Thursday, December 17, 2020

Imagining Beyond the Climate Crisis

Hi all, I've got another essay installment for you! This essay was born out of my frustration with the gap between environmental literature and speculative literature. As a reader, critic, and writer of both, I wish the communication wasn't so one way, with speculative literature embracing environmental themes while environmental literature struggles with the SF genre.  

Imagining Beyond the Climate Crisis

Like any serious critical pursuit in relationship to speculative literature, ecocriticism and speculative literature studies is not as intertwined as it could be. Yes, ecocritics are quick to mention authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, and Jeff VanderMeer, maybe Octavia E. Butler and Paolo Bacigalupi, but my issue with the attention paid to these authors is that critics are picking out the environmental themes in their work, not necessarily exploring how the genre impacts the environmental conversation. The speculative fiction genre as a whole is environmental in a way that is separate from literary fiction. The place or environment of the story is often what clues the reader to the speculative worldbuilding. The fantastical worldbuilding is one of the key ways speculative literature differentiates itself from the literary genre as organic space ships or cosmic forests can only exist in speculative literature. 

Cover of Parable of the Sower
Part of the history of speculative literature is imagining new technology or new worlds that become actualized, whether it was Star Trek communicators inspiring the inventor of the cell phone or the social unrest in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993). The power of speculative fiction to imagine different futures (and remember forgotten pasts) is perhaps the greatest gift possible for ecocritics, particularly as the change needed to survive the climate crisis, let alone thrive, becomes seemingly more insurmountable. This type of applied scholarship and forward-looking theorizing is not normalized in scholarly work, so I argue that part of pushing the conversation forward is changing how a critic approaches a text. Imagining new ways of living and, even more importantly, fleshing them out in narratives, are some of the early steps toward that wide-reaching change that ecocritics and scholars of speculative literature can make together. 

Speculative literature—and more specifically, dystopias—have always been an important part of environmental writing. From Rachel Carson’s dystopic chapter in Silent Spring (1962) to Richard Adam’s Watership Down (1972) to Animal’s People (2008) by Indra Sinha, canonical environmental texts have embraced the speculative. On the genre side, the list is much longer because worldbuilding inherently requires an understanding of interconnected systems. N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) offers a good example.

The Fifth Season cover The novel is not a traditional environmental text, but I would argue that it offers a lot to an ecocritical reading because it demonstrates how environmental disasters and systems of oppression interact. Indeed, the first line reads: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we” (Jemisin 1)? The inciting incident is an enormous earthquake that sends the world into catastrophe. Yet, the end of the world is caused by one man, and through the course of the first novel, the reader realizes why he wants to destroy humanity. Even more so, the novel demonstrates how to survive such a disaster, mainly through community and adaptation. The main character Essun, an orogene that can control earth and stone, is on a quest to save her kidnapped daughter during the apocalypse, but she must take a layover with a community trying to survive underground in a geode. Essun describes the community as “people and not-people,” of which Essun is a not-person because she is not given human rights as an orogene (Jemisin 332). Yet, the Castrima community does not see themselves separated in such a way. Rather, to join the community, equality between human and nonhuman is required. Orogenes and humans work together for survival. The community leader, an orogene, states: “‘This is what we we’re trying to do here in Castrima: survive. Same as anyone. We’re just willing to innovate a little” (Jemisin 343). In this moment, “innovate” takes on a double meaning. In the novel, it means they are willing to risk living in a geode that runs off orogene power, but in reference to the social structures depicted throughout the novel, “innovate” means the destruction of their normalized ways of dehumanizing orogenes. No longer are orogenes feared by humans as only together can all—human and nonhuman—survive the apocalypse. While I’d hesitate to call The Fifth Season an environmental novel, the environment and living world are part of this epic fantasy in a way unique to the genre. 

The Dispossessed cover
Similarly, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is set entirely on a secondary world, a planet and its moon. While such a separation may seem to distance the novel entirely from contemporary climate concerns, Le Guin uses the freedom of a secondary world to demonstrate an anarchist society, what many people would consider pure fantasy but is an increasingly viable solution as at least a partial response to the climate crisis. For example, when Le Guin’s main character, Shevek, visits the large, anarchist city of Abbenay, he describes a city that does not use excess: “No heat was furnished when the outside temperature went above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It was not that Abbenay was short of power, not with her wind turbines and the earth temperature-differential generators used for heating; but the principle of organic economy was too essential to the functioning of the society not to affect ethics and aesthetics profoundly. ‘Excess is excrement’” (Le Guin 98). This small example is one of many that Le Guin provides throughout the text to demonstrate how one might live in an anarchist community and what such a planet might look like. This premise does not seem inherently environmental,  but ultimately Le Guin links this anarchist worldview to an environmental ethos. 

As part of the denouement, Shevek seeks refuge in the Terran (Earth) Embassy. The Terran ambassador is moved by how Shevek speaks of his anarchist society and says: “My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, then we died. […] There are no forests left on my Earth” (Le Guin 348). The ambassador’s speech continues and displays how social issues are inevitably connected to environmental issues and vice versa. Combined with the imaginative ability of speculative fiction—whether how to survive a natural disaster of epic proportions or to invent and convincingly write about an anarchist secondary world—the genre should be recognized for its ability to imagine drastic change. This interconnectedness and ability to imagine new futures has been embraced by some important critics, most notably Donna J. Haraway and the relationship between Jeff VanderMeer and Timothy Morton. Ecocritical work on speculative texts is certainly welcome in those scholarly circles, but there’s a lack of depth and understanding of the genre that limits the engagement with the truly world-changing aspects of speculative literature. When considering what combinations of these two critical approaches is most useful, the focus of ecocriticism to use interdisplinary tactics to analyze the environment and climate change concerns in a text can combine with the imaginative, worldbuilding power of speculative fiction to scope out new ways of understanding the living world. Speculative fiction scholars can use ecocriticism as a way to consider how authors seemed to predict our current moment in the climate crisis and seek out what solutions are offered on the page.

