I prefer a nice, mild provolone for my reading snack.
Unfortunately, I had to deal with this for eight weeks straight when I took a mere "Readings in Fiction" class, in which the theme was environmental matters. Imagine Captain Planet, without any of the 80s charm. It was a dark, dark place.
Let's go in order, here. First one up was The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey.
Now, this one wasn't totally awful. The main characters were flawed, occasionally funny, and in the end most were shown to be a bit hypocritical. Research on an Edward Abbey paper actually helped this make sense. His anarchist views were more important than the environmental concerns; in fact, the environmental concerns were centered around government interference in life foremost. However, this becomes a problem when every single authority figure in the book is a strawman. So many strawmen, but I'm saving the inevitable Doctor Who joke for another book. The problem in creating flawed, unsympathetic protagonists and strawmen villains is that it looks like the villains were made to simply help your horrible protagonists look better. Not a good move. Not to mention that the plot tended to meander everywhere. (This is actually a common feature of ecofiction, for some reason.) So, try it out, but don't have very high expectations. I plan to read Desert Solitaire, which my professor said is more about Abbey's musings about the beauty and danger of the desert, and some of his philosophical views instead.
Up next was a book better relegated to philosophy class than actual fiction. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn.
Now, I actually liked this one, chiefly because it was more a philosophical exercise than an actual attempt at a story. While we have a framing story, in which the narrator meets the telepathic gorilla named Ishmael (not Grodd, although that would have been much more interesting) who wants to be his teacher. What follows is essentially a series of Socratic questions intended to make us rethink how we look at ourselves and nature. While I didn't agree with much of what it said, I found it interesting that Quinn, through Ishmael, excoriates the idea of objectivity in science, which has led to science being treated, albeit unintentionally, as another religion. (See the discussions about human myths. It's interesting.) Strangely enough, I felt much more in reading this even though there was hardly any story to it. I wanted the narrator to rescue Ishmael in the end, so I think Quinn did a decent job in writing this unusual book, even if at one point he does imply that allowing starving children to starve is better for the environment...
Next, prepare for strawmen. Strawmen everywhere.
Yep, this is where the Doctor Who jokes fit.
Actually, I prefer these strawmen to Callenbach's nonsensical, cartoonishly villainous strawmen of Ecotopia Emerging.
Pictured: the villains of Ecotopia Emerging.
Our second protagonist is Vera Allwen, the smug, preachy founder of the...PFFFTTHHH...."THE SURVIVALIST PARTY" YOU CANNOT MAKE THIS STUFF UP, who tells everyone how awful and horrible humanity has become and if everyone would just agree with her then it will all be okay. Add in to this random episodes that show how horrible the villains are (HOW DARE THAT MAN WANT TO DRIVE HIS CAR DOWNTOWN DON'T YOU KNOW WE ALL USE BICYCLES DOWN HERE AND YOU HAVE TO PAY EXTRA FOR ADDITIONAL TRANSPORTATION IF FOR SOME REASON YOU CANNOT WALK OR USE A BICYCLE FOR SOME DISABILITY WE ARE THE GOOD GUYS)
Like most of these books, it makes occasional good points (the nonsensical insistence in the 70s that chemical pesticide could have no bad effects on people, so it was okay to spray it willy nilly, for example), but it was so overwhelmed by the strawmen and the self-righteousness that it's hard to find anything tolerable.
Ever seen those books with an unreliable narrator, where you're not sure if they're mentally troubled or if their weird hallucinations are actually true? Well, Woman at the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy is not one of those books.
Connie may be classed as insane, but that's because she hit her niece's abusive pimp boyfriend over the head with a vase, and now she's in an insane asylum for the violent. Granted, Connie is a troubled protagonists. She went through a period of alcoholism in which she did in fact harm her daughter, who was taken away from her. However, Piercy does point out that there are plenty of people in the healthcare industry willing to look away from the real problems (such as ignoring the niece's obvious terrified silence around Abusey McAbuseyton) to take the easiest route. So far, so good.
THEN LUCIENTE BEGINS TALKING.
See, Luciente uses magic mind powers in the future to visit Connie in the past, because Connie is the key to their "perfect" Utopian future, in which babies are artificially grown because women had to give up some power to gain equality to men, polygamy is just the way things are and screw you if you don't feel the same way, and we can talk to cats. Okay, that last one is cool. Also, they genetically modified people to all have the same general skintone to get rid of racism and is anyone feeling really uncomfortable and awkward now or is it just me????
So, to sum it up, if Connie lets the good doctors put a mood-controlling device into her brain to stop her "violent" episodes, then humanity will become a dystopian cyborg race in which the wealthy live above the atmosphere and the rest of the people are struggling along with bad air and barely living to 30 down below, and women are entirely sex objects and nothing else, because patriarchy, or something.
The book meanders. And meanders. And meanders. Connie is brought to the future (again, via magic mind powers never fully explained), and every time her discomfort with some of the changes is shown as bad and close minded. How dare she value real childbirth? How dare she be uncomfortable with people being touchy feely with her, or some dude who is apparently turned on at the drop of a hat? What a bigot!
I hated this book.
But wait, there's more! For the price of one radical feminist novel, you get two! Next we move on to The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk, and yes her name is Starhawk.
We get a utopia and a dystopia all wrapped up into one! Watch the pleasant village of San Francisco, yes you heard that right, San Francisco, be one with nature using Super Magic Witch Powers, and men are destructive so they can't be in charge but they're okay with that because this is apparently a polygamist society (SERIOUSLY WHAT'S WITH ALL THE POLYGAMY IN THESE BOOKS? DO THE WRITERS THINK NO ONE COULD EVER POSSIBLY CHOOSE TO BE MONOGAMOUS OR SOMETHING?), so free sex for them, and no one has a hint of selfishness, they can share everything without any concerns at all, because they've overcome human nature entirely. MAGIC.
Then we have our horribad villains, the Stewards, who are a nominally Christian theocracy of REALLY REALLY REALLY BAD GNOSTIC HERESIES, and they want to...you guessed it...TAKE OVER THE UNITED STATES.
So we have our 98-year-old grandma Maya, who has her Super Magic Witch Powers and that's literally her job, use her Super Magic Witch Powers. We have Bird, who is Damaged and Traumatized but will screw anything that moves. We have Madrone, who will also screw anything that moves, including someone else's boyfriend/husband, and the other person is wrong for being mad because they should just understand that Madrone is from a different culture, even though in most etiquette books the visitor is supposed to be respectful of cultural differences, not the other way around, but never mind, POLYGAMY IS GOOD AND MONOGAMY IS BAD, REMEMBER THAT, YOU DON'T AGREE, WELL YOU'VE CLEARLY BEEN BRAINWASHED BY THE STEWARDS. Since Madrone is Maya's granddaughter, that makes Madrone, at the very least, in her 30s, but probably older, but her behavior is treated as the impulsiveness of youth, and she's landing pretty young people left and right, and if this doesn't scream "self-insert" I don't know what does.
Also there's a Magic Bee Lady, whose weirdness made her the only interesting thing in the book.
I hated this book even more.
Seriously, writers, even if you have a very important point to make, DO NOT LET THE MESSAGE OVERWHELM YOUR ABILITY TO WRITE AN ACTUAL STORY OR HAVE COMPLEX CHARACTERS AND DO NOT USE STRAWMEN.
The last book was Garden in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko, but that isn't on my bad list because Silko is an actual good writer and knows how to balance her message with interesting characters and an immersive, compelling plot, leading her novels to be both successful and thought-provoking instead of merely irritating and preachy.