BY Brian W. Aldiss in Frieze | 06 JUN 07
Featured in
Issue 108

This is Planet Earth

Examining literature and cinema's ongoing fascination with tales of ecological disaster and global apocalypse

BY Brian W. Aldiss in Frieze | 06 JUN 07

In 2004 Modern Art Oxford staged an installation of Mike Nelson’s 'Triple Bluff Canyon'. On the upper floor of the gallery a steep hill of sand had been built. On top of this dune was a replica of an old wooden shack, based on Robert Smithson’s 'Partially Buried Woodshed' (1970). The whole was designed to create anxiety and uncertainty. Yet visitors to the exhibition lingered on the edge of the sand, reluctant to return to reality. The sand cast a spell. The visitors may have been reminded of pleasant days at the seaside in their childhood. This impression was reinforced by people who, entering the shack above, waved cheerfully to those of us down on the fringe of the dune, as though on holiday.

How we read environments depends on our own situation. For instance, those who live in filthy environments long for clean places, which may vary, given that a Western city may be muckier than a village in a dwindling Amazonian forest. Thomas More’s 'Utopia' (1516) talks of the selling of meat in a market-place where ‘the filth and ordure thereof is clean washed away in the running river […] lest the air by the stench thereof, infected and corrupt, should cause pestilent diseases’. By such imaginings we learn something of Utopia but perhaps more about the state of London in the time of Henry VIII. These days we would hesitate to pollute More’s running river. Similarly we would be unhappy to read the notice that once stood on a pier on the Isle of Wight saying: ‘Do not drop your rubbish on the pier. Throw it in the sea.’ Sensibilities change with technology.

Global warming has made ecologists of us all. (I first read the word ‘ecology’ in one of those scorned 15-cent Yankee science-fiction magazines such as 'Future Science Fiction, Amazing Stories and Analog'.) The tsunami which, in December 2004, laid waste to vast expanses of the countries around the Indian Ocean – Indonesia in particular – has brought about more painful considerations regarding mankind’s responsibilities for overturning the planetary balance we once understood under the all-embracing name of Gaia. Gaia now rocks on her throne. Throne-rocking, of course, has a long history. In 1987 that assiduous researcher Paul Brians published his 'Nuclear Holocausts', in which he lists and describes over 800 novels and stories concerning the world – or, if not the world, then civilization – destroyed by atomic or nuclear weapons. Brians draws our attention to Walter M. Miller’s triple-jointed novel 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' (1959). Here a new dark age has followed nuclear war; the Catholic Church revives an old role as a preserver of ancient knowledge. The book, which grew out of the science-fiction magazine 'Fantasy & Science Fiction' (founded in 1949), in which it originally appeared as a series of short stories, became very popular. Perhaps its great attraction was that it suggests that civilization can be rebuilt after a nuclear war. Many vaguely similar stories, lacking Miller’s skills, are satirical in intent or else romantic in nature, presumably written by authors who wish to see the US or elsewhere revert to a wild state. These we may classify as constituting the ‘Cowboys of Doom’ stable of writing and are hardly worth further thought. I recall Robert Adams’ ‘Horseclans’ (1975–88) series of paperbacks, in which the author longs for all of the US to turn into the old Wild West. Barbarism is a negation of justice and all that is civilized.

