The days I spent reading The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse by Dale Pendell were uneasy ones. While reading this chilling book of fiction set in the future, I happened upon a very real article of fact entitled “On Thin Ice” written by Ben Wallace-Wells (Rolling Stone Magazine, September 30, 2010) . In the article, Wallace-Wells explains how glaciers in both Antarctica and Greenland, subjected to warming from above (sun and wind) and from below (warmer ocean currents coming up beneath them) are losing ice faster than anyone thought possible.
Anyone, that is, except Dale Pendell, who envisions just that occurrence in The Great Bay. Oh no, I thought to myself. The Great Bay is not all fiction, after all. And indeed, it is not. The Great Bay examines exactly what will happen once the giant ice sheets north and south start melting, sea level starts rising, and weather starts oscillating between drought and cold. In the novel, Pendell makes things even worse for us humans by adding into the mix a worldwide pandemic caused by biological warfare gone awry (presented in such a way as to be utterly plausible). At night I had nightmares of being in a place where I didn’t want to be. In my nightmares, the place was not defined, it was more a feeling of being someplace horrible than a specific site. But I knew what I was dreaming about. I was dreaming about the earth of the future, a future described in great detail in The Great Bay.
Written as a series of historical and sociological papers, bits of memoirs and interviews, and even a few newspaper articles (Pendell imagines that literacy will fade away, leaving the news to be related orally), The Great Bay presents the next five millennia on earth as being pretty grim. Yes, there are inspiring examples of cooperative living, communal sharing, and altruistic organizing of resources. There are even some great parties when different communities come together; a few chess championships; new brews of beer; and adventures galore for anyone willing to take to the ever-expanding seas in primitive Chinese junks. New mythologies based on old religions are invented and passed on to encourage survival and fertility, both of land and of human.
But in the post-pandemic/glacial melting/climate-changed future, there are also bands of outlaws and roving private militias, a plethora of dangerous religious cults, prowling and hungry wild animals, and an increasingly shaky food supply for humans as the weather continues to fluctuate wildly. And did I mention that population levels fall to below bronze age levels? Not only does the number of people decline, but what they know does as well. Reading falls into disuse as books are burned for fuel or used for personal hygiene. It is mostly only the scholars who keep up their skills of reading and writing, and only in order to record what is happening in their world. Some religious sects still teach their parishioners to read the Bible, and there are those romantics and bohemians still reciting poetry, poems of Whitman and Coleridge passed on as gifts from one to the other. But for the most part, reading for pleasure has disappeared. There is no time to read when the acorns need gathering.
Back to facts: the current scientific consensus is that global warming is causing a rise in ocean temperature, as well as causing a shift in ocean currents and in worldwide wind patterns. These atmospheric changes result in the shearing off and melting of glacial ice, north and south. Renowned scientist David Holland, quoted in Wallace-Well’s article, sums up the research, “That’s how it works. The atmosphere controls the ocean. The ocean controls the ice.” And Richard Alley, a geoscientist at Penn State, says, “What is going on in the Arctic now is the biggest and fastest thing that nature has ever done.” Once the ice starts melting faster and faster, sea level will start to rise, faster and faster. Rising sea level will change the contours of the continents, to say nothing of the low-lying islands, and, according to Wallace-wells, could lead to the displacement of 153 million people now living in coastal areas worldwide.
Scary Stuff, coming true before our eyes. Scientists interviewed by Wallace-Wells posit that even if global warming were controlled and capped now, the amount of warming that has already been stored in the ocean (“the ocean has a long memory”) will result in significant rises in sea level. Nevertheless, efforts to stabilize planet temperatures and restore the ozone layer can prevent the worst-case scenario presented by Pendell (along with some serious controls on biological germ warfare) in The Great Bay. Perhaps Dale Pendell’s gripping, chilling, and utterly believable fictional account of future life on earth will make all of us stop and think about what we want the future to look like. We don’t want our worst nightmares to come true.