Friday, December 04, 2009

Science fiction: ahead of the curve for a reason

I lifted this Harry Turtledove short from last July's issue of Analog, which isn't available online. (If the publishers want to make a fuss, they can let me know and I'll take it down.) I'm posting the whole thing; it's too good just to excerpt.

Ironically, sci-fi writers tend to think more realistically than the average novelist because theirs is such a wildly speculative field. You can't write good 'what-ifs" without understanding the forces that go into making what actually is. And sure enough, it's much more relevant than it was last summer.

Try as we will, we can no longer deny the truth. The world is getting warmer. Glaciers everywhere are in full retreat. Shamans and wizards of many clans have joined together, and rightiy so, in stressing the disastrous environmental impact the withdrawal of the ice will have.

Many large mammal species - the bases of our economy and our very way of life - are certain to face displacement or even extinction as the weather worsens. Clans dependant upon woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceri for sustenance will either have to migrate into new and unfamiliar hunting grounds or begin feeding upon smaller, less satisfactory prey animals such as caribou and horses. In certain heavily impacted areas, clans may be reduced to eating beavers and marmots. There have even been reports of the regular consumption of crayfish, mussels, and other fare normally contemplated only during famines. All such movements and lifestyle shifts, of course, also entail numerous violations of tabu. The cost of propitiation is certain to be high.

Worse problems may also lie ahead for affected areas. As the tundra retreats northward, invasive foliage from the south encroaches upon it. These "trees," as they are technically known, cannot support the biodiversity upon which we depend. Not only that, hunting becomes far more difficult: with the severely reduced horizon among trees, visibility and tracking suffer badly.

Furthermore, anecdotal reports trickling up from areas in the south already afflicted with trees indicated that predators peculiar to this degraded environment pose significant risks to hunters and even gatherers. These so-called "bears," if such sources may be relied upon, are large, wily, and dangerous in the extreme.

It is as yet unclear to those studying issues pertaining to "forests" (as accumulations of trees are termed) whether the beasts called "boars" are predators or prey. Not to be confused with bears, boars are simultaneously alleged to be both extremely tasty and swift and savage. As trees continue to advance onto tundra, cautious experimentation seems indicated.

So far, it will be noted, I have discussed only the incontrovertible fact of global warming, its likely impact upon us in the relatively near future, and short-term coping strategies. Many will say that we should not remain in a reactive mode, but should proactivety seek to reverse the deleterious effects of this warming trend. In some ways, though, such a proactive response seems more readily proposed than implemented.

Forward-thinking shamans - including some among the first to recognize the reality of our predicament - have naturally sought sorcerous countermeasures. Considerable appropriations of dried meat have enabled a large-scale research program unmatched since the one that led to the partial taming of fire (about which, in a rather different context, more soon). If only success were commensurate with effort! Even spells essayed in the dead of winter and in the anomalous cold darkness of solar eclipses have failed to halt or even slow the steady, apparently inexorable retreat of the glaciers and degradation of the tundra south of them.

Which brings me back to fire. Wizards have conclusively demonstrated that fire is a spear with a point at both ends, as likely to wound the ones who wield it as to aid them. Fire gives heat. It cooks food. So much has been known for many generations. Because of this, tundra clans, almost without dissent, reckon it highly valuable. Lately, the truth of that assumption has come under question.

You see, fire, while burning, releases invisible spirits into the atmosphere. Because they spring from fire these spirits trap heat, in much the same way hunters trap mammoths with pitfalls. Once the mammoth tumbles into the pit, it cannot hope to escape. And, once the liberated fire spirits trap the sun's heat, that cannot hope to escape, either.

The more fires our clans burn, then, the more fire spirits commence to prowl the air. And, the more fire spirits prowl the air, the more solar heat they snare near the earth's surface. This obviously is a factor - and an increasingly significant factor as the use of fire grows - in the emerging global-warming crisis.

From this, it follows that reducing the fire spirits' footprints as they prowl the atmosphere would correspondingly reduce the amount of trapped solar heat contributing to the warming of the earth. We must use fire less. Those habituated to the savor and chewability of cooked meat may well object to that. So may those who have grown accustomed to sleeping soft in their tents even when snow swirls outside.

Their shortsighted, deluded self-interest must - I repeat: must - be rejected, and in the most emphatic way possible. The environment and its continued protection take priority over all the commonplace concerns. If fire causes the glaciers to retreat; if fire causes the tundra to follow the ice north and causes longtime clan hunting grounds to be overrun with useless, obstructive vegetation pushing up from the south in the wake of global warming; if fire causes the very seas to rise, threatening to displace or drown the clans living in low-lying regions - if fire causes these things, I say, we must suppress it. Cause them it does. Our wizards and shamans no longer leave us any room for doubt. Therefore, suppress it we must.

Let this be a warning, then, to all those so enamored of their temporary comfort that they are willing (perhaps even eager) to cling to fire despite the ever more obvious long-term environmental consequences. If they persist in releasing fire spirits into the air, we shall oppose them with all necessary measures, up to and including war.

And once we vanquish them - and vanquish them we shall, for our cause is just - we will make an example of them, so that we discourage and intimidate potential future backsliders. We will catch them and kill them and eat them.

Raw, of course.

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