Today, Liana Brooks (author of Decoherence) and Emmi Itäranta (author of The Weaver) are joining us for the Harper Voyager Science Fair (#HVsciencefair), to discuss Marine Ecosystems. Enjoy!
Stories of the Anthropocene, or, life on a different planet
by Emmi Itäranta
We tell stories of the past so we might understand it.
Once upon a time, there was a young world that was essentially nothing more than a dry, lifeless rock floating through space. Around it, other infant worlds were taking shape. In this still-chaotic dark age, collisions with comets and asteroids were not uncommon. Some of these comets and asteroids brought a new element with them: water.
Or perhaps it didn’t go like this at all. Perhaps, about 4.6 billion years ago, while the solar system revolving around a small unregarded yellow sun was taking its baby steps, a planet was born with a molten-hot core with rock wrapped around it, and around the rock, water.
We don’t know for certain where Earth’s water came from. The most credible hypotheses science has given us are that it arrived from space, on icy comets that collided with Earth, or that it was there from the beginning, formed at the same time as the rock it covers. But we do know this: the story of water, wherever it began, is the story of life on Earth.
Once upon a much later time, there was the Holocene: a geological epoch characterized by a relative stability of climate, significant shifts in distribution of plants and animals, and increased human activity. A geological epoch is defined as a time period that leaves distinct evidence in layers of rock. The Holocene is usually thought to have begun around 11,700 years ago, and it spans all human history known to us, every civilization until present day. Officially, we are still in the Holocene.
In the 21st century, however, an increasing number of scientists have proposed that we may have moved on to a new geological epoch that is shaped by human activity to such an extent that the long-term traces we leave on the planet will be discernible for tens of thousands of years. The suggested name for this new epoch is the Anthropocene.
Examples of human activity certain or likely to alter the strata record are numerous by now: global fallout from nuclear tests, spread of man-made materials throughout the planet, piercing Earth’s crust for oil, coal and minerals, releasing enough CO2 into the atmosphere to change temperatures and weather on a planetary scale – and having an impact on water everywhere from rainfall patterns to river deltas, from ocean acidification to plastic pollution.
In February 2017, an underwater photo of a tin can with the yellow letters SPAM on it floated around the internet. It was not just any piece of trash in any pond, but had been taken five kilometers deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of oceans on Earth. The photo accompanied science news of toxic chemical compounds found in animals ten kilometers below the surface. The narrative suggested by the image was clear: there is no place left on the planet where human impact does not reach, and the most vital pre-requisite of all life – water – now bears the marks we have left on it.
This, perhaps more than anything else, brings home the magnitude of what is happening. After all, the story of life, our life, is only possible because of water.*
We tell stories not only of the past, but also the future, so we might understand it. Imagination is our best way to try, and there is no other medium as well equipped to stimulate imagination as fiction. From this point of view it makes sense to ask: Does a literature of the Anthropocene exist, and what would it look like?
The start of the Anthropocene, which many scientists place around the world’s entry to nuclear age in the mid-twentieth century, coincides with the emergence of environmental themes in speculative fiction (I will use ‘speculative fiction’ as an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, horror and the less easily categorized fiction that falls outside the realm of realism). John Wyndham employed the idea of aliens melting the polar ice caps as a weapon against humanity in The Kraken Wakes as early as 1953. J.G. Ballard created a post-apocalyptic sea level rise scenario in The Drowned World in 1962, and portrayed water scarcity in The Burning World two years later. By the 1970s, Ursula K. Le Guin was writing about purposeful destruction of nature as a central part of military conflict in The Word for World Is Forest.
Since then, environmental themes have become commonplace. To mention only a few examples, from the effect the abandoned Area X has on scientists sent to study it in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, to the extinct and genetically modified animals in Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam Trilogy, to the contrasting hi-tech and primitive post-climate change futures in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, to the hostile planet that has turned against the humans who mistreated it in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, the fingerprint of the Anthropocene is visible all over literature, if you know where to look.
