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Weather on Demand

Detail of cover for Analog magazine July 1961 by John SchoenherrVisions of the future commonly assume human mastery over a range of aspects of nature and the universe around us. Perhaps one of the most common, and easiest to relate to, is the idea that we will one day be able to control from the weather. From a barely mentioned aspect of background worldbuilding, to a major driver of plot and character development, weather control is a frequently-recurring device in science fiction [1].

The reasons humanity has for controlling the weather are many and various, as are the different ways this has been undertaken in fiction. This may involve global climate manipulation (as in terraforming, a topic for another day!), regional control of major storms or extreme events, all the way down to local microclimates, or even something as apparently simple as requiring rain on a particular garden on a given day. Efforts to actively manipulate the weather on Earth have long been an aspiration, and came to the fore in the mid-twentieth century when the development of high-altitude aircraft allowed experiments to take place. These seeded clouds with silver iodide or similar materials, providing compact nuclei around which raindrops could form, thus encouraging atmospheric moisture to condense as rain. Evidence for the effectiveness of such techniques is very limited, although some successes have been claimed, and some attempts have even been made by the military. As our understanding of the intrinsic complexity of weather systems, and their interaction with climate and the environment, has developed, such manipulation has been considered a less laudable aim. Nonetheless at times such efforts have both inspired and been inspired by science fiction, which explores its feasibility as well as wider considerations regarding its use.

Weather on Demand

Perhaps the most common mode of weather control encountered in SF is its use in a routine and civilian sense to moderate extreme weather on a continent-wide or planetary scale and ensure crops receive sufficient moisture. This kind of benign usage is the normal operation mode to be found, for example, in the Doctor Who serial “The Moonbase” (1967) in which a gravity manipulator for weather control is mounted on the near-side of Earth’s Moon. Other examples include several in the Star Trek universe, including the planetary weather control which allows the holiday planet Risa to guarantee visitors a balmy climate (Star Trek: DS9 - “Let He Who is Without Sin”, 1996), and that planned in novel Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons by John Theydon (1967, based on the TV series of the same name), in which four artificial satellites known as alpha, beta, gamma and omega are intended to dampen extreme storms and ensure more moderate weather for farmers.

Routine weather control of this kind also provides the initial premise of the film Geostorm (2017, although arguably this straddles the weather/climate change boundary), while an application sited on a partially-terraformed Mars provides a setting for Gordon R. Dickson’s chilling short story “The Monkey Wrench” (1951).

Perhaps one of the more interesting applications of civilian weather control can be found in the short story “The Phantom of Kansas” by John Varley (1976). Set amidst Varley’s Eight Worlds paradigm of a future humanity banished by alien invaders from Earth’s surface, it envisages humanity dwelling in underground settlements on the Moon and other Solar System bodies. The protagonist is an “environmentalist” – an artistic creative who generates performances by manipulating the weather in underground “disneyland” parks, one of which is described as a cylinder two hundred and fifty kilometres in diameter and five kilometers high, buried twenty kilometres below the surface of the Moon. This is a large enough volume to support a substantial weather system, but the lack of solar energy and global circulation requires any that forms to be closely controlled. As a result the artist can manipulate tornados, lightning and thunder to dramatic effect in a performance which lasts hours or even days.

In many other science fictions set in an advanced future, routine civilian weather control of this type is a default mentioned in passing rather than forming the subject of the fiction itself. In BBC television series Blake’s 7 (1978-1981), for example, planetary weather manipulation is just one of many functions of the Federation’s communications hub on the space station Star One (in the 1979 episode of the same name), while weather control is also a feature of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and of Robert Heinlein’s Future History sequence.

Attack by Weather

An indoor storm generated by Professor Middlemass in Tomorrow People episode Monsoon ManA notable deviation from routine weather control are the eccentrics or megalomaniacs who develop weather manipulation devices with an eye on personal gain. A striking example here is the utterly nuts Colonel Cobb in “Monsoon Man”, the third storyline in the 1990s version of The Tomorrow People (1992-1995). Cobb is a business tycoon with a breakfast cereal empire whose primary objective is to eliminate the crops (and hence business) of his competitors. To do so he employs a Professor Middlemass, who appears to have developed weather control working in isolation and seeks to monetise his invention. An episode of the television series Eureka (“Unpredictable”, 2007) features perhaps an even less likely motive: here the town’s meteorologist is so obsessed with being right and admired that he helps develop a weather device to ensure his unlikely predictions come true.

