Climate-Anxious Late Environmentalism

By Veronica HollingerMarch 17, 2016

Green Planets by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson

It’s everywhere I look
From Las Vegas to right here
Under your dresser
Right by your ear

It’s creeping in sweetly
It’s definitely here
There’s nothing more deadly
Than slow growing fear

— “Fade Out Line,” Phoebe Killdeer and the Short Straws


TALK ABOUT TIMING. Most of this review was drafted during the COP 21 climate change conference in Paris in December 2015. There was cautious optimism, as the pundits have it, that this time the world’s nations are serious about getting something meaningful done about the climate crisis. Closer to (my) home, the recently elected left-leaning premier of Alberta has announced relatively tough new plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the Athabasca tar sands. On the national stage, our new left-leaning prime minister has promised that Canada will once again take a lead in environmentalism, after a decade of determined conservative neglect that won us several Fossil Awards for “Lifetime Unachievement” at UN climate negotiations. All of this is pretty good news — but after reading Green Planets, I’m finding it difficult to join in the self-congratulatory huzzahs. Green Planets is not good news, because no serious consideration of the current crisis is good news.

My title is from Graeme MacDonald’s Pioneer Award–winning essay “Improbability Drives: The Energy of SF,” which was published in Paradoxa’s special issue SF Now in 2014. MacDonald introduces the emerging field of the energy humanities as “emanat[ing] from the deep anxieties and agencies of climate-anxious late environmentalism,” and this same tension runs deeply through Green Planets, a project identified with yet another emerging field, the ecological humanities. As far as I know, this is the first academic collection to focus entirely on the interactions between science fiction and ecological and environmental concerns. Setting the all-too-dismal scene in his editor’s introduction, Gerry Canavan locates us “[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.” In the Anthropocene “the climate has always already been changed.” Green Planets, like most current ecocritical projects, takes as its starting point the fact that we and everything else that lives on/in/through planet Earth are in a lot of trouble. It turns to science fiction as a powerful imaginative resource for critical thinking about the fallout of the Anthropocene (SF has always tolled the bell of apocalypse) and for envisioning sustainable futures that are not simply more efficient extensions of the current global-neoliberal-late-capitalist-technocultural present (SF has always yearned toward utopia). Appropriately, Green Planets’s dedication is “For the Future.”

Canavan and his co-editor Kim Stanley Robinson bring impressive credentials to this project. Canavan is a member of the Department of English at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and he is at the forefront of critical work linking ecology and SF studies. He is also co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction (2015) and of the forthcoming Cambridge History of Science Fiction. Robinson is one of American SF’s most respected and popular writers, with a long-standing interest in environmental sustainability. As a graduate student he worked with Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, and his immensely important fictional meditations on utopia in works such as the Mars Trilogy (1993–’96) and 2312 (2012) resonate with Jameson’s equally influential theoretical work on the utopian imaginary. Not coincidentally, Green Planets is modeled on Mark Bould and China Miéville’s Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (Wesleyan UP, 2009), a collection that emphasizes the links between SF and left politics. Equally politically oriented and progressive, Green Planets is a convincing demonstration of the potentially powerful alignments of science fiction and ecological thought.

In the very strong introduction that opens Green Planets, Canavan suggests that “ecological critique as such can […] be thought of as a kind of science fiction, as it uses the same tools of cognition and extrapolation to project the conditions of a possible future — whether good or bad, ecotopian or apocalyptic — in hopes of transforming politics in the present.” Among other things, Green Planets considers some of the ways in which SF narratives can variously reflect, resist, and imaginatively transform real-world situations through the estranged perspectives that are a particular strength of this future-oriented genre. Equally usefully, many of these essays examine how real-world socio-politics have drawn upon science fiction to support a wide variety of different responses to environmental questions, from the disaster scenario that opens Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) to anxious figurations of the planet’s limits as “Spaceship Earth” to the “science faction” of documentaries such as the History Channel’s series Life After People (2008–’10).

Green Planets opens with Canavan’s introduction, suitably titled “If This Goes On,” followed by 13 strongly argued and well-researched chapters representing a diversity of theoretical frames and an equally diverse selection of science fictions. It concludes with an afterword in the form of a very thoughtful and insightful interview by Canavan with co-editor Robinson, and this is followed by a wide-ranging annotated list of SF-related fiction and nonfiction (including film and media) for readers “interested in the way SF has both drawn from and influenced ecological thinking and environmentalist politics.” Borrowing from Samuel R. Delany’s map of utopian elements in science fiction, Canavan and Robinson divide their chapters into three sections: “Arcadias and New Jerusalems,” exploring the dialectic between city and country; “Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies,” balancing between utopia and apocalypse; and “Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon,” outlining some of the hybrid and heterotopian (re)visions of contemporary postmodernity.

