28 February 2019
The beginning of the end?
By Neil Tidmarsh
(Spoiler alert: if you haven’t yet read the story Gibb’s 2018 Christmas [Shaw Sheet issue 182, 20 December 2018], you might want to do so now before reading any further…)
Science fiction is a tricky business. The reality inevitably catches up with the fiction and invariably catches it out.
But it usually takes a long time. Years or decades or centuries or even millennia. It took 134 years to prove Edgar Allan Poe wrong; when men eventually landed on the moon (1965), they got there not by balloon (The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, 1835) but by rocket. And we’ve been waiting in vain for 122 years for an alien invasion (H G Wells, The War of the Worlds, 1897) and 125 years for the invention of time travel (The Time Machine, 1894). And we’ll have to wait another three or four centuries before we find out whether Arthur Bester (The Stars My Destination, 1956) was right or wrong about the discovery of ‘jaunting’ (teleportation) at the turn of the twenty-fourth century. OK, flying cars and jet-packs have indeed been invented, but they haven’t taken off, so to speak; time has proved that they aren’t the life-changing, world-shaping innovations which sci-fi convinced us they would be.
There are exceptions, of course. There’s William Gibson (Neuromancer, 1984, Count Zero, 1986, etc); not only is reality catching up with his work incredibly quickly, but it’s also proving him right (virtual reality and cyberspace were his concepts). Life isn’t merely imitating his art – it’s being created by it, so it seems.
And then there’s Shaw Sheet.
How long did it take for reality to catch up with Gibb’s 2018 Christmas? Millenia? No. Centuries? No. Decades? No. Years? No. Months? Only just. Scarcely two months. Less than ten weeks. To prove the story right? No, to prove it wrong.
Oh, the humiliation, the shame, the embarrassment.
The story, if you remember, imagined a future where all animal species have been wiped out by climate change, pollution, loss of habitat, etc. All species except one, that is; the poor deluded author thought that the rat – cunning, adaptable and resilient – was the one species which would not only survive but thrive in a polluted and over-populated future.
But what did we learn this week, in the sad news from Bramble Cay, a small Pacific island in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea? That a whole species of rat has died out, the victim of climate change, loss of habitat, etc, etc.
On Tuesday 19 February 2019, Australia’s environment minister Melissa Price officially confirmed that melomys rubicola, the Bramble Cay rat, also known as the mosaic-tailed rat, is tragically now extinct. It’s been endangered for some time. It was first recorded by Europeans in 1854, but it was last seen in 2009, and all efforts to find it since 2014 have proved fruitless. It is (or rather was) endemic to Bramble Cay which is only nine acres in size and less than ten feet above sea level. The first decade of this century saw the almost total destruction of the rats’ habitat. Storm surges and rising sea levels – consequences of climate change – swept away the vegetation on which they fed and then must have drowned any of them which hadn’t starved.
Climate change is a huge problem elsewhere in the Pacific as well. This week, the president of the Marshall Islands warned that storm surges and rising sea levels are threatening to inundate his country completely, and that the only chance the population of more than 50,000 has of surviving is to artificially raise the height of their islands behind breakwaters and sea-walls. (Is J G Ballard – The Drowned World, 1962 – about to be proved right?)
Ok, you might say, melomys rubicola isn’t the common rat, the ubiquitous rattus norvegicus of Gibb’s 2018 Christmas, and its habitat was minute and remote and its population can only ever have been tiny; but consider this – it’s the first mammal species to vanish as a result of man-made climate change. Not a plant or an insect or a mollusc or a fish or a bird, but a mammal. One of evolution’s top dogs. One of us.
And consider this as well; one of the few creatures to have survived whatever apocalyptic disaster killed off the mighty dinosaurs was a little rat / mouse / shrew just like the Bramble Cay rat, and that animal was our ancestor, the ancestor of all the mammals, the species which eventually evolved into us, homo sapiens. With the extinction of melomys rubicola, it’s easy to imagine that the synergies of evolution have run their course, that entropy has set in, that the process is being rewound, that the animals which stepped onto the ark and into existence will now begin to step off the ark and into oblivion; the first one in – that shrew which survived whatever killed the dinosaurs at the very beginning – was the first one out last week, in the form of the Bramble Cay rat. We were the last one in, and so may well be the last one out if we’re lucky, but surely our time will come sooner or later.
“No mammal species is an island” John Donne might have written. “Ask not for whom the extinction bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
This entropy and decay appears to be running deep – deep into the sea, the oceans on which the ark floats, the primordial sludge, the life-giving soup of nutrients from which the first living forms emerged millions of years ago. Because, in a complete and ironic reversal, our seas are now becoming toxic wastelands. This week, scientists told us that the killer whales living off the west coast of Scotland have been made sterile by chemical pollutants. They haven’t bred in twenty-five years. There are currently only eight of them left and soon there’ll be none at all. We were also told that the toxic contents of two million tonnes of Nazi munitions dumped into the sea off Germany and Scandinavia in the decades after World War II are seeping out of their rusting metal casings and poisoning marine life throughout the Baltic.
Then, right on cue, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos announced his plans this week to build a new ark for homo sapiens; he is setting up a ‘space transport’ company, Blue Origin, to build space craft which will enable humans to colonise the solar system. So perhaps there is hope for us yet.
But I was immediately reminded of that chilling moment in The Matrix when Agent Smith, the machine, tells Neo, the human, that it had been puzzled by the classification of humans as mammals, until “I realised that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague…”
Does the solar system know what’s about to hit it, if Bezos’s Blue Origin turns out to be science fact and not science fiction?