Eco-Fiction: What Readers Get From It and How to Prevent Polemic

Mary Woodbury on Dragonfly.eco recently shared a survey of over a hundred readers to determine the impact that eco-fiction had on them. What did environmental fiction mean to readers? What about it appealed to them? What were their favourite works? And did it incite them to action? The answers were both expected and surprising. Given the sample size and some study limitations on audience and diversity, the results are preliminary still. However, they remain interesting and enlightening.

theoverstorySome of the most impactful novels according to the readers surveyed include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Richard Power’s The Overstory, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series.

Readers gave Woodbury several reasons why they enjoyed and found eco-novels impactful:

  • Realism or compelling account of or reflection of society, scary or not
  • Goes beyond readers’ culture–expands minds
  • Humorous
  • Story focused on characters versus an issue
  • Learned something new
  • Opened readers’ minds
  • Captured imagination
  • Positive endings
  • Good storytelling
  • Interesting characters
  • Suspense and/or psychological burn

One reader mentioned that what appealed to them about Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water was the style of writing. It provoked “feelings of utter beauty but also unease.”

One reader enjoyed Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road “for its spare post-apocalyptic world where even language seems to run out.”

Of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves a reader wrote that “The dystopic beginning felt so real, and then the positive ending was so good. I loved it and it made me think about how climate change can possibly have impacts beyond just our physical and mental health, but also our dreams!”

A reader of Frank Herbert’s Dune wrote that “it was the first time I’d seen a literary rendering of an ecosystem that felt real. The ideas of ecology are woven into this story in a way I didn’t think was possible for fiction. Interconnection is hard to think about, hard to grasp, and Dune showed me that fiction, done well, can really help with this.” The same reader acknowledged that in Annihilation Jeff VenderMeer “mastered the technique.”

FavTopics Eco-Fiction

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

When asked the question “Do you think that environmental themes in fiction can impact society, and if so, how?” 81% agreed and qualified their answers:

  • Fiction can encourage empathy and imagination. Stories can affect us more than dry facts. Fiction reaches us more deeply than academic understanding, moving us to action.
  • Fiction can trigger a sense of wonder about the natural world, and even a sense of loss and mourning. Stories can immerse readers into imagined worlds with environmental issues similar to ours.
  • Fiction raises awareness, encourages conversations and idea-sharing. Fiction is one way that helps to create a vision of our future. Cautionary tales can nudge people to action and encourage alternative futures. Novels can shift viewpoints without direct confrontation, avoid cognitive dissonance, and invite reframed human-nature relationships through enjoyment and voluntary participation.
  • Environmental themes can reorient our perspective from egocentrism to the greater-than-human world.
Awareness in Fields

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

In summary, Woodbury writes:

“The sample size (103) seems to be a good one for people who are mostly familiar with the idea of eco-fiction (and similar environmental/nature fiction genres and subgenres), though I was still hoping to get a larger, more diverse group of participants. The majority of respondents were highly educated middle-aged women. The majority of the group read from 1-29 novels a year. Favorite novels represented mostly North American or European authors (male and female about equally, with J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood consistently a favorite), with the majority of readers enjoying literary fiction the most, followed by dystopia/utopia and then science fiction.”

Woodbury notes that the genres of science fiction and fantasy were well represented in the survey, “both as favorite and most impactful novels, despite literary fiction being the favorite genre among the participants.” Of novels that respondents enjoyed, “readers were most impacted by good storytelling.” Polemic was not well regarded.

 

Achieving Impactful Eco-Fiction & Avoiding Polemic Through Use of Metaphor

The key to impact and enjoyment for a reader lies in good storytelling. The very best storytelling uses metaphor and oblique description to achieve a deeper meaning. The greatest art must be left to interpretation; not directly dispensed. Great art is felt and experienced viscerally; not just taken in intellectually. Great art shows; not tells.

EcologyOfStoryIn my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss the various ways that the use of metaphor achieves depth and meaning in story, particularly in eco-fiction. One impactful way is in the choice of setting. In the chapter on Place as Metaphor, I write:

Everything in story is metaphor, Ray Bradbury once told me. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact.

Metaphor is the subtext that provides the subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

What would the book Dune be without Arrakis, the planet Dune? What would the Harry Potter books be without Hogwarts?

Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.

When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge. This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.

Metaphor is woven into story through the use of devices and constructs such as depiction of the senses, personification, emotional connections, memories, symbols, archetypes, analogies and comparisons. Sense, and theme interweave in story to achieve layers of movement with characters on a journey. All through metaphor.

Symbols and Archetypes

In Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water—about a post-climate change world of sea level rise—water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives. Water, with its life-giving properties and other strange qualities, has been used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans of mystery, beauty and danger—to the relentless flow of an inland stream. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is one example:

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

In my short story The Way of Water (La natura dell’acqua), water’s connection with love flows throughout the story:

The Way of Water-COVERThey met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors, Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self-conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love. 

