Putting the life back in science fiction

Effective Communication of Science in Environmental Controversies
August 23, 2010, 7:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I must admit, I love this title, because it says everything that’s wrong with ecology these days. Right. Don’t worry, this ends up in science fiction in about seven paragraphs.

The title comes from the August 2010 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which fortunately for all of us is available free online. This journal is published by the Ecological Society of America (yep, I’m a member), and it’s about all the problems ecologists, climatologists, and environmental scientists are having getting the public to tune in to reality. And yes, that’s my bias.

But the interesting thing for me is how much a culture clash there is. Back as a grad student, I got a paper bounced from several publications on the grounds that “we don’t publish speculation.” To their credit, they did publish a mathematical model I created, but this mindset was fascinating. Some of these people were colleagues of a late, lamented giant in that field who said something like “evolutionary biology is for people who can’t do field science.” Since I respect his field science a great deal, I won’t name him. However, this refusal to deal with the past, or to play with conjecture, was and is striking.

Back to the Frontiers in Ecology articles, on “Effective Communication of Science in Environmental Controversies.” It made me sigh, because it’s so earnest. My favorite is the shortest, Katherine Ellison’s ‘Media mea culpa’. She’s a professional journalist, and she points out the problems the media have in covering environmental issues.

Two quotes particularly stand out:
“’The great need isn’t to explain the science one more time, as many reporters seem to think’, says David Roberts, who covers climate-change issues for the online magazine, Grist. ‘People just can’t absorb it unless they can picture a reasonable way out.’”

and her closing thought:

“Averting the worst climate-change scenarios will require nothing less than the systematic upheaval of our economy. My hope is that we journalists still have time to help lead the charge, instead of merely being swept up in it.”

This is where we get to the culture conflict and science fiction. Science fiction, to grossly oversimplify, uses the future as a setting, and when it inspires, it seems to inspire mostly the wonderful gadgets and scenarios that inspire young readers to go into the technology fields to create these things. Love it or hate it, Start Trek has inspired loads of engineers, as did Neuromancer (cyberspace) and Snow Crash (Second Life).

Ecologists tend to get into their science by reading John Muir, or by those long hikes their families took when they were young, and they tend to get radicalized when they see their favorite areas trashed. Many have read science fiction, but now days, they are too busy saving the world (ideally), or at least trying to keep employed (speaking for myself).

Beginning to see the disconnect between cultures? While there are whole subfields of disaster science fiction, the future inspires SF. In ecology, the past inspires, and the future is the problem. To make it even more explicit, I’ll point to a question from Don Fitch to John Scalzi the current president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a few months ago:

from Don Fitch: ” Plants. I’m pretty sure you’re not A Plant Person — not much beyond lettuce, tomato, onion on a hamburger, or grass; a small tree in photos of sunsets — but I’m wondering if you’re as virtually-blind to plants the way some s-f writers/readers I know are.”

Scalzi’s answer: … “So, no, I don’t think I’m virtually-blind to alien flora, but I do think alien flora on an earth-like planet (where many of my books take place) will be at least slightly familiar.” (I cut out the rest).

Oh dear. It’s not a question about alien plants, John, it’s about whether you see the world around you.

I like Scalzi. He’s one of the more ecologically aware major authors out there. He deserves credit, but the thing that sucks is that there are so few authors like him. And even he may have trouble seeing the trees outside his window, unless a camera is involved.


To oversimplify, we have ecologists who don’t like the speculation on one side, and on the other side, we have science fiction writers who, as a group, are thought to be tree-blind if not totally clueless about anything that isn’t shiny.

We also have declining readership of science fiction.

To me, this looks like a couple of problems that have a common soluton. The environmental community is stuck with doom-and-gloom as their deeply engrained belief in the future, and the science fiction community has a lot of trouble imagining a future that realistically solves the problems we all know are out there. Part of the problem may be the publishing culture of science fiction, rather than the authors, but still, good environmental science fiction is scarce, and it even more rarely gets wide readership.

Recently there was Scalzi’s Metatropolis and Jason Andrew’s Shine, both collections of short stories. And…I’m not sure what else. Did any of you read either of these? They’re not bad.

So the question for discussion is: what does a reasonable future look like? Can we bridge the cultures of the ecologists and the futurists? Or do we see both of them, bashing their heads on opposite sides of the same brick wall?

