Essay

Why Science Fiction Has More to Say About the Environment than Any Other Genre

“Really, really after” is where many science fiction authors go to grapple with the uncertain future of our planet. The science fiction genre is uniquely poised to discuss environmental issues and the caretaking of our world: Sometimes, only by reading about the very far away, the very far in the future, or the very impossible, can we see exactly where our own world might be headed.

In the video below, acclaimed science fiction author Alan Dean Foster discusses how his immersion in nature informs his writing.

Over the last forty years, Foster has traveled all over the globe to experience nature at its most untouched. He catalogues these journeys in his adventure memoir, Predators I Have Known, but Foster’s encounters with these ecosystems are evident in his handling of far-flung galaxies as well. Take Midworld, for example. A Humanx Commonwealth planet covered by lush rainforest, Midworld is home to a primitive society that lives in harmony with the natural world. But the arrival of an exploitative human company propels the planet towards annihilation, and its inhabitants must fight to survive in the face of ecological devastation. We can sit back and watch the events of Midworld unfold because it is not our world. But it is a world like our own, its nature both fragile and hostile and its people both preservers and destroyers. This likeness is where science fiction authors can let plausible scenarios play out to their ends.

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The imagination present in science fiction has a way of predicting future events. Author Sarah Zettel noted, “When I wrote Playing God, climate change was not even a term. Now, it is a certainty.” Published in 1998, Playing God was asking a what-if question: What if war were to so ravage the planet that the only option was to rebuild on top of a wasteland? George Zebrowski’s Macrolife: A Mobile Utopia deals with similar issues: Nuclear explosions cause megadeath and the people of Earth undergo multiple cycles of obliteration and rebirth. These premises seem far less ludicrous in a time when global warming and weapons of mass destruction are on every news channel.

But not all human/nature relationships in science fiction are heralds of doomsday. Zettel notes, “I think we have much to hope for . . . in the points of view offered by science fiction, because both science and science fiction show us that the problems caused by our technology can also be solved by it.” Science fiction gives its protagonists agency in shaping their environment.

By following these characters, readers have a chance to observe, as author Gary Alan Wassner puts it, “the relationships between our actions and choices and their consequences.” His novel The Twins and Carol Severance’s Demon Drums both anthropomorphize nature to have real fears and real power. Man is not acting in a vacuum but rather in balance with the tree or the shark, resulting in interactions that are more poignant and meaningful.

There is a lot at stake in writing about our relationship to the natural world (even if it’s the alien’s relationship to its natural world). But whatever speculative fiction may say about Earth, it stands that it is only speculation. Every we can work to make the best environmental scenarios in science fiction our reality, and leave the worst of them to fiction.

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