A Sci-Fi Visionary Thinks Greed Might Be the Thing That Saves Us
It’s easy, especially now, to imagine a bleak and withered future, and that’s largely what our storytellers are doing. Whether it’s in novels, TV shows, films or video games, speculative imaginings of the world we’re heading toward tilt strongly to fatalistic despair. And while I can’t say with much conviction that I have hope for where our current path may lead, I have wondered why more artists aren’t pushing back and composing visions of the future in more than just minor keys. (Lord knows we could use it.) One artist who has done that over the course of his career is the best-selling sci-fi novelist Neal Stephenson. His books, the best known of which are probably the cyberpunk thriller “Snow Crash” and “Cryptonomicon,” an opus about money and code-breaking, have long dealt in apocalyptic events and malevolent uses of new technology. But — and this is particularly true of his latest novel, the climate-change-focused “Termination Shock” — their renderings of the future also include potential solutions (morally and technically complicated though they may be) to the problems of living in a radically changed world. That is to say, their imagination extends beyond the edge of the cliff. “To portray a more utopian future,” says Stephenson, who is 62 and, to be clear, far from starry-eyed, “is to lay oneself open to a certain level of mockery from critics and skeptical audience members. Whereas there doesn’t seem to be any level of grim dystopian imagery that will make the fans and the critics say ‘enough already.’”
We’re facing a potentially apocalyptic event in climate change, so it makes sense that post-apocalyptic dystopia is where people’s heads are at as far as sci-fi and speculative fiction. But we’re also surrounded by incredible technologies that make our lives better, and we’re going to need new technologies to help combat climate change. So why don’t we see much creative output that points toward the future in more hopeful or aspirational ways? I think a lot of it — and this is going to sound like a funny argument — is a pretty simple economic calculation on the part of people who produce screen entertainment. I’m looking over your shoulder on this Zoom and seeing an office building. It would be easy to blow that building up in a science-fictional setting. We could knock holes in it and break the windows and dirty it up, and it would look dystopian and wouldn’t require a lot of detailed imagining. If we were going to replace that building with a futuristic building from a more utopian vision of New York City, it would be necessary to design a new building from scratch and make it look convincing structurally and do it in a way that was consonant with an art director’s scheme for the production design. The latter approach is simply harder and more expensive, and it’s easy to strike the wrong note and come up with something that doesn’t work — whereas everyone would recognize the Empire State Building after having been hit by a nuclear strike. We’ve also got in the habit of thinking that by showing that kind of future, the artists are sending a message about how hard they are: I’m not some rose-colored-glasses sap. I’m a badass thinking dark, mean thoughts about our dark, mean future.
What about the story we’re telling as a society — beyond art — about climate change? Is there a way we could be talking about it that’s more likely to motivate the kind of mobilization we had, say, during the Second World War? The difficulty is that it’s hard to get lots of people to change their minds. The United States did mobilize in a massive way during World War II, but we didn’t start getting serious about it until 1942. There had been a huge war raging since 1939, and the Brits were tearing their hair out waiting for the United States to get more involved, and it wasn’t until Pearl Harbor that there was a tipping point in public opinion that made it possible for America’s political leadership to declare war and to enter into it in a serious way. So the question asks itself: What might be a climate equivalent of Pearl Harbor? We’re already having little regional Pearl Harbors all over the place. We had our heat dome in Seattle over the summer, we had the mega tornado supercell that passed from Arkansas to Kentucky. These little pinprick Pearl Harbor events happen here and there, but it’s difficult to imagine one that would impact an entire country the size of the United States — if it did, it would be a really bad thing. We don’t want to put ourselves in the position of wishing that something terrible would happen. It’s also natural to assume that the CO2 problem is similar to other air-pollution problems we’ve had before. In the ’50s, there was a disaster in London because of too much coal smoke in the air, and they cleaned up the air by burning less coal. In the ’70s, a lot of the smog problem in L.A. was cleaned up by putting catalytic converters on cars and cutting down on hydrocarbon emissions. There’s a similar story around the ozone hole. We’re accustomed to thinking that all we have to do is stop emitting the pollutant, and then nature will clean up the air. But it’s not true in the case of CO2 in the atmosphere. People confuse CO2 emission reduction or elimination with solving the problem. But even if we could stop emitting all CO2, we’d be stuck for hundreds of thousands of years with extremely elevated CO2 levels that nature has no quick way of removing from the air. That’s the key thing that has to be widely understood before we can actually begin envisioning ways to attack the problem.
