The Two Schools Of Climate-Fiction

The Millions, March 6, 2017.

As I wrote this, from the corner of my eye, I could see CNN providing coverage of a gargantuan hurricane, racing resolutely towards the eastern coastal arc of the U.S., extending from Florida all the way up to the Carolinas. The footage shows fierce winds roiling the waters of the Atlantic; wave after wave, crashing against the shore, slopping out over the edge of the sea wall. It could have been an event such as this that prompted J.G. Ballard to write “The Drowned World”—a forerunner of a genre, dubbed in the 21st century as “climate-fiction”—in which he paints a nightmare landscape, where the seas have swelled and swallowed up the land.

Marine biologist Robert Kerans is a member of a United Nations military team, mapping the drowned harbors for future reoccupation. As they make their way in a catamaran, they enter a “wide circle of dark green water” through whose layers they can see the “outlines of buildings looming like giant ghosts.” A straight gray promenade stretched away between the buildings, the remains of some former thoroughfare; the rusting humped shells of cars still standing by the curb.” That’s a lagoon. Beneath it is a “spectral” metropolis: London. The British capital had sunk sometime in the “closing years of the second millennium.”

All over the world, mean temperatures rose till the polar ice caps melted and the glaciers turned into torrential rivers and the contours of the continents were altered. At around 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the equator had become a veritable oven. “Europe became a system of giant lagoons.” The American Midwest had become an “enormous gulf opening into the Hudson Bay.” Only the polar regions offered a feeble refuge from the encroaching searing heat.

As the mercury soared and the air boiled, the fauna and flora rapidly reverted to what they were during the Triassic, a geological period that ended 200 million years ago. The wheat fields of the temperate climes had been overrun by dense groves of towering calamites, ferns, horsetails, clubmosses, transforming them into Amazon-like rainforests on steroids. Darwinism dictated that creatures better adapted to a life in jungles, swamps and lakes flourished; those not, perished. Iguanas “perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores.”

Today, there’s a growing worry that rising oceans will inundate low-lying areas around the world. It’s now known—at least, to some—that the agent of the recent climate-change is the result of industrial and post-industrial humankind. Over time, the relentless release of greenhouse gases (those that trap heat) has taken its toll on the planet.

Three years ago, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached an average daily level of above 400 parts per million, a number last known to have existed during an epoch called the Pliocene. The New York Times reported that experts feared that more emissions could trigger a return to primitive climate conditions.

Writing in 1962, in envisioning that the global climate would be thrown off-kilter, of course, Ballard is prescient, but his foresight likely came out of his rumination on the fate of the planet, not environmental study. In this particular novel, he attributes the alarming shift in Earth’s ecosystem to “a series of violent and prolonged solar storms,” triggered by a “sudden instability of the Sun.” Humans have no role in the apocalypse in Ballard’s story.

His thoughts, in this regard, have shades of H.G. Wells. In “Time Machine” (1895), as the temporal tourist travels forward in time, he remarks how much hotter it was in the future than it is in his own age. He can’t understand why that should be so, but he reasons: “It may be that the Sun was hotter or the Earth nearer the Sun.”

“Planets must ultimately fall back one by one into the parent body. As these catastrophes occur, the Sun will blaze with renewed energy; and it may be that some inner planet had suffered this fate. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Sun was very much hotter than we know it.” As he journeys, he watches the Sun grow bigger and bigger till it filled the sky. It “halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome, glowing with a dull heat.” Sometime, in the very distant future, it comes to obscure a good slice of the heavens.

The narrative of “The Drowned World,” likewise, is laden with the fiery power of the Sun and its engorgement. It’s no longer a “sphere,” but a “wide, expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fireball.” It “filled the sky, turning it into an enormous blowtorch.” It even takes the form of an organic entity, pulsing, its “volcanic pounding” beckoning men to sail south as if it were a beautiful siren.

It’s not clear what president Donald Trump knows or thinks about climate-change, but he has called global warming a “hoax,” insisting that he’s not a believer in man-made climate change. There, he and the Republicans would be in agreement with both Ballard and Wells.

