How can we imagine the future under the impact of climate change?
I’ve been watching the Apple TV+ series Extrapolations, which offers an interesting example of climate fiction. It’s a kind of anthology show, with each episode depicting one story at a point in the next few decades as the global situation worsens. Some characters, events, and themes knit the episodes together.
I summarized the first few episodes previously. Let’s continue and finish the season.
For each episode I’ll offer a plot summary, a sketch of its extensive worldbuilding, a bit on themes, and some reflections. At the end I’ll add some thoughts as I have time.
4: “2059: The Face of God”
The American president Burdick (as in burdock, I think: prickly) signs the Climate Intervention Treaty, banning geoengineering It classifies certain substances as controlled ones: calcium carbonate, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide. Carbon sequestration isn’t working. Billionaire Gita Mishra threatens to unleash a geoengineering project unless Burdick withdraws from the treaty, citing climate justice and blaming other billionaires for working (instead) on rockets. The president convenes a team to grapple with the situation, while also working with Nick Bilton, CEO of megacorporation Alpha. Someone shoots down Gita’s plane and as a result the other planes unload their geoengineering payloads, followed by hundreds of thousands of drones around the world doing the same.
Worldbuilding: global warming is heading to 2.5 degrees C. There are accords signed during the Tel Avid COP which took place in episode one. Djibouti has large seawalls or barriers. So does Mumbai. The Alpha company is larger than ever.
We see many new or developing technologies. Holographic displays are still working. A new invention is an uncrewed, zero carbon emissions perpetually aloft plane, solar powered a drone. Very light phones now consist of little earpieces, which can project large virtual screens. Other phones are entirely transparent. There are also fully transparent computers. Drone deliveries are commonplace. Some kind of food tech involves making food at home from proteins.
Themes: the world’s elite making top-down decisions. Family is central – i.e., we begin with father-son tension over geoengineering. That father closely advises the American president. The son runs away to his stepmother. That stepmother builds aircraft, while the father sails on sailboats.
5: “2059 Part II: Nightbirds”
Quick prologue: someone steals from the Svalbard Seed Vault. The main plot concerns an epic road trip across part of India in order to set up a beneficial project. An assassin and aspects of ordinary life threaten the mission.
Worldbuilding: India is at war against … Pakistan? A southeast Asian volcano spewed ash into the atmosphere and cooled things off a bit. The previous episode’s conclusion is referred to as an act of eco-terrorism, but its impacts are hard to discern. Daytime temperatures get hot enough to disable and kill; curfews restrict human access to extreme welt bulb temperatures.
Technology: there’s a nanobot treatment for breathing problems. People use insulated sleeping bags to protect themselves from excessive heat. You can launch drones by a simple hand toss.
6: “2066: Lola”
The plot concerns a character who works as a kind of personal stand-in for the people clients have lost. He changes his appearance, switches up languages, and studies memories to best represent the missing or dead. Cognitive issues begin to beset him, as he’s the grown-up kid who had summer heart in an earlier episode, and then things get worse.
Worldbuilding: the summer heart idea from a previous episode returns, with impacts to brain function. Increasing heat drives up digital cloud service costs, or at least is the justification cloud companies use to jack up rates. People can suffer from “heat rage”; perhaps CRISPR can help. Rotterdam was evacuated and London’s Metro floods Blockchain is key to digital infrastructure and has a huge carbon footprint. There are Heal the Land colonies, with some cultish overtones, and also with implications that participants/members can change their identities to live there. CO2 might be up to 560 ppm. The previously mentioned animal resurrection service claims to be about to reintroduce humpback whales.
7: “2068: The Going Away Party”
The story involves a New Year’s party in San Francisco hosted by an aging and failed inventor and his frustrated wife. There are many nods to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), including tensions and betrayals between two couples and an argument over children existing. The holiday structure for this family-based representation of the future calls out to Years and Years (2019).
Worldbuilding: the Alpha virtual assistant is still a thing, with people using their voices to summon presentations. Phones are still thin slivers of glass. Hologram interfaces can be based in a locket while a chip allows people to see augmented reality superimposed on their vision at any time, even during sex. Robots – androids – are advanced enough to simulate human beings. Economic class divides are sharp.
