Altered Earths – Storyteller as Scientist: An Experiment in Four Variables

By S.E. Hartz

I want to write this essay as a scientist would. I do not come with a conclusive thesis but with a working theory and a hypothesis to guide my investigation. The theory: things I have learned or explored in the laboratory and field can guide my fiction in new directions. The hypothesis: by the end of this essay, which explores four variables of fiction through the lens of the natural and environmental sciences, I will have a net increase in story ideas.


When it comes to nature, to this abstract concept of “the environment,” our dichotomies are false. I have always been drawn to the edges and to the overlaps. In my research and work I have spent more time traipsing along train tracks, sampling from oil-slicked harbors, and weaving through rusted-out buildings than I have in the comparatively pristine environments that we conjure when we speak of “the natural world.” These are the chemical and physical impacts of human intervention, to speak nothing of the social and political, of the fact that our protected landscapes, from Yellowstone to Yosemite, are built on legacies of displacement and violence. Nothing is completely natural, and all environments – from polluted cities and abandoned mines to the far-off planets we pin our visionary hopes on – are worth exploring, merit having their beauty and their complexity made the subject of art.


Who is a character? Who is given a point of view? When it comes to the realm of individual humans, I hope for and try to build toward a world where the answer is: everyone, and especially those who have been ignored and silenced. And what happens beyond? I was recently in a workshop where we were instructed to write from a plural point of view, to play with what it means to center not individuals but collectives. And what doors swing open when we write from the point of view of an existing non-human animal, or of a created species in our world or another? Can we even do so without projecting human consciousness onto the nonhuman? And what next – can we write from the perspective of a rock, of a drop of water? How far can we stretch the bounds of imagination, and ultimately of empathy? Can we better understand our human neighbors through striving toward an understanding of the land on which we both depend?


If plot is ultimately about action and its timing, about the motion of a story towards climax and denouement, I want to return to the rock, to the drop of water. In my high school geology class, where my interest in environmental science was born, my teacher drove us to an outcropping along the highway in upstate New York and gave us an hour to explore and report back with the story of the land, written in striations and angled planes and igneous intrusions. We were inducted into a different form of storytelling, where ancient motion could be captured in the stillness of stone. Back in the classroom we learned that water moves in a continuous cycle, and that the elements in our bodies were created in the cauldrons of distant stars at the birth of the universe. The chief plot of my life was still the march of the school year from winter midterms to summer break, but there was a richness and a depth in knowing the story of my life was only one layer of sedimented history in a much longer tale. To this day, I try to write like the rock.


We learned in middle school English class that all stories are built from several broad categories of conflict. There is human versus human, the direct sparring between two characters competing or arguing or falling in complicated love. There is human versus nature: a family survives a hurricane, a farmer faces a season of failed crops, a society confronts its own overuse of resources. And there is human versus self, the internal grappling, the undoing of whatever psychological machinery holds us back from reaching the moments of triumph or understanding or forgiveness that make a story worth reading. Climate change and environmental degradation play out as human versus nature conflicts, on their surface; when we dig and explore the root system beneath, they are human versus human, human versus society. Finding the way through, the way to exist as a person on a planet in crisis? That is a human versus self story, one I am still writing.

 As I close this first experiment, my mind wanders to new realms. I am dreaming of altered landscapes leading their own resistance, of extinct species reincarnated, of birds and rocks and distant planets watching us navigate crisis as their own timelines on, of stories that move from conflict to collaboration with nature. I have at least four new story ideas to explore. I hope that, just maybe, you do too.

Read S.E.’s other work here at Reckon:

Fiction – “Perseids, World’s End, Last Year”

Altered Earths – On Genre, World Building, and Multiplicity

Altered Earths – Beyond Dystopia

author S.E. Hartz

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.