New Columnist: Vandana Singh

Posted by Niall Harrison

An exciting addition to the Strange Horizons lineup this week: Vandana Singh joins our roster of columnists. I'm a great admirer of Vandana's fiction -- including stories published here -- and I'm delighted she'l be writing for us on environmental and scientific topics. A flavour of her first column:

The dream is to rewild the world: to restore barren and impoverished forests, wetlands and other ecosystems through preserving core natural habitats, providing connectivity between core regions by reopening migration corridors, and reintroducing keystone species on whose presence the ecosystem's health depends. The dream is not about going "back to Nature," but about redefining and mending our relationship with her. And it is being dreamed by people around the world, from conservation biologists to impoverished communities threatened by the failure of their ecosystems. This dream, despite its fantastical qualities, is no pipe dream, but is informed by the most practical considerations you can imagine. As a group of young teens from Delhi learned so many decades ago, you cannot begin to achieve something of this scale "from the top." What it needs is a grassroots level involvement of the local people, whose rights and dignity cannot be trampled over in the name of "conservation." Sometimes they initiate change—on other occasions they need economic incentives to begin to be the stewards of their wildlands.

I pull this particular quote out because I'm wondering: how has our genre done at dreaming this dream? Or more precisely: what's the lineage? I could, off the top of my head, make a stab at constructing a history of hard sf, of feminist sf, of alternate history, of Marxist sf; ecological and environmental sf is surely no less important, but the best I could do would be a list of disconnected texts, I don't have a baseline narrative to fit them into.

What, for instance, was the first science fiction novel to tackle man-made, inadvertent, global-scale climate change and its consequences?


           

Comments (4)


What, for instance, was the first science fiction novel to tackle man-made, inadvertent, global-scale climate change and its consequences?

The earliest I could think of, if I'm understanding your criteria correctly, were books in the early/mid-90s like Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower (1993) and Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather (1996). I figured those couldn't possibly be the earliest, so did a bit of Googling and found this list--in the comments, Maggie Gee suggests her Where are the Snows (1990) as the earliest she's aware of. (The anthology the list is connected to may also be of interest--and increment by one the number of times someone has suggested that you should attend Readercon.)

In other words I'm skipping past all the earlier books in which climate change occurred as a secondary effect of nuclear fallout, or due to natural disaster, or an unlikely hypothetical--although these would all need to be incorporated into the baseline narrative you write of. I think we're still living somewhere in the middle of that baseline narrative, so it is difficult now to see it. It's tempting to talk about the narrative's origins (?) in the cold war, but surely the narrative is bigger than that--it is perhaps part of a larger narrative about the struggle between nationalism and globalization. It also strikes me, more abstractly, as a narrative about science and what it can and cannot do--the breakdown of Enlightenment ideas of the world's systems as knowable, predictable, and thus controllable. The early climate change stories had a large element of human control and predictability: if we do that, then this will necessarily follow. Then disaster stories of climate change suggested limits on the human controllability of the environment, if not science's predictive ability: if this unforeseeable thing happens, then this will be the result. And then the more recent climate change books treat it as something more emergent, stemming from many individual activities rather than a singular event, and so having a series of tipping points that are much more difficult to predict. But to the extent any of that is a true summary of the story of climate change SF, there are probably still more chapters to be written. Hopefully one of them will be dreaming this dream that Singh describes.


Apologies for the delay in replying to this! The train of thought was started, in part, by having read Kim Stanley Robinson's "Venice Drowned" quite recently, which was published in 1981 -- but you could probably put almost everything KSR has published into a climate change canon, if you wanted. The other earlyish work I was aware of was The Sea and Summer by George Turner, which is in van Gelder's list and, unfortunately for Maggie Gee, was published by Faber (at least in the UK). Things like Hothouse and The Drowned World -- it's years since I read the former, and I haven't read the latter, so I'm not sure how anthropogenic the change is in either case.

That anthology looks very interesting. Unfortunately Amazon UK will only offer to sell it to me as a Kindle file, not as an actual book.


Niall, my apologies in turn for the delay in responding--I'm just back from a short vacation, during which I read The Best of KSR (thank you). "Venice Drowned" is an interesting case because reading that story in 2011 we are likely to experience the story as anthropogenic, but I wonder whether readers in 1981, when the story was published, would necessarily have read it that way. The causes of the climate change are never stated in the story, unless I missed them. And while I'm not old enough to truly remember, my impression is that while the possibility of anthropogenic climate change was established among the scientific community by then, anthropogenic possibilities weren't necessarily the first thing an average reader (or even an average SF reader) would assume when reading about climate change. Also Venice in particular was wracked by some major storms in the 1970s, which this story was sure to evoke, but I don't know whether there was any popular thought at the time connecting those 70s storms to human activities.

I welcome corrections, though; I'm curious about this, too.


reading that story in 2011 we are likely to experience the story as anthropogenic, but I wonder whether readers in 1981, when the story was published, would necessarily have read it that way.

Interesting! I assumed it was anthropogenic as much because it's by KSR as anything, you're right; from memory there's reference to some sort of superstorm, which put me in mind of Forty Days and Counting, but I can't recall anything that explicitly states it is human-caused.

Googling around for the history of climate change I found this page, from which I discovered that the specific notion of a greenhouse effect goes back further than I would have guessed, and that climate change as an issue was moving up the agenda in the 1970s, but that scientist's theories "first caught wide public attention in the summer of 1988, the hottest on record till then". So it seems plausible that KSR was writing about it in the late seventies, and George Turner's book must have seemed very zeitgeisty when it came out.


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