The essays in Part I provide a historical background to SF’s long-standing interest in ecology. Christina Alt’s “Extinction, Extermination, and the Ecological Optimism of H. G. Wells” examines early ecological thought in Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) and Men Like Gods (1923), in the context of a late-Victorian faith in humanity’s power over nature that was also deeply anxious about the implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Michael Page’s “Evolution and Apocalypse in the Golden Age” argues, as do other contributors, that almost all SF is ecological at some level; he reads four works of ecologically oriented SF from the 1940s, including Clifford Simak’s classic City stories (1944–’51) and George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949), for their treatments of themes of evolution and of apocalypse. Gib Prettyman’s “Daoism, Ecology, and World Reduction in Le Guin’s Utopian Fictions” challenges the skeptical view held by Marxist critics such as Darko Suvin and Jameson about the political efficacy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction, given her deeply held commitments to Daoism and to ecology. Part I concludes with Rob Latham’s “Ecological Imperialism in New Wave Science Fiction,” an incisive overview of New Wave SF’s response to ecological thought in the 1960s. Latham compares and contrasts, in particular, the “neo-Wellsian despair” of Thomas M. Disch’s The Genocides (1965) to the “ethical-political ambivalence” of Le Guin’s novella The Word for World Is Forest (1972).

Part II, “Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies,” opens with Sabine Höhler’s thought-provoking “‘The Real Problem of a Spaceship Is Its People’: Spaceship Earth as Ecological Science Fiction.” Höhler examines the history and development of “population ecology,” which emerged in the 1960s, as a field on the borderline of science fact and science fiction. Her focus is Garrett Hardin’s Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle (1972), in which “the intergenerational spaceship serves as a metaphor and a model of human life in a finite environment.” In “The Sea and Eternal Summer: An Australian Apocalypse,” Andrew Milner introduces readers to George Turner’s dystopian novel The Sea and Summer (1987), which follows the path set by Nevil Shute’s novel of nuclear doomsday, On the Beach (1957), in its critical engagement with the long-term impacts of global warming. Adeline Johns-Putra engages critically with the ethics of care in many climate-change dystopias, examining in particular the conventionally gendered nature of such “care,” and offering a good overview of ecofeminism in the process. In “Future Ecologies, Current Crisis: Ecological Concern in South African Speculative Fiction,” Elzette Steenkamp shows how “crises of self and place” have been dramatized in South African science fiction through the tropes of the altered body and the postapocalyptic wasteland. She focuses in particular on Jane Rosenthal’s futuristic novel Souvenir (2004) and Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9 (2009). This second section concludes strongly with Christopher Palmer’s “Ordinary Catastrophes: Paradoxes and Problems in Some Recent Post-Apocalypse Fictions.” Palmer discusses a very diverse group of novels — Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma (1998), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), and China Miéville’s Kraken (2010) — in the context both of the banalities of our “apocalypse-obsessed culture” and the potential of postapocalyptic narratives such as Kraken “to redeem and revitalize the banal in ordinary things.”

The final section in Green Planets, “Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon,” turns toward the compromises and complicities of the postmodern condition. It opens with Eric C. Otto’s “‘The Rain Feels New’: Ecotopian Strategies in the Short Fiction of Paolo Bacigalupi.” Otto reads a selection of Bacigalupi’s powerful ecodystopian stories, including “The People of Sand and Slag” (2004), that present readers with particularly grisly futures of environmental decay. They gain their political impact through the rigorous extrapolations that “foreground the conditions of possibility for these dark futures’ emergence.” Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman’s “Life after People: Science Faction and Ecological Futures” considers “the importance of form for ecological politics.” They examine a number of stories that imagine the consequences of humanity’s complete disappearance from the Earth, taking as their prime example Alan Weisman’s best seller The World Without Us (2007). Bellamy and Szeman argue that “science factions” such as Weisman’s serve not only to maintain problematic distinctions between human beings and nature, but also suggest that there is nothing to be done except to hope that the Earth can renew itself after we’re gone; in other words, there is no possibility of engaging with ecological politics in the present. In “Avatar, Ecology, Thought,” Timothy Morton offers a dense analysis — the best I’ve come across to date — of James Cameron’s blockbuster film of “planetary awareness,” reading it against the grain of “normative embeddedness ideology.” As a product of cutting-edge technoscience, Avatar in fact suggests the insurmountable ontological barrier between human rationality and the world of nature, thus undermining its own apparent ideological allegiances. This third section concludes with Melody Jue’s intriguing “Churning Up the Depths: Nonhuman Ecologies of Metaphor in Solaris and ‘Oceanic,’” which undertakes a close reading of revisionary non-anthropocentric metaphors of surface and depth in Polish writer Stanisław Lem’s classic 1971 novel and Australian writer Greg Egan’s 1998 novella.

