What did you like best about Geoffrey Landis’ story “A Hotel in Antarctica”?
First, I liked the interplay between the different types of characters that were there. You had the young entrepreneur, you had the seasoned veteran, you had the operationalizer, you had the environmentalist, and there’s some curve balls with those characters. Some of the things that you’d expect them to do, they did, some of the things you expected them to do, they didn’t. So I really appreciated that sort of landscape of characters. Second, I liked the dialog between the idea of human entrepreneurship, our interaction with physical spaces and our ability to experiment our way into the future.
As a sustainability scientist, what elements of the story seemed realistic, or made you think of things that will be happening in the real world soon?
Oh, yes. A hotel in Antarctica is quite realistic as it is! It’s not far-fetched at all. We push into every environment there is on the globe; a hotel in Antarctica is not that different from a hotel in the Amazon, and we’re doing that. There are more and more people climbing Mount Everest today; it’s become like a train.
Also, if you think of sustainability as people impacting planetary systems – climate change is an example of this – human activities are having a real, measurable impact on the global climate. The hotel in Antarctica is a real metaphor for that. You’re taking a bunch of human beings, you’re putting them in this extreme situation where they are bounded by environmental reality, and they are trying to make a place for people to survive and succeed. Of course, it doesn’t quite go the way that anyone expected, and it turns out that the external world, Mother Nature, throws down a few trump cards. But then other people come to the rescue and then we try to muddle our way through it and survive. All of those pieces are very realistic and there are examples of all of them happening right now, either metaphorically, on a grand scale, or quite specifically. We’re doing it now. I wouldn’t be surprised if I looked at The Guardian tomorrow and was a hotel being built in Antarctica.
I think that one of the most realistic messages in the story is that the separation between humans and nature is a fiction. People want to go out into nature, so you can’t conserve nature by blocking it off from people. Also, people are part of nature. When you can change your environment like we can, you’re not separate from nature. You’re a part of it. Anything we do in terms of conservation, or in terms of all of the other activities we undertake as humans, those things are embedded in nature, so we have to figure out a way to make that interconnectedness work. That’s true whether you’re an environmentalist or an entrepreneur.
How can science fiction stories like this one help inspire real-world innovation and research?
I think that engaging with science fiction can improve scientific innovation and research on three levels.
First, science fiction helps us expand the boundaries of what scientists are thinking about and helps let the imagination be a bigger part of our scientific studies.
Second, science fiction provides a landscape for technology, or human interactions with different systems or technological innovations, to be rolled out, so we can see the implications of what we are doing in the lab. Science and innovation can be transformative forces, so it’s important to have vehicles that let scientists and citizens think through the implications of new research and innovation. Science fiction is also nonthreatening, and as is the case with “A Hotel in Antarctica,” it can also be entertaining and enlightening.
Third, science fiction provides a medium for conversation across different fields. Anyone can read “A Hotel in Antarctica.” You don’t have to be a PhD in Physics to like Star Trek. So it provides a place for scientists and everybody else to have conversations and discussions, and share their excitement around these topics. “A Hotel in Antarctica” is near term; it’s today-science-fiction. It can provide a nonthreatening space to have a conversation about topics like the future of conservation, or what this particular human-nature interface looks like. What happens when you take a bunch of hairless apes and try to stick them in Antarctica? What happens when you do it in the Amazon? Or at the bottom of the ocean? A story like this can provide a comfortable, cross-cutting landscape for the conversations that we really need to have.
George Basile is a Senior Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a Professor of Practice at the School of Sustainability. His research focuses on green business practices, strategic leadership on sustainability issues, and biotechnology.