The atmosphere is poor with people carrying their own oxygen to breathe. At least one person embraces a no-hugging, no-touch ethos; it’s not clear if this is just a personal affectation or a new cultural form. Solar and wind power have declined, at least because of poor atmospheric quality. Heat waves kill large numbers of people. “Climate fatigue” is apparently a thing animals and presumably people can suffer from. Carbon constitutes a currency in some way, including in a black market. Uploading or “digitizing” the human personality is starting to be possible, in part to putatively reduce one’s carbon footprint. Burbank, California no longer exists. The Hague is hosting trials of corporations and individuals for crimes against the climate, or ecocide.
8: “2070: Ecocide”
Zillionaire Nick Bilton is tried for ecocide. We learn that he was born a Russian, Nikolai Biltinov. He views life as transactions and thinks it’s best to assign fantasy worlds to the poor. Bilton’s company launches a carbon drawdown product, albeit one which will reduce atmospheric carbon down to 470 parts per million, a number determined by a shadowy cabal of businessmen. Bilton built that technology (the “Newcomen,” named after the British inventor of the first steam engine) based on stolen tech from an inventor, whose daughter he raises in hiding. That daughter calls for CO2 to drop to 350 (as in this organization). Bilton ends up in orbital prison.
Worldbuilding: carbon dioxide is over 560 ppm. Ecocide became a crime in 2050, according to Alpha. There are prisons in orbit and a penal colony on the Martian moon of Phobos. Some British and Dutch cities are domed. Bees and wildflowers disappeared in mid-century. Somehow genetic engineering addressed illiteracy. The Marshall Islands are no longer habitable.
At least one court is automated by AI. Holographic representations are larger than in prior episodes, although scales and alignment can be off; their controls can be embedded in furniture. People can use a series of holographic avatars to disguise themselves. There are also Star Trek-Holodeck-style virtual spaces, complete with AI-driven agents. Data can be stored in little slivers; phones are now similarly sized tiny devices, stuck on people’s heads. Drones deliver printed-out communications.
Themes: the morality of businesses, the culpability of consumers. The climax of the episode blames humanity as a whole for climate change.
Overall, I think this is an impressive and noteworthy show. It aims to accomplish a lot, tracing out one climate crisis future in significant detail. I want to focus on that issue for the rest of this post.
How do you tell a story about the climate crisis? It’s a famously vast topic, a hyperobject, and one a whole subgenre – climate fiction – wrestles with. To treat it Extrapolations models several strategies, starting by foregrounding family stories. This humanizes complex problems and offers ready emotional connections. Similarly, the show keeps putting small human interactions before us to embody the hyperobject: a courtroom drama sans jury or in-person spectators, two smugglers in a truck, a few members of a board. Overall there’s a lot of microcosming at work.
The program also tells the global warming tale through the top-down viewpoint of many thrillers, with leading characters being political and economic leaders, offering us exposition and persuasion. It is not very democratic, in that we see most of the world order shaped by elite decisions, imposed top-down style. It’s a straightforward way of showing us the world through the people in charge of it. “Nightbirds” and “Lola” are exceptions to this rule, their characters on society’s bottom rungs, mystified about most of what’s going on. Our protagonist in “Nightbirds” sees an explosion in the sky and doesn’t know what to make of it; we do, because we learned about it from the world leaders who made it happen in the previous episode.
Extrapolations proceeds by sounding a deeply melancholic note most of the time. Episode are tonally and often visually dark, showing as catastrophes and gradual decay. This builds to nearly Wagnerian levels by episode 7 as we realize the world is so terrible and hopeless that escaping and hoping for a civilizational reboot is the best available option. (And if you’re skeptical of uploading’s viability, it’s fancy suicide.) Episode 8 tries to undo that tone by setting up a clear villain for a clear fall, leaving an image of optimism behind. Unconvincingly, I’d add.
The series also approaches the problem of climate narrative by trying out different genres. “Nightbirds” is a grungy crime thriller, while “Face of God” is a glossy grand political thriller, “Going Away Party” a brutal family drama laced with posthumanism, and “Ecocide” a courtroom drama. It’s an anthology approach of sorts, tackling the problem from multiple perspectives. I’m not sure how this plays out with audiences, especially those who prefer a tv series to plow a single generic furrow.
I have many more thoughts about the show, but want to pause for now and save ’em for another post. Has anyone else seen it? I recommend it with reservations.