Food, Water and Bird Song – What Dystopian Literature Can Teach Us About Taking the Planet for Granted

By Margaret O’Gorman, President|February 21, 2017


The natural environment has always had a place in literature. Sometimes as a part of the story itself, driving the plot forward and creating man-versus-nature narratives like Melville’s Moby Dick and Punke’s The Revenant. Sometimes nature is a crucial part of literary world building – an implementation of the advice to “show, don’t tell” given by every creative writing teacher. Victorian novels like Brontë’s Wuthering Heights would be much lesser stories without the atmosphere created by the surrounding natural world, in this case the weather and the windswept heath.

Nature has had a place in literature since the beginning of storytelling in works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, long recognized as the world’s oldest known epic poem, which details environmental destruction when Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu destroy the cedar forest, an act of hubris that ultimately leads to their downfall. Nature exists in stories for many purposes. It is used as a metaphor in The Divine Comedy when Dante’s disorientation in the dark wood establishes the hero as a seeker of light and knowledge. It is used as a character in The Little House on the Prairie where the changes of season drive the story forward. It is used as a potent symbol in any number of tales and sagas, from ancient civilizations to today’s indigenous communities.

While all types of stories use the natural world to create narrative tension through setting and atmosphere or to act as symbols or metaphors, it is in genre fiction where nature plays a crucial and key role. In dystopian, post-apocalyptic, fantasy, speculative and science fiction novels, nature is integral as a plot device and a symbolic indicator; even through the subtlest of deployments, it has a powerful impact on the worlds the authors create and the experiences readers have.

In these genres, the environment can be the main character in the book, creating tension and drama and driving the action. In The Water Knife by Bacigalupi, the central plot centers around battles for Colorado River water rights, in a story driven by drought, interstate refugees and corrupt developers. In Herbert’s Dune, both the desert planet of Arrakis and its resident giant sand worms take on a life of their own, rewarding characters when they live in harmony and respect for nature, and punishing them when they disregard the desert’s peril and exploit the planet’s spice resources.

The environment can also be employed as a determinant of standing in a new social order, like in Lee’s On Such a Full Sea. Lee created a world in which members of the labor class are confined to urban colonies containing little to no observable nature, while the elite live in pastoral charter villages, and the rest of the population roams free in an anarchic wilderness untamed by man or government. In Saramago’s The Cave, the elite live in a centralized location that serves the functions of workspace, living space and, to meet the recreational needs of this dystopian society, commercial space. The manufacturing class, as represented by the hero Cipriano, lives beyond a bleak industrial wasteland where manufacturing of food and other goods takes place with no relation to the natural world.

In post-apocalyptic fiction, nature is typically destroyed completely or altered to such a degree that the world is unrecognizable. In this kind of world, humankind seeks refuge inside cities or structures engineered to keep them from dying, governed by new political systems that trend towards authoritarian. In the Silo series (Wool, Shift, and Dust), the self-published but critically received trilogy by Hugh Howey, the outside world is poisoned to such a degree that it is uninhabitable by humans or any other life form. The remaining population lives in silos buried deep into the earth, with a TV screen showing the bleak landscape outside the silo as a permanent reminder of the reasons for their incarcerated society.

Across more visual media, the environment is also used as shorthand. Movies like Interstellar, Avatar and Mad Max use nature and the consequences of its destruction to powerful ends. A recent TV series, Travelers, saw a group of warriors return from the future to fix the errors of the past and recreate a more livable society. The future is never seen in the show, but nature serves as a descriptor for what no longer exists in the future when the viewer observes the protagonists’ reactions to bird song (awe) and fresh food (amazement). We know that the future is not a good place if there are no birds singing and no fresh food.

Another trend in the use of nature in fiction is the corporatization of nature, removing shared benefits from the people and placing them into the hands of the powerful. Atwood’s powerful trilogy, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, speculates on what happens when genetic engineering has no ethical or legal bounds where new species are created that knock existing ecologies out of balance almost like invasive species on steroids.

All of these examples – and there are many, many more – rely on one underlying theme: when things are right, nature thrives and everyone benefits; when things are wrong, nature declines, its benefits are unequally allocated and humanity suffers accordingly.

The authors of these works are, by-and-large, not ecologists, but they know the power of nature as shorthand for health and happiness and they know that their readers, who may not be ecologists or even environmentalists, will get it too. A healthy planet with clean air, available water, fresh food and bird song should be secure enough to be taken for granted, and the alternative should only exist in the pages of dystopian stories, remaining restricted to the confines of fictional worlds.

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