The Age of Stupid blurs science and fiction to chronicle the enviropocalypse.
The Heat Death of Sci-Fi
I first analyzed cli-fi in 2009, inspired by director Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid, a work of science and fiction.
Starring the late, great Pete Postelthwaite as an Arctic-bound archivist of an humanity that dumbly extincted itself (verb intended), Armstrong’s patient merge tripped over the consensual hallucination, paraphrasing Neuromancer author William Gibson’s dream of cyberspace, that there exists a boundary between science and fiction. Anchored in Gibson’s foundation and materialized beyond language, cyberspace became capitalized and weaponized by devolving superpowers sundered by ecological collapse.
But the point of there being a point between science and fiction passed long before The Age of Stupid arrived, warning like Cassandra of impending apocalypse.
“I like exact labeling,” Margaret Atwood once told me, as I probed the parameters of proper speculative terminology. “Sci-fi is that which we’re probably not going to see.”
According to Atwood, the genetic structure of sci-fi proper was first sequenced in H.G. Wells’ millennial invasion, The War of the Worlds. There and here, two coordinates, more or less failed from birth. By the Anthropocene’s increasingly alarming standard, from which War of the Worlds‘ origin story hasn’t significantly deviated in the decades following its 1897 serialization, our technocratic exhaustion is nearly spent.
“We can do the lineage: Sci-fi descends from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; speculative fiction descends from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Out of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea came Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, out of which came We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, then George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.” MORE @ MORPHIZM
A mechanized wish-fantasy of patriarchal annihilation, H.G. Wells’ total war was built upon the British Empire’s foundation of merciless colonization, anticipating our post-millennial depersonalization like undead prophecy. If pure sci-fi is reportedly what happens when futurists follow technological disruption to its logical conclusion, War of the Worlds exposed humanity’s inherited predisposition to perpetual war, mirroring and reanimating the Anglosphere’s darkest, dumbest hearts and minds.
From that bombshell debut to our burning moment, War of the Worlds’ influential exhaustion has spawned proliferating iterations. Steven Spielberg’s tehnical reboot; Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day franchise, a recurring nightmare I’ve analyzed since the ’90s.
Some have been quite underrated revisions, like Warren Ellis’ nanotech infestation in the Justice League episode, “Dark Heart,” a fascinating exercise that nearly exhausts DC Comics’ entire hero roster. More rare is the hopeful, brilliant exploration, such as Brad Bird’s epochal The Iron Giant, which mines Wells’ traumatic projections of resource war and authoritarian personality, waged with evil in service of the greater good.
In scientific history, War of the Worlds is also credited with influencing the Space Age it so horrifically envisioned.
Wells’ classic inspired the young Robert Goddard, inventor of the first fuel rocket. Indeed, there is much rocketry, among other weapons of mass destruction, red-glaring in director George Pal’s 1953 film adaptation, a xenophobic Cold War iteration anchored to the systemic estrangement of Wells’ immortal introduction:
“Across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
Yet in art, as in life, the aphorism goes, even powerful and pitiless science and sci-fi must succumb to the climate and cli-fi in closure. Wells’ alien executioners, depersonalized machines, are “slain after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth” — microbial infection.
Blind to the earthy microbiome — and the cryosphere, the biosphere, the ignorosphere, and beyond into further terminology — our routinely technocratic science and sci-fi are redundantly outmatched. Intelligence, natural and artificial, confounded. Sifting through their science and sci-fi across time, we (re)discover failed sublimations of shock and awe, propagated by runaway industrialization, executed in fantasies of catastrophic realism.
In contrast, cli-fi cannot be shaken. Whether we fashion ourselves as humans or aliens, masters or slaves, cli-fi comprehends that Earth is our executioner in the final analysis. Whether we see it coming, or not.
Sourced in the scientific industry’s resource wars, sci-fi is similarly driven by exhaustion and extinction — of nature, of culture, of hope — saved rarely by a search for love and community. War of the Worlds’ narrator spends his invasion aftermath in a haze of post-traumatic stress disorder, until he is finally reunited with his wife, a cli-fi inversion of sci-fi’s conventional deus ex machina.
Harrowing and hopeful analogues widely range, in less bombastic but harder-hitting visions like Alfonso Cuaron’s harrowing adaptation of P.D. James’ Children of Men, or Terry Gilliam’s riotously prescient Brazil. The existential irony is rich, given that Brazil is a nation under mounting industrial and political duress, whose precious Amazon, a critical carbon sink, is storing less carbon dioxide as oligarchs engineer coups to accelerate deforestation.
These intersecting exhaustions, and too many more, are the creaking joints upon which sci-fi breaks down. Expressions of invasion and capitalization, parsed as exceptionalism and innovation, can be easily found in the postmodern canon. Touchstones like A Trip to the Moon, Metropolis and Things To Come; ubiquitous franchises like Stars Wars and Star Trek; subcultural influentials like the slipstreaming La Jetee and Gilliam’s millennial reboot, 12 Monkeys. From Akira to The Matrix, which closed down our war-torn 20th century with a hail of bullets and bullet-time — the last century, cli-fi notes, humanity could experience Earth beneath 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide — sci-fi has sadly been mined to collapse.
“The Heat Death of Sci-Fi” breaks down that spectacular entropy.
The Patriarchal Annihilation
On the other side of sci-fi’s blurred divide, Big Science industry has proven as invasive and exhausted.
In a cosmological blink, Big Science has spent the last few centuries extinguishing global cultures and extracting natural resources, deploying tyrannies and privileging wars and warriors. From Doctor Frankenstein and Doctor Mabuse to Dr. Strangelove and The Fog of War‘s mad scientist, Robert McNamara, and onward into oblivion armed with more, Big Science has rarely met an annihilation it didn’t love to death.
Compromised by coal, oil, gas, nuclear and other unsustainable energies probably better left buried beneath our once-cool planet, the scientific industry knowingly helped subsidize the sixth mass extinction, rendering the astronomical singularity of life on Earth an object zombie lesson. It is not just sci-fi, but also science which coherently, painfully reminds us that it is we who are the walking dead, trained by exterminative programming bleeding from our screens and dooming our children.
Many of the essential, self-aware documentaries of another archivist, Adam Curtis — such as The Living Dead, The Century of the Self, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace… — have dizzyingly captured these technocratic catastrophes, in recombined historical footage revising reality as you experience(d) it. Others less ambitious but just as necessary, including the aptly named Surviving Progress, argue outright that scientific overreach is an extinction event in search of a trigger.
For all its triumphalism, exponential technological development has, so far, epically failed to transform an obsolete energy industry before it melted Earth’s polar ice caps and reanimated our globally warmed Anthropocene, which is shaping up, so far, to rival the Permian Triassic extinction event, which scientists solemnly refer to as The Great Dying.
It’s not as if renewable solutions haven’t been within grasp for decades before the 20th century ended, to say nothing of the wasted 21st century. “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy,” Thomas Edison famously said, in 1931. “What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
And yet Big Science clung instead to apocalyptic loss leaders, engineering a scale of destruction unseen on Earth in millions of years. Between the post-World War II boom of 1960, and the Bush and Obama administration’s over-leveraged 2000s, the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere rocketed from 320 parts per million to over 400 parts per million (and counting). It is a planetary acceleration proving impossible to survive, for almost all life on Earth.
Crunching the paltrty data, even the solar and wind booms of Obama’s two terms of presidential administration are no triumphant matter, and we have yet to unravel the global destabilization of the 2016 U.S. election. After decades of fossil fuel emissions and oppressions — including from the titanic ExxonMobil, whose paid scientists predicted environmental catastrophe as far back as the 1970s — our upward wave of solar installation has managed to penetrate, as of this writing, barely a percent or two of global electricity generation. Wind power, while cheaper on more widespread, is similarly underrepresented and under-subsidized. Whether renewable energy’s evolutionary baby steps forward will arrive in time to save ourselves — from what Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski told me was an enslavement to fossil fuels — still remains what Donald Rumsfeld would tellingly term an “unknown unknown.”
