Pak, Chris. Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction

By Hamby, James | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Pak, Chris. Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction


Hamby, James, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


Pak, Chris. Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016. 243 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-1-781382-84-4. $120.00.

Chris Pak's study of terraforming considers one of science fiction's most enduring motifs from environmental, spiritual, social, political, and ethical perspectives. This book traces the development of terraforming and environmental narratives from early twentieth-century authors such as H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to today's writers, including Pamela Sargent and Kim Stanley Robinson. One of the predominant ideas this study explores is that of the otherness of space--of different planets and different environments, and the different cultures that emerge in those places. How humans deal with this otherness reflects their cultural attitudes about nature and themselves. Pak asserts that terraforming narratives ask the question of "how we want to live, and it emerges from the concern over whether we can continue living in ways that threaten the integrity of our environments" (17). Though terraforming narratives take place in the future, they almost inevitably comment on the socio-political contexts in which they were written.

Many early terraforming stories confronted this otherness with colonialist impulses, presenting Mars or the moons of Jupiter as areas that must be conquered and made useful. The first two chapters, "Landscaping Nature's Otherness in Pre-1960s Terraforming and Proto-Gaian Stories" and "The American Pastoral and the Conquest of Space," examine this aggressive aspect of early terraforming stories. However, as science fiction developed, terraforming narratives came under the influence of the environmentalist movement. Questions regarding the ethical treatment of other planets, including both possible native life and abiotic nature, began to increase. Due to concerns about human-induced climate change here on Earth, explorations of the Gaia hypothesis came to be important to terraforming stories as well, as views of the relationship between humans and their environment shifted from one of conquest to one of symbiotic existence. Chapters 3 and 4, "Ecology and Environmental Awareness in 1960s-1970s Terraforming Stories" and "Edging Towards an Eco-cosmopolitan Vision," respectively, consider issues of environmental philosophy as well as the social dynamics inherent in terraforming endeavors, such as who has access to what resources. The final chapter, "Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy," takes a closer look at the socio-political aspects that colonizing a planet would entail.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book is the tracing of the change in cultural attitudes over a hundred years of terraforming sf. The attitudes toward nature in the early twentieth century openly embraced colonization and exploitation. Texts such as H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), for example, exhibit what Pak describes as "a deep-rooted anxiety towards nature [that] underlies a complex of environmental relations and effects that appear in earlier phases of civilization's development, such as the colonial appropriation of resources, international war and the dramatic reduction of species diversity" (22-23). The otherness of nature, with its perceived antipathy towards humanity, ostensibly justifies this behavior. Yet even while many of these stories in the first half of the twentieth century recognize this type of conquest of nature, not all of them condone it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1928 short story, "When the World Screamed," acknowledges the reckless destruction caused by exploitative attitudes. In this story, the "distinguished if intolerant" professor George Edward Challenger attempts to prove the world is a living organism by piercing it with a massive drill and making it scream (42). Pak observes that this story not only anticipates the Gaia hypothesis that dominates much of post-war terraforming narratives, but it also anticipates many of the social concerns of later sf as well. …

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