What can conservation learn from science fiction?

New works by Western authors explore the brighter futures of our swiftly tilting planet.

 

Ecologists used to believe that the systems they studied tended toward balance. Over the course of the 20th century, though, they realized that disturbance is not a detour but a destination. Humans can do terrible harm to ecosystems, of course, but disturbance itself is not necessarily a problem; in most ecosystems, the only steady state is a state of upheaval. Relationships between and among species, while indispensable and often enduring, are in constant flux, subject to small and large disruptions. The vaunted “balance of nature” is more or less a mirage.

Science fiction writers and filmmakers seem to have reached a similar understanding. The dystopias and occasional utopias of classic science fiction are akin to what ecologists used to call climax communities — mature forests and other ecosystems believed to be stable until upended by an external force, with the external force in science fiction being your trusty lone hero. Perhaps because these either-or futures exist beyond the “final frontiers” of known space and time, they are often set in imagined Wests: Science fiction and its variants have sent the frontier myth to space (Star Trek, among many others), turned the Pacific Northwest into an insular splinter state (Ecotopia), and sentenced Los Angeles to any number of high-decibel
catastrophes. 

Later in the 20th century, some writers — including many living and working in the West — began to build more complex, less certain, and consequently more plausible futures. “Must redefine utopia,” frets recluse Tom Barnard in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Orange County trilogy, published in the 1980s and ’90s. “It isn’t the perfect end-product of our wishes, (but) ... the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end.” The fiercely imaginative Octavia Butler, who, like Robinson, grew up in Los Angeles, set her prescient Parables series, published in the 1990s, in a California where violence is always present but never predictable. Lauren Oya Olamina, the flawed spiritual leader at the center of the series, preaches that “The only lasting truth / Is Change” — a creed that could have been written by an ecologist. 

In Butler’s wake, writers such as Claire Vaye Watkins and Joy Williams have set novels in future Western landscapes, within societies that are fundamentally broken yet continue to evolve. And today, a new generation of Western science fiction writers is exploring possible paths to better worlds. Portland author Rachel Swirsky, in her near-future novel January Fifteenth, has imagined the individual and societal consequences of a universal basic-income payment. The novella Tread of Angels, by New Mexico author Rebecca Roanhorse, uses its fantastical setting in an alternative-history 19th century mining town to upset the predictable battle between good and evil, asking whether anyone truly belongs on one side or another.

Writer Becky Chambers, who grew up in Southern California and now lives in Humboldt County, is known for her outer-space adventure novels, but her latest series, Monk and Robot, is set in a society whose members have survived an excruciating transition from what they describe as the “Factory Age.” They aspire to live less destructively than their forebears, and in many ways they do: Their transportation methods are human-powered, their plastics are biodegradable, and their rivers and forests are recovering from past harms. Like some fortunate Californians, they live in diverse communities; their gender identities are accepted without question, and their vegetables are abundant and fresh. They also drink a lot of tea, sometimes for therapeutic purposes, and they speak fluently about their feelings. Yet this gentle society is no traditional utopia; its members are actively experimenting with different ways of living and working together, and they are dealing with the ongoing consequences of their past. In A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, the second novella in the series, the robot Mosscap revisits human society after a long estrangement between humans and robots — making connections that, while largely joyful, reawaken a painful history.

“Hopepunk is grubby, because that’s what happens when you fight.”

In science fiction’s ever-expanding universe of subgenres, Chambers is considered a practitioner of “hopepunk,” a label she embraces. “You’re looking at the world exactly as it is, with all of its grimness and all of its tragedy, and you say, ‘No, I believe this can be better,’” she said in an interview last year. “That to me is punk as hell.” Like Robinson’s Tom Barnard, Chambers and writers like her are suspicious of utopias, instead placing their faith in the ongoing possibility of change. “Hopepunk isn’t pristine and spotless,” writes fantasy author Alexandra Rowland, who coined the term. “Hopepunk is grubby, because that’s what happens when you fight.”

These stories about instability and possibility are not prescriptions. They’re experiments that test out new technologies and social innovations by imagining the variety of human reactions to them — reactions that are surprising, entertaining and ultimately familiar, no matter how unearthly the setting or extraordinary the circumstances. If ecology has taught science fiction about the constancy of change, perhaps science fiction can remind conservation that lasting societal change can only be brought about by people. While technology may solve some problems, it can’t transform human behavior, and it certainly can’t fix the relationships between humans and habitats, or between humans and other species. In any future, that work — that dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process — is up to us.  

We welcome reader letters. Michelle Nijhuis is an acting co-editor at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.