And while we’re at it, can we have some of the writers from Wired go over and help on the titles of Frontiers? “Effective Communication of Science in Environmental Controversies” is a sleep aid, not a phrase that gets me motivated.


9 Comments so far
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I can’t answer all your questions, but I can at least name a couple of environmental sf titles. First off, John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up which is very bleak. And more recently there’s Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica and especially the Science in the Capital series.

Maybe you could even say that Hyperion has environmental aspects, but I may just be fooled by (a lot of) mentions of John Muir’s name.

Comment by Jan de Wit

The only ecologically centered recent SF that springs to mind is the Rifters trilogy of Peter Watts, although the defining event of the trilogy is very speculative rather than a projection of current trends. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl has sort of an ecological “feel” but is built around a particular aesthetic rather than scientific extrapolation of current trends. Ursula K. LeGuin is another author that obviously notices and appreciates trees, but neither she nor anyone else I can think of really builds scientifically grounded stories around ecological/environmental challenges the way other authors have built stories around the challenge of space exploration or the creation of super robots.

Comment by Matt

Those are good ones, particularly The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi’s doing a great job on near future settings.

But you know, it’s not just the setting, it’s that idea of describing what a reasonable future looks like. That seems to be hard for both SF writers and ecologists to talk about. Especially if we want to talk about birds and bees, flowers and trees, and all the green sticky stuff.

That’s the whole point of invoking Star Trek. When I hear a Google engineer who has a job programming Google to respond to voice queries a la Star Trek, I know that the show injected its particular viral DNA deep into our cultural imagination.

When I say as an ecologist, “well, just conserve water, use less energy, buy less stuff, eat more vegetables and don’t worry, you’ll be happy enough,” I sound like your elderly aunt. Or your childhood pastor. It doesn’t have the same carrying power as Star Trek, even if it happens to be more correct.

And while I liked the Windup Girl, I’m not sure I would want to steer civilization towards that world. Or maybe we need spring factories and illicit genebanks?

Comment by Heteromeles

I thought The Windup Girl was an engaging read. I liked the characters and I’m no stranger to or foe of SF that sees a dark and uncertain future. The anachronisms bothered me, though. Bacigalupi describes numerous technical details of his world and uses real-world units like meters and gigajoules rather than silently passing over tech details, so I was initially expecting hard SF simply written by someone who is more interested in organisms than machines. But the technical details don’t mesh with the world that’s described. The spring storage described in the book is so energy-dense that it could have been borrowed from space opera, but the primary energy production we’re shown seems mostly to hail from before the 19th century.

There’s lots of sun in the book but not solar power. There’s lots of water but not hydro power. It’s implied that food crops are both expensive and far from dependable but we’re shown animals and humans eating a lot to do basic mechanical work that could be done instead by 300 year old wind mill designs… I can’t even rationalize it as a post-collapse setting because extremely high-tech products are still being produced and transnational corporations, so reliant on transportation and communications infrastructure, continue to flourish.

I later read an interview with Bacigalupi where he said he just killed every alternative to fossil fuels (except muscle power) by authorial fiat in order to build the world he wanted to tell stories in. I can accept that, but I wish he’d not spoiled the effect by dropping incongruous engineering details into the book.

I think that any ecological SF worth the label must be social SF too. I find (most) older SF jarring more for its ridiculous social projections than its ridiculous technical projections. People are still writing SF with ridiculous technical projections and I’m still reading it happily, as long as it maintains internal consistency. It’s much harder to get through old stuff where the hero smokes a pipe and the female characters (if any) are accessories. What analogous social blind spots do today’s SF authors have?

10 years ago Wikileaks could have been a SF story instead of headline news, even though all the underlying components were already assembled. 10 years ago the idea that a peasant and former coca farmer would lead Bolivia in 2010, not an oligarch or one of their puppets, would also seem like SF. It’s a social leap instead of a technical one. What ecological SF might tantalize with is not faster, stronger machines but better social arrangements for people and their home planet, perhaps promoted with new technology but not really centered on it.

Of course this is presuming that there is an engaging tale in the foreground, not just 300 pages of didactic “story.” By way of example: The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic, but The Word for World is Forest is more than a little cringe-worthy.

