Author’s note: I woke up on the 24th of April 2016, the morning after a fabulous conference hosted here at YSJ by Anne-Marie Evans and Kaley Kramer entitled ‘Cityscapes: Media Textualities and Urban Visions’, a bit hungover after the conference dinner which unexpectedly though felicitously featured complimentary limoncello. Waking up early, I sat on my sofa with my laptop (the rest of my family was still asleep), as I found my mind was buzzing with what unexpectedly felt like a big idea. What you are about to read is what my fingers typed up. I say my ‘fingers typed up’ since the words seemed to pour out of me, as if I were racing to get down an idea that already existed somewhere, fully formed, and I just needed to type it into being. This morning, the 9th of March, nearly a year on from the conference which inspired my plan, I’ve been editing and adding submissions to Terra Two: An Ark for Off-World Survival—my plan is starting to take shape! I thought that contributors, editors and readers might want to see the early thoughts that seeded our new site. I say ‘our’, because I hope you who are reading will see it as yours, and as ours. I hope you feel, as I do, that we are all in this together! Final comment—I have tried not to make too many editorial changes to the document below, as I would like to represent my first thoughts in the way I wrote them up that first morning. I’ve corrected any misspellings, and I’ve tweaked a few sentences to promote logic. Final, final comment—I want to formally thank Anne-Marie and Kaley for putting on such an excellent conference, as the papers that day, including the one that their provocative abstract encouraged me to contribute, inspired the thinking which led to Terra Two. Thank you!!!!!
‘Terra Two/Too: Let’s Get it Right This Time!’ OR ‘Science Fiction for Survival’
I have heard that in the near future all children in the UK will be taught computer programming so they can learn from an early age how to make our world better through technology. I wonder if they could simultaneously be given a problem to solve? The problem is precisely this: our planet is dying. It will probably rejuvenate, but many scientists predict that for a very long time, from an as-yet undefined point in the near future, it will be rendered largely uninhabitable for human and other animal life forms. Global warming, which will lead to a comprehensive diminishment of resources following rising sea levels and baking inland landscapes, is a major issue. We will need to get off the planet. That is one problem. We will need to either find another ‘Goldilocks’ planet (far enough from a sun so that we do not burn up, and not so far from it that we freeze) or we will need to perfect our terraforming skills so that we can physically survive somewhere much less hospitable. As we are running out of time, terraforming is our best hope.
But the next problem is the greatest problem of all, and unless I am wrong, it cannot be solved by software, no matter how intelligent that software may be. The next problem is that we need to find a way, or perhaps a number of different ways, to mitigate against the human propensity (and I can include myself here, as guilty subject number one) to radically derail all efforts to treat our planet, and every living thing on it, with respect. Instead of living respectfully and consciously, one might say, we snack while we are cooking dinner. We buy now and pay later. We—or at least many of us, particularly in the West—live in cozy, heated, well-lit homes when we know that others will sleep on the street. We know that if we had used some of the money we spent on the cozy homes to build shelters, far fewer of our fellow human beings would sleep in the park. Unfortunately, too, each one of our consumer and consuming bodies is complicit in the wider destruction of our environment: our pollutants destroy the ozone layer, bleach the Great Barrier Reef, and melt the polar ice caps. Most of us continue to visit the local supermarket and to toss our unwanted packaging into the rubbish bin when we get back home, even though we know that not all of it is biodegradable, that burning some of it releases damaging hydrocarbons, and that large amounts of it will be sent to Africa, where starving children will cut their feet on the cans of baked beans some of us have just opened in order to feed our newly-vegetarian teenagers. Seemingly, we cannot curb our thoughtless behaviour.
The late great science fiction writer Octavia Butler explained that human beings have two traits that when combined, render us dangerous to ourselves and to everything around us—intelligence and the desire to dominate. I think there is a third—it is a lack of patience; it is an inability to play the long game; it is an inability to delay gratification. This is really not a joke. We need to figure out a way to cultivate just that—the ability to make sacrifices so that the human race can survive—in some form, in the future, on another planet—because our own is in decline.
