According to The Cambridge History of the American Novel‘s chapter titled Contemporary ecofiction, “Ecofiction is an elastic term, capacious enough to accommodate a variety of fictional works that address the relationship between natural settings and the human communities that dwell within them. The term emerged soon after ecology took hold as a popular scientific paradigm and a broad cultural attitude in the 1960s and 1970s.” It’s helpful to note the wide range of fiction found in this field of literature, which can include environmental and nature themes found within Black speculative literature, Indigenous fiction, magical realism, science fiction, and more. Diversity is key in describing this literature. Eco-fiction, or ecologically oriented fiction, includes topics such as human impacts on the environment, like climate change, and nature-oriented literature. Source: Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction (University of Nevada Press, 2010). Note that eco-fiction includes other mediums, such as film and poetry, but this site focuses on fiction in novels and short stories.
Despite its rich history, beginning in the 1970s, this fiction has evolved, much like ecological concerns everywhere. Multiple scholars before me had already begun to flesh out this literary field, and this site is just one resource that takes it further. I think of eco-fiction not so much as a genre than as a way to join natural landscapes and species, environmental issues–and usually human connection–into any genre and make it come alive. The ecological elements of stories do not exist simply in the background but are deeply integral to the story, even if used as symbols or metaphor. Often times, writers refer to this as rewilding the novel. The human connection is diverse and can refer to anything from cultural diaspora to climate refugees to weather event impacts to reverence of and protection of nature.
See more about eco-fiction at Wikipedia and in my two-part series about this category of literature at ClimateCultures.net. I’ve also created a large world sampling over at Medium.com. Scroll down for links to the literary field in modern media and academics.
Definitions and Explanations of Eco-fiction
Jim Dwyer researched hundreds of books for his field guide and stated that his criteria in choosing whether or not a book was eco-fiction was closely related to Lawrence Buell’s:
- The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
- The human history is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
- Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
- Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text. (1995, 6)
Further, Dwyer was not exclusive with genre when describing eco-fiction:
[Eco-fiction is] made up of many styles, primarily modernism, post-modernism, realism, and magical realism and can be found in many genres, primarily mainstream, westerns, mystery, romance, and speculative fiction. Speculative fiction includes science fiction and fantasy, sometimes mixed with realism, as in the work of Ursula K. Le Guin.
Note that John Yunker, author of The Tourist Trail and co-founder/editor at Ashland Creek Press, called eco-fiction more of a “super genre” (personal correspondence, August 2016).
Dwyer said that eco-fiction “might be simply described as a critical perspective on the relationship between literature and the natural world, and the place of humanity within.” Source: Chico News & Review
Eco-fiction, according to Mike Vasey, includes:
Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships to these ecosystems or leave out humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive…Ideally, the landscapes and ecosystems–whether fantasy or real–should be as ‘realistic’ as possible and plot constraints should accord with ecological principals.
Eco-fiction became popular in the 1970s, along with other environmental movements, and opened up a new literary study that connected humanities and nature. Novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us–our natural habitat. Previous literary scholarship often ignored this crucial connection. Dwyer described eco-fiction as having deep literary roots and a growing canopy of branches. Science fiction is one such root as it has traditionally been about actual or imagined science and its impact on environment and society. See Ecological Science Fiction for examples. The earliest visionaries in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) climate novels started in the 1970s. Our studies show that the first AGW climate novel was probably Arthur Herzog’s Heat (see our talk with his widow, Leslie), published in 1977–also confirmed by Gregers Andersen, who submitted his studies to our site. Emergent in the current decade or two, however, is the growing acceptance that global warming is happening, and the number of authors and filmmakers tackling that concern has risen. Also, see The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction for a history of science fiction climate-themed novels and films, which date back several decades.
In 1971, Washington Press published editor John Stadler’s anthology Eco-fiction, a collection of environmental sci-fi, which included such authors as Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allen Poe, A.E. Coppard, James Agee, Robert M. Coates, Daphne du Maurier, Robley Wilson Jr., E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, H.H. Munro, J.G. Ballard, Steven Scharder, Isaac Asmiov, and William Saroyan.
