Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction

Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819574275
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 04/15/2014
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

GERRY CANAVAN is an assistant professor of English at Marquette University, and coeditor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction. KIM STANLEY ROBINSON Is the author of myriad novels and stories, including most recently Shaman and 2312. He has won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for science fiction.

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If This Goes On


And it is now that our two paths cross. Both simultaneously recognise his Anti-type: that I am an Arcadian, that he is a Utopian. He notes, with contempt, my Aquarian belly: I note, with alarm, his Scorpion's mouth. He would like to see me cleaning latrines: I would like to see him removed to some other planet. W. H. Auden, "Vespers" (Part 5 of Horae Canonicae)

Borrowing his categories from Auden, Samuel R. Delany has written that two ideological positions are available to us in modernity, each one carrying either a positive or a negative charge. One can imagine oneself to be the citizen of a marvelous New Jerusalem, the "technological super city where everything is clean, and all problems have been solved by the beneficent application of science" — or else one can be a partisan of Arcadia, "that wonderful place where everyone eats natural foods and no machine larger than one person can fix in an hour is allowed in. Throughout Arcadia the breezes blow, the rains are gentle, the birds sing, and the brooks gurgle." Each position in turn implies its dark opposite. The flip side of the Good City is the Bad City, the Brave New World, where fascist bureaucrats have crushed the soul of the human, machines have replaced work and love, and smog blocks out the stars; the other side of the Edenic Good Country is the Land of the Flies, where the nostalgic reverie of an imagined rural past is replaced instead by a reversal of progress and an unhappy return to the nightmare of history: floods, wars, famine, disease, superstition, rape, murder, death.

These loyalties shape our political and aesthetic judgments. The person whose temperament draws her to the New Jerusalem, Delany goes on to say, will tend to see every Arcadia as a Land of the Flies, while the person who longs for Arcadia will see in every city street and every shiny new gadget the nascent seeds of a Brave New World. What seems at first to be a purely spatial matter (in what sort of place would you rather live?) turns out in this way to be as much about temporality and political projection (what sort of world are we making for ourselves?). Delany's four categories imply speculation about the kind of future we are building and what life will be like for us when it arrives. In this respect Delany's schema is of a piece with the dialectic between "thrill and dread," between utopia and apocalypse, that Marshall Berman says in All That Is Solid Melts into Air defines "modernity" as such: "To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world — and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are." Though Berman pays little attention to the emergence of SF in that work, his description of modernity as the knife's edge between utopia and apocalypse nevertheless usefully doubles as a succinct description for virtually every SF narrative ever conceived. And little wonder: SF emerges as a recognizable cultural genre out of the same conditions of technological modernity that generated literary and artistic modernism at the dawn of the twentieth century, with the ecstatic techno-optimistic anticipation of Amazing Stories founder Hugo Gernsback matched always by the unending cavalcade of disaster, catastrophe, and out-and-out apocalypse that Everett and Richard F. Bleiler, in their massive index to the SF of the period, group under the single evocative heading "Things Go Wrong." Indeed, the persistence (and continued popularity) of SF into the contemporary moment can perhaps be thought of as the last, vital vestige of the original modernist project: from dazzling architectural cityscapes and off-world colonies to superweapons run amuck and catastrophic climate change, from Marinetti's worship of progress, technology, and speed to Kafka's deep and abiding suspicion of the project of modernity as such, SF extends the overawing directive to "make it new" to the farthest reaches of time and space.

Delany argues that the dialectics between city and country and between utopia and apocalypse that generate our New Jerusalems, Arcadias, Brave New Worlds, and Lands of the Flies are crucially operative in basically all SF. Thus the pastoral Arcadia of Wells's Eloi in The Time Machine (1895) is revealed to require the Brave New World of the Morlocks as its true material base, just as Huxley's Brave New World (1932) requires for its own continuation the preservation of an Arcadian "Reservation" as an internal safety valve. In 1984 (1949) the Arcadian refuge has always already been corrupted by totalitarianism, with secret microphones hidden in the flowers and trees. In a host of post-apocalyptic nuclear and zombie fictions from during and after the Cold War, a hopeless and wretched Land of the Flies is imagined as the only possible alternative to the New Jerusalem / Brave New World of American-style consumer capitalism and the national security state; in Soylent Green (1973), Silent Running (1972), and dozens of other 1970s and post-1970s environmental disaster narratives, we find capitalism hurtling hopelessly toward a final Land of the Flies anyway, as the bitter consequence of its insistence on ceaseless innovation and endless expansion on a finite and limited globe. Ernest Callenbach's influential Ecotopia (1975) articulates in that moment of crisis the possibility of a New Jerusalem that is an Arcadia, precisely through the Pacific Northwest's imagined secession from a United States that is rapidly collapsing into both a fascist Brave New World and starvation-ridden Land of the Flies. And even in something like the children's film WALL-E (2008) we find tomorrow's desolate Brave New World of plastic trash and consumer junk can still be recovered as an Arcadia, if only because our robots are smart enough to love nature more than we do.

