It is 2098. In China, Tao is handpainting pollen on to some fruit trees. If she doesn’t do it, her family, like everyone else’s in the world, will have no food to eat. That is because insects that pollinated trees have disappeared from the face of the earth. The scary scenario of a world without food is the story of The History of Bees by Norwegian author Maja Lunde. At the rate insects—a critical component of the food chain—are fading into oblivion, the fictional scenario could well become reality.
Lunde, who wrote the book on bees three years ago, followed it up with another a year ago, on the disappearance of water. Titled The End of the Ocean, it tells the story of a father and daughter fleeing a war-torn Europe plagued by drought and finding a sailboat in a parched garden in the middle of nowhere. She is now writing a book on the extinction of animals. Once it is over, a book on plants would be next. “It is a climate quartet about human beings and nature,” says Lunde, one of the major speakers at the 12th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) that began on January 24.
With climate change driving the world into catastrophe, writers around the world are busy penning possible crisis scripts to spur people into action. “I am terrified by the future,” says Lunde, who lives in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. “Climate change is the biggest issue we have to deal with right now,” adds the author, who sat with Australian academic Darryl Jones, Indian environmental entrepreneur Mridula Ramesh and American scientist-activist Marcus Moench at JLF for the session, ‘Climate Change: A Call to Action’, on the first day of the ongoing festival.
Climate-themed fiction isn’t the only genre of literature painting a dystopian future. “What the future holds for our planet is an important theme of the festival this year,” says JLF co-founder and author Namita Gokhale. The literary festival has combined human narratives around such varying subjects as artificial intelligence (AI), genetics and cosmology to discuss the future. Lunde’s disappearing bees are joined by killer robots in the new book of Australian AI scientist Toby Walsh. The list of authors linking literature and science to talk about the future of our planet include Indian astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan, who uses telescopes, computer simulation and calculation to help us gain a cosmic perspective.
“Science as the pursuit of knowledge is also a thing of beauty, right down to the atomic to the sub-atomic particle,” says Nobel Prize-winning scientist Venki Ramakrishnan, who delivered the keynote address at JLF this year. It is the first time that a scientist has delivered the keynote address at JLF, a job traditionally done by literary stars like UR Ananthamurthy (2009) and Pico Iyer (2018). Ramakrishnan’s new book, Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secret of the Ribosome, talks about the complex nature of the human cell.
Tamil Nadu-born Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2009, was preceded at the opening session of the festival, interestingly, by a poet who recited verses on science. First Cell, British poet Ruth Padel’s poem, went like this: “Cell in the air, on the rocks/We are all from somewhere else.” While Padel put her poem in the context of migration and life, Ramakrishnan talked about the role of science in today’s world, setting the stage for writers from around the world participating in the five-day festival—often called the ‘Kumbh Mela of literature’—to make sense of contemporary society and its future.
Technological progress and its consequences, predicted by popular science fiction writers decades ago, are once again the hot topics in literature. Autonomous weapon systems or killer robots, believed to be in the laboratories of many countries, are the new villains. “The scary scenario for the next couple of decades is not what Hollywood would have you believe,” says AI scientist Walsh, a loud voice against using robotic science for weaponisation. “It’s not Terminator or Ex Machina. It’s a mixture of Orwell and Huxley,” he adds, taking the talk on dystopia further. “The scary scenario is that we’ll hand over decisions to machines that will seduce our senses, that will destroy our privacy, and that will erode political debate,” says Walsh, whose new book, also set in the future, is called 2062: The World that AI Made.
While AI could tackle many problems, from climate change to increasing inequality, countries like China have made it very clear that they seek economic, military and diplomatic dominance in the next two decades by investing in technologies like AI, warns Walsh. At an international AI conference two years ago, Chinese scientists submitted more papers than American and European scientists combined, he adds. Another Australian scientist, Darryl Jones, deftly pricks the human conscience in his new book, The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why It Matters. “We somehow believe our own triumphalism, ignoring the fact that the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the energy we employ, the very air we breathe is all natural,” says Jones, a Griffith University teacher whose work focuses on the ways human beings interact with nature.
“The glaring example is, of course, climate change, a ‘natural’ phenomenon brought about by one single species (us) wastefully exploiting utterly finite resources with no regard for the impact this is creating on the closed system (the planet) we all share,” says Jones about the imminent danger from destruction of nature. “This manifestation of our hubris is changing the very conditions we evolved in and may actually threaten the food we need. Life won’t stop, it will adapt. But we may not be so lucky.”
The festival has also assembled a filmmaker-writer who has chronicled her conservationist husband’s love for nature in a new book, and another who, along with her nature-loving husband, created a rewilding project in Sussex, England. Janaki Lenin’s My Husband and Other Animals is about her husband Rom Whitaker, herpetologist and founder of two parks in Chennai for snakes and crocodiles. Isabella Tree, author of the 1991 biography of Victorian ornithologist John Gould, titled The Bird Man, is at JLF with Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, based on her creation of new habitats for wild animals with conservationist husband Charlie Burrel.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer