The uncompromising lens

On fiction, science and social criticism

Martin Griffiths 22 June 2008

Fragile: can fiction save the planet?

Just as classical novels of the 18th and 19th centuries were commentaries on social ethics of their time, we would expect speculative and science-based fiction to take serious social themes

Fiction can serve as an effective way to gauge the interface between science and society. It is probably not too surprising, given society’s ambivalence towards science, that many such novels hypothesise a negative outcome. In the hands of the best authors, stories that speculate about how scientific and technological advances might play out in the future can make a thoughtful contribution towards illuminating the fears of the time.

So-called ‘holocaust and catastrophe’ plots point to a not-so-utopian future for mankind. Examples of these can be seen in such works as John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar, which relate the disastrous misuse of our planet's resources and how this imperils human society. J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World shows humanity reverting to a former evolutionary stage as the sun's instability leads to the melting of the icecaps and the inundation of the earth, whereas George R. Stewart’s novel Earth Abides plays upon society’s fears of biological warfare as plague reduces mankind to nothing. Brian Aldiss’s excellent novel Greybeard deals with the sterility resulting from nuclear testing in the atmosphere whilst Robert Shaw's book Shadow of Heaven explores the use of herbicides and their negative impact on the ecostructure of our planet, which ultimately leads to the destruction of all wild plants and subsequent famine. Though some of these texts look a little dated now, their message still reaches out to us in a world marked by the very traits they intended to illustrate.

One of the most evocative works of catastrophe science fiction is Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Not just a simple story of nuclear Armageddon, the novel posits a subsequent accumulation of knowledge that leads to a new renaissance – eventually culminating with another nuclear holocaust at the story’s end. The message is clear message: humanity is seldom instructed by its mistakes.

This novel entails obvious social criticism. Miller fought at Monte Cassino during WWII, and the slaughter and suffering he witnessed there led him to believe that mankind would never learn from the lessons of the past. Over 150 million people had been killed in the wars of the 20th century by the end of WWII, and Miller’s experience and helplessness comes over quite strongly within the work.

Miller’s book highlights the possibility of re-enacting history if we were stupid enough to destroy our planet in the first place. His story revolves around a community of monks who are devoted to finding, copying and treasuring any remnant of the pre-holocaust age, without regard or understanding of what they are preserving. The religion of the post-apocalyptic age is a form of Roman Catholicism, but now the holy scriptures are relics of a bygone age, which many try and fail to interpret. Eventually human learning reappears through fundamental observations of nature, and a renaissance scholar visits the monastery to look through what is virtually the only collection of pre-destruction learning in the world. What he discovers leads to an upsurge in scientific erudition and, eventually, technological change and even interplanetary flight. But along with this high point of scientific accomplishments comes the nuclear bomb and vested political interests, which at the novel’s end give way to the patterns of history. The novel concludes with a possible future hope – some monks have left Earth carrying the sacred relics and pre-holocaust learning with them to a new world, and the question is then subtly posed: will humanity learn this time in a new setting?

Just as classical novels of the 18th and 19th centuries were commentaries on social ethics of their time, we would expect speculative and science-based fiction to take serious social themes further. Science fiction in particular is based upon ideologies that explore “what if?” issues, extrapolating human society and trends into a future setting, or toying with scientific and political tendencies. Along the way, such tales alert us to possible dangers if we continue on a particular path or ignore the warnings of a specific course of action. Written in 1959, Miller’s novel echoed many sentiments of the 1950s – an era of political witch hunts, cold war and the hydrogen bomb. It appeared to Miller that the world would head towards warfare and possible nuclear destruction if it did not learn the lessons of the past and this point of social criticism is evident again and again within A Canticle for Leibowitz. Novels since that time have attempted to raise awareness of pressing issues of the day. Note the impending doom of global warming in such novels as Kim Stanley Robinsons’ 40 Signs of Rain, Marcus Sedgwick’s Floodland, Jay Kaplan’s A Chilling Warmth and Kevin E. Ready’s Gaia Weeps.

Novels like these, based upon real fears, scientific or political predictions or historic patterns, illuminate our society and make effective critiques of it. As Isaac Asimov once said: "It is change, continuing change,
 inevitable change, that is the
 dominant factor in society today.
 No sensible decision can be made
 any longer without taking into 
account not only the world as
 it is, but the world as it will be." Every political leader and business magnate would do well to read science-based literature and keep its insights in mind.