The 'Lady Astronaut' Series as Climate Change Wish Fulfillment

By Alex Wallace

Mary Robinette Kowal at the 2008 nebula awards, picture taken by Eric James Stone and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence

Unfortunately, I was relatively late to read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series (the first two volumes of which have been reviewed on this blog); I did finally get to it so that I could vote in the Hugo Awards in an informed manner. I blasted through the three books (as of writing) in a span of three days, so much did I enjoy them. They reimagine the Golden Age of Science Fiction by setting the story in the 1950s and 1960s, while emphasizing perspectives of people, like nonwhite people and women, who were not properly represented in the fiction of the day. In this regard, it is a needed correction.

But in another way, I found that the series actually portrayed a certain aspect of the time period in a way that suggested to me a certain yearning and a certain desire to return to a past state of things. I wouldn’t call the books conservative, as the modern right wing would generally oppose such a change. If you stretch the definition of the term, you could use ‘reactionary,’ although that has far-right connotations that simply do not apply. It is, in any case, a reaction to the way that politics has changed since the 1950s, and I suspect that Kowal would see these changes as bad.

For those unfamiliar with the series, there are two points of divergence. The first is that Thomas Dewey defeats Harry S Truman in the 1948 American Presidential Election. The second, and overall the more important, is that a meteor rams into the Chesapeake Bay in January of 1952. This obliterates much of the American northeast and more generally throws the climate of Earth into abject chaos.

This leads to a pivotal scene, early on in the first book. Charles F. Brannan, the only surviving member of Dewey’s cabinet, is now President. He meets with his scientific advisers, who give him dire news: within a few decades, Earth will be uninhabitable. The best chance for survival, they claim, is to establish colonies in space. Brannan responds decisively; he immediately devotes the resources of the United States to this project.

It is here that the comparisons to the real world fight against climate change begin to show up; it never forms a huge part of the plot, but it constantly lurks in the background. Kowal portrays the space program as having major issues, meeting domestic opposition, but the government holds firm. More importantly, the government actively and consistently funds it.

The America of the period was one where so much of its modus operandi was inherited from the New Deal, a program that created jobs, developed infrastructure, and more generally used the power of the American state to improve the lives of average Americans. It was a time of activist government, bolstered by the no-holds-barred experience of World War II. This continued with the great infrastructure projects in the 1950s under Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Great Society in the 1960s under Lyndon B. Johnson. It was a time of widely-available healthcare and pensions and strong unions, and a government that was willing to meet talk of caring for the average American with action.

Nor was the United States alone in this largesse. This was the time when the United Kingdom’s National Health Service was born in an attempt to create what David Lloyd George called ‘a land fit for heroes,’ and similar agencies became common in other European countries. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, such was even more drastic, with land reform and nationalization of industries and other such things. More often than not, this began with vested interests and ended in nauseating horror (as Ukraine and Tibet, among other places, can attest to), but it was still born of a misguided attempt to bring about a better world.

In other words, to put it in the terms of a joke I once saw on the internet, it was a world dominated by governments that hadn’t abolished the concept of ‘doing things.’

The governing philosophy of much of the world since the 1980s has been neoliberalism, a paradigm that has deregulated markets and given business much freer rein than they did some decades beforehand. Ronald Reagan was its apostle in the United States; Margaret Thatcher played a similar role in Britain. Since then, there have been political movements, in America especially, that have advocated for the government to do as little as possible, and consequently put an immense amount of faith in private business. Since then, wages have stagnated. Pensions have been lost. Income inequality has increased. Public spending has been slashed. The future has become less certain for many.

It is this sort of governing philosophy that now confronts climate change. Many deeply concerned with climate change are quite strongly to the left on the political spectrum, viewing capitalism as a system incapable of fighting impending doom. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the alternate history classic The Years of Rice and Salt, refers to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in some of his novels as ‘the dithering,’ where humanity knows about the destructive consequences of climate change, but then does nowhere near enough to stop it. It is a framing that becomes all the more infuriatingly appropriate when you learn of how oil companies knew of these problems, but actively hid them.

Robinson has written about activist governments fighting climate change in his 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series is not generally seen in such a vein, but there is a case to be made that it is in such company.

Charles Brannan, a lawyer by trade specializing in agricultural issues, was in our world President Truman’s Secretary of Agriculture. In Kowal’s world, he continues in this role under Dewey and then is made President by sheer cataclysm. When he is confronted with a decision that affects the entirety of humanity, he weighs the risks and rewards and what is at stake, he listens to experts, and he takes decisive action.

To the reader’s chagrin, we do not live in that world (but, fortunately for me at least, Washington D.C. and its environs still survive - fortunate because I live in those environs). We live in a world where fossil fuel companies still pollute a great many ecosystems with impunity, and bribe politicians to allow them to keep doing it. We live in a world where powerful political parties deny the effects of climate change, even as the Great Barrier Reef dies and the Amazon is burned.

In fandom, there has been much discussion about why science fiction of this century feels so pessimistic, especially in comparison to work from the ‘Golden Age,’ defined as roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s, depending on who you ask. Those arguing in favor of that thesis state that today, many of the writers have lived through awful things like the September 11th attacks, the Great Recession, the new wave of reactionaries in Western democracies, and the Coronavirus pandemic. Opponents object that the writers of the Golden Age lived through two world wars, a Depression, the Holocaust, and other similarly awful events. They charge that the correlation does not work as its proponents allege.

I would propose a different explanation: science fiction writers today live in a world where governments have, in far too many cases, abrogated their role as the guarantors of the public good. They impose regimes of austerity on their own peoples and use international organizations to impose them on the Global South. They have scientists repeatedly and loudly warning them of the dangers of climate change and yet persist in giving handouts to corporations that exacerbate those dangers. Today’s science fiction writers, therefore, are pessimistic because it seems like there are simply no solutions.

Writers in the Golden Age lived in a world where that was not the case. In that time, Western governments took active and decisive measures to exacerbate major problems, like the Great Depression or the damage done by World War II. These were governments who were willing to try bold things, and if they didn’t work, they’d boldly try something else. In any case, they were problem solvers. That’s the ethos of golden age science fiction: that the great problems of humanity have solutions.

That, ultimately, is the melancholy wish that undergirds the Lady Astronaut series. It is the source for what is one of its major questions: what if we had activist governments, rather than austere neoliberal governments, fighting climate change? It is a bold dream, a necessary dream, but it is, in a way, so crushingly sad that such an idea is a dream to us.

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