- Islands in the Aether Ocean: Speculative Ecosystems in Science Fiction
Biodiversity has become a foundational framework for assessing the health of the more-than-human environment. It is a concept that molds how life on this planet looks, with massive environmental nonprofits using different metrics to determine where to direct their efforts.1 The word is scientifically (if broadly) defined by the UN Convention on Biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including [but not exclusive to] terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems” (United Nations 3). Recently, humanities scholars like Ursula K. Heise, Thom Van Dooren, and Deborah Bird Rose have investigated representations of biodiversity loss, indicating that species number and composition are not merely matters of scientific counting but of cultural meaning (Heise, Imagining Extinction; Van Dooren, “Last Snail”; Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming). However, the meanings of biodiversity (and not just its loss) are negotiated by the various media that represent, engage, and remediate this concept. Because of bio-diversity’s role in shaping conservation strategies, it is urgent to interrogate the discourses that determine what diversity is visible and [End Page 232] what voices are heard in preservation decisions. Science fiction, as one of the major places where alternate biodiversities are imagined, is a particularly rich yet underexplored genre for thinking through the limitations of the biodiversity concept and novel stances toward variety in the living world.
In this essay, I ask what kinds of constructions of biodiversity result when Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) and Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (1986) imagine whole planetary ecosystems from the ground up. These imaginary planets investigate the meanings of an alternative kind of biodiversity. The books portray ecosystems that are biodiverse, not in raw species count but in the fact that each contains many endemic species and thus contributes disproportionately to overall biodiversity. I find that these texts represent speculative biodiversity hotspots full of endemic species and suggest that biodiversity could be defined not as a set of preexisting, measurable attributes of a system but as a stance toward the world in which matter and discourse entangle in surprising and lively ways. This stance is specifically characterized by a puzzled accounting for the diversity of life―a diversity that functions in mysterious ways that affect the characters’ own chances of survival. Characters and readers must piece together clues that continually force them to reevaluate what they think they know about the more-than-human worlds of which they are a part. However, the puzzled beginnings of Dune ultimately end in the discovery of a stable balance of nature, which can be manipulated in vast projects of planetary engineering. The puzzled beginnings of Speaker for the Dead are only deepened because solving the initial ecosystem mystery leads to more questions investigated in subsequent novels but never finally answered. I find that this puzzled experience of biodiversity opens up new possibilities for taking account of nonhuman organisms and interactions.
Although Dune and Speaker for the Dead came out before the term “biodiversity” gained traction in the early 1990s, the novels are nonetheless concerned with the variety of life. They feature ecosystems composed of a variety of unique life forms that interact in ways that force observers to consider multiple types of organisms together rather than individually. These texts can even explore the role of variety without the normative weight that has now been associated with biodiversity. Biodiversity was not the dominant conservation [End Page 233] paradigm at the time of the publication of these books, so the interaction with living variety can be explored without the associations of loss and protection that come with any mention of biodiversity today. Conversely, the texts may imagine interactions with new living variety in ways more obviously informed by other paradigms (such as natural history) precisely because they were written before the ascendance of biodiversity.
Dune and Speaker for the Dead are particularly productive early texts for examining stances toward biodiversity because they perform a very specific kind of science fiction world-building. They are part of...