How Science Fiction Impacts Environmental Awareness

The first-edition cover of Frank Herbert’s
Dune, by John Schoenherr.

I am a member of the Dune generation. 

Yeah, I know: that marks me as Older Than Dirt in 2016. Published in 1965 (I read it in 1973, at age . . . young adult), it changed both science fiction and (along with the 1962 book Silent Spring) the environmental movement

This was mostly due to author Frank Herbert’s depiction of the complex ecology of the fictional planet Arrakis, a world so complex, fascinating and challenging that it became a “character” in its own right. And yet, as intricate and realistic as the depiction was, we only ever saw ONE environment on Arrakis. It was a “desert planet.”

Richard M. Powers created the cover for
the first edition of The Word for World
is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Similarly, Athshe, in 1972’s The Word For World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin, is a tree-covered world. The plot is grounded, once again, in the ecology of the planet–but there’s only one kind of ecology. 

It’s a common theme in science fiction: a one-ecology planet. Now, sometimes that’s not unwarranted: not much difference between poles and equator on Venus, for instance, or on Jupiter’s “ice moon” Europa.

But it’s a simplistic view, and a very far cry from the true nature the Mother of Us All, which could be described as a “water planet,” but also a mountain planet, a plains planet, a desert planet, a forest planet, and many other kinds of ecology. 

Every earth-ish science fictional world, from Hoth to Arrakis, owes its origin and vision to someplace on Earth.

Earthrise: This is the “most influential environmental photograph ever taken” (Galen Rowell), a view of Earth rising over the moon on Dec. 24, 1968 by astronaut William Anders. It changed how many people thought of earth.

To my mind, there’s no reason to think any other earth-like planet with an atmosphere humans find breathable will be any less complex and extraordinary in its own way, but few sf authors seem willing to “world-build” to quite that extent.

Partially, I think that’s because spending a lot of energy on multiple environmental settings may not serve the story (and that’s what comes first). 

The planet Sergyar is almost a character
in the latest book of Lois McMaster
Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga
.

It also may be because many sf stories are set in sterile, artificial city or space-based environments. These are all too much like many “nature deprived” lives in the contemporary Western world. Not coincidentally, it’s that part of the planetary population which produces most of our science fiction. “Nature deficit disorder” leads to nature-divorced book settings? Well, maybe. 

But it’s refreshing to me when a book with a more sophisticated ecology for its exoplanets arrives. The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold is an example of a more scientifically complex vision; indeed, one of Bujold’s frequent themes is an exploration of the effects of a given environment on the societies that grow up in it. 

Our view of worlds continues to evolve, in astronomy, but also in contemporary life, and science fiction (one, of course, being the mirror of the others). I only hope that as our own planet changes around us, we in the science fiction community can once again influence thinking about the complexities and beauties of environments, in powerful and constructive ways.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Wikipedia for the first-edition cover art for Dune and The Word for World is Forest, and also for Earthrise. Many thanks to Amazon, for the cover image of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, cover art by Ron Miller, based upon a concept by author Lois McMaster Bujold; cover design by Carol Russo Design

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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