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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Earlier today I gave my talk at the Southwest/Texas PCA/ACA conference, "Red Mars, Green Earth: Science Fiction and Ecological Futurity." Like the last paper I gave, these are ideas I'll be returning to in some form or another soon, but I can give you a short rundown of the argument now. (I think that these ideas may be somewhat unsurprising to anyone who has talked to me about this sort of thing before.)

1) Science fiction should be understood as an ecological literature. I recognize people might not recognize this claim immediately, as most people are familiar with SF through cultural productions like Star Wars. So I star with Star Wars, particularly a short clip of the Coruscant chase sequence from Attack of the Clones. I talk about the weightless, groundless quality of Lucas's idea of the city that has grown so large that it encompasses the entire planetary mass, and compare that to Asimov's Trantor.

Daily, fleets of ships in the tens of thousands brought the produce of twenty agricultural worlds to the dinner tables of Trantor. . . .

Its dependence upon the outer worlds for food and, indeed, for all necessities of life, made Trantor increasingly vulnerable to conquest by siege. In the last millennium of the Empire, the monotonously numerous revolts made Emperor after Emperor conscious of this, and Imperial policy became little more than the protection of Trantor’s delicate jugular vein. . . .
Trantor, unlike the green-screened Coruscant, is a material place, populated by living bodies with living needs. Trantor has an ecology; Coruscant does not. I go on about this for a little while.

2) I use the distinction between Coruscant and Trantor to draw a line between science fiction (SF) and science fantasy, using Darko Suvin's definition.
SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.
I try to establish that the boundary condition for SF is going to require precisely this sort of ecological thinking—to be SF rather than a (mere) fantasy you need to establish a plausible environmental network through which alternative modes of existence can be conceived. SF without ecology lapses into fairy tale and thereby (in Suvin’s words) “commits creative suicide.” (So watch out for that, George Lucas.)

3) I then try to argue that the how the current environmental crisis demands not just this sort of methodological ecology but a politically environmentalist consciousness, and trace the politics of this back to Frankenstein with a lot of attention paid to the early H.G. Wells.

4) To wrap up I do a little bit of taxonomy, comparing the apocalypse (Wall-E) to the dystopia of continuation (The Sheep Look Up) to the utopia (Kim Stanley Robinson). This last bit, not surprisingly, is where I get the title from...