It has become axiomatic to say that the world is becoming like science fiction. From mobile phones that speak to us (reminding Star Trek fans of tricorders), to genetically modified foods, to the Internet of Things and the promise of self-driving cars, people in industrialized nations live immersed in technology. Daily life can thus at times seem like visions from the pulp science fiction of the 1920s and 1930s — either a world perfected by technology, manifested in events such as the 1939 World’s Fair, with its theme “The World of Tomorrow”; or a dystopian nightmare, such as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932).
If we think about science fiction (sf) in terms of the genre’s connections to pressing issues in 21st-century culture, no topic is more urgent than climate change and the ways it promises to transform all aspects of human life, from where we live to how we cultivate our food to what energy sources will fuel our industries.
The issue is so pressing that some have started to use the term “cli-fi” for climate fiction — but this faddish coinage obscures a longer history of sf’s engagement with the environment and leaves unexamined the question of why sf has proven such a valuable genre for thinking about environmental futures. Even before the idea of climate change took hold, the genre embraced the geological and evolutionary timescales of 19th-century science and began to think of the planet as something that preceded our species and could conceivably continue without us. Such conceptualizations of the planet as a changeable environment turned the tradition of apocalyptic fiction toward mundane visions of environmental catastrophe instead of divine judgment.