Love flowed like water, gliding into backwaters and lagoons with ease, filling every swale and mire. Connecting, looking for home. Easing from crystal to liquid to vapour then back, water recognized its hydrophilic likeness, and its complement. Before the inevitable decoherence, remnants of the entanglement lingered like a quantum vapour, infusing everything. Hilda always knew where and when to find Hanna on Oracle, as though water inhabited the machine and told her. Water even whispered to her when her wandering friend was about to return from the dark abyss and land unannounced on her doorstep. 

In a world of severe water scarcity through climate catastrophe and geopolitical oppression, the bond of these two girls—to each other through water and with water—is like the shifting covalent bond of a complex molecule, a bond that fuses a relationship of paradox linked to the paradoxical properties of water. Just as two water drops join, the two women find each other in the wasteland of intrigue. Hilda’s relationship with Hanna—as with water—is both complex and shifting according to the bonds they make and break.

Using the Senses 

Readers don’t just “watch” a character in a book; they enter the character’s body and “feel”.

How do writers satisfy the readers’ need to experience the senses fully? Description, yes. But how cold is cold? What does snow really smell like? What color is that sunset? How do you describe the taste of wine to a teetotaler?

Literal description is insufficient. To have the sense sink in and linger with the reader, it should be linked to the emotions and memories of the character experiencing it. By doing this, you are achieving several things at the same time: describing the sense as the character is experiencing it—emotionally; revealing additional information on the character through his/her reaction; and creating a more compelling link for the reader’s own experience of the sense.

Senses can be explored by writers through metaphor, linking the sense to memories, using synesthesia (cross-sensory metaphor), linking the sense psychologically to an emotion or attitude, and relating that sense in a different way (e.g., describing a visual scene from the point of view of a painter or photographer—painting with light). How a sense is interpreted by your protagonist relies on her emotional state, memories associated with that sense and her attitude.

Using Personification

TheWindupGirl Paolo BacigalupiEnvironmental forces—such as weather, climate, forests, mountains, water systems—convey the mood and tone of both story and character. These environmental forces are not just part of the scenery. To a writer, they are devices used in plot, theme and premise. They may also be a compelling character, particularly in eco-fiction, climate-fiction, and speculative fiction. Dystopian fiction often explores a violent world of contrast between the affluent and vulnerable poor that often portrays the aftermath of economic and environmental collapse (e.g., Maddaddam Trilogy, The Windup Girl, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, Mad Max). In any fiction genre it is important to get the science right. Readers of fiction with strong environmental components, however, expect to learn as much from the potential reality as from the real science upon which the premise depends.

In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.

Memory of Water Emmi ItarantaWater is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us. 

Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.

Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: “The beauty of seeing a locale through a particular perspective is that the point-of-view character cannot be separated from the place. The place comes alive, as does the observer of that place, in ways that would not be possible if described using objective point of view.” The POV character’s relationship to place helps identify the transformative elements of their journey. Such transformation is the theme of the story and ultimately portrays the story’s heart and soul.

Connecting Character with Environment

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment [e.g. often indigenous people]). In these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; the sacred white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Barkskins; The dear animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

The immense sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune are strong archetypes of Nature—large and graceful creatures whose movements in the vast desert sands resemble the elegant whales of our oceans:

It came from their right with an uncaring majesty that could not be ignored. A twisting burrow-mound of sand cut through the dunes within their field of vision. The mound lifted in front, dusting away like a bow wave in water. 

Misunderstood, except by the indigenous Fremen, the giant sandworms are targeted as a dangerous nuisance by the colonists—when, in fact, they are closely tied to the ecological cycles of the desert planet through water and spice.

Barkskins Annie ProulxAnnie Proulx opens her novel Barkskins with a scene in which René Sel and fellow barkskins (woodcutters) arrive from France in the late seventeenth century to the still pristine wilderness of Canada to settle, trade and accumulate wealth:

In twilight they passed bloody Tadoossac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement … Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.

These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.” He further explains the concept of property ownership that is based on strips of surveyable land parcels—an application of the enclosure system. For them, the vast Canadian boreal forest was never-ending and for the taking: “It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake. swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning,” Trépagny claims.

Leaves dead litter-long sh TNS

Leaf litter in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (René Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America; a saga that starts with the arrival of the Europeans in pristine forest and ends with a largely decimated forest under the veil of global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France to clear the land, build and settle. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and builds a timber empire.

The Mi’kmaq are interwoven with the land and the forest. Missionary Pere Crème, who studies language makes this observation of the natives and the forest:

He saw they were so tightly knitted into the natural world that their language could only reflect the union and that neither could be separated from the other. They seemed to believe they had grown from this place as trees grow from the soil, as new stones emerge aboveground in spring. He thought the central word for this tenet, weji-sqalia’timk, deserved an entire dictionary to itself. 

