Science Fiction Needs a New Subgenre
The next movement of science fiction will look at our status as a pale blue dot.
Throughout science fiction’s history, stories fall into a range of movements, aligning themselves stylistically and thematically as they each react to one another. The Golden Age of Science Fiction, heralded by editor John W. Campbell Jr. sought to inject a level of scientific rigor into pulp fiction. The New Wave was expressly a movement against Golden Age conventions, turning its back on the space travel it heralded. Cyberpunk was a brash moment that melded a new outlook on the genre alongside the computer revolution.
There’s always the eye towards what will happen next: What movement is the heir to the genre’s historical movements, and how will it change genre fiction and influence writers decades into the future?
Climate Change in Sci-Fi
Science fiction concerned with the effects of anthropomorphic climate change on the planet, and certainly, authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood have been writing excellent and dire stories about where we’re headed. Climate change is one of the most pressing issues that we will face in our future, and such an impending challenge is ripe for science fictional interpretations.
While this is a topical (tropical?) subject, it’s an overly narrow one that misses a larger contextual framework that should inform and influence genre fiction. Climate change is one small part of this mindset: humanity’s fragile position in the larger universe. Earth is an isolated oasis in the depths of space, and it is the only place where we can life.
Science fiction has broadly assumed throughout its history that humanity will propagate far into space, settling in new solar systems, discovering new alien species to interact with, and to boldly go into the unknown. The "wagon train to the stars" mindset fits well with humanity’s (read: America's) can-do attitude and ability to forge a future to the stars.
But space isn’t the American West. Instead, it’s like the Arctic. It’s cold, difficult and expensive to reach, and prolonged exposure will certainly kill anyone not properly equipped. Those who live there endure a difficult environment: and that’s just our planet.
Earth is the only place humanity can live and thrive, and there is a growing body of literature that explicitly deals with the fragility of our place in the universe. In recent years, several notable space-based science fiction novels have depicted a more realistic environment.
Space in Sci-Fi
A notable case in point is Andy Weir’s The Martian, depicting a Martian astronaut stranded on Mars when his team evacuates the planet. Mark Watney discovers the hard way that establishing and sustaining life is a difficult proposition, and his life literally hangs on the skills and tools with which he has brought with him.
"The farm is dead. With a complete loss of pressure, most of the water boiled off. Also, the temperature is well below freezing. Not even the bacteria in the soil can survive a catastrophe like that. Some of the crops were in pop-tents off the Hab, but they’re dead too. I had them connected directly to the Hab via hoses to maintain air supply and temperature. When the Hab blew, the pop tents depressurized as well. Even if they hadn’t, the freezing cold would have killed the crops. Potatoes are now extinct on Mars."
Weir’s depiction of Mars is largely accurate: It is uninhabitable, without major efforts on the part of scientists and colonists. Colonists require extensive facilities and infrastructure to sustain their lives: Materials from Earth—a long and hazardous journey in and of itself—would be required. Moreover, transforming Mars into a place where humans could actually survive could take upwards of 100,000 years: half as long as human civilization has existed. It’s an impossibly long time for humanity to even begin thinking about sustaining a single, massive project.
When it comes to incredibly long projects, a good example is Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora, which follows a generation ship novel as it heads out to Tau Ceti. Once it arrives after hundreds of years in transit, its passengers discover that while their destination is somewhat habitable, it’s not an optimal environment for humans. While the colonists can breath the air, the planet is home to a deadly life form:
"A beautiful world, for sure. Too bad about the bugs. But I guess we should have known. That stuff about the oxygen in the atmosphere being abiologic—I guess you’ll have to rethink that one. I suppose it could still be true. But if these things Jochi found exhale oxygen, then probably not."
Robinson followed up his book with several essays about the challenges that face potential colonists: The sheer size of interstellar distances are staggering, and a major barrier for colonization of another world, in our solar system or out.
"That array of living beings has to function in a dynamic balance for us to be healthy, and the entire complex system co-evolved on this planet’s surface in a particular set of physical influences, including Earth’s gravity, magnetic field, chemical make-up, atmosphere, insolation, and bacterial load. Traveling to the stars means leaving all these influences, and trying to replace them artificially."
If travel outside of the solar system is improbable, other bodies within our solar system are relatively easy to reach. In The Expanse series, author James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), examine a solar system that has been populated. In Leviathan Wakes and its follow up novels (Calibran’s War, Abbadon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, and Nemesis Games), they demonstrate just how difficult living in the solar system can be. There are biological challenges: Humans living in the asteroid belt or various moons grow tall, brittle, relying on small reservoirs of air and water to survive. The challenges become greater as these fragmented pockets of humanity develop warring political factions. Those with the hardest existences find themselves marginalized by those with greater resources.
The Expanse series is an illustration that it’s not biology alone that challenges life away from Earth: Society as a whole, in its present form, is not equipped to sustain human life away from our home.
Self-Destructing Humanity in Sci-Fi
Stories that take place far out in space aren’t the only ones that examine the delicate nature of human life. Linda Nagata’s Red trilogy (First Light, The Trials, and Going Dark) follows a special forces soldier as he receives instructions from a powerful artificial intelligence, one that organizes a team called ETM: Existential Threat Management. The purpose of this squad isn’t to protect humanity from the likes of aliens or rogue asteroids, but from itself. After the detonation of a nuclear warhead in the United States, it sends James Kelly and team members after other rogue warheads across the world, and above it.
The purpose of this unit is to safeguard humanity from things that can really harm its existence: The Cold War waged between the Soviet Union and the United States, put our existence in stark relief; first-strike doctrine was essentially a gun pointed at one’s own head; a pulled trigger meant that the entire planet would have been rendered inhabitable. ETM’s job in Nagata’s trilogy attempts to further mitigate this threat, first by removing the immediate problems from the board, and presumably by working to shift human behavior in more positive directions.
This mindset obviously isn’t limited to space operas designed to reveal the fragility of life as we know it, but they do add an additional perspective that climate change fiction really doesn’t hit.
Rather, climate-related fiction plays a role in this wider approach. A slate of recently-published books such as Claire Vaye Watkins's Gold Fame Citrus, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and The Water Knife and Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy each touches on not how the Earth’s climate has been altered by humanity, but by the repercussions of human activities. Station Eleven depicts the destruction of the human race through the work of a flu virus, aided by global infrastructure while The Water Knife examines how climate change will push society to desperate, angry actions as resources dwindle.
Recommended Reading:The Red trilogy by Linda NagataGold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye WatkinsStation Eleven by Emily St. John MandelThe Windup Girl by Paolo BacigalupiThe Water Knife by Paolo BacigalupiArea X trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer
Determining where books fall can be an academic exercise: Defining where a book should lie, or what the precise definitions should be for entry into a literary genre or canon is usually futile. There are no hard characteristics within speculative fiction’s "Golden Age" or "New Age" movements, and academic arguments about what should and shouldn’t be included will persist for as long as the genre is a thing.
But, loose definitions of such literary movements are useful: In a broad sense, they can help to guide works by either working with or against a shared cluster of tropes. With rising and vocal proponents pushing for a shared movement of works that explicitly deal with climate change, we should be wary about strict definitions for any movement. Criteria, particularly when it comes to literary movements, can act as walls, and thus restrict the raw exploration and storytelling that movements require to thrive. Focusing only on climate change serves only to tell a select grouping of stories, while missing out on the much greater context that it aims to warn against.
We can tell the stories of how we change the world by our own hands, but in doing so, we fail to recognize something bigger: We’re destroying the one and only place we call home in the cosmos.