Staying with the End of the World: SF Futures of Hope during Ecological Devastation
By the end of the twenty-first century we might lose the majority of all species. Worse, this widely read academic paper claims that we have only about a decade left before facing irreparable consequences of climate change (that is, before everyone faces them. The underprivileged already do).
Landscapes of ruination constitute the effects of what some call the Anthropocene: a geological epoch in which humans have become a determining force of the planet’s future. Ecological change also has vast social consequences, creating waves of environmental refugees and geographies of uneven development and ecological injustice. McKenzie Wark defines the Anthropocene in a striking way: it is “a new metabolism” in which the waste products do not return so that the cycle can renew itself.
These landscapes of ecological devastation feature prominently in works of science fiction as writers of the genre have often been concerned with futures that are the direct consequence of today’s actions. As early as J. D. Beresford’s “The Man Who Hated Flies” (1929) to Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels, SF has been, in Wark’s words, “a kind of realism of the possible” that imagines environmental futures like no other fiction genre.
In such a dark ecological landscape, how does one sustain hope for the future?
And, if one writes about it, how can one imagine a realistic possibility of a recovering future on a damaged Earth?
Learning to Stay with the Trouble
Anthropologist Anna Tsing speaks of a “patchy capitalism” that can no longer promise progress; it only extends devastation. The failure of its promises renders precarity the only common feature of all creatures on Earth. This shared precarity is key: it can create new, unexpected alliances. For example, in places suffering from environmental injustice the local human community has more to gain by aligning with the local nonhuman species.
With this in mind, biologist and cultural theorist Donna Haraway suggests steering clear from efforts of restoring the Earth’s past condition (we are, after all, beyond a certain point of no return). Instead of ambitiously hoping to undo the trouble we have made, she recommends that we commit to what she calls a partial recuperation of our world. This partial healing is guided by (sometimes unexpected) collaborations between species. These species we live with and die with are the species we need to relearn how to be with, if we wish to build more livable futures. In other words, we need to learn how to stay with the trouble.
What is “Trouble”? “Trouble” is a force that adds layers and creates entanglements that further complicate our world. Capitalism, colonialism, our uses of technology and, of course, climate change are all examples of troublemakers, makers of realities that add complicated, hard-if-not-impossible-to-undo layers to our existence. Staying with the trouble is about finding ways to more livable lives without ignoring the effects of the damage we have caused.
Deborah Bird Rose writes in Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics of Decolonization that white settlers brought with them an idea of time: Future. Future became a justification for ruthless ambition and projects of destruction; a rationale to ignore the extinction of peoples and ecologies as collateral damage to progress. Trouble is often created by looking towards the future, the topic SF readers and writers speculate about. Reconsidering how we look at the future might be one way not to undo Trouble—since this is not possible—but to create collaborations between the subjects affected by Trouble and work together towards these more livable futures.
How do we get there?
What Stories We Choose to Tell
Haraway also speaks about the importance of storytelling. She says that this is a time of urgencies. Not emergencies and the pending apocalypse they entail; a time of urgencies means a time when we must think. For Haraway, these urgencies need new stories, new concepts. New ways to tell the story of our world.
What has been the story we have been telling ourselves so far? Ursula K. Le Guin and Haraway would agree that this is very often the story of Man the Hero who alone overcomes all difficulties, especially those imposed by nature. This story places humanity on top of a world it is only part of. Shifting our storytelling practices means telling stories of us being not in the world, but of the world. Shifting perspective means thinking with other species. Although “Anthropocene” sounds like a suspiciously anthropocentric name, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that considering humanity as a geological force actually blurs the distinction between natural and human history. It forces us to think of history in new ways.
Changing how we think means changing the story of ourselves that we tell ourselves. SF would be ideal to achieve this, right?
Yet much of old and new SF specifically relies on human exceptionalism: humanity conquering space, humanity overcoming all odds—some of them environmental. For Le Guin, science fiction is the myth of technology we tell ourselves and the fiction of this myth is either triumph or tragedy, either conquering the stars or creating the apocalypse. Indeed, Amitav Gosh notices that environmental fiction, SF or not, often is a narrative of destruction where some survive and that the purpose of these stories is to make us feel better about ourselves. He argues that, effectively, we have entered an era when fiction conceals rather than articulates the issues of our time. Climate fiction often only reassures our worries rather than urging us to think. One reason for this apparent impasse would be the concepts we’re using to express concepts: the Man the Hero backstory of many (although not all) stories.
A more grounded approach to the future—the par excellence subject matter of SF—would not be about one person’s survival in a destroyed Earth. It can be about figuring out how to live with the trouble we have caused on this planet we share with other species. This is an already existing narrative that we need more of, urgently.
