Entry updated 15 April 2020. Tagged: Theme.
The term "pastoral" can be understood in various ways. It can refer to the Classical or Shakespearean tale of courtiers holidaying among nymphs and shepherds; it can refer, as Sir William Empson and other modern critics have argued, to the proletarian novel or to the story which contrasts childhood innocence with adult experience. Or, as in The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea (1964) by Leo Marx (1919- ), the pastoral can now be best studied in its dynamic relationship with Technology, which transforms it into commodified nostalgia. In essence, however, a pastoral is any work of fiction which depicts an apparently simple and natural way of life, and contrasts it with our complex, technological, anxiety-ridden urban world of the present. Pastorals can be full of moral earnestness or they can be utterly escapist.
Of the many versions of pastoral in sf, the most obvious is the tale of country life as written by Clifford D Simak, Zenna Henderson and others. Such stories usually involve the intrusion of Alien beings (frequently telepathic) into rural landscapes peopled by farmers and small-town tradesmen. Examples are Simak's "Neighbor" (June 1954 Astounding), "A Death in the House" (October 1959 Galaxy), Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963), All Flesh is Grass (1965) and A Choice of Gods (1972), and Henderson's Pilgrimage: The Book of the People (fixup 1961) and The Anything Box (coll 1965). Fantasies in a kindred mode include Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine (fixup 1957), Ward Moore's and Avram Davidson's Joyleg (1962) and Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil? (coll of linked stories 1963). What these works have in common is an emphasis on the virtues (and sometimes the constraints) of the rural way of life. They are, explicitly or implicitly, anti-city and anti-Machine; they frequently extol the values of living close to Nature, of being in rhythm with the seasons. This bucolic and Luddite strain in Genre SF has its origins in some major works of US literature such as Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Winesburg, Ohio (1919) by Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), as well as in such UK Utopias and romances as Richard Jefferies's After London (1885), with its vision of the city reconquered by forest and field, W H Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887) and William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890).
A variant form of this version of pastoral is that in which the contrast between city and country is made quite explicit. Stories of this type, discussed more fully in the entry on Cities, have a long history, going back beyond After London. In this variant urban life is depicted as cruel, oppressive or sterile, while the country represents freedom; the genre-sf archetype is Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956). Damon Knight's "Natural State" (January 1954 Galaxy) ironically contrasts city Technology such as rapid Transportation with "natural" rustic equivalents enhanced by Genetic Engineering – including a hybrid racing animal which may not be quite as fast as the city representative's expensive flying car but continues to breed year after year at minimal cost. City versus country is a particularly popular theme in Children's SF, as in John Christopher's Wild Jack (1974) and Isobelle Carmody's Scatterlings (1991).
A second version of pastoral, again taking its cue from Jefferies and Morris, is exemplified by George R Stewart's Earth Abides (1949) and Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow (1955), both tales depicting the rise of agricultural and anti-technological societies after some sort of Holocaust. Although this type of story is set in the future, the future becomes a clear analogue of the pre-industrial past. A particularly fine example is Fredric Brown's "The Waveries" (January 1945 Astounding), a tale in which the modern USA is forced back into a horse-and-buggy economy by invading aliens who prevent the use of electricity. Other examples of this kind of story are Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959) and Edgar Pangborn's Davy (1964). This sort of pastoral is not always simple; the pastoral post-holocaust world can itself be seen with a little irony, as in John Crowley's Engine Summer (1979), which is suffused by an elegiac melancholy. (Another ambiguous pastoral, not really sf, is Crowley's Little, Big , where the ultimate pastoral values of Faerie are teasingly impossible to reach and, if reached, might mean death.)
