Introduction

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.

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.

Roots

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.

Genres

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.

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Comments

What is Eco-fiction? — 26 Comments

  1. HI,

    I’m writing a research paper and wish to reference your article. Would you please provide me with the name of the author, publisher, date published, etc… for a proper MLA citation?
    Thank you

  2. Hi, this is a dynamic article, first published July 3, 2014, last edited in July 2020. New information has been added with new research.

    The author is Mary Woodbury. The publisher is eco-fiction.com (update: now dragonfly.eco). Please let me know if you need any further information. Cheers.

  3. So happy to have recently discovered this website and community — and to have my recent hunch verified, that there is a (sub)genre of fiction to which my current effort belongs: eco-futurism or eco-fiction.

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  6. Excellent and enlightening article covering eco-fiction in a variety of ways that can definitely help people embrace the genre in whatever genre or medium they happen to enjoy. From poetry to romance, science fiction to fantasy—and I’d like to draw a correlation from cave paintings to photography (Think Ansel Adams, one of my favorites)—eco-fiction is a voice that calls attention to our responsibility to be stewards of the Earth and all of its resources.

    Fall in love with Nature, care about it, draw the connections between Nature and humans, understand the relationship we have with Nature and the importance of nurturing that relationship, even warning of the dangers of ignoring Nature and our responsibilities—eco-fiction’s voice plays a vital role.

    Well-done!

  7. I came here searching for clarity on how to categorize my “eco-speculative-historical-magical-feminist” novel, “Heart Wood,” wishing that “eco-fiction” was considered a genre option. To date, Fiction: Visionary & Metaphysical seems the best choice. “Eco-fiction” is such an umbrella designation – any hope for it becoming its own genre? Any suggestions?

    • Some scholars have defined it as a genre for half a century. I myself see it as more of an umbrella category, like you say. I don’t think it’s ever been commodified or buzzed about in the media to a degree that it would become commercialized, which may be good or bad. This site hopes to bring forth the flesh of the literary field, mostly by talking with authors about their works rather than by marketing the genre. It is sad, however, in places like Ingram content group and other printing/publishing corporations, that there is no category for any sort of environmental adult fiction.

  8. Thank you for compiling this site; love the name and symbolism of a dragonfly. I am finally able to categorize my two ecological e-books as neither fictional or scientific but as a combination of both…combining the art of storytelling to explain ecological principles that may be invisible to the eye but are essential for survival from the soil to the sun. I will share this site to continue to share information about this valuable genre to make nature more at home and more respected in the future.

  9. This is interesting and I am searching all over the net about this eco-fiction topic. All the content on this page is useful in my writing project in the future. One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. Thanks for sharing your information.

  10. Thanks for the post. It helped me organize my presentation,”The Dynamics of Science and Nature Writing for Fiction and Nonfiction,” for the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, this April 10, 2021.

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    • I like this article! A little click-baity in the title, but it’s a well-thought article on how eco-fiction is so diverse as well as occurs in various genres. My thoughts exactly.

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