The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect for anything indigenous and a fierce hunger for “more” of the forests and lands. Ensnared by settler greed, the Mi’kmaq lose their own culture and their links to the natural world erode with grave consequence. In a pivotal scene, Noë, a Mi’kmaw descendent of René Sel, grows enraged when she sees a telltale change in her brothers:

The offshore wind had shifted slightly but carried the fading clatter of boots on rock. They were wearing boots instead of moccasins. Noë knew what that meant but denied it … The men should be setting out to hunt moose, but because of the boots she knew they were going to work for the French logger.

 

Other Articles on Environmental Fiction, Eco-Fiction and Climate Fiction 

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

Science Fiction on Water Justice & Climate Change

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

 

Thanks to Mary Woodbury for the permission to share her survey results here. Much of the second part of this article is excerpted from the “Story” section of  The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

grape leaves in fall-halifax copy

Grape leaves on fence in Toronto, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

NewYork 2140By failing to engage with climate change, artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation.”—Amitav Ghosh, 2017

…Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl or The Water Knife. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Nina Munteanu’s A Diary in the Age of Water. Richard Power’s Overstory. Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water

Diary Water cover finalWhat these novels have in common is that they are all Dystopian Eco-Fiction. Humanity’s key role in environmental destruction serves a strong thematic element. In eco-fiction dystopias (as opposed to political or socio-cultural dystopias such as Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale) the environment—whether forest, ocean, water generally, or the animal world—plays a key character.

Our Literature in the Anthropocene

In 2017, Amitav Ghosh observed that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable). “How can we explain the fact that writers of fiction have overwhelmingly failed to grapple with the ongoing planetary crisis in their works?” writes Fredrick Albritton Jonsson of The Guardian, who observes that, “for Ghosh, this silence is part of a broader pattern of indifference and misrepresentation. Contemporary arts and literature are characterized by ‘modes of concealment that [prevent] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.’”

Windup GirlAccording to Ghosh, plots and characters of contemporary literature tend to reflect the regularity of middle-class life and the worldview of the Victorian natural sciences, one that depends on a principle of uniformity. Change in Nature has been perceived as gradual (or static by some) and never catastrophic. Extraordinary or bizarre happenings were left to marginal genres like the Gothic tale and—of course—science fiction. The strange and unlikely have been externalized: hence the failure of modern novels and art to recognize anthropogenic climate change.

From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity’s men have consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, many saw its basis in a homeostatic balance of the natural order as confirmation of Nature’s infinite resilience to abuse. They failed to recognize that we are Nature and abuse of Nature is really self-abuse.

Jonsson suggests that these Enlightenment ideas are essentially ideological manifestations of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels, giving rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world. “The commitment to indefinite economic growth espoused by the economics profession in the postwar era is perhaps its most triumphant [and dangerous] expression.”

barkskins

Louise Fabiani of Pacific Standard suggests that novels are still the best way for us to clarify planetary issues and prepare for change—even play a meaningful part in that change. In her article “The Literature of Climate Change” she points to science fiction as helping “us prepare for radical change, just when things may be getting too comfortable.”

Referring to our overwhelming reliance on technology and outsourced knowledge, Fabiani suggests that “our privileged lives (particularly in consumer-based North America) are built on unconscious trust in the mostly invisible others who make this illusion of domestic independence possible—the faith that they will never stop being there for us. And we have no back-ups in place should they let us down.” Which they certainly will—given their short-term thinking.

TheOverstory“To counteract this epidemic of short-term thinking,” says Fabiani, “it might be a good idea for more of us to read science fiction, specifically the post-apocalyptic sub-genre: that is, fiction dealing with the aftermath of major societal collapse, whether due to a pandemic, nuclear fallout, or climate change.”

I suggest widening the genre to include good dystopian eco-fiction, which includes not just post-apocalyptic tales but also cautionary tales, worlds in upheaval, and satires. Dystopian literature is ultimately an exploration of hope through personal experience. The eco-fiction protagonist navigates their dystopia by learning meaningful lessons—lessons that pertain directly to our reader in their current world. This is because the premise of a dystopia lies squarely in the present world. Good dystopias can enlighten and suggest possibilities; they can warn and herald. At the very least, they incite the necessary conversation.

On the Role of Dystopian Eco-Fiction

NaturalSelection-front-webI recently shared a panel discussion with writer Kristen Kiomall-Evans at the 2019 Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston entitled: “On the Role of (Dystopian) Literature and Environmental Issues: Can Books Save the Planet.” The audience of mostly women shared enlightened input in an open discussion, which spanned a range of topics and directions from what dystopian literature actually is to whether we are turned off by its negativity—that it may be too close to reality and makes us cringe and want to hide. One person even brought up Game of Thrones as an example; which I then bluntly suggested was not real “story”—it is a stream of episodic sensationalism and horror—aimed at thrilling shock value, not fulfilling meaning.

