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Interview: Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is the editor of io9, the internet’s most popular science fiction website. Her new book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, describes massive disasters throughout Earth’s history and explores how we might increase our chances of surviving the next one.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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Your new book is called Scatter, Adapt, and Remember. What’s that about?

This is a science, non-fiction book, which I am describing as being somewhere between very hard science fiction and absolutely straight science writing. It’s partially a scientific discussion of the history of mass extinction on the planet, and it’s partly a speculative, science-based musing on how humans could survive the next mass extinction based on what we know now of how they unfolded before, but also what we know of the technologies and about biology today that will take us into the future.

You say at the beginning of the book that you got interested in disasters from watching monster movies, so I’m just curious, which monster movies have had the greatest impact on you?

I have to say that the more fantastical disaster movies are the ones I like the best. So giant monster movies are in the top, if I were to rank one to ten, giant monster movies are really at the top. I also like movies that try to deal realistically with what would happen if there were some kind of pandemic, like 28 Days Later or something like, even The Road I think is somewhat realistic, although I think it’s got a lot of problems. But I like the exploration of how humans survive disasters and what happens to civilization during times of extreme tribulation.

This is really a book about a kind of disaster that people don’t think about because it happens slowly over geological time. A mass extinction is when more than 75% of all species on the planet die out, and it usually takes about a million years. So it’s not something like a giant explosion or a giant monster that you can see in one human lifetime, like, “Holy crap, this giant thing happened!” It’s something that you really can only see from an historical perspective. What’s somewhat alarming is that we now have evidence, because we’ve been gathering data for so long, that indeed we may be in the first stages of a mass extinction, partly because we’re seeing elevated levels of extinction among animals, but also because we now know, from fairly recent geological work, that most mass extinctions that have happened in the past, and there’ve been five already, were caused by climate change. So we’re in a phase, right now, of climate change on Earth, and so those two pieces of evidence put together, climate change and elevated extinction levels, make it look like we could be a few thousand years into a mass extinction event.

Could you give a couple more examples of the kinds of disasters that you talk about in the book?

Sure. Initially I talk a lot about the kinds of disasters that have caused the climate change that led to previous mass extinctions. Some of them are pretty awesome, like they would make great disaster movies. For example, it seems that one of the mass extinctions, the Ordovician Mass Extinction, may have been caused by the planet being bombarded by gamma radiation from some kind of space disaster. That’s one theory; I mean, there are other theories, too. But this was about four hundred and fifty million years ago, there was a very rapid ice age, and the question is: Why would an ice age happen so quickly in under a hundred thousand years? One possibility is that big chunks of the atmosphere were fried off and that changed how reflective the atmosphere was. And so light was not entering as much and things cooled down really fast. That’s one cool one.

Then there was the End Permian Mass Extinction, which was caused by super volcanoes. This was a super volcano that erupted for about a thousand years, so a very long eruption releasing lots and lots of toxins and ash and carbon into the environment. I like to call that the Super Industrial Revolution Mass Extinction because basically the kinds of climate change we’re seeing now are very similar, it’s just that we’re releasing all those toxins through burning fossil fuels instead of having a super, insanely giant, long-lived volcanic eruption. And then of course there’s the famous mass extinction that we’ve all heard about, which is sixty-five million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out, or most of the dinosaurs were wiped out, and that mass extinction was set off by a one-two punch, because there were super volcanos erupting in India already, so things were going downhill in terms of the environment and the climate, and then the planet was hit by an asteroid.

And speaking of asteroids hitting the earth, one of the details from the book that really struck me was, I think most people when they think about an in-coming asteroid, they think, “Oh we would send some astronauts up to blow it up with a nuclear bomb.” And one of the experts you talked to in the book says, “No, we would never send people to go asteroid hunting because, by the time it was close enough that people could reach it, it would be way too close. There’d be nothing we could do about it.”

