Science Fiction Studies

#136 = Volume 45, Part 3 = November 2018

Brent Ryan Bellamy

Science Fiction and the Climate Crisis

The climate crisis forces a cognitive transformation. In a form of retroactive continuity, we can now look backward and see the seeds of the current conjuncture and the trajectories that have led to the current climate volatility. These trends may not have been visible before, but they are unmistakable now (despite the fact that some still quibble over their anthropogenic origins). This realization is matched by a turn to our future fortunes. Science fiction, ever a tool of imagining the (im)possible, has long offered us the chance to imagine retroactive futurities: if we begin to behave differently now, how might this change affect the future of the Earth-system?

The gravity of the climate crisis has been steadily pulling genre fiction into its orbit. Global warming unfolds at a spatial scale and temporal rhythm that exceed the capacities of even the most robust literary imagination. Wai-Chee Dimock, who turns to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE) as the first work to grapple with catastrophic climate change, concludes of climate fiction that “this is an ancient genre about beginnings and endings, with lineages longer, more diverse, and more tenacious than we might think.” This approach to climate-focused fiction seems right to me. For such longue-durée thinking, we need to look to myth, epic, and other ancient and residual genres. But we cannot look to them alone.

Mid-twentieth-century British sf authors such as John Wyndham and J.G. Ballard imagined the “thoroughgoing deterioration of earth and of nature,” to use the least-cited part of Fredric Jameson’s oft-cited invocation about how impossible it is to imagine the end of capital. Wyndham’s Triffids, Kraken, and xeno-horrors combine to bring about a realization in his protagonists: the pace of countryside living is much more appealing than the energized social rituals of the city. Ballard’s considerations of the end of the world as we know it are much more psychologically damaging, hinting that the semblance of order in the real world will break down oh-so-deliciously given the right calamitous happenstance. Though such works can be interpreted in terms of the Earth-system and the climate, they speak more provocatively to the mid-century declensions of British power and the traumatic aftershocks of the Second World War. Such ready-to-hand genre fictions may have something to tell attentive critics about climate crisis, even though their floods, droughts, and monsters are only superficially deployed. Just because a story features climate, however, does not mean it is about the climate.

The precipice of the ecological future is daunting. Understanding the ways in which human beings have historically related to and survived intensely transformative climate events must be balanced against an acute sense of the utter uniqueness of the current crisis as it is unfolding today. The singular crisis-point of the Earth’s climate today is exemplified by the data visualizations that have been colloquially labelled the “hockey-stick” graphs. Such graphs depict a nearly uniform mid-twentieth-century spike in Earth-system trends, including but not limited to spikes in carbon dioxide, surface temperature, domesticated land, tropical forest loss, and ocean acidification, and in socioeconomic trends, including but not limited to spikes in world population, primary energy use, water use, paper production, and fertilizer consumption (see Angus 44-45). The political challenge of overcoming the relentless drive of an ecologically and socially devastating fossil-fueled capitalism is just as much an imaginative project as it is a practical one.

Science fictions that engage climate crisis offer more than catastrophism. Crisis is only ever one possible outcome of the present. N.K. Jemisin’s multiple-award-winning Broken Earth trilogy (2015-2017) uses the end-of-the-world frame to tell an exciting story rich with social commentary. Jemisin pushes the threat of total environmental destruction to its limits. For instance, the first novel in the trilogy, The Fifth Season (2015), introduces the Stillness, a land where world-shattering tectonic plate movement threatens established cities and a subjugated people wield immense power over the geologic movements of the planet. When properly trained, these “orgenes” have the capacity to quiet (or cause) quakes. People treat them with suspicion, especially at the onset of what is known as a fifth season: a period of unpredictable climate events and tectonic upheavals. The Fifth Season begins: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things” (1). Jemisin’s opening addresses the tiredness of world-ending as a fictional premise. Her acknowledgment emphasizes the ubiquity of the post-apocalypse as a fictional space in which to consider the future of the Earth’s climate. The Fifth Season resonates with our own struggles to restore balance to our planet’s climate.