In “Termination Shock,” you have a billionaire character who tries to attack that problem through geoengineering. You’ve talked elsewhere about writing about geoengineering as a way of ensuring that people are more prepared for it when it starts to happen. Is that something you see as a primary function of fiction: introducing concepts or ideas to the public? Job 1 is to be sufficiently entertaining that a fair number of people will actually read the book all the way to the end. If you haven’t done that, then you’ve got nothing. If you’ve gotten over that hurdle, then it becomes possible to start thinking about other things. I’m leery of taking too much of an instrumentalist view of art because I think that if you’ve got that mind-set of I’m going to change people’s minds or push a particular point of view the audience recognizes that almost on a preverbal level and they lose their suspension of disbelief. I’m sure you can think of examples where books somehow changed people’s minds about certain topics or ended up having some functional purpose, but I think if you set out from the beginning with a functional mentality, you’re probably going to end up with a failed project.
Is being sufficiently entertaining “Job 1” for you or for all novelists? The novel is a pop-culture medium just like comic books or movies. So when you’re practicing an art form, you generally follow the formal rules of that art form. If you’re going to write a sonnet, it’s going to be 14 lines long. You can choose to write hard-to-read books, like “Finnegans Wake,” let’s say, if that’s what you want to do, and it’s a perfectly defensible choice, but in general telling a readable and enjoyable story is a basic constraint of the form.
All right, here’s another question about how we conceive of the world: One of the things that made the Baroque period so fruitful as a setting for you was the tensions that resulted from superstitious, medieval modes of thinking coexisting alongside the beginnings of the rational Enlightenment. What similar tensions between old and new ways of thinking are alive in our modes of understanding the world? What we’re seeing in the Baroque Cycle is the beginning of scientific rationalism and the idea that we can find ways to agree on what is true, which was a new development. You know, Barbara Shapiro has a book called “A Culture of Fact” that tells the origin story of the idea of facts, which is not an idea we always had. Another thing I’ve been reading recently is “The Fixation of Belief” by an American philosopher named Charles Sanders Peirce. He was writing in the 1870s, and he goes through a list of four methods that people use to decide what they’re going to believe. The first one is called the method of tenacity, which means you decide what you’re going to believe and you stick to it regardless of logic or evidence.
Sounds familiar. Yeah, this all sounds depressingly familiar. The next method is called the method of authority, where you agree with other people that you’re all going to believe what some authority figure tells you to believe. That’s probably most common throughout history. The third method is called the a priori method, and the idea is, let’s be reasonable and try to come up with ways to believe things that sound reasonable to us. Which sounds great, but if it’s not grounded in any fact-checking methodology, then you end up just agreeing to believe things by consensus — which may be totally wrong. The fourth method is the scientific method. It basically consists of accepting the fact that you might be wrong, and since you might be wrong, you need some way for judging the truth of statements and changing your mind when you’ve got solid evidence to the contrary. What you’re seeing in the Baroque Cycle is the transition from Method No. 3 to No. 4. You’ve got all these people having what seem like reasoned, logical arguments, but a lot of them are just tripping. So a few come in, like Hooke and Newton, and begin using actual experiments and get us going down the road toward the rational world of the Enlightenment. But what we’ve got now is almost everybody using Method 1, 2 or 3. We’ve got a lot of authoritarians who can’t be swayed by logic or evidence, but we’ve also got a lot of a priori people who want to be reasonable and think of themselves as smarter and more rational than the authoritarians but are going on the basis of their feelings — what they wish were true — and both of them hate the scientific rationalists, who are very few in number. That’s kind of my Peircian analysis of where things stand right now.
Do you see a way out of that? When people find that they can obtain lots of money and power by believing certain things and following certain ways of thinking, then you can bet that they’ll enthusiastically start doing that. The reason that Enlightenment thinking became popular was that people figured out that it was in their financial best interest to avail themselves of its powers. The spread of very financially successful enterprises like, let’s say, steam engines for long-range ocean navigation was a direct outgrowth of the practical application of the scientific method. To that you could also add a lot of financial apparatus that came into existence around then with the Bank of England and various ways of managing financial affairs. In other words, people don’t necessarily follow scientific rationalism because they’re noble and pure seekers of the truth, although some of them definitely do it for that reason. More people do it out of self-interest.
It may be the unfortunate case that there’s more obvious financial self-interest to be gained by promoting irrational and counterfactual thinking. If you don’t have any perceptible downside or negative consequences, then why not sign up with or co-sign the latest conspiracy theory? I do think negative consequences definitely exist, but maybe the cause-and-effect relationship isn’t immediately obvious.
What are those negative consequences? What do people stand to lose? Well, the negative consequence is our entire civilization.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Brian Cox about the filthy rich, Dr. Becky about the ultimate goal of parenting and Tiffany Haddish about God’s sense of humor.