A Ten Minute Guide to: Eco-SF (2009)

The last ever Ten Minute Guide from Death Ray, and this one never published. I liked writing these articles, but although quite a few people read them don’t expect me to create any more specifically for this website – they take ages to research, so this really is the very last.

Leafy Concerns

We all feel stupid for laughing at the hippies now we’re all about fry on fires stoked by our own greed. And guess what? SF was there fairly early on, warning us all to cut it out…

Science Fiction with an ecological slant is a very broad topic, because many, many writers like to put their characters in extreme situations. What can be more taxing than an extreme environment, of an alien world, or one created by mannish foolery or nature’s wrath right here on good old Earth? Said environments, through the mechanisms of evolution, also force change upon our fleshy shells, another favourite of SF authors through the ages. We’re talking science fiction encompassing everything from tree-hugging flicks like Silent Running to The Time Machine, whose brutal social-Darwinian message of mankind’s fragility in the uncaring face of time still gives us the willies, frankly.

Stories with a ‘green’ message are somewhat younger, but are becoming increasingly prominent in a field that prides itself on poking the future, and whichever future you pick nowadays, whether it’s one put forward by bankers, politicians or activists, creeping ecological catastrophe looms large. This, though depressing, at least gives inspiration to Roland Emmerich…

There’s three movies connected to this theme in different ways, out round now – Avatar, with its depiction of an alien world; The Road, where an unnamed catastrophe kills off most Earthly life; The book of Eli, where a war devastates the environment; and 2012, where natural disaster floods much of the Earth and forces the survivors into giant Arks. Surely time to dabble in the greener side of things?

Ten essential questions

1. So, Eco-SF, what are we really talking about here?

I suppose we’ll have to narrow it down a bit, very well: We say SF where the environment plays a prominent role in the story.

2. Boooooring. Surely this has been kicking about for as long as there has been science fiction?

Um, no. Actually, early SF writers were pretty clueless about ecology. About as clueless as everybody else, in fact: ecology and environmentalism are, after all, young sciences. Let’s also get one thing straight here: ecology, environment and evolution are three interlinked yet separate fields. You shouldn’t really use the terms interchangeably – the study of evolution and ecology, for example, differ philosophically, whereas ecological studies are somewhat less holistic than environmental studies, stopping at the planetary rather than (at the extreme end) the universal scale of environmental concerns.

3. Er, thanks for the science, now what about the SF?

Right, yes, sorry. As the whole ‘web of life’ concept was not widely known or studied until fairly recently, early SF makes some notable howlers, stuffing planets full of predators with no prey to eat (like Edgar Rice Burrough’s take on Mars), or, like in Dune (1965) where the atmosphere’s rich with oxygen yet has no sources to replenish it. Frank Herbert, whose ecology was otherwise impeccably constructed, got round this in later books by saying his sandworms created it. But still it happens – the recent Stargate Universe three-parter ‘Air’ has a dead world with an oxygen rich atmosphere – it does oxidise, you know. A notable attempt to get round this was Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964, dir. Byron Haskin) where our hero finds heating rocks up with fire gives him enough to breathe. The problem being that if there’s not enough for him to breathe, there wouldn’t be enough for him to light his fire… Anyway.

4. Wow, so you have to have a real science head on for this stuff, eh?

Definitely. Stanely G. Weinbaum was a notable early exception, his planetary romances featured a solar system with environments correct by 1930s scientific knowledge. An early examples of Earth-based eco-themed SF include ‘The Man Who Hated Flies’, (J.G. Beresford, 1929), about the creation of an insecticide so effective it wipes out all pollinating insects and dooms us all. With bees dying off, it looks worryingly prescient. While Already Walks Tomorrow (1932) by A.G. Street concerned soil exhaustion.

5. Depressing.

Now now, SF does serve a useful purpose warning us about this type of thing. Unfortunately, it is only recently that eco-SF began to move away from the apocalypse of the week, with crises sometimes delivered by outrageous means: John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956) highlights our over-reliance on one family of plants by having all grasses die off, John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951) has to have us all go blind before murderous daffodils can finish us off, while extreme weather caused by global warming creates an instant ice age in The Day After Tomorrow (2004, dir. Roland Emmerich).

 6. Surely it’s not all so silly?

No, Soylent Green (1973, directed by Richard Fleischer) tackles over-population brilliantly, an issue so politically volatile that is only now being seriously discussed by our leaders. Others in the ‘Ecotastrope’ genre include David Brin’s book Earth (1990) and Ecodeath (1972) by William Jon Watkins and E.V. Snyder.

But as time has gone on, these grand woes are falling increasingly out of the frame as the focus of stories, becoming the background to tales as diverse as Babylon A.D. (2008, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz), Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1995) and Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution book sequence.

