Friday, April 8, 2022

Supervillains and their Weather Control Machines--and What They Mean For Us in 2022

In one of his more memorable essays (included at the end of his James Bond-meets-H.P. Lovecraft "Laundry" novel The Jennifer Morgue) science fiction author Charles Stross had some interesting remarks about spy fiction, the passing of its "Golden Age," and the way in which yesteryear's supervillains have lost their relevance.

One can go on quite a bit discussing such themes, and many have. But one aspect of this issue I have yet to see anyone remark is the old scenario of the villain with the weather control machine, which was pretty common once upon a time, as this handy list from Gizmodo shows. (I think it worth emphasizing that these were not usually "Frankenstein complex" scenarios of somebody doing something technologically that goes very wrong, but all about the danger that they could do exactly what they intended.)

As the list also shows, the popularity of the idea seems to drop off after the '90s--and the fact seems unsurprising. Now, I think, the fear is not that humans may be able to control the weather, but that they will fail to do so. Hence instead of supervillains like GALAXY or Cobra Commander or Sir August DeWynter, we either get scenarios like Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow, where having done nothing about the climate crisis climate change hits us hard, or where (consistent with that tiresome Frankenstein complex logic) some desperate attempt at controlling it through geoengineering goes wrong, like in Snowpiercer.

That seems to me a reflection of an increased technological pessimism compared with those decades of radical change in the twentieth century--a sense that, for all the saturation of our lives with techno-hype, we are unable to actually do anything really useful, really important, with our know-how, either not trying at all or trying and failing miserably. And of course, there is what has made that pessimism more cutting, namely the fears aroused by the experience of climate change and the anticipations of far worse to come, which have precipitated a veritable mental health crisis. The result is that rather than being alarmed that someone has learned how to control the weather and might use that power to hold the world to ransom, we would expect that someone would develop such a thing--and that that party, far from looking to gratify their thirst for wealth and power by threatening to use technology, gratify it by threatening to not use it, naming their price for employing it to stop climate change.

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