Stories as Multispecies Bundles
Le Guin had a theory on how to make SF more grounded, more realistic: the carrier bag. A concept borrowed from natural history, it describes storying as a carrier bag, a bundle holding things—a technology probably much older than sharp blades, much more essential to everyday life. The carrier bag represents another way to tell stories. Instead of a Hero making the future with their bare hands, the carrier bag collects. It contains a bunch of elements, entangling horizontally. It is relational, communal, has no Heroes. It is the story of many people and many species. Things exist in relation to each other and not to illuminate a Hero’s achievements. Consciously redefining our stories about science and the future as “carrier bags” could make our SF more about how we can live with the trouble.
The carrier bag of fiction also points to alternative modes of storytelling. Le Guin says that the elements contained in the bag might be in conflict—the dear element of contemporary Western storytelling—with each other, but a narrative is not reduced to conflict. A story is not its conflict, nor is it necessary to have one in order to be a story. I have good news: these carrier-bag narrative modes already exist all around us. They have survived in oral traditions (where Heroic narratives were also born, yet coexist with numerous folktales that do not rely on conflict or rising action, but on emotional and social thresholds that signify changes instead). These narrative modes also thrive in shorter form, where their articulative power is often more potent than in novels. They also thrive in shorter and longer fiction from underprivileged and marginalized communities and in all the places where these perspectives meet. It is more vital than ever to learn how to listen to those voices.
SF can do more than Man the Hero—it is already doing it, in fact it has been doing it since the beginning. The only difference is that, in our urgent times, we need to notice more, think more; to consciously use the tools of this tradition to teach ourselves the living-with other species, the staying-with the trouble. The growing recognition of the richness in SF writing, expanding internationally and across marginalized subjects and communities, contains the very elements of the carrier bag. Part of our mission as writers, editors, readers, is to learn and teach how to read these stories, how to see the backstory behind the story, to see the value in an SF story that uses narrative modes different than those we have been used to. It is about rewiring our brains, about finding the new concepts telling concepts.
Writing SF That Stays with the Trouble
Older work, like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, as well as recent work (most notably The Sixth World series by Rebecca Roanhorse, as well as a number of short stories appearing in anthologies and SF magazines) cast rays of light on the methods, crafts, and arts we need to stay with the trouble; on how to relate in post-disaster worlds.
My favorite among these is Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, an anthropological account of the Kesh, the people that live in the far, far future of California. Its structure is unique: threaded by one longer narrative (the story of Stone Telling) the book is bits and pieces—poems, folktales, notes on food and clothing, even musical scores of folk songs, painting a world where humans and other species have developed new relations with the world. These bits create smaller narratives within and along the longer narrative, smaller stories within stories, which one can discover if one is mindful to notice the relations. It is the written account of a fictional oral culture, so the modes of storytelling are often oral too. The book is a partial account of a world recuperating from damage—to echo John Scalzi in his introduction of the book, it is not a utopia, but certainly a place I would love to live. Truly a carrier bag of a book.
John Crowley’s lesser known yet thrilling work, Engine Summer, is a dreamy account of a quiet life after ruin with unexpected animal-human collaborations at its heart. In the time of the novel, our Anthropocene world is but stories upon stories, wrapped in more stories, and then myths, so that the entire novel seems, sometimes, a bunch of entirely charming (although bleak) scraps of our world, wrapped in the tattered memories of those who will live many years later. This is very much a novel about collective memory: how we recall a past so far away we can only remember it as myth, but also how we have internalized what this past taught our worlds.
How to Nourish Radical Hope
“We need to reseed our souls and our home worlds in order to flourish—again, or maybe just for the first time—on a vulnerable planet that is not yet murdered” – Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p.116
By the end of the twenty-first century we might lose the majority of all species. This extinction will leave traces, as previous extinctions did. Like the memory of an extinct bee that is preserved in the orchid species whose flowers resemble the female bee.
These are memories of relational lives. These histories of the dead existing along with the living can tell us stories about how to live again, together with other species.
The idea of “living with the trouble” contains, with no doubt, hope. It tells us that partial recuperation is okay and that it is possible. It is what Jonathan Lear calls radical hope: a kind of hope that “anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.” Radical hope is what has enabled us to face the end of our worlds many times. As Arkady Martine mentioned in a recent article, everyone’s world is ending all the time. We have faced ends before; this is not new, at least for us that have been part of communities that have faced deeply traumatic ends. Suyi Davies Okungbowa, writing on the socioeconomics of the post-apocalypse, says that the underprivileged have experienced disasters many times and so they are more likely to face forward rather than yearn for a lost past. Radical hope is about our current ways of life ending, while there is faith in a future subjectivity that does not yet exist.
Hope is not optimism; it is about acquiring the skills on how to live with current and future trouble. SF becomes a way of illuminating the already existent ways of being and storying, to help us hone these essential skills in a way science itself cannot. Isabelle Stengers writes that SF stories might be the “missing thought experiments” of science that dare to explore the “settled, authoritative distribution between the possible and the impossible” and, thus, they are a way to provide precisely what scientific imagination demands: exploring our capacity to imagine other possible ways to exist.