Catastrophe alone does not capture the moment in which we collectively find ourselves today. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) includes butdoes not obsess about ecological disaster. The novel has a decidedly utopian trajectory, and when it opens its storyworld features some already-enacted utopian practices. The office towers of lower Manhattan have become residential cooperatives. They are largely self-sustaining, having whole floors converted to farming as well as being rigged up to generate more electrical energy than they draw from the grid. In some cases, they are also carbon neutral or carbon negative, meaning they either do not add CO2 to the atmosphere or they scrub it from the air. Here Robinson’s hypothesis is that, in the wake of catastrophic climate change and sea-level rise, human beings will have found a way to live together and share the work in a highly localized, self-sustaining way.

Perverse as it may sound given the subject matter, this issue of SFS on the climate crisis has been an absolute pleasure to put together, and we learned a lot about the ways in which science fiction, its subgenres, and its adjacent modes are thinking through climate crisis. While there is clearly so much more to say than can be contained in these relatively few pages, the essays in this issue theorize the relationship between sf and the climate crisis, offer longer histories of that relationship, focus on a global selection of texts, and push the interpretive horizons away from fiction that focuses on the climate towards sf with a climatic imaginary. Among other topics, the discussions here include the weird, scientific discourse, Afrofuturisms, Indigenous and Aboriginal Futurisms, New Space Opera, and terraforming. As our contributors make evident, the longue durée of climate change means that it has long been on the minds of sf authors from around the world, just as terraforming and the climate colonization of other planets have been concerns of Chinese and Russian sf since at least the mid-twentieth century.

My co-editor Veronica Hollinger and I would like to extend our thanks to Rania Ghosn for allowing us to include the visual work of Design Earth in this special issue. Thanks also to each of our fantastic contributors, to the many outside readers who helped us with their good advice, and to the SFS team for their unflagging support, interest, and guidance. We hope you enjoy this collection of provocations and thoughts and that you find ways to put it to good use in your own work, passions, and struggles.

Angus, Ian. Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capital and the Crisis of the Earth System. New York: Monthly Review, 2016.
Dimock, Wai Chee. “5000 Years of Climate Fiction.” 28 Jun. 2017. Online.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.
Jemisin, N.K. The Fifth Season. New York: Orbit, 2015. 

Steve Asselin

A Climate of Competition: Climate Change as Political Economy in Speculative Fiction, 1889-1915

Abstract. This paper demonstrates how the first major locus of climate-change fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries already integrates climate into an economic rhetoric that views climate policy as a zero-sum competition between rival nations. In speculative fiction of the period, climate change occurs principally as a result of large-scale human geoengineering projects aimed at transforming the world. Examples of this deliberate anthropogenic climate change include texts by Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and George Griffith. Sf writers found ways to monetize as-yet-unincorporated aspects of nature such as climate as resources for the market economy; access to resources, in turn, became part of the economic and political balance of power between state entities. Plots to disrupt, control, and monopolize climate were conceptualized as grandiose capitalist schemes capable of unleashing significant collateral damage; yet many of these novels present geoengineering as laudable entrepreneurship operating out of legitimate economic self-interest. At the extreme, several stories outright weaponize the weather and convert climate change into military might, featuring the same kind of technological brinksmanship that defines an arms race. The economics of early climate-change fiction foreshadows, and potentially conditions us, to view climate as a resource worth fighting for.

