While it may have taken decades for world governments to realize the very real existential threat that climate change poses to the future of our planet, we have dreamed even longer of the terrifying prospect of nature rising against us.
Most tribal societies believed in an earth goddess, like the ancient Greek deity Gaia, who stands guard, and perhaps we still fear her seeking just vengeance on us for the harm we thoughtlessly inflicted on an environment on which we depend.
At Virgil Aeneidthe entrance to the underworld is referred to as “Avernus”, a Greek-derived name for “birdless land” and a detail that speaks volumes.
Victorian novels published amid the hustle and belching chimneys of the Industrial Revolution, like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) or Great expectations (1861) by Charles Dickens portrayed the Yorkshire moors and the Kent marshes as brooding, lively characters, cruelly indifferent to the follies of men but ever vigilant.
At Thomas Hardy Return of the Native (1878) Egdon Heath is realized even more fully as a godlike presence, whose brambles reach out like idle claws to tear at his characters’ clothing as they pass, as if actively trying to restrain them.
In 1885 the Wiltshire nature writer Richard Jefferies published To Londonone of the first post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels in which he envisions the fall of British civilization and moves in the surrounding countryside to reclaim the land.
Where once plowed fields lay, forests grow, domesticated animals roam free, and the capital city turns into a poisonous swamp, its citizens back into a state of feudal barbarism.
Better known genre writers such as Jules Verne and HG Wells expressed unspoken concerns about the consequences of unchecked technological “progress” early on in fantastic adventure fiction of their own.
wells Doctor Moreau’s Island (1897) is a cautionary tale against playing God and manipulating the natural order, just like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) had been with the Romantics and Michael Crichton Jurassic Park (1990) would be up to the late 20th century.
Decades later, after two brutal world wars that shattered the certainties of imperialism’s golden age, and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought Avernus to Earth, science fiction thrived as never before.
How could it not? Man’s ability to orchestrate his own annihilation had been fully demonstrated, and the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction was now a reality of everyday life.
The dismay of the post-war period prompted many writers to look beyond the stars to the possibility of alternative life forms on less murky planets, including John Wyndams The Day of the Triffids (1951) imagine Britain being devastated by carnivorous alien plant creatures after a meteor shower, the evil Flora breaking out of Kew Gardens to take back control, as if man had proved he was no longer responsible for the stewardship of the earth is worthy.
“All plants move. But they don’t usually pull themselves out of the ground and chase you!” angers scientist Tom Goodwin in the 1962 film version.
The organic alien spores that form inside doomed astronaut Victor Caroon in Nigel Kneale’s groundbreaking BBC series The Quartermass Experiment (1953) threatens world domination until the brave British army destroys his mutant form in Westminster Abbey, another nightmare of ecological counterattack.
Across the Atlantic, America’s appetite for nuclear-age B-movies was growing and already envisioning the potential impact of nuclear waste and nuclear radiation.
“Time will tell what the cumulative effects of all these nuclear explosions and tests will be,” observes physicist Thomas Nesbitt after detonating a nuclear bomb in the Arctic The beast of 20,000 fathoms (1953), the answer is the release from the ice of a ferocious prehistoric dinosaur, prone to devouring lighthouses and stomping through central business districts in search of prey.
Based on a story by Ray Bradbury published in The Saturday evening postthe film would inspire Ishiro Honda godzilla (1954), perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the natural world rising and rampaging against the frail human tyranny, though Moby-Dick, the creature of the black lagoon, Jaws, and other leviathans might contest the title.
Godzilla is still with us, of course, and was recently spotted beating up King Kong in Adam Wingard’s latest city-shattering Punchathon.
Nature also fought back in Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story The Birds, adapted 11 years later by Alfred Hitchcock, in which seagulls dive-bomb the residents of a coastal Cornish village like kamikaze pilots, their motives eerily uncertain, but they still nudge our collective guilt.
Another interesting mob of mutants arises in Schlock producer Roger Corman Attack of the giant leeches (1959) in which the annelids in question have been mutated to grotesque sizes by radiation entering the Florida Everglades from Cape Canaveral, an act perhaps intended as an implicit criticism of the costly US space program.
Incidentally, Corman also explored the phenomenon of murderous Venus flytraps in his 1960 black comedy Little Shop of Horrors (adapted from Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Reluctant Orchid”), as did British horror studio Amicus in the “Creeping Vine” segment of its 1965 film dr Terror’s House of Secrets.
