By Alyssa Rosenberg
Jul 13, 2011
America Pacifica. It’s an unnerving novel, based on the idea that as life on the continental United States becomes unlivable, a few surviving humans fled to a tropical island, counting on the idea that they’d be able to build it out on landfill and set up a viable alternative society.
And it raises an interesting question that I think more works of science fiction might usefully consider: what if we only start working on solutions to climate change and other environmental problems after we’re past the point of no return?
The interesting thing about America Pacifica is its pessimism. A lot of futurist literature involves a heroic effort, undertaken in a time of great duress for the human race, but it’s also frequently invested in arguing that wrenching societal change may be painful, but that it’s critically important. That optimism makes sense. It’s pretty difficult to convince people that they should move to a totally new energy source, or settle Mars, or establish a colony on an isolated and under-resourced island, without the promise that it’s going to pay off pretty big. There are science fiction authors who are profound pessimists of course, among them China Mieville, but I think they tend to write about worlds that are already in dire straights rather than examining the crucial periods and key decisions that made life unlivable.
North’s novel makes clear that humanity had to do something in order to continue existing. But they made a decision about what to do after humanity had been so winnowed down that weak people could become leaders, and the ranks were so thinned that ideas didn’t get questioned and tested the way they should have been. Instead of a grand dream, Pacifica turns into a nightmare world, a land that’s hideously stratified by class, dominated by a few large businesses that blacklist workers, where the only social services are provided by a few religious charities, the school system doesn’t lift anyone up, food is synthetic, and the ground is literally collapsing. The novel follows a moment when sentiment shifts on the island from a general acceptance that even if humanity’s now deeply stratified, the move to Pacifica was worth it, to a profound skepticism of Pacifica’s leaders that culminates in a coup. And even then, North has a whiff of Mieville’s Marxist skepticism about whether changing regimes actually changes life for most people ruled by them. What people really need is a completely different approach to humanity’s survival, not new leadership on an island that is at risk of actually sinking. But only a few people can make a break that radical.
And that’s a scary message, especially for a book on global warming. I don’t know that we’re going to end up with a scenario where a few hundred thousand remaining humans are living on a hugely polluted island in the Pacific Ocean. But I do think we might get to a point where we just accept huge asthma and lung cancer rates and the radical degradation of even protected spaces before we mobilize to really change anything.