Anindita Banerjee

Atoms, Aliens, and Compound Crises: Central Asia’s Nuclear Fantastic

Abstract. Carbon-fueled acceleration of global capitalism provides the main framework through which the interdisciplinary formation of the energy humanities approaches climate crisis. This essay attends to a no less consequential source of power, the atom, from an intersection of spaces, materialities, and enunciative positions that has received little scholarly attention. It focuses on the Russophone Kirghiz author Chingiz Aitmatov’s experimental hybrid of socialist realism, science fiction, and indigenous cosmology to explore a kind of atomic writing that emerged from the secret weapons development and testing sites zoned off on the “naked steppe” at the eastern margins of the Russian and Soviet empires. Challenging the logic of development, progress, sacrifice, and disposability in both capitalist and socialist modernity, the situated aesthetics of Central Asia’s nuclear fantastic generates a planetary consciousness of compound environmental catastrophe—even as it salvages the possibilities of a cosmopolitics for the Anthro-pocene.

Michael Gaffney

The Ice Age and Us: Imagining Geohistory in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman

Abstract. This essay examines how Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman (2014) depicts the deep history of both humans and the Earth. Centered around humans living 32,000 years ago during the last ice age, it contributes to the genre of prehistoric fiction as well as, less obviously, climate fiction. As prehistoric fiction, it foregrounds the continuity of human identity across history, particularly our impulses toward art-making and science, and thereby challenges our sense of separation from the deep past. At the same time, Robinson’s novel may also be understood as climate fiction. Typically, climate fiction is associated with contemporary global warming, but this article approaches the genre in terms of its tendency to envision environments historically, a capacity referred to here as the “geohistorical imagination.” While Shaman shares this imagination with other climate fictions, it differs remarkably from most ice-age narratives because it describes the slow pace of glaciation and the persistence of daily life, rather than the apocalypse. Drawing out the consequences of this figuration of geohistory, this essay argues in conclusion that Shaman enables us to think historically about global warming and the Anthropocene.

Rebecca Evans

Nomenclature, Narrative, and Novum: “The Anthropocene” and/as Science Fiction

Abstract. Building on recent critical conversations about “science fictionality” as a quality that is present in, but not necessarily tethered to, the literary genre of science fiction, this essay articulates scientific and critical debates about the Anthropocene in terms of cognitive estrangement. It argues that the term “Anthropocene” acts simultaneously as nomenclature, as narrative, and as novum. Different definitions of and variations on “the Anthropocene” invoke varying narratives with specific origins, settings, characters, and resolutions. Meanwhile, each of these narratives has a distinct novum that produces different kinds of cognitively estranging relationships to hegemonic histories of Western modernity. The science fictionality of “the Anthropocene” as a concept reveals not only the strategic activation of cognitive estrangement beyond the bounds of science fiction, but also what is at stake in the way that science fiction focusing on climate change articulates a novum in relation to history, as well as futurity.

Chris Pak

Terraforming and Geoengineering in Luna: New Moon, 2312, and Aurora

Abstract. As a literature of the Anthropocene, contemporary narratives of terraforming and geoengineering draw on a rich tradition of stories that scrutinize the ecological, social, political, economic, and technological relationships that obtain between and within communities, institutions, and local and planetary environments. This article examines three contemporary terraforming and geoengineering narratives to investigate how such works theorize the Anthropocene. Drawing on Reza Negarestani’s “necrocracy” to understand how speculation about terraforming and geoengineering is both coherent with and antecedent to emerging theoretical concepts about climate change, this article examines representations of humankind’s expanding incorporation of the solar system in Ian McDonald’s Luna: New Moon (2016) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012), and its critique in Robinson’s Aurora (2015). This article seeks to understand how orientations toward the transformation of planetary environments are configured, how responses to such plans are represented, and how such texts imagine the conjunction of geological processes and human agency. Ultimately, it argues that terraforming narratives can help scholars of science fiction and the environmental humanities think through concepts such as the Anthropocene and the dissipative economies of closed life-support systems.

