The Silent Sea: A cli-fi drama of just another day in the Anthropocene | By John Eperjesi (Spring 2022 issue)
In the opening chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future (2020), a deadly heat wave hits a dense urban area in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The air temperature at dawn is 38 degrees Celsius (103 F) and climbs to 42 as the sun rises.
These numbers are high, but not shocking. The Ministry for the Future begins in 2025, our near future, but in 2021 a heat dome in British Columbia produced record-breaking temperatures of 49.6 degrees Celsius (121 F). As the frequency and duration of heat waves in Pakistan and India intensify, temperatures in the mid 40s are becoming the terrible new norm.
But what makes the heat waves of India and Pakistan catastrophic is the combination of extreme heat and extreme humidity, or “wet bulb heat,” which can quickly lead to heat stroke and death. Australia, India, Mexico, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia have all begun to experience wet bulb heat waves. In Robinson’s vision of the near future, 20 million people in India are killed over the course of a week, a terrifying glimpse of one possible future for this planet.
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the best-known authors in an emerging sub-genre of science fiction known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, which refers to narratives that imagine what life on this planet will look and feel like as the climate emergency intensifies, offering both a warning and a call to action.
A newcomer to this interesting collection of new climate dramas is the Korean Netflix series The Silent Sea. It features a climate crisis and the drama of carrying out a technological attempt at a solution, similar to Fortitude, Years and Years, Snowpiercer, Katla, Occupied, and Aruanas, in which the action unfolds amidst a human-damaged planet. In The Silent Sea, Dr. Ji-an Song (Doona Bae), joins a mission to an abandoned moon station to retrieve samples of lunar water, a potential solution to the earth’s water crisis.
Climate fiction is like Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, which the German philosopher Walter Benjamin interpreted as the “angel of history.” We can imagine this alien figure staring back at us in disbelief as it is being blown into the future by a fossil-fueled ecological catastrophe across the planet, a catastrophe commonly referred to as the Anthropocene.
The Holocene is the official geological term for the past 12,000 years of climate stability on earth, an epoch in which civilizations grew and flourished. Over the past 20 years, scholars have argued that Holocene is over, and we are now living, and dying, on a human-damaged planet: the Anthropocene.
Much of the fiction about climate crisis involves catastrophic heat, such as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus (2015), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015). Many describe a related symptom of climate emergency, the social and political wreckage that results from the upheaval of drought and desertification.
The Silent Sea, written by Eun-kyo Park and directed by Hang-yong Choi, is thematically similar to these novels and to water crisis films such as Interstellar (2014) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), in imagining The Great Drought, an ecodystopian future where the Han River has become a dust bowl, wildfires are raging, children are dying, and the wealth gap is filtered through the water gap. Images of water stations, where downtrodden citizens line up to pour their allotment into standardized five-gallon containers, allude to the 1973 oil crisis. In the 20th century, people fought and died over oil. By 2075, such stories suggest that they will be fighting and dying over water.
The highly-classified samples the scientists are sent to find at the moon station could be a solution, but like Plato’s pharmakon, they are both potion and poison. The cure for the water crisis lies within a deadly virus that, like the pandemic currently rocking the planet, is extremely contagious and multiplies rapidly as it attacks the throat and lungs.
Netflix released this cli-pan drama on December 24, when many parts of the world began locking things down once again to contain the Omicron variant, which is ripping through the human species like a crazed kid attacking wrapping paper on Christmas morning.
As a sci-fi fantasy thriller, the nightmarish world of The Silent Sea is very different from the hard science and near-future realism of Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. Robinson works very hard to help readers imagine a post-capitalist future in which life still flourishes, in other words, a good Anthropocene.
In The Silent Sea, capitalism appears to be working just fine. A hierarchical classification system separates the water-haves from the water-have-nots, which also determines who has access to quality health care. Neoliberal privateers have been trying to get rid of the Korean National Health Insurance program for a long time, and it looks like they finally succeeded. Feeble protests against the unequal distribution of water gather on the streets but are quickly gunned down by the military.
Hustle culture is alive and well in this future, as Captain Yoon-jae Han (Gong Yoo), joins the moon mission in order to earn a higher water classification so he can save his young daughter (Bo-min Kim), who is hospitalized and needs surgery to prevent her legs from being amputated. Back at the moon station, another young girl, Luna 073 (Si-a Kim), the traumatized survivor of a human testing program designed adapt humans to the water virus, is running wild.
The real voice of protest in The Silent Sea doesn’t come from the streets, but from the bodies of these two girls, who are demeaned and devalued, rendered disposable in this vicious new era of disaster capitalism.
The violence played out on the bodies of these two girls, with their muted sorrow, pain, and anger, can be understood in the context of the real-life rage against climate injustice that is mobilizing young people around the world. Their futures are being amputated and rendered disposable by the political and economic elite of a Global North that refuses to act on climate change. The same deplorable elite class is the target of both Adam McKay’s recent film Don’t Look Up and, on a smaller scale, Lydia Millet’s brilliant new climate fiction novel A Children’s Bible (2020).
The ecodystopian world of The Silent Sea is seemingly in the making now; the toothless pledges of the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP 26) are helping it along. The Silent Sea doesn’t offer much in terms of hope, but like good climate fiction, it does offer a strong warning: Stop wasting resources looking for solutions on other planets and start making this one safe for future generations. There is No Planet B.
John R. Eperjesi is a professor in the Department of English Linguistics and Literature at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. https://johneperjesi.academia.edu/