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Entry updated 19 December 2022. Tagged: Theme.


Ecology is the study of organisms in relation to their environment. It is a relatively new discipline, the first notable work on the subject being Animal Ecology (1927) by Charles Elton (1900-1991), a text which did much to establish ecology as an independent field of study. The complexity of the environmental relationships which determine the success, or even the survival, of populations has been realized only within the last half-century. The same period has seen a dramatic increase in the world's population and the virtual destruction of the natural environment in many populous areas, and such issues as the protection of food chains and increasing the efficiency of ecological systems have become extremely important. In the necessarily shorthand coverage of these complex planetary issues, ecology is frequently associated in this encyclopedia with Climate Change.

As is to be expected with respect to a scientific discipline no older than Genre SF, there are very few early stories with ecological themes. There is certainly some danger of undue anachronism in the thought that the devastation of a primeval forest in The Epic of Gilgamesh (written circa 2000-1000 BCE), in a show of alpha-male potency and in order to extract product for profit, is a knowing prolepsis of planetary disaster to come; but the axing of Cedar Wood (Tablets 2 to 5 of text) is an episode that seems to have been understood as tragic from the beginning. In the nineteenth century,the passionate melancholy of Richard Jefferies's After London or Wild England (1885), though consistent with an ecological perspective, does not clearly anticipate a mature formulation of the concept; and W H Hudson's fantasies of a mode of human life harmonized with Nature – particularly A Crystal Age (1887) – can be seen, with hindsight, as related to the theme, but their inspiration was mystical rather than scientific. An early story on an ecological theme is J D Beresford's "The Man Who Hated Flies" (in The Meeting Place and Other Stories, coll 1929), a parable about a perfect insecticide which precipitates an ecocatastrophe by obliterating the pollinators of many plant species. Oddly enough, the generally unscientific Edgar Wallace anticipated both the shape of the title and the type of Disaster – though here prevented – in "The Man Who Hated Earthworms" (in The Law of the Four Just Men, coll 1921; vt Again the Three Just Men 1933). Early sf writers were often oblivious to the simplest matters of ecology in their pictures of Life on Other Worlds, providing abundant carnivorous species without the herbivore populations required to sustain them; Edgar Rice Burroughs's image of Mars is a cardinal example. The only early Pulp-magazine writer whose work showed anything more than a rudimentary consciousness of the subject was Stanley G Weinbaum. After World War Two, however, writers began to use a good deal more ingenuity in their representations of Alien ecology, and produced numerous puzzle stories in which explorers on other worlds have to figure out peculiar relationships in the local fauna and flora. Examples are William Tenn's "The Ionian Cycle" (August 1948 Thrilling Wonder), several stories by Clifford D Simak – notably "'You'll Never Go Home Again!'" (July 1951 Fantastic Adventures; vt "Beachhead" in Beachheads in Space, anth 1952, ed August Derleth) and "Drop Dead" (July 1956 Galaxy) – James H Schmitz's "Grandpa" (February 1955 Astounding), Brian W Aldiss's PEST (Planetary Ecological Survey Team) series (1958-1962) and a series by Jack Sharkey begun with "Arcturus Times Three" (October 1961 Galaxy). More sophisticated examples are Richard McKenna's "Hunter, Come Home" (March 1963 F&SF), Neal Barrett Jr's Highwood (1972) and John Boyd's The Pollinators of Eden (1969). Jack Vance's "Winner Lose All" (December 1951 Galaxy) and "The Narrow Land" (July 1967 Fantastic) are interesting oddities with no human characters. Michael G Coney has deployed ecological puzzles in a number of novels, including Syzygy (1973) and Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975; vt Rex).

Inevitably, the Colonization of Other Worlds has come to be seen more and more in ecological terms. Ecological planning is necessarily of central concern in stories dealing with Terraforming. Thus an elementary strategy of ecological control is the key to the invasion of the land areas of Venus in Fury (May-July 1947 Astounding as by Lawrence O'Donnell; 1950; vt Destination Infinity 1956) by Henry Kuttner, and in many novels about the colonization of Mars – e.g., Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (1992). The great majority of ecological-problem stories involving colonization derive their problems through slight distortion of ecological systems on Earth, or through simple analogy. Relatively few authors have been willing to take on the job of attempting to construct an alien ecology in some detail, although Johannes Kepler made some interesting observations about the ways in which life might adapt to a lunar habitat in his Somnium (1634). Notable modern examples include numerous stories by Hal Clement, including Cycle of Fire (1957) and Close to Critical (May-July 1958 Astounding; 1964), Brian W Aldiss's The Long Afternoon of Earth (stories February-December 1961 F&SF; fixup 1962; exp vt Hothouse 1962), Poul Anderson's Fire Time (1974), Alan Dean Foster's Midworld (1975), Gordon R Dickson's Masters of Everon (1979), Aldiss's Helliconia trilogy (1982-1985), Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite (1982), Larry Niven's The Integral Trees (1983) and its sequel The Smoke Ring (1987), Paul J McAuley's Four Hundred Billion Stars (1988) and Sheri S Tepper's Grass (1989).

The precariousness of the human ecological situation has gradually but inevitably become one of the major themes of sf. The possibility of a worldwide Disaster caused by soil-exhaustion is explored in A G Street's Already Walks Tomorrow (1938) and Edward S Hyams's The Astrologer (1950), both of which point out that ecological planning will be made difficult by the tendency of politicians to think about only the short term. Significant cautionary tales about ecological catastrophes include Ward Moore's Greener than You Think (1947; cut 1961), in which a species of grass out-competes all other plant life, and John Christopher's The Death of Grass (1956; vt No Blade of Grass 1957), in which a blight affecting grass species destroys most of the world's crops. Early magazine sf stories which focus on mankind's future ecological problems include Damon Knight's "Natural State" (January 1954 Galaxy; vt Masters of Evolution 1959) and C M Kornbluth's "Shark Ship" (June 1958 Vanguard as "Reap the Dark Tide"; vt in A Mile Beyond the Moon, coll 1958).