It is only in postmodernity, Delany goes on to say, that new ideological forms are generated at the interstices of the first four. The first of these is the Junk City — the dysfunctional New Jerusalem in slow-motion breakdown, where the glittering spires haven't been cleaned in quite a while, where the gas stations have all run out of gas, and where nothing works quite the way it did when it was new. The positive side of Junk City is an ecstatic vision of improvisational recombinative urban chaos, "the Lo Teks living in the geodesic superstructure above Nighttown in Gibson's 'Johnny Mnemonic,'" to borrow Delany's example, or perhaps something like a fix-it shop in the ruins of today's Detroit. The other hybrid position is the ruined countryside, toxified by runoff from the cities and factories, which we need not even to turn to SF to imagine; we sadly have enough of these places in the real world as it is. And the flip side of the ruined countryside, its positive charge, is the unexpectedly sublime vision of decadent beauty that Delany calls the Culture of the Afternoon — the way a sunset, shining splendidly through the smog, glistens off the antifreeze.

* * *

Among other things, the shift from the modern to the postmodern as articulated by Delany registers a loss of political-historical agency in favor of a sense of doomed inevitability. The science fictional "Fable for Tomorrow" that opens Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), we might note, tells of an Arcadia "in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings" that is corrupted and destroyed by the introduction of chemical poisons that slowly kill all life in the area. But "No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves" — and thus we, reading Silent Spring before the final disaster, might yet choose to do otherwise. Similarly, in the nuclear apocalypses that dominated the Cold War imagination of the future, agency is retained always in the spirit of an urgent but still-timely warning; living in the present, rather than the scorched and radioactive future, we can choose not to build the last bomb, and choose not to push the button that will launch it. The haunting UNLESS that punctuates the end of Dr. Seuss's The Lorax (1971) captures well the sense of hope that is retained even in the most dire jeremiads, which presume that politics and indeed revolution are still possible, that we might still collectively choose to leave the world better than we found it.

For Fredric Jameson, it is also this loss of faith in the possibilities of political and social transformation — the evacuation of futurity that Francis Fukuyama famously called "the end of history" — that marks the shift from modernity to postmodernity. The incapacity for the imagination of alternatives to global capitalism has been frequently encapsulated by Jameson's well-known, oft-misquoted observation from The Seeds of Time that "it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism." Back when we were modern, we believed real change was possible; now that we are postmodern, we are certain it is not.

Shifts in the dominant vision of ecological apocalypse between the modern and postmodern periods reflect this paradigm shift in our relationship to futurity. The superweapons of early twentieth-century SF — and their terrible actualization in the nuclear bomb — threatened to unpredictably explode at any moment in the future, destroying all we have, and transforming the planet into a radioactive cinder. Thus the urgent need in the present, expressed in so much leftist SF of the period, to oppose more bombs, more wars. But, as Green Planets contributor Timothy Morton has noted, the temporality of climate change, the characteristic planetary apocalypse of our postmodern moment, is rather different: "Global warming is like a very slow nuclear explosion that nobody even notices is happening. ... That's the horrifying thing about it: it's like my childhood nightmares came true, even before I was born." In the unhappy geological epoch of the Anthropocene — the name scientists have proposed for the moment human activities begin to be recognizable in the geological record, the moment visiting aliens or the future's Cockroach sapiens will be able to see scrawled in their studies of ice cores and tree rings that humanity wuz here — the climate has always already been changed. The current, massive disruptions in global climate, that is to say, have been caused by the cumulative carbon release of generations of people who were long dead before the problem was even identified, as well as by ongoing release from the immense networks of energy, production, and distribution that were built and developed in the open landscape of free and unrestricted carbon release — networks on which contemporary civilization now undeniably depends, but which nobody yet has any idea how to replicate in the absence of carbon-burning fossil fuels. As Benjamin Kunkel has wittily noted: "The nightmare, in good nightmare fashion, has something absurd and nearly inescapable about it: either we will begin running out of oil, or we won't." That is: either we have Peak Oil, and the entire world suffers a tumultuous, uncontrolled transition to post-cheap-oil economics, or else there is still plenty of oil left for us to permanently destroy the global climate through continued excess carbon emissions.