We see what is being lost, and we grieve: Robert Macfarlane notes that Anthropocene art is obsessed with loss and disappearance. We have, after all, barely entered this epoch, and are trying to come to terms with its realities. But once we have done the grieving, perhaps we will be able to tell stories not only to understand, but to prepare; to turn our imaginative powers towards futures where we are adjusted to life in a world so altered it might as well be a different planet.
In many ways, it will be.
On Marine Biology
by Liana Brooks
Picture a cityscape… a metropolis made not of humans, but of thousands of different species who interact with one another. Thousands of species living side by side to build an ever growing sprawl. To human eyes the architecture looks otherworldly, alien. The inhabitants are so wildly different from us that we could spend lifetimes in their world and still only see five percent of all there is to see.
Sounds like the opening to a great sci-fi movie, right? You could picture Star-Lord or Valerian striding across the concourse and fitting right in. But this alien world isn’t all that far away, it’s as close as your nearest marine biome.
Long before I thought of being an author, even before I could write actually, I planned to become a marine biologist. A Ph.D. from my hometown school of UCSD. I lived on the southern coast of California and while other kids were dreaming of castles and dragons, I was fascianated by the underwater world.
Let’s face it, the underwater world is the closest most of us will ever come to visiting an alien world. We can’t breath in that environment. Our bodies are wholly unsuited for survival there. We don’t understand the language and don’t even see on the same light spectrum as most of the inhabitants.
Humans have tried to breach the barriers. From diving bells to aquanaut habitats like Aquarius, run by NOAA, we have done everything in our power to conquer the strange, under sea universe without having even a basic understanding of what is out there.
It’s a very human thing to do.
But really, we’ve explored less than ten percent of the ocean. Which, to be fair, we’ve only explored an estimated 1% of our solar system. There is a lot of exploring left to do. Do you remember this photo?
When I was little Pluto was a distant pin dot of light that even the best telescopes could only see a fuzzy image of. We had no idea what it looked like.
I remember sitting at my computer in 2015 as the images poured into NASA and out across Twitter accounts. The first images of the distant dwarf planet with a big heart. My first novel came out that year… seeing images like this of Pluto was more exciting. Geeky, but true.
Humans first wrote stories about Pluto in 1931. H.P. Lovecraft and Stanton A. Coblentz were the first to describe it in fiction (although H.P. was writing about a 9th planet before Pluto was officially discovered – lucky hunch or time travel? I’ll let you decide). Humanity spent eighty-four years dreaming about Pluto before we got a good picture. It might be centuries before humanity even reaches Pluto’s surface.
If we want to be prepared for the alien life our species may one day encounter, where do we start? Well, why not consider the complexity of the coral reef? Corals are uniquely fascinating.
Corals are not one single organism, they are a complex colony clustered together for defense. Corals rely on each other for food, protection, and a chance to procreate, the same reasons many other species form packs, schools, and herds. Already we have connections and a better understanding!
In and around the architecture the corals provide a thriving ecosystem emerges. Teeny-tiny plankton are the bottom of the food chain. Algae photosynthesize sunlight like plants, only to be eaten by zooplankton that look like spaceships.
The zooplankton are eaten by crabs, shrimp, anemones, corals, fish, sharks, whales… everybody. There’s a whole delicate ecosystem out there that relies on sunlight, tides, and being faster than the strange creature trying to eat you.
Aww, they kill you with the cute!
Like terrestrial ecosystems, there are apex predators in the water. Humans are the apex predators for most of terra firma. We aren’t anyone’s reliable prey item, although we do butt heads with other apex species like mountain lions or bears.
In the water sharks and whales are the apex predators.
Sharks and (most) whales have zero interest in eating you. No matter how much Cookie Dough ice cream you binged while catching up on Game of Thrones, you don’t have enough blubber to make a nice meal for a shark.
Orcas, on the other hand, are vicious bastards. Stay away from the killer whales.
Space travel might not be within our reach without the help of books and other art forms, but there’s still a way for you to explore something entirely alien.
Go find the nearest beach or aquarium, and take a look at the fantastical creatures living right here on your own planet. More are being discovered every day. In fact, you can follow along with the NOAA Okeanos deep dives and watch live as the rover explores the ocean floor. There’s a whole world waiting to be discovered. Go have an adventure!
And don’t forget to make like a sea lion and dance!