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Another of my Cognitive Mapping columns, this one was written for Vector, as usual, sometime around 1998, but may never have actually appeared.

The way led along upon what had once teen the embankment of a railroad. But no train had run upon it for many years. The forest on either side swelled up the slopes of the embankment and crested across it in a green wave of trees and bushes. The trail was as narrow as a man’s body, and was no more than a wild-animal runway. Occasionally, a piece of rusty iron, showing through the forest-mould, advertised that the rail and the ties still remained. In one place, a ten-inch tree, bursting through at a connection, had lifted the end of a rail clearly into view. The tie had evidently followed the rail, held to it by the spike long enough for its bed to be filled with gravel and rotten leaves, so that now the crumbling, rotten timber thrust itself up at a curious slant. Old as the road was, it was manifest that it had been of the mono-rail type.
The Scarlet Plague’ (1912)
Jack London

The Dartford bridge holds awful proof of age: the concrete leprous, pitted, whittled by wind, warty with cysts of rusting steel. Pelicans line the rods and girders like sailors on the rigging of a shattered windjammer. Cables have snapped and frayed, the roadway seems to hang by magic, and the magic’s wearing thin. Whole sections have gone from the raised approaches, leaving piers in the water like rows of prehistoric megaliths.
A Scientific Romance (1997)
Ronald Wright

If any evidence were needed that science fiction is an essentially urban literature, a literature of civilisation in its old sense of living in cities, it is necessary only to look at the way nature has consistently been portrayed throughout the history of science fiction. For nature is rampant and threatening, a symbol not of life and fertility but of decay. Nature rots our structures, sweeps away the shapes we have imposed upon the world, leaves it raw and barren and (mostly) uninhabited. It is the end of the world we know: the iceberg sinking the Titanic, the earthquake flattening San Francisco, the volcano whose plume of smoke presages nuclear winter.

It was not always thus. The Romantic movement at the end of the 18th century celebrated nature, and the Gothic writers who emerged from this movement continued this fascination with wild places. Mountains, windswept heaths, storm-lashed seas, all provided not just the setting but the mood for much of the literature of this period. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) stands firmly in the Gothic tradition to this extent, with so many of its key scenes being played out in ice caverns and Arctic wastes. The emotional and symbolic role given to nature at this time is still in evidence today, particularly in those films which punctuate moments of fear and brooding drama with a flash of lightning or a sudden squall.

Nevertheless, the Romantic movement also saw nature simultaneously celebrated and tamed through gardens and landscaped parkland. By the end of the century, therefore, such parks and gardens became the symbol of civilisation (think of the neatly trimmed lawns upon which the time traveller first encounters the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) in contrast to the chthonic industrial depths of the Morlocks) and so untamed nature could only be a threat to civilisation. Thus in Richard Jefferies’s After London (1885) the end of civilisation is shown literally by the end of cities, lost under the spreading forest. While the very first thing we see in Jack London’s ‘The Scarlet Plague’, symbolic of the end of civilisation and the fall of man, is Californian woodland destroying the track of a monorail. It is notable that the forest is itself rotting, the dead leaves and mould a sign that it brings death, and throughout London’s story the loss to nature brought about by the eponymous disease is constantly highlighted, as, for instance, when wolves venture onto what was once a popular holiday beach

Human progress is seen as in perpetual tension with nature, and it takes only a delicate shift in balance for the wilderness to reclaim its domain. This is not necessarily unwelcome. W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions (1904), for instance, is just one of a number of books from this period which celebrated the wild child, the creature of the jungle untamed and undamaged by effete civilisation, a tradition which has continued up to the present with the dark and magical figure of Catherine emerging from the Amazonian jungle in Steve Erickson’s Rubicon Beach (1986).

Nevertheless, in the main the desire has been to keep the balance in civilisation’s favour. The unbalancing shift towards nature is most commonly threatening, and such a shift occurs time and again, often in the form of flooding rather than forest growth, in novels ranging from The Amphibians (1925) by S. Fowler Wright to The Road to Corlay (1978) by Richard Cowper. It is the forest, however, which has tended to be the most common symbol of nature, perhaps because it is not necessarily totally inimical to human society, allowing in so many books the establishment of a quasi-medieval society reflecting a time when, it is supposed, we lived in closer harmony with our world. This is what tends to happen in those books in which mankind is responsible for tipping the balance against civilisation, usually through nuclear war. In novel after novel, from Edgar Pangborn’s Davy (1964) to John Crowley’s Engine Summer (1979), a much diminished society huddling within the wood is the reward for our hubris or irresponsibility.

Moreover, the forest more neatly plays the romantic role of a symbol, its verdant growth and dark shadows reflecting the complexity of human psychology. For Joseph Conrad the jungle was the setting for a return to the primitive within us, the black soul that is inimical to civilisation. The Heart of Darkness (1901), as Conrad so aptly names it, is within ourselves as much as it is in Africa, the Hyde within our Jekyll, the haunt of the Other. It is a vision of the forest, of unrestrained nature, that would have a profound effect upon twentieth century science fiction.

It is there, most clearly, in the work of J.G. Ballard, whose heroes so frequently find themselves on a journey into a heart of darkness, whether this is genuine wilderness as in The Day of Creation (1987) (whose protagonist, Mallory, even echoes Conrad’s Marlowe on his journey along an African river), or a jungle of transformation as in The Crystal World (1966). The crystalisation run riot in this novel encroaches upon civilisation, rots and ruins our cities, with all the wild finality of Jefferies’s jungle. There are similar transformations in Ian McDonald’s Chaga (1996), actually set close to where Conrad located his heart of darkness, and Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz (1994), or in Richard Kadrey’s story of a magical forest taking over the cities of California in ‘Horse Latitudes’ (1992); in each of these works the outside encroaches on the familiar, the balance has shifted against the cities.

Conrad’s heart of darkness is present in another sense, also, within Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (1984), where each journey into Ryhope Wood is a journey back before cities, before civilisation. Here one finds human psychology stripped bare, the coarse, violent, deadly seeds of our myths and stories, and because it is these stories which make us what we are, which make us civilised in the sense of being cultured and humane, it is a journey back into the raw origins of our own being. For much the same reason, it is no surprise that the confrontations and revelations that uncover ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ (1973) in James Tiptree’s story, take place in dense Central American jungle, such jungles, such raw nature, takes us back to the origins of things before we donned the masks of civilisation.

Nature run wild, the encroachment of the wild wood, is a symbol for everything that threatens the fragile, superficial security of our civilisation. Most recently, in Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance, the threat comes from a variety of contemporary sources, including BSE and CJD, but the threat takes a form that is unchanged since Richard Jefferies’s After London.

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