Saturday 7 November 2020

Nature's Warnings: Classic Stories of Eco-Science Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley

 Another of the excellent Science Fiction Classics series of anthologies edited by Mike Ashley and published by the British Library, who sent me a copy for review. The Introduction by the editor sketches in the background to environmental concerns, concentrating particularly on the lack of general understanding until very recently of the concept of ecosystems; the interconnectedness of life of all kinds in a particular environment. This has historically provided some classic examples of the principle of "unintended consequences"; e.g. the introduction of rabbits to Australia, and the liberal use of insecticides as described in Rachael Carson's groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. However, even before this, SF authors were raising concerns about environmental issues and the possible consequences for humanity, as illustrated by the selection of short stories in this volume. 

Credit is given to the hugely influential Prussian polymath, Alexander von Humboldt, described as the "godfather of ecology". His work inspired Jules Verne among many others; one of the first to recognise that while some environmental changes may bring benefits, this will be at the cost of the livelihoods of others. The editor goes on to describe numerous early stories featuring sometimes drastic environmental changes, some of which are featured in this anthology. I was interested to read that in Murray Leinster's The Mad Planet (published 1920) the climate had been drastically changed by the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels, resulting in global warming. 

There are eleven stories to illustrate various aspects of environmentalism: 

Survey Team, by Philip K Dick (first published 1954). The setting is a future Earth so devastated by robotic warfare as to be uninhabitable, with the few survivors living underground. Their only hope seems to be to make a fresh start on Mars. But when the first explorers arrive, what they discover is a bitter irony.

The Dust of Death, by Fred M. White (first published 1903). An epidemic of diptheria sweeps through an upmarket new London housing suburb. The cause is found to lie underground.

The Man Who Hated Flies, by J. D. Beresford (first published 1929). A scientist suffers from phobia concerning flies [there's a word for it, of course; to save you looking it up, it's pteronarcophobia!]. After much work, he is able to develop a highly infectious disease which is lethal to all flies. But then it is discovered that it affects more insects than just flies, and the consequences begin to pile up.

The Man Who Awoke, by Lawrence Manning (first published 1933). A man finds a method of developing suspended animation, such that he can sleep for millennia but still survive to wake up at a pre-arranged time. His first experiment lasts for three thousand years, and on awakening he discovers a radically changed world mainly covered by forest, with humanity distributed among small villages, each depending on the surrounding trees for food and other necessities of life. The man discovers that the period he has left behind is known as the Age of Waste, regarded as an horrific time during which all the resources available to humanity were used up.

The Sterile Planet, by Nathan Schachner (first published 1937). A world devastated by the over-use of all natural resources can only maintain civilisation in a few heavily-protected cities. These happen to be situated on acquifers which provide a supply of the most precious of all resources - water. Outside, and a constant threat to the cities, is a subhuman, savage population. The cities can defend themselves, but what if they were challenged by a technologically equal group?

Shadow of Wings, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (first published 1954). Something is happening to the birds – every day, they head off to unknown destinations in huge mixed flocks, and ignore their usual insect food, leaving the insects to flourish and devastate food crops. Famine threatens, but one resourceful man sets off to discover the source of the problem.

The Gardener, by Margaret St Clair (first published 1949). On another planet occupied by humanity is a grove of sacred trees. Cut one down, and there are consequences.

Drop Dead, by Clifford D. Simak (first published 1956). A survey team lands on an unexplored planet and discovers something very strange: the land is covered by one type of grass, and there is just one type of animal which happens to be remarkably tasty.

A Matter of Protocol, by Jack Sharkey (first published 1962). An intriguing story of a survey of a planet with interlinked life forms – trees, insectoids, and bear-like animals, with strict protocols governing their intricate reproductive cycle.

Hunter, Come Home, by Richard McKenna (first published 1963). Another planet with interlinked life forms, but this time they are all one plant. Human settlers are desperate to clear the native vegetation to replace it with their own ecosystem, but the plant has other ideas.

Adam and No Eve, by Alfred Bester (first published 1941). A scientist takes one risk too many with fundamental physics, with devastating consequences.

There is perhaps an even greater variety among this group of stories than in the companion anthologies from the British Library. Some tend toward fantasy rather than SF (e.g. The Sterile Planet and The Gardener), and they also vary in terms of the quality of the storytelling. I enjoyed Shadow of Wings, although this focuses on the vulnerability of our ecosystems to external interference (humanity has a well-proven record for creating its own ecological problems without needing outside help), and also Hunter Come Home, which reminded me of Harry Harrison's Deathworld series. For me, the outstanding story is Beresford's The Man Who Hated Flies, as it not only has the most realistic plot – a cautionary tale which illustrates the dangers of messing with our ecosystem – it is also well-written with some humour and characterisation. 

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