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Pastoral Science Fiction


"Pastoral science fiction" is not one of the most commonly analyzed subgenres of sf. Works of pastoral sf are certainly not as common as works from other subgenres, such as cyberpunk, steampunk, feminist sf, military sf, romantic sf, religious sf or even linguistic sf. The term, in fact, is not encountered frequently, but pastoral sf certainly exists.

The word "pastoral" can be confusing because it often refers to work done by "pastors," or clergy. "Pastoral care" involves a kind of spiritual, emotional, community care. An individual who does things like this is not what pastoral science fiction is about. Pastoral sf isn't necessarily religious in content. In imagining what type of literature falls under the rubric of "pastoral sf," it actually may be more helpful to think of "pastures" than "pastors."

The Encyclopedia Britannica (http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/4/0,5716,119374+8+110453,00.html; viewed 17 July 2000) describes "pastoral fiction" (without reference to pastoral science fiction):

Fiction that presents rural life as an idyllic condition, with exquisitely clean shepherdesses and sheep immune to foot-rot, is of very ancient descent.

Pastoral science fiction so carefully describes a setting and a functioning community that these elements are a major focus of the novel. Plot and character may still be important, but to a larger extent than usual, they flow organically from the setting.

Furthermore, the setting and community are usually warmly portrayed. The central character is a part of the setting, aware of it, and interacts with it. Pastoral science fiction is the opposite of "space opera," in which a variety of settings are simply the backdrop for grand heroics and characters who transcend their surroundings. In pastoral science fiction, transcendence is a function of the setting, rather than achieved despite the setting. Thoreau's thoroughly evoked and completely lived-in Walden Pond comes to mind. The exquisitely described rural Wisconsin of Clifford Simak's Way Station is a model of pastoral literature. The novel is absolutely absorbing, yet very little happens. The protagonist leaves his cabin, and returns to his cabin, again and again, each time revealing more about the foliage, the weather, the neighbors around him. The reader knows this place, and loves it, and understands why the character's love for his home compells many of the crucial decisions in the climax of the novel.

A famous non-example of pastoral science fiction might be Douglas Adams "Hitchhiker's" Trilogy, which is wonderful fiction, but not at all pastoral. Adams' characters are rarely in one place for more than a few moments, and whichever setting they happen to be in exists only to to the extent that it can be used for some satirical humor before moving on to the next set of jokes. The multitude of secondary characters encountered are little more than props used to deliver hilarious dialog. The fact that the "Hitchhiker" novels are like this isn't a bad thing -- they're thoroughly enjoyable books -- but they represent a complete detachment from place and community, a sensibility opposite that found in pastoral science fiction.

Probably all people feel, to varying degrees, both wanderlust and a desire for roots and community. Most modern literature, including science fiction, is dominated by the former. Pastoral science fiction provides balance by affirming the latter and recognizing its importance.

Author Tim Shippey's comments are interesting, although he is here attempting to define something opposite to pastoral sf [Introduction, The Oxford Book of Science Fiction, (Oxford, 1992)]:

A revealing way of describing science fiction is to say that it is part of a literary mode which one may call "fabril" "Fabril" is the opposite of "Pastoral". But while "the pastoral" is an established and much-discussed literary mode, recognized as such since early antiquity, its dark opposite has not yet been accepted, or even named, by the law-givers of literature. Yet the opposition is a clear one. Pastoral literature is rural, nostalgic, conservative. It idealizes the past and tends to convert complexities into simplicity; its central image is the shepherd. Fabril literature (of which science fiction is now by far the most prominent genre) is overwhelmingly urban, distruptive, future-oriented, eager for novelty; its central images is the "faber", the smith or blacksmith in older usage, but now extended in science fiction to mean the creator of artefacts in general--metallic, crystalline, genetic, or even social.

Shippey has over-generalized and the idea that science fiction is all the opposite of pastoral literature may be overstated. Nevertheless, his definition of "pastoral" is helpful in understanding what "pastoral sf" might be about. It also is useful as a means of understanding why relatively few works of science fiction are classified as pastoral.