The group explored what Eco-Fiction is and the possibility of how eco-fiction writers can influence their audience to engage in helping the planet and humanity, in turn.

 “Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior “It only tells us what is.” Stories can never be a solution in themselves, but they have the capacity to inspire action. Margaret Atwood wrote in MaddAddam, “People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

We explored several areas in which writers could elucidate ways to engage readers for edification, connection and participation. We discussed optimism, new perspectives, envisioning our future, and imaginative use of “product placement” to gain reader engagement and galvanize a movement of action.

Optimism in Story

I pointed out that good dystopias—like all good fiction—follow a character and story arc that must ultimately resolve (which Game of Thrones may never do, certainly not well—J.R.R. Martin’s books series upon which it is based are not even finished yet!). Eco-Fiction Dystopias often conclude with a strong element of hope, based on some positive aspect of humanity and the human spirit—which may include our own evolution. Think Day After Tomorrow, Year of the Flood, Windup Girl, The Postman, Darwin’s Paradox.

WaterAnthology-RealitySkimmingPress copyIn 2015, I joined Lynda Williams of Reality Skimming Press in creating an optimistic science fiction anthology with the theme of water. My foreword to Water addressed this point:

As we drank Schofferhoffers over salmon burgers, Lynda lamented that while the speculative / science fiction genre has gained a literary presence, this has been at some expense. Much of the current zeitgeist of this genre in Canada tends toward depressing, “self-interested cynicism and extended analogies to drug addiction as a means of coping with reality,” Lynda remarked. Where was the optimism and associated hope for a future? I brought up the “hero’s journey” and its role in meaningful story. One of the reasons this ancient plot approach, based on the hero journey myth, is so popular is that its proper use ensures meaning in story. This is not to say that tragedy is not a powerful and useful story trope; so long as hope for someone—even if just the reader—is generated. Lynda and I concluded that the science fiction genre could use more optimism. [As a result,] these stories explore individual choices and the triumph of human imagination in the presence of adversity. [Each story explores] the surging spirit of humanity toward hopeful shores.

New Perspectives in Story

Evans spoke of the emergence of and need for a strong voice by marginalized groups who would be most affected by things like habitat destruction and climate change. The poor and marginalized will most certainly make up the majority of climate change refugees, starved out and water shorted, and suffering malnutrition, violence and disease.

FifthSeason-JemisinEvans pointed out that afro-American writers (e.g., Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin) and indigenous writers (Cherie Dimaline, Daniel Wilson, Drew Hayden Taylor) are an exciting voice, providing a new and compelling perspective on ongoing global issues.

I would add that the “feminine” voice—the voice of women and the voice of ecology and those who embrace the gylanic voice—are needed. This was strangely not mentioned in the group—perhaps because we were all women—but one. Such a voice can help personalize the experience to readers, by creating discovery, connection and understanding—and ultimately serving a key force in engaging readers to act.

Envisioning Our Future Through Story

One audience member shared a yearning for an optimistic focus through an envisioned world where solutions have successfully created that world. She wasn’t so much suggesting writing a utopia, but including elements of future wishes as an integral part of the world, following Ghandi’s wise advice: be the change you seek. In a recent interview in which I also participated in The Globe and Mail on women science fiction writers, Ottawa writer Marie Bilodeau addressed this concept:

“the best part about writing science fiction is showing different ways of being without having your characters struggle to gain rights. Invented worlds can host a social landscape where debated rights in this world – such as gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia – are just a fact of life.”

People are looking for hopeful fiction that addresses the issues but explores a successful paradigm shift. One that accurately addresses our current issues with intelligence and hope. The power of envisioning a certain future is that the vision enables one to see it as possible.

Product Placement in Story

Editor and naturalist Merridy Cox suggested that writers could make motivating connections through altruistic (not market-driven) “product placement.” She gave the example of an Ash tree. The Ash (Fraxinus species) could subtly make its name, its character and ecology known in the story, along with its plight—its destruction by the non-native invasive emerald ash borer. The use of metaphor and personification would easily link the Ash to a character and at the same time illuminate the reader on a real aspect of the environment to consider. Another example she gave was of the threatened bobolink bird, now all but gone. The bobolink originally made its home in the tallgrass prairie and other open meadows. As native prairies were cleared for farming, the bobolink was displaced and moved to living in hayfields and fallow fields—building their nests on the ground in dense grasses. Changing farm practices (shorter crop rotation and earlier maturing seed mixtures) are now destroying the bobolink’s last refuge.

bobolink-chicks-mom

Bobolink mother and her chicks

 

Such “product placement” essentially gives Nature and the environmental a personalized face that can easily interact with the story’s theme and its characters. “Product placement”—like symbol—lies embedded in its own story. In the case of the bobolink, it is a story of colonialism, exploitation, and single-minded pursuit at the expense of others not considered, known or understood. These examples have anthropogenic connections to human behaviour, action and knowledge—all related to story and theme.

