Paul Di Filippo reviews Green Planets

Were there ever two things better suited for each other than nature and science fiction? The essential, irreplaceable, complex and fascinating biosphere that shelters humanity and every other living organism is not only the mother of all creatures and the background against which all terrestrial dramas play, but also a laboratory for human intervention—for good or ill, intentional or accidental—and a source of spirituality and sheer sense of wonder. As well, the baseline biosphere of Earth offers the only standard we have or can currently know for extrapolating inventively to other worlds. If a city can become a character of sorts in fiction, then how much larger and important a protagonist would a whole landscape or planet be? Gaia as the ultimate heroine!

But despite this perfect affinity between subject and genre, the majority of SF—and to be fair, the majority of mimetic fiction as well—pays slight attention to the environment. Writers of fantastika who exhibit a sensitivity to nature, like Clifford Simak or George Stewart or Peter Watts or Paolo Bacigalupi, are few and far between. And yet in this era of climate change, when the very fate of the biosphere—and consequently the fate of our species— is up for debate, it’s more important than ever that SF exert its intelligence on the ecologies we inhabit.

One step toward fostering more such SF is to erect a perceptive and insightful and appreciative critical apparatus that can offer a taxonomy of such fiction and a catalog of the virtues, defects, technics and themes of eco-SF. This is precisely the intention and accomplishment of Green Planets, another of the typically outstanding genre-connected critical works from Wesleyan University Press, an institution which continues to uphold its role as one of the paramount academic friends of fantastika.

In this volume, we will get great fresh takes on the classics as well as handy approaches to bright new works; broad, sweeping assessments across many linked works as well as intensive spotlights on single authors and single books; and a catholic attention paid to both print and cinematic media. And all of the prose, while stringent in its logic and parsing and research, is eminently readable, nothing fusty or deliberately obscure or hermetic.

First comes Gerry Canavan with a far-ranging introduction titled “If This Goes On.” He engagingly surveys the history of environmentally conscious SF, its origins and impacts, and deploys several terms that will become the section headings of the rest of the book. After this useful springboard, we are off into Section 1, which is headed “Acadias and New Jerusalems,” indicating the pastoral-versus-urban dynamic.

Christina Alt gives us “Extinction, Extermination, and the Ecological Optimism of H. G. Wells.” She centers her essay around the very useful tactic of comparing early Wells—The War of the Worlds—with late-period Wells, Men Like Gods, to graph the changes in Wells’s beliefs and approaches. Bringing in the cultural and scientific shifts that bridged the two novels, she concludes that “the early twentieth century’s growing understanding of the interrelationships between organisms and their environment produced a new sense of power over nature…”

Next up is “Evolution and Apocalypse in the Golden Age,” by Michael Page, which examines “four exemplary works of ecological SF from that golden age” of Campbell & Co. I particularly enjoyed Page’s dissection of Simak’s City, one of the core books in my own pantheon. Following Page is Gib Prettyman, with “Daoism, Ecology, and World Reduction in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Utopian Fiction.” Here is a counter-tactic to Page’s broad reach, wherein a single author is subject to intense scrutiny from her earliest works to some of her most recent.

In Rob Latham’s “Biotic Invasions: Ecological Imperialism in New Wave Science Fiction” we return to a smorgasbord of authors, from Disch to Ballard to Le Guin. I was very much taken with Latham’s wise thoughts on Disch, a writer who, since his death, seems otherwise to have sadly faded from the communal consciousness of the field.

Section 2, “Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies,” focuses on dystopias. “‘The Real Problem of a Spaceship Is Its People'” by Sabine Höhler is a stimulating example of bringing to light almost totally lost works of relevant, important art, in this case the 1971 film ZPG and the hybrid book by Garrett Hardin titled Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle. In “The Sea and Eternal Summer: An Australian Apocalypse,” Andrew Milner shifts the focus again to a single author and a s single novel, George Turner and his small masterpiece, Drowning Towers. Adeline Johns-Putra develops a lot of fascinating material on the intersection of traditional female roles and the environment as she examines Maggie Gee’s The Ice People in her piece “Care, Gender, and the Climate-Changed Future.”

Elzette Steenkamp puts her focus on South African productions in “Future Ecologies, Current Crisis,” with some excellent analysis of the film District 9, as well as some prose works. “Ordinary Catastrophes” by Christopher Palmer unearths some intriguing congruities among three writers not conventionally linked: Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland and China Miéville.

Section 3 carries the poetic title of “Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon.” We kick off with “‘The Rain Feels New,'” by Eric C. Otto, who plumbs the depths of that standard-bearer for this type of writing, Paolo Bacigalupi. Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman devote “Life After People” to the “science faction” bestseller by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us. Timothy Morton gives us a close and sharp analysis of Avatar in “Pandora’s Box.” And the closing essay by Melody Jue, “Churning Up the Depths,” profitably and convincingly links two authors I have never juxtaposed in my own mind, Stanislaw Lem and Greg Egan.

But almost the best part of the book remains: a dialogue between the two editors. Of course, Stan Robinson and his oeuvre alone could have filled out an entire book of this size and on this theme, and KSR’s assertions, questions and perceptions as they emerge in conversation here are endlessly stimulating.

Perhaps I am impermissibly enlarging the remit of this volume, but I was disappointed in only one area: no discussion of science fiction where humanity remakes itself to fit a new or altered environment, a trope I thought would have been integral to eco-SF. No discussion of Man Plus by Pohl, Schismatrix by Sterling, or The Seedling Stars by Blish.

Perhaps Wesleyan will bring out The Big Book of Biopunk next!

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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