Welcome to the Greenhouse

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Welcome to the Greenhouse: New Science Fiction on Climate Change
Edited by Gordon Van Gelder
(OR Books, February 2011)

“Benkoelen” by Brian W. Aldiss
“Damned When You Do” by Jeff Carlson
“The Middle of Somewhere” by Judith Moffett
“Not a Problem” by Matthew Hughes
“Eagle” by Gregory Benford
“Come Again Some Other Day” by Michael Alexander
“The Master of the Aviary” by Bruce Sterling
“Turtle Love” by Joseph Green
“The California Queen Comes A-Calling” by Pat MacEwen
“That Creeping Sensation” by Alan Dean Foster
“The Men of Summer” by David Prill
“The Bridge” by George Guthridge
“FarmEarth” by Paul Di Filippo
“Sundown” by Chris Lawson
“Fish Cakes” by Ray Vukcevich
“True North” by M. J. Locke

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

I had mixed expectations when I first encountered Gordon Van Gelder’s new anthology of original, climate change-themed stories, Welcome to the Greenhouse. Readers who have some experience of anthologies composed of original stories written to order on a particular theme are familiar with their common pitfalls: the inclusion of pieces only marginally relevant to the theme, so that the reader is left wondering if they should even be in the volume at all; a diversity in the selections that, in offering different takes and styles, may offer something for everybody, but also means most readers will find plenty of pieces not particularly appealing to them; and frankly, letdowns in uninspired items by Big Names not at their best. Additionally, it might be pointed out that the theme of this particular anthology, climate change, is not a particularly new or novel one, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick having written about it in the 1960s in novels like The Drowned World (1962) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), even before scientists became concerned with a greenhouse effect caused by our carbon emissions.

Still, even if it has been tackled before, the subject seems to me a worthwhile one. Setting aside all consideration of the politics for the moment, some writers have in recent years produced impressive results working with this theme, like Norman Spinrad in Greenhouse Summer (1999), Paolo Bacigalupi in his own stories of eco-catastrophe, and Bruce Sterling in The Caryatids (2009). The assemblage of writers represented here includes some impressive authors, like Brian Aldiss, Paul Di Filippo, and Sterling himself, which seemed to me cause for some optimism, and ultimately decided me on giving Welcome a look.

The anthology opens with Brian Aldiss‘ “Benkoelen,” which focuses on the fate of an orangutan conservation center in Indonesia as the climate crisis worsens and sea levels rise. More a vignette than a fully-fleshed story, it is still representative of Aldiss’ strengths as an author – nuanced, low-key writing about ordinary people coping with life’s limits as manifested in a speculative context. In its position in the volume “Benkoelen” points the way to the rest by culminating in the big question the other stories deal with in their various ways, essentially “What chance have we got?”

Jeff Carlson‘s “Damned When You Do” is the story of a boy named Albert Timothy Shofield who makes the world literally revolve under his feet from the moment of his birth, and leaves his family behind in southern Oklahoma as the child leaves to wander the world. A focus of worldwide interest from almost the start of his life, he ends up a Christ figure for a world wracked with climate crisis in a story of global chaos, personal pathos, and renewal.

“Damned” offers an interesting twist on the classic idea of the messiah, but the simplicity of mythology, and the complexity of a problem like the climate-energy crisis, are an uneasy fit, and the conclusion to Albert Timothy’s story is anticlimactic. The nuclear war Carlson wrote into the story also seemed to me an unnecessary and unconvincing touch.

Judith Moffett‘s “The Middle of Somewhere” is set in rural Tennessee in 2014, where a fifteen year-old girl named Kaylee is completing a school project by helping her “eccentric” older neighbor Jane monitor birds’ nests in the area. While performing her task, a tornado strikes, stranding Kaylee and Jane together.

The attribution of the tornado to the broadly intensifying storm activity following from global warming is the main connection of the story with the anthology’s theme, and not an especially strong one; what happens could occur as a result of any tornado, taking place at any time. The real focus is on two things, the bonding of Kaylee and Jane despite their generational differences, and the lesson this story means to give the reader in the value of homesteading in a rather didactic fashion. The first struck me as slight, trite stuff, and the second the use of climate change as just an excuse to romanticize an already over-romanticized way of life, rather than a meaningful answer to the challenge the issue raises.

In Matthew Hughes‘ “Not a Problem” Vancouver-based billionaire Bucky Sansom decides to look to space for the solution to the Earth’s warming, throwing his money behind an effort to contact extraterrestrial civilizations he thinks might have an answer. This is essentially a setup for the “punch line” of the twist ending, which struck me as a variant on the classic Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man. The result is derivative, if lightly amusing.

