For ages, speculative writers have envisioned great eco-advancements and humanity’s eco-faults by penning alternate realities where we interact with the environment more sustainably or unsustainably. Often, these depictions echo our own environmental predicaments.

These visions hold importance, take it from eco-futurist writer Ernest Callenbach:

"It is so hard to imagine anything fundamentally different from what we have now. But without these alternate visions, we get stuck in dead center. And we’d better get ready. We need to know where we’d like to go."

We were inspired when last month, Annalee Newitz came out with her new novel, The Terraformers. Inside, Newitz takes readers into a distant future where planets can be “terraformed,” or transformed, into becoming habitable. The corporate-owned planet in the story is in the process of being terraformed. The main character is a ranger working there when she discovers an underground indigenous society. The Terraformers explores themes of colonization, conservation, and capitalism through a sci-fi lens. It also deals with the impact of top-down leadership on sustainability and the sacrifices made by indigenous cultures through the exploitation of nature. It’s a struggle echoed throughout history & our present day society that will surely hit home to readers: does anyone really own land or is land meant for its inhabitants? It also brings up the age old concept of colonizing other planets which have been brought up time and time again in real-life.

The award winning Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, also challenges us to think twice on colonization and terraforming. Robinson envisions new egalitarian, sociological, and scientific advances on Mars, ultimately more utopian than dystopian. It ponders the question: what would humans do differently when settling on a new planet to avoid the same fate of the former planet?

Different Perspectives

Eco-fiction that gets inside the mind of nature is deeper speculation such as in Latitudes of Longing, by Shubhangi Swarup. The novel deals with longing, suffered by people, ghosts, and the planet, but the characters are unique: a dendrologist; a clairvoyant who speaks to trees; a geologist; a turtle; and the ghost of an evaporated ocean. Switching perspectives within the book and giving nature agency forces the reader to empathize with the cause of preservation. When nature is living, breathing, and sentient it’s undeniable. The plea of nature is felt by its existence rather than the impacts of its degradation.

Let’s not forget climate fiction.  When studies like the recent one from NASA find that Earth’s climate hit record high temperatures for its 5th straight year in 2022, it actually becomes harder to keep fiction and fact separate. American War by Omar El Akkad (2017) envisions a future where climate change continues unchecked in the United States.  In an interview with Oregon Public Broadcast in 2017, El Akkad says fiction is about the questions:

“There are no answers in this novel. I don’t provide them, I don’t go out of my way to try to provide them. I wanted to ask questions. I wanted to explore ideas.

Similarly, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future delves deep into the mechanics of a  post-climate change world where the catalyzing event is the heat-death of 20 million people in India.  It reads a little like a treatise at times but Robinson weaves in individual devastation and unrelenting hope throughout the story.

We also have to bring in other cultures here, especially since there’s so much history of a countries exploiting and damaging others’ environments and its cultures.  How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue, takes place in an African village that’s dealing with devastation caused by an American oil company, echoing the real-life Chevron oil environmental disaster that impacted the Ecuadorian Amazon. Or consider the children’s book, We Are Water Protectors, by Carole Lindstrom which tells the story of an indigenous tribe being threatened by an oil pipeline from the perspective of a young Ojibwe girl. Lindstrom herself is enrolled with the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, bringing us closer to people’s lived experiences. War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, shows two Nigerian sisters surviving in a world wrecked by climate change & nuclear war. Futuristic adaptations to the harsh environment include artificial organs and bionic limbs that withstand the radiation-heavy climate.

For more eco-fiction by BIPOC authors, here’s a list to check out!

Eco-Fiction & Its Merits

We can't talk about eco-fiction being influenced by modern-day environmental conditions without talking about one novel that influenced the Green Movement of the 1970s. The utopian novel Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston by Ernest Callenbach (1975), is widely considered one of the first novels to portray a sustainable society. And while the author claims the society he painted was not a true utopia, it still influenced the 1970s green movement and counterculture. The book portrays the use of sustainable plastics and the idea of having minimal waste.

"In nature, no organic substance is synthesized unless there is provision for its degradation; recycling is enforced." -Ecotopia

Parting Thoughts

A survey by asked readers whether they believe environmental fiction can make an impact on society. Of the 103 people surveyed, an overwhelming 81% said yes. As to whether fiction impacts environmental awareness, 84 of the 103 surveyed affirmed it does.

Readers also gave examples as to what they believe makes an eco-fiction story impactful. Using some of those examples, we’ve created a quick reader-inspired guide to writing effective eco-fiction.

Traits readers notice in effective eco-fiction:

  • Non-polemic. It sees both sides and creates nuanced understanding that bridges and shifts view-points. (Looking into “ecotone” can be a great way to incorporate this into your writing.)
  • It inspires. Painting realistic future visions that include ways humanity can solve environmental challenges.
  • It’s artful. Evoking a message that reaches more deeply than academic understanding, or statistics, prompting action.

As a result of reading good eco-fiction, readers surveyed said their social awareness of other people, cultures, beliefs, and values improved.

Now, what to avoid when writing eco-fiction. Here are some turn-offs readers listed when reading fiction that has moral imperatives:

  • Fatalistic or Fear Mongering
  • Focusing only on problems and not solutions
  • One-sided storytelling
  • Guilt-tripping
  • Preachiness
  • Lack of diversity among characters
  • Overly simplistic or cliché
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