To whatever extent traditional "pastoral fiction" is characterized by the central image of the shepherd, as Shippey has stated, this is not necessarily a characteristic used in identifying pastoral science fiction.

Two of the adjectives Shippey uses may the most useful: rural and nostalgic. Pastoral science fiction is highly focues on place, and not just any place, but a rural place. Pastoral fiction also evokes a sense of nostalgia for that place. Even if the narrative voice tells a story about place which is essentially unchanged since the events described, "nostalgic" may be an appropriate description. The place is described so carefully that the reader can "remember" being there, and being there is typically somehow good.

"Rural" often conjures up images of farmland, open fields, and a generally less-developed landscape. But pastoral science fiction doesn't necessarily take place only on the farm. More important than the details of the setting is the feelings evoked about that setting.

Alexi Panshin's Rite of Passage takes place almost entirely within the technological bowels of a massage asteroid which has been converted to a space-going vessel. The central character is Mia, whose life between the ages of 12 and 14 is described. What makes this a prime example of pastoral science fiction is that the novel is concerned almost entirely with the regular, day-to-day goings on of Mia in the environment she has grown up in. The Ship is described in detail from Mia's perspective, and there is little in the way of significant plot or conflict until the end of the novel. Mia's family, teaches, classmates, friends are all an important part of her life, as well as the hallways, classrooms, residential quarters, recreation areas, and (importantly in this novel) ventilation ducts. Even the "surprising" developments that build to the climax of the novel are really only extensions of the regular, year-in, year-out rites of passage which all members of the Ship's community take part in. Rite of Passage is pastoral not because it features dirt and trees, but because it features a functioning community in a well-defined place.

Interestingly enough, the last quarter of Rite of Passage takes place in a more traditional pastoral setting: a non-industrial colony planet which trades with the space-faring denizens of the Ship, but is prevented by them from having technology any more advanced than one would find in Europe around 1800. Despite the fact that the setting is clearly rural, sparsely populated, and in many respects positively portrayed, this section actually has less of a "pastoral" feel to it because it is so event-driven. The setting is a source of conflict, not a central "character." During her adventures on the colony planet, Mia is an interloper, not part of the environment, only rarely attracted to it and never interested in staying. Only a few people in the colony are described in any detail: most are plot elements. The contrast between the two sections and two settings of Rite of Passage illustrates how mere physical characteristics of a setting are not what marks a work of fiction as "pastoral." The author's tone and pace, and how the setting is tied to plot and character, are vital factors in such a classification.

With Way Station and City, as well as the sensibilities in his other work, Clifford Simak is widely regarded as the preeminent proponent of pastoral science fiction. Probably second to him is Zenna Henderson, a lifelong schoolteacher and fondly remembered writer whose fiction is easily recognizable as pastoral. (And it is certainly more traditionally pastoral than Panshin's Rite of Passage.)

While Simak lived in and wrote about Wisconsin, Zenna Henderson lived in and wrote about the rural Southwest: the small towns, wild valleys and mesa-sprinkled deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Many science fiction authors since Henderson have lived in New Mexico and Arizona (including Walter Jon Williams, Saberhagen, Doug Beason and Martha Soukup), but none used the region so consistently and effectively in their fiction.

Upon reading just a few of Henderson's "People" stories, the reader knows the quiet, beautiful and alien reality of the Southwestern places where she lived, taught, and wrote. Many of her stories have few major "plot points," yet they are compelling and memorable because of their clearly delighted, wonder-struck descriptions of very strange (yet very real) Arizona places and communities and the strange, realistic fictional alien immigrants who live there. The climactic conflict in Pilgrimage: The Book of the People (an oft-reprinted compilation of six of her "People" stories) is, in fact, nothing more or less than a story about people deciding whether they should leave the rural, Earthy home they love for an unfamiliar new home. There is no danger, no urgency, no disaster of any kind involved. The only "conflict" is the characters' and community's contemplation of "Home." Their rustic home in Cougar Canyon on Earth is so