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Entry updated 11 March 2024. Tagged: Theme.

Early sf stories dealing with catastrophes brought about by pollution of the environment (see Ecology) tended to concentrate on the perils of smog; they include William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City (1880) and Robert Barr's "The Doom of London" (November 1892 Idler). The pollutant effects of industrial waste were very familiar in the nineteenth-century UK: air pollution had shaped the city of London (the prevailing wind blows east and the upper strata of the population moved steadily west) and slag defaced England's northern counties to the extent that Yorkshiremen coined a proverb: "Where there's muck, there's brass [money]." It is hardly surprising that England produced the one enduring nineteenth-century image of civilization as pollution, in Richard Jefferies's After London (1885). The image of city life presented in the socially conscious, traditional nineteenth-century novel, as by Charles Dickens, makes much of the foulness of city dirt, but the problem was generally seen as easily correctable. The notion that environmental pollution might be a serious threat in the future is not evident in early sf, where it tends to be assumed that progress will sweep the dirt away. Virtually all utopian Cities are remarkable for their cleanliness, and it seemed reasonable to one inhabitant of a northern industrial city, signing himself "A Disciple" (of H G Wells), to borrow the famous Time Machine in order to see The Coming Era, or Leeds Beatified (1900). This optimism seems rather ironic today.

By the end of the 1950s, serious attention had been given in sf to only one kind of pollution: radioactive waste. The effects of the residual radiation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions and the tests at Bikini atoll were well known, and the destruction of the environment by radiation poisoning became one of the most horrifying aspects of the post-atomic-World War Three scenario (see Mutants; Post-Holocaust). These stories probably helped bring about an increased sensitivity to the idea of insidious Poisons in the environment, and it was not long before awareness grew of more commonplace dangers: arsenic in wallpaper, lead in water pipes, etc. The first sf cautionary tales about society's general philosophy of waste disposal began to appear in the 1950s. C M Kornbluth's "Shark Ship" (June 1958 Vanguard as "Reap the Dark Tide"; vt in A Mile Beyond the Moon, coll 1958) is an extreme example; and James White's story of the hazards of orbital garbage, "Deadly Litter" (February 1960 Science Fiction Adventures), has been transformed by the passage of time into a neat parable. The space-debris theme was picked up in Hugh Walters's Expedition Venus (1962; rev 1963), featuring:

... Salvage Tug Number One, whose task it was to gather up the debris of space. In the last decade innumerable satellites had been placed into orbit. After they had ceased to function they and their carrier rockets were a menace to navigators. So periodically the salvage tug was sent out to gather in these useless lumps of metal.

It was in the early 1960s that the problem was brought very sharply into focus, largely due to the publication of Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson (1907-1964), which argued that pollution of a radically new type had begun, involving nonbiodegradable substances which accumulated in living matter to fatal concentrations. DDT, once widely used as an insecticide, was one of the main targets of attack in Carson's book; PBB, a compound responsible for poisoning large numbers of cattle and some people in Michigan, belongs to the same family of compounds; the fluorocarbons more recently blamed for the depletion of the ozone layer are closely related.

Awareness of her name and of the eloquence of her warnings were rapidly absorbed into sf, and virtually overnight became a standard feature of Near-Future scenarios. In Frank Herbert's "Greenslaves" (March 1965 Amazing) [see his entry for title details], those opposed to the razing of Brazil by developers are referred to as "Carsonites". A lurid early dramatization of the issue is The Clone (1965) by Theodore L Thomas and Kate Wilhelm, a horror story about pollutants which spontaneously generate life to become an omnivorous, amorphous Monster spreading in the manner of Grey Goo; a thematic successor is the titular river monster spawned by high-tech wastes in M M Buckner's Watermind (2008). A more realistic treatment of some relevant issues is Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison, which also deals with Overpopulation; Harrison also approached such themes jokily in Bill, the Galactic Hero (December 1964 Galaxy as "The Starsloggers"; exp August-October 1965 New Worlds; 1965), where the ingenious disposal of indestructible plastic food trays and containers via Matter Transmission into the local sun has to be abandoned when this proves likely to trigger a nova. Similarly alarmist stories include James Blish's "We All Die Naked" (in Three for Tomorrow, anth 1969, ed Robert Silverberg), Adrien Stoutenburg's Out There (1971), John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up (1972), Andrew J Offutt's The Castle Keeps (1972), Kurt Vonnegut Jr's "The Big Space Fuck" (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison), Philip Wylie's Los Angeles: A.D. 2017 (1971) and The End of the Dream (1972) and Kit Pedler's and Gerry Davis's Brainrack (1974).

Tales set after pollution-generated planetary ruin include Robert Silverberg's "The Wind and the Rain" in Saving Worlds (anth 1973; vt The Wounded Planet 1974) edited by Roger Elwood, elegiacally depicting a Far Future project to heal the poisoned Earth; and Philip E High's Fugitive from Time (1978), with an episode set on an Alternate World spoilt beyond repair by industrial by-products.

BBC television treatments of note included episodes of Doomwatch (1970-1972) and – specifically addressing contemporary issues of nuclear waste disposal – the borderline-sf serial Edge of Darkness (1985).

In more recent times pollution has come to be taken so much for granted that it is rarely addressed as an issue in itself, instead forming a constant background element in almost all near-future extrapolations, whether they aspire to be Dystopian or merely realistic; it is particularly evident in Paul Theroux's O-Zone (1986) and David Brin's Earth (1990). The rapidity with which the subject became familiar is evident in the early appearance of such works of Satire as Charles Platt's Garbage World (1967) and Norman Spinrad's "The Lost Continent" (in Science Against Man, anth 1970, ed Anthony Cheetham). More thoughtful and sophisticated treatments include The Thinking Seat (1969) by Peter Tate and "King Harvest" (in New Dimensions II, anth 1972, ed Robert Silverberg) by Gardner Dozois. It is widely felt that the biggest danger is complacency – a point made by the effective "To Walk with Thunder" (August 1973 Amazing) by Dean McLaughlin, in which the hero fights to suppress a device that will guarantee clean air inside the home, on the grounds that it would become an industrial carte blanche to pollute the atmosphere irredeemably. Pollution: Omnibus (anth 1971), issued to cash in on the height of the scare, contains "Shark Ship", Make Room! Make Room! and the dubiously relevant City (May 1944-December 1947 Astounding, January 1951 Fantastic Adventures; fixup 1952; exp 1981) by Clifford D Simak. The Ruins of Earth (anth 1971) edited by Thomas M Disch and the above-cited Saving Worlds edited by Roger Elwood are further theme anthologies with a number of relevant stories. [BS/DRL]

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