JG Ballard’s wholly prophetic second novel The Drowned World Released in 1962, set in tropical London in 2145, when the polar ice caps have melted and society has been forced to adapt, it is another poignant reminder of man’s ultimate helplessness against the elements.
The same year also brought the release of Brian Aldiss greenhouseabout our world becoming warmer since it is locked in a fixed rotation with the sun, both Aldiss and Ballard wrote about climate change, while Charles Keeling’s observations about the “greenhouse effect” of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were flatly ignored.
Ballard’s own vision of drought bringing about the downfall of mankind, The Burning Worldwas released in 1964. The “Cli-Fi” genre was now firmly established.
Its ecological themes were soon picked up by Ursula K. Le Guin, whose 1972 novel The word for world is forest concerns humanity colonizing a new planet whose inhabitants live in perfect harmony with their ecosystem, plundering it for deforestation and inciting violent uprisings through their shameless habit of stockpiling supplies.
This work, in turn, inspired James Cameron’s later eco-blockbusters avatar (2009), a film Le Guin loathed but is part of a spate of new mega-budget extravaganzas that imagine how we succumb to the elements.
This includes the infamous Kevin Reynolds flop Water world (1995), Roland Emmerich’s geostorm drama The day after tomorrow (2004), Bong Joon-ho’s new Ice Age dystopia snowpiercer (2013) and George Millers Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), in which the last survivors eke out a miserable existence on a parched earth while a decadent dictator hoards the last supplies of water.
Climate scientists have typically been frustrated by these event films, as the US National Resource Defense Council launched its “Re-Write the Future” campaign to pressure Hollywood to more openly connect the spectacle to the facts and be more accurate and engaging to call for a state of emergency for the ongoing state that takes offense at a film like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), who advocates simply leaving the galaxy when our existing natural resources are finally depleted.
Eco-warrior protagonists have been the stuff of comic book fiction since 1941, when Arthur Curry aka Aquaman first appeared in DCs More funny comics #73. Essentially a superhero version of the mythical King Neptune, he’s a defender of the seas who can talk to dolphins and started out blowing up Nazi submarines before receiving a sleapier makeover in Jason Mamoa’s Snyderverse incarnation.
At Marvel X-MenStorm, who controls the weather, is also an elemental presence with echoes of Mother Earth.
Among the more sinister environmentalist characters from the comic pages is Batman antagonist Poison Ivy, a botanist-turned-eco-terrorist who first appeared in 1966 and was memorably played by Uma Thurman in 1997 Batman & Robinand Swamp Thing, a conflicted anthropomorphic plant animal who owes a debt to HP Lovecraft’s octopus god Cthulu.
Swamp Thing’s duty is to protect the parliament of trees, and like Ivy, he communes with “The Green,” a conscious force that binds nature to its roots.
Arguably the sharpest expression of our contemporary fear of extinction is Reverend Ernst Toller in Paul Schrader’s First reformed (2017), a New York state pastor traumatized by the suicide of an environmental activist in his church.
“Someone has to do something!” cries Reverend Toller, unable to comprehend the damage we are doing to God’s creation and startled by the apathy he sees all around him.
It is both a frightening expression of a life without hope and a frantic wake-up call to action.
Equally haunting, but decidedly more homely in its appeal, was the well-intentioned children’s cartoon of the early 1990s captain planetthat hoped to inculcate in young minds the need for environmentalism through the exploits of its heroic title character, a Superman-style savior or reversed Toxic Avenger, summoned by the four elements to “zero pollution.”
Just The Lorax (1971) or Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” were just as serious.
Perhaps a new icon of Captain Planet’s boxy stature is needed to encourage genuine engagement and imaginative solutions to our collective predicament, rather than more resigned extinction prophecies like Cormac McCarthy’s The street (2005) and James Bradley’s clade (2015), in a moment when time is certainly of the essence.
Author Ken Liu discussed the ingrained pessimism in our climate fiction and whether it leads to a broader sense of helplessness, author Ken Liu told the BBC climate question Podcast that writers must turn their attention to more utopian visions of the future, rather than fetishizing our “terrible modernity,” if we are to escape the birdless land of ancient nightmare.
https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/earth-day-climate-crisis-fiction-b2063094.html Earth Day 2022: “Nature’s Revenge” in Fiction, from the Day of the Triffids to Godzilla and the Swamp Thing