 7. Those films and books are all so grim!

Better than the nuclear wastelands popular up to the 1980s, seen in the likes of Mad Max: The Road Warrior, A Boy and His Dog, and recently revived by The Book of Eli and The Road… Bluefin tuna might be off the menu, but no one ever pressed the big red button, just be thankful for that.

8. But it’s not our fault, surely?

No. There are dozens of stories where man finds himself in a changed world due to natural upheaval. In Stephen Baxter’s Evolution (2002), for example, mankind is forced along new evolutionary paths after the eruption of a super-volcano. In J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned world (1962), part of a series of books examining extreme versions of Earth, fluctuations in the Sun’s output melts the icecaps, floods the planet and heats up the northern hemisphere to tropical temperatures. Roland Emmerich’s latest, 2012, has contintents skidding across the Earth’s crust, while the 1973 movie Quintet, by Robert Altman, presents a world in the grip of a new ice age. Then of course there are all the disease-oriented apocalypses which remove man from the equation of life on Earth, some natural, others not so. Alien intervention (direct and indirect), comets, disease, volcanoes, ice ages, environmentally induced infertility, even rogue planets, have all been used to alter the environment of life of Earth.

9. This is all a bit preachy…

Just be thankful we’re not sitting you down in front of Silent Running (1972), which is not only preachy, but scientific nonsense. Eco SF serves a purpose, but can be incredibly sanctimonious, and is often wrong. At its worst, it’s as annoying as an unwashed eco-warrior that likes to lecture you on your wasteful lifestyle while living off his parents’ trust fund.

10. Calm down dear! It’s only a 10 minute guide…

Yeah, sorry. For info on off-world ecotainment, read on. I’m off to plant some mung beans.

Under Alien Skies…

It wasn’t until after World War II, as the scientific discipline of ecology developed, that carefully thought out alien ecologies began to proliferate, with many authors utilising eco-puzzles in their short tales. One of the most notable of these is Harry Harrison’s book Deathworld (1960), which features Pyruss, the deadliest planet in the galaxy. Its ridiculous tides, radiation, super-vulcanism and severe axial tilt are the least of the colonists’ worries. Life on the world is completely antagonistic to human existence, and evolves so quickly people who have been off world for short periods need to undergo intensive briefings to get up to speed on the latest threats. It takes an offworlder to figure out why Pyruss’ one city is under siege, while out in the jungles a different group of humans are able live in harmony with the native flora and fauna.

Carefully constructed ecology is a hallmark of SF (one only wishes fantasy would follow suit). Good examples include Neal Asher’s Spatterjay. Featured in many of his books, and but one of his many neatly designed worlds, it is a place where a virus enables infected organisms, including people, to withstand terrible injury, but at the cost of runaway mutation. Sheri Tepper’s eponymous world in Grass (1989) features a well thought out alien ecology, centring on the native species, the Hippae (another puzzle, linked to a pangalactic plague, lies at the heart of the story). Douglas Hill’s Colsec books feature a sentient forest.

Dune (1965) is perhaps the granddaddy of eco-fiction, exhibiting, through its planetary ecology, most of the themes that have become predominant in eco-SF: large-scale environmental engineering, truly alien ecologies, cultural connections to the environment, and a form of attached spiritualism. This new-age veneration of the environment as a metaphysical presence has become something of an unfortunate cliche in SF, though still powerful when employed effectively.

Terraforming, practised secretly by the Fremen in Dune, is a staple subject for SF writers, cognisant as they are, unlike earlier authors, of the relative barrenness of our surrounding worlds. The feasibility of actually transforming at least Mars, and possibly Venus, into Earth-like habitats, seems tantalising close to our current capabilities. Nowhere is there a better examination of this than in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, comprising Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1994) and Blue Mars (1996). Set against a background of socio-economic upheaval and revolution (giving capitalism a well-deserved knock goes hand in hand with environmental themes), Robinson gives a meticulously detailed description of the Red Planet over two centuries, the final volume expanding to take in similar efforts elsewhere in the Solar System.

Adding to Adam

If you can’t adapt your environment to suit you, adapt yourself to your environment. There’s something of a split among SF’s post-humans between those who have branched off from humanity for philosophical reasons, and those who have done it in order to better survive. The latter are exceedingly numerous, present in the books of Neal Asher, Alaisdair Reynolds, and Dan Simmons, to name but a few. But the best examination of how this might be accomplished, and what it may do to a man’s mind, is to be found in Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus (1976), where in the face of a coming World War, Roger Torraway is slowly transformed into a cyborg capable of surviving the hostile environment of Mars.

The book’s key theme is how our physical form affects how we think of ourselves, as Torraway, increasingly altered, drifts away from humanity. And it has a killer twist.


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