In most works with the science-fiction postmark, typically, victims flee from a cataclysm. Not in this. One fine day, when a swashbuckling buccaneer and his crew pull off a feat of derring-do by resurrecting the lost metropolis and London emerges “like an immense intact Atlantis,” the reaction of the last human survivors to it is not one of joy and relief, but total repugnance. They regard it as a hellish, “drained and festering sewer” and do nothing to reclaim it. Instead, they choose to stay in their surreal, silent, waterlogged reality. Their willful surrender to it stems from their staunch belief that it’s an act of god, in the face of which resistance is futile, even unwarranted.

Odds Against Tomorrow

Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow” is a tale in the same tradition. Published more than 50 years later, it proves what a difference half a century can make. A much-touted eco-fiction, it, like “The Drowned World,” is about a meteorological anomaly, but one that’s far more plausible. It takes place, where else, but New York?

A powerful hurricane makes landfall in the New York Bight. In its wake, all five boroughs of New York are battered, Manhattan being the hardest hit. The East River and the Hudson, which flank the slender island surge and converge in its middle, flooding it entirely. The United Nations Secretariat, a building built on bedrock called the Manhattan schist dips below sea level, turning into a “sunken ship in the East River.” The two-tiered concourse of the Grand Central turns into a “lake—or a sea, since it was impossible to perceive its boundaries.”

Rich marries calamity with capital. Mitchell Zukor, a young math whiz, is an economic Cassandra, of sorts. His job at a futurist concern, housed in the Empire State Building, is to forecast a myriad hazards—everything from asteroid strike to biological warfare to solar storm to pestilence to cyberwarfare—so that businesses can inoculate themselves against them, should they come to pass. When the storm strikes, though, no one is prepared. But Zukor is better equipped to navigate it only because of a luxe purchase: a canoe.

As in the “The Drowned World,” in this book too, the land becomes very, very hot before the deluge. The “whole Northeast was blanched; wilting.” There had been no rainfall, leading to a prolonged drought reminiscent of the Dust Bowl. The air was heavy with thick, black dust, forcing people to wear masks, now sold by bodegas.

Unlike both Ballard and Wells, Rich holds man squarely responsible for this ecological mishap, blaming it on his insensate greed to build on grounds reserved for fauna and flora. In its aftermath, the state government decides to let the soggy, peripheral wastelands in Brooklyn to return to swampland as it once was before the colonizers arrived.

Ballard gives a fatalistic shrug at a bleak future, asking man to become one with nature. Rich, on the other hand, calls for a distinct separation of spheres, urging us to co-exist with it as equal partners.

Why I Blog?

Red Fez, November 13, 2016.

I

The only time there’s been a long break in my blogging is between a day in November 2009 and a day in March 2010. By the standard of speed of communication in the Digital Age, that interval in writing is the analog equivalent of 50 long years.

When I resumed blogging after that gap, I felt like a weary, but happy, soldier, back from a war. But I didn’t offer any explanation as to why I’d suddenly stopped posting. None was needed. After all, perhaps no one was reading the blog. Acknowledging my leave of absence, as I’m now, in itself, is enough.

When I reappeared in my online grotto, oddly, I’d also returned to the comfort of my offline home. In the past, when I’ve been away from my blog, I’ve also been away from home. The blog is that plane then, where the digital and the physical meet.

It’d come to be an outlet of my intellectual expression after my move to the Big Apple, for it was only after I took up residency in Brooklyn that I began to bang out my thoughts there with fair regularity. The only occasions when I didn’t were when I’ve been harried to the point of panting, slipping, and scraping my knees to meet deadlines at work. For some puzzling reason, I attained that frenetic pace only when my job took me far from base.

In any event, I picked up where I’d left off.

II

Many moons ago, when I began blogging on Blogger—now owned by Google—the notion of blogging was at its infancy. Back then, I was in graduate school, toiling away. Back then, I had coffee with milk and sugar. Now, I take it black. Much has changed since.