Some of the most recent scholarship is already moving in this direction, such as the work of scholar-activists adrienne maree brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who make theory around Octavia Butler’s work, particularly her created religion Earthseed. In Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making Through Science Fiction and Activism (2018), Shelley Streeby specifically examines the world-changing possibilities of speculative fiction. Streeby founds her text on the imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction to play out different worlds and discourses. While a literary study, she also includes activism as part of that imaginative process, particularly with a focus on #NoDAPL. Ultimately, Streeby decenters whiteness in speculative fiction to argue “that people of color and Indigenous people use science fiction and other speculative genres to remember the past and imagine futures that help us think critically about the present and connect climate change to social movements” (5). By acknowledging the connection between activism and speculative fiction, Streeby provides a foundation for more theory-making in regards to making change through speculative fiction. 

Streeby openly views speculative fiction as a tool for present unrest. While it is difficult not to call speculative fiction predictive at times, it does help readers and writers imagine what is possible. Indeed, in a discussion of Butler, Streeby writes: 

This [globalization in the 1990s] led Butler to predict that the 2020s would be the decade of collapse in which humans would witness sea level rise, dryness, heat, crop failures, institutions no longer working or existing only to collect taxes and fees and to arrest people to exploit their labor: “This is the story of ‘The Burn,’” she wrote, “a period in history when old ways of life were dying as the climate changed, food and water became scarce, expensive, unsafe, and the focus of much criminal activity and new ways were being born.” Calling Parable [of the Sower] the “story of one woman who builds her ‘new way’ upon the ashes of the old,” she imagined the near-future 2020s as “the Burn” and the Earthseed community as “the head of the Phoenix, rising.” In other words, Butler imagined neoliberal globalization from above as a kind of scorched earth disaster, one to which her imaginings of different worlds and communities and other, more sustainable ways of living responded. (98)

Indeed, Butler’s theorizing even led to the rise of “Make America Great” slogan in Parable of the Talents (1998), which currently haunts 2020. If Butler and other writers, knowingly or not, predicted elements of the current future, perhaps the current narrative can be reimagined. By treating speculative literature as hypotheses of what comes during climate crisis—a playing out of different futures—then readers can prepare for a future of their choosing. If these writers can so clearly imagine our current moment decades before to the point that it feels uncanny, perhaps there is more to be gleaned from their work.

In Parable of the Sower, Butler includes plenty of practical advice. In trying to teach a friend how to survive, a teenaged Lauren gives her friend instructions. First, she has to think differently: 

[Lauren’s friend] held herself rigid, rejecting. “You don’t know that! You can’t read the future. No one can.” 

“You can,” I said, “if you want to. It’s scary, but once you get past the fear, it’s easy. In L.A. some walled communities bigger and stronger than this one just aren’t there any more. Nothing left but ruins, rats, and squatters. What happened to them can happen to us. We’ll die in here unless we get busy now and work out ways to survive.” (Butler 55-6)

After changing how one thinks and considering the worst options, Lauren’s next step is survival knowledge. She offers her friend several books on wilderness survival, shooting, and first aid and even advises her to take notes so she will remember more clearly (Butler 58-9). Finally, Lauren instructs her friend to pack a bugout bag with “money, food, clothing, matches, a blanket” (Butler 58). In these few pages, Lauren has provided vital survival information for anyone in a part of the world experiencing extreme climate events or social unrest.  This information is solid and real, even if the world of Parable of the Sower is imagined. Indeed, this example is one way that Butler’s work resonates with activists: “[adrienne maree brown] explains that in this context, ‘Octavia Butler appeals to me because she wanted to prepare us’ for the changes that are now inevitable: ‘Change is coming—what do we need to imagine as we prepare for it’” (Streeby 101)? By mapping the way characters adapt to new systems of living, ecocritics can pivot to applied scholarship: can humanity implement these ideas and how? Yet, this pivot will require speculative texts and writers to be taken seriously.

As the climate crisis defines this century, another ecocriticism text is the last thing we need. The popularity of speculative authors like Le Guin, Jemisin, and Butler suggests a cultural connection to this environmental era, but the change these stories depict must be translated from the page to practical action. Indeed, in Parable of the Sower, Lauren enacts one of the vital functions of speculative literature as cited by Samuel R. Delany: “Like Delany, here Butler suggests that science fiction is not really about predicting the future but is rather about the present—how we in the present shape the future that is to come by thinking about it and foreseeing it. In other words, science fiction can help us take hold of the present and think about where things are heading rather than just letting time pass by as our unconscious surround [sic]” (Streeby 25). Shaking a reader into awareness rather “than just letting time pass by” is a powerful effect of speculative fiction, which is why environmental writers have invoked grotesque dystopias in order to encourage environmental change. As studying speculative fiction becomes a more serious endeavor, ecocritics and speculative fiction scholars have the opportunity to combine their knowledge of the current climate crisis and how characters survive fictional environmental collapse.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Grand Central Publishing, 1993.

Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit, 2015.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. Harper Voyager, 2011.

Streeby, Shelley. Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism. U of California P, 2018.

Phoebe Wagner is a PhD candidate at University of Nevada, Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at or on Twitter @pheebs_w