Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining how contemporary literature is addressing climate change, in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.
What do the climate crisis and artificial intelligence have in common? In the world of Anthropocene Rag, the latest novel by writer and game designer Alex Irvine, they both completely alter our experience of life on Earth as we now know it. Set in a future United States, Anthropocene Rag is told from a variety of perspectives, including adventurous, meaning-seeking humans and “nanoconstructs” designed by all-powerful AI—called the Boom—to look like archetypes plucked from a classic American Western.
Two such characters are Henry Dale, a God-worshiping human, and Prospector Ed, an AI-construct that wants to better under the intelligence that created him. They’re joined by a motley crew of other humans and constructs, and together, they set out to find Monument City, a mythical place where humans and AI have learned to live in harmony.
To get there, they traverse a planet that looks quite different than our own. Climate change has ravaged the land, and the Boom have developed capabilities to transform landscapes instantaneously and with a grand sense of absurdity. Early on we witness a children’s playground come to life; the animal-shaped rides and swing sets having been granted the ability to speak. The novel is awash in the tropes of westerns and science-fiction, while playing with the familiar arcs of American myth. And yet, very little is familiar in this stunningly innovative book.
I spoke with Irvine about his inspiration for Anthropocene Rag, the ways in which his myths and tropes explore and mirror humanity’s real-life response to climate change, and what he really thinks of artificial intelligence.
Let’s discuss your title, Anthropocene Rag. “Anthropocene” conjures images of how humans have completely altered the planet—and how we’ll continue to change it—while “rag” conjures the past, the Americana of the early 20th century. Where did the title come from? Did it or the story come first?
I’d been tinkering with this story for years under various unsatisfying titles before I landed on Anthropocene Rag. There were a few contributing factors. One, the idea of the Anthropocene has been on my mind, this concept that we as a single species have exerted such a decisive influence on the landscape, climate, and ecology of this period that it makes sense to name it after us. I find that awful even though it’s probably apt. Two, after a long time fiddling around with the middle of the story, I decided I really wanted a steamboat in it, and before I knew it there was a piano player on the steamboat. Of course he was a nanoconstruct of Scott Joplin and he had to be playing some kind of rag. That’s when the title popped into my head. At that point I realized that another bit of cultural flotsam leading me in that direction was the title of an old George R. R. Martin novel, my favorite of his: Armageddon Rag. Sometimes it takes me a long time to figure out what one part of my mind is saying to the other.
The novel is set in the future on an Earth ravaged not only by climate change but by the very technology we thought might save us—artificial intelligence. Outside the realm of fiction, writers such as Bill McKibben (with books like Falter) are suggesting that climate change and AI not only pose similar threats to humanity, they stem from a similar problem: hubris. Do you think that’s an accurate view?
It’s accurate as far as it goes, but it’s also reductive because we’re not going to point fingers and cry hubris when someone cures cancer—and that ambition stems from the same human qualities that have given us AI, the atom bomb, and climate change. I mean, it’s true that if you look at any persistent self-destructive behavior, you find either addiction or a sense of exceptionalism, which is a form of hubris. And most huge transformative technological leaps have at their root an ambition that contains some hubris. On the other hand, I think the concept of hubris is judgmental in a way that maybe isn’t fair to the fundamental human impulses to make, change, and create. As human beings, it’s almost literally impossible to have an idea and then decide not to think about how it might be made a reality. Has there ever been a potentially dangerous technological advance that we have considered and then decided not to pursue? Is that hubris, or just the same relentless curiosity that first got us down out of the trees and onto the savannah? I don’t know. Would the world be better or worse without that drive? We wouldn’t have climate change, but we wouldn’t have penicillin, either.
Why explore AI in your novel? What draws you to the subject?
Artificial intelligence is a fascinating thing to explore because so many takes on it fall into a limited number of camps. Either [the AI] will hate and exterminate us, or babysit us, or become docile assistants. The focus is generally on the power of AIs, but I’m more interested in what it’s going to feel like for them when they realize they’ve been brought into the world by a bunch of mentally inferior meatsacks who had no idea what they were doing and only figured it out after decades of obsessive trial and error. Seems to me like that would be pretty confusing and lonely. That idea is where the character of Life-7 came from. Before I knew who any of the human characters in the book were, I knew who Life-7 and Prospector Ed were.
Your novel cleverly plays with American myth. It’s fascinating to think that such myths—like that of Manifest Destiny—will persist in a future world that looks differently than ours today. Of course, America was originally built on those myths and they persist despite our world looking so different than it did 200 years ago. What is it about myths that make them so persistent, so dominant, in our country’s storytelling?
Myths are a beautiful, figurative shorthand for explaining things that we find difficult to explain. They become ahistorical and present themselves as carriers of eternal truths. Who doesn’t want to believe that there are eternal truths? I know I do. I also think we have a deep-seated need to believe things that aren’t true. The world can be a cruel and disappointing place, and it’s difficult to live in it if we can’t imagine a better version—or at least a version that removes our uncertainties and guilt a la Manifest Destiny; the sanitized versions of Pocahontas and Sacajawea we all learned in elementary school; the happy slaves of minstrel shows who persist into movies of the ’30s and ‘40s and pop up in the ‘70s as Oompa-Loompas. (I know, Dahl was British, but he spent a lot of time in the US and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory strikes me as a book written about the United States.) But there are also myths that show us at our best instead of covering up our worst: Johnny Appleseed and Calamity Jane, for instance.
