Chris Pak, Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction

Chris Pak, Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2016) 256 pp. £80 Hb. ISBN: 9781781382844

Terraforming, or Earth-shaping, is a hypothetical process is by which a plant, moon, or other body undergoes substantive changes in atmosphere, temperature, topography, and ecology, to render it fit for human habitation. Martyn Fogg has published numerous essays on this topic, and produced a beautifully illustrated single volume study, Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments (1995) A focus on the technical aspects of terraforming however can ignore the important, even intrinsic connections, between scientific speculation and fictional narrative, in particular the ways in which terraforming stories function as textual spaces for ecological reflection.

Chris Pak sets out to explore the emergence and development of terraforming narratives from the late nineteenth century to the present. For Pak, terraforming ‘flexibly accommodates a range of environmental events, thus opening up a potentially vast field for environmental philosophical speculation’ which thus ‘feeds into our practical attitudes and behaviour towards’ Earth and the other planets (7-8).

Pak’s book has five chapters, an introduction, conclusion, and coda. The first section sets up terraforming as a master motif for contemporary ecological and environmental thought. Using Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of dialogism and the chronotope, which, in terraforming narratives, ‘collapses textual world-building (imagined worlds) with representations of physical world-building’, Pak positions terraforming  as a set of ‘intellectual landscapes’ where ‘social, political, and ethical reflection’ on ‘implicit values’ can be explored (11). Pak clearly cannot discuss everything, but his treatment of the concept of a moral landscape in his discussion of political, ethical, and aesthetic topographies would certainly benefit from bringing in Sam’s Harris’s book of the same name, published in 2010.

Chapter One discusses pre-1960s terraforming narratives. Split into two main sections, the first begins with a consideration of debates centred on terraforming as a site of environmental reflection, before discussing the scientific romances of H G Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and the pulp writing of John Russel. The second section turns to M P Shiel, Arthur Conan Doyle, and American pulp fictions by Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, and Laurence Manning. Pak’s reading of Doyle’s ‘When the World Screamed’ (1928) is particularly engaging. For Pak, the drilling project undertaken by Edward Challenger uncovers an alien otherness which ‘calls attention to the longstanding human project of adaption, in which the Earth has been landscaped both intellectually and physically in order to shape it to humanity’s needs and desires' (45).

The second chapter examines how terraforming is framed in different representations of the American pastoral. For Pak, the intersection of ecological images with science fiction offers a number of ‘conceptual handles for exploring the impact that technology has on human relationships to nature’ (59). Examining the first book-length narratives that deal with terraforming, Pak turns to Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950), Robert A. Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (1950), and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951), all of which deploy chronotopes to establish a pastoral country-city opposition, and are, equally, ridden with post-war anxieties about the future. Bradbury’s use of the pastoral mode generates, for Pak, ‘degrees of ambiguity, ironic detachment [and] reflection towards’ the development of anachronistic worlds.

Chapter Three analyses ecology and environmental awareness in the new wave of 1960s and 70s SF production. Responding to a sense of environmental urgency, terraforming narratives during this period were shaped by the ‘proliferation of ecologically orientated communes’, ecological experimentation, and sustainability (98). Stuart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog is the conceptual starting point here, which predates James Lovelock’s blending of mysticism and science in the Gaia motif. Pak moves on to Richard McKenna’s ‘The Night of Hoggy Darn’ and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), before embarking on readings of Dune (1965), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), The Dispossessed (1974), and Ecotopia (1975). Pak argues the ‘ecological notion of love’ rendered in these narratives becomes ‘a metaphorical attempt to effect a synthesis’ that will overcome the more self-destructive tendencies of humankind’s approach to nature. During this period SF begins to develop a discernible 'green' philosophy which is extended into narratives written during the 1980s and 90s.

Chapter Four traces the development of an Eco-cosmopolitan vision, or put differently, the notion of environmental world citizenship. Michael Albany’s The Greening of Mars (1984) promotes a softer terraforming, signalling the ‘explicit convergence of terraforming and Gaian themes’ (139). Pamela Sargent’s Venus trilogy and Frederick Turner’s poem Genesis represent ‘two significant different treatments of terraforming’ despite ‘sharing fundamental similarities […] towards planetary adaption’ (141). Both establish an eco-cosmopolitan awareness, with Sargent concerned with the colonists developing ‘new relations to each other’ while Turner's use of epic poetry acts as an ‘interface between internal and external worlds (166).

The final chapter focuses on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, which powerfully explores the fusion between the physical world and social practices and values. Pak teases out sections often overlooked, examining the motif of the garden, the arrival of new species on Mars, and the construction of Martian myths. A fascinating discussion of the relations between science, nature, and aesthetic appreciation could have more closely referenced Sax Russell’s disquisitions in Green Mars, but the chapter is a worthy addition to Robinson scholarship. For Pak, it is these confrontations with ‘nature’s otherness’ that ‘allow characters to step back’ and develop ‘alternative ways of valuing their environment’ (182).

The conclusion opens up the project to terraforming narratives post-Robinson, notably Robert Reed’s ‘A History of Terraforming’ (2010) and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), the latter read as an expression of the science-fiction tradition, ‘a compilation of ecologic SF traditions that have gained wider currency in [the] culture’ since the 1980s (219). The coda explores future directions for study, examining profitable avenues of critical enquiry in and across film, television, and gaming.

Terraforming is an eminently readable, enjoyable, and a well-informed criticism of selected science-fiction narratives. It is itself a kind of modulation, a transformation in our current thinking about the politics of SF and visions of how we might shape our world and other planets. I’ll end with one of Pak’s observations about the importance of such stories: ‘the fundamental question asked is how we want to live, and [these stories emerge] from the concern over whether we can continue living in ways that threaten the integrity of our environments' (17).

Andrew Rowcroft, University of Lincoln