Why should we care? If the waters are going to rise, and our descendents’ skin is going to burn, and our atavistic tendencies are going to triumph (and so we will kill each other and rape each other and eat each other), well then maybe we just deserve it, and it doesn’t matter? And yet it does. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first reason, reader, is connected to you. If you have children, you love them, right? If you don’t have children, you love other people, who do have children? Or perhaps you love children who aren’t yours? Would you do what you could to protect those children from drowning if a tidal wave swept across a beach and you were on it? Of course you would. And would you feel desperately sad if you couldn’t protect them, and they drowned, and somehow you managed to live on with the knowledge that they died and you lived? I wager that you would. So here’s the logic, which you now need to extend to all those who will arrive after you: the children that you love will feel the same as you do when they grow up—they would be devastated if those they loved endured extreme pain and early death. And in addition to this—and here’s the leap of imagination we all need to take—the children of those children will feel the same. And so it goes on. It is impossible to care deeply for those who haven’t been born, for those you have never met and will never know. But it is possible, through a leap of imagination, to know for sure that you do not want your own children or the children you love to feel extreme pain or to die an untimely death, and at one remove, if you take a moment to extend this hypothetical emotion, you also know that you don’t want the children of those children to feel extreme pain or die suddenly. Logically, you hope that those you love will avoid extreme suffering for as long as they are on the planet. After extending your thoughts to that third generation, your emotional imagination stalls if you are anything like me. However, in summary, we surely care about what happens to the human beings of the future because we care, with every fibre of our individual selves, for a few precious mortals at the beginning of the chain.
On another front, and in contrast, perhaps, to many of my contemporaries, I believe species Homo Sapiens is worth saving. As Russell Davies’ Tennant-Doctor proclaims on many occasions— ‘You’re brilliant!’ It doesn’t take long to mentally conjure a list of luminaries—Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene, Mahatma Ghandi, William Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking—to prove my point. Of course I am not naïve, and I know very well that each one of us is capable of horrific, inhuman acts if exposed to particular conditions. But I contend that this is not because of ‘the problem of evil’, but is instead because we are simple organic beings —mammals after all—who like all other animals react very badly when we are threatened, when our children are threatened, or when we are desperate for food and water. It is true that collectively, human beings can appear as ‘a virus’, a species which is a ‘disease, a cancer of this planet’ (1999), in the words of The Wachowski siblings’ Agent Smith; this is because our organic desire to survive and thrive, allied with an intelligence which has allowed us to manipulate the materials around us to serve our immediate goals, has impacted adversely on the human beings we compete with, on the other species we share our planet with, and on our gorgeous planet itself. An academic I met at a conference recently suggested that animals were superior to humans because they could not feel envy, but I disagreed—I had just watched a group of around ten female chimps at Chester Zoo vie for the attention of a male chimp who had just been introduced to their enclave: they petted him, stroked him and groomed him; they jostled with each other to gain access to him. It was not long before the inevitable occurred—the male chimp grabbed one of the female chimps from behind and the mini-narrative came to its climax, as it were. You cannot tell me that the other chimp females did not feel envy and disappointment, even if they felt these emotions only briefly. Human beings are animals, animals who have developed fairly complex packages of grey matter, matter made dense through evolution, made dense through a number of historic environmental challenges which forced them to either adapt or perish. By manipulating the organic and inorganic materials around them and by sharing their survival strategies with human beings across the globe, they have thrived, resulting in enormous population growth. In my own lifetime the population has tripled. When eco-philosopher Timothy Morton says that the day the earth began to die was sometime in April 1778, he means that one man’s intelligence, which began with a perfectly logical animal desire—to move quickly from A to B—had unexpected effects, which ultimately resulted in the erosion of our planet’s ozone layer (Morton, 2013: 7). James Watt who created the blueprints for the steam engine might feel intense guilt if he had been able to travel through time and learn that his discovery had begun such a damaging chain of events.
So we are not inherently evil, or monstrous, or sick. (I might add that there is no doubt that some of humanity’s cruel and torturous behaviours, when listed, fall under all three categories.) We are mostly fairly good, when we have access to key resources, at finding ways to survive. And so in order to continue to survive in the future, we need to turn our intelligence —emotional, analytic, spiritual—to a VERY big problem. We need to be Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Fringe’s Agent Dunham all rolled into one. We need to bring scientific brains and artistic brains together to answer the most pressing question of all—how can human beings work together in the near-future to create the peaceful, equitable, environmentally-sensitive world we would all love to thrive in?
