Genesis: An Epic Poem

By de Luce, Judith | The Humanist, November-December 1993 | Go to article overview

Genesis: An Epic Poem


de Luce, Judith, The Humanist


At first glance, inventionist ecology seems an unlikely subject for an epic poem written in the late twentieth century. After all, Frederick Turner has often used prose to write about landscape and the environment. Along with others, he has examined the process and prospects of terraforming Mars to make the hostile environment of the red planet habitable for humans. The story of terraforming Mars is certainly movie material, but why should an accomplished essayist rely upon the traditions of epic poetry to write 10,000 lines of iambic pentameter which explore the science and the implications of terraforming? How well does poetry serve the topic? I am not prepared to argue that Turner has somehow written a modern sequel to the Theogony, but the striking continuity between Greek and Latin literary tradition and Genesis: An Epic Poem may help us to better understand Turner's vision. At the very least, we will end up with some interesting questions.

Genesis is, by any standards, a remarkable poem. It is "about" many things: human aspiration, deceit, choice, courage, loyalty, chance, and the power of poetry. If the poem's complexity sometimes gets the better of the reader, if the barrage of erudite adjectives cries out for the editor's scalpel, nonetheless the scope of the plot is matched by the vigor of the poetry. According to Genesis, over a century from now, the United Nations sends "Chance" Van Riebeck and a team of scientists to survey Mars as part of the Ares Project. Instead of following those orders, the scientists rely in part upon the principles of James Lovelock's Gala hypothesis to begin the process of terraforming the planet. This requires warming Mars, rendering its lethal atmosphere innocuous, and populating its barren surface with living organisms. On Earth, Van Riebeck's estranged wife Gaea leads the reigning Ecotheists, who not only insist on a clear dichotomy between nature and humankind but claim that the human being is as evil as its manipulation of nature. Alarmed by what Chance is doing, the Ecotheists arrest and try the renegades. The Martian colonists who survive the ensuing war finally manage to obtain a record of all the genetic material of Earth and continue the process of "gardening" Mars, inspired in part by Beatrice, a daughter of Chance and Gaea. Finally, a prophet called Hermione Mars, the great Sibyl, sings the new world of Mars into being.

Not only do the theoretical and practical aspects of Chance's efforts have much in common with recent discussions in the popular press, but underlying his actions is a perspective which Turner has called inventionist ecology-a position that does not reject the preservation of natural ecosystems so much as it seeks to restore natural landscapes. According to inventionist ecology, which may also be termed restoration ecology, there may well come a time when it is appropriate and necessary to create entirely new ecosystems. That is precisely what Chance is trying to do.

But the question remains: since Turner has written extensively about gardening, restoration ecology, even terraforming in prose, why turn to poetry here? It is nothing new to rely upon storytelling to prove a point, of course. Greek and Latin writers traditionally drew upon mythological exempla for proofs. Plato was not exactly an uncritical champion of the traditions of the literary arts, yet he supplemented the arguments of the Republic, for example, with a variety of "myths" of his own making-the myth of the metals, the myth of Er, and so on.

The earliest literature in Greek was composed orally in verse due in part to the fact that poetry is always easier to remember than prose (I know that there are thirty days in November because I remember the ditty "Thirty days has September..."). Homer did not compose in prose. As late as the second century BCE, the Latin poet Ennius wrote his history in dactylic hexameter, the meter of epic. Moreover, there is precedent for presenting science in verse.

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