Science fiction readers may be familiar with the giant sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune, or the pequeninos, small pig-like aliens from Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. These species and their surrounding ecosystems puzzle the human explorers that encounter them. In the article “Islands in the Aether Ocean: Speculative Ecosystems in Science Fiction” from Contemporary Literature, Elizabeth Callaway examines these two novels and their strange species, arguing that the authors propose a different way of relating to biodiversity. In this interview, Callaway explains how science fiction can help us question the conceptual frameworks that define our understanding of biodiversity on Earth.
How did you end up looking at science fiction through the lens of biodiversity?
Actually, the interest in biodiversity came first! I’m writing a book about representations of biodiversity, and a version of the article we’re discussing now appears as a chapter. When I was initially thinking about assembling a group of texts that tackle the challenge of representing species in their multitudes, science fiction seemed like a particularly fertile place to start. Within the genre are novels that describe entire planets of living variety. While other types of books mention hundreds of species (memoirs of competitive birders or the nonfiction of E. O. Wilson, for example) SF is really excellent at portraying entire planets of surprising and lively creatures. In addition, these planets can sometime feature what I call “speculative ecosystems,” or sets of interactions among living creatures that do not function the way Earth’s ecosystems do. They’re built on different, imaginative systems, and because they’re so unusual they model alternative stances toward biodiversity.
When it comes to depicting biodiversity, what makes these two novels different from other works of science fiction?
Their “speculative ecosystems” are a key part of what sets them apart. Unlike many worlds that are simple Earth analogues where the environment doesn’t make much of a difference to the story, and unlike novels which feature a planet seeded with Earth organisms (like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy), these are not systems that are analogous to Earth ecosystems or based on Earth species. They’re totally alien (if imagined) worlds. There are other examples that I would include as speculative ecosystems. The most well-known might be James Cameron’s Avatar. That world features ecosystems that work in ways that are very different from those on Earth. Animals can connect to each other with exposed nerve-type organs, there is a central tree that connects the entire planet in a type of neural net, and there’s abundant terrestrial bioluminescence. That said, Dune and Speaker for the Dead, unlike Avatar, do not make the speculative ecosystem into an object of worship or offer any old-school environmental readings having to do with rootedness, sense of place, or living on the land. Rather they explore the speculative variety of organisms on their planet in new ways.
You say that, while we are used to thinking about science fiction as a genre that shows us possible futures for our own planet, science fiction also works “by imagining things that could never be.” How can the “counterfactual” nature of science fiction help us to think about our own environmental challenges?
On one hand it seems like the science fiction texts that imagine Earth futures might be more useful for thinking through current environmental challenges. You think of stories that include biodiversity decline like Phillip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and it’s clear how they’re interested in what animals mean to individual people and also to different human societies. They explore how these meanings might change as species decline. What is particularly interesting to me about science fiction that doesn’t imagine future Earths of declined species, however, is that they experiment with alternative ways to relate to biodiversity. In particular, I think it’s useful that Dune and Speaker for the Dead present a puzzled stance toward biodiversity where one is continually surprised by the way diverse nonhuman organisms interact with each other. I think the mechanics of science fiction itself—the way it explains how the fictional world works by casually throwing out hints rather than presenting sections of exposition—are fantastic for modeling a puzzled engagement that holds space open for recognizing the agency of nonhumans. In science fiction we’re always ready for that clue that changes what we had assumed to be true about the world, and this is especially true for the impossibly strange ecosystems of counterfactual worlds. If we’re curious about how the world works while aware that we can be surprised, then I think that can cultivate an attitude that more easily recognizes the liveliness of the material world including (but not limited to) nonhuman living creatures.
What are you reading right now? (For fun or for serious.)
Emily Dickinson has become my home quarantine inspiration. Whenever my socially-distanced world feels tiny and diminished, she makes me realize that my back yard is only as small as my mind. (Dickinson and I share the good fortune of having a yard.) After reading a few of her poems I see the details of the world as strange and new. In one of her more famous quotations she describes poetry as writing which makes her “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” This is such a fabulously weird way of defining poetry, and it is how her poems make me feel except it is also as if my entire word has had a lid removed, and there’s more room to experience everything. I’m also reading How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, which is beautiful, lonely, and a playful mashup of science fiction and narrative theory.
If you had to pick a favorite species from Arrakis or Lusitania, what would it be?
Given our current pandemic, I am more and more fascinated by the descolada virus that “unglues” DNA and wreaks havoc on the human community of Lusitania in Speaker for the Dead. While I wouldn’t want to characterize the descolada as my “favorite,” it has captured my attention anew. This is the virus that sculpted life on Lusitania, initially creating the plant/animal paired species while driving the vast majority of life extinct. Its world-remaking capabilities certainly feel especially real right now as my own world is being remade in different but comparable ways. Also, the way the descolada simplifies the planet (to put it mildly) is more and more striking to me. I now look at my article’s visualization of the stark ecosystem of Lusitania and imagine a similarly simple social network made of my interactions during social distancing. The story of a virus reshaping a world certainly feels increasingly relevant.
Elizabeth Callaway is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Utah and affiliated faculty with the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program. She researches and teaches at the intersections of contemporary literature, environmental humanities, and digital humanities. Some of her most recent publications focus on climate change in Zadie Smith’s NW, diversity and inclusion in definitions digital humanities, and the speculative ecosystems of science fiction. Her current book project, titled Eden’s Endemics: Narratives of Biodiversity on Earth and Beyond, is forthcoming at the University of Virginia Press.