Friday, November 6, 2009

What is Eco-Fiction?

Last week, in the small directed study I teach at Finlandia University on Environmental Writing and Literature, we started a unit on eco-fiction. This is our third focus in the class; previously, we covered nature writing and then environmental journalism. Books we’ve read so far include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams; Stuff by John Ryan and Alan Durning; Bill McKibben’s Hope, Human and Wild; and Lisa Margonelli’s Oil on the Brain. We’ve also looked at nature essays and environmental journalism articles by various other authors.

With eco-fiction, we began by attempting a definition. First, and most obviously, eco-fiction is fiction, i.e., not a true story. At its basis, though, is some sort of truth – an environmental truth. Whether it’s classic literature (say, Jack London’s Call of the Wild) or eco sci-fi (maybe Frank Herbert’s Dune or Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed) it makes some sort of statement about the human relationship to the environment. It also in some way expresses concern for the non-human world, and/or human survival.

More could probably be said, but that’s what we have for our definition so far. Next, we looked at examples of eco-fiction. In class, we assembled a short bookshelf of some of the eco-fiction found in Finlandia’s library as well as in my own, including:

  • The Monkey-Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
  • Winter Study by Nevada Barr
  • A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle
  • Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach
  • Looking for Peyton Place by Barbara Delinsky
  • The Lobo Outback Funeral Home by Dave Foreman
  • Flush by Carl Hiaasen
  • Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen
  • Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  • Skywatch by Mary Alice Monroe
  • The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols
  • Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

This is hardly an extensive list, but with this as a start, I’d like to build one. If you’re reading this, I have two questions for you:

1) What eco-fiction titles would you add to this list? (Conversely, is there anything above you might delete?)

2) What would you add to or change about our definition of eco-fiction?

Your comments are welcome!

4 comments:

kta said...

Mary Been writes:

"I would add Marge Piercy's __Woman on the Edge of Time__. This novel tells the story of a woman who time-travels (or flips cognitively; the novel leaves that option open) between three worlds: our present, an environmentally devastated future, or an environmentally sane future. Another Piercy novel, __He, She, and It__, also deals quite extensively with the negative environmental outcomes of present choices in a future world. This novel would also be classified as cyberpunk. I've taught both novels in classes, and students respond to them very well."

kta said...

Christa Walck writes:
"This is a good starter list--my first thoughts went in exactly that direction, and have all been on my bookshelf at some point. A lot of sci-fi is eco-lit. To that subset I would add authors Kim Stanley Robinson (Mars Trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars; Three Californias (... Read MoreWild Shore Triptych; Antartica) and Sherri Tepper (Grass), as well as sci-fi turns of Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, maybe Surfacing), and Cormac McCarthy (The Road). Another subset is eco-mystery; many mystery writers focus on a place, and that place and what is happening to it is part of the subtext of the mystery. You've noted Nevada Barr - most of her mysteries fall into that category. Also Tony Hillerman (Southwest), Dana Stabenow and Sue Henry (Alaska), William Kent Krueger (Minnesota)."

David said...

All these listed by you and by others are certainly worthy reads.
Instead of picking Hiaasen's books I'd be inclined to say ANYTHING written by Hiaasen.
A favorite from my youth: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. It contains many strong themes but my favorite is how the landscape responds to an enormous loss of human population.

Michael Berry said...

A very recent science fiction release very centered on ecological issues is Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl." Also check out his collection "Pump Six and Other Stories."