Gregory Benford‘s “Eagle” follows an eco-terrorist in the course of her mission. Except for her particular target and motivation, this is essentially a tweaked version of the ’80s-style techno-thriller, down to the usual serving of right-wing propaganda. Indeed, I found myself reminded of Tom Clancy’s anti-environmentalist screed Rainbow Six, which similarly converted anti-Red clichés to anti-Green ones, painting anyone who so much as makes a contribution to Greenpeace or the Sierra Club as not just a pathetic, repugnant neurotic, but a fellow traveler with terrorists. The resulting exercise in techno-thriller mechanics is competent, and the essential scenario an interesting one rooted in real discussions of geo-engineering which might possibly reverse the problem (something I really would have liked to see more of in this collection). However, the way this story beats the reader over the head with a message that is far from fresh or original (all the way down to the irony that comes down like the proverbial ton of bricks on the heads of the cardboard villains, who turn out to be simple-minded hypocrites incapable of even verbally defending their actions to themselves) insures that it falls pancake-flat as character or political drama.

Michael Alexander‘s “Come Again Some Other Day” imagines a secret U.S. government project run by two technicians secluded in an outpost in central Wyoming using time travel to “export” unwanted climate. The story’s premise is that the difficulty of modeling climate is not a function of the system’s inherent complexity, but a reflection of the fact that later periods are “exporting” their own climate troubles back to our time, making the protagonists’ that much tougher, and leaving them looking for a longer-term solution. Essentially an “idea story,” it gets some points for ingenuity and humor, but suffers from the underdevelopment of the characters, the plot, and even the basic gimmick (the reader never gets an idea how any of this works). Additionally, even if it does address the anthology’s theme on a somewhat deeper level than some of the pieces preceding it, it comes off as flip rather than witty.

The next story, Bruce Sterling‘s “Master of the Aviary,” was something of a surprise to me, mainly because of the contrast it makes with his recent climate change-themed novel, 2009’s The Caryatids. Where that book ended with Sterling’s essentially shrugging off the problem, here it brings about the catastrophic fall of civilization – the kind of post-apocalyptic scenario Sterling criticized in his preface to William Gibson’s classic collection Burning Chrome (1986).

The setting of “Master” is Selder, a “sustainable” city-state that emerged at the end of the long dark ages following the collapse, now a thousand years old, and the focus of the story is the life of Mellow Julian, a former civil servant who now devotes his days to collecting birds, philosophical exploration, and teaching. While hoping to spend the remainder of his days devoted to a peaceful life of the mind, Julian is ultimately unable to escape the city-state’s politics, which turn brutally violent amid a succession struggle reminiscent of Classical Greece, and like Socrates, Julian finds himself forced to decide just how much he is willing to sacrifice for his convictions. Unfortunately, this essentially biographical story falls short of the dramatic potential of its elements, and despite an abundance of interesting bits, does not wander far off the path beaten by earlier writers trying their hand at the tale of slow recovery after the disaster, from the fascination of later thinkers with the lost technologies of earlier eras, to the reversion of life to earlier models.

Joseph Green’s “Turtle Love” depicts an engineering program to adapt the Florida coastline against rising sea levels, part of a World War II-like national effort to deal with the climate crisis well underway as seen through Amos and Stephanie Byers, a married couple living on Hurricane Point. Amos is an engineer working in the dike construction program, while Stephanie is a biologist trying to relocate turtle nests. The story deals with the personal and professional problems they go through, from trying to save their home, to a death threat against Amos from a religious fanatic who believes the “Save America” program is against the will of God. One of the few stories trying to show society responding to the problem, it is unique in this anthology in being an (ultimately) upbeat slice-of-life about ordinary people getting on with something like normal life despite the upheaval.

In Pat MacEwen‘s “The California Queen Comes A-calling,” a traveling law court based aboard a ship plies the pirate-ridden California coastline as a small part of the effort to bring back something like civilization after a disastrous “Second Rise” (following a more modest sea rise like the one seen in Green’s story) wrecked the world. Much of the court’s work has it confronting the ugly legacies of the survivalism that prevailed in the interim period, and the court’s public defender, Taiesha, finds herself facing such a dilemma when she is tasked with defending a small-town mayor accused of murder. While the result is conventional post-apocalyptic drama, MacEwen executes it with intelligence, and the plotting, characterization and world-building are easily some of the anthology’s strongest.

Alan Dean Foster‘s “That Creeping Sensation” presents one of climate change’s less plausible outcomes, namely the increased heat and humidity of a warming climate, and deforestation, leading to a massive explosion of “ferns, cycads, and soft-bodied plants.” These suck carbon out of the atmosphere, while elevating oxygen levels, enabling the growth of insects to monstrous sizes not seen since the Carboniferous Era, which promptly besiege civilization. Written as a procedural about a pair of pest control specialists on patrol in Atlanta, it combines cop drama and B-grade science fiction movie clichés in an action-packed – and at times, funny – narrative that works rather better as both a comedy and a “greenhouse” story than most of the other attempts here.

David Prill‘s “The Men of Summer” is about the romances of a girl named Marion during a literally endless summer. Essentially a surreal-slipstream piece of whimsy which only briefly invokes the greenhouse effect as an explanation for the circumstances, I found it rather slight (though Anil Menon of The Portal offers an interesting reading).

