Authors: Gerry Canavan
Ecology and Science Fiction
Edited by Gerry Canavan and
Kim Stanley Robinson
WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY PRESSÂ Â Â Â MIDDLETOWN, CONNECTICUT
Wesleyan University Press
Middletown CT 06459
Â© 2014 Wesleyan University Press
All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America
Designed by Mindy Basinger Hill
Typeset in Calluna Pro
Wesleyan University Press is a member of the Green Press
Initiative. The paper used in this book meets their minimum
requirement for recycled paper.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
available on request.
5 4 3 2 1
Title page and part title art
: Brian Kinney |
Cover illustration: Abstract art green stars backdrop on black background, Â© Brian Kinney.
FOR THE FUTURE
As its title suggests, this volume was first inspired by Mark Bould and China MiÃ©ville's
Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction.
But where that book focused primarily on the long-standing connection between science fiction and political leftism,
takes up instead the genre's relationship with ecology, environmentalism, and the emerging interdisciplinary conversation variously called ecocriticism, environmental philosophy, and the ecological humanities.
The oxymoronic combination of “science” and “fiction” in the term “science fiction” suggests in miniature the internal tension that drives analysis of the genre. Is science fiction primarily “science” (knowledge, fact, truth), or is it primarily “fiction” (whimsy, fantasy, lie)? Does the genre offer a predictive window into the world of a future that is soon to come, or does it instead merely reflect the assumptions, anxieties, and cultural preoccupations of its own immediate present? It's little wonder that for decades many writers and critics of science fiction have chosen to eschew the name “science fiction” entirely, preferring “speculative fiction” or (even more commonly) the ambiguous shorthand “
” as a means of avoiding the problem of the “science” on which the genre is nominally based. In fact almost none of the fantastic, otherworldly tropes most closely associated with
in the popular imagination are “scientific” in any meaningful sense; the physical laws of reality, as far as anyone can tell, prohibit all the best-loved plot devices, from hyperdrives to mutant superpowers to time travel to perpetual motion machines. Despite frequent pretensions to the contrary from fans and promoters of the genre, the popular designation of a text as
still typically registers not its careful fidelity to current scientific understanding but rather the extremity of its deviation from what science tells us is true.
And yet, despite all the necessary caveats and disavowals, it cannot be denied that we find ourselves living in science fictional times. Waiting in a doctor's office for the results of a genetic test that will tell her the true story of her own future, using a cheap handheld device that can in seconds wirelessly access a vast digital archive of all human knowledge, a person can effortlessly browse all the latest apocalyptic predictions about mankind's radical destabilization of the
planet's climate and the concurrent mass extinction of its animal and plant life in between breaking news reports about the latest catastrophic flood, drought, or oil spill. As noted
author William Gibson once put it: “Today, the sort of thing we used to think in science fiction has colonized the rest of our reality.”
It's true that cars still don't flyâbut they have started to drive themselves.
Nowhere is the science fictionalization of the present clearer than in contemporary considerations of humanity's interaction with its environment, which frequently deploys the language and logic of
to narrativize the dire implications of ecological science for the future. Fairfield Osborn's
Our Plundered Planet,
published in 1948, briefly paused its ecological critique to wonder if perhaps there aren't humanoids somewhere else in the universe treating their planet better than we treat ours; two years later Norbert Weiner, the father of cybernetics, took stock of energy scarcity and entropic breakdown to unhappily declare us “shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet” in his
The Human Use of Human Beings
Paul Crutzen's recent assertion of the Anthropoceneâa proposed post-Holocene “epoch” that posits that the multiple impacts of human civilization on the planet will be visible in the geologic recordâtakes up the cosmic viewpoint native to
to imagine the future scientists who will uncover the scant evidence of our existence on a long-deserted, post-human Earth; in
Man the Hunter,
from 1969, Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore deployed the same imaginative frame to consider the “interplanetary archaeologists” of the future, from whose perspective “the origin of agriculture and thermonuclear destruction will appear as essentially simultaneous.”
Rachel Carson, who jump-started the contemporary environmental movement with her stirring denunciation of chemical pesticides, famously chose to begin her book not with some detached presentation of the facts at hand but with a science fictional parable, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” about the inhabitants of a small town “somewhere in America” whose hubris destroys paradise.
The “Spaceship Earth” metaphor for discussing resource scarcity and sustainability has become so naturalized that most completely forget its origins in
. Even now, contemporary debates over the reality of climate change and the urgent need for renewable forms of energy production still frequently break down into accusations that one party or the other is dabbling in “science fiction,” not “science fact”; implicit in this petty sniping is the concession that it is increasingly hard for us to tell the difference between the two. In many waysâand many of them quite disturbingâ
looks less and less like “fiction” at all, and something more like the thin edge of the future as it breaks into the present.
The authors of
Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction
share this foundational
assumption that science fictional ways of thinking have something useful to teach us about the way the contemporary moment thinks about nature and the world. In this respect it is the latest entry in a long tradition of
criticism inaugurated by Darko Suvin in his 1972 article “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” which announced
's importance as the “literature of cognitive estrangement.”
Here Suvin recasts that apparently hopeless contradiction between science/cognition and fiction/estrangement in much more positive terms: the
is an incredibly flexible artistic tool for disorienting and defamiliarizing the conditions of everyday life, opening up the mind to previously unimagined possibilities, while
functions as the reality principle that keeps our imaginations honest. The alienated view-from-outside offered by cognitive estrangement allows us to examine ourselves and our institutions in new (and rarely flattering) light;
distances us from the contemporary world-system only to return us to it, as aliens, so that we can see it with fresh eyes. For Suvin, and for the generation of
critics that followed,
is thus at its core always about utopia: the dream of another world that wasn't just a hopeless fantasy, a glimpse of the better history that could actually be ours, if we would only choose to build it. Even the dystopian nightmares and secular apocalypses that so dominate contemporary
point us, by negative example, in the direction of utopia:
whatever else you do, don't do this.
Two decades ago, in the introduction to a collection of ecotopian fictions called
my coeditor Kim Stanley Robinson offered up a succinct description of the crisis facing the human race in our moment of technological modernity: “We are gaining great powers at the very moment that our destruction of our environment is becoming ruinous. We are in a race to invent and practice a sustainable mode of life before catastrophe strikes us.”
Our civilization, Robinson goes on, consequently finds itself today in the throes of an incomprehensibly vast project of “rethinking the future,” a Herculean and vertiginous task that links political environmental movements and radical animal-rights activists to politicians to venture capitalists to organic farmers to freelance inventors to biologists to physicists to chemists to economists to ecofeminists to philosophers to literary critics to writers of
. Indeed, the recognition of the immense planetary scale of ecological crisis, and the shocking inadequacy of our response thus far, extends the Suvinian interest in cognitive estrangement and utopian dreaming across the entirety of politics and culture todayânow the prerequisite for our collective survival. The future has gone bad; we need a new one.