That’s right, and right now we have a program at NASA, the Near Earth Objects Program, which is using space-based telescopes to monitor all of the objects in our solar system’s region that might intersect with the Earth’s path. It’s obviously important to monitor these objects because those are the ones that are most likely to hit us. But in order to really defend against an asteroid effectively, we need to continue having these kinds of space-based telescopes because they will see objects on an intersect course with the planet, say, twenty years out, and that’s something we can do now and that we need to continue doing because, of course, the landscape in our volume of space is always changing. There are always new guys coming out of the Oort Cloud and different rocks that get knocked out of the asteroid belt for various reasons. If we catch one of these rocks coming in twenty years out or fifteen years out, it’s relatively easy to push it out of our path. What we would have to do is send probes out there, much like the probes we’ve already sent into the asteroid belt or that we’ve sent to intercept comets, for example, and have them nudge that rock out of the way, because if it’s far enough away, all you have to do is a little bit of nudging. You don’t even have to set off a nuke, even though that sounds really cool, you can just nudge it a little bit and that changes its trajectory, and of course by the time that trajectory is intersecting with where the Earth might have been, it’s been radically altered because, again, it’s years out.

So there are all these things that might get us: asteroids, super volcanos, climate change, etc. I understand that you started out on this book feeling like we were basically doomed, and you were just going to write about how we were all doomed, but you kind of took a turn towards optimism in the course of researching the book. Was there a particular point where you made that turn and started feeling more optimistic?

Yeah, there was. I mean, when you look at the histories of mass extinctions on Earth, it really does feel like a sort of grim chronicle of death, and also when you look at human history and all the times we’ve nearly gone extinct, it’s even more depressing, and the turning point for me was when I was researching the worst mass extinction that ever happened, which was two hundred and fifty million years ago at the end of the Permian Period. That was the mass extinction that I mentioned earlier that was caused by a mega-volcano that went off for about a thousand years, or perhaps a few times over a thousand year period, and that mass extinction killed off ninety-five percent of life on Earth. It even killed insects, which is extremely unusual. Usually insects survive mass extinctions. I’m reading about this grim period on the planet when most of the life on Earth was slime, and I interviewed a geologist who was telling me about it—he had nicknamed it “Slime World”—and he was showing me a slice of rock from the ocean floor that shows a layer in the Permian where there’s just all kinds of life and fossils from many, many different types of plants and animals. Then suddenly there’s this stark, black layer, and that’s the slime layer where the only thing that was hanging around was slime and it was eating dead bodies a lot of the time. And then above it you could see the reemergence of life, diverse life. That, to me, was hopeful. I mean, it was weird because it was this grim kind of hope, what I wound up calling “pragmatic optimism,” which is to say it’s not optimism saying, “Hey, you know, the future’s going to be great because we’re all going to upload ourselves and become energy beings.” It was more the optimism of, “You know what, even if the planet goes through a scenario where we lose 95% of species, I think humans are going to be part of that 5% of species that survive because we share a lot in common with the animals that survived previous mass extinctions. But, it may be really dark, ugly times. It may be freakin’ slime world.” It’s kind of weird to call that optimistic, but I think that is the kind of optimism we need to have right now, something where we acknowledge the depths of the possible damage and disaster and horror that we might be facing, and realize that we’re going to make it through. Think about the fact that, “You know, given that we’re going to make it through, maybe we should be doing something about making those grim times coming less grim.”

If people are listening to this now and they’re like, “Hey, I don’t want to live in slime world, let’s prevent that,” what can they do? Are there organizations they can join or causes they can support? What can listeners do about stuff like that?

There’s some really basic stuff; it’s almost kind of like saying, “Eat a healthy breakfast.” You do need to be thinking about reducing waste, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, all of those things that you’ve been hearing from environmentalists, those are true. But I think in the long term, and this is where it gets science fictional and kind of fun, is that cities are going to change fundamentally over the next hundred to hundred and fifty years if we choose to walk down the pathway of survivability. One of the ways they’re going to change is in terms of the materials we use to build them. For example, the way this might look is in a hundred and fifty years you might have a city that is built partly from self-healing concrete. So if there is a disaster where a crack appears in a bridge or a building, that crack would repair because the concrete is made with bacteria that, when perturbed, will extrude epoxy and other materials that allow that crack to fill in and become stronger. Cities might look like they were kind of covered in scar tissue almost because they would be self-repairing. And we would also start, instead of using fossil fuels to do things like light our lights, we might just have algae that glows at night. We might be using algae for water purification and air purification. We really need cities that produce their own food with urban farms. We need cities that are built from materials that are functioning within their ecosystems so that the city is built out of the same living organisms that surround it in the ecosystem.

