08 August 2016

Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction

A review of Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson (Wesleyan University Press, 2014)

Green Planets is a collection of papers jointly edited by a professor of English literature, Gerry Canavan, and Kim Stanley Robinson, whose credentials as a SF writer should ensure the volume a readership outside the small world of academic literary studies. According to the back cover copy, it explores ‘the close relationship between science fiction, ecology, and environmentalism’ and ‘considers how science fiction writers have been working through this crisis’.

Canavan introduces the volume with a historical overview of environmentally conscious SF. He offers some explanation of terms that will be used and sets the scene for the structure of book, which is built around opposing understandings of utopia and dystopia in language appropriated by Samuel Delany from W.H. Auden.



Part 1 is entitled ‘Arcadias and New Jerusalems’ and contains four chapters exploring the long-standing opposition between pastoral and urban utopias. Christina Alt’s opening chapter offers a depressing comparison of two of H.G. Wells’s stories – depressing because one of the seminal figures of the genre first presents a pessimistic vision of the future of humanity in The War of the Worlds and then offers an eco-fascist vision of an earth cultivated to serve human interests in Men Like Gods. Michael Page illustrates the perennial struggle between evolutionary optimism and apocalyptic pessimism with the aid of Simak’s City and Stewart’s Earth Abides. Gib Prettyman explores the Taoist dimension in Ursula Le Guin’s utopian fiction (and en route convinced me that I should read her paraphrase of the Tao te Ching). Rob Latham concludes Part 1 with an examination of New Wave critiques of eco-imperialism in hard SF.

The second part, ‘Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies’, consists of five chapters focused on the dystopias corresponding to the utopias of Part 1. It begins with Sabine Höhler’s study of Garrett Hardin’s Exploring New Ethics for Survival, which is perhaps slightly off-topic as Hardin was an ethicist rather than a SF writer and this book was really an apologetic for his right-wing ethical stance dressed up as SF for ease of reading. However, the chapter does make the interesting point that all arks are discriminatory. This is followed by Andrew Milner looking at an Australian example of climatic apocalypse, Adeline Johns-Putra analysing Maggie Gee’s The Ice People, and Elzette Steenkamp exploring ecological concerns in South African speculative fiction. Of these three chapters, I found Johns-Putra’s the most thought-provoking in that it uses SF to challenge gendered understandings of caring in environmentalism. Part 2 concludes with a piece in which Christopher Palmer looks at the effect of the ubiquity of apocalypse in recent literature.

Part 3, ‘Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon’ is an attempt to explore the interstices between the utopias of Part 1 and their corresponding dystopias. Eric Otto looks at Paolo Bacigalupi’s strategic use of dystopias to commend their opposite. Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman offer a study of what they call science faction – recent speculative extrapolations from current science to earthly life after the (near) extinction of the human race. Although such material is only tenuously connected with SF, I found this chapter the most thought-provoking in the book. Bellamy and Szeman demonstrate the inherent conservatism of these extrapolations: by highlighting the supposed ease with which with the environment would recover after the end of the human race, the books they analyse present ecocatastrophe as a mere mis-step, something that might be avoided by the appropriate technological fix. In Chapter 12, Timothy Morton uses Avatar as a peg on which to hang some rarefied thoughts on ecology and post-Enlightenment philosophy. To conclude the section, Melody Jue links Lem’s Solaris and Greg Egan’s ‘Oceanic’ to bring an ecological dimension to the surface/depth dichotomy in SF.

In addition to the essays that make up the bulk of the volume, there is an afterword in the form of a dialogue between Canavan and Robinson, which concludes on an upbeat note rejecting the charge of pessimism that is sometimes levelled at ecological SF. Last but not least, Canavan has compiled a fairly comprehensive annotated reading list for anyone who wants to pursue ideas raised by the volume.

Given the multi-author nature of the work, it was inevitable that the quality of contributions would vary. There are some dull and uninteresting contributions. Indeed, one or two are little more than extended book reports. But those are more than compensated for by the thought-provoking chapter, the ones that throw up ideas that you will want to develop in entirely different directions from those taken by the authors. In conclusion, the book certainly fills a gap in the market and offers an invaluable starting point upon which, hopefully, other scholars will build.

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