MockUpEcology copyIn my new writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character I discuss and explore how some authors do this impeccably. Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Richard Powers, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Hardy, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Janet Fitch, John Steinbeck, David Mitchell, Joanne Harris and many others.

Writing for the Anthropocene

Learn how to write for the Anthropocene: from Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections and symbols between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

The Ecology of Story will be released by Pixl Press in June 2019.

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

 

 

Science Fiction Asks: Are We Worth Saving?

interstellar-GargantuanBlackHole

Gargantua Black Hole in “Interstellar)

Science fiction, which Ted Gioia of The San Francisco Chronicle calls “conceptual fiction” explores the interaction of humanity with some larger phenomenon that involves science. SF writer Robert J. Sawyer calls it the fiction of the large. Large ideas, large circumstance, large impact. Science fiction is a powerful literature of allegory and metaphor that is deeply embedded in culture. By capturing context, SF is a symbolic meditation on history itself and ultimately a literature of great vision.

Science fiction is the literature of consequence that, in exploring large issues faced by humankind, can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness and a planetary consciousness. Much of science fiction is currently focused in that direction. Terms such as eco-fiction, climate fiction and its odd cousin “cli-fi”, have embedded themselves in science fiction terminology; this fiction has attracted a host of impressive authors who write to its calling: Margaret Atwood, Emmi Itäranta, Jeff VanderMeer, Richard Powers, Barbara Kingsolver, Upton Sinclair, Ursula Le Guin, JoeAnn Hart, Frank Herbert, John Yunker, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Bradley, Paolo Bacigalupi, Nathaniel Rich, David Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Claire Vaye Watkins, J.G. Ballard, Marcel Theroux, Thomas Wharton—just to name a few. The list seems endless. Of course, I’m one of them too. Many of these works explore and illuminate environmental degradation and ecosystem collapse at the hands of humanity.

Lately, science fiction is asking the question of whether humanity is worth saving and at what expense?

It’s a valid question.

As the first swell of the climate change tidal wave laps at our feet, we are beginning to see the planetary results of what humanity has created and exacerbated. Humanity has in many ways reached a planetary tipping point; a threshold that will be felt by all aspects of our planet, both animate and inanimate as the planet’s very identity shifts.

the great acceleration copyScientists have suggested that we have now slid from the relatively stable Holocene Epoch to the Anthropocene Epoch—the age of humanity. The term arose not from hubris, but in recognition of our ubiquitous and overwhelming influence on large systems and planetary cycles.

GreatDerangement climatechange copyTake water, for instance. Today, we control water on a massive scale. Reservoirs around the world hold 10,000 cubic kilometres of water; five times the water of all the rivers on Earth. Most of these great reservoirs lie in the northern hemisphere, and the extra weight has slightly changed how the Earth spins on its axis, speeding its rotation and shortening the day by eight millionths of a second in the last forty years. Ponder too, that an age has a beginning and an end. Is climate change the planet’s way of telling us that the  Anthropocene Epoch too shall end? Is that when we end … or transcend?

A tidal wave of TV shows and movies currently explore—or at least acknowledge—the devastation we are forcing on the planet. Every week Netflix puts out a new show that follows this premise of Earth’s devastation: 3%; The 100; The Titan; Orbiter 9; even Lost in Space.

Are we worth saving? Below are a few examples of movies, TV series I’ve lately watched and books I’ve lately read that address this key question to an irresponsible humanity that seems unconcerned that we are destroying our very home. In some the question is subtly implied; in others, not so subtle.

Battlestar Galactica (2004)

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In the pilot of Battlestar Galactica, Commander Adama gives an impromptu speech (not the one he prepared; but one provoked by an argument with his son), which resonates throughout the entire series as cylon and human must refashion themselves and their relationship to each other while they discover the cyclical recursive nature of all things and that “all this has happened before and will again.”

The Galactica ship is about to be decommissioned and has now become a museum since the cylons have disappeared forty years ago. The great battle between the cylons and their human creators ended forty years ago with the cylons disappearing suddenly, never to be heard from again. But that is about to change; as Adama gives his speech, the first strike occurs, followed by a massive attack that almost wipes out the human race.

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Commander Adama

In his speech Adama says:

“The cost of wearing the uniform can be high…but sometimes it’s too high. When we fought the cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question why. Why are we as a people worth saving. We still commit murder because of greed, spite and jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done. Like we did with the cylons. We decided to play God. Create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things you’ve created. Sooner or later the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.”

Interstellar (2014)

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Voyaging to Gargantua Black Hole

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Cooper explores the ice planet

Early on in the science fiction movie Interstellar, NASA astronaut Cooper declares that “the world is a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now. Mankind was born on Earth; it was never meant to die here.”

