Writing About Writing About Climate Change

Posted by Niall Harrison

As mentioned in the previous post, this week we have some discussion of writing climate change fiction; and if, as Vandana Singh says in her final comment, it is "increasingly important to write about climate change as passionately and creatively as we know how", we might also ask: how are we doing for criticism that calls attention to and examines such writing?

A quick survey of the critical resources available to me suggests not all that well. Searching the Science Fiction Studies archive for "climate change" and "science fiction" doesn't bring back many results, for instance. The James/Mendelsohn Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003) doesn't have a chapter on climate sf, or even on ecological sf more broadly; although there is Joan Slonczewski and Michael Levy's "Science fiction and the life sciences", which in its last two pages addresses the environment in general terms, referencing Dune as "the first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale", A Door into Ocean as an example of a response to Herbert's novel, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and solo Antarctica as stories about deliberate or accidental terraforming.

The more recent (2009), and rather larger, Bould/Butler/Roberts/Vint Routledge Companion to Science Fiction does have space for a chapter on "Environmentalism" by Patrick D. Murphy, which starts to apply ecocritical concepts to sf, identifying three types of environmental writing: nature-oriented ("the literary work draws attention to particular aspects of a natural world"); environmental justice writing ("authors move beyond local color to make some kind of threat to an ecology or planet the key to the plot and the response to it a major theme"); and ecological writing ("tries to be systemic in scope, laying out an entire planet's biospheric activity, or educating readers about the interdependence of natural phenomena"). There follows useful discussion of work by John Brunner, Ernest Callenbach, Amy Thomson, Joan Slonczewski, Karen Traviss and (with reference to climate change specifically) Arthur Herzog and Kim Stanley Robinson. The Bould/Vint Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction (2011), meanwhile, talks about "Environmentalism" in the context of the 1960s and 1970s, and "Ecological SF" in the context of the 1980s and 1990s; this time around Mary Rosenblum and Sherri S Tepper join KSR on the podium.

The third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction does have an entry specifically on "Climate Change", reading in part:

Owing to the increasing scientific consensus that our energy-intensive technological civilization is measurably and in all likelihood irreversibly affecting Earth's climate, consideration of climate change has become virtually inevitable in serious Near Future sf of the twenty-first century.

Which strikes me as a little optimistic.

What about from the other side of the aisle? I have two textbooks on ecocriticism at my disposal; the introduction to Greg Garrard's Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom (2012, second edition) perhaps admits the unfashionability of this approach to a text, in the course of discussing how ecocritics should dissect the environmental rhetoric of a text:

In ordinary usage, "rhetoric" suggests language that substitutes for literal truth: it is all "hot air." The sense intended in this book, however, is emphatically interested in literal meaning. This would be a negligible point were there not important trends in literary and cultural theory that would seem to marginalise the role of literal truth in literature and culture, even in science itself. Structuralism and post-structuralism, for example, have emphasised the linguistic function of signs that relate to each other rather than refer to real things. Developments in other areas have reinforced this separation of language from reality: post-colonial and feminist literary theorists have shown that apparently real or "natural" categories such as race and sex are better understood as "cultural constructions" that covertly substitute normative claims about how, for example, women ought to be for how women actually or necessarily are. [...] The challenge for ecocritics is to keep one eye on the ways in which "nature" is always in some ways culturally constructed, and the other on the fact that nature really exists, both the object and, albeit distantly, the origin of our discourse. (9-10)

And I think Lawrence Buell makes a convincing case for the applicability of an ecocritical perspective to sf in The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005):

The ne plus ultra of environment-poetics in narrative would seem to be the kind of project that takes on nothing less than the invention of the entire world. Poetry can grasp at this, of course [...] But the genre that really specializes in world-making is of course utopian narrative, meaning especially for the past half-century what is loosely called science or "speculative" fiction.

If the Quranic passage with which we started can be taken as an iconic image of early agro-pastoral piety (the bounty of the fruitful tree emanating from the sacred mountain), the iconic landscape for the era of environmental crisis is the earth as fragile eco-holism, the split image of the green Gaian ball of the 1989 Apollo moonshot and the Whole Earth Catalogue vs. the dystopic image of the ruined, uninhabitable planet, rendered so by human mistreatment. No genre potentially matches up with a planetary level of thinking "environment" better than science fiction does. Potentially, that is: not always in practice by any means. (56-7)

He goes on to discuss Dune, The Color of Distance, The Lathe of Heaven and Karen Tei Yamashita's Through the Arc of the Rainforest. I can forgive the conflating of utopian and science fiction, because Buell's central point strikes me as persuasive: sf has the tools to do this well. (And his invoking of "Earthrise" chimes interestingly with Adam Roberts' arguments about sf as a fundamentally imagistic mode.) Garrard's tightrope, meanwhile, to include the environment in the range of intersections that I practice noticing in a work of sf without diminishing any of them, is a challenge that appeals to me.

I know of one forthcoming book that will explore all this in more detail: Green Planets, Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson. I hope it's the first of many.