When I think of ‘sustainability’ today, my kneejerk mental associations are of bright blue recycling bins and grocery tote bags and cars that plug into sockets. Spam mail from Sierra Club about the slash-and-burn destruction of the forests of Madagascar. An ambient awareness of the world’s decline, and our meager efforts to stop it. Words become flattened from overuse. Iconic in meaning, whittled of nuance. Trendy.
But underneath these easy associations, there is a matter of great existential importance when it comes to sustainability. A question of what it means to live in balance with the world outside our bodies. Of how far we are willing to go to keep on living; to sustain the lives that we have created for ourselves in our dystopian futures, our post-apocalypses, our grand delusions. A question of transformation, in both body and of mind.
Science fiction has been covering this terrain for a long time, whether as warning of the dystopic road we’ve set ourselves on, or as extrapolations, thought experiments of the unpredictable ways we might evolve to accommodate or consume the natural world, and what we might become in the process. I’ve made a list of a few books that address the topic of Sustainability under this larger definition of the term; both the relationship between society and nature, and society and the living, breathing bodies that compose it.
Please keep in mind I may be touching upon spoilers in some instances, so tread carefully. Reading a novel is a process of revelation. I would hate to rob anyone of that experience.
The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons
A series composed of two duologies; the first duology is a sci-fi take on the Canterbury Tales, and the second, a soft sequel, is more of a grand adventure narrative. But running through both is a surprising and extravagantly realized vision of the future, where we have chopped up the fabric of space-time to travel untold distances in less than seconds, in the process disrupting an ecosystem that we do not yet have a physical awareness of, and where, eventually, we might discover for ourselves a greater destiny in the larger ecology of the universe.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
You know this one. That ‘literary novel’ about clones and organ harvesting. To say nothing of the exquisite flow of the narrative, the beauty of its restraint on all axes, there is a dark wondering beneath it all of what our society sees as worth valuing, and of what, and who, it chooses to ignore, to sustain itself.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
A poetic and unsettling exploration of natural/unnatural phenomena, the understanding of which is just beyond our reach. The mystery, and the taste of horror, as the body is transformed subtly by its organic environment.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Of this list, this one, The Martian, is the most direct in its relationship to sustainability as we know it today. A man is stranded on Mars, and has to rely on his wits and the few tools at his disposal to stay alive till his rescue. Questions then, of what can he grow in this ‘hostile’ environment, what ways can he keep on breathing; what temporary ecosystem can he manufacture for himself on this un-earthly world.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bagliuci
An utterly original vision of what might be, when it comes to energy and food production. The world depleted of nearly all-natural fuel resources, with power now sourced from wound-up springs, and food from genetically modified seeds that are owned by mega-corporations, which are controlled and distributed with all the ethical considerations one might reasonably expect from the free market. The worldbuilding alone is worth the price of admission.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A spare and unrelenting book, with small moments of immense beauty and emotional weight. The Road shows us a vision of what might happen to us, the monsters we will metastasize into once the ecological scales come unbalanced, and we lose the only home we know under the unceasing fall of ash.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Like The Road, The Passage plays into the common sci-fi wondering of how will we continue to survive once the familiar earth is stripped away from us, though it is a more propulsive, plot-and-genre-forward take. Come for the vampires in the post-apocalypse, stay for the thoughtful character moments and fine prose.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Sustainability is implicitly about control. Whether that means control to exploit the natural ecology to uphold a way of life, or control to reestablish the balance of nature, to restore what we have destroyed, a certain amount of control is required to accomplish one’s goals – a knowledge of the environment, a dominance over competing factional interests. A certain ‘spice’ on an inhospitable world, a limited natural resource of immense power, lays in the center of Dune’s multifactional conflict, which provokes the struggle for such control.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
This book is included with some hesitation because I went in with no preconceptions of what the book was about, and was delighted by its revelations, including what the titular Three Body Problem is, and its relevance to the story. It’s hard to talk about the story’s relevance to this list on sustainability without spoiling at least some aspect of such revelations. So, my advice is to leave, and go read the book. In the meantime, I will keep it vague: at the heart of the narrative is an intriguing description of a peoples reckoning with the natural environment in which they call home; their evolving relationship with its capricious hostility, and the lengths they will go to one day escape it.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Immortal soul vampires prolong their lives via murder through the eons of civilisation, all of which circulates and drifts around the life of an average and very mortal woman. The book is about many things. One of those things is the Faustian bargain we might entertain when it comes to our own prolonged survival. What lives we willingly ruin, what worlds destroyed, for a bit more of that ultimate limited resource: time. But opposite this hostile faction, the narrative presents another alternative: a sect of these immortal beings who try to live ‘ethically’, sustaining their unending lives via less violent, more harmonious means. Sustainability, then, in the ecology of the fantastical.
The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez is out now.