March 28, 2019
It’s a Brave New World: Eco fiction in the 21st century
Most people, when tending to their lawns, choose very carefully when tending to the issue of weeds and other pesky garden nuisances. Dandelions are immediately dealt with, dollar weeds eradicated, and the various mushrooms and tree funguses are doused with the appropriate poison so as to leave a clean, well-manicured lawn. But what of what lies beneath the surface? What are we doing to the trees and grasses and bushes by removing the very foundation of their existence, the ever pervasive yet critically important mycelial dominion that acts like a neural network for the plants that we cultivate so carefully? Could it result in the complete disintegration of plant life as we know it? And could we, as a result of this ignorance, be responsible for the death of that which cleans our air and provides oxygen for us to breathe? Such is an example of a scenario brought forth in what is known as Eco fiction, a branch of fiction that delves into the myriad of possibilities resulting from humanity’s pervasive, and often catastrophic influence on the environment around us. Described ”as an art that alludes to an all-important yet obscure reality to which we must learn to attend” (Tabas, 2015), eco fiction utilizes intense imagery that subverts our need for stability, exploring scenarios that deal with environmental criticism to bring forth a deeper regard for the world around us by tapping into humanity’s collective and deep-seeded fears regarding extreme change.
The main way in which these images are achieved is through the cross-cultural symbol of the garden where life began. Many stories utilize this imagery to create a sense of nostalgia within the reader, an image of a place that existed long ago, and likewise a place where we can hope to one day return. Playing off this nostalgia, authors such as H.G. Wells reel their audience in by diametrically opposing such Eden-like gardens to those of our own current landscapes, creating a type of longing for such a utopian balance in our own world. Of this new earth in the year 802,701 AD, Wells paints a beautiful picture: “Here and there rose a white or silvery figure in the waste garden of the earth… there were no hedges, no signs of proprietary rights, no evidences of agriculture; the whole earth had become a garden” (28). This garden seemed to be the pinnacle of existence for the new inhabitants of the earth, a utopian society of fruitarians, living in harmony with nature as our creation stories often describe. However beautiful the paradise, however, there is always a catch, and it came in the form of the Morlocks. These creatures, evolved from what once were the working-class people of the earth, preyed upon the Eloi, descendants of the upper-class humans, who inhabited the garden. Wells draws this parallel, between the perceived paradise and the harsh reality quite literally beneath it to make a very direct point: that there is always a price to pay for the ideal. The price in this instance was the life of the Eloi, who served as meat for the Morlocks, who bred them like lambs for the slaughter, serving as a reminder that we are but one cog in the machine of the earth. Unsettling as it is, the fact that people could change so drastically even in the midst of such beauty is a possibility that Wells makes quite real, showing that it would not take much for humanity to lose itself if we are not careful.
Unsettling images of trees and gardens show up in other works of literature as well. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the very hope for a garden is carried within the pockets of the main character, Lauren, whose purpose and mission within this ravaged ecosystem is to find refuge so that mankind might once again rebuild. Her journey through a scorched earth is laden with hopes for a nature that once was, evident through the numerous packets of seeds she carries with her throughout her journey. These seeds represent hope, contrasting the bleak and lifeless California desert to the lush landscapes of her dreams, represented by her new religion, Earthseed. In this story, however, the ecological viewpoint is that of the parched earth, crying out for water that never comes. Lauren seeks for a place of refuge, a place to begin her garden so that life might one day return to the planet. This message is also ecological in nature, for though there is no direct reason for this dystopian scenario to exist, Butler implies that it is because of our meddling into weather modification that the earth no longer functions properly. Once again, it is the lack of good stewardship that results in the destruction of the environment, causing all of humanity to suffer as a consequence.
Gardens and trees are not the only ways in which Eco fiction reaches into our subconscious fears. Daphne du Maurier’s short story, “The Birds”, is a prime example of just how unsettling a shift in the natural order can be. The story centers around a family in what is presumably England, whose father notices a change in the way that the birds of the area begin acting. As though influenced to insanity by the electromagnetic pull of the moon, “there was some law the birds obeyed, and it had to do with the east wind and the tide…the birds attacked with the flood tide” (74). The story goes on to describe, in great detail, the ultimate horror experienced by this family as they try to make sense of- and survive- a complete deviation from the way that birds normally behave. Not much more can be as unsettling as the idea that something as innocuous as birds, something part of the everyday landscape, part of the rhythm of the earth, could behave so erratically as to go crazy at high tide and murder every human they can get to.
These deviances from the norm—these unsettling accounts of how nature can reverse in its predictable pattern to create a sense of instability, horror, and dread—are at the center of these stories of eco fiction, reminding us of the fragility of our existence. Stories like The Time Machine, Parable of the Sower, and “The Birds”, through carefully playing on our fears, serve to further an agenda that is invested in bringing about awareness as to what the state of our environment is in and just how important it is to be involved in making it a place that is habitable for our future generations. Perhaps the world can be made into a better place if we would all consider the implications of our behaviors on the people around us as well as our environment. Or perhaps we will just be better people for having read these kinds of thought-provoking stories.
Butler, O. (1993). Parable of the Sower. Grand Central.
du Maurier, D. (1971). The Birds. In J. Stadler, Eco-Fiction (pp. 59-84). Pocket Books.
Tabas, B. (2015). Dark Places : Ecology, Place, and the Metaphysics of Horror Fiction. Miranda, 11(11). Retrieved from https://journals.openedition.org/miranda/7012
Wells, H. (2003). The Time Machine and The Invisible Man. Barnes and Noble.