As a photo album is a collection of memories, so my blog was intended to be a a depository of my reflections on anything: interplanetary travel; how I was smitten by a beverage bottle; an outing to the U.S.S. Intrepid museum; a book by Honoré de Balzac; an ode to SpongeBob. Yes, an eclectic mix. That could be because I’m a jack of all trades. Or, it could be that I have an assortment of interests. Which, of course, I do. Better that, than to have none at all.

Some six years ago, Anthony De Rosa, now of “The Daily Show” (with Trevor Noah), shared on his Tumblr stream that “we live in a world of digital feudalism.” “The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr.” Sure, I didn’t own a piece of real estate on the web. But even as a digital fief, I could still till the land as I chose—as long as I didn’t pump out offensive or vulgar content.

III

The 15th century Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus asked his pupils to mark the occurrences of striking words, brilliant metaphors, adages, pithy wisdom, and archaic or novel diction. He also suggested that every student and teacher keep a notebook, organized by topic, so that as and when he came upon anything noteworthy, he may jot it down in the appropriate section.

Erasmus’ recommendation that every reader keep a notebook of memorable quotations was wildly followed. Such notebooks, which came to be called “commonplace books,” became fixtures of Renaissance schooling. Every student kept one. By the 17th century, they’d been adopted beyond the schoolhouse. They were regarded as vital tool for the cultivation of an educated mind. But their popularity ebbed as the pace of life quickened in the 19th century. By the middle of the 20th century, they fell out of favor.

Well, my blog is a 21st century edition of my “commonplace book.” Unfortunately, after I’d launched it, I hadn’t made much progress on it, when I was forced to neglect it all because of pressing demands on my time. Reason: I was busy earning bylines as a journalist.

IV

I’d dreamed of becoming an airline pilot, but by a quirk of fate—and under the tutelage of a pair of doting, but disciplinarian parents—I ended up being inside a newsroom, not the cockpit of a jumbo jet. I was a newspaper person, with little interest in newspapers, even though I cut my professional teeth in the most prestigious daily of the nation where I started out working. I did my job fairly well, even though I tempted the firing squad more than once.

So, I’ve tasted the magic and the dread of journalism. My career didn’t take me places. I took it, from the smog-drenched streets of a crowded and chaotic Asian capital to a tropical island (home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world) to the barren prairies of the American Midwest to Arcadian New England hamlets.

This journey—both through places and broadsheets—was an opportunity to cover a potpourri of events in municipal governments, cop houses, courts, schools, Main Street, and everything in between. At this writing, I’ve worked as a reporter and an editor; in print and pixel publications; in metropolitan dailies and community rags.

IV

As the pastures in the flagging media industry grew more fallow, I turned my blog into my own private newspaper, taking on the roles of correspondent, editor, and publisher. I made sure that I didn’t let it molder away. If anyone stumbled into it and read something that made them wrinkle their nose or hot under the collar, they could get in touch with me.

As far as interactivity went, though, Blogger seemed as lukewarm as the last sips of the deli coffee. Feedback was rare. “Blogging can be a very lonely occupation,” observed Sue Rosenstock, a spokeswoman for LiveJournal—now owned by SUP, a Russian online media company—in an interview with the New York Times. “You write out into the abyss.” That was one of the reasons blogs “[lost] their allure for many people.” People drifted to Facebook and Twitter, where they could connect with others.

But I made the decision to migrate to another blogging platform: WordPress. It was like arriving in a new country, with its new customs and codes (pun, please.) Slowly, I acclimated to the new environment. On another front, however, I dithered.

Should I make that space simply, a showcase of my work? If I did, it’d be a terrible waste of free storage space (of data.) So, I converted it into a dynamic venue, updating it every couple of days. But was I hankering for readership? If anyone happens to stop by, I smile. If not, I “keep calm, and carry on.”

Oz Is Not Down Under As Everyone Thinks It Is

The Wizard Of Oz

PopMatters, October 25, 2016

Oz is a lexical emoji or a morpheme for Australia. Many know it to be an oblique nod to the other Oz, the fairyland setting of Frank L. Baum’s children’s classic. That connection could’ve had its genesis in “Ozma of Oz,” book No.3, published in 1907.

