Pak, Chris. Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction.
Chris Pak's study of terraforming considers one of science fiction's most enduring motifs from environmental, spiritual, social, political, and ethical perspectives. This book traces the development of terraforming and environmental narratives from early twentieth-century authors such as H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to today's writers, including Pamela Sargent and Kim Stanley Robinson. One of the predominant ideas this study explores is that of the otherness of space--of different planets and different environments, and the different cultures that emerge in those places. How humans deal with this otherness reflects their cultural attitudes about nature and themselves. Pak asserts that terraforming narratives ask the question of "how we want to live, and it emerges from the concern over whether we can continue living in ways that threaten the integrity of our environments" (17). Though terraforming narratives take place in the future, they almost inevitably comment on the socio-political contexts in which they were written.
Many early terraforming stories confronted this otherness with colonialist impulses, presenting Mars or the moons of Jupiter as areas that must be conquered and made useful. The first two chapters, "Landscaping Nature's Otherness in Pre-1960s Terraforming and Proto-Gaian Stories" and "The American Pastoral and the Conquest of Space," examine this aggressive aspect of early terraforming stories. However, as science fiction developed, terraforming narratives came under the influence of the environmentalist movement. Questions regarding the ethical treatment of other planets, including both possible native life and abiotic nature, began to increase. Due to concerns about human-induced climate change here on Earth, explorations of the Gaia hypothesis came to be important to terraforming stories as well, as views of the relationship between humans and their environment shifted from one of conquest to one of symbiotic existence. Chapters 3 and 4, "Ecology and Environmental Awareness in 1960s-1970s Terraforming Stories" and "Edging Towards an Eco-cosmopolitan Vision," respectively, consider issues of environmental philosophy as well as the social dynamics inherent in terraforming endeavors, such as who has access to what resources. The final chapter, "Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy," takes a closer look at the socio-political aspects that colonizing a planet would entail.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book is the tracing of the change in cultural attitudes over a hundred years of terraforming sf. The attitudes toward nature in the early twentieth century openly embraced colonization and exploitation. Texts such as H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), for example, exhibit what Pak describes as "a deep-rooted anxiety towards nature [that] underlies a complex of environmental relations and effects that appear in earlier phases of civilization's development, such as the colonial appropriation of resources, international war and the dramatic reduction of species diversity" (22-23). The otherness of nature, with its perceived antipathy towards humanity, ostensibly justifies this behavior. Yet even while many of these stories in the first half of the twentieth century recognize this type of conquest of nature, not all of them condone it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1928 short story, "When the World Screamed," acknowledges the reckless destruction caused by exploitative attitudes. In this story, the "distinguished if intolerant" professor George Edward Challenger attempts to prove the world is a living organism by piercing it with a massive drill and making it scream (42). Pak observes that this story not only anticipates the Gaia hypothesis that dominates much of post-war terraforming narratives, but it also anticipates many of the social concerns of later sf as well. Pak writes that this story exhibits "an ethically vacuous science and technology that does not in itself represent any progress in human nature, but rather represents an extension of basic human responses to nature" (44). Additionally, this callous experiment is carried out by aggressive, wealthy scientists, whom Pak describes as representative of the "fears that the British countryside would be despoiled at the whim of entrepreneurs and industrialists" (43). Questions about humanity's role within nature, about who has the right to make decisions on behalf of all humanity in regard to the environment, and about who controls resources all become intricately entwined in this story, and many of the terraforming narratives that followed returned to similar issues.
Leaving Earth and colonizing planets exacerbates many of the ethical, social, and political problems concerning the environment found on Earth. Much of the terraforming sf of the 1950s and 1960s envisioned, as Pak says, "terraforming as a mirror to American colonialism" and westward expansion (62). Novels such as Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky (1950) told stories of pioneering families on other worlds stoically carving out an agricultural living in unforgiving and isolated landscapes. Many of the plots and motifs obviously draw on the American cultural memory of settling the West--a sort of "Manifest Destiny" in space. The positive tone of Farmer in the Sky celebrates the story's hardy protagonist as he overcomes constant threats and setbacks to establish a new world. By the time Frank Herbert's Dune was published in 1965, however, terraforming sf had begun to take a more complex social view of the colonization of other planets. Pak suggests that "Herbert's Dune sequence, Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Le Guin's The Dispossessed do not depict living worlds, but rather use terraforming to explore the political landscapes developed by earlier terraforming stories, reconsidering them in the light of the wider cultural shifts of the 1960s-1970s" (116). The economic and political conflicts in Dune represent a more complex view of the cycle of influence that humans and the environment have on one another, and they explore how human society tends to establish itself, with sociopolitical inequalities, in such harsh conditions.
As terraforming sf continued to develop, the symbiotic relationship between environment and culture began to become a prominent theme: As societies adapt to new ecologies, human understanding of how we interact with the natural world changes. Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, for example, explores the psychological, myth-making impulses of human nature when moved to a different planet. Pak notes how for the characters in this novel, "Martian myths dominate the imagination of the colonists, all of which are interlinked and build upon the compost library of Earthbound myth and science in the new context of the Martian landscape" (200). Once humans terraform and settle Mars, the new planet in turn begins to influence them.
Underlying many of the issues Pak examines in this study is the influence of the Gaia hypothesis. Though, as Pak notes, the Gaia hypothesis did not begin to shape terraforming sf until the 1970s, the idea that humans are a part of an interdependent, living system pervades nearly all of the terraforming narrative tradition. By the 1980s, concerns of climate change and other environmental disasters began to merge with the Gaia hypothesis to give terraforming stories both a sense of urgency and of spirituality. Pak argues that the environmental rhetoric in James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar, for example, "draws from the language of sf literature and operates as a compilation of ecologic sf traditions that have gained wider currency in a culture that, since the 1980s, has been developing ways of relating to nature in response to the threat of global climate change" (219). Pak concludes the book by suggesting that the value of terraforming sf lies in its ability to challenge our assumptions about how we view the environment and our relationship with it.
Pak's volume is indispensable to the study of terraforming stories. Both science fiction scholars and environmental theorists will find in this book a broad history of a complex idea expressed clearly and cogently. Pak explores an impressive number of texts and traces the development of terraforming sf with a deep understanding of its complexities, its social origins, and its philosophical import. This is a timely study that will surely become seminal to future scholars of terraforming stories. With climate change and environmental degradation continuing and even accelerating, terraforming narratives will no doubt continue to play a large role in the corpus of sf.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2018|
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