Earth Day and sci-fi in Madison

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column. (Photo via wiener shop on Instagram.)

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

Madison’s annual Earth Day Conference, organized by UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, really is an event worthy of the founder of Earth Day‘s home state. The only thing I’d change about it is the fact that it’s an academic conference. This year’s edition, on Monday, April 22 at Monona Terrace, features a headlining talk from one of the all-time great science-fiction writers, Kim Stanley Robinson. So I’m going to once again harp on a point I’ve made before, which is that it’d be really cool if some of the conference’s offerings were a little easier for the broader public to access. (Nelson Institute Dean Paul Robbins, I know you can hear me!) Its talks and panels have a lot to offer folks who wouldn’t ordinarily attend a scientific conference on a weekday. Maybe an informal Earth Day After Dark event for folks who can’t make the main sessions? Some kind of tie-in with our homegrown sci-fi convention WisCon?Just a thought.

The folks programming the conference clearly understand the power of sci-fi authors (and those who at least draw on sci-fi elements) to help us grapple with climate change and other monumental environmental challenges. The 2017 event had a particularly strong literary streak, but I want to briefly revisit 2014’s conference, when British author China Miéville gave a talk titled “The Limits Of Utopia.” Like Robinson, Miéville turns dense politics and hairy problem-solving into key elements of compelling fiction. Here’s part of the story that I wrote after the talk:

It helps to point out two main texts around which Miéville framed his talk: “The Renewed World,” a vision of ecological-human harmony by early Christian author Lactantius, and a report in which consultants urged officials in Los Angeles to locate a proposed waste incinerator in a poor neighborhood, reasoning that poorer residents would have a harder time organizing against the incinerator. Elements of both combined as Miéville explained how utopian thinking has at times empowered fascist political movements and environmentally degrading business practices, and how at times our ideas about utopia unwittingly lapse into apocalyptic thinking. While defending the idea of utopia as a way to push humanity toward a better future, he also warned that utopian thinking is easily hijacked by those who would distract us from more practical but politically inconvenient solutions: “We LIVE in a utopia,” he said. “It just isn’t ours.”

Speaking of plural pronouns, perhaps the most forceful theme in Miéville’s talk was that the very idea of “we” can be misleading, at least in terms of planning a future for the whole of humanity. When polluting industries or even environmental activists neglect the world’s poor, he said, it becomes clear that “we are not all in this together,” and if anything “we fight… by embracing our non-togetherness—the fact that there are sides,” in a strategy of tension. He concluded the speech, in fact, by saying the idea that environmental responsibility makes for good business “is the most absurd utopia of all.”

Miéville has since published written versions of “The Limits Of Utopia” online and in a magazine called Salvage. The full talk is also available on YouTube. It’s somewhat heavier going than reading one of his novels—my favorites are Embassytown, about a crisis of language and diplomacy on an alien planet, and The Scar, set on a renegade floating city—but really not by much.

I’m finally working my way through Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (Red MarsGreen MarsBlue Mars), and I’m hoping to turn around some kind of report on his talk as well. Whether or not you can get to this year’s conference, I definitely recommend checking out Robinson’s appearance this week on WORT’s A Public Affair and his recent talk with leftist podcast The Antifada.


New this week:

Mary Dahlman Begley asks us to take another look at the Humanities Building, with photos by Molly Wallace.

Four Star Video Heaven is cutting back its hours.

On the Tone Madison Podcast, photographer Spencer Wells discusses Forward, his new book about Wisconsin musicians.

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Madeleine Davies pays tribute to the leaky fountain at Lombardino’s for Bon Appétit. The Overture Center has pulled some of its funding for Madison’s east-side neighborhood festivals, WORT reports. Arts + Literature Laboratory announced the lineup for its annual Jazz Fest, taking place May 3. Explosions In The Sky announced an October 18 show at the Sylvee. Alejandro Escovedo announced a July 5 show at the High Noon Saloon. William Z. Villain will be hosting an open mic at Bandung on first and third Tuesdays.

This week’s Madison calendar: Deerhoof plays a free show at The Sett. Tony Barba celebrates a new album at Art In. Four new features and seven shorts at the Italian Film FestivalAnd more.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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