Emma Peel sips tea under an Umbrella in The Avengers: A surfeit of H2OPerhaps unsurprisingly, the British television series The Avengers (1961-1969) – always fond of a nominatively-determined scientific eccentric – and its spin-offs also feature a number of examples of weather control, each either invented or hijacked by individuals seeking gain. The most prominent example can be found in “A Surfeit of H2O” (1965) in which antagonists led by the suspiciously-named and accented Dr Sturm (and based for no adequately explained reason in a wine factory) create a weaponizable rain storm that can be sold to the highest bidder, using a process involving silver iodide seeding. A second case with military objectives can be found in the Avengers story “Under the Weather”, adapted as an audio drama for Big Finish Productions by Phil Mulryne in 2019, based on strips in the TV Comic (which were unnamed and printed 18 July – 5 September 1970). Here weather control is used by meteorologist Dr Weatherby to facilitate the theft of a newly-developed military aeroplane and to freeze Britain on behalf of a hostile foreign power. Perhaps the worst rendition of the theme (in several respects) was in the 1998 movie adaptation of The Avengers, in which a Sir August de Wynter develops a system known as Prospero and uses it to attempt the blackmail of world leaders. In each of these cases, the villain of the piece is quite clearly insane and there is little or no moral ambiguity shown in destroying the devices, despite their potential to benefit society in other contexts.

The aforementioned Captain Scarlet novel has another example of this kind of self-centred scientist, with a Professor Kurt Stahndahl who creates a rival weather control mechanism to that championed by the rest of the world’s experts, and uses it to launch attacks on his enemies (under the influence of the alien Mysterons) [2]. Animated children’s series Transformers: Rescue Bots also has an episode (“Changes”, 2014) which features not just one but two different weather control devices: a “tornadon’t” invented by the friendly Doc Greene, just in time to combat the tornado created by another device, used by the dastardly Doctor Morocco.

Book cover of Weather War by Leokum and Posnick (1978)Indeed, using weather control as a form of attack is another recurring feature in the SF corpus. Unfortunately, most civilian weather control applications are portrayed as vulnerable to this, emphasising the thin line between responsible and destructive control over nature: the Moonbase is taken over by Cybermen in Doctor Who, aliens use Star One for destructive purposes in Blake’s 7, while terrorists hijack the Risan system in Star Trek, and the Mysterons send storms across Earth in Captain Scarlet.

An additional and more sinister example of weaponised weather systems can be found in the thriller novel Weather War (1978) by Leonard Leokum and Paul Posnick. Here Forest Hill, a television meteorologist with a reputation for comedic presentation but a passion for the science of his field, uncovers a pattern of unlikely - not to say impossible - extreme weather events and gradually unveils a terrifying global conspiracy. Not only is a satellite-controlled conflict of weaponised weather deployment underway, but it is taking place while leaving the general public entirely unawares.

Control, or Over Control

In many, although not all, science fiction examples, weather control turns out to be a bad idea which is rendered non-functional by the end of the story. The reasons for this are apparent in the cases described above where the control device is weaponised (either by design or take-over). However, it’s perhaps worth looking a bit harder at why the portrayal of weather control tends to be so negative.

A subtext in many of the cases where civilian systems are taken over is that weather control is emblematic of an over-powerful civil authority. This is the case, for example, in Blake’s 7 where the Federation is a fascist dictatorship which exerts control both by force and through use of drugs and misinformation. The weather control functions of the centralised facility at Star One are simply an extension of the over-reaching and authoritarian state.

This is also the premise of the novel This Perfect Day (1970) by Ira Levin - a dystopian future of total overcontrol by a computerised state. Here not even humans but a central computer dictates all facets of life, including “perfect” weather during the day and rain that falls only at night. While this may sound idyllic to some, the control of the weather results in monotony and symbolises the lack of freedom of the individuals in the population.

In parallel with this fear of fascistic authoritarianism, another recurring theme in SF is the use of weather control to exemplify scientific hubris – the arrogance of humanity to believe they can overcome the power of nature through scientific means. This theme is present both in narratives where some failure of the system occurs accidentally and in those where it is weaponised, as well as those questioning authority. Even before the Mysterons take control of the weather control systems in Captain Scarlet, for instance, characters voice scepticism over whether the attempt should be attempted and we’re told, of Professor Standahl, that “A more humane man, or one less obsessed with his own sense of power, might have considered the effects of what he was about to do”.

The same question is a dominant theme in examples where a weather control system runs amok without outside intervention – for example in the film Geostorm (2017, dir. Devlin) in which the computers of a weather system malfunction catastrophically, causing disaster, or even in the light-hearted animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009, dir. Lord & Miller). Such examples speak to a distrust of the potential misuse of power entrusted to anyone or anything that controls the weather, a distrust of computer systems in particular, and a distrust of the scientific understanding that enables them.

The Weather Man

To consider a case study, in Theodore L. Thomas’s complex short story The Weather Man (1962), the weather control authority has in fact become the world government, with a political arm making decisions on water supply, climate and local weather, a technical arm who calculate the required changes in the Sun’s output to achieve those goals, and a practical arm who fly vessels into the Solar atmosphere in order to implement them. As the story explains:

The Weather Congress was the supreme body of Earth, able to bend states, nations, continents and hemispheres to its will. What dictator, what country, could survive, when blanketed under fifty feet of snow and ice? The Weather Congress could freeze the Congo River or dry up the Amazon. It could flood the Sahara or Tierra del Fuego. It could thaw the tundra, and raise and lower the levels of the oceans at will.