Brent Ryan Bellamy and Sean O’Brien

Solar Accumulation: The Worlds-Systems Theory of The Expanse

Abstract. The Syfy television series The Expanse (2015-) transposes a form of combined and uneven development from Earth to the solar system, making the human reality of life lived in space a central concern. The Expanse envisions a colonized solar system, replete with a United-Nations-controlled Terra and Luna, a military dictatorship on Mars, and a densely populated asteroid belt. This essay proposes that The Expanse offers an image of a worlds-system, by which we mean an interplanetary system of capital accumulation that reproduces the structure of twentieth-century geopolitical-economy at the level of the solar system. At one and the same time, The Expanse imagines a new cycle of accumulation founded in the planetary system and premised on ecological crisis on Earth and it provides a re-narration of the end of the cycle of accumulation that has been called the long twentieth century or the American century, which exasperated the climate crisis in the first instance. The Expanse is a pivotal narrative that promises a new interplanetary cycle of accumulation and its decline all at once, a fantasy of continuity that simultaneously dramatizes the contemporary crisis of futurity.

Allison Mackey

Guilty Speculations: The Affective Climate of Global Anthropocene Fictions

Abstract. This paper draws on recent global speculative film and fiction that highlight guilt and remorse to think about what good might come out of feeling bad, focusing especially on how these texts use negative affective responses to encourage positive communal action. Afrodiasporic, African, and Indigenous and Aboriginal futurisms participate in widespread cultural debates about humanity’s responsibility to the environment: Cree-Canadian filmmaker Danis Goulet’s short fantasy film Wakening (2013), Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s petrofiction Lagoon (2014), Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s short sf film Pumzi (2009), and Aboriginal Australian Alexis Wright’s climate-fiction The Swan Book (2013) explore alternative futures in which humans reestablish a sense of relation with their non-human counterparts. Negative emotions register not only as affective modes that signal constitutive relationality and an a priori responsibility to others, to the land, to other human beings and other species, but also invite reparative responses. Located in the interstices of environmental and postcolonial science fictions, these narratives can, at the very least, serve as antidotes both to complacency in light of the uneven planetary distribution of resources and to despair in the face of environmental devastation.

Hua Li

“Are We, People from the Earth, so Terrible?”: An Atmospheric Crisis in Zheng Wenguang’s Descendant of Mars

Abstract. Since the 1950s, many Chinese sf narratives have explored facets of climate change and terraforming. This essay focuses on the atmospheric transformation project depicted in Chinese sf writer Zheng Wenguang’s Descendant of Mars (1983). I read the novel from two perspectives. The first situates it within the Chinese literary scene of the early 1980s, and I argue that Descendant reveals Zheng’s heartfelt skepticism about human interference with nature and climate, in the context specifically of Mao’s radical wars against nature in the 1950s and 1960s. Second, I situate Zheng’s Mars narrative within the topography of world sf. The novel features instances of geoengineering as a form of climate change mitigation and the characters’ different positions and debates about space colonization and terraforming resonate with ongoing debates about climate change and environmental ethics in today’s world.

Guy Witzel

Abcanny Waters: Victor LaValle, John Langan, and the Weird Horror of Climate Change

Abstract. Matters of politics and human history tend to be rendered meaningless when the climate crisis is described as a release of inhuman forces and/or something so complex as to be sublime. Why seek political power when the scale of climate change appears to dwarf human agency? Why adopt an historical perspective when the implications of global warming seem to stretch into deep time? Against these trends, this essay examines recent developments in weird fiction that move beyond some of the impasses afflicting the environmental humanities. More specifically, this essay turns to the ecological imaginations of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and John Langan’s The Fisherman. Each title ends menacingly with the promise of rising seas, but not before they illustrate crucial links between climate change and our racist and patriarchal status quo. Stressing, after China Miéville, the abcanny quality of this status quo, these fictions chart a new path forward for the genre in the aftermath of the New Weird. Indeed, climate-oriented weird fiction renders visible the unequal experience of climate change, connects the crisis to ongoing histories of trauma and exploitation, and critically addresses common reactions, from the paralysis that arises when encountering the sublime to the misperception that this abcanny force is just comeuppance for past crimes.

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