Despite the urgency of these increasingly undeniable ecological constraints placed upon human activity, however, late capitalism remains a mode of production that insists (culturally) and depends (structurally) on limitless expansion and permanent growth without end: into the former colonial periphery, into the peasant countryside, through oil derricks into the deepest crevices of the earth, and, then, in futurological imaginings, to orbital space stations, lunar cities, Martian settlements, asteroid belt mining colonies, sleeper ships to Alpha Centauri, and on and on. It is a process of growth whose end we can simply not conceive. "The Earth got used up," begins the intro to several episodes of Joss Whedon's western-in-space Firefly (2002), "so we moved out and terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths." It sounds so easy! But from a scientific standpoint the other planets in the solar system are simply too inhospitable, and the distances between solar systems far too great, for the fantasy of unlimited expansion to ever actually be achievable.

Moreover, putting aside the sheer impossibility of this persistent trope of capitalist ideology — the basic mathematical impossibility of economic growth that literally never ends — we should find that narratives of space colonization dialectically reinscribe the very horizon of material deprivation and ultimate limit that they are meant to relieve. "Escape" from Earth actually only constrains you all the tighter, in miniature Earths smaller and more fragile than even the one you left. In his essay "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth," discussed in Sabine Höhler's chapter of Green Planets, Kenneth E. Boulding (the cofounder of the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory) notes this reality as he characterizes the "critical moment" of the mid-twentieth century as a transition from a "cowboy economy" to a "spaceman economy":

For the sake of picturesqueness, I am tempted to call the open economy the "cowboy economy," the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the "spaceman" economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.

The echo of Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 "frontier thesis" is unmistakable; a once-open, once-free horizon of expansive possibility, which previously drove American history, has now slammed forever shut.

In the cowboy economy, consumption is an unalloyed good; if there are infinite reserves of everything (or abundant resources so inexhaustible as to be effectively infinite), the health of an economy is logically predicated on the expansion of consumption. But on a spaceship economy, governed by scarcity, reserves must always be tightly controlled, requiring a reevaluation of the basic principles of economics:

By contrast, in the spaceman economy, throughput is by no means a desideratum, and is indeed to be regarded as something to be minimized rather than maximized. The essential measure of the success of the economy is not production and consumption at all, but the nature, extent, quality, and complexity of the total capital stock, including in this the state of the human bodies and minds included in the system. In the spaceman economy, what we are primarily concerned with is stock maintenance, and any technological change which results in the maintenance of a given total stock with a lessened throughput (that is, less production and consumption) is clearly a gain. This idea that both production and consumption are bad things rather than good things is very strange to economists, who have been obsessed with tile income-flow concepts to the exclusion, almost, of capital-stock concepts.

This central insight — an ecological one — makes visible certain contradictions that were programmatically obscured by the "space empire" fictions so popular in the Golden Age of SF. In stark contrast to the untold riches and total freedom they are imagined to provide, distant space colonies — whether on inhospitable moons or orbiting far-flung planets — are in fact necessarily markers of deep, abiding, and permanent scarcity, requiring, for any hope of survival, careful planning and rigorous management, without any waste of resources. From an earthbound perspective, the colonization of space appears wildly expansive, a "New Frontier" that opens up the entire universe to human experience and exploitation — but from a perspective inside one of these spaceships or colonies, life is a state of fragile and even hellish enclosure, at constant risk of either deadly shortages or deadly exposure to the void outside.

