Can Environmental SF Help Save Our Planet ? – Nina Munteanu (Canada)

That is the question David Holmes at Monash University asks in his February 20th 2014 article in the Australian ezine The Conversation. There is an obvious trend toward environmental premise in science fiction.

In the 2009 World SF Convention in Montreal, I sat on a panel with Tom Doherty of Tor Books, who shared that, “We want to see a hero who works to achieve an environmentally sustainable world through innovation and creative technology.” I was delighted to hear that Tor was officially embracing a new kind of hero and associated paradigm for storytelling; one based on intelligent innovation, creativity and cooperation and sound environmental stewardship.

Climate change is just one—albeit a global—environmental issue referred to by Doherty. Several years before Doherty’s statement, British nature writer Robert Macfarlane submitted that writers could play a crucial role in helping us to imagine the impact of climate change. Macfarlane was referring to the power of storytelling in forming and influencing a society’s changing paradigm.

Around the same time that Doherty made his statement, environmentalist Bill McKibben shared that, “Global Warming has still to produce an Orwell or a Huxley, a Verne or a Wells, a Nineteen Eighty-Four or a War of the Worlds, or in film any equivalent of On the Beach or Doctor Strangelove.” In his article, Holmes identified the urgent need “for a narrative form that can communicate the seriousness of climate change to a broad public.

Part of the challenge is in first defining and acknowledging this literature as its own genre or sub-genre.  In 2013 Wired Magazine defined climate fiction—as a “subgenre of dystopian fiction set in the near future, in which climate change wreaks havoc on an otherwise familiar planet.” Wired noted that cli-fi has already attracted well-known literary authors, including Ian McEwen, Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood.

Climate fiction is best described as a sub-genre of the science fiction genre, itself a powerful literature of metaphor, with the highest potential to raise awareness about major social—and environmental—issues.

Many have dismissed science fiction as escapist literature (Atwood was herself guilty of this dismissal, even as she was writing science fiction). Others may not even recognize that they are reading or watching science fiction. From its early form to its contemporary form, writers of the genre have created powerful metaphor of great scope that has examined our greatest creations and deepest choices. Science fiction is subversive literature that illuminates our history and our very humanity. It does this by examining our interaction with “the other”—the unfamiliar and unknown. A scientific discovery. An environmental disaster. A calamity related to climate change. From Shelley’s promethean “Frankenstein” to Atwood’s environmental dystopia “Oryx and Crake”, science fiction has co-evolved with its culture, subverting the status quo by pointing to choice and consequence.

Critic Frederic Jameson suggests that, “Science fiction is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself.”

The genre explores premise based on current scientific and technological paradigms and associated cultures and beliefs. What if that went on unchecked ?…What if we decided to end this or ignore that ?… These are conveyed through various predictive visions from cautionary tales (e.g., Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”) to dystopias (e.g., Huxley’s “Brave New World”). Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, science fiction (and climate fiction as one of its sub-genres) takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living color.

Regarding dystopian climate fiction, Margaret Atwood wrote in the Huffington Post that, while earlier dystopic novels focused on oppressive and deceptive political regimes, “now [dystopias are] more likely to take place in a challenging landscape that no longer resembles the hospitable planet we’ve taken for granted.”—in a world of our making.

Mary Shelley’s 19th Century “Frankenstein” (1818) explored humanity’s fear of the monster of difference and change; Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” (1948) was a post-war commentary on the danger of a totalitarian world where order was maintained through mind-control and propaganda; Huxley’s post-WWI „Brave New World” (1932) portrayed a supposed utopia built on stability through genetic manipulation at the expense of creative chaos; Ray Bradbury’s post-WWII „Fahrenheit 451” explored the control of humanity through imposed ignorance. Fiction of the past two decades has shifted to reflect our emerging concerns with technology, corporate deceit, overpopulation and global environmental calamity.
A short list of eco-fiction and climate fiction written or filmed in the last several decades includes: Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach; The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard; “Oryx and Crake” trilogy by Margaret Atwood; “Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver; “Solar” by Ian McEwan; “Back to the Garden” by Clara Hume; “Not a Drop to Drink” by Mindy McGinnis; “Odds against Tomorrow” by Rich Nathaniel; “Children of Men”; “The Day After Tomorrow”; “Waterworld”; and “Avatar”.

Darwins ParadoxMy eco-SF thriller “Darwin’s Paradox” examines humanity’s co-evolution with technology and nature in a climate-changed world.

I have been coaching writers to publication for over two decades and currently teach how to write science fiction at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. I’ve noticed that in a short time, an ever-larger proportion of student writers are exploring an environmental premise for their novels with imaginative sub-genres emerging. In my latest class, several students have independently classified their works as eco-punk, eco-action, environmental thriller and urban eco-fantasy. Several of these definitely fit the sub-genre of climate fiction.

