HomeAll postsChanging the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe - a convention report

Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe – a convention report

It appears that many were not aware of this science fiction conference, scheduled for the 3 days prior to AussieCon4, held at Monash University in Melbourne with Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) as Guest of Honour. This conference was a real treat, held in the Monash Conference Centre with 3 rooms for 3 different streams and a smorgasbord of academic presentations to choose from. Each session usually had 2 or 3 presenters, so it was difficult to choose. The only complaints I heard over the three days were about being forced to choose, and people hoping all the presentations would be made available over the web soon. Below I’ve mentioned a few short points from a few of the lectures I attended. In later issues I hope to render decipherings of my notes or possibly even publish the work of other speakers.

Kate Rigby opened the conference with obvious passion for her topic. Rigby concluded by commenting that utopia is a means not an end unto itself and that we must learn to dance with disaster by being responsive and improvising. Ecological epicureanism is important in that we must develop new models of the good life to create alternative hedonism. Humanity must escape its identity as separate from the world, in order to embrace a new identity as ‘Earthlings’. Greed must be balanced with fear of consequences.

Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor discussed Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the many issues this novel raised. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian feminist novel with many themes including women’s access to employment and how this affects fertility, perceptual inattention to risk as a hazard in itself, isolation caused by hardening oneself against others, building walls and the ease of surrendering freedoms. In this novel science is masculinised while art is feminised and both are pitted against one another.  Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor and Peter Marcs were the panel for this session and were united in saying that science is deficient because it lacks ethics, empathy, visualisation, a source of hope and faith in imagination.

Tom Moylan warned of the dangers of artificial negativity, which is a form of reformist behaviour too readily contained and exploited. As Moylan pointed out, privatisation of a green lifestyle is already occurring. Moylan referred to numerous works of SF in his talk, to assert that these novels exist as an informing tense of positive utopian myth. In KSR’s Mars trilogy, the struggle of the colonists to combine impossible opposites results in will transformation, eco-ontology and eco-politics. Moylan managed an impressive discussion of a number of KSR’s books in his allocated time.

It should be noted that, while Kim Stanley Robinson was the guest of honour, his books were also the subject of a number of lectures. I had not read any of Robinson’s books so it was fascinating to hear a variety of interpretations of his work. I should also point out that, with 3 streams, I could have chosen not to hear many talks about Robinson’s books. My favourite memory from the conference was of Stan Robinson sitting in lectures on his own books taking notes.

Robinson on Robinson was also fascinating. Apparently Robinson came to utopia ‘by accident’. He was reading utopian non-fiction hippy style books seeking to live the dream and find alternative technology. Realisation dawned that there was something wrong with utopia as a narrative, and Terry told him ‘there’s a gun under the table.’ Even after writing so many utopian novels, Robinson thinks utopia is a terrible idea but it has been worth experimenting with this strange subject.

Imagining utopia is possible as it is possible to imagine change. Rather it is the bridge from here to utopia we cannot imagine, visualising a positive history upon which utopia depends. Like an ocean liner that cannot be turned around in under 10 kilometers we cannot change our society overnight without catastrophe. Robinson asked: are we in a Wile E. Coyote moment where gravity hasn’t caught us yet? Are we in a fantasy moment? Can we change things? Robinson suggests that SF writers need to write the new future to help people visualise and realise it. It used to be the perfect society was considered utopian, but now survival of the human race is the new utopia.

Urging writers and artists to network with scientists to assist in communicating the dire situation the Earth is in, Robinson said, ‘Apart from the slings and arrows and the feeling you might get assaulted, it’s really quite fun.’ This comment, I think, encapsulates Robinson’s intelligence, creativity and sense of humour.

John Clute, SF critic with 50 years’ experience, closed the conference. Clute feels oppressed by entering a world tragedy as we don’t have the skills to deal with the impending disaster. SF failed to acclimatise us to the future except to expect change.

Heinlein was an engineer who believed the world had problems that needed to be solved. As an activist, Heinlein wrote utopian visions that fatally fail to generate a sense of consequence. Clute told an engaging story about London buses to illustrate his point. The old buses had platforms on the back where people could jump on and off, air circulated through the bus and communities were different. These buses were replaced, bus stops were instituted and regulated, traffic jams developed behind buses blocking traffic flow. And the people became little islands separated from one another.

Clute raised awareness of the need for a sense of consequence while also warning that we cannot predict outcomes of change. Kim Stanley Robinson urged artists to join forces with scientists to communicate the issues of climate change to the broader community. Kate Rigby inspired us to learn to dance with disaster, not to be overly reliant on authorities but to be flexible, and to develop an alternative hedonism in order to aspire to a good life that does not detrimentally impact upon the world.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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