This post is the last in our “Faves” series, in which the Stelliform team discusses some of their most beloved eco- and related fictions. In Part 1, Stelliform Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Selena Middleton wrote about her love for Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild, and others. In Part 2, Kristen Shaw and Rae Stoltenkamp wrote about Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing (which we also reviewed here), Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, and more.
In this series finale, our Publishing Consultant and occasional proofreader Jacqueline Langille writes about her favourite eco-focused books and films, and what she has learned from the prevalent motif of the unforgiving environment in science fiction.
The Unforgiving Environment
by Jacqueline Langille
While eco-fiction may be labelled a super-genre by some critics, I have mainly read such stories in the realm of science fiction, from Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) to Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003). My most recent “favorite book” happens to be eco-sci-fi: Semiosis by Sue Burke (2018). In that novel, which I’ve recommended to everyone I’ve ever spoken to since its publication, the human characters have fled to the stars in search of a new environment to colonize after ecological disasters on Earth. I love this story because no matter how well the humans, in their hubris, prepare to take over a new world, it’s when they build a strong relationship with the local plant life that they are not overcome by this unforgiving environment. They find constant jeopardy in any relation they try to establish with their food sources and their competitors on the planet Pax, and they must rely on other sentient and mobile beings to achieve any sort of longevity, never mind finding peace.
My other favourite eco-fiction examples also feature unforgiving environments, albeit more urban with fewer animal elements, such as the silo habitat in Wool by Hugh Howey (2011) or a decaying dome city in Antarctica in Our Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke (2015). Beyond urban or ice, a liquid world represents one of the most inhospitable habitats for humans, air-breathers and not-great-floaters that we are, and this unforgiving environment is explored with relish in the movie Waterworld (1995). Kevin Costner’s loner tries to survive and adapt, yet his life gains meaning and purpose only when he builds relationships with other humans and shares his skills for living in and on the water. The ecology of Waterworld, its focus on the relationships between human animals and their environment, with some humans continuing to be destructive of course, is why I love that movie (even though its running time is much too long at 135 minutes).
Modern action movies and myth-makers of old tend to focus on great deeds, but the books I enjoy most focus on the relationships. In the best books, I feel like an ecologist discovering how all these relationships work, between characters, within their environment, among the most alien of cultures and planets that human authors can imagine. As I dove into the setting of City of Pearl by Karen Traviss (2004), I knew I had found another unforgiving environment to love. While the human colonizers seem to be making a go of it on a new planet, the hostile elements surface in the plot when they realize they are not alone on this world (more human hubris). And they are not in charge (eek! did I give too much away?). Writing about this book makes me want to order the entire series and live inside that place until next spring.
Evolution by Stephen Baxter (2003), another book I’ve recommended to almost everyone I know, may not fit into the more basic definition of eco-fiction, but the entire planet is our ecosystem, and the history of the planet covers so much more than human relationships with that environment, so it definitely fits. A collection of vignettes about mammals and sentient creatures surviving in various unforgiving Earth environments, this book covers +500 million years (trust me, it’s not confusing when you’re immersed in it). Fiction can help me understand concepts that I know intellectually but that I really don’t take into my core. The previous examples of eco-fiction, along with James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency (2006) helped me understand that humanity’s one chance to survive, let alone thrive, exists in our capacity to build resilient relationships with each other and with our environment. From Evolution, I received an understanding that the before-humans phase of this planet lasted many millions of years, and the after-humans phase will last many hundreds of millions of years too. And that’s okay. If we fail to acknowledge how crucial our relationship with our natural world is and we fail to thrive in this unforgiving environment, it’s tragic and terrible to ponder for future generations of humans, but it’s also okay. It’s only hubris.
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