A defence of much bad or puerile writing in the early days of science-fiction magazines was that it predicted the future. The generic signifier for this kind of thing could be seen on paperbacks of the 1950s: in front of a needle-like silver space rocket stands a blonde woman in a tight-fitting space suit. And for those who had not quite got the message a terrible green thing would lurk in the background. The repetitive cover announces that it is there for readers who want to read what they have already read, with only minor variations – blue monsters instead of green, say. However, this kind of writing could not predict the future and did not seriously attempt to do so, for where are the novels about global warming? An interesting scenario taking us beyond this current threat is contained in Noel Hodson’s novel 'AD 2516 – After Global Warming' (2005). In Hodson’s world great storms abound, but the earth is returning to its calmer patterns, possibly because populations have declined. People have died, yet science survives: ‘Joe pointed down at the gleaming white structure in the middle of the ocean. It was a vast complex disc encircling a placid lagoon. The outside walls soared hundreds of feet into the air like castle ramparts, straight out of the grey-blue turbulent Atlantic […] the walls sported thousands of windows and storm-proof balconies, rising to dizzying towers and sculpted pinnacles. Everywhere, there were wind generators of all sizes, spinning in the relentless Atlantic breeze.’The tradition of global, or at least British, ecological catastrophe in science-fiction literature is a long one. In 1826 Mary Shelley wrote a successor to 'Frankenstein' (1818), entitled 'The Last Man'. In the novel a mighty plague is spreading from the east and wiping out the entire population. This was not far from the truth, since a cholera pandemic was already threatening the sort of catastrophe that Shelley had in mind. A frustrated journalist called Richard Jefferies, reduced to working in the city, wrote a novel called 'After London', in which nature has come back into its own. London has died. That was published in 1885. The best-known novel by M.P. Shiel is 'The Purple Cloud' (1901), in which, as in Shelley’s novel, one last man is left alive on Earth after a poisonous purple vapour drifts across the planet killing all living creatures. Rather later comes Sydney Fowler Wright’s 'Deluge', which appeared in 1928; a catastrophic flood consumes large parts of England, with only the Chilterns remaining as a small archipelago of tiny islands. 'Deluge' was made into a film in 1933 and is regarded as one of the first disaster movies. H.G. Wells, of course, frequently destroyed the world in order that a better society should emerge; this is the theme of Alexander Korda’s film 'Things to Come' (1936), based on Wells’ long and garrulous novel 'The Shape of Things to Come' (1933), which predicts a global war that throws humanity into a second dark age, out of which eventually rises a new, technocratic society. Among more recent warnings of the collapse of civilization we have contributions by John Wyndham, J.G. Ballard and John Boland. Boland’s book 'White August' (1955) delivers exactly what the title promises; a radioactive snow falls across the country in the middle of the summer. John Christopher’s 'The Death of Grass' (1956) remains the most striking of such disaster fiction, exploring the breakdown of society following the destruction of grass across the world by a deadly virus. My own novel 'Greybeard' (1964) deals with an ageing world without children. Summing up all these works and many more like them, one can say they are explosions either of dread of oncoming disaster, or of a longing for it to happen and be done. As Omar Khayyam puts it in his poem ‘Rubáiját’ (c. 1120), if we ‘could grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire / Would not we shatter it to bits – and then re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!’

The great creator of disaster scenarios is, of course, Wells. His are cautionary tales. When 'The War of the Worlds' (1898) is over and the Martians are dead, London lies in ruins; red weed grows everywhere, a reminder of the invasion. Even more forlorn, more terrible, is the scene at the end of 'The Time Machine' (1895), in which the sun is dying. ‘The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives – all that was over.’ Aldous Huxley employs the same kind of luxurious chastisement of readers in 'Ape and Essence' (1949). The novel, published shortly after World War II, is set after World War III, when humanity itself has been debased. ‘Joy? But joy was murdered long ago. All that survives is the laughter of demons about the whipping-posts, the howling of the possessed as they couple in the darkness.’ Many of us, for whatever reason, relish such bouts of inspissated gloom. For the movies, predicting credible dark scenarios is bread and butter: in addition to 'Things to Come', the nuclear holocaust envisioned by 'On the Beach' (1959), or the more recent and largely underestimated ecological apocalypse of 'The Day After Tomorrow' (2004).

In our present period of all kinds of technological advance, the book as product has survived and flourished, despite predictions to the contrary. Science fiction, however, has undergone a greater change than its presentation to the public in book form. We have space probes, but the possible manned ships to Mars and Jupiter’s moons have been grounded. The future itself has receded like a departing tide, leaving us on the dangerous sands of the present, where authors such as Geoff Ryman, Ken MacLeod, Iain Banks and Philip Pullman write of much that is happening now: if not a present, then an alternative present. It is no longer science fiction as we used to know it. The present has become our contemporary launch pad. Never has the transitory seemed more permanent.

