01/01/2012. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Or Books. 336 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $17.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-935928-27-0).
check out website: www.orbooks.com
‘Welcome To The Greenhouse’ is an anthology of sixteen Science Fiction short stories brought together by the illustrious editor of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’, Gordon Van Gelder. The anthology’s sub-title, ‘New Science Fiction On Climate Change’ makes the subject matter clear enough. Does the important scientific and political debates that surround the current climate change debate translate into interesting and effective SF stories?
The implications of global environmental change, whether caused by humanity or not, have been explored in SF novels for many decades. From J.G. Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World’ in 1962 to Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year Of The Flood’ in 2009 and beyond, a ruined environment has played a central role in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction for at least the last half century. In light of that history, I had two questions in my mind when I started reading this anthology. Can these stories explore new ground that hasn’t already been addressed previously? Perhaps more importantly, can a short story address itself to the issue of climate change without descending into thinly-veiled advocacy for one or other side of the political debate that surrounds the science?
I’ve picked my top three stories, along with the one I enjoyed least, to explore the range of approaches taken by the authors.
‘True North’ by M.J. Locke is the longest and last story in the anthology and is, in my view, also the best. It takes us to Montana in March 2099, where sixty-seven year-old Lewis Behrend ‘Bear’ Jessen is contemplating suicide, following the death of his wife, Orla, from cancer. The world’s gone to hell due to climate change, with billions dead, and he can’t see the point in carrying on. But then a desperate young woman called Patty turns up at his place and he befriends her. She is looking after a ragtag band of children who have all escaped from a slave camp in Denver, run by a nutcase who calls himself The Colonel. Patty is taking them north to a refuge on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. She asks Bear to help smuggle them across the Canadian border and he agrees. They manage to cross the border but are caught soon afterwards. They’re handed back to the Americans and end up at The Colonel’s camp in Denver. He is indeed mad and is in the final stages of a plan to drop nuclear bombs on Canada from airships in order to make America great again. At this point, Bear decides he’s had enough. Can he foil The Colonel’s plan, rescue the children and take them to the refuge? This story provides a brilliant end to the anthology. It is a convincingly written tale that mixes believable characters, high emotion and an incident-filled plot in a way that is both exciting and thoughtful.
Gregory Benford’s story, ‘Eagle’, concerns Elinor, an environmental activist on a mission to stop a geo-engineering trial project in Anchorage, Alaska in the near future. The trial involves spraying hydrogen sulphide from planes into the upper atmosphere, to see if this will generate clouds to reflect more sunlight back into space, thus combating climate change. She and two fellow activists hike into the woods and shoot down two large cargo planes that have just taken off to do the trial. However, their actions have huge unintended consequences, with direct repercussions not just on the three of them but on many other people as well. This is a well-written story, which considers both sides of the debate on what to do about climate change: reduce greenhouse gas emissions or find technical solutions to solve the problems. It neither passes judgement on Elinor nor on the scientists who are exploring the geo-engineering options but shows all the characters as real people with reasonable aspirations and hopes. It also shows how even the best-laid plans have the potential to go horribly wrong. I enjoyed this but also found it very thought-provoking.
‘The California Queen Comes A-Calling’ by Pat MacEwen is told by Taiesha, a public defender on The California Queen, a paddle steamer that travels round the post-apocalyptic landscape of California dispensing justice. Their current mission is to arrest and try Eric Moreland, the self-styled mayor of the small town of Atwater. He shot and killed a nine year-old immigrant kid, allegedly for stealing. However, the kid was shot in the back and had no stolen goods on him. Taiesha finds the mayor a deeply distasteful character but she defends him nonetheless. In due course, she gets him off on a technicality that she cannot in all conscience ignore. He shows no remorse and Taiesha wonders whether perhaps Moreland is in need of another kind of justice and whether she should provide it. Yet if she does, what does that make her? This is an excellent story, well-told and full of drama.
In David Prill’s ‘The Men Of Summer’, it seems that continuous high temperatures induced by climate change have turned every day into the right day for a summer romance. Marion starts up a brief affair with the first good-looking man she meets at the coffee shop. After a few weeks of fun, she is bored and literally dumps him at a village of tents on the outskirts of town, where her many previous ex-boyfriends write poems or sing about her all day long. Bored of her life, she drives to another city and picks up with a new guy. After a few weeks, he in turn dumps her at a similar collection of tents, full of his ex-girlfriends. My problem with this story is that it doesn’t go anywhere. There is no conflict, no real tension and the characters are all extremely two-dimensional. By the end of the story, when Marion gets her just desserts, I no longer cared one way or the other.
There are many things to admire here. It is a wide-ranging collection of well-written stories which explore different ways in which environmental change could impact on the lives of the characters. It spans several different genres. Although most of the stories are hard SF, some are much softer, a couple are fantasy and one even veers towards horror. Some explore where we might be in twenty or thirty years time, while others look ahead thousands of years. In almost all the stories, though, their primary interest is in the impact of environmental change on individual people and their relationships with each other. The subject area for the anthology may be scientific in origin but the authors have used it to explore character.
I’ve got one minor criticism of the anthology, which is that a few of the stories didn’t say anything to me. I’ve highlighted above the one I found most problematic. However, there were also two or three others which didn’t seem to me to explore any new ideas in relation to the central subject of the anthology and I wasn’t clear why they had been included. However, it’s very rarely the case that every story in an anthology will appeal to an individual reader and other readers may view these stories differently so I don’t see this as a major failing.
Whatever your personal view of the current debates around the science and politics of climate change, I would recommend taking a look at ‘Welcome To The Greenhouse’. It’s an anthology which explores its topic area in many different ways and I’m sure there’s something for almost everyone in here.
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