Speculative Planetology: Science, Culture and the Building of Model Worlds
My book project, Speculative Planetology, describes how planets came to be imagined and computed as whole systems. Over the last century, climate modelers, planetary scientists, science fiction authors, game designers, computer graphics engineers, politicians, and members of the public have borrowed from one another in a discourse that produced the idea of a “planet” as an object of knowledge. The form and importance of this object, a spheroid container for mutually interacting physical, biochemical, and (sometimes) social subsystems, was not inevitable. I examine a series of encounters between science and speculative media between the 1950s and the present. The conceptual toolkit that I call “speculative planetology” has been negotiated through disciplinary exchanges. For example, climate scientists cite science fiction in textbooks, meteorologists take up computer graphics techniques designed for imaginary worlds, and fans debate speculative planets like Mars, Venus, Arrakis, and Trappist-1e across social media, scientific publications, and science fiction conventions. Understanding a planet requires not only data collection and computational analysis, but also cultural work and impulses of the imagination.
While they are more constrained in their outputs than science fiction narratives, climate and Earth system models such as those that are assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also create speculative futures. Speculative planetology, like all anticipatory methods, has a dangerous ability to concretize and reinforce imagined futures as infrastructure for the perpetuation of regimes of the present. This perilous “locking in” of Earth’s potentialities must be countered with practices of participatory world building that can open out multiple ways of thinking within, beyond, and against a monolithic planetary future. Against the notion that the environmental humanities needs to “respond” to the futures foretold by Earth system science, Speculative Planetology exhorts us to see the humanisms that were always inseparably bound into the science of thinking and building worlds, and to insist on broadening the range of tools, narratives, and perspectives that are treated as part of that effort.