“My current location offers robust food security under the US embassy’s McBush animal-protein programme for 12 months supplemented by Chinese Communist Party-certified TruSafe GM rice, both renewable annually, subject to good-behaviour criteria. My ideal partner would be someone with low bodyweight and a healthy appetite for fun. . .I am honest, hardworking, and believe in reincarnation. . .”

Lines from a matrimonial advertisement by an NRI living in South Africa in the 2030s, when climate change and conflict have severely affected food security in large parts of the world.

“But the worst thing about this mall was that they didn’t sell any stuff! I want to go to a mall and be mesmerized by all the shiny things that I can’t afford and then buy them anyway and cry when my credit card bill comes. This mall consisted of small buildings connected with walkways lined with trees (more damn birds), and in each building there was a repair shop. Repair shops for phones and washers and pots and clothes and shoes – wait, I guess those are called cobblers – and electrical things and what have you. I know my grandparents used to fix things when they broke, but not my generation!”

An excerpt from a 2050 review of a ‘green mall’ by a grumpy Gen X shopaholic in a hopeful future where conspicuous consumption is a thing of the past:

Such glimpses of the century ahead accompanied by eye-catching illustrations bring to life the narrative threads of Survive the Century, a cli-fi book of choice and decisions which pilot the reader through possible futures, good and bad, right up to the year 2100.

Do our decisions still matter? What are the choices that could lead us out of the planetary crises we have brought upon ourselves? This new book created from a video game offers some answers.

The consequences of climate change

Survive the Century is a branching narrative science fiction playbook, which puts the reader in the driver’s seat right from the beginning, “You are the senior editor of the world’s most popular and trusted news organisation. You have the enviable power to set the news agenda, and thereby shift the zeitgeist.” What decisions are you going to take, thereby bearing the world along different pathways that range from dystopic to ecotopian wonderlands?

The effects of climate change, socio-political upheavals and economic transformations, have pushed us to think beyond the usual themes and plots of fiction. In this new kind of engagement with change, policy simulator models, as this book shows, can play as much of an important role as the ‘imaginaries’ of creative fiction, bringing science and culture in close concert.

The existential challenges of the present and the possible role of different decisions we may take in addressing climate change and other crises, motivated climate scientists Christopher Trisos, Simon Nicholson and author Sam Beckbessinger, to turn the activity of choice-based decision-making about the future into a game. The original video game is available to play online but this cli-fi playbook allows readers to interact with the branching narratives by answering questions about policy choices and thus arriving at different versions of the future.

Sometimes, the question of climate change and its dark consequences instil a sense of fear which leads to avoidance and lack of engagement with the issue. However, Survive the Century presents a perfect balance of pathways from good to bad to ugly peppered by hilarious and often satirical stories which are fun to read. These narratives, mostly framed as news stories, are written by four well regarded speculative fiction authors, Lauren Beukes from South Africa, Maria Turtschaninoff from Finland, Rajat Chaudhuri from India and the Qatari-American writer, Sophia Al-Maria.

Between them these four authors present around twenty sharply imagined fiction pieces. These ‘stories’ bring the possible futures vividly before our eyes and include among others a hilarious review (Turtschaninoff) of a ‘green mall’ written by a grumpy Gen X shopaholic in 2050, an exciting quiz (Beukes) from the year 2070 to test eligibility for jobs in Mars, a 2080 interview (al-Maria) with Babylondon Mayor Lena Lenin where the topics range from Mary Antoinette to exotic stimulants and a hauntingly real 2090 report (Chaudhuri) of the Tate Twilight exhibition held in an abandoned Delhi metro station which showcases some consequences of a century of worsening planetary crises.

A fun educational tool

I will return shortly to the stories and the news headlines that frame each decade of the future but let us dwell a bit on the use of this book as a fun educational tool. Right at the beginning the creators lay out the rules of the game wherein as editor of a popular and trusted new organisation you flip from decade to decade (starting with the ’20s) and are presented with a snapshot of news stories for each and a number of policy choices.

