Eco-fiction is ecologically oriented fiction, which may be nature-oriented (non-human oriented) or environment-oriented (human impacts on nature). Source: Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction (University of Nevada Press, 2010). Eco-fiction became popular in the 1970s, along with other environmental movements, and opened up a new literary study that connected humanities and nature. Eco-fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us–our natural habitat. Previous literary scholarship often ignored this crucial connection. Eco-fiction may have become popular decades ago, but it has not gone away. It is evolving. When reviewing the recent novel Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer, Wai Chee Dimock stated in the New York Times:
This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any from the 20th, or the 19th. (“There’s No Escape From Contamination Above the Toxic Sea,” May 5, 2017)
See more about eco-fiction at Wikipedia.
We cannot possibly list all authors or works on this site, but do try to give a good sampling of what eco-fiction is all about. Jim Dwyer researched hundreds of books for his field guide and stated that his criteria in choosing whether or not a book was eco-fiction was:
- The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
- The human history is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
- Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
- Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text. (1995, 6)
Further, Dwyer was not inclusive with genre when describing eco-fiction:
[Eco-fiction is] made up of many styles, primarily modernism, post-modernism, realism, and magical realism and can be found in many genres, primarily mainstream, westerns, mystery, romance, and speculative fiction. Speculative fiction includes science fiction and fantasy, sometimes mixed with realism, as in the work of Ursula K. Le Guin.
Note that John Yunker, author of The Tourist Trail and co-founder/editor at Ashland Creek Press, called eco-fiction more of a “super genre” (personal correspondence, August 2016).
Dwyer said that eco-fiction “might be simply described as a critical perspective on the relationship between literature and the natural world, and the place of humanity within.” Source: Chico News & Review
Eco-fiction, according to Mike Vasey, includes:
Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships to these ecosystems or leave out humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive…Ideally, the landscapes and ecosystems–whether fantasy or real–should be as ‘realistic’ as possible and plot constraints should accord with ecological principals.
Eco-fiction serves well as a domain name, but should not be seen as a strict demarcation in literature; there are downstream and upstream paths on which to explore nature and the environment as topics in fiction and prose. Neither does this term combat other labels–rather eco-fiction peacefully exists with, and in fact may be an umbrella for, the many other newer terms coming out to describe types of eco-fiction.
Science Fiction Roots
Dwyer described eco-fiction as having deep literary roots and a growing canopy of branches. Science fiction is one such root as it has traditionally been about actual or imagined science and its impact on environment and society. See Ecological Science Fiction for examples. The earliest visionaries in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) climate novels started in the 1970s. Our studies show that the first AGW climate novel was probably Arthur Herzog’s Heat (see our talk with his widow, Leslie), published in 1977–also confirmed by Gregers Andersen, who submitted his studies to our site. Emergent in the current decade or two, however, is the growing acceptance that global warming is happening, and the number of authors and filmmakers tackling that concern has risen. Also, see The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction for a history of science fiction climate-themed novels and films, which date back several decades.
In 1971, Washington Press published editor John Stadler’s anthology Ecofiction, a collection of environmental sci-fi, which included such authors as Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allen Poe, A.E. Coppard, James Agee, Robert M. Coates, Daphne du Maurier, Robley Wilson Jr., E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, H.H. Munro, J.G. Ballard, Steven Scharder, Isaac Asmiov, and William Saroyan.
Eco-fiction has part of its roots in science fiction and fantasy, to be sure, but also in many other types of early literature, including magical realism, pastoral, mythology, animal metamorphoses, and classical. Where natural history evolved among biologists and ecologists so did nature writing parallel in both nonfiction and fiction. One might say eco-fiction first began as cave drawings of animals and birds, which documented an era of humans connecting with their environment, and did so with storytelling via art. There’s a long lineage of works in this canon, from early myths of weather gods and goddesses such as Thor, the thunder god, or Susanowo, the Japanese Shinto god of storms and sea. There’s Noah in the Bible and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 1759 was Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, which dealt with regulation of the weather. In talking about fiction, we cannot ignore notable nonfiction that has inspired fiction movements, including nature writers and poets such as Rachel Carson, Margaret Fuller, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nearly every era of human-time has had its nature lovers who take to the pen to exalt nature or politicize our impacts on the wild, from St. Francis of Assisi to Gary Snyder to Upton Sinclair to Michael McClure to Naomi Klein.
Climate Change Fiction
The branch of human-caused climate change in eco-fiction has grown considerably since it began in the 1970s. Dwyer called climate change novels cautionary or disaster fiction. These days, a multitude of newer terms have attempted to wrap their arms around the hyperobject that is anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or what one might call the biggest eco-crisis of our times, perhaps what all other prior concerns in eco-writings have led to, built upon, and culminated in. Such specific genres include Anthropocene, climate, enviro-horror, afrofuturism, green, nature-oriented, eco-futurism, eco-punk, biopunk, environmental science, environmental, and ecological/new weird fictions, to name a few–and these do not always relate just to just climate change but to a broader ecological and eco/socio system. A hyperobject, according to Timothy Morton, explains objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization, such as climate change.
Labeling Your Novel
With all the labels out there to describe your novel, it may be hard to pick one. Traditional publishers generally go with traditional genres, and some argue that slapping eco- or climate- anything as part of the genre name will assault the sensitivities of many readers who have yet to agree climate change or environmental destruction is even happening (or is important).
This piece by author Jeff Vandermeer has great thoughts about narratives and branding for global warning literature. I too have been pressured unfairly to use one certain genre (as VanderMeer describes). Another article by author James Bradley underlines that nature writing in fiction has a new kind of heterogeneity. Amitav Ghosh is concerned with the failure of the modern literary novel in dealing with climate change. In an interview with The Wire, he says that to have an individual genre like climate fiction separates the reality of climate change from us, while climate change is deeply integrated into our lives. Agree or disagree? It’s a subject that comes up often in our newsgroup, so feel free to join and discuss.
Eco-fiction and eco-critisim have been around now for nearly half a century, but from the beginning of time humans have told stories about climate, about our environment, and about human impact on environment. A wide world of authors and artists are talking about global warming in the language of imagination, speculation, warning, and hope–and we must listen. This site tries to escape hashtags and dig deeper into world of the eco-fiction. Without remaining open-minded in this conversation, we might as well pack it up and go home.
The explanations above merely tap the surface of eco-fiction and climate themes within. There is a great piece in Slate Magazine, by John Luther Adams, who is a Pulitzer Prize (and Grammy) winning composer. He writes, in Making Music in the Anthropocene, that nature compels him to make art–in his case music:
As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself.
Writers face the same process; the story must be worthy in and of itself for any social or political message to follow through, and not all writers of eco-themed literature want to make a political statement (many do, however). Taxonomy is important–yes–and archiving eco-fiction pieces, as varied and broad as they are, is an act of love and organization. However, to really understand this literature, you must read, read, read (or watch the films, listen to the music). Immerse yourself in it, and what will follow are hopefully stories to hold and remember. This journey of reading will reflect how we humans interact with the commons around us as well as how non-human nature is to be preserved, illuminated, celebrated, and respected. It’s a wonderful journey. These connections in literature shape who we become by enriching our knowledge and imagination.