George Guthridge‘s “The Bridge” goes to the other extreme of grim realism in describing the death of an Alaskan community through the eyes of a mentally challenged half Native girl committing suicide on a titular structure extending across the Bering Strait between westernmost Alaska and easternmost Russia. It is not a light read by any means, and a symbolic reading of it is problematic, but it certainly packs punch as a portrait of the human consequences of catastrophe.

Paul di Filippo‘s “FarmEarth” envisions the rehabilitation of Earth’s environment being organized as a Sims-like online game. Rather than avatars, players look after strategic parts of the ecosystem, both to provide the brainpower needed for the gargantuan job, and as a lesson in the principle of planetary stewardship. Di Filippo’s narrator and protagonist is thirteen year-old Crispian who, after eagerly waiting for his chance to play at the “game,” finds himself bored by the tasks entry-level players get – in his case, “riding herd on a zillion hungry bacteria” cleaning up the mess left by the Deepwater Horizon disaster with the rest of his FarmEarth class, rather than “being in charge of a big mammal, or a whole forest, say.” This makes Crispian an easy mark for a radical wanting to speed up the process, and soon enough he finds himself way in over his head. This effort of Di Filippo’s at a “young adult” story did not quite have the zip and zing of the author’s very best, but I found the narrative voice credible, the world around him densely and appealingly imagined, and the story and its telling novel and entertaining enough to make it one of the anthology’s best reads.

Chris Lawson‘s brief “Sundown” actually addresses a scenario different from virtually all of the pieces in this book, not anthropogenic global warming, but global cooling (indeed, freezing) as a result of the sun’s abrupt, unexplained death. (Readers surprised by this turn would do well to pay attention to the words “climate change” in the book’s subtitle, which can denote a great deal besides the greenhouse effect.)

“Sundown” is written as a remembrance of Riki (who did much to get a small group of New Zealanders through the event) by a surviving member of her community to their adoptive child before they leave them behind to set out across the frozen Pacific to try and find others hanging on after the catastrophe. The combination of the Gothicism of the sun’s death with the rationalism and hope (however faint) of the survivors on which the story focuses struck me as an odd one, the latter all but blotted out by the former in what (along with Guthridge’s piece) may be the anthology’s bleakest.

Ray Vukcevich‘s “Fish Cakes” presents a world where virtual, online life has all but taken the place of in-person movement and contact, and few get more than a short walk or bike ride away from home (partly because of electronic conveniences, and partly a reflection of economic necessity in a resource-starved world). The result is that rather than a mundane trip, Tyler’s trip from Eugene, Oregon to Phoenix, Arizona to comfort his “online” girlfriend after her grandmother’s death is not merely an extravagant gesture, but an adventure. As one might expect, the accent is on quirky humor, but this slice-of-life story actually struck me as one of the book’s more plausibly innovative tales.

The longest and last piece in the anthology, M.J. Locke‘s “True North,” tells a familiar story of survivalism and warlordism in a post-collapse United States. This time around, Lewis “Bear” Jensen, a widower living out the remnant of his life in rural solitude, finds himself confronted with a column of refugee children heading north to Canada, where a semblance of civilization survives. While on the whole well-written and engaging, even more than MacEwen’s story, it came off as a standard bit of post-apocalyptic adventure, which could easily have been set in the aftermath of a nuclear war or a world-ravaging plague.

The fact that so many of the authors simply attach familiar plots, tropes and ideas (from the post-apocalypticism of Locke and company, to Hughes’ old-fashioned alien story, to the techno-thriller mechanics of Benford’s tale), and that so many others deal with the theme in flip, jokey ways (like Hughes again, or Alexander, or Prill), or even just peripherally (the way Moffett does), is something of a letdown, as many another reviewer has already pointed out. Still, even if the anthology falls short of what we hoped for, there is still a fair amount of solid fiction, some of the authors doing a reasonably good job with older elements (like MacEwen, or Foster), and even a measure of innovation (as in the pieces by Di Filippo and Vukcevich), though nothing on a level with what writers like Spinrad and Bacigalupi have done with the theme.

Additionally, it seems well worth thinking about the reasons for the letdowns. I have written before at length about the possibility that science fiction is running out of creative juice, but I wonder if the problem is not bigger than that; if we have not reached a point in our intellectual and cultural life, our political and economic life, where we have exhausted our collective imaginations. Might it be that, rather than the “end of history,” we face simply the end of our ability to even think historically (or futuristically) in any meaningful way? Or perhaps, that we still can, but are just afraid to be seen doing so, prone as we are to self-censor ourselves as the range of ideas we feel free to express in a public space shrinks?

The faltering seen here may be just a symptom of a bigger problem. That said, one can only hope that the real-life response to the climate crisis is bolder and more imaginative than what most of the authors here have to offer. Alas, the responses of business and government have been even more tepid than the weakest of the writing presented here.