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Predicting the cosy catastrophe

Environmental breakdown through fiction's lens

Martin Griffiths 6 July 2014

Tip of the iceberg: ecological futures

Imaginative fiction has used the tools and discoveries of science in effective ways to entertain and frighten, to inform of consequences if we do not take action

With the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report reading like the measured words of a doom-mongering prophet, Saharan sand and atmospheric particles causing a pollution index of 10 (the highest) in the UK prompting warnings about health, lung and heart disease; with the UK Office of National Statistics informing us that 25,000 people a year die of pollution-related illnesses every year following the wettest winter on record resulting in the flooding of large areas of the UK, it is hardly surprising that news reports both abroad and at home are getting more dread-laden with every broadcast. It seems the apocalypse is upon us.

The term apocalypse, taken from the Greek Apocalypsis is defined literally as “a revealing, an unveiling, a revelation”, but in modern usage has become synonymous with the end of the world, or the end of civilization. This word, so widely used by people today, was originally restricted to eschatological views and movements in the West that focus on cryptic disclosures about a sudden, dramatic, and cataclysmic intervention of God in history.

Although few today would take such revelations literally, the threat from environmental destruction, climate change and other potential disasters still makes us sit up and wonder if it will all end badly. We long for the silver linings that will bring hope in light of the 2014 IPCC report, that take away the apocalyptic fears over political stand-offs and will hide us from the predicted severe weather for the rest of our days. In some part we long for the catastrophe because we want a world renewed, but we also want to survive the demise of the old one so that we can stand, vigorous and proud, to shape the new.

This brave new world is a constant theme in science fiction. Imaginative fiction has used the tools and discoveries of science in effective ways to entertain and frighten, to inform of consequences if we do not take action. In this respect, British authors past and present have taken these themes and woven them into a form of loose prophecy.

British authors such a John Wyndham, John Christopher, Brian Aldiss, John Brunner and J.G. Ballard have excelled at covering ecological themes and at the same time making the catastrophe seem comfortable, cosy and survivable. John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1960) and Stand on Zanzibar (1961) relate the disastrous misuse of our planet’s resources and the effects on human society through pollution and overpopulation respectively. The Sheep Look Up is a magnificent study detailing the degeneration of the world due to pollution. Centred on the United States but affecting everyone, the environmental warnings are ignored by government and power-hungry corporations until the people of the Earth realize that there is only one solution – the climactic last chapter is a warning to those that refuse to change – others will initiate the change for you in ways that are as apocalyptic as the problems being faced. It is a fantastic warning to the most polluting countries on Earth and an admonition to humanity – we must do things differently before it is too late. In the same vein, Stand On Zanzibar is a huge tome detailing the hysteria of a tranquillising, drug-popping human culture on the brink of breakdown due to population growth and political ineptitude.

According to science fiction encyclopaedists Clute and Nicholls, “intensification of ecological awareness helps to lend a new subtlety and sophistication to the disaster story, which spawned a new subspecies dealing with the delicate aesthetics of corrosive changes in mankind's physiological and psychological relationship with the environment”. Although Ballard (The Drowned World, The Burning World), Wyndham (The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes) and Christopher (The Death of Grass, The World in Winter) have written about this connection, one of the foremost extollers of these ecological warnings, perhaps even the shaper of them within British science fiction has been Brian Aldiss, whose novels, especially during the “New Wave” of the 60s, have consistently retained and examined ecological foundations and conceptions as an undercurrent to the plot. Aldiss’ writing illustrates his main thematic concerns, namely the “conflict between fecundity and entropy, between the rich variety of life and the silence of death”.

Brian Aldiss is not only a popular writer; he is a literary crusader. His self-confessed wish is to bring a “high-art” motif to science fiction, thereby generating a respect for the genre beyond the field of literature, enabling content and context to be seriously entertained as a mind-expanding material by those beyond this rather confined dominion. He wants the genre to be recognised not just as a valid literature but to have its message measured, for its warnings to be considered. In order to accomplish this, he has for the most part remained aloof from traditional motifs such as faster-than-light space travel and Extra Sensory Perception which grace many areas of the genre. He considers these areas to be “refuges for tired minds and overdone to death”.

To this end, Aldiss has set himself a narrow field, but has been extremely fruitful within this scope, highlighting areas of human concern and extrapolating these anxieties to a plausible near future. He acknowledges in Hell’s Cartographers (1975) the debt he owes to social issues by paying homage to the century in which he was born, a century of seemingly apocalyptic changes that have influenced his writings and given him a generally pessimistic outlook which is repealed by glimmers of light and hope in the closing sections of many of his novels; e.g. Non-Stop and Greybeard.

