The Age of Stupid – it certainly is that.

After watching The Age of Stupid (2009) I felt resolved to do a bit to benefit the environment, to help save our civilisation. So I turned off a few appliances and walked to the local recycling centre with a bagful of plastic, paper and tin. Of course, I shouldn’t kid myself that this is helping; it’s simply reducing my impact. Less bad does not equal good. But even this half-hearted effort didn’t last long.

And why should it? As the film’s narrator, Pete Postlethwaite, puts it, we’re all engrossed in our beach games as a tsunami approaches beyond our vision. We have been warned, but that warning is drowned out by the hundreds of advertisements we each see every day. And so we carry on as normal.

Americans have been advertised to for the longest, and thus they are consummate consumers. One Americans consumes enough for two Europeans, nine Chinese or fifty Kenyans. And all this consumption is already doing damage, with climate change clearly visible in the Alps and the Arctic, and the devastating effects of our thirst for oil plain to see in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and Iraq.

Still, we all want the lifestyle of the American – the big house, big car, big television and big travel budget. Yet unless the resources of the world increase fivefold, we won’t get it.

It is possible, however, for all of us to live happy and equal lives. It would need the neutering of capitalism, for capitalism demands infinite growth which cannot be provided in a finite world. The model would put a global cap on emissions, with countries allocated a share based on current emissions, adjusted yearly until their shares reflect population. This would allow Third World growth but enforce green reforms in the First World. Such a system might even mean we avoid the climatological feedbacks which could lead to uncontrollable changes.

According to Mark Lynas if we do not stabilise greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 and then reduce them to pre-industrial levels over the next half-century, temperatures will rise by 2ºC and keep rising until the world is nigh-on uninhabitable. Trouble is, the Copenhagen conference proved our politicians lack the courage to act. Popular pressure could change that, but if environmentalist cannot even defeat nimbys in the battle for more wind farms, what hope have we?

The documentary’s premise is that, looked at from forty years into the future, our current age could be labelled the age of stupid. As a fan of science fiction I would have liked to have seen more in the film about life in the 2050s, but with a shoestring budget that was always going to be little more than wishful thinking. Still, The Age of Stupid’s final message, beamed through a ring of space junk to the stars far above, was a powerful one worth waiting for.

William Coffin

Zarg writes: 2055? You’ll all be dead long before then. Human civilisation is prone to over-reacting. A 2% reduction in economic activity could easily be absorbed by a functioning society, but here on Earth it produces enormous strife – evident in today’s levels of unemployment and hunger, and in street protests from New York to Athens. If in a decade’s time the Ganges dries up and a 100 million Indians flee their country, a working world could find food and shelter for all of them. But unless a great deal changes between now and then, such a migration is more likely to trigger global nuclear war.

Rendezvous with Rama. A classic? Not in our book.

Dialogue. Dialogue brings a story to life. Dialogue makes characters real. Dialogue is critical to any story.

That’s the sort of truth new writers are invited to accept and, most likely, it’s good advice. I’ve given advice like this myself. But when reading Rendezvous with Rama, the multi-award winning novel which sits on many SF top 10s, you’ll have to wait until chapter four until you hear so much as a peep out of any character. (Lieutenant Joe Calvert says: “In three minutes we’ll know if it’s made of anti-matter.”)

So is dialogue really so important? Perhaps in science fiction, where the concepts and original ideas are more important than characters, dialogue can be ignored completely? And when it comes, it doesn’t matter if it sounds clunky, right?

Front cover of first UK edition

Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C Clarke, 1972)

Maybe that was true in 1972, but these days, I think, dialogue does matter. Less so in science fiction than in other genres, but it still matters. Times have changed and so have our standards. We do not have to write space-based soap-operas, but we do need a bit of believable dialogue for the characters who populate our stories.

Unfortunately Clarke’s main character, Commander Norton, comes across as less than rounded. I think the author knew this and tried to do something about it late in the day. So we get to hear about Norton’s complex personal life, millions of kilometres from the action, but never is this relevant to the story. It is bolted-on information.

Of course, the sense of wonder is the main driver of the work and a 50km alien space cylinder was certainly pioneering for the time. Without it we would never have had the incredible feats of the Culture in Iain M Banks’s series of novels. But now we’ve seen sun-spanning ring habitats, a 50km tin can seems puny in comparison. In other words, Rama is a victim of the sub-genre it spawned.

Still, I’m glad I read Rendezvous with Rama and would recommend it to those who haven’t. One of the cleverest aspects of the novel is that it asks as many questions as it answers, thereby leaving one thinking. But is it a classic on a par with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Clarke’s own Childhood’s End? No. Not for me.

William Coffin

Zarg writes: What a way to treat visitors from another planet! After taking the details of this story from William Coffin’s mind I am even more concerned to remain undercover on Earth. You, dear reader, may mean me no harm, but I can see what would happen if my presence were widely known – and it’s not pretty. Even when humans stand ready to do the right thing, their decision-making systems conspire to ensure wrong prevails. You’ve seen it just last week in your leaders’ ham-fisted attempts to avert a financial crisis they do not properly comprehend. And you’ve seen it countless times in your local wars and other destructive practices. It is so much easier to document your decline than to halt it, but I will try to do both if I have the time.