Maybe we as Americans are especially prone to this because of the Puritans’ idea of New Jerusalem, John Winthrop’s “city set on the hill” (misquoted by Reagan 350 years later). The creation of America has been mythologized even as it happens. Consider these famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” Put another way, we choose to believe this. America was founded in an act of self-mythologizing, and we’ve been doing it ever since. And nobody needs comforting myths more than confused and lonely people—except maybe confused and lonely AIs.
Another great thing about myths is that you can remix them for a new age and people will recognize their basic outlines. To take an example from Anthropocene Rag: Bugs Bunny is Brier Rabbit is John the Conqueror—but he’s also Coyote and Anansi. America is a great big remixed myth—fertile and confusing, totalizing but also generous, because we’re so promiscuous with our mythological crossbreeding.
I was struck in your novel by how quickly humans seemed to have adapted to the Boom, how the strangeness it wrought everywhere quickly became commonplace. I can see parallels between that and humanity’s regard in the real world for changes wrought by the climate crisis. How quickly we seem to have forgotten just how cold the winters used to be, how loud the nights used to be with insects. Why do you think our memories are so short? Is it a survival instinct?
Our adaptability is a blessing and a curse. Mostly it’s a blessing for us and a curse for every other living thing. I read a study once that concluded that predators—including us—are wired to think about where their next meal is coming from, as opposed to where their meals will be coming from next season or next year. Predators don’t bury nuts, for example, so they—we—are terrible at assessing long-term risks and benefits. The difference between us and other predators like cheetahs is we can conceive of long-term risks and benefits. We can do the math, we can understand intellectually what long-term risks and benefits look like. What we don’t seem to be able to do is internalize that knowledge at a gut level and turn it into belief. The math tells us that in 100 years, one billion people will be refugees and hundreds of millions will starve. But that’s in 100 years. Our predator brains can think that, but they have trouble feeling it. So, we keep driving cars and pumping oil and mining Bitcoin, because that takes care of us right now.
One of the fundamental ruptures in human nature is between our individual ability to conceive of practically anything and our collective inability to act on anything other than immediate need. Individuals are different, but on the level of nations or civilizations we tend to stabilize around behaviors that reward us in the short term. Sometimes these also offer the illusion of long-term security—take wealth hoarding. If you’re a billionaire, you might think you can buy your way out of any trouble that might come along, but that’s only because you can’t make yourself believe that in a truly catastrophic ecological collapse, monetary wealth will be meaningless. Capitalist conditioning, another potent American myth, makes it harder to think outside that problem, too. One of the characters in the book calls capitalism a disease, and I think that’s true. The idea that there can be endless growth is completely at odds with reality. The only thing that always increases is entropy.
Having said all that, I think that we will adapt to whatever happens. That’s why humanity has survived for so long, because we’re adaptable. We adapt with amazing speed to even the worst circumstances. That’s another thing that makes it hard for us to inconvenience ourselves to deal with distant looming catastrophes. We always just figure that we can handle it, we’ll adapt. And yeah, if something like the Boom happened, people would adapt. Before a month had gone by, someone would be selling tickets to see the sentient playground in Stuyvesant Town. Enterprising guides would set up hiking tours to search for Monument City. People would go about looting the ruins of Miami in a completely matter-of-fact way, because what else are you going to do?
Those are startling examples from your book. How has the climate crisis manifested in your own life?
It’s odd, the things you notice but don’t notice you’re noticing until something appears in the news to frame it for you. An example: I’d been remembering trips to rural parts of Michigan when I was a kid, with the bugs so thick over the road that once in a while my dad would stop at a gas station just to clean the windshield. It seemed to me that wasn’t happening anymore, and then I read an article suggesting that as many as 90% of the insects in North America have died off in recent decades. That’s terrifying, because those insects feed everything above them on the food chain. It’s also a sign of the fundamental sickness of our environment, which tends to be invisible to us until someone remembers the way bug splatter looked in the glare of oncoming headlights on childhood trips down dirt roads in northern Michigan, and thinks, “jeez, didn’t there use to be a lot more bugs?”
Since reading that article, I’ve been wondering what else I’m not noticing—or what else I am noticing but not putting in context. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle of experiencing an ending, and I wonder what the world has in store for my children. I do notice spring coming earlier to southern Maine, where I’ve lived for 18 years. For the last ten of those years, I’ve been in the same house near Portland Harbor. Every spring, there’s a period of a week where all the migrating ospreys arrive and float around in the sky over my house peeping and cheeping at each other. Then they pair off and go build nests. Just since I’ve lived in my current house—ten years, an eyeblink!—I’m pretty sure that osprey rendezvous has moved a week or two earlier in the spring. When I think about that, I wonder again: What else am I not seeing?
Finally, what’s next for you?
I’ve always got lots of things cooking. I’ve been doing a lot of writing for games, and also working on short stories, a couple of different new books (one of which is partially set in Chicago). Maybe the best way for your readers to keep up is to cruise by alex-irvine.com and see what they can see.
By Alex Irvine
Published March 31, 2020
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.