Well how important would you say it is that we all start practicing megapolisomancy?

I’m glad that you brought that up, because I think megapolisomancy is a weird way of thinking about the city’s history as being part of its built environment. Megapolisomancy, for those who have not read the freaking amazing novelette by Fritz Leiber called Our Lady of Darkness, is city magic and it’s city magic that’s caused by urban design. It’s basically, certain buildings create relationships between people, historical people, people who are dead, people who are alive, and ultimately can kind of bring about a meeting of dimensions or a transformation in the city itself. And the problem is that bad urban designers, the people who built some particularly heinous buildings in the San Francisco downtown area, have set off a dark spell over the city of San Francisco in this particular story. The main characters have to figure out: How do you undo this city-wide terrible spell? The story grows out of a very long running political conflict between people who wanted affordable housing for artists in San Francisco and people who wanted to build the Transamerica Pyramid, which was for a long time considered a horrible eye-sore in downtown San Francisco. Anyway, so it turns out the Transamerica Pyramid forms the final part of this terrible spell. So I think that megapolisomancy is a way of thinking about how the choices we make in the ways that we build our cities affect us as a community.

In addition to Fritz Leiber, you mentioned a couple of other science fiction authors in this book. You mentions Kim Stanley Robinson, Paul McAuley, Arthur C. Clarke, and then, obviously, most of all, Octavia Butler. Could you talk about why you decided to talk about those particular authors in the book?

Let me start by talking about Octavia Butler because she’s really, in a way, the muse of this entire book, because a lot of her work deals with human evolution. By evolution, I don’t mean something cheesy and psychological, I mean actually biologically evolving, what do we turn into over time, and she never ever falls into the trap of saying that a particular evolutionary path is perfect or terrible. Everything is always a compromise. I think that you see this best in her trilogy, which used to be called the Xenogenesis Trilogy, and I think now it’s called Lilith’s Brood, it’s three books sold in one book that’s called Lilith’s Brood. In this story humans have destroyed the Earth, mostly in a nuclear war, and there are a small number of human survivors, and they are rescued by aliens who have entirely biological technology. So all of their technology is about creating stable, diverse ecologies that they use as spaceships, and that they use as communications devices and medical devices and all kinds of other stuff. Their entire spaceship is a living organism and they grow trees to live in, and the trees of course have perfectly nice floors and benches in them, and everything like that. They live in harmony with their environment, but the way that they reproduce is they join with other species. They have this incredible ability to manipulate DNA. They come to the humans and they’re like, “Great, we’ve rescued you. Now we want you to breed with us and become part of our species.” There’s a way in which becoming part of their species is a fantastic proposition because their technology and their spacefaring abilities are far beyond humans. They don’t have war. They don’t appear to have hierarchical politics. But they will, of course, remove from these humans anything that’s human about them. What will happen is they’ll ultimately create a hybrid species that’s nothing like the aliens and that’s nothing like the humans either. Or it’s kind of like both of them.

At the same time, the hope that she offers in that book, and in a lot of her other books as well, is that these new hybrid creatures won’t actually forget what it means to be human. They will think of humans as being an important part of their history, important ancestors, and that they will retain some traits of humanity. As we face the future, one of the things that humans really have a hard time with is that change part. Like Bill McKibben, he’s so scared of genetic modification because he says we won’t be human anymore, and that’s okay, being human is partly about evolving, and that’s what it means to be a life form, is to evolve. We have to embrace change as part of what it means to survive. I think that really provided a nice framework and a way forward for me in terms of thinking about the future: that we won’t be headed towards a perfect state of the light-filled beings from Star Trek, that it’ll be messy and there will be compromises and people will be pissed off, and we might become tentacled aliens in the end and that’s okay, that’s a win if we do that, because it means that we’ve survived and we’ve changed to meet changing environmental conditions and that should be our life goal as a species.