Cover of Analog magazine showing The Weather Man, illustrated by John Schoenherr.This is perhaps one of the most subtle and nuanced contemplations of the issues discussed above. The story is told from the perspective of three different viewpoint characters, one in each branch of the Weather Congress, and each with their own priorities and problems. The mathematical meteorologist (who must devise the physics and calculate the weather changes required to satisfy a request) is a female scientist struggling for recognition in a male-dominated field, but she and her colleagues are shown as totally committed to the beauty of the scientific equations and the problem solving in their work. The sun-ship captain (who must implement the changes and does so risking his own life and that of his crew) is struggling to weigh the joy he finds in his challenging work against the concerns of a partner regarding it, but nonetheless shows similar total commitment. In both these cases, there is an implication that while these individuals are skilled and well-meaning, they are too narrowly focussed on their own roles, and never question the reasoning behind the requests, or their consequences.

The protagonist of the first section is a more complex character – a politician representing a geographical region on the Weather Council. While he is portrayed as thinking about the responsibility of the council and the importance of its work, voting on various crop-related requests and requests regarding tourism, he is first and foremost motivated by his own political interests. His vote over whether to punish a rebellious region of Australia with drought is decided primarily on the basis of political interest. He then goes on to promote the request that drives the other characters to new heights of problem-solving in their fields: a request from a dying man to see snow in a hot climate. He does so purely for the political kudos he will acquire from the act, rather than through any consideration of the individual, or thought for the wider consequences or ethical implications of such a decision.

So in this story we see weather control wielded for benign survival purposes (crops), for purely commercial purposes (to promote tourism), as an instrument of authority (drought), and on a personal whim (the final request), as well as for political benefit and personal satisfaction. Importantly, to each of the characters involved, all of these motivations are treated as entirely equivalent, and of less significance than their own problems. Here we are seeing a critique of an overreaching state, of scientific hubris and of the fallibility of individuals wrapped up in one short story. Despite that, the story is ultimately one of triumph: the politician is successful, and the middle sections revel in their technical detail and the triumphant power of human intellect to meet the most complex scientific challenges. The finale is also shown as a form of victory, this time for the individual who made the initial request. There is no question of abandoning or destroying the technique in question. As a result, the story does not read as anti-scientific, but nonetheless encourages readers to consider carefully the applications to which scientific innovation is put by fallible humanity.

The cover of Isaac Asimov's Science Fictional Solar System

Thomas returned to this setting and the same characters in a sequel set a few years later, “The Weather on the Sun” (1970), which was reprinted in Isaac Asimov’s excellent anthology “The Science Fictional Solar System” in 1980.

In this story, the weather control system begins to break down, causing political turmoil. Again questions of authority and control arise, as one character notes: “I think the people have resented the Congress and the Council the way a small boy resents his authoritative father, and now they have found an excuse to let off steam”.

Interestingly, in this case, the break down occurs not because of any failure in the weather control system calculations or their application but because the Sun itself changes its characteristics. This is rather more of a straightforward story than “The Weather Man”, but again, the ending is a triumphant victory for scientific problem solving (albeit based on a somewhat misconceived understanding of solar physics), but at a high human cost.

Weather control fiction, then, positions humans as in tension with their environment, and explores the origins and possible resolutions to that tension. As such it offers opportunities to explore our notions of control and perfection in society, and to question those notions. Dreams of mastery over the weather, and nightmares of its failure, provide a rich ground for discussions of scientific hubris, and, as Theodore L Thomas in particular showed, also of scientific innovation and triumph. While hopes of weather control in the real world have become rather lost amidst the ongoing disaster of climate change, weather control in fiction offers an insight into our complex relationship with the world around us.

“Weather on Demand”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories Blog. 27th November 2022


[1] Just to clarify, I’m going to focus on technological weather control here, rather than that which is mediated through magical, preternatural or psychic powers – although this is also a commonly portrayed aspect of speculative fiction, for many of the same reasons as it appears in more technologically-oriented SF. I’ll also steer clear of terraforming or long-term climate manipulation (e.g. Timeslip’s “The Year of the Burn Up”), for the sake of brevity! [Return to text]

[2] In addition to the satellites (which combine weather monitoring with dampening extremes) and manipulation of the Dahl layer (a hypothesised ionized upper atmosphere layer that can be used to modify the weather through excitation with a beam), this Captain Scarlet novel is also notable for an attempt to dissipate a tropical storm through firing small atomic missiles at it from aircraft. The wisdom of this might fairly be described as questionable, and it rather unsurprisingly had the effect of adding more energy to the storm system rather than dispersing it. [Return to text]

All opinions discussed above reflect my own views, which are not necessarily those of the University of Warwick. Images sourced from public domain materials online and credited where possible