Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction edited by Canavan and Robinson

Reviewed by Anthony Nanson. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In Rob Latham’s Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) the field of ecocriticism was conspicuous by its absence. That gap could have been nicely filled by Gerry Canavan’s Introduction to Green Planets, or indeed Latham’s own contribution to this book. Ecocriticism and SF may have been reluctant bed-mates, but in this book we see an explicit insemination of SF criticism with ecocritical thinking. Not only that, Canavan argues that science fiction itself is an ideal means of ecological critique. As Kim Stanley Robinson points out in the interview concluding this volume, the ecological crisis confronting the world is so complex, and so much about process unfolding in time, that it is better described in terms of story than of abstract concept.

Canavan structures his introduction and – the book’s three parts – using a set of categories borrowed from Samuel Delany. First, the contrasting utopias of New Jerusalem (the high-tech super city) and Arcadia (the rustic good life). Each of these inverts into a dystopia: respectively, the Brave New World and the Land of the Flies. In the interstices between these arise new postmodern categories: Junk City (slow-motion urban collapse), whose positive side (‘an ecstatic vision of improvisational recombinative urban chaos’) is unnamed (how about ‘Brexit’?); and the not formally named ‘ruined countryside’ (‘Edgeland’?), whose positive aspect is the Culture of the Afternoon (sunset shining through the smog). Transcending these sixteen categories is the Quiet Earth, where humankind is completely or almost completely absent.

Part 2, ‘Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies’, thus focuses on dystopian stories. Part 3, ‘Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon’, tends that way also. Eric C. Otto’s chapter there applies the concept of ‘critical dystopia’ (from Raffaela Baccolini and Tom Moylan’s Dark Horizons [2003]) to show how Paolo Bacigalupi exercises an ecotopian (ecologically utopian) desire through dystopian scenarios that create a tension between his characters, who become motivated to act differently but whose options are foreclosed by the structures of their world, and the reader in this world for whom change remains possible.

What really struck me is that most of the texts examined in the supposedly utopian Part 1, ‘Arcadias and New Jersusalems’, also incline towards dystopia. Christina Alt’s chapter on H.G. Wells compares the ecological awareness of The War of the Worlds with humankind’s ruthless extermination of undesired species in his notionally utopian novel Men Like Gods. Latham’s ‘Biotic Invasions: Ecological Imperialism in New Wave Science Fiction’ surveys a range of grim invasion stories. Michael Page’s study of Golden Age SF touches on some utopian texts when discussing the theme of ‘evolution’ but then returns firmly to dystopia with his second ecological theme of ‘apocalypse’. This leaves Gib Prettyman’s study of Le Guin as the only chapter, besides the Robinson interview, that wholeheartedly engages with the utopian imagination.

The notion of a kind of merging of SF and ecological critique is made tangible by two chapters about ‘science faction’, texts that are essentially works of speculative popular science but framed in a future narrative. I use the term in a broader sense than the narrow one in which Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman deploy it, to refer specifically to depictions of a world devoid of people. Equally ‘science faction’, I’d say, is Garrett Hardin’s Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle, the focus of Sabine Höhler’s chapter. Both these chapters run into a political dead end: Bellamy and Szeman’s because, as they conclude, a post-human world is a priori devoid of politics; Höhler’s because Hardin’s thought experiment leads to a neoliberal cum fascist conclusion that the resource limitations of Spaceship Earth necessitate a coercive survival of the fittest. In proposing a lifeboat exit strategy from this dilemma, Höhler appears to reject the premise that the Earth is a closed system and fall back on the dream of a destiny somewhere else – which both Canavan’s introduction and the interview with Robinson make clear is no solution to humankind’s ecological quandary.

For me, the most interesting line of thought arises in three chapters that, in different ways, engage with the idea of a change of consciousness through some concept of immersive ‘depth’. Melody Jue explains now, in Stanisław Lem’s Solaris and Greg Egan’s ‘Oceanic’, the metaphor of mysterious ocean depths is manipulated to suggest possibilities of reciprocal connection between the human and non-human. Timothy Morton’s essay on the film Avatar is a tour de force of postmodernist criticism, blithely drawing upon the likes of Kant, Spinoza, and Heidegger to explore an alluring void of reason in which we may find connection with all that is, only to leave us with a nightmarish image of alienation. Brilliant though it be, this kind of writing strikes me as more a performance of the critic’s cleverness than a useful contribution to our problems, whether ecological or existential. Contrast this with Prettyman’s clearly structured argument that the transcending of the ego facilitated by a spiritual path such as Daoism, to enter a broader field of connectedness, is instrumental to Le Guin’s strategic engagement with ‘the “enshrinement” of egocentrism that makes capitalism “the enemy of nature”’ (quoting Joel Kovel).

With the passing of Saint Ursula – I say that with tearful respect – this excellently produced book only reinforces my impression that Kim Stanley Robinson is out there on his own in applying the SF imagination to explore hopeful pathways into the future. We need more writers like him with the guts to step beyond the self-fulfilling prophecy of dystopia. As Canavan says, ‘The future has gone bad; we need a new one.’

(c) Anthony Nanson. All rights reserved.

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