His historical works Billion Year Spree and the updated Trillion Year Spree are further attempts to put science fiction in a literary context by tying the genre to its erudite roots in gothic literature such as Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the works of Poe and Walpole in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Despite its detractors, Aldiss’ purpose is a brave attempt to establish science fiction as modern classics. Just as classical novels of the 18th and 19th centuries were commentaries on social ethics of the time, Aldiss imposes a consciousness upon science fiction, one that takes serious social themes, further because the genre is based upon ideologies that explore “what if” consequences. In a world of increasing scientific sophistication, Aldiss’ work has partly bridged the gap between public understanding and scientific perception, especially in the field of ecological problems.

Brian Aldiss’ awareness of ecology, reflected in his writings, had a genesis in the late 1950s with a series of stories now collected under the rubric Planetary Ecological Survey Team (PEST) which was published in the British magazine New Worlds between 1958-62. These stories were extrapolations of ecological issues and taxonomies of alien worlds in a traditional science fiction mould that set the scene for coming novels dealing with environmental issues.

One of the most striking of these is the excellent novel Greybeard (1964). Written at a time of increasing media attention to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the widespread concern over Strontium-90 in children resulting from atmospheric nuclear testing, the novel cleverly addresses these concerns by extrapolating a world full of old people, a product of human sterility resulting from nuclear testing in the stratosphere. The plot details the increasing frailty of mankind and in flashbacks examines the disintegration of society as it is realised that man has no future without children. The octogenarian society of the novel sinks into separatism, pseudo-science and quasi-religious idealism. At the novel’s end it becomes obvious that there is a silver lining – the human gene pool is reasserting itself, but the children hide from the world of adults out of fear and loathing; they reject the old established order in favour of a world on their terms – certainly a motif echoed and understood by the hippie generation.

This fine novel was closely followed by another breathing life into common environmental concerns. Earthworks (1965) examined the insidious role of chemical pollution, leading to complete soil exhaustion. This theme grew out of the realization that organic fertilizers were being replaced with new “scientific” methods of farming, resulting in the spread of chemical fertilization that poisoned crops and water and did not replenish the soil with nutrients essential to its continued well-being. Society later woke up to the detrimental effects of such farming methods and the resurgence of “organic” farming and crop production during the late 70s and the decade of the 80s is evidence of this concern. The inequalities between have’s and have not’s and the ascendancy of the wealthy and powerful controlling the food chain and markets ring true today. Aldiss’ science fiction has played a role in communicating these dangers to a common audience.

Perhaps Aldiss’ greatest ecological triumph came from the examination of an alien ecology through the creation of the world of Helliconia. Helliconia Spring (1982) won the prestigious 1983 John W Campbell Memorial Award, and was closely followed by Helliconia Summer (1983) and Helliconia Winter (1985) three thoroughly researched tales set on a planet whose primary sun is in an eccentric orbit around another star. This scenario results in the planet enduring both small seasons and an eon-long Great Year, during the course of which radical changes afflict the human-like inhabitants. Cultures are born in spring, flourish over the summer, and die with the onset of the generations-long winter. A team from a future Earth civilization observes the spectacle from the space station Avernus in orbit above Helliconia, drawing inferences for our dying planet from the experiences of the world below, yet forgetting this lesson when confronted with the realities of their own present and past history.

The trilogy is one of the bravest attempts to create a planetary ecology from scratch and has been compared to Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). In some respects it also addresses the concerns of Ballard and his Darwinian motif of acceptance of inevitable change writ large in The Drowned World. Aldiss states that no matter what we accomplish, no matter what damage we do, the world will go on. If the majority of mankind disappears, the Earth will eventually heal itself, but can we imagine a world without humanity? Can humanity make the great sacrifices necessary to ensure its continuation? Or can we, like the Helliconians, accept our fate as part of the natural order of things? Aldiss’ Helliconia is admirably different from the ecological/religious idealism of Herbert’s desert world and his themes reflect those he identified above – the cycle of birth and death, fertility and entropy that bring us all to the same common conclusion – we are not greater than nature.

Aldiss’ career spans several decades of radical social and environmental change. The apocalyptic vision of ecological disaster is one that has had great influence on one of the most prolific science fiction writers spanning the 20th-21st centuries. Although he is not the only British writer to examine these themes, his works have played a major role in the dissemination of ecological ideals warning of social and environmental catastrophe. His contributions have earned him a deserved place in the pantheon of science fiction Jeremiah’s and made British science fiction since 1945 one of the common voices of ecological implication in the face of modern social and scientific trends. Just like the biblical Jeremiah surviving the destruction of his world order, Aldiss’ books all have a silver lining; they engage the triumph of humanity that make us realize that it is up to us to make the apocalypse bearable – and cosy.