Art, science and the Anthropocene: tales of life on a warming planet


illustration of climate catastrophe
(Courtesy: iStock/Boonyachoat)

In Works and Days by the Ancient Greek poet Hesiod, a vengeful Zeus contrives to punish humanity for acquiring the gift of fire from Prometheus. He achieves this by delivering to them Pandora – a woman who comes with a jar full of “countless evils” that are promptly unleashed upon the Earth. While the story was perhaps intended as piece of theodicy, let us for a moment re-imagine it in the context of human-driven climate change. Having mastered the ability to burn fossil fuels, humanity now finds itself beset with plagues in the form of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, disease outbreaks, extreme weather, habitat loss and mass extinction.

In the face of such tribulations, it is easy to become pessimistic when considering the future that lies before us. It is therefore no mean feat that the entrancing stories in Tomorrow’s Parties: Life in the Anthropocene all touch upon the one thing left at the bottom of Pandora’s vessel – hope. Compiled by Hugo Award-winning publisher and editor Jonathan Strahan, this anthology of science-fiction stories is part of the Twelve Tomorrows series from MIT Press. The book presents 10 rich tales – by writers from across the globe, including the US, Nigeria, China, Bangladesh, the UK and Australia. In each case, they imagine how life will continue, come what may, as we forge further into the Anthropocene – the current geological era in which humans have had such a huge impact on the environment.

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The back cover of the book promises musings on the question “what will life be like in a climate-changed world?” and many of the stories in the collection choose to tackle this head-on. For example, humanity has retreated underwater in Sarah Gailey’s “When the tide rises”. Meanwhile in Daryl Gregory’s “Once upon a future in the west” wildfires so vast that they choke California in a “dense, sandpaper fog” are the key setting for the whacky interlinked stories of one family, the “last” cowboy and an elderly Tom Hanks.

The impact of the climate crisis plays out in the background in some of the other stories. In Justina Robson’s “I give you the Moon”, a young man living in a pandemic-ravaged world applies what he learnt while remote-operating an ocean-cleaning crab robot to help realize his dream of going on a “Viking adventure”. Efforts to regrow reefs on the coast of Australia in the face of storms and rising sea levels provide a backdrop to the interpersonal drama of James Bradley’s “After the storm”.

All of these tales are interesting, but two stories in Tomorrow’s Parties stood out for their fascinating perspectives. Borrowing from the current political zeitgeist in the US, Greg Egan imagines a volunteer group that responds to cyclones from the unlikely point of view of a climate-change-denying infiltrator seeking to expose “crisis actors”. Egan paints a delicately layered picture of someone in the grip of doublethink (accepting conflicting views about a subject, mostly due to political indoctrination) that still, in keeping with the book’s overarching theme, offers hints of hope in the end. Malka Older’s “Legion”, meanwhile, is preoccupied with acts of bearing witness. It imagines how ubiquitous video technology could be used to tackle violence against women, but with a main character who is himself revealed to be a perpetrator of such abuse.

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All of the stories in the anthology are beautifully composed and well chosen. In fact, the only real criticisms I could make concern its non-fiction components, which includes an interview with the prominent science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson (best known, perhaps, for his Mars trilogy). On the one hand, I found his musings – that a deadly heatwave might finally push nations to try more “radical”, geoengineering-based solutions to the climate crisis –  resonated with me more sharply in the wake of the record-breaking temperatures seen here in the UK. However, the positioning of the conversation at the front of the work, before the alleged “main course” of the story collection, felt like a weirdly self-shrinking choice. It also makes me wish that the book could have further explored the intent and motivations of the authors behind the tales actually published in the work.

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The introduction, meanwhile, disappointed the former liberal arts tutor in me because it churned out, seemingly without a shred of irony, a variant of that familiar, lazy and hackneyed student essay opener: “Miriam-Webster defines science fiction as…” Such an introduction belies the brilliance of the tales in this work, which deserve a write-up as imaginative, eloquent and engaging as they are.  But, all in all, these are trivial quibbles. For the science-fiction enthusiast, Tomorrow’s Parties is less of a Pandora’s jar and more like a treat box full of riveting narratives about lived experiences in the Anthropocene. Together they present a compelling narrative – much like in Saad Z Hossain’s story “The ferryman” – that the richness of life will endure past most changes, and so perhaps there is still hope at the bottom of the jar.

  • 2022 MIT Press $19.95pb 232pp

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