Asimov, of all SF writers, confronts this paradox in a late work, Robots and Empire (1985), which sees one of its robot heroes (operating under the self-generated "Zeroth" Law of Robots) deliberately and permanently poison Earth's crust with radioactive contaminants in order to force humans off their otherwise paradisal home world. Earth is already perfect for us, the robot R. Giskard reasons — too perfect. The only way to get human beings off the planet and out into the universe (where, scattered across hundreds of worlds, the species will finally be safe from any local planetary disaster) is to destroy Earth altogether: "The removal of Earth as a large crowded world would remove a mystique I have already felt to be dangerous and would help the Settlers. They will streak outward into the Galaxy at a pace that will double and redouble and — without Earth to look back to always, without Earth to set up as a God of the past — they will establish a Galactic Empire. It was necessary for us to make that possible." Taken in the context of the rest of Asimov's immense shared universe, the intended conclusion for the reader is that this robot indeed made the correct decision to poison the planet and kill all nonhuman life on Earth.


Excerpted from "Green Planets"
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Copyright © 2014 Wesleyan University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: If This Goes On — Gerry Canavan
PART 1 — Arcadias and New Jerusalems
Extinction, Extermination, and the Ecological Optimism of H.G. Wells —Christina Alt
Evolution and Apocalypse in the Golden Age — Michael page
Daoism, Ecology, and World Reduction in Le Guin’s Utopian Fictions — Gib Prettyman
Biotic Invasions: Ecological Imperialism in New Wave Science Fiction — Rob Latham
PART 2 — Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies
“The Real Problem of a Spaceship Is Its People”: Spaceship Earth as Ecological Science Fiction — Sabine Höhler
The Sea and Eternal Summer: An Australian Apocalypse — Andrew Milner
Care, Gender, and the Climate-Changed Future: Maggie Gee’s The Ice People — Adeline Johns-Putra
Future Ecologies, Current Crisis: Ecological Concern in South African Speculative Fiction — Elzette Steenkamp
Ordinary Catastrophes: Paradoxes and Problems in Some Recent Post-Apocalypse Fictions — Christopher Palmer
PART 3 — Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon
“The Rain Feels New”: Ecotopian Strategies in the Short Fiction of Paolo Bacigalupi — Eric C. Otto
Life after People: Science Faction and Ecological Futures — Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman
Pandora’s Box: Avatar, Ecology, Thought — Timothy Morton
Churning Up the Depths: Nonhuman Ecologies of Metaphor in Solaris and “Oceanic”: — Melody Jue
Afterword: Still, I’m Reluctant to Call This Pessimism — Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson
Of Further Interest
About the Contributors

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The book posits a fundamental opposition in the genre: the future-technological city (Utopia) versus the pastoral Arcadia: each believing the other one to be the true dystopia. Add to this our ecological crisis, and you have the situation all these SF essays confront in so topical and stimulating a way. This seems to me a truly timely and contemporary, innovative collection, breaking new ground for literature and perhaps for reality as well."—Fredric Jameson, William A. Lane, Jr., Professor of Comparative Literature, Professor of Romance Studies, Duke University

"Green Planets is solid gold in terms of the breadth of the primary and secondary sources treated and the ways that the authors seamlessly intercalate their theoretical starting points and their literary examples."—Patrick D. Murphy, author of Transversal Ecocritical Praxis

"This book combines high-quality scholarship, well-known and up-and-coming authors, and scintillatingly new and relevant topics. It will set the standard for green science fiction studies, documenting the serious role that science fiction has to play in literary and cultural studies exploring the extremely pressing environmental issues of the twenty-first century."—Heather Sullivan, professor of German and comparative literature, Trinity University

Patrick D. Murphy

“Green Planets is solid gold in terms of the breadth of the primary and secondary sources treated and the ways that the authors seamlessly intercalate their theoretical starting points and their literary examples.”

Heather Sullivan

“This book combines high-quality scholarship, well-known and up-and-coming authors, and scintillatingly new and relevant topics. It will set the standard for green science fiction studies, documenting the serious role that science fiction has to play in literary and cultural studies exploring the extremely pressing environmental issues of the twenty-first century.”

Fredric Jameson

“The book posits a fundamental opposition in the genre: the future-technological city (Utopia) versus the pastoral Arcadia: each believing the other one to be the true dystopia. Add to this our ecological crisis, and you have the situation all these SF essays confront in so topical and stimulating a way. This seems to me a truly timely and contemporary, innovative collection, breaking new ground for literature and perhaps for reality as well.”

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