Comment by Matt

You know, I was wondering what they were feeding the elephant-analogs in The Windup Girl. I was also wondering where they were getting the computer power for all that gene hacking. To me, that’s sort of like complaining about the fact that Kim Stanley Robinson (and many other authors) rarely bother to put insulation in their off-world tunnel dwellings. It’s not like Mars isn’t, well, freezing, most of the time. And the asteroids are even colder.

That’s the problem, though: the details. Ecology is all about noticing the details, whether it’s the trees or the grass, or the pollution.

A nice contrast with this is the original Die Hard movie. Not that this is ecological science fiction, but it’s fun because the plot ends up turning on the details.

In real life, a great example for me is a book on permaculture that I’m reading right now. It has page after page on how to site a house on a landscape so that it’s safe, comfortable, and environmentally benign. And cheap. After all, if the breeze keeps you cool, you don’t need AC.

Across the street from me, another cookie-cutter development is going in. Because the houses are designed to maximize profits, they’re shoe-horned in every which way. The only reason this type of development works is that everything is piped in or out: water, power, sewage, food, employment, entertainment. Plants are imported, and the area is hardscaped with runoff running straight into the sewer. Wildlife is discouraged. And the materials they’re building those houses from won’t last all that long.

This is a really expensive way to live. I know we couldn’t afford the mortgage: we’d have to kill ourselves on overtime to get that money.

This isn’t a jeremiad against high-density housing, or even against suburbs. It’s the stupidity that gets me. Good design isn’t expensive, compared to the costs of dealing with stupidity. That goes for SF too, I think.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’d give more credits for scientists liking science fiction. The two vulgarisation-for-researchers magazines I occasionally read have SFF reviews. Moving on to the problem of writing sci-fi with good ecology…

Dune might qualify. It’s an extremely simple and entirely made up ecosystem, but the sandworm has a complete lifecycle. The human factions are also balanced.

Otherwise, I have seen a lot of books with an ecological bent. They tend to extrapolate from capitalism/corporatism/fascism, so that there is both a social struggle and a struggle with nature. Sometimes this is science-fictionalised into Gaia, which is a bit overplayed and misses out on the complexity of actual ecosystems.

Extrapolating from our little resource and energy problem… That is hard. Going straight to the other side into post-apocalyptic, with a blend of past and present, is easier. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake does that, and features a geneticist.

Comment by Tobu

All good points, Tobu. While I love Dune as a book, I giggle as a scientst, because the sandworms inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. This is a neat trick for something that’s built like a ship-sized maggot and burrows through sand. That’s the problem with knowing too much.

My favorite quote about Frank Herbert came from Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running, which is about how mushrooms and fun to read. According to Stamets, Herbert was into magic mushrooms back in the day, and his vision of Dune was inspired by the maggots crawling around a decaying mushroom, just as the blue-eyed mystic women warriors came from the early stories of Psilocybe, and the native female healer who taught its use to the gringo world. He may have been on shrooms when it all came together, too, but that’s neither here nor there.

That’s another kind of world building, a very good kind actually. The Dune universe has so many different elements in it now: the mystic stuff, the first-wave environmentalist bent, the love for the desert, the resource geo-politics, plus everything everyone has added since by other authors. While I choke on calling it rigidly scientific, it’s inspirational, and that’s better than most.

Comment by heteromeles

Can you forget Silent Running once you’ve seen it?

In books I was influenced by John Christopher’s Death of Grass and several of John Wyndham’s works. Once you have read The Day of the Triffids you find it difficult not to get worried about invasive plants and deliberate introductions.

Comment by Pat

Metatropolis – yes, a good read. Enjoyed that not all of it was dystopic. Dune is still a favorite — the first SF novel where the planetary ecology was a key character.

A couple of years back (on Charlie’s blog), we were discussing planting on rooftops and I had mentioned an urban ‘green’ high rise project in Italy. Here it is … so far, so good!



‘It is called Bosco Verticale because each tower houses trees between three and six meters which help mitigate smog and produce oxygen. It is also used to moderate temperatures in the building in the winter and summer.[9] The plants also attenuate noise.[10] The design was tested in a wind tunnel to ensure the trees would not topple from gusts of wind.[11] Botanists and horticulturalists were consulted by the engineering team to ensure that the structure could bear the load imposed by the plants.[12][13] The steel-reinforced concrete balconies are designed to be 28 cm thick, with 1.30 metre parapets.[14]’

Comment by SFreader

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