminds me of the cyberpunk worlds created in the 1980s and 1990s by authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson. Temporary dwellings for the lowlife protagonists of e.g. Mona Lisa Overdrive and Snow Crash would probably look like these.

Furthermore, in a contemporary (and quite post-cyberpunk) milieu, minimalist apartments like these have their particular appeal, at least to me. Having entered middle age, I have come to the insight that material belongings frequently become nothing but burdens (i.e. Snufkin’s wisdom in the Moomin stories). What is important instead? Family, friends and thoughts. So when I can store books electronically in the cybercloud, there will be little need for shelf space.

New York Times wrote a few years ago an article about the architects behind this particular building and its construction and current decay — link >>>.

Interior view of a capsule apartment

Interior view of a capsule apartment

Review: Some Gibson reflections

Recently I have re-read some of William Gibson’s books. I have mixed feelings about his stories. He is great at creating unsettling futures and populating them with common people who do what they can to survive while “swimming among sharks”. I am particularly fond of the Krushkova subplot in Count Zero, Yamazaki’s academic work in Virtual Light, and Chia’s journey to Tokyo in Idoru. These people get entangled in schemes that stretch far beyond their horizons.

The description of the bridge society that plays such an important role in Virtual Light and All Tomorrow’s Parties is also great sociological science fiction. Gibson lets its peculiar culture, such as the veneration of Shapely, and vertical geography appear every now and then to underline other plot elements.

But the plots are Gibson’s major problem, at least for me. It seems that the characters get so entangled in hazards that only a deus ex machina will be able to save them. And such ones appear in the form of vastly powerful virtual characters. The protagonists too often “invoke” such beings electronically (e.g. the God-Mountain in Virtual Light, the Etruscan in Idoru, the loa in Count Zero) and let them solve the final plot problems.

Pattern Recognition turned out to be a major disappointment. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gibson had had a compact style, letting the plots move forward rapidly. But when he left the field of science fiction and moved into writing thrillers taking place in the contemporary world, he started spending too much space on describing places and clothing, on long journeys hither and thither. Halfway into the story, I lost interest in the riddle of the poetic film clips. Krushkova’s quest for the “magic” boxes in Count Zero was exciting (something major being implicitly at stake), whereas Cayce’s similar plotline was bland.

I am curious about another Gibson foible: his fondness for Tokyo and London. Tokyo serves as the stage for Idoru and London for much of Mona Lisa Overdrive and Pattern Recognition. But how does a reader from one of those cities react to Gibson’s descriptions? Does he successfully evoke the genuine moods of those places? (When I read Cryptonomicom by Neal Stephenson — a novel with roots in Gibson’s stories — I was put off when two protagonists visited Sweden during World War Two. A descriptive failure. The author had simply not done his homework, creating a dissonance in my mind. But an American reader would probably not be bothered by it.)