Eco-fiction has part of its roots in science fiction and fantasy, to be sure, but also in many other types of early literature, including magical realism, pastoral, mythology, animal metamorphoses, and classical. Where natural history evolved among biologists and ecologists so did nature writing parallel in both nonfiction and fiction. In talking about fiction, we cannot ignore notable nonfiction that has inspired fiction movements, including nature writers and poets such as Rachel Carson, Mary Austin, Leslie Marmon Silko, Margaret Fuller, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nearly every era of human-time has had its nature lovers who take to the pen to exalt nature or politicize our impacts on the wild, from Susan Fenimore Cooper to St. Francis of Assisi to Gary Snyder to John Francis to MaVynee Oshun Betsch to Naomi Klein.
We live in a world where fiction covering ecological themes, including climate change, is bursting out all over. Are you confused about these genres? Here’s a helpful guide. While some media discussing this literature tries to box it into one term only, I do not and aim to stay diverse as people around the world use various labels and approaches to explore this literature. Any genre of fiction may address climate and ecological changes. But some genres look at it through different lenses, including Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism, Anthropocene fiction, Indigenous futurism, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, environmental science fiction, literary, nature and new nature writing, new weird and ecological weird fiction, solarpunk (and other punks), speculative fiction, climate fiction, and utopian/dystopian fiction. I include all these genres at the site, here and there, but have chosen to use the term “eco-fiction” as an umbrella term, since it is the most comprehensive and covers areas not explored by other subgenres. For instance, a novel about animals or plastic waste in oceans or the loss of biodiversity is not necessarily about climate change, though it is ecological. Eco-fiction is the broadest term I’ve been able to find that covers environment, climate change, Anthropocene, solarpunk, eco-science fiction, and many more genres that explore the natural world in fiction. It, like other genres, also takes into consideration the cultural experience. We joke in our Discord that it’s the mama genre.
Eco-fiction was born decades ago, but it has not gone away. It is evolving just like our natural history has, and our ongoing ecological crises. When reviewing the recent novel Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer, Wai Chee Dimock stated in the New York Times:
This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any from the 20th, or the 19th. (“There’s No Escape From Contamination Above the Toxic Sea,” May 5, 2017)
A few more quotes from current media:
Black writers have rich and alarming stories about how their communities are devastated by the environment. It’s no secret now that Black communities and communities in the Global South are unevenly impacted by global warming. Their stories relay how an imbalance between humans and nature can bring nothing but destruction and pain.
–Book Riot, August 2021
Eco-fiction, a genre of adult and children’s books driven by an underlying message of environmental conservation, is emerging as a trend in literature as storytellers seek creative ways to explore science.
–ABC News Australia, March 2021
Eco-Fiction (short for ecological fiction) is a kind of fiction in which the environment—or one aspect of the environment—plays a major role, either as premise or as character. Our part in environmental destruction is often embedded in eco-fiction themes, particularly if they are dystopian or cautionary (which they often are). At the heart of eco-fiction are strong relationships forged between a major character and an aspect of their environment. The environmental aspect may serve as a symbolic connection to theme and can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey.
-Nina Munteanu, in Tor’s Ten Eco-fiction Novels Worth Discussing, November 10, 2020
Eco fiction can, and should be, as diverse as our natural world. These topics are complex and the impacts of the climate emergency effect all kinds of communities and families in different ways.
-Emily Stochl, in Book Riot’s 10 Compelling Eco Fiction Reads, August 10, 2020.
As the climate crisis grows ever clearer, the best fiction can help realign our conception of nature.
-Michael Christie in The Guardian‘s Top 10 books of eco-fiction, February 12, 2020
Bushfires have always played a significant role in telling Australian stories. But authors of recent Australian ecofiction – books that explore connections between Australia’s natural world, the human and the nonhuman – are shifting that traditional bushfire narrative, drawing connections between climate crisis and bushfire, and showing that what is occurring in Australia can no longer be considered “natural” or “normal”.