It has come to me, in a big rush this morning as I write to you all, that I know of something that can help. It is all out there, looking us right in the eye. It is one of the hyperobjects that Timothy Morton explains is an image in the mirror ‘closer to us than it first appears’. It sticks to us, viscous, because we have made it, because it now helps to make us—it is the amalgamated text of our recorded human story; it is ‘the best’ that has been thought and written. And so, that which can help us can be found in the wisdom of Lao Tzu, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Shakespeare, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King. It can be found in the fictional works of Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison, and in Chinua Achebe. It can be found in the historical texts which critically reflect on the events which led to the extermination of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and in the texts which reflect on America’s decision to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Okay, you may say, but even the wide dissemination of all that wisdom hasn’t changed the collective behaviour of human beings one iota—how can that be the antidote? I will explain. As with any message, successful reception depends on two factors: the demand for the message (is it needed, do we care, what’s in it for us?) and the form (is it accessible, is it stimulating, will we remember it?). Right now, the double-pronged message that I feel moved to outline, to repeat, is again as follows: we need to act because our earth is dying; we need to act because the human race is worth saving. We might have five hundred years before civilisation as we know it has disappeared; we may have longer; we may have double that amount, or less than half of it. We need to start a collective project now because the work we need to do cannot be carried out at the last minute. And so what is my antidote to the problem?: Science fiction. Science fiction writing, science fiction film, science fiction games and graphic novels and comics and poems and musical responses to all of the above. We need to LISTEN to the wisdom offered up by the creative individuals who work within this genre if we are to prolong the existence of the species on Terra One. Science fiction, speculative fiction, takes the pulse of our time. It is accessible, because it reflects the world in which we live. It is impactful, because the best of sf draws on ancient wisdom in order to make its points. SF serves up its messages in a way that many of us in a post-industrial, late-capital, technologically-immersive environment find stimulating and provocative. It is my contention that we need science fiction to survive.
But it is not just science fiction on its own, in its textual state, which can help us create a blueprint for a life lived on a new world. We readers and viewers and participants need to ACT on the advice the genre supplies. This morning I am thinking about developing an umbrella project, a project which we might call Terra Two (and simultaneously ‘Too’)—I will call it Terra Two/Too a) because it will offer us a second chance; b) because we need to bring as many plant and animal species as we can from our original planet; and c) because we need to value the new planet and any indigenous organic species ‘too’, or in addition to the humans and other Terran species who will settle there. If you are reading this, I hope that this means you will help me think about how we can achieve our goals together. I conceive of the macro-level goals as follows:1) Find a way to create a modern day ark so that we can leave the planet. (We need the scientists for this one.) 2) Find a way to terraform another planet so that human beings can continue to breathe, and eat, and reproduce. (We need the scientists for this one too.) 3) Draw up blueprints for the new planet to ensure that the new society is fair, diverse, and sustainable. (This is where the critical and creative thinkers come in. Let’s get started!)
Specifically, we can:
- Level an intensive focus on texts within a genre that many have dismissed: what advice do sf texts offer for those who will be living on Terra Two?
- Draw up a set of ‘charters’ and ‘codes of conduct’ for Terra Two. Drawing on sf and its warnings as well as historical charters, we can define goals and set rules for the new society.
- Engage scientific thinkers, creative thinkers, and religious, philosophical and spiritual thinkers. Ask them to imagine Terra Two: what will the terraformed space look like? What will it need to function on a practical level, a spiritual level, an emotional level? How can illustrations, short stories, games, poetry and sf-inspired music help us to imagine a successful Terra Two?
- Create a bank of messages with the aim to help those who will be leaving Planet Earth—what do you, personally, want to say to the human beings of the future? Do you have book, film or a musical recommendation to make? Do you have a favourite aphorism to pass on? Do you have a personal story that the humans of the future may need to know about? Write a message or create a podcast or vlog. Store it.
STORE EVERYTHING. We need a website to contain everything that will imagine and support TERRA TWO.
Get others involved. Get individuals from every age group involved in imagining Terra Two. Go into primary schools, secondary schools, and care centres for the elderly. Start community projects. Get online to reach individuals in all parts of England. Get online to reach individuals in other countries. Encourage everyone you meet to create games, poems, music and stories which imagine Terra Two. Encourage others to bring their own expertise—whatever it is they have to give—to Terra Two.
Let’s get it right this time.