Back to the Future

In his preface to 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Eric H. Cline writes of a comparison to be made between the world of the Late Bronze Age and our current technology-driven culture: diplomatic embassies and economic trade embargoes, magnificent marriages and unpleasant divorces, international intrigues and deliberate military dis-information, rebellions and migrations, and climate change, including drought.

In Chapter 1 of his novel, The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson has the reader endure a day in the life of an Indian village, in a time not too far from our now, which begins with, It was getting hotter, and ends with the line, Everyone was dead. The people who lived and died on that day in this novel had very little to sustain them beyond what anyone in 1177 B.C. might have had. Oh, they had electricity, which had blacked out due to the heat wave; they had generators for small air conditioners, which could lower the temperature in a room a few degrees, but only a little fuel left. The village had a pond, which might have offered some relief, but the pond itself was warmer than the average temperature of a human being. In other words, they were as human as an average citizen of the Late Bronze Age, with about as much to work with.

Cline’s book reads like a novel in the way that Thutmose III, not content to be just another name in a history book, pops off the page like a fully realized character, discussing tactics with his generals. The history relies on many translations of letters – letters in the form of clay tablets and cuneiform symbols in Linear B (translatable) and Linear A (not yet deciphered), which trace both trade and diplomacy between the kingdoms of Egypt, Crete, Mycenae, and Assyria. These letters, paired with archaeology (including many discoveries of sunken ships), spell out a trade list that included grain, wine, spices, ivory, precious stones and, most of all, tin. Tin was the oil of the Late Bronze Age, according to Cline, being requisite for the production of bronze.

In other words, Cline describes a world peopled by human beings not unlike those who people our world today. It had, as do we, a kind of security in the sense that things will always go on as they are, maybe even get better. The ships will continue to arrive with goods from foreign ports, our embassies will treat with other nations that border on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Our armies are the best in the world. Kerfuffles pop up now and then, but overall, what is there to fear? And yet by the beginning of the 10th Century B.C., it was gone. The great cities, the states – they were all still there, and some would begin a slow renaissance. But the glue of trade and ambassadorial posts, of intermarriage and mutual strength of arms – those days were over and would not come again as they had once been, not for a long time.

There was one survivor of Robinson’s first chapter. The one who managed to look all around him and remember, They were all dead. It is this character, along with the woman who was named head of the Ministry of the Future, another effort of the UN to do something in the wake of the Indian tragedy, who drive the narrative of the rest of the novel. A novel which reads like a nonfiction exploration of global warming, interspersed here and there by said narrative. A one-page chapter is narrated by the sun. Never look at me, he warns. There is an outline of the Paris Agreement. There are chapters of meetings in which UN functionaries discuss what the hell to do now that global warming was here in force and killing off entire communities with one blow. There are descriptions of how these inevitably failed.

But, given that this is Robinson, who managed to successfully populate Mars, there is also a great solution. Whether it is a workable one or not (in the novel, it actually works) is above my paygrade. I suspect that he overestimates the power of bankers. But hey! In the end, carbon is captured, wildlife is saved, and people live better lives.

What’s not to like? After all, the Athens of Plato rose from the ruins of the Late Bronze Age. Who’s to say we can’t rise from the ruins of the early Anthropocene?