So the ’20s begin with questions of covid vaccine inequity, offering a number of choices among which are universal vaccine funds, vaccines funded by rich nations or billionaires. In the decade of the 60s the options are whether or not to go for solar geoengineering. Likewise various policy choices like green taxes, universal basic income, land use, polluter pays among several others are offered over the years and according to what we chose, we end up in good or bad worlds of the future with its own set of problems and choices.

The book also provides a reading list near the end as well as useful information capsules to clarify terms used in the game. The entry for ecofascism reads, “Eco-fascism is an ideology that blames environmental breakdown on marginalised communities, arguing that over-population, over-industrialisation, and immigration are causing climate change. Followers often believe that racial purity and anti-multiculturalism are solutions to the climate crisis. Many eco-fascists can be characterised as white supremacists.”

Do our choices matter?

Reading this book and playing its online version one begins to get convinced that time has not run out and our decisions can still make an impact on the future of the planet. It is also heartening to know that Survive the Century is being used in classrooms and conference rooms around the world. In the book, Beckbessinger explains, “We hope that this game helps you to feel less hopeless and nihilistic about the future. Our choices matter. It’s not over.”

Alongside the stories that help us imagine the different futures, there are shorter newsclips that give these future imaginaries greater depth. In one of these, “Disaster-tourism industry turns pain into profit” by launching a winter scuba tour of the submerged Malé city, while a 2040 article talks about “Record-breaking crime rates around the world” due to heatwaves.

The reader/gamer can be a saviour and save the world from doom by making constructive and useful choices or one can play a villain and lead the planet towards further destruction. Whether you wish to be villainous or play with altruistic motives is completely your choice; the playbook will meander through many twists and turns and will finally answer the questions – Could you save the world? Were you able to survive the century?

Though this is a work of fiction, the future pathways that it alludes to and the scenarios and headlines that it paints are founded on collaborations between game designers, writers and climate scientists. Survive the Century has also employed a policy simulation model to chart out the possible pathways to the future and scientific contributors have been acknowledged in the credits. Perhaps this careful balancing of science and the imagination presented in a voice that is never oppressive or threatening makes this book a pleasure to engage with, despite some of the darker timelines in the text.

This is significant especially when climate anxiety has become a chronic condition of our times. Reports in Lancet and other studies have shown how young people are increasingly affected by it and multi-pronged approaches are being suggested for processing and dealing with its harmful effects. A gamified approach towards climate futures, in a fun format, which this book under review offers, could be another helpful tool to process anxieties related to ecological disaster.

Also, since more than one person can play Survive the Century with a single book, it can be a motivating and collaborative group activity as well. Speaking to Thomson Reuters Foundation News, Sam Beckbessinger recently said, “Play can be an incredibly powerful way to engage people, and it isn’t didactic. It doesn’t aim to tell you facts and things to do; it lets you play and explore.”

The discussion questions towards the end of the book are perspicacious, these will encourage readers to think and re-think about the future. I believe these discussion questions will elicit several strands of information about climate change that we haven’t considered before and also reveal our personal experiences and thoughts about planetary crises besides helping us delve into the shapes of the future we would like to see.

Change is made possible through informed discussions, participative decision-making and collaborative implementation of ideas and the more we do all of these, the better are the chances that we will be able to build a better future for the planet. Survive the Century is a book which equips us with some of the tools and understanding to negotiate the pathways to those coming decades. That it does this through a fun game format boosted up by imaginative storytelling, makes it a unique and important work.

Survive the Century, created by Sam Beckbessinger, Simon Nicholson and Christopher Trisos. Featuring short fiction by Lauren Beukes, Rajat Chaudhuri, Maria Turtschaninoff and Sophia Al-Maria. Illustrations by Annika Brandow, Three Kids in a Trenchcoat.