Let’s talk about how science fiction has dealt with environmental change. It’s not all depressing

Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar

THE WASHINGTON POST – There’s a statistic saying there are 1.6 million ants per every human on Earth. It’s no wonder science fiction writers love ants. In Clifford Simak’s elegiac City, the insects eventually take over the world – but it’s possible this already is their world, and humans are just the Airbnb guests taking up space in the spare room for a while. Ants, like humans, build complex structures. Some ant species care for extensive gardens (admittedly of fungus), engage in war (and use chemical warfare!) and some even keep slaves. Look up some of the scientific literature on ants and it reads like science fiction – or maybe horror.

Lavie: Science fiction with environmental concerns tends to be a bit of a downer, doesn’t it? It’s very “some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice”, as Robert Frost would have it. One title I liked a lot that never got much attention was British author EJ Swift’s Osiris, set on a floating city in post-climate-collapse world. On one side of the city live the rich people who built it; on the other side are the storm refugees. It’s a mystery novel and science fiction and it just has some lovely writing in it. It came out in 2012 but feels so current.

Silvia: Ice by Anna Kavan, published in 1967, answers Frost’s question. Definitely a cold world, where the protagonist believes “there would soon be only ice, snow, stillness, death; no more violence, no war, no victims; nothing but frozen silence, absence of life”. It’s a surrealist book, so don’t go into it expecting a Mad Max type of scenario: The army has taken command of several locations but the book drifts like an iceberg. It’s beautifully written, but wrenching – there’s a sense of malaise.

What about some recent environmental science fiction, what’s out there?

Lavie: Recently, I was very taken with a new Chinese sci-fi novel, Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan and translated by Ken Liu. It’s set on an island used for dumping electronic waste, apparently based on a real place in China called Guiyu. Waste Tide is set in the near-future, with added cyborgs, bioengineering and a deadly virus, and it thoughtfully examines the relationships between the producers of waste and those living in it.

Silvia: I’ve been reading Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, which, like City is a mosaic novel composed of 23 segments. It’s not really a science fiction novel, but it is speculative because as it charts the life of a city, it jumps into the future and wonders what Bangkok will look like once the waters rise. In that sense, the book performs the neat trick of changing genres while you read it: from historical fiction to climate fiction. It’s ambitious, and it feels like gazing at those pesky ants through a magnifying glass, the individual stories constructing the tale of a metropolis. I wouldn’t say Bangkok Wakes to Rain is a sunny book, but in detailing such a long view of a place, it gives us hope we’ll still be around in a couple of centuries. Do you want to mention some of the more optimistic books of environmental science fiction available?

Lavie: Yes, I think that’s kind of the exciting thing that, at least from small-press publishers, we’re getting more work that looks at, not so much how do we survive the apocalypse as how do we live with nature? How do we live in this world? This genre is called solarpunk. It attempts to radically reimagine the future, with technological solutions to environmental problems – think green cities, solar planes, recycle artists, biodegradable fashion wear. It’s a very global movement and it’s, well, hopeful!

There’s a volume from Brazil that came out last year: Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World, edited by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro and translated by Fabio Fernandes. Another one is Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland, and yet another one – this time from Australia – is Ecopunk! edited by Liz Grzyb and Cat Sparks. And there’s the Italian press Future Fiction, which is dedicated to near-future books, and some of these are solarpunk.