By Jan S. Gephardt

NOTE: I wrote the original version of this post, “How Science Fiction Impacts Environmental Awareness,” in 2016. I didn’t realize how often I’d link to it in later years, nor how badly its illustrations would translate to later themes and formats. In this adjusted version (2022), I’ve updated some images, added subtitles to break it up a bit, and expanded in a few places.

The first edition of "Dune" by Frank Herbert, on a background of Saharan dunes.
Frank Herbert’s Dune changed how science fiction readers thought about planetary ecosystems. (See credits bel)ow.

The ”Dune” Generation

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.”

Usula K. LeGuin's "The Word for World is Forest," with a Malaysian jungle in the background.
Richard M. Powers created the cover for the first edition of The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

A One-Ecology Planet

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. Sometimes, science fiction affects environmental awareness in both helpful and unhelpful ways.

The Iconic "Earthrise" photo.
Earthrise is the “most influential environmental photograph ever taken” (per 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. (NASA, via Wikipedia).

Serving the Story

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, it’s a matter of balance. Spending a lot of energy on different environments may not serve the story (and that’s what comes first). 

Also, 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. 

Lois McMaster Bujold's "Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen," on a starfield.
The planet Sergyar is almost a character in the latest book of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.

A Different Kind of Exo-Planet

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. And 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. We need to think deeply about the complexities and beauties of environments, in powerful and constructive ways.

How Science Fiction Impacts Environmental Awareness

What I didn’t quite articulate in 2016 was the promise of the title, “How How Science Fiction Impacts Environmental Awareness,” beyond in the initial paragraph. Indeed, novels such as Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach also provided early influences for the environmental movement.

Earth Day’s sponsors celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2021, and science fiction continues to impact environmental awareness. Dystopian writers endlessly hammer out all the ways we can go wrong with the environment, while movements such as Solarpunk seek to envision a more positive future.

For an evolution of my thoughts on how science fiction impacts environmental awareness, I’d invite you to explore my February 2022 blog post, “Looking for Hope.”


Many thanks to Wikipedia for the first-edition cover art for Dune and The Word for World is Forest, and also for Earthrise. The background images for both books came from 123rf. Artwork for the first edition of Dune is by the legendary sf illustrator John Schoenherr. The Saharan dunes photo came from Martin Silva Cosentino (martinsilvacosentino) via 123rf. Richard M. Powers created the cover for the first edition of The Word for World is Forestby Ursula K. Le Guin. Photographer “szefei” shot the Tropical Forest background for 123rf.

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

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. I placed it on a background photo of an origin-nebula for new stars from NASA. Full image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team.