After showing Cooper how their last corn crops will eventually fail like the okra and wheat before them, NASA Professor Brand answers Cooper’s question of, “So, how do you plan on saving the world?” with: “We’re not meant to save the world…We’re meant to leave it.” The human-centred hubris in this colonialist mentality lies in what we have left behind—a planet suffocating from the effects of humanity’s careless and thoughtless activities. What Interstellar circles but does not address is the all-important question: is humanity even worth saving?

The suggestion during the movie’s final moments, is that we are worth saving because we will transcend into wiser benevolent beings: a hopeful gesture based on the power of love.

The Three Body Problem (2014)

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Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem was set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, because, says Liu, “The Cultural Revolution provides the necessary background for the story. The tale I wanted to tell demanded a protagonist [Ye Wenjie] who gave up all hope in humanity and human nature. I think the only episode in modern Chinese history capable of generating such a response is the Cultural Revolution. It was such a dark and absurd time that even dystopias like 1984 seem lacking in imagination in comparison.” (I suppose Cixin did not experience the holocaust of Germany or Stalin’s purge in the Soviet Union).

ThreeBodyProblemIn the story, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. One of the main protagonists is Ye Wenjie, a young woman traumatized after witnessing the execution of her scientist father in a brutal cleansing at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Considered a traitor, young Wenjie is sent to a labour brigade in Inner Mongolia, where she witnesses further destruction by humans:

“Ye Wenjie could only describe the deforestation that she witnessed as madness. The tall Dahurian larch, the evergreen Scots pine, the slim and straight white birch, the cloud-piercing Korean aspen, the aromatic Siberian fir, along with black birch, oak, mountain elm, Chosenia arbutifolia—whatever they laid eyes on, they cut down. Her company wielded hundreds of chain saws like a swarm of steel locusts, and after they passed, only stumps were left.

The fallen Dahurian larch, now bereft of branches, was ready to be taken away by tractor. Ye gently caressed the freshly exposed cross section of the felled trunk. She did this often, as though such surfaces were giant wounds, as though she could feel the tree’s pain… The trunk was dragged away. Rocks and stumps in the ground broke the bark in more places, wounding the giant body further. In the spot where it once stood, the weight of the fallen tree being dragged left a deep channel in the layers of decomposing leaves that had accumulated over the years. Water quickly filled the ditch. The rotting leaves made the water appear crimson, like blood.”

Already cynical about humanity’s failed culture and science—Wenjie acquires a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book and revelation she experiences from it sets in motion her remaining trajectory.

“More than four decades later, in her last moments, Ye Wenjie would recall the influence Silent Spring had on her life. The book dealt only with a limited subject: the negative environmental effects of excessive pesticide use. But the perspective taken by the author shook Ye to the core. The use of pesticides had seemed to Ye just a normal, proper—or, at least, neutral—act, but Carson’s book allowed Ye to see that, from Nature’s perspective, their use was indistinguishable from the Cultural Revolution, and equally destructive to our world. If this was so, then how many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil?

As she continued to mull over these thoughts, a deduction made her shudder: Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean.…It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.”

Ye is sent to the Chinese version of SETI and succeeds in sending a message to aliens on Trisolaris. Despite a warning that the Trisolarians mean only to invade, Wenjie invites them to Earth. To ensure the arrival of the Trisolaris aliens, she collaborates with Michael Evans—an oil billionaire’s son who is disgusted with human’s destruction of Nature. Despising humankind in its current state, Wenjie believes the aliens will somehow ensure humanity’s transcendence; Evans, however, applauds the coming invasion as the best route to achieve the eradication of humanity and the survival of the rest of the planet.

The Expanse (2015) 

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Bobby Draper and crew face an unknown enemy on Ganymede Station

 

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Naomi and Holden

The Expanse is a stylish and intelligent science fiction (SF) TV series (on Syfy Channel) based on books by James S.A. Corey. It is set 200 years in the future when humanity has colonized the moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt to mine minerals and water. This sophisticated SF film noir thriller elevates the space opera sub-genre with a meaningful metaphoric exploration of issues relevant in today’s world—issues of resource allocation, domination & power struggle, values, prejudice, and racism. Ever-expanding outward in a frantic search for resources as Earth’s own resources fester in pollution and Earthers languish on “the dole”, colonizing humans on Mars and the Belt have even changed their physiology, culture, language and identity.

The tag line of the first season poster for The Expanse reads: “We’ve gone too far.” The series begins on Ceres with a Belter activist inciting a crowd with talk about how Mars and Earth are squeezing Belters for all their water.

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Avasarala and DeGraaf

Not so subtle signs of our destructive jingoistic determination runs through this series (now in its third season). After Under Secretary Avasarala’s friend Degraaf (Earth ambassador to Mars) becomes a casualty of one of her intel games, Degraaf quietly shares: “You know what I love about Mars?… They still dream; we gave up. They are an entire culture dedicated to a common goal: working together as one to turn a lifeless rock into a garden. We had a garden and we paved it.”