Eco-catastrophe stories picked up considerable impetus in the 1960s from a number of nonfictional warnings that things could only get worse as a result of Overpopulation and Pollution. The alarmist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), used a quasi-documentary fictional framework for a brief summary of his predictions in "Eco-Catastrophe!" (September 1969 Ramparts). The greenhouse effect was later added to the list, followed by the decay of the ozone layer, leading to such extreme eco-catastrophe stories as Ecodeath (1972) by William Jon Watkins and E V (Gene) Snyder, The Nitrogen Fix (1980) by Hal Clement and Nature's End (1986) by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, and such all-inclusive ones as David Brin's Earth (1990). Many eco-catastrophe stories are notable for their bitter irony – most sf writers who use the theme seem to feel that we will get no more than we deserve if we destroy our environment and poison ourselves – but even writers who are neither angry nor despairing tend to accept that an ongoing ecological crisis will be one of the most obvious features of the Near Future.

Intensification of ecological awareness helped to lend a new subtlety and sophistication to the disaster story, which spawned a new subspecies dealing with the delicate aesthetics of corrosive changes in mankind's physiological and psychological relationship with the environment. Gerald Heard's "The Great Fog" (in The Great Fog and Other Weird Tales, coll 1944) is an early example; others are The Year of the Cloud (1970) by Theodore L Thomas and Kate Wilhelm, George Alec Effinger's "And Us, Too, I Guess" (in Chains of the Sea, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg) and George Turner's The Sea and Summer (1987; vt Drowning Towers 1988). The most detailed exploration of such possibilities has been carried out by J G Ballard in such novels as The Wind from Nowhere (October 1961 New Worlds as "Storm-Wind"; rev 1962), The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962), The Burning World (1964; rev vt The Drought 1965) and The Crystal World (1966).

Farther into the future, ecologically-aware Ruined Earth stories are quite numerous. Robert F Young's "The Courts of Jamshyd" (September 1957 Infinity) shows our resentful, resource-starved descendants ritually excoriating past greed: "Our ancestors were pigs!" The world of Gwyneth Jones's The Daymaker (1987) has rejected Technology-based Power Sources in favour of Gaia-like ecological harmony. L E Modesitt Jr's Adiamante (1996) sees humanity husbanding limited resources and living in careful ecological balance with various evolved feral animals (though, anomalously, Space Flight continues as part of a world defence programme).

Stories concerned with the ecology of alien worlds have recently tended to take on a strong element of mysticism. In the real world the word "ecology" has acquired quasi-charismatic status, encouraged by vulgarizations of the Gaia hypothesis enunciated by James Lovelock; this points out that the ecosphere has certain built-in homeostatic mechanisms (see Homeostatic Systems) and that evolving earthly life created the atmospheric environment in which it now exists. For many people "ecology" has come to symbolize a lost sense of harmony with the world at large, and various commune movements have tried to make ecological awareness an antidote to alienation. The word "symbiosis" (see Parasitism and Symbiosis) is often invoked in this context. In sf, ecological mysticism is very obvious in such parables as Robert F Young's The Last Yggdrasil (July 1959 F&SF as "To Fell a Tree"; exp 1982), such evocations of the Eden myth as Mark Clifton's Eight Keys to Eden (1960) and such curious biological allegories as Jacqueline Lichtenberg's Dushau (1985) and its sequels. It is central to the mystical ritualization of water relations featured in Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1990) and Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965). In Piers Anthony's Omnivore (1968) ecological relationships themselves are transformed into a mystical pattern. This mysticism – or attempts to describe profoundly non-human entities or venues in terms useful to readers – is evident also in many stories set on Earth, including Frank Herbert's The Green Brain (March 1965 Amazing as "Greenslaves" exp 1966), where a Hive Mind is described with some of the reticence of genuine awe. Other titles include Hilbert Schenck's At the Eye of the Ocean (1980), Norman Spinrad's Songs from the Stars (1980), Somtow Sucharitkul's (see S P Somtow) Starship and Haiku (1984) and Scott Russell Sanders's Terrarium (1985).

Ecological warfare is a common related theme. This is waged on a disputed colony world in Jack Vance's "Ecological Onslaught" (May 1953 Future Science Fiction; vt as title story of The World Between and Other Stories, coll 1965 dos); practised by Aliens against human colonists in Robert Silverberg's Majipoor novel Valentine Pontifex (1983); and both threatened and actualized in episodes of George R R Martin's Tuf Voyaging (coll of linked stories 1986).

Two anthologies featuring eco-catastrophe stories are Saving Worlds (anth 1973; vt The Wounded Planet 1974) edited by Roger Elwood and Virginia Kidd, and The Ruins of Earth (anth 1971) edited by Thomas M Disch. [BS]

see also: Simearth.

further reading

  • Charles Elton. Animal Ecology (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1927) [nonfiction: introduction by Julian Huxley: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Clough Williams-Ellis, editor. Britain & the Beast (London: J M Dent and Sons, 1937) [nonfiction: anth: hb/uncredited]
  • Rachel Carson. Silent Spring (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1962) [nonfiction: illus/hb/Lois and Louis Darling]
  • Edward O Wilson. The Future of Life (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2002) [nonfiction: hb/Isabella Kirkland]
  • Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson, editors. Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2014) [nonfiction: anth: hb/Brian Kinney, Shutterstock]

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