Have you ever been enchanted by an author’s description of a forest, landscape, or new world to discover?
Nature is rooted into the fantasy genre, especially high fantasy. The rolling hills of the hero’s journey or the wild forest with untamed magical creatures teem with natural energy.
But nature plays a role in sci-fi too. A common goal in the sci-fi genre is to terraform, to bring life and to seek out new lifeforms and resources.
This article explores what it means to put nature in these genres, and what that says about our own nature.
Why do we write these verdant spaces into our fantasy and sci-fi realms? And what makes us drawn to them in the first place? We could write nature in these genres because books let us create and explore environments that Earth doesn’t have. Writing nature lets us bring more green into our lives. Enchanting fairytales and storybooks are paradises for us to step into, to escape our own realities. Sometimes we need a bit of escapism, especially in times of crisis.
It is part of the human condition to exist within our environment. Nature helps us tell stories. Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel wouldn’t be the same without their forests. Science fiction may be further removed from forests, but name one sci-fi book that doesn’t mention what happened to the Earth, or mention the quest for new planets, the survival of life.
The Lord of the Rings is bursting with nature, and widely recognized for its worldbuilding.
The Shire, the forest of Mirkwood, and the Elvish kingdom Rivendell come to mind. However, not all of Tolkien’s lands are hospitable. Mount Doom is a volcano in the desolate land of Mordor. As much as fantasy can be an escape from reality, some themes and inspiration from Tolkien’s own experiences in WWI crept into his work, and he wrote some of the series while he fought for England.
To name a few more examples of nature in fantasy and sci-fi: The World Tree in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, the Queen’s croquet garden (red roses, anyone?) from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Even the titular games in The Hunger Games are built in natural, sometimes brutal settings. The games mimic the idea of a hunt in the dystopian sci-fi book.
In these books so far, nature has been both a place of attractive greenery and distress. The latter doesn’t undermine the former. Narratives would be boring without conflict.
I would be at fault if I didn’t bring research to this speculation. Environmental historian William Cronan in his Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, describes that nature can be an edenic paradise as well as a “self-conscious cultural construction.” Cronan further discusses the planned environments of suburbia, arboretums, and college campuses.
Nature that we see is often constructed, from carved hiking trails to road medians. We’ll flatten space for a college, then build an arboretum on its new campus, perfectly designed for reflection and wandering. We create nature because we like it, but our enjoyment doesn’t prevent us from removing it.
The theme of human development and terraforming is often explored in the sci-fi genre. In To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini, the main character is a xenobiologist who analyzes planets. In the book, many worlds are terraformed and developed for human survival. Nature is sought after yet developed, similar to the way we treat our planet now. And at the end of Paolini’s novel—spoiler alert — nature is born. The finale culminates in the creation of a garden/biosphere on a space station. It serves as an embassy and an escape, a place for asylum. Nature here is a new home.
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is a science fiction novel — or more specifically, Afrofuturist — that takes place after economic and environmental ruin on Earth. The earth, growing, and change are common motifs of the book. The main character Lauren, discovers a religion she calls Earthseed. Earthseed is “destined to take root among the stars”, it’s ultimate destiny to spread.
The “earth” in Earthseed shows the connection to nature that Lauren feels. She thinks to herself: “I am Earthseed. Anyone can be. Someday, I think there will be a lot of us. And I think we’ll have to seed ourselves farther and farther from this dying place.”
These sci-fi novels show that human expansion through the stars is a core idea. Or in other words, to spread and grow. And in finding other worlds to spread to, authors mirror in sci-fi and fantasy what has been done to our own nature. We find our own paradise.
Narnia from the Chronicles of Narnia, begins with a sequestered fantasy forest, accessed first through a wardrobe. Narnia reflects a main idea of this speculation, that we squirrel away little bits of nature for ourselves in our work. We bring more greenery into our lives by writing it.
So why do we write nature? For many reasons. One could be to reclaim nature from the way we experience it now, to escape reality. Writing nature is shaping something into our own paradise.
Nature can feel like home and help us tell relatable stories.
The act of writing itself is claiming something as your own, and I think writing nature in these two genres reflects that. The desires to preserve and conquer, to claim something as your own, to live in paradise and escape that which we are tied to, are as much a part of us as they are fantasy and sci-fi.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.