Greening the Ivory Tower

In the spring, my graduate program brought in a well-known short story writer and novelist (as well as a writing professor) for a reading. While he doesn’t claim environmental writing is a genre—it’s all just story—his fiction is widely regarded as environmental. His reading focused on natural gas drilling in the 80s, and I walked out feeling hopeless about the destruction caused by men trying to get rich. What was a female, tattooed, fantasy-writing graduate student to do?

One of my biggest complaints when I’m browsing the literary section of a bookstore or attempting to pick up the latest literary rave is the melancholy. So rarely do I finish a piece of literary fiction, whether a short story or novel, and feel uplifted.

When it comes to environmental literary fiction, this hopelessness is often magnified. For example, Ann Pancake’s novel Strange as This Weather Has Been virtually has no ending as the progressing coal mining and mountain top removal continue to ruin a poor community 360 pages later. Possibly this circular hopelessness in fiction speaks to the fact that answers are still off in the distance. Today’s environmental issues are getting better in such tiny degrees it sometimes does seem hopeless and like an environmental apocalypse is right around the corner.

The literary and academic bubbles have had their turn, and while their art continues to acknowledge the problem, they are not imagining solutions. Enter SF. During the golden age of SF, that’s what some of the great writers did best—imagining what a technologically advanced world might look like. A few years later, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower describes a world of environmental and economic collapse that seemed to come straight out of modern Detroit or any poor, marginalized community. SF writers have imagined the future and the future’s problems, but now that same imaginative engine is turning toward imagining solutions. While the SF bookshelves are still flooded with dystopia and post-apocalypse, there’s a positive movement spinning from the steampunk and cyberpunk realms—solarpunk.

By: Ken Bosma

In their submission guidelines, Solarpunk Press, a paying genre market, explains they are looking for stories that “deal seriously with environmental crises, systematic oppression, global imperialism and other issues in dire need of solutions. […] Vitally, we want stories that are optimistic about these problems. They don’t have to be all solved as of the story’s present-day; they probably shouldn’t be; but we don’t want to publish stories that portray hope and effort as absurd or pointless endeavors.”

In a recent interview, editor Faith Gregory reminded writers and readers alike about the power of literature in activism: “Literature is so important to activism, so having the genre reflect the movement, and the movement reflect the genre, are going to strengthen both.” One of the wonderful things about the SF genre is the (growing) inclusiveness. Speculative fiction stretches to the masses internationally and offers a chance to see environmental issues through the eyes of indigenous populations and those communities already becoming climate refugees. If, together, we can imagine solutions in stories, who knows what speculative fiction might be responsible for fixing?

While the above goals might sound a tad idealistic, I always remind myself of cell phones. In an old, science fiction TV show called Star Trek, the characters communicated with each other through handheld devices. The inventor of the first cell phone was inspired by those devices to create one of his own. When speaking about solarpunk, poet Jennifer L. Knox said, “One [student] explained solarpunk to me this way: ‘You know how cool Star Trek was, how they would always find workarounds? We think that’s still possible,’ and I was like ‘Oh, thank God!’”

There’s room in speculative fiction for the warning and the uplift, for modern problems and futuristic solutions. No other genre has such a possibility to help humanity work through these timely environmental issues that will, someday, lead to disaster. But there’s still time to respond with our stories and solutions.