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Miller and Dawes sparring

Ceres born militant activist Anderson Dawes confides to Detective Miller: “All we’ve ever known is low G and an atmosphere we can’t breathe. Earthers,” he continues, “get to walk outside into the light, breathe pure air, look up at a blue sky and see something that gives them hope. And what do they do? They look past that light, past that blue sky. They see the stars and they think ‘mine’… Earthers have a home; it’s time Belters had one too.”

The Martians hold Earth in contempt for their cavalier approach to their resources. Onboard the MCRN Donnager, Martian Lopez asks his prisoner Jim Holden if he misses Earth and Holden grumbles, “If I did, I’d go back.” Lopez then dreamily relates stories his uncle told him about Earth’s “endless blue sky and free air everywhere. Open water all the way to the horizon.” Then Lopez turns a cynical eye back on Holden. “I could never understand your people. Why, when the universe has bestowed so much upon you, you seem to care so little for it.” Holden admits, “Wrecking things is what Earthers do best…”

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Martian marine Bobbie Draper

Then he churlishly adds, “Martians too, by the look of your ship.” Lopez retorts, “We are nothing like you. The only thing Earthers care about is government handouts. Free food, free water. Free drugs to forget the aimless lives you lead. You’re shortsighted. Selfish. It will destroy you. Earth is over, Mr. Holden. My only hope is that we can bring Mars to life before you destroy that too.” When a Ceres-born Detective Miller asks Holden why he left Earth, Holden responds: “everything I loved there was being destroyed.”

The show makes a few opportunities to point out what we are doing to our planet. Cherish what you have. Cherish your home and take care of it. We’re reminded that time and again, we aren’t doing a good job of that. When Martian marine Bobbie Draper travels to Earth for the first time and is compelled to find the ocean, she is met with the stench of sewage and garbage; yet, she looks longingly out to sea, seeing a dream…

Incorporated (2016)

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Incorporated is a science fiction thriller that provides a chilling glimpse of a post-climate change dystopia. Created by David and Alex Pastor and produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Ted Humphrey and Jennifer Todd, the TV show (filmed in Toronto, Canada) opens in 82 °F Milwaukee in November 2074 after environmental degradation, water level rise, widespread famine and mismanagement have bankrupted governments. We learn later that Milwaukee Airport served as a FEMA climate relocation centre that resembles an impoverished shantytown. In the wake of the governments demise, a tide of multinational corporations has swept in to control 90% of the globe and ratified the 29th amendment, granting them total sovereignty.

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Corporations fight a brutal covert war for market share and dwindling natural resources. Like turkey vultures circling overhead, they position themselves for what’s left after short-sighted government regulations, lack of corporate check and FEMA mismanagement have ‘had their way’ with the planet. The world is now a very different place. There is no Spain or France. Everything south of the Loire is toxic desert; submerged New York City reduced to a punch line in a joke. Reykjavik and Anchorage are sandy beach destinations and Norway is the new France—at least where champagne vineyards are concerned. Asia and Canada are coveted for their less harsh climates.

Chad-alert copyIncorporated is less thriller than satire; it is less science fiction than cautionary tale.

 “You look to Incorporated for dystopian fiction that expresses our current anxieties,” writes Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly. “What you get is fitful resonance that makes you realize it might be too soon for any show to meet that challenge.”

Or is it more that we may be too late… The question of whether we are worth saving is never asked—it is shown: and perhaps the real reason the show was cancelled after one season.

3% (2016)

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3% is set in the near future after the planet has fallen into a divided haves and have-nots through environmental calamity. Three percent of the population live well on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, called Offshore (Mar Alto). The remaining 97% struggle Inland with poverty and scarcity. A selection process lies between them.

3-poster-title copyEvery year the 97% send their 20-year olds to undergo The Process, a grueling Hunger Games-style contest run by the Offshore elite to replenish their numbers. Only 3% of the candidates will be considered worthy. They must pass psychological, emotional and physical tests to earn a place in Mar Alto.

By the time Season 1 is over, candidates will have committed a full range of desperate and unsavory acts to make the cut—the stakes are high, after all: secure a position in the 3% elite or die in squalor and poverty. After being eliminated during the interview process, one youth throws himself off a balcony of the testing centre.

3% examines the motivations and paradoxes of heroism and villainy, sometimes turning them on their sides until they touch with such intimacy you can’t tell them apart. At its deepest, 3% explores the nature of humanity—from its most glorious to its most heinous—under the stress of scarcity and uncertainty. How we behave under these polarizing challenges ultimately determines who we are. The question of whether we are worth saving is explored through the subtleties—or not so subtle aspects—of a fascist society that practices exterminism. 

