If there is one harsh criticism to be made of Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction—a new collection of essays by academics on the intersection of ecology and science fiction and the spiritual successor to Mark Bould and China Miéville's Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009)—it is that its attempts to analyze science fiction that isn't literature are disastrous. Its two attempts at giving space to film beyond passing mention are instructive: Elzette Steenkamp's "Future Ecologies, Current Crisis: Ecological Concern in South African Speculative Fiction" begins with a very interesting exploration of ecological themes in South African SF, and then devolves into an uninspired apologia for Neil Blomkamp's District 9 (2009), while Timothy Morton's "Pandora's Box: Avatar, Ecology, Thought" is an attempt at a Derridean essay about Kant that pretends occasionally to be talking about James Cameron's latest blockbuster.
This criticism must be directed as much at history as it is at the authors themselves; the field of SF film criticism has no Suvins or Jamesons (at least in terms of widespread recognition) on which to build, and so it retains some of the idiosyncrasy which the study of SF literature, thanks to those foundations, has replaced with consistency. Which consistency itself presents certain problems, though these might equally be said to be true of any themed collection of academic essays: while the sources and the arguments all differ, they ultimately feel far too much the same. Like other themed collections, however, much of this can be avoided by reading Green Planets as a collection, rather than as a necessarily linear text.
These caveats aside, there is much to recommend Green Planets to those for whom it sounds like an interesting proposition. That proposition doesn't differ much, if at all, from the expectations generated by the title; Green Planets is a collection of academic essays that take as their object some mixture of ecology and science fiction. Both of these latter terms are fairly loose in common usage, and the collection reflects that to a certain degree: science fiction covers everything from H. G. Wells to Avatar to fictionalized accounts of climate change in activist tracts, while ecology covers landscapes and oceanic metaphors as well as more typological or theoretical studies of ecosystems. If this doesn't seem laser-like in its focus, it is at least a sort of tempered broadness. Both ecology and science fiction are notoriously contentious, and the sense of purpose provided by Gerry Canavan's introduction serves to screen some of the more fanciful baggage sometimes associated with them.
The best essays in Green Planets are the ones that give the impression of their own self-sufficiency, while provoking honest reflection on their limited ends. Adeline Johns-Putra's "Care, Gender, and the Climate-Changed Future: Maggie Gee's The Ice People," for instance, argues that the prevalence of "caring" in the activist discourse of ecology is bound up with gendered notions of the same, and that certain SF novels—namely, Maggie Gee's The Ice People (1998)—can be productively harnessed to engage with that binding. While Johns-Putra offers little in the way of solutions, the argument resonates beyond its subject; I, for instance, immediately thought of the recent interview with the co-screenwriter of Noah in which he insisted that one of the primary themes of the film was its emphasis on stewardship, and the criticisms of the film which identify the extraordinary extent to which it relies on the logic of patriarchy to remain coherent in the face of its remarkably inconsistent worldbuilding.
Similarly, Melody Jue's "Churning Up the Depths: Nonhuman Ecologies of Metaphor in Solaris and 'Oceanic'" focuses narrowly on deconstructing the metaphoric binary of surface/depth using Lem, Egan, and the BBC documentary series Blue Planet. While this deconstructive exercise might not be especially novel in itself, Jue makes it interesting by attending closely to Lem and Egan's texts, and drawing conclusions out of them carefully. It, too, despite the apparent hermeticism of the subject and the small scale of its consequences, is much more successful in suggesting possible new ways—ways based on an ecological framework, even—of reading science fiction. If Johns-Putra's essay creates ripples in the pond of ecological activism with the stone of science fiction, Jue's pond is the history of SF criticism, her stone the metaphor of ecology. Where the former suggested the various narratives encircling Noah, the latter brings to mind the insistence with which cyberpunk, for instance, has been called since its inception (by fans and detractors alike) a literature of surfaces. Neuromancer in particular has long had the legacy of being a book unconcerned with depths, which variously was leveled against it as a claim for its mimetic accuracy, as an account of the postmodern present, and as simple condemnation for its flashy shallows. And while Jue's essay might not reconfigure the entire landscape of that debate, it provides at least an interesting wrinkle.
If there is a single thread that runs through the whole of Green Planets, beyond its stated organizing principles, it is, in true academic fashion, the justification of those principles. From Michael Page's claim in "Evolution and Apocalypse in the Golden Age" that "[s]tudying SF (and more broadly literature) using an ecological lens can perhaps better prepare us for impending environmental change" (p. 74) to Sabine Höhler's in "The Real Problem of a Spaceship Is Its People" that "to understand the popularity of population ecology around 1970, its science fictional elements need to be taken seriously" (p. 127), Green Planets seems to both want to argue and take as given that the subtitular link is a decidedly sound one.
Höhler in particular is an interesting example of this; the SF text that she interrogates is actually an ecological tract by Garrett Hardin (of "The Tragedy of the Commons") which frames itself with an SFnal narrative in order to more convincingly argue for green Malthusianism. By using this sort of hybrid text, Höhler steps outside conventional assumptions about both science fiction as a historical field and the relations between these two discursive entities. It is slightly disappointing, then, when her arguments do not develop along these lines, and instead retread familiar ground, treating her chosen text like any other piece of writing amenable to symptomatic analysis. Which, of course, it is, and perhaps especially so given its origins; but the sense of possibility that the simple excavation of this historical confluence imparts ultimately overshadows the (interesting in itself, still) practice of reading a particular bit of science fiction with an eye toward its ecological aspects.
There are other missteps throughout Green Planets, and most of them are tied to this thread as well. Eric C. Otto, like Steenkamp on Blomkamp, seems more interested in providing a book report with occasional affirmations of the value of the object than any sort of deep engagement with the texts chosen. At one point he even assures us that "Bacigalupi has a clear ecotopian motivation for writing ecodystopias" (p. 222), as though dystopias weren't characterized by being quite opposed to their author's personal desire for the future. His whole essay seems to me to be more interested in that justification than in the exploration of the possibilities of the principled juxtaposition of ecology with science fiction. Likewise, Gib Prettyman's often very interesting and useful take on Ursula K. Le Guin's relation to Daoism and ecology in addition to her more classically leftist politics continually bogs itself down in responding to imagined detractors rather than simply letting its point stand on its own.
Were the anthology itself not quite so implicitly ambitious, these issues might not grate quite so hard. If there is any one thing to praise about Green Planets, it is that it does truly seem to want to create new possibilities at the intersection of ecology and science fiction for future thinkers. This is evidenced mostly in the structure of the collection: divided into three parts covering "Arcadias and New Jerusalems," "Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies," and "Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon" (roughly: pastoral and technological utopias, their counterpart dystopias, and their interstices; all borrowed from Samuel R. Delany's "On Triton and Other Matters"), it treats these sections less like a series of unrelated sets or (in the opposite possibility) arguments to be won than as a possible typology of ecological science fiction as such. It is in the final section of the text, titled "Of Further Interest" and constituting an annotated bibliography of ecological science fiction, that this structure becomes clearly useful; Canavan's attempts to sketch broadly the overlapping valences of the phrase "ecological science fiction" reveals just how broadly the category can be applied. This broadness is not in itself a good or bad thing, but requires a theoretical grounding to become productive, and this is precisely what the collection's structural typology allows. This is the best type of canon-formation, ambitious and incomplete, with its own mechanism for continuation or criticism. And while the content of the individual essays may occasionally fail to live up to this ambition, it is not a slight on either, in the end, but a consequence of the propagation of a new organism that must adapt to its ecological niche.
Ben Gabriel blogs at Uninterpretative.