Altered Earths: On Genre, Worldbuilding, and Multiplicity

by S.E. Hartz

My old journals mark the moment when I decided, in tenth grade, that I would be not a writer but a scientist. I was two selves already by that time, one writing maudlin poetry in the wings of the high school auditorium during theater rehearsals, the other delving deep into diagrams of cells and metabolic pathways in AP Biology. At sixteen, I felt it was time to commit to what felt like a surer path. Later, when I learned about energy extraction in geology class and began to reckon with the footprints left by our resource-intensive ways of life, I felt my choice solidify. There was a world to write about and a world to save and not enough time to do both.

I wish I could reach back across the pages and tell that teenager, and the young adult she would become, that she would need to make room in her life for both, or it would not be her life. In balancing my work  as an environmental scientist with my writing, I have increasingly turned to the concept of genre – not just in fiction, but in life itself.

In college, even after I set aside fiction (temporarily) as a hobby of my youth, I toggled between multiple genres of living. I would spend long hours in laboratories and at field sites, then pivot to painting protest signs and attending public meetings with the Student Environmental Action Coalition. I began to see both as critical parts of a conversation ultimately geared toward sustainability and justice. We needed one language to capture data, to chart the spatial and temporal trends of pollution and global warming, and a separate language to translate that information into tangible political action. These two ways of living would fuel and ground one another. When the rush of protests and political debate became overwhelming I would ground myself in science. When science became tedious and disconnected, I would get back into the streets.

In the years since school, I have returned to fiction as a necessary third genre. It is no coincidence that this turn back toward the imaginary has correlated with what feels, many days, like the end of the world. As climate impacts have accelerated, logged in the pages of reports turning more dire by the day, scene sketches for long-latent novels and pieces of ecological flash fiction have gathered in the margins of my own notebooks. I am deeply rooted in my field, tendrils twining through the soil of my paid work and stretching into various volunteer groups and activist organizations tackling environmental impacts and energy transition. I frequently go to sleep at night wishing I had more time to devote to untangling the intractable problems set before us as environmental professionals. At the same time, I am hungry for another world entirely—a fictional universe of my own creation, into which I would gladly slip and spend the balance of my days.

The drive to spend time drawing secondary worlds into being when our own material one is so imperiled is something that took me years to understand within myself. At first, writing fiction gave me the same sense of comfort and control that I had while running laboratory experiments in college and graduate school. Stories functioned, for me, as emotional laboratories— places to bring complex ideas and problems, to adjust conditions and introduce new variables, and to gain wisdom and insight from what came out the other side. As I have grown more invested in exploring the social and political conditions that underlie environmental problems, the parallel between science and writing has remained, but the genres of my life have also merged and intermingled in unexpected and generative ways. While it occurs in a seemingly separate universe, fiction writing activates and develops the same parts of my brain and my soul that I bring to tackling environmental issues through science and advocacy. We are dealing with thorny problems in the nonfictional universe, including climate change and widespread environmental injustice, that are natural outcomes of a society, a world, built with capitalism and white supremacy at its foundation. In looking for solutions, whether as scientists or activists, we must also engage with the process of worldbuilding—critiquing and unraveling the worlds we have built, and working together to dream new ones into reality.

In the introduction to Savage Ecology, a book of political theory tackling ecological destruction and geopolitics, Dr. Jairus Victor Grove writes, “We need genre to be realists because reality lacks verisimilitude.” This line crystallizes, for me, the necessity of looking through fictional frames to make sense of the world, and even to workshop solutions to intersecting environmental and social crises. The sustainable and equitable futures we dream of and work toward as scientists and as activists will be born from our present genre of reality, but will be birthed into a new one, built from different foundations, ethics, and ways of being and relating to one another. My secondary worlds have always been where I turn to process my emotions, to guide my way through living on a planet and in a society in crisis. As I move forward in my craft, I hope to use stories as a site for designing  solutions and strategies, for catalyzing linkages between genres, and for jumbling and reassembling the world in new ways. 

I am just beginning to understand the landscape of genres available to me as a writer and as a reader. I have dabbled in the realm of the dystopian, and am more and more moving toward themes that are hopeful and redemptive. I turn to writers of speculative fiction in embarking upon this journey—Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler, to name two giants of the genre—but also to a wide group of writers who are creating in their legacy. One foundational text on this path has been Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, a collection edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha,which gathers stories from fiction writers dreaming new, more just realities into being through the lens of what the editors describe as “visionary fiction.” As adrienne maree brown writes in the outro to the collection, “We hold so many worlds inside of us. So many futures. It is our radical responsibility to share these worlds, to plant them in the soil of our society as seeds for the type of justice we want and need.” I cannot claim yet to write visionary fiction, but it serves as a north star for the kind of journey I hope to undertake as a writer, as a scientist, and as an advocate for sustainable and just futures.

As I stated before, on many days my work in the environmental realm has felt like bearing witness to the end of the world.  On my more hopeful days, I think of myself as bearing witness to the end of a type of world that is no longer serving us. While often substituted as shorthand for complete destruction, apocalypse is in fact derived from the Greek word for revelation or uncovering—so we can conceive of it as the end of the world, or as the revelation of that which was previously unknown or unseen within it, including the new worlds waiting to be born. If there is one thing fiction can provide in times like these, it is the promise that there are infinite ways of existing, infinite genres of life to explore. It can remind us that despite the wreckage we are facing, it is never too late to create a different world from that which remains.

<strong>S.E. Hartz</strong>
S.E. Hartz

S.E. Hartz (she/her) is a fiction writer and poet, born and raised in upstate New York and currently based in Brooklyn. An environmental scientist by training, she is drawn to creative work that explores both ecological catastrophe and the utopias we can create by fighting for climate justice. Her writing has appeared in Lammergeier, Landlocked Magazine, Reckon Review, and more, and she can be found on Twitter at @unsilentspring.

One response to “Altered Earths: On Genre, Worldbuilding, and Multiplicity”

  1. I related to this a lot. I used to feel that I had to make a choice between advocacy and creative work. As that binary has dissolved I am finding that they are a part of the same being, like you were saying, myself 🙂