Missions (2018) 

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Missions is a French TV series about the race by two ships—the Ulysses and Z1, representing two ambitious billionaires—to explore Mars. It opens in 1967 with the heroic sacrifice of Vladimir Komarov, the pilot of the faulty Soyuz 1, who knew he would not return and accepted his mission to save his best friend, Yuri Gagarin (his backup). This heroic act is mirrored in the last episode of Season 1 with a similar selfless act of heroism by Ulysses psychologist Jeanne Renoir to save her crewmembers who are trying to escape a fatal dust storm on Mars.

missions-posterAfter the 1967 opening scene with Komarov, we go to the present day with psychologist Jeanne Renoir, conducting an experiment on a child: giving them one marshmallow and leaving the room with the instruction that if they don’t eat the marshmallow but wait for her to return, they’ll get two. Jeanne correctly anticipates the child will eat the marshmallow.

Amid developments between the two ship teams in which self-serving agendas, paranoias and blind ambition reign, Jeanne shares a vision with an entity that looks like Komarov, in which he tells her: “Yes, people dream of other places, while they can’t even look after their own planet…You must remember your past in order to think about your future. Do you think Earth has a future?” When Jeanne says she doesn’t know, Komarov challenges, “Yes, you do. They eat their marshmallow right away, when they could have two. Or a thousand. Do you think humanity can continue like that?” Of course she doesn’t think so. Komarov continues, “People have chosen a brief but exciting life. Your species burns the candle at both ends. You know this. And it terrifies you…”

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Jeanne Renoir

From the beginning, we glimpse a surreal connection between Jeanne and Komarov and ultimately between Earth and Mars: from her childhood admiration for the Russian’s heroism on Earth to the “visions” they currently share that link key elements of her past to Mars and Komarov’s strange energy-giving powers, to Jeanne’s own final act of heroism on Mars.

As the storyline develops, linking Earth and Mars in startling ways, and as various agendas—personal missions—are revealed, we finally clue in on the main question that “Missions”—through Komarov and finally Jeanne—is asking: are we worth saving?

The Beyond (2018)

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In The Beyond, the sudden appearance of a wormhole causes the disappearance of astronaut Jim Marcell during EVA on Earth’s orbiting space station, followed by associated calamitous phenomena on Earth. Giant dark spherical clouds then appear and settle all over the Earth, disrupting the world’s population, and setting in motion a series of fearful and aggressive reactions by various sectors of humanity.

The Beyond-poster copyThe Beyond’s climax, discovery and resolution is really more of a question. The movie doesn’t have a tidy end; its solution is veiled with more questions.

The film ends with a cautious hope, implicitly asking that big question: are we (humanity) worth saving? When Jessica asks why humanity was offered a second chance by benevolent beings way beyond our comprehension, the returned Jim Marcell (currently a spokesman for the aliens) shows her the GAD (Golden Archive Drive with video images of Earth and humanity—basically our “hello” message to extra-solar life like the one placed onboard NASA’s Pioneer missions) that had accompanied the ship into the wormhole. The message displayed scenes of mothers and their children, people laughing in joy; it also showed scenes of other aspects of this beautiful planet worth saving: the ocean surf, the forests and wildlife. In our hubris, we have lost our perspective about this planet. Perhaps, it wasn’t so much humanity the alien beings intended to save but the Earth itself; we just come along with it. The Earth is, after all, a beautiful, vital and unique world, rich with life-giving water, trees, animals, creatures of all kinds in a diverse network of flowing and evolving beauty. A planet worth saving and that, frankly, functions better without us.

So, the question remains: is humanity worth saving? For centuries we have hubristically and disrespectfully used, discarded and destroyed just about everything on this beautiful planet. According to the World Wildlife Federation, 10,000 species go extinct every year. That’s mostly on us. They are the casualty of our selfish actions. We’ve become estranged from our environment, lacking connection and compassion. That has translated into a lack of consideration—even for each other. In response to mass shootings of children in schools, the U.S. government does nothing to curb gun-related violence through gun-control measures; instead they suggest arming teachers. We light up our cigarettes in front of people who don’t smoke and blow cancer-causing second-hand smoke in each other’s faces. We litter our streets and we refuse to pick up after others even if it helps the environment and provides beauty for self and others. The garbage we thoughtlessly discard pollutes our oceans with plastic and junk, hurting sea creatures and the ocean ecosystem in unimaginable ways. We consume and discard without consideration.

We do not live lightly on this planet.

We tread with incredibly heavy feet. We behave like bullies and, as The Beyond points out, our inclination to self-interest makes us far too prone to suspicion and distrust: when we meet the unknown, we tend to respond with fear and aggression over curiosity, hope and kindness.

Something we need to work on if we are going to survive.

Science fiction—the highest form of metaphoric and visionary art—is telling us something. Are we paying attention?

 

References:

Carson, Rachel. 1962. “Silent Spring.” Houghton Mifflin. 336pp.

Corey, James S.A. “The Leviathan Wakes.” Orbit. 592 pp.

Liu, Cixin. 2014. “The Three Body Problem.” Tor Books. 400pp.