A lot of the other science fiction authors I talk to, like Kim Stanley Robinson and Paul McAuley especially, have both thought a lot about the steps on the way toward that future, like how we would do things like geoengineering, how we would do things like reengineering humanity to suit new environments in space. Paul McAuley has a background in biology and has written incredibly interesting novels where he talks about geoengineering on other worlds, and so has Kim Stanley Robinson, and actually one of the things that Kim Stanley Robinson said to me that I thought was such a great insight was, I was asking him, you know, how are we going to get from total fear of genetically engineering humans to accepting it, because there’s this leap that so many science fiction authors just kind of take for granted, where we are suddenly reengineering our bodies to live in space, because of course we would have to do that. Humans are not radiation resistant, and they aren’t suited to lots of other environments, and so, in order to make ourselves fit into those environment we’re going to have to tweak the germ line, and so Stanley said, “You know, as soon as we have a technology or a genetic tweak that allows us to extend human lifespan, that’s going to be the doorway. Once we have that, which is something that everyone wants, then people will become much more comfortable with transforming the human germ line, and transforming humans through genetic engineering.” I think that’s a really good observation and it totally contradicts what every single biologist I talked to said. All of the synthetic biologists I talked to, who are people who are actively working with tweaking genomes and things like bacteria, were absolutely like, “No way, humans will never genetically modify themselves, that will never ever in a billion years happen. Just forget it.” Whereas Stan was like, “Of course it’ll happen. It’ll happen as soon as we have this one breakthrough technology.” So that’s one of the things I think that’s ultimately great about science fiction, it goes where science is afraid to go. Scientists have to really focus on the here and now and they have to get grants, and they can’t say wacky shit like, “We’re going to change the germ line and make humans who can live on Titan.” But science fiction writers can, and they can really think in long-term ways about how science will impact culture. So thank goodness for science fiction.

Speaking of science fiction, in addition to writing books, you also edit the popular website, io9. Do you want to talk a little bit about what’s been going on over there recently? Are there big stories you’re excited about? What’s new over at io9?

Things are going great. We’re having an awesome summer because people are really excited about things like Star Trek and Iron Man. I’m excited about Pacific Rim, which is of course a giant monster movie.

The big thing that’s coming up on io9 this summer is, we’re doing a Summer of Citizen Science. We’re encouraging io9 readers to pick one or two citizen science projects to participate in and then write about them on io9’s new Kinja platform. Kinja allows you to create your own io9 blog, and what you post there can be quickly shared onto io9.com, the website. Of course you can share posts from io9 onto your own Kinja as well. We’re hoping to get a lot of scientists and citizen scientists writing about what they find, whether it’s doing stargazing, or counting birds, or participating in creating a new kind of 3D printer. We just really want people to spend their summer indulging in citizen science and doing something scientific while they’re on vacation, or while they’re in between jobs, or whatever. That’s going to be our next big thing, everybody doing science.

So, in the time that you’ve been running the site, have you noticed trends in terms of what makes a post popular that would be useful for other people who blog about science and science fiction to keep in mind?

There’s no good formula. People claim that, for example, the ultimate internet story is a list. And it’s not actually always true. We do lists quite a lot, and sometimes they do well and sometimes people don’t care. I think what really matters is the author of the post being passionate about what they’re writing about and really showing that they’ve done research and thought about it, and that it’s not just like, “I linked to another person doing a thing,” but, “I actually went out and I interviewed the scientist who was working on this stuff,” or, “I did a bunch of reading about the history of this particular idea.” And things like this podcast, which is not a ten-minute podcast, right?

No, since I edit this show, no one knows better than I do that this is not a ten-minute long podcast.

But, it is true that a lot of the time the advice that you read is, “Make it really short because people don’t have time.” And I just don’t think that’s true. I think people do have time and they make time for stuff that they feel is meaty and will actually teach them something.

