Science, Fiction and Sustainability

Anandajit Goswami

“Why Science, Fiction and Sustainability?” –  The title of this piece connects three words, concepts, thoughts, ideation and at the same time maintains a distinct identity of all of them. The pertinent question to  ask is why they are seen together and also separately gulfed by a comma between them in the title of this article.

Anandajit Goswami_Science Fiction and Sustainability
Anandajit Goswami_Science Fiction and Sustainability

This is because, the three words like three distinct colours are joined to create a shade but when mixed together generates a murky intermediate colour with a distinct identity of its own. In other words, science fiction has both science and fiction. Science Fiction and Sustainability have both a green and orange leading to a murky brown. In the murky brown, the presence of green and orange are clear and distinctifying. 

Therefore, sustainability which has economic, ecological, governance, cultural, social, political and environmental domains is a kind of a murky brown with an amalgamation of yellow and orange. Similarly, science fiction which is both ruminating and has a vastness of a spectre, plot, character, drama, music, sound, rhythm is also marked by these coloured elements within it. Yet, every colour has its separate identity but on the whole they also create a larger identity of science fiction. Hence at the level of a metaphor of colours, science fiction and sustainability gets connected through these intermixing of colours resulting in shades.

At the level of the subject and its themes, science fiction is interrelated to sustainability because it highlights to us about possibilities. Possibilities of a society, economy, ecology, culture, governance, environment, and politics are all depicted by science fiction. It takes the assistance of a spectre, plot, character, drama, music, sound, rhythm to do it.  Every story of a science fiction tells us a possibility, dream of these domains of sustainability.

 It is over here, we also need to ponder that at the core, and sustainability is also nothing but a possibility of a dream and the ways of attainment of that dream. Such a dream can be real for some-one but it can be just a fiction to someone else. So for instance, climate activists can believe that by switching to a simple life style and through ten measures of biodiversity conservation it is still possible to reverse the perilous effects of human induced climate change. David Attenborough also believes in that dream. Whereas, for climate sceptics or say for climate change naysayers, the same dream does ‘not exist or can just be a fiction and can never be a reality.

It is this journey of the possibility of sustainability from a dream to reality which is quite luring and successfully enmeshed in the deep philosophies of even the character creation of a science fiction story. Historically, the world has always been divided in such a possibility of a dream creation and its realisation. The realisation of this possibility started with the ancient Greek and Hindu mythology, oral traditions of Africa and the rich oriental cultures.

Starting from the Greek culture of voyage led scientific imagination to chase the dream of sustainability till Helenian time, the rich integrated communication of science fiction and sustainability do exist. Then, there is a void till Renaissance, and then again  17th, 18th, 19th century writing gets dominated by French, British, Neo-Latin and German writers. 

However, what was happening  during the void period too. The world was still there, the cultures were peacefully coexisting, invasions were going on but a sustained documentation, communication of science fiction and sustainability domains from other cultures were not globally coming up. This does-not mean that literature was not created in the genre of Science Fiction and Sustainability in India, several parts of Africa, South East Asia and other parts of the world which were still not colonised.

It is over here, we have to remember that the journey of science fiction and sustainability together is also not isolated from the world politics of dominance of one culture over the other and the corresponding colonisation of culture, religion which was happening all across the world.

If we study a book called – “History of Science Fiction”  by Adam Roberts, we get to know that the re-emergence of science fiction and sustainability connection can be traced back to the shift of the balance of scientific enquiry to Protestant countries in the late 16th and 17th century. Earlier to that, Catholic Church subtly dominated the culture of character and plot creation in the journey of the science fiction and sustainability. 

The plot somewhere was against pluralism as it glorified the existence of a single world of dominance of Christ and a geocentric view. Such a view also pushed the Catholic Church to condemn Galileo’s astronomical work. While at the same time, we find there were many cultures and work of science fiction in India and other parts of the world which hinted at a plurality of multiple earths, solar systems, universes and pluralism. It is this pluralism which creates a centrality to the concept of sustainability.

Precisely, in 1629, once Descartes settled in Holland after escaping the Catholic threats, the characterisation of speculative, exploratory, scientific quest for characterisation of science fiction happened. It opened the possibilities of new stories exploring  impacts of culture, technology, dystopia, time travel, journey to extreme corners of the universe, human psychology, social systems, human conscience, deep thinking. The modern techno science fiction, popular visual and media culture around science fiction and sustainability communication almost mushroomed with Hugo Gernsback from 1926.

But, it should not let us forget that while all these started happening, in our own Brahmavar Upanishad, Vedas we had found references of multiple universe creation, procreation, destruction. Hindu Mythlogy through King Kakudmi (King of Kusasthali) had already referred about the time travel to Brahma’s musical concert and the time space distortion through the Yugas, Ages which were passed away in such a time travel. Later on today, we see that when Murphy meets her Dad in the film – “Interstellar” , her dad is still young but Murphy has become a Grandmother when they meet in another time dimension. 

Interstellar has been inspired by the work of famous American theoretical physicist and black hole scientist – “KipThorne” and his book – “The Science of Interstellar”. However, Ramayana also had referred to the dream of a sustainable travel to any interstellar world through Pushpak Viman in a second. It also needs to be remembered that one of the earliest reference of science fiction communicating issues on sustainability can be retraced in 1884 – 88 in a Hindi Serial written by Ambika Dutt Vyas as “Aaschary Vrittant”  (“The Strange Tale”) which was published in a magazine called Peeyush Pravah, from Madhya Pradesh.

This communication of Science Fiction and Sustainability for the audio, visual medium was much before the rise of it in the 1920s led by Hugo Gernsback in America. Hence, when we think of – “Science Fiction and Sustainability” we need to have this horizontal, vertical, synchronic, diachronic understanding of the subject along with history. Only then we will be able to realise the essence of the Descartian anthropocentric quote – “I Think Therefore I Am” which also found its place in my Acknowledgement Quote of my own Science Fiction Book on Sustainability – “Lucy and The Train: Tryst with Sustainability”.

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Picture Courtesy: South China Morning Post


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.