Environment has long been a popular topic in science-fiction. Setting is a huge part of SF, so it’s no surprise that the environment and different kinds of environment recurs as a topic. In the past year, I read Dune and The Windup Girl and, of course, Interstellar arrived on the big screen. In all three stories environment plays a huge role in forwarding the plot and influencing the characters who must adapt, almost a character in itself.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is set on the desert planet Arrakis. Duke Leto is given control of Arrakis by the Padishah Emperor. He relocates to the planet with his son Paul and Paul’s mother, Leto’s mistress Lady Jessica. The story follows Paul, who must learn to survive on this inhospitable planet with his mother after the Emperor betrays Duke Leto, leading to the duke’s death. After loosing his station as the duke’s son, Paul and Lady Jessica flee. They must overcome the harsh environment and eventually band with the Fremen, who are indigenous to Arrakis.
Upon making the big move to Arrakis, Paul quickly notices that water is scarce and that one must take extra measures to maintain the bodies moisture. The stillsuit is worn by those of the House Atreides and Fremen alike when venturing outside the palace. The suit maintains the body’s moisture and recycles it so that it’s wearer may drink the water.
Fremen culture in Dune involves the belief that water and moisture are shared among the group. They have high expectations among themselves to keep the stillsuit worn properly at all times when outside. The necessity of water conservation on Arrakis also guides the Fremen in their rituals. They preserve the water of their dead by filtering blood from corpses. Overall, the Fremen are far better adapted to Arrakis than the foreign settlers. There is a major difference in attitude between the settlers under the Emperor and Fremen. The settlers see this desert planet as a thing to concur and something to take spice from. The Fremen work with the planet. They see it as a place that gives value to water and they believe that one day the planet will thrive with water and green plants.
Another major element to Arrakis’s environment in Dune are giant sandworms, who can sense when people are around based on rhythmic human walking. I myself thought these creatures were a bit silly at first, but quickly found them to be a well developed part of the story and great symbols as the enemy on a barren planet. The inhabitants from House Atreidess and their traitors under the Emperor see these worms as something to be greatly feared and a major problem when venturing outside. Paul felt this way as well, until he spent some time with the Fremen, who found ways to make them useful. Fremen conqour these sandworms and use them to hop a ride to wherever their destination. It is also a rite of passage to call on and ride the worms. The Fremen have evolved with the planet and learned to adapt, using the sandworms and controlling their water.
Dune is a classic and the standard that authors use when creating their environments. What’s great in this story is how Herbert weaves the environment so seamlessly with story and plot and characters. Without the planet Arrakis and its environment, Dune would not be the same story, probably not a story at all. Now let’s look at some modern uses of environment in sci-fi.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was both a box office and critical success when it came out last November. The visually driven film gave mass audiences a pretty big slice of science-fiction pie. The environment is a large part of Nolan’s story, set on a future Earth where a major dust bowl is killing Earth’s crops and destroying the atmosphere. Former astronaut and pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a single father of two, who discovers a NASA secret hideout not too far from his house. At this mysterious NASA headquarters, Cooper finds his old professor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), who is heading a project to look for a hospitable replacement for Earth. Brand sent 12 people on a mission to different planets to find a new habitat, three responded with positive results. Brand asks Cooper to go on a journey to rescue these scientists and bring back good news about these planets.
The question of whether there is another planet that meets human needs for sustaining life has long been asked by astronomers. Statistically, of course, the odds stack up in favor that, yes, there likely are a number of planets similar to Earth or at least sustain life. Interstellar explores the question and discusses human need for certain specifications in our environment. For instance, one of the planets that Cooper visits is completely covered in ice and barren. It becomes pretty clear that what he’s seeing is not habitable and later discovers that the scientist who landed on the planet lied. There’s just certain things humans don’t particularly deal well with, lots of ice and rock and no living organisms is one of them. Of course if it were Frank Herbert, he’d be happy to make humanity live there. Just give the planet something really valuable and they’ll be fighting over it. But that would be a different story.
At the end of Interstellar Cooper comes out of time-warping black hole 50 years in the future. Having received a message from her father, Cooper’s daughter has spearheaded the human exodus from Earth. Now humans live on a man-made habitat, or space station called Cooper Station. Nolan’s space colony is based on a model that has been around since the 1970’s. Physicist Gerard O’Neill proposed the plan for a cylindrical space colony in 1976, presumably where Nolan got the idea. O’Neill’s concept was that the cylinder would rotate, creating artificial gravity to simulate Earth.
Both Interstellar and Dune deal with changed environments. In Dune, Paul finds himself on a desert planet without a say in the matter and, after his house is seized, he must hide among the harsh landscape and learn to embrace the conditions. In Interstellar, man finds themselves unable to adapt to the crop killing blight that is destroying Earth’s atmosphere and seek a hospitable future elsewhere. Although, when you think about it, what’s a little dust on Earth compared to an entire planet of sand? But that’s neither here nor there.
A more recent book that discusses environment is 2009’s The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, sub-genred as “biopunk”. This story takes place in the 23rd century, where energy is stored in manually wound springs due to the depletion of carbon fuels. Biotechnology companies are where the money’s at. They “genehack” seeds to control food production and use other shady methods to control the food market. Anderson Lake works for one of these companies as a calorie man in Thailand.
The Windup Girl looks at environment a little differently. Here, man has depleted carbon fuels and because of that, technology has changed. The focus is now on bio-engineering, rather than smartphones and cars, as they are today. In fact almost no one drives a car in Thailand during this time, unless they have a lot of money and power. In this world, increasing biology’s power gives the greatest technological achievements.
Anderson Lake runs a kink-spring factory and uses genetically modified super elephants called megodonts to power the factory, pulled along in a train by their wranglers. Genetic modification is one way people have dealt with their new environment without carbon fuels as a way to achieve energy. In this time humans strip away the biologically natural genetic base of many lifeforms for human gain. While people use these new creatures to adapt to their environment, some of these synthetic beings find themselves in changing environments as well. Some environments that they were not created for.
Emiko is a windup and another main character of the novel. Windups are another form of genetic modification, like Emiko and other girls who are created to be subservient and obedient for the pleasure of men. Emiko’s genetic makeup has many pros and cons, though. As global warming becomes a greater issue and ocean levels rise, everyone swelters in the Thai heat. Emiko came to Thailand from China, where she was valued and cared for by her owner. After political upheaval she went to Thailand, where she went to work at a brothel. Emiko’s skin does not have pores in order to always appear smooth. Before, her master was concerned about this problem, no one cares now in her new environment. Instead she must find ways to deal with her body overheating in a place that’s already quite hot. It becomes more complicated when her enemies begin to chase her and she must exert herself to the limits that her synthetic form can take.
Environment in science-fiction lends itself to the exploration of the adapting process. Every day in the real world people have to adapt to new and changing circumstances in all areas of life, not just our ever changing environment. It works well as a parallel and catharsis to our own lives when we read about and watch characters who struggle to adapt to their surroundings. Paul must learn the ways of the Fremen in order to survive on the desert planet in Dune. In Interstellar Cooper and the rest of humanity have to find a new planet to continue living. And people use new bio-engineering advances in The Windup Girl.