Last year you and Esther Inglis-Arkell launched a video, sort of an io9 TV show called We Come from the Future. Could you talk about what your experience was in trying to branch out into video?

It was really fun. I think the most fun part was Esther is an incredible science experiment designer. She has a background in physics and I think that gave her a real craving for experiments that you could do in five minutes on TV. Because, of course, in physics oftentimes the experiments require you to have an enormous particle accelerator. She maybe gets more excited about stuff where it’s like, “I have a pickle and I plugged it in and made it glow!” So we had a lot of fun doing that and inviting other people in to do science experiments with us, and it was a really fun, positive experience. Although, as you know, it’s really different editing something to be seen or heard than it is producing something to be read. It was hard. It was hard to switch from writing into being a face on TV and I have to confess that I am much more of a written word person. It’s probably because I grew up on UseNet and stuff like that. I’m text identified.

So I noticed that you had a previous book called Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop-Culture. I was just wondering, could you talk about that book? What does capitalism have to do with zombies?

That book actually grew out of my dissertation that I did at Berkley, where I was looking to talk about 20th-century monster stories and how the popularity of certain kinds of monster stories are affected by economic conditions in the United States. Throughout the 20th century, zombie movies have really changed a lot. Zombie stories in the early 20th century were about, really, the origin of the zombie myth in the Caribbean. And the earliest zombie films, like I Walked With a Zombie, which has such a silly title but is actually am incredible film—if people haven’t seen it, go out and rent I Walked With a Zombie because it’s explicitly about basically a slave rebellion in a plantation. Of course it’s after slavery has been abolished, but the natives on the Caribbean island are still being treated like slaves and zombies are one of the ways that the black working class has of getting back at their white overlords. This is kind of how the zombie myth begins in the United States. It’s explicitly a story about race relations between white wealthy people and black working-class people or black rural populations. It’s very much about that, and overtime the zombie really shifts, and becomes much more of a figure for thinking about, generally, the working class, like the wandering hordes of hungry people, hungry consumers in the kind of Living Dead movies that you see later. But that’s why, for example, Night of the Living Dead is so interesting as a transitional zombie film, because it’s about a black hero who’s dealing with white zombies and it switches the racial politics of previous zombie movies. And of course the black guy in that film is like the only person who has any idea how to behave and how to deal with this menace, which is a white menace, it’s all a bunch of white people wondering around being all, “Bllleeeggghhhhh!” And, well—is it okay to give spoilers to a film from the 1960s?—so of course he’s murdered at the end by a bunch of white cops. It’s this great moment where it is very much a racial allegory and then, in The Walking Dead, which of course is not 20th century, but you’re still seeing the issues around race and class in Walking Dead. They’re so interesting, even though the show’s kind of annoying.

Well, speaking of The Walking Dead, in one of the lectures I just saw you give, you said that you thought that Star Trek would have more staying power than The Walking Dead. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what you meant by that?

I think that about specifically The Walking Dead, not necessarily stories about the undead, because of course stories about the undead, I think, are going to be around for a long time. I think the relevance of a show like The Walking Dead is pretty time-sensitive. What I mean by that is I feel like a lot of the concerns that are expressed in Walking Dead, the kinds of anxieties that make us love that narrative, the kinds of social issues that we see in it, are very early 21st century. I feel like people in fifty years will look back and be like, “Wow! That’s really a relic of the early 21st century.” Whereas I think Star Trek is, well, it’s already proven itself to be a narrative that can mutate and evolve overtime, and can change to meet changing social conditions and can reflect new social issues. As much as people criticize the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, which I absolutely think they should, like everyone I’m a little bit sad about the new film, but one thing that J.J. has done, if I may call him J.J., is he’s switched the importance of the lead characters. So it used to be like, “Kirk, Kirk, Kirk, everybody’s all about Kirk,” and now I feel like Spock is the new hero, and that’s really interesting. I think it reflects a dramatic shift in our culture toward making the kind of geeky character, the logical character, into the heroic figure at the center of the story. Spock is the one who makes the good decisions, he’s the ethical center of the story, he has true passion because of course normally he’s rational, so when he actually is passionate, it’s something that’s meaningful, it’s not just because he’s like Kirk, who’s passionate about everything because he’s a doofus, he’s just never in control of anything. That is a great example of how Star Trek can have staying power, because it’s a story about a future that many of us hope will come to pass, and it’s a story about the future that responds to the changing conditions of the future. Now we are living in the future of previous Star Trek—I’m going to start sounding like I’m talking about some weird time loop, but we are in the future of the previous version—

