Pollution

Tagged: Theme

Early sf stories dealing with catastrophes brought about by pollution of the environment (see Ecology) concentrate on the perils of smog; they include William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City (1880) and Robert Barr's "The Doom of London" (November 1892 Idler). The pollutant effects of industrial waste were very familiar in the nineteenth-century UK: air pollution had shaped the city of London (the prevailing wind blows east and the upper strata of the population moved steadily west) and slag defaced England's northern counties to the extent that Yorkshiremen coined a proverb: "Where there's muck, there's brass [money]." It is hardly surprising that England produced the one enduring nineteenth-century image of civilization as pollution, in Richard Jefferies's After London (1885). The image of city life presented in the socially conscious, traditional nineteenth-century novel, as by Charles Dickens, makes much of the foulness of city dirt, but the problem was generally seen as easily correctable. The notion that environmental pollution might be a serious threat in the future is not evident in early sf, where it tends to be assumed that progress will sweep the dirt away. Virtually all utopian Cities are remarkable for their cleanliness, and it seemed reasonable to one inhabitant of a northern industrial city, signing himself "A Disciple" (of H G Wells), to borrow the famous Time Machine in order to see The Coming Era, or Leeds Beatified (1900). This optimism seems rather ironic today.

By the end of the 1950s, serious attention had been given in sf to only one kind of pollution: radioactive waste. The effects of the residual radiation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions and the tests at Bikini atoll were well known, and the destruction of the environment by radiation poisoning became one of the most horrifying aspects of the post-atomic-World War Three scenario (see Mutants; Post-Holocaust). These stories probably helped bring about an increased sensitivity to the idea of insidious Poisons in the environment, and it was not long before awareness grew of more commonplace dangers: arsenic in wallpaper, lead in water pipes, etc. The first sf cautionary tales about society's general philosophy of waste disposal began to appear in the 1950s. C M Kornbluth's "Shark Ship" (June 1958 Vanguard as "Reap the Dark Tide"; vt in A Mile Beyond the Moon, coll 1958) is an extreme example; and James White's story of the hazards of orbital garbage, "Deadly Litter" (February 1960 Science Fiction Adventures), has been transformed by the passage of time into a neat parable. It was in the early 1960s, however, that the problem was brought very sharply into focus, largely due to the publication of Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson (1907-1964), which argued that pollution of a radically new type had begun, involving nonbiodegradable substances which accumulated in living matter to fatal concentrations. DDT, once widely used as an insecticide, was one of the main targets of attack in Carson's book; PBB, a compound responsible for poisoning large numbers of cattle and some people in Michigan, belongs to the same family of compounds; the fluorocarbons more recently blamed for the depletion of the ozone layer are closely related.

Awareness of these threats was rapidly absorbed into sf, and virtually overnight became a standard feature of Near-Future scenarios. A lurid early dramatization of the issue is The Clone (1965) by Theodore L Thomas and Kate Wilhelm, a horror story about pollutants which spontaneously generate life to become an omnivorous, amorphous monster. A more realistic treatment of some relevant issues is Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison, which also deals with Overpopulation. Similarly alarmist stories include James Blish's "We All Die Naked" (in Three for Tomorrow, anth 1969, ed Robert Silverberg), Adrien Stoutenburg's Out There (1971), John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up (1972), Andrew J Offutt's The Castle Keeps (1972), Kurt Vonnegut Jr's "The Big Space Fuck" (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison), Philip Wylie's Los Angeles: A.D. 2017 (1971) and The End of the Dream (1972) and Kit Pedler's and Gerry Davis's Brainrack (1974).

BBC television treatments of note included episodes of Doomwatch (1970-1972) and – specifically addressing contemporary issues of nuclear waste disposal – the borderline-sf serial Edge of Darkness (1985).

In more recent times pollution has come to be taken so much for granted that it is rarely addressed as an issue in itself, instead forming a constant background element in almost all near-future extrapolations, whether they aspire to be Dystopian or merely realistic; it is particularly evident in Paul Theroux's O-Zone (1986) and David Brin's Earth (1990). The rapidity with which the subject became familiar is evident in the early appearance of such works of Satire as Charles Platt's Garbage World (1967) and Norman Spinrad's "The Lost Continent" (in Science Against Man, anth 1970, ed Anthony Cheetham). More thoughtful and sophisticated treatments include The Thinking Seat (1970) by Peter Tate and "King Harvest" (in New Dimensions II, anth 1972, ed Robert Silverberg) by Gardner Dozois. It is widely felt that the biggest danger is complacency – a point made by the effective "To Walk with Thunder" (August 1973 Amazing) by Dean McLaughlin, in which the hero fights to suppress a device that will guarantee clean air inside the home, on the grounds that it would become an industrial carte blanche to pollute the atmosphere irredeemably. Pollution: Omnibus (anth 1971), issued to cash in on the height of the scare, contains "Shark Ship", Make Room! Make Room! and the dubiously relevant City (May 1944-December 1947 Astounding, January 1951 Fantastic Adventures; fixup 1952; exp 1981) by Clifford D Simak. The Ruins of Earth (anth 1971) edited by Thomas M Disch is another theme anthology with a number of relevant stories. [BS]

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.