My thought is that apocalyptic literature serves best as metaphor. My first science fiction novel, 'Non-Stop' (1958), sold widely. It was bought by a publisher in Warsaw during the communist regime and rose to number two on the Polish bestseller list. When I went to collect my zlotys, I asked why my publishers thought this had happened. The answer was they saw the book as a metaphor for incarceration in the USSR regime. Put briefly, 'Non-Stop' concerns a great ship bound for the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. It cannot achieve the speed of light, and so it will take many generations to reach the star’s orbit. When several generations have been imprisoned on the ship, something goes wrong. The captain is killed. The survivors of this catastrophe sink into tribalism and forget that they are in a spacecraft. Untended, hydroponic plants spread throughout the vessel, transforming corridors into forests. The ship has become the world. Sections of this idea I took from a story by Robert Heinlein, entitled ‘Universe’, first published in the May 1941 issue of 'Astounding Science Fiction'. It deeply fascinated me, although I had to disregard all the fighting and the fact that a central character was a mutant with two heads. I went for a more contemplative and romantic approach. My central character, Roy Complain, is a wistful fellow, in love with Vyann. He knows something is missing, something he cannot name, which he calls ‘the big something’. This was, I felt, only an ordinary adventure story, yet I charged it with emotion, feeling that I too was hoping for a big something arising from my current confinements. My circumstances, not of my making, were uncomfortable, much like those of the crew of my ship, as I travelled on through a chilly marriage which chance had engineered for me. I was learning; I worked with metaphor without realizing it. Over the years, while 'Non-Stop' continued to sell, I studied writers who had suffered cruel loss in childhood – Anna Kavan, John Osborne, Philip K. Dick. A new publishing house was established in Warsaw when Poland joined the European Union. They bought the rights to a new translation of Non-Stop. The novel is all but 50 years old, and there have been about 20 or more editions of it, counting translations. The courteous publishers sent me a copy of the picture they planned to use on the book cover. Without exception, Non-Stop’s cover artists have concentrated on the outside of the ship: generic signifiers, of course – a great spacecraft, a clouded planet. The new Polish cover is strikingly different. A computer-generated image by the artist Tomasz Maronski allows us a look inside the ship. It depicts the moment when Complain accidentally rolls back a shutter and sees – well, he regards in astonishment the Real World, and the great planet and its moon. He is given the cosmos itself. Reality breaks in on him. This is the moment when he confronts his big something. ‘It was just to see Vyann’s face – by sunlight.’ I still recall typing those words. For me too this was the ‘big something’. I suffered a thunderbolt. Maronski’s picture – how should I put it? – transfigured me. The sorrows of my childhood had shut something away from me, had defensively walled off a part of my psyche. Now I had it back. No longer was I all apology. Understanding flowed as to why this moment in my book had been so necessary, while still concealing its true nature. With this picture of Maron´ski’s I had been given back full possession of myself. The shock, the revelation, the joy, were beyond words. My sense of loss – knowing myself to be unwanted, being sent away from home when ill – was what drove me to write science fiction; it was my overriding metaphor. I was at least partly aware that the familial environment in which I had been brought up was not the one I thought it was.

It is easy to understand from this example why and how people turn to territories of catastrophe. Catastrophe has actually happened to them. In Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' Dr Frankenstein’s monstrous creature is motherless, and the story derives its literary puissance from the cruel fact that Shelley’s mother died giving birth to her: she too was motherless. Behind the impossible lurks improbable truth. From a sense of loss emerges the gift of creativity. Frankenstein says at one point in the narrative: ‘The stars shone at intervals, as the clouds passed over them; the dark pines rose before me, and every here and there a broken tree lay on the ground. It was a scene of wonderful solemnity, and stirred strange thoughts within me.’ Strange thoughts indeed – such as confront most humans. So he threads his way with a sense of desolation through gaunt scenery in a foreign land. This is the journey many writers feel compelled to take – even as far as Alpha Centauri.