In it, Dorothy Gale’s uncle takes a vacation to recharge after working himself to exhaustion to rebuild his Kansas farmhouse—after it was swept away by a tornado in the maiden volume, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900). He sails to Australia, with the little girl as his traveling companion.

But Oz isn’t a magical monarchy within the perimeter of Australia. The path to how the latter earned the moniker, Oz, is a convoluted one, punctuated by detours. In the mid-1960s, a group of expatriate Australians in London, led by Richard Neville, started an alternative magazine called “OZ,” (which had begun its publication in Sydney in 1963, before it moved to London in 1967.)

Its title had indeed, been borrowed from “The Wizard of Oz,” but as a play on the pronunciation of the truncated half of Australia (pronounced: Oz.) By the time David Williamson, one of Australia’s best known playwrights, wrote “Emerald City” (1987), the notion of Oz as a nickname for Australia had taken firm root. It followed then that if Australia was Oz, Sydney, its conchological metropolis, should be Emerald City.

The map of Oz and its neighboring kingdoms (in which the east and the west are reversed.)
The map of Oz and its neighboring kingdoms (in which the east and the west are reversed.)

The literary Oz is located somewhere in the Middle East, likely in Iran because it’s curiously peppered with the hallmarks of a Persian society. The fictive kingdom is a rectangle, bordered on all four sides by undulating bands of deadly hot sands. It encompasses a quartet of provinces: the blue Munchkin (in the east), the yellow Winkie (in the west), the purple Gillikin (in the north), and the red Quadling (in the south.) It has a population of about 500,000—although not every one of its citizen is made of flesh and blood.

In our own world, such desert nations are mostly Islamic. Egypt is a vast sandy wilderness as is Saudi Arabia. The Sahara envelops vast swathes of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.

Where the two diagonals of the geographic quadrangle intersect in Oz, is Emerald City, its capital and the seat to the monarch of Oz, princess Ozma—again, a decidedly non-Christian name. When Dorothy and her party arrive there, they’re dazzled by its green glitter. The pavement they walk over is green. The window panes are of green glass. The rays of the Sun are green. Even the sky has a green tinge. It has 9,654 buildings, in which live 57,318 people. Those structures, like everything else in that pristine landscape, are also green.

Emerald City is green, literally, a color revered in Islam. In fact, the enormous ornate mosque in Medina, Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, has a huge green dome called, well, the Green Dome.

The interiors of houses and palaces in Oz are adorned with a profusion of jewels, such as rubies, diamonds, sapphires, amethysts, and turquoises. On the outside, though, they’re studded only with sparkling emeralds, from which circumstance the place get its name.

Possibly because of its hue, these gemstones were much coveted by the Muslim rulers of the Mughal Empire.  The “Mogul Mughal”—one of the largest emeralds known—is a magnificent, lustrous, dark green slab, about the size of a McDonald’s “bone-shaped” chicken nugget, bought by the court of Aurangzeb, sometime in 17th century India. The 220-carat stone was cut, polished and engraved by skilled carvers of that era with intricate foliate decoration on one side and Arabic calligraphy in elegant naksh script on the other.

Oz’ “Throne Room” is an “immense domed chamber in the center of the palace.” The imperial throne, itself, is made of solid gold that’s encrusted with jewels. Directly beneath it are “two electric fountains,” which eject “sprays of colored perfumed water, shooting up nearly as high as the arched ceiling.”

The dome, a rounded vault, is an architectural favorite of Islam, typically, made from masonry, not timber. Likewise, the material of construction in much of Oz tends to be not wood or brick—but marble.

In Bunnybury, a walled village, populated by urbane rabbits, described in book No. 6, “The Emerald City of Oz” (1910), the houses—which look like overturned kettles, with delicate, slender spires and minarets—are made of white marble. Each is framed by a lawn of green clover and opens into streets, also paved with white marble. Its royal residence is an imposing edifice of white marble reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, which too, is made entirely of white marble.

Does then, a story that’s as American as apple pie, celebrate facets of a culture, which at this juncture of history, has become a byword for everything the West isn’t? If so, does that disrupt our notion of Oz as a utopia? Not in the least. We remain forever enchanted.