In the early 1990s, I came across a novel that my dad had recently finished reading. He and I share the same tastes in fiction, and, although I was in my mid teens at the time, it was common for me to pick up a book once he was done with it and dive in. This one was This Other Eden, by Ben Elton, and it changed the course of my writing life.
In the novel, which was published in 1993, eco-terrorists fight to save the planet from greedy corporations more interested in profiting from environmental collapse than preventing it. Suddenly, I knew what kind of science fiction Iwanted to write.
A few years later, I had a draft of the manuscript that would eventually become Edge of Heaven, my Arthur C Clarke Award-shortlisted debut novel. It’s set in 2119, on a climate-changed Earth, where altered fluvial patterns have led to both flooding and drought, and sea-level rise has drastically shrunk the planet’s livable space. Environmental refugees are housed in bi-level cities built wherever the space can be found. Creo is one such city: dark, crumbling and overcrowded. And when a novel pathogen starts killing off its citizens, Creo is the perfect breeding ground for a deadly new wave of disease.
The novel was released in April 2020, just as the Covid pandemic took hold. I can only hope that I wasn’t as prescient about the climate science.
Today, in early 2022, I’m getting ready to launch Edge of Heaven’s sequel, On The Brink. The writing of this novel was a different experience. Whereas the early drafts of Edge were an exercise in “what if…”, On The Brink came into being in a world in which climate catastrophe is already starting to arrive. It’s no longer a question of “what if…” but, rather, “when” and “how bad.” Edge of Heaven was about what happens to the planet when it’s pushed past the point of sustainability, and what life will look like for the average person. On The Brink, similarly, is about the technological life rafts humanity will have to build if we want to survive this century. In Edge of Heaven it was a bi-level city. In On The Brink it’s the orbital factory town of Luchtstad, one of the few places left on Greater Earth where it’s still possible to cultivate flower bulbs.
The idea came to me during a glorious summer spent in the Netherlands, where I, along with a group of other late-teens and early-twenty-somethings, lived in a campsite and worked in a local factory, picking and packing bulbs. The work may have been long and repetitive – and I had no appreciation until that summer of just how dreadful a rotten hyacinth bulb can be – but the people and the place were wonderful. I was staying just outside of Noordwijk, a seaside town in the Randstad, fronted by sandy beaches and surrounded by picturesque countryside. In spring, the area is blanketed beneath a rainbow of colour as the tulips blossom, and an annual flower parade sets off for nearby Haarlem. By 2050, if current projections hold, it will be underwater.
On The Brink’s orbital cities are the answer to a question nobody wants to have to ask: what are we going to do when huge swathes of the globe become uninhabitable? How are we going to produce enough food for an overpopulated planet when so much arable land is submerged beneath rising sea levels, sterilised by drought, or subject to dangerously unpredictable weather? I have no doubt that we’ll find some kind of stopgap, because humans are stubborn, tenacious, and endlessly resourceful, but I very much doubt that it’s going to be an improvement on what we’ve already got. Luchtstad is a fanciful solution – and it relies on entirely speculative science for its existence – but, in the future of On the Brink, it’s a solution without which there would be no future, because the climate of an orbital city, unlike the climate on an overwhelmed Earth, is controllable and readily adapted to the kind of environments that plant matter needs to grow and thrive. If we can’t find a real-life Luchtstad equivalent in the next few decades, we may be in trouble, and for the kind of money that’s going to be required, it strikes me as incredibly likely that our own solution will have to involve corporate finance. Even today, space exploration is beginning the slide towards commercial control; research and development in service of the elucidation of mankind is all very well on paper, but for the kind of sums involved, it makes a weary kind of sense that it will all eventually come down to the potential return on investment. Luchtstad, humanity’s life raft, is no different.
Luchtstad monetises climate catastrophe by providing a home, job security, and a future for a group of people without access to the resources needed to survive ecological collapse – those on or below the poverty line – and trapping them in a cycle of dependency whereby keeping their job almost literally becomes a matter of life and death. Luchtstad looks after its citizens – but there’s a price for that care. You are owned by the city and your ability to survive belongs to the corporation for whom you work. There’s no escape, because there’s nowhere to escape to. After all, where are you going to go – Earth?
And that’s the trouble with life rafts. They’re supposed to be a temporary solution to a temporary problem. They’re not meant to be forever.
As a species, we’re wired to think in the short-term. That was critical to our survival when we were evolving the brain processes that have set us apart from our ancestors and allowed us to dominate the world on which we live: you deal with the immediate problem as it arises, and then you conserve your resources so that you’re ready for the next big threat. And that mindset was useful when we were dealing with short-term dangers, but our society has evolved faster than our threat response, and it’s now actively detrimental to our future. The 2008 financial crisis was the result of short-term thinking over long-term fiscal responsibility. Our democratic model of leadership is built around an election cycle that prioritises quick wins and navel gazing. And because we’re the proverbial frog in boiling water when it comes to irreversible damage to our planet, short-termism is the reason why we’ve left it past the point where we can stop the coming catastrophe. What’s left to us now is mitigation.
But I do not, and never will, believe that humanity is irredeemably flawed. That stubborn, reckless, head-in-the-sand mentality that’s got us into this mess and has been overwhelmingly failing, so far, to get us out is also the source of what I think will save us.
“The world may be broken,” says John Green, author of The Anthropocene Reviewed, “but hope is not crazy.” Yes, things look bad right now. That’s because they are bad, and we’ve let them get bad when we didn’t need to. But science fiction, which looks to the future and imagines “what if…?” has, in the past few years, begun to conceptualise a different way forward. Solarpunk imagines a world in which we’ve met our current crisis head-on and worked together to find a solution in a fairer, more equitable society. In times of crisis, the most revolutionary stories are tales of hope.
So, Luchtstad steals souls and feeds them into the corporate machine as the price of food security. So the planet it orbits has been ravaged by unchecked greed, and the gap between rich and poor has widened to an abyssal gulf. I make no claims to write solarpunk; I cut my teeth on a more dystopian vision of the future, and it’s etched its way firmly into the stories that I want to tell. But Luchtstad, bread basket of a world too broken now to feed its own, may represent the very worst impulses of a species addicted to short-term thinking – but it can’t quite erase that spark within us that seeks the beautiful from the depths of ugliness.
Twenty years ago, I spent the summer packing flower bulbs in a factory that, twenty years from now, may be under a risen sea. There’s no reason why Luchtstad, a city-sized agrifood processing plant that exists to mitigate against global collapse, should have room to grow anything other than staple, plant-based foods: it’s a crisis response, after all. But hope exists in the darkest spaces. I packed bulbs for a summer, and so Luchtstad produces not only the plants that feed our bodies, but also the plants that feed our souls. Because I believe that, no matter what the future holds, we’ll find a way to make it beautiful.
And I’d rather not live in a world without flowers.
Find out more about Edge of Heaven.
RB Kelly’s debut novel, Edge of Heaven, is published by NewCon Press and was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. The sequel, On The Brink, will be released in May 2022. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Best of British Science Fiction, Aurealis, and Andromeda Spaceways Magazine. She has a PhD in film theory and, with Robert JE Simpson, runs CinePunked, an organisation dedicated to bridging the gap between academia and film fandom.