In my thesis, I set out to define a sub-genre of dystopian texts which I defined as ‘ecodystopian’ fiction. The term itself is not new and appears in various places to refer to dystopian novels that explore environmental issues. However, no one had actually tried to detail what the ‘eco’ prefix meant in terms of challenging or adapting the existing genre, and it often seemed to be used as shorthand for anything vaguely environmental.
While trying to develop my framework, I found Adam Trexler’s text Anthropocene Fictions really helpful. In his chapter on ‘Eco-nomics’, Trexler notes that climate change texts dealing with the near future engage with the concept of ‘eco’ at several levels:
- ‘Following the Greek meaning of “home”, the novels in question explore what it means to dwell in the Anthropocene, when climate change already affects the reader here, not in a distant time or place’.
- ‘Second, these novels are more broadly economic, dealing with the material circumstance of human beings […] As climate change affects scarcity, security, technology, enterprise, energy, trade, production, markets, and consumptions, humans’ way of living must also adapt’.
- ‘Third, these novels engage with the ecological […] Rather than offering anthropocentric character studies, they capture how geology, geography, and species radically shape human experience’.
(Taken from Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions, (2015) pages 170-171)
So the ‘eco’ prefix can be understood as gesturing to three contexts here:
- ‘oîkos’ – house, household
Significantly, dystopian fiction, in its representation of the ‘bad place’, has always had a preoccupation with ‘oîkos’ as the space and place of dwelling. In its aim of critiquing society, it is inherently concerned with the ‘house’ or ‘household’ of humanity. Furthermore, dystopian fiction in its analysis of the structure of society and the function of government or governing powers is also inherently economic, dealing with the material circumstances of everyday life and social relationships. In particular, technology and consumerism have been staple themes of the genre since its emergence in the early twentieth century.
The introduction of ‘ecology’ however challenges the traditionally anthropocentric preoccupation of the genre. Rather than simply considering the economic and political dimensions of a supposedly self-contained human society, an ecological outlook expands this scope to consider the active role played by environmental factors, such as geography and climate, in shaping the dystopian society. Whereas in novels such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four the non-human environment provides a backdrop for or space of resistance to the dystopian society, in novels such a George Turner’s The Sea and the Summer or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl the society that emerges is the result of a network of interrelated environmental, economic, and political factors. Importantly, the ecodystopian novel does not simply use a post-apocalyptic of environmentally-ravaged setting as a backdrop. Instead, the consequences of this environmental precarity are central to the functioning of the dystopian society and central to the narrative.
Finally I would like to add one more interpretation of the ‘eco’ in ecodystopia – as a reference to ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is an emerging, interdisciplinary critical field which takes a critical approach to the representation of the environment. Within a literary context, ecocriticism considers how nature is perceived through an analysis of linguistic and literary representation, seeking to understand the historical/political/cultural contexts which produce these representations. In much the same way that a feminist text may attempt to challenge conventional ideas of gender, an ecocritical text attempts to challenge conventional ideas around nature and humanity’s relationship to their surrounding environment.
Consequently, ecodystopian fiction is not simply about negative or nightmarish environmental futures, but a more complex examination of the interdependent relationship between human governance, social structures, and the surrounding environment. However, this development means that not all ecodystopian novels will be dystopian in a traditional sense. The need to address wider environmental change necessitates changes to the form and strategies of these novels. The purpose of my thesis was to analyse these changes and to evaluate the new structures and literary strategies that defined an emerging corpus of ‘ecodystopian’ fiction.