NATURE’S WARNINGS: CLASSIC STORIES OF ECO-SCIENCE-FICTION ed by Mike Ashley
British Library p/b £9.99
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This is an intelligent collection of short stories written by established science-fiction writers over the years, illustrating that ecological issues have long been articulated within the genre. The age and current relevance of these stories will fascinate as will the different subjects. Some are quite prophetic. The different writing styles will also entertain.
`Survey Team’ by Philip K Dick, published 1954: This is a classic trope of the period. Earth has been devastated by nuclear war, and an alternative planet is being sought where mankind can start all over again. A ruined humanity has chosen to relocate to Mars fully aware that it may not be a hospitable place. Then it is discovered why it was so desolate.
`The Dust of Death’ by Fred M White, published 1903: Dr Hubert is asked to attend a sick artist by the name of Fillingham. He diagnoses diphtheria. This was a horrible disease of the period. A Dr Label is a specialist who uses electricity to destroy unhealthy germs and viruses and has campaigned against the erection of new housing estates on land-fill sites. Fillingham has been painting the portrait of the Emperor of Asturia, who is then struck down by the disease. An epidemic breaks out, and people flee London. Dr Label cures the Emperor with electricity. Later contaminated land is cured by electrical current.
`The Man Who Hated Flies’ by J D Beresford, published 1929: Professor Aumonier dislikes flies as they spread disease. His son suggests he researches the means to destroy them. The Professor studies flies for twenty years, discovers the diseases they cause but also learns to like flies. He develops a culture to kill flies but then realises it is also killing bees, preventing pollination. This is a cautionary tale if there ever was one. At the end, Aumonier’s son discovers an immune pollinator in the upper Amazon and humanity is saved!
`The Man Who Awoke’ by Lawrence Manning, published 1933: Norman Winter, a wealthy banker, disappears to hibernate as part of a scientific experiment. He awakes in the distant future into a strange wooded paradise. This tale has a touch of William Morris’s `News from Nowhere’ about it. Yet as soon as it become apparent that he has hair on his chest and an appendix he is exposed as an ancestor from the Age of Waste. This creates turbulence between the older folk and the young. He decides to hibernate again.
`The Sterile Planet’ by Nathan Schachner, published 1937: It is New York in 4260 AD, a shielded oasis. The greed of humanity has desolated the planet, shrinking the oceans into the deeps. Humanity has divided into two species: the ones who continue a civilised life behind shields in the surviving great cities, and the creatures of the deeps. The latter become organised and attack the cities. This is both a dystopian and utopian story as out of this conflict comes the means and the idea for a regeneration of the planet.
`The Shadow of Wings’ by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, published 1954: The birds, and the bats, ate flying away and not eating insects and fish. This upsets the balance of nature, causing food inflation. Hoarding becomes endemic as the spraying of insects becomes necessary. Apparently, aliens are seeking to alter the planet’s ecology by seducing the birds with food and then burying them. The hero of this tale is imprisoned by the government for discovering the truth.
`The Gardener’ by Margaret St Clair, published 1949: On the Planet Cassid, the Butandra trees are sacred. There are only fifty on the planet, but Tiglath Hobbs, the acting chief of the Bureau of Extra-Systemic Plant Conservation cuts one down to make a walking stick for no other reason that he can. He then finds himself haunted by a gardener that pursues him across time and space. Hobbs gets so aggravated that he returns to Planet Cassid to cut down all the Butandra trees. Here, the gardener catches him and turns him into a Butandra tree, bringing the numbers back up to fifty. This the best story of the collection.
`Drop Dead’ by Clifford D Simak, published 1956: An Earth-type space ship lands on a virgin grassy planet to find it inhabited by herds of a ruminant animal that is both meat, fish and vegetable. The creatures have no young but do possess the means to reproduce. A herd panics and destroys the supplies of the visiting crew, with the exception of the narrator who has to consume powders for an ulcer. The crew revert to eating the ruminants only to discover that in so doing they are themselves turning into ruminants. The planetary ecology is absorbent.
`A Matter of Protocol’ by Jack Sharkey, published 1962: A space-ship lands on a jungle planet. The mind of a zoologist is mechanically projected into the thought-processes of one of the two principal life-forms on the planet. This produces nothing of value, so his mind is projected into that of the second principal life-form. It becomes apparent that the process of evolution on the planet is internally consistent. Both life-forms and the jungle are continuously recreating one another. The act of interference by the zoologist has disrupted the planetary ecology causing progressive desolation.