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Interview with Gerry Canavan (’02)

Posted on May 18, 2016

“Robert Heinlein famously said there were three science fiction stories: the what if, the if only, and the if this goes on. That is: speculation, utopia, and warning.”

1. How did this collection of essays examining the connection/interrelationship of ecology and science fiction and your co-editorship with Kim Stanley Robinson come about?

I was lucky enough to meet Stan when he came to an event on the intersection between science, science fiction, and religion while I was a graduate student at Duke. One of my dissertation advisors was the host of the event, and the other had been Stan’s own dissertation advisor way back when, so I was able to introduce myself and spend a bit of time getting to know him. I’m a big fan of his novels, especially the Mars trilogy, so that was a real pleasure. Around that same time, my friend Mark Bould and the British science fiction writer China Miéville put out their edited collection, Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. I was working a lot in the ecological humanities then, as I still do, and it occurred to me that you could easily do a similar collection about science fiction and the environment and call it Green Planets. So I pitched the idea to Stan as a project we could co-edit together, and to Wesleyan University Press as a kind of unofficial sequel to Red Planets, and they both went for it. Since then someone’s come out with Black and Brown Planets, about science fiction and race, and the same person is doing a Yellow Planets as well (if the publisher will let him call it that) on science fiction and Orientalism. And there’s still a lot of colors left! I’d really like someone to do Pink Planets on feminist SF at some point.

2.      In an interview that you conduct with Kim Stanley Robinson at the end of this collection, Robinson notes that John Brunner’s book Stand on Zanzibar, published in 1968, introduced ecology as an important element for science fiction. Before this time, what were the more usual elements/considerations of science fiction?

You can always find exceptions, but generally speaking the science fiction of the so-called “Golden Age” period was very optimistic, especially about the promise of technology. Assuming humanity didn’t destroy itself with the nuclear bomb—admittedly a big if in those days—science fiction usually imagined that the human race would colonize the Moon, then the solar system, then the entire galaxy, developing ever more miraculous technological prowess as it went. Donald A. Wollheim called this idea the “consensus future”; I sometimes think of it more as the Star Trek future. And what happens in the 1960s and then especially in the 1970s is the breakdown of that fantasy of the future. Silent Spring (from 1962) essentially jumpstarted the environmental movement by arguing that all the things that were scary about the bomb—mass death, mass extinction of plants and animals, poisoning future generations—were already happening in the form of the widespread use of chemical poisons like DDT. Limits to Growth and The Population Bomb both argued that we were going to run out of resources to support the size and scale of our civilization; the oil shock showed us how radically dependent we actually were on oil. Nuclear fusion never really worked out; the robots never showed up to make it so we didn’t have to work anymore. And outer space colonization essentially proved a dead end: it’s too hard to get up there, and too hard to live there if you do. So science fiction in the 1970s and after really becomes much more pessimistic about the prospects for the future than science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s had been—in some sense it starts to seem like our civilization has no future, even if the bomb never goes off.

3.      Are there certain story lines or tropes that science fiction can be reduced to—in that “a stranger comes to town” kind of way?

“Someone comes to town” and “someone leaves town” are pretty good micro-summaries of a lot of science fiction stories, actually: either the Weird Thing comes to us or we go to it. Robert Heinlein famously said there were three science fiction stories: the what if, the if only, and the if this goes on. That is: speculation, utopia, and warning. In my own work, I’ve followed a lot of other science fiction scholars by typically focusing on utopia, as both speculation and warning usually collapse into some overarching idea, however explicitly or implicitly articulated, that we should use our powers as a species to try to make the world better rather than than worse.

The other really important strain of science fictional thematics is violence, which is often merged into the idea of the nation or “empire.” (Even those early Golden Age stories were typically about the formation of a Galactic Empire, rather than a Galactic Republic—and usually this was a particularly American sort of empire.) You see this as an especially important strain in film and video game SF, where the emergence of the Radically New Thing (whatever it is) usually just amounts to an excuse that finally makes it okay for you to murder other people. Zombies, bodysnatchers, aliens, robots, whatever It is—there’s a lot of different sorts of fantasies that people come up with but most of them amount to basically the same thing, a reason to kill your neighbors. I really see violence and utopia as being in interesting tension—what kind of people are human beings, really? Are we healers or are we killers?—especially when you realize how many utopias actually begin with some horrific event of maximum mass violence, as well as how utterly inexhaustible our desire for mass violence apparently turns out to be.

4.      In what new ways do you observe/expect/project that science fiction will address our futures? Will it retain its considerative, corrective stance?

I think so. I really think science fiction is more important than ever; as I keep writing in articles, and as my co-editor keeps saying in his interviews, today we essentially find ourselves living in a massive science fiction story. We have all sorts of miracle devices that are completely normal to us—and it turns out we’re using them to hurt each other and to destroy the world. Our cell phone give us access to all the world’s knowledge at the touch of a button—but they’re also spying on us. The robots haven’t eliminated work, they’ve only eliminated our jobs. It would be my hope that thinking more science fictionally about our situation could help us find ways to intervene and take some control of this process, and inspire us to remake the world to better serve human beings’ genuine needs—rather than continue to allow things to slide into what in any other decade we would immediately recognize as a terrifying dystopia of ubiquitous surveillance, state violence, and ecological catastrophe.

5.      Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible? Absolutely. In addition to benefiting tremendously from the English, comp lit, and philosophy curricula, I learned so much about what I know about science at Case, both from professors and from other students. I still write some of my undergraduate classmates, now working as engineers and as professors, to ask them about this or that science fact for my work. But the real benefit was in my English classes and the tremendous faculty at Case, who really got me started on this path. Two classes stand out: one, the Great Books class on “utopias” that I took as a freshman in the Comp Lit department, and the combined undergraduate/graduate survey on literary theory I took with Professor Stonum as a senior. I’ve returned to those two classes in particular over and over again, both in the research I do and in the way I teach my own classes as a professor now.

Those two were probably the most important, but even as I write this I start to think of others, from the Hemingway/Fitzgerald and literature of the 1960s classes I took with Professor Marling to Professor Koenigberger ‘s contemporary British literature course to the multiple, multiple creative writing workshops and independent studies I took with Professor Grimm. I still use a ton of what I learned in those classes in what I do now as an English professor—and I still have all the books!

Gerry Canavan is an assistant professor of twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature in the Department of English at Marquette University. His research focuses on the relationship between science fiction and the political and cultural history of the post-war period, with special emphasis on ecology and the environment. He has been the co-editor of special issues of American Literature and Polygraph on “speculative fiction” and “ecology and ideology,” respectively, and with author Kim Stanley Robinson he is the co-editor of Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2014). Additional current projects include a critical monograph on science fiction and totality, and another on the work of African-American science fiction author Octavia E. Butler; he is also, with Eric Carl Link, the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction (2015). He also serves as an editor at Extrapolation and Science Fiction Film and Television.

Page last modified: May 18, 2016