-Rachel Fetherston in The Guardian, Australian fiction is already challenging the idea that catastrophic bushfire is normal, January 14, 2020
“Migrations,” the Australian young-adult writer Charlotte McConaghy’s first voyage into the warming waters of literary eco-fiction, is a visceral and haunting novel that opens with the lines “The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.”
-Michael Christie in The New York Times‘ The Animals are Dying. Soon We Will Be Alone Here, August 4, 2020
In The Last Migration, [Charlotte McConaghy] marries these skills with careful research and flashes of lyrical prose. The result is the Dido’s Lament of eco-fiction; Wuthering Heights for the Thunberg generation.
-Pip Smith, in Sydney Morning Herald‘s A lyrical ode to our vanishing wilderness, August 7, 2020.
For more links to articles that discuss eco-fiction, see ArtsHub, The Hindu, Tor.com, Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, The New York Times, LA Review of Books, Bustle, New York Review of Books, Macleans, Huffington Post, Salon, Entertainment Weekly, Telegraph, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Insider London, Wired, Times of India, Cambridge Ecofiction Bookgroup, Book Riot, Yale Climate Connections, LitHub, The Millions, Brooklyn Rail, Den of Geek, Now Toronto, Polygon, Cornish Stuff, Bleeding Cool News, Earther, Overland (AU), The Rewilder Institute, Mancunion, Recycle Nation, Back to the Sustainable Future, Green Matters, New Domain, Irish Independent, Daily Bruin, E-flux, The Conversation (AU), Motherboard, The Hindu, Scroll.in, and another by Scroll.in, Malta Today, The Hindu Business Line, VousNousIls, Fumettologica, Polityka, Option, Contributoria, DesignBoom, Columbia Valley Pioneer, Scannain, Spiegel Online, Book Forum, Canlit, Kenosha News, Books Can Save a Life, Chico News, Harvard Square, Foundation-Eng, Cool Hunting, Bright Futures Magazine, Le Monde, Hamilton News, Gizmodo, Stuff (New Zealand), FlipScreen, and much more.
Academic Studies and Classes
One of my favorite papers is Dark Places: Ecology, Place, and the Metaphysics of Horror Fiction. Its author Brad Tabas writes:
Aside from allowing us to develop an ethical approach towards thinking about the otherness of places and objects, developing a mode of ecocriticism adequate to dealing with weird writing allows for the elaboration of critical and not dogmatic forms of eco-critical practice, since it is the gap between the real and the natural that opens the space for a criticism that does more than envision literature simply as a sweetened means for delivering the dry truths of scientific discoveries, but rather as an art that alludes to an all-important yet obscure reality to which we must learn to attend.
I think that the above advice is good for all writers of this literature.
Interested in writing a paper about eco-fiction, or even teaching it? The following lists are organized by university or organization and comprise just samples of what is out there. Some may be jumping off points when diving into further research. Many links are to PDFs.
Related academic studies/papers, post-docs, and groups: Alexandra Glavanakova (Sofia University), Jim Dwyer (University of Nevada Press), ASLE, Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Ghandi Institute of Technology, University of South Carolina summer literary festival 2019, Coalition of Museums for Climate Change Justice, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, ISLE (Oxford University Press), Ghent University, Environmental Education Association of Illinois, University of Tennessee, The University of Nottingham, Briscoe Center for American History, Western Literature Association, University of Oslo, Stanford University (listing of works), University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, University of Cambridge, Penn State, Duke University, Union of Concerned Scientists/OER Commons, Ohio University Press, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, and many more.
University, college, seminar: syllabi/professors: Western Illinois University, Skidmore, Hacettepe University, Purdue University, University of Nevada, another from University of Nevada, University of Georgia, University of Arkansas, University of Florida, ACLA (Simon Fraser University), Kutztown University, Emory & Henry College, UC Santa Barbara, Arizona State University, University of Graz, Calvin College (this is old from 2000, but might have useful info), North Central Texas College, University of Central Arkansas, Karunya Institute of Technology and Sciences, Bangor University, University of Los Angeles, University of Melbourne, and many more.