While it may only be within the last few decades that the environment has made headlines weekly, if not daily, the underlying science which has sounded the alarm has been known for decades and as such has been reflected in science fiction for much of that time, the Mad Max films of the eighties, Doomwatch and The Green Death of the seventies, and in the written realm much further back, the evidence presented in eleven short stories from 1903 to 1963 now collected by editor Mike Ashley for the British Library as Nature’s Warnings, salutary glimpses into futures best avoided.
Opening the anthology subtitled “classic stories of eco-science fiction” is the report of Philip K Dick’s Survey Team, despatched after thirty years of war has left a world of ash and rivers of rust, a generation of pseudo-humans born and raised underground seeking a new home on Mars; an expedition is sent, but with them they carry the anger, failings, grudges and entitlement of humanity. First published in 1954, after The Silver Locusts of Bradbury and before Quatermass and the Pit, it is written in the broad style of the time, the same warning of that ruined planet echoes in all three – we are the Martians, and we always were.
The earliest story in this cornucopia of self-wrought Armageddons sees the protagonists of Fred M White facing an epidemic of a new variant of diphtheria wrought by The Dust of Death in a new housing development built on polluted grounds, the “foundations of a suburban paradise… wet, and dark, and festering;” the warnings which could have prevented the new plague dismissed, the authorities now turn to the very doctor they ignored to save them.
Gently told, J D Beresford introduces The Man Who Hated Flies, a tale of unintended consequences where a biological vector is released in the wild, its purpose to attack bothersome insect pests but which eradicates from the ecosystem entire populations including crucial pollinators, the first of Nature’s Warnings to emphasise that everything is connected.
A scientist who chooses to disappear, to sleep in a lead-lined chamber for 120 generations, like Wells’ time traveller, The Man Who Awoke of Laurence Manning finds the people of the future indolent and lazy, subsisting on well-managed local resources, technology having obviated labour in favour of leisure and only able to rouse themselves to fevered emotion when they ascertain his identity and hold him accountable for the crimes of his time, “the age of waste,” which exhausted oil, coal and metals.
Published in 1937, Nathan Schachner looked to the far future of 4,620AD, New York sat isolated and impregnable in a bubble of force, most every drop of water swallowed by the deserts save for the former deep ocean trenches, exposed by the receding oceans and harbouring terrible mutated life. The known Earth reworked into an alien landscape, it is the setting for an assault by humanity’s distant stepchildren against their more fortunate cousins in their oases of privilege, The Sterile Planet also echoing Wells’ divided future of the Eloi and Morlocks before a change of direction plunges first into deeper despair then, most unexpected, hope.
Returning to the present – well, 1954 – Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s Shadow of Wings tells of something altering the behaviour patterns of birds, causing them to no longer eat insects; theories abound and the uninformed take misguided action, hoarding food and acts of violence against the government whom they hold responsible, but the cause is more bizarre than might be expected in the first story included to introduce an extra-terrestrial factor, launching the second phase of the anthology.
It is forbidden to cut down a Butandra tree on the planet Cassid, yet the act was undertaken with full knowledge of the prohibition but not the consequences it will provoke, a revenge that will pursue the perpetrator across star systems followed by The Gardner, Margaret St Clair introducing the idea that nature does not take kindly to unwarranted interference, able to take directed action rather than passively accepting changes while adapting in unintended ways.
Clifford D Simak’s proposal is both more complex and simpler, a planetary survey on an impossible quest for immortality which encounters local fauna unknown and unpredictable, a chimera of multiple species whose individuals have a disturbing habit of presenting themselves to the encampment only to Drop Dead, the perfectly evolved defence mechanism of an ecosystem in such perfect balance it cannot be exploited.
Jack Sharkey also conceived of a tangled planetary ecosystem observed by a space zoologist on the planet Viridian, three species of vegetable, animal and insect totally interdependent, a symbiosis so exacting and delicate that even landing on the planet could disrupt it, a realisation which comes too late to be saved by A Matter of Protocol, while Richard McKenna predicted that his fantastic ecosystem of complexity and balance would be subverted by deliberate and directed action rather than by accident.
A bioengineering project to remodel the world as a ceremonial hunting ground led by a faction disdainful of the established research team, 1963’s Hunter, Come Home is a hybrid of the aggressive masculinity of fifties pulp science fiction and the more broadened cosmic consciousness and altered states of mind which would come into vogue in the seventies and is likely one of the many sources James Cameron tapped to irrigate the thirsty fields of Avatar.
The last of Nature’s Warnings, Alfred Bester returns to Earth, although unrecognisable, as the last man struggles with his memories and regrets through a world of ash and cinder, burned up by the catalysing agent of his own devising even as his rocket ascended into orbit on the flame which lit the torch; a bleak outcome of ambition and endeavour, Adam and No Eve offers surprising optimism at the end of everything as it propogates a new creation myth, doing what science fiction does best, turning a bitter defeat around to show it from a different and more enlightened perspective.