How can we imagine the climate crisis in its full complexity, menace, and possibility?
Answering this question is what climate fiction (never call it “cli-fi”) attempts to do. I’ve been exploring the field (some examples here), and wanted today to share notes on a new example: the new tv show Extrapolations, the first three episodes of which Apple TV just released.
A quick summary: “2037: A Raven Story” takes us fourteen years ahead to a world much like our own, with smartphones, COP meetings, and feuding families. A pair of rich men scheme to build a casino in the largely ice-free Arctic. “2046: Whale Fall” advances nine years and focuses on a cetologist, Rebecca Shearer, whom we saw in the first episode, studying what may be the last whale. She works for a company trying to rebuild animal species, while caring for a child stricken with heart problems. “2047: The Fifth Question” turns to the first episode’s rabbi Marshall Zucker, who has moved to Florida after all, where a massively underpopulated Miami is gradually sinking beneath the ocean. It’s also the funniest.
Across all three episodes the climate crisis is getting worse. Temperatures have risen, causing health problems. Fires are more widespread than now, sometimes choking cities. There are fewer animal species. One character sums things up by describing humanity as “saying goodbye to each other, animals, cities.” We learn of a medical problem through new language: “summer heart,” naming cardiomyopathy peaking in that season. A mosquito bite kills a character, presumably through disease.
Extrapolations energetically develops its future on other counts. It shows some technological developments. Holographic projections, huge and also small, are widespread. One character wears a heart monitor on the outside of his clothing, clearly flashing his status to all around him. We also see digital projections onto pools of water, self-driving personal helicopters, machine translations of whale language, a combination of Roomba with shopvac, commodity 3d printed medication, transparent laptops, virtual reality and phone functions built into glasses, and paper-thin mobile phones. Humans have landed on Mars and ended cancer (these two are mentioned just in passing).
Political and social changes also appear. We see signs of climate-related unrest in the first episode. The state of Florida develops an Office of Sea Level Mitigation. Texas has left the United States, somehow, or at lease exited American democracy. There is a relocation (“relo”) service in America, helping people move from dangerous hot and water-threatened areas to the upper Midwest and Alberta; it’s not clear if this is a federal program or something offered by charities, companies, the United Nations, or American states and Canadian provinces.
There’s an overarching sense of inevitability in the show so far. Temperatures and sea levels are just rising, without doubt, and also without any mitigation. There’s nothing people can do to slow down the crisis. Geoengineering and carbon capture efforts aren’t apparent so far. Instead, the show depicts humans trying to cope in various very human ways: making a buck, saving what we value, helping people in need, enjoying what one has. Today’s efforts to address the climate crisis – switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources, changing consumer behavior, etc. – don’t appear in this world of resigned adaptation. There’s a running ethical debate on what’s best to do in the situation, contrasting sacrifice for others versus protecting or advancing one’s interests and family.
Symbolically, Extrapolations begins by steeping us in fire and especially water. The first episode contrasts these elements repeatedly, alternating between wildfires and rain, burning ambition and the cold, largely ice-free Arctic waters. A pregnant character caught in a New York firestorm has her waters break as she’s rescued from the inferno. “2037: A Raven Story” ends with the most fiery character immersed in water, hinting at what comes next.
Episodes two and three tamp down the fires and drown us in water. “2046: Whale Fall” takes place mostly on or under water as we follow the cetologist’s efforts. Scenes peer out through a submerged station’s staggeringly huge windows into benthic deeps, where we meet the saddest character, possibly the world’s last whale. “2047: The Fifth Question” is all about the Atlantic steadily drowning Miami. Terrific images show us the city progressively abandoned, literally swamped, decaying. The plot turns on the fate of a flooded synagogue. The episode climaxes with a gigantic storm, overrunning the city’s barriers.
Literally, the future is more water, but there’s a rich symbolic freight to this as well for a work of fiction. Water as emotions or emotions running high obviously fits here. The use of running water, rivers in particular, to represent the course of life matches the show’s time scale, as we skim decades. Water as a source of cleansing, rebirth, fecundity is conflicted so far. Extrapolations shows us humanity decreasing and in retreat, and the natural world following suit: water as anti-life, anti-fertility.
Yet the ethical dimension I mentioned earlier might be something rising water reveals. The cetologist rethinks her life and work in the sea. The rabbi (who we first see making a joke about water) rethinks his choices and work through a dangerous immersion. His student, the episode’s ethical center, is obsessed with the secular flooding around her and the Biblical account of God’s watery wrath.
Perhaps this is where Extrapolations is headed, using water in its literal and symbolic forms to portray a kind of human progress amidst the irresistible crisis. I’ll keep watching.
I’m reminded of two other recent tv/movie works. Don’t Look Up is the obvious comparison, similarly stentorian on its climate message. So far Extrapolations is slower, more moody, less satirical. They do share that common figure of our age, a powerful and sinister billionaire.
Perhaps this new Apple TV production has more in common with the unfortunately little-discussed Years and Years, a British series tracking an extended family over the next two decades through various social challenges and dislocations. Russell Davies offers a similar years in the future strategy, advancing the clock and showing us grand problems through familiar characters, but Davies’ people are much more front and center, more flawed and interesting. Extrapolations is flatter in terms of characters, less engaging on that front.
Do check out Extrapolations. It’s an interesting instance of climate fiction.
I was curious about your thoughts on this show. I watched the first episode and found it so depressing that I haven’t watched any more.
I’m on the second episode now. It’s certainly earnest. I tend to enjoy this kind of (science) fiction where I feel like they never spend enough time on world building but they’re giving me enough to keep me engaged.
But man, was the Matthew Rhys’s character arc a bit heavy-handed.
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