If an altered climate provides the overall premise of climate fiction, then its theme must relate to humanity’s part in it. If climate fiction—like science fiction—does not do this, then it is relinquishing the most potent aspect of its genre-purpose: to incite action as a result of being brought to awareness. Some will argue that simply being brought to awareness is sufficient. I submit that all too often what this engenders is alarm and powerlessness. There’s nothing worse than a story that does not provide epiphany, reconciliation, and opportunity for purposeful action. I don’t mean polemic either; I am talking about opportunity for change through a resolving story arc.

Which brings us back to the question posed by David Holmes. My answer is a resounding yes: eco-fiction, and climate fiction, can save the planet—IF it provides direction and the opportunity for resolution and triumph. Otherwise, it’s just a disaster story; something to endure. Literature can provide a loud clarion call for action, change and evolution. It always has.

Think of how the cautionary tales of Huxley, Orwell, Heinlein, Bradbury and Atwood nurtured the seeds of dissent and change. Now think of how a single book — “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson—helped spawn the American environmental movement of the 1960s.

Environmental fiction is growing in prominence because it needs to. Writers from all around the world are responding to this global need and leading the wave of change. It starts with genre identification.

© Nina Munteanu

nina-fireplace-crop01-close2-webNina Munteanu (born in Granby, Quebec) is a Canadian ecologist and novelist of science fiction and fantasy. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina Munteanu taught Environmental Education at the Summer Institute of Simon Fraser University (British Columbia) for several years. Munteanu was a scientist with several consulting firms in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she did research and wrote reports and research papers.

Many of her novels and short stories examine the role and evolution of humanity in the context of nature and technology. Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons, and serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu and currently teaches writing at George Brown College and University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Nina Munteanu is a member of SF Canada and she is currently an editor of European SF portal Europa SF. She writes articles on the environment and sustainability.

Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and published by Editura Paralela 45.

Nina Munteanu lives in Toronto,Ontario, and Vancouver, British Columbia, where she teaches writing and consults as technical writer and editor. She is currently writing a non-fiction book about Water. Her published books include:

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  1. I am Dan Bloom, part of the worldwide cli fi community and I appreciate Nina Munteanu’s good and insightful words here. Cli fi is not anti sci fi, it is in fact perhaps a subgenre of sci fi, as H. Bruce Franklin has told me in an email, so cli fi and sci fi can co-exist together very well and the label is not important, what matters is the content, the story. So whether one writes sci fi with climate themes or cli fi with climate themes, in the end, it’s good for the world. go go go.

    1. Thanks, Dan! I agree…labels are not there to restrict but to help people find… So, it’s all good. What I see happening with the new genre of cli-fi, is a re-assessment of literature that speaks to the topic and issues of climate change. What it’s doing is giving some old literature a new introduction through another filter for readers. And it’s introducing new literature with an additional power through this lens. That new terms like cli-fi or eco-fiction or eco-punk are being embraced by writers today suggests to me a paradigm shift in our cultures. Writers, like all artists, are, after all, the shamans and myth-makers of the current age. Thanks for coming up with the term, Dan!
      Best Wishes,

  2. The movie,’The Day After Tomorrow’, was based (largely) on Whitley Strieber and Art Bell’s novel, ‘The Coming Global Superstorm’. A well-written book which presents itself in 2 separate parts; fiction and science. Art Bell presented the science and Whitley Strieber, the fiction. I read the book 5 years before the movie and recognized it, immediately.
    Another novel Whitley Strieber co-wrote with James W. Kunetka in 1984 was about the collapse of global ecology. Many of the things they wrote about then, have been happening in nature, for the past seveal years.

    I have these novels still, on my book-shelf.

    You have mentioned all these other authors, yet no mention at all of this particular, visionary…..

    …my two-bits worth….

    1. Dear Mike,

      Thank you so much for adding these authors to the list. My list was by no means comprehensive. Thanks again for sharing their works. As an ecologist and limnologist, I have studied watersheds around the world and witnessed and reported on much of what the public only now is being introduced to. So, when literature, and science fiction, particularly, demonstrates prescience, it’s often just knowledge that the public doesn’t have yet. That is why Whitley Streiber and Art Bell’s novel was so powerful; because it combined scientific knowledge of the day (which is usually a good 20 YEARS AHEAD of what the public knows and embraces) with compelling story. We need more of that…

  3. Just heard that Emmi Imaranta’s Memory of Water is up for the Philip K. Dick award. Congratulations, Emmi!

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