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These are the Ways the World Ends: Environment

By / September 22, 2017 / no comments

Concluding our short series on the end of the world, we come to those stories in which the world rises up against humanity. That other apocalyptic horseman, Famine, is the invariable companion of War and Pestilence; but science fiction has expanded on this. It is not just that humanity is unable to find sufficient food, but rather than the world around us has risen up in protest against our despoilation of the environment.


After London (Dover Doomsday Classics)Environmental change is, at least in the early iterations of the form, the consequence of change rather than the cause of it. Thus in After London by Richard Jefferies, the cause of the catastrophe that has largely wiped out civilisation is kept deliberately vague. And because humanity is forced to live in harmony with a nature that has reasserted its grip over the cities, the catastrophe is not exactly a bad thing. (Early environmental writers, such as W.H. Hudson in A Crystal Age, tended to assume that the pastoral, the natural, was the first step towards utopia.)

Deluge: A Novel of Global WarmingThe First World War, however, tended to make writers very aware of the fragility of civilisation, and thus the reassertion of Nature over humanity became a threat rather than a promise. One example is Deluge by S. Fowler Wright, in which Britain is largely drowned and life is restricted to an archipelago of islands. Perhaps because it is an island nation, the idea of a drowned Britain became a persistent theme in science fiction, later examples including The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper and A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest.

Strange InvadersWright’s novel, and others such as The Strange Invaders by Alun Llewellyn with its new ice age, and John Collier’s Tom’s A-Cold with the population of Britain thrust back into rural barbarism, begin to pave the way for notions of climate change. Though this approach to the environment would only gather pace after the Second World War, when novels like Earth Abides by George R. Stewart would stress the need to care for the Earth if the Earth is to care for you, in this case in the aftermath of a pestilence that has largely depopulated the world.

The Death of GrassFor a while, the image of a world transformed by environmental changes was a particular feature of the British catastrophe story, such as The Death of Grass by John Christopher, in which, as the title suggests, the world has to come to terms with an environmental collapse that causes the extinction of grass and related food plants. Later catastrophes would include The Drowned World and The Drought by J.G. Ballard, in which the cataclysms would be, respectively, inundation and its opposite. Though his next novel, The Crystal World, would start to bring the catastrophe closer to the surreal that would become a distinguishing feature of his work. Though the crystalised world would find a later echo, for instance, in Chaga by Ian McDonald, in which an alien growth begins to transform Africa.

The Sea and Summer (SF Masterworks)New York 2140As the science of global warming became more widely known, so it became perhaps the most persistent image of catastrophe in contemporary science fiction. The Australian writer, George Turner’s account of the far-reaching social and political consequences of rising sea levels on Melbourne, The Sea and Summer, in many ways prefigures Kim Stanley Robinson’s account of the social and economic consequences of rising sea levels in New York, 2140. Robinson, of course, has made something of a speciality of writing about climate change, as, for instance, in his Science in the Capitol trilogy, Forty Signs of RainFifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting. But he is far from alone in this, with John Barnes in Mother of Storms, Bruce Sterling in Heavy Weather and Kurt Vonnegut in Slapstick all treating climate change as a sign of disaster.

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