Yeah, we’re past the Eugenics Wars.

We are. We’re past the Eugenics Wars. And the fact that the narrative behind Star Trek, like the underlying story, has continued to be relevant to people and continued to be part of a blockbuster franchise, I think, A) it’s testimony to how much we are invested in this as a story of our possible future, and B) how well the story can change to meet our new understandings of what the future will be like. Because maybe now we’re thinking the future belongs to a passionate, rational scientist and that our leadership can come from, not just a swashbuckling white dude who looks cute in a tunic, but also from somebody who, like Spock, of course he also looks cute in a tunic, but he’s a figure who represents rationality as well as bravery and passion.

We’re almost out of time. I want to make sure, though, that everybody knows about this CD3WD document. Do you want to tell people about what that is?

That is one of many different documents that I talk about in my book, which are attempts to put together as much human knowledge as you would need to restart human civilization. This particular document can be held on three CDs so that you can have some sort of off-site storage, you don’t have to get it from Wikipedia. It contains information on everything from agriculture to basic medicine to basic generators, how to build a generator. Each of these document sets has pluses and minuses, I think, but they’re great to keep on your tablet though! Just in case.

It is really a fun thought experiment to think about what are the minimum number of machines, or what is the minimum amount of knowledge you would need to rebuild a viable civilization.

Just given your interest in the end of the world, and the time you must have spent thinking about it, I just imagine that you have one of these documents in your house, one in your glove box, just all over the place.

Well, what I’m really interested in is preventing a disaster from happening. The kinds of stuff I’m interested in are plans for dealing with disaster and diverting disaster. I’m less interested in the scenario where civilization falls and we have to rebuild. That’s a very potent fantasy and I totally understand why people wish that civilization would fall so they could rebuild something better, but that hasn’t been how it’s ever gone down historically. There’s never been a moment when every place on the planet lost civilization. You know we think about, for example, in the West, everyone’s obsessed with, “Remember when Rome fell and everything was shit?” Well, in other parts of the world, the Middle East, for example, civilization was rising; civilization was incredibly sophisticated during that time when white people were sitting around being tribal or whatever. I think that it’s kind of a mistake to imagine that all of civilization would fall. It’s incredibly important to have the knowledge of being able, if your local area suffers a disaster, to be able to build machines and build farms to deal with that. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have that knowledge, I really do admire preppers for thinking about that stuff, but I don’t think that we should ever imagine that all of human civilization will fall.

Famous last words. People will be quoting this to me in fifteen years, saying, “Yeah, remember when you said that!”

And if civilization fell, I wouldn’t be able to read io9, so what would I do all day? I’d have to just fight mutants or something.

Or you would have to create your own local network and build your own io9, right? That would be the first thing like, all right, I’m here in San Francisco so when civilization falls that is the first thing I want to work on. Let’s create a local network with locally generated power so we can start getting information out to people in the city and letting them know what’s going on and what to do. Then in that case, just have local io9.

Okay, so while civilization is still going, what kind of stuff are you working on? Do you have other books you’re thinking about or any new projects in the works?

I do have some books I’m thinking about. I have a science fiction novel that is in desperate need of revision, but that will happen over the next year. I have a couple of other non-fiction ideas that are not for public consumption, but I am definitely working on some upcoming projects. But right now I’m just focused on helping people think about surviving a mass extinction and also working on io9, I’m really excited to be back just doing io9 for a while, instead of trying to do io9 and a book at the same time. Expect meatier big features from me on io9.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.