And so from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant to the warnings of Karl Marx, to the technical manuals of Tesla and Darpa, who or what is master and who or what is slave becomes a process in desperate need of deprogramming. Persisting materially and maddeningly, the master-slave binarism has led directly to deeper capital and cultural imbalances, whether in America’s electoral college or Thomas Pynchon’s V and The Crying of Lot 49. Owning more of Earth and its species than ever before, privileged humans of varying percentiles cling to the capitalist fantasy of ceaseless growth like life rafts from the Titanic — another turn of the century epic whose lead, Leonardo DiCaprio, portals deeper into cli-fi classics like The Revenant and his documentary, Before the Flood. Cli-fi also notes that those last two films were bankrolled by right-wing media titan Rupert Murdoch, and that DiCaprio was one of the first environmental heavyweights to meet with a transitioning Trump administration stacked with climate deniers.
We can have some more / Nature is a whore. — Nirvana, “In Bloom”
Many of these forces have stalled decelerative innovations in degrowth, reforestation and other capture strategies aiming to sink runaway emissions, which have been dumbly sacrificed as Big Science slaves beneath fallacious master narratives of energy, finance, medicine and the military, engines of hyperconsumption running on empty.
Consider STEM, a purposefully strategic, and perhaps intentionally ironic, which markets science, technology, engineering and medicine as an organic machine. Such propaganda deflects statistics disclosing that the top employers of America’s best and brightest mathematicians are often Wall Street and/or the National Security Agency. Similarly, agriculture multinationals pondering corporate inversions, such as Monsanto, Bayer, and Dupont, snatch up Earth’s top chemists and other scientists like alien abductions.
Cli-fi influentials like Hayao Miyazaki have created decorated careers by illustrating STEM’s apocalyptic fallout, most notably in Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and The Wind Rises. A resolute no-nukes activist, as well as a pessimistic doom prophet who spends his days off cleansing his local river, Miyazaki has made his name charting the contours of science and nature, master and slave, Earth and machine.
There is also much great documentary cli-fi stored in the bowels of Big Science, including Into Eternity, a haunting dive deep into Earth’s womb, where humanity is hoping to store — for thousands of years, without irony — its post-nuclear waste. Nuclear Cinema alone deserves its own book-length analysis, deconstructed through cli-fi’s cultural prism.
How long until the climate or its cli-fi claims the radioactive Runit Dome, known to the quickly sinking Marshall Islands as The Tomb, which is now being swallowed by sea rise? Will it arrive as an inevitable blockbuster, or a disturbing documentary? Indeed, how much longer can Big Science, to say nothing of us, literally afford to ignore STEM’s irradiated offspring, and other technocratic tombs? Like thermodynamics itself, global warming’s entropic unraveling will eventually come to for The Tomb’s 111,000 cubic tons of nuclear machinery, as surely as it will come for all of us.
In the stark reality of such harm, what scientists, physicians and other Frankensteins can rebuild science and sci-fi’s integrity?
Given the historical record, it seems no error that Earth is on life support during the same period in which the third highest cause of death on Earth are medical errors. They are committed by medical, pharmaceutical, and related industries, marketed as healthcare, which more realistically, if you will, prescribe variations on opiates, antibiotics, and other chemical nightmares evading regulations and spawning epidemics, found in foundational sci-fi like George Lucas’ THX-1138, and Aldous Huxley’s source text, Brave New World.
It is certainly no accident that Huxley was a pioneer in psychedelics, now mainstreaming into accepted medicine for a post-tramautic populace wracked by stress disorders at the global scale. Cli-fi significantly notes that Huxley himself descended from Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, whose evangelism of doomed social darwinism, in turn, added legitimacy to the British Empire’s ruthless total war of colonialism and industrialization. Which, in turn, spawned Well’s War of the Worlds, and sci-fi itself.
What would the Huxleys, as well as Darwin, hypothesize today? Confronted with a sixth mass extinction of unimaginable magnitude, as humanity — the survivors, the fittest — nullify the Endangered Species Act?
When comprehensively assembling this evidence and more, we find climate science and cli-fi already supplanting Big Science and sci-fi, rather than serving as fashionable subordinates. Sci-fi, such as it is, may barely survive our still-new century before suicide, bereft of the jetpack it always wanted while it was busy dreaming up drones and other death from above.
But cli-fi flowers where sci-fi fails.