The Big Idea: Cory Doctorow
In today’s Big Idea, Cory Doctorow talks about his new novel The Lost Cause, but he also talks about why so many of science fiction writers work in the genre at all. Both topics are, unsurprisingly, fascinating.
Danger is scary, but helplessness is scarier.
For the 45 years since we were first warned that climate change could render our planet uninhabitable, we’ve been strapped into a bus headed over the cliff’s edge, watching our doom draw ever-nearer as the first class passengers tell us to stop screaming, it’s all in our heads.
The cliff draws nearer, and the toffs tell us that we’ll “innovate” our way out of this, putting wings on the bus while it’s in motion. The cliff draws nearer still, and they assure us that the only alternative is to go so fast that we jump the chasm.
Our impending doom is only part of the terror in this scenario. What makes this a nightmare is the inevitability of it all. That feeling of being strapped in, patted on the head, told to sort our recycling more diligently and “shop green.”
The Lost Cause is my next novel. It’s a hopeful novel of climate disaster.
It’s a book where all the disasters that we have now committed ourselves to have come to pass: cities wiped off the map by rising seas, unbreathable air filled with wildfire smoke, punishing floods, waves of habitat-loss precipitated plagues, and millions of refugees on the march.
But it’s also a book where millions of people – the “Blue Helmets,” created by Green New Deals all over the world – have trained to weatherize and solarize houses, to care for refugees, to fight fires, to relocate whole coastal cities many kilometers inland.
It’s a world where we have broken free of our bonds, rushed the driver, grabbed the wheel, and swerved.
And, naturally, it’s a world where many people are furious that this has happened.
The protagonist of The Lost Cause is a high-school senior in Burbank named Brooks Palazzo whose parents died while serving as volunteers on the project to rescue the city of Calgary from the floodplain where it stands today.
Brooks is part of “the first generation in a future that doesn’t fear the future,” and he’s ready to spend his life being part of the solution. But an unholy alliance of seagoing anarcho-capitalist wreckers and grudge-nursing white nationalist militiamen want to strap Brooks – and all his comrades back in their seats and put the bus back into gear. That chasm isn’t going to leap itself. Ad Astra!
The Lost Cause is part of a veritable shelfful of books I wrote during lockdown. When covid struck, I climbed into my backyard hammock and wrote, and wrote.
I wrote through the heat and the rains, I wrote as the sky turned orange and wildfire ashes sifted out of the sky and stained the skin around my N95 mask sooty grey.
I wrote because that’s how I go from being life’s passenger to taking a small bit of control over my destiny. Writing isn’t just a way for me to escape to a better world, it’s a way to help conjure that world into existence.
Science fiction, after all, is a literature that says we’re not prisoners of history. It’s a way to say, “Things can be different. What we do matters. The future is up for grabs.”
Bill McKibben called The Lost Cause “The first great YIMBY novel,” adding “forget the Silicon Valley bros–these are the California techsters we need rebuilding our world, one solar panel and prefab insulated wall at a time.”
Kim Stanley Robinson said, “Along with the rush of adrenaline I felt a solid surge of hope. May it go like this.”
For me, these two quotes are the perfect summary of why writing – especially writing sf – feels so satisfying in anxious times. None of us can stop the bus on our own, but if we can break free of the frozen terror of helplessness and understand that the bonds that hold us in our seats are forged of our own constrained imagination. we can grab the wheel and swerve.