A third version of sf pastoral is the story set on another world, often Edenic or, at the least, satisfying. Such works usually depict benign alien Ecologies which support nontechnological societies. Humanity is often seen as a destructive intruder upon these planets, although frequently the protagonist is "accepted" because he or she is capable of seeing the wisdom of the alien ways. The ideological thrust of such stories is anti-anthropomorphic and anti-xenophobic. Examples are Robert A Heinlein's Red Planet (1949) – and, by implication, his Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1990) – Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (coll of linked stories 1950; rev vt The Silver Locusts 1951), Mark Clifton's Eight Keys to Eden (1960), H Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy (1962), Robert Silverberg's Downward to the Earth (1970) and The Face of the Waters (1991), Lloyd Biggle Jr's Monument (June 1961 Analog; exp 1974), Cherry Wilder's Second Nature (1982), Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean (1986) and Judith Moffett's Pennterra (1987). Ursula K Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison; 1976) is an outstanding treatment of this theme, the sourness of the narrative reflecting the realities of the Vietnam War. Brian M Stableford's The Paradise Game (1974) and Critical Threshold (1976) are clever variations; both are about planets which are apparently Edenic but which turn out to be rather more sinister. This is also the case in Ian Watson's "The Moon and Michelangelo" (October 1987 Asimov's), in which a pastoral alien society has been wholly misunderstood but offers a form of ironic transcendence nevertheless. Richard McKenna's "Hunter, Come Home" (March 1963 F&SF) and John Varley's "In the Hall of the Martian Kings" (February 1977 F&SF) are both good treatments of the ultimate in benign ecologies: bio-systems that enfold and preserve the sympathetic human characters against all dangers.
The fourth version of sf pastoral is perhaps the commonest: the escapist adventure story set in a simpler world, whether it be the future, the past, another planet or in another continuum. If the portrayal of "Nature" is an essential element in all pastorals, then this is the version of them that prefers its Nature red in tooth and claw. Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (1914) belongs here, as do his A Princess of Mars (February-July 1912 All-Story as "Under the Moons of Mars" as by Norman Bean; 1917), At the Earth's Core (4-25 April 1914 All-Story Weekly; 1922) and all their various sequels. Tarzan is an archetypal twentieth-century pastoral hero; his freedom of action, affinity with animals and innocent capacity for violence represent an amalgam of daydreams, Rousseau married to Darwin. One could go further and say that the whole subgenre of Sword and Sorcery is in a sense pastoral. As urbanization increases and free space diminishes on the Earth's surface, so the pastoral dream of simpler worlds in harmony with (or in enjoyable conflict with) Nature becomes ever more compelling.
In the 1980s (there are earlier examples) pastoral themes were used by a number of Women SF Writers to image the values of Feminism, as in Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean. The prime example here, though, is Le Guin's Always Coming Home (1985), an extraordinarily rich and dense exercise in speculative Anthropology, largely set in a post-holocaust pastoral culture whose values are the values of women. A cruder exercise in the same vein is Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women (coll of linked stories 1980), in which the women's society's embrace of Nature and the men's society's despisal of it are both so diagrammatic as to approach caricature. Sheri S Tepper achieves the balance in Raising the Stones (1990), with plenty of melodrama but also with plenty of real life, when she contrasts two agricultural societies on two planets, the one society patriarchal and brutal, the other deriving its strength from the realism (and, in the main, the kindliness) of women, a confrontation between the bad pastoral and the good.
Pastoral has always been an attractive theme, but its simpler pleasures can pall after a time. The most interesting uses of pastoral in sf, many of which are cited above, are those in which the pastoral values have their cost, or in which the urban/pastoral or civilized/primitive oppositions are seen with some sort of irony – that is, with the recognition that life is not always as neatly dualistic as we would sometimes wish. Some of the poignant qualities of Hilbert Schenck's At the Eye of the Ocean (1980) and A Rose for Armageddon (1982), pastorals whose pastures are the field of ocean, derive from this recognition. Behind the greatest pastorals is often a sense of loss, for Nature herself often throws up images of decline and decay as well as of growth and harvest, and to invoke Nature is to invoke a world whose benisons are ephemeral (although they will always return). This may be why some of the finest pastorals are seasonal or cyclical; Brian W Aldiss's Helliconia trilogy (1982-1985) is many other things as well, but at root it is a pastoral whose burden is that Winter always comes. [DP/PN]
- William Empson. Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935) [nonfiction: hb/nonpictorial]
- Leo Marx. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964) [nonfiction: hb/Bettmann Archive]
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