One of the most useful, although hardly the most comforting, things I’ve learned from Green Planets is that climate change is a “hyperobject.” Another is that we’re probably gripped by “cruel optimism” in our enthusiastic plans to reverse, or at least to mitigate, the looming global disaster. Taken together, these concepts help to explain our absurd apathy in the face of this slow apocalypse. A hyperobject, as described by philosopher Timothy Morton in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (2013) — and mentioned in passing in his “Avatar, Ecology, Thought” — is an entity of such vast space/time that the human mind can’t rationally fathom it; we can only witness its local manifestations. We can’t fully grasp the hyperobject that is climate change any more than we can fully grasp the fluid networks of global capital or the English language. And because we are necessarily so limited, it seems all too possible that most if not all of our solutions will simply be incapable of addressing the full scope of the crisis. “Cruel optimism,” referenced by Bellamy and Szeman in their “Life Without People,” is Lauren Berlant’s influential name for the trust one puts in a course of action that has already been proven destructive, such as, for example, relying on capital and technology to rescue the world from a situation directly impacted by capitalism and technoscientific innovation — what Bellamy and Szeman call “the demands of our exuberant attachments to the mechanics of daily life.” Inevitably I’m reminded of Fredric Jameson’s often-quoted observation, cited by Canavan in his introduction and that I feel compelled to quote again here, 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.”

Green Planets makes it abundantly clear that science fiction, as a genre devoted to envisioning new worlds, has always been concerned with ecology: even far-future stories about the conquest of space must consider the systems and structures within which human beings can survive and thrive. And 21st-century science fiction is ineluctably marked by the ecological crisis. In 2004, for instance, SF writer Geoff Ryman and others drafted the semi-serious “Mundane Manifesto,” which resulted in some rather noisy and entertaining debate about several of SF’s most beloved story lines. For example, the one in which Earth, as the cradle of a maturing humanity, must eventually be left behind. Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel” (1951) is paradigmatic here. Or, for example, the closely related story in which it is humanity’s destiny to expand throughout the galaxy, if not throughout the entire universe. Asimov’s Foundation novels are prime examples of Galactic Empire fantasy, and the sorely missed Iain M. Banks’s fabulous Culture novels are what the new space opera can look like today. Ryman’s “Manifesto” stands in stark contrast to both the exuberant story arc of humanity’s bildungsroman and the empowering space-opera fantasies of infinite expansion. Its founding tenet is that “the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.”

A decade after Ryman’s “Manifesto,” much the same critique is offered by Robinson in the excellent interview that closes Green Planets — only this time the tone is deadly serious. It is more apparent than ever that there is nowhere else for us to be. Canavan asks Robinson about “bad stories … that point us in a completely wrong direction” from the perspective of ecological crisis. Echoing Ryman, Robinson also takes aim at “cradle Earth” stories, suggesting as they do “that humanity can survive apart from Earth” — which like all cradles can eventually be “discarded.” Robinson’s other major target is Singularity fiction: many of these stories are “disguised versions of immortality or transcendence” that posit transhumanist and posthumanist futures of radical technological transformation. Extrapolation, that can help us critically to consider our debts to the future, becomes effectively stymied. This criticism can’t be generalized, of course. Ryman’s Air (or Have Not Have) (2004) is a hugely satisfying novel about gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, neoliberal globalization and the uneven distribution of technology, among other things. It concludes the moment before a Singularity event that promises to move the world in a more utopian direction. Robinson’s critique is certainly spot-on, however, when it comes to a novel such as Greg Egan’s coldly brilliant Schild’s Ladder (2002), a vision of technologically enhanced and virtually immortal posthumanity set 20,000 years from now. Politically speaking there’s nothing to be done, because there’s nothing that still needs doing (Egan’s posthuman characters have to save the universe from obliteration, of course, but that’s another story).

In early 2015 Robinson published Aurora, a big generation-starship novel that effectively argues in support of Ryman’s “Manifesto”: there is nowhere else for us to be. At almost the same time, Neal Stephenson published Seveneves, a very different and even bigger sort-of generation-starship novel that essentially makes the same case: We are creatures of Earth and only the Earth can support us. Either we are going to get ourselves together or we are all going down the tubes together. No wonder the Anthropocene is such an unhappy age.

Under the circumstances, I read Canavan and Robinson’s collection as the product of an absolutely necessary optimism, realist — or perhaps simply defiant — rather than cruel. Green Planets is important because, taken as a whole, it is trying to think through to futures of difference, rather than giving in to cruelly optimistic repetitions of the same worn-out techno-scientism that drove us into the Anthropocene in the first place. We may ultimately fail in our responsibilities to a sustainable future, but that doesn’t in the least let us off the ethical/political hook. To borrow the words of H. G. Wells’s hapless narrator in the epilogue to The Time Machine (1895) — admittedly out of context — “if that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so.”


Veronica Hollinger is emerita professor of Cultural Studies at Trent University in Ontario, and a long-time co-editor of Science Fiction Studies.

LARB Contributor

Veronica Hollinger is emerita professor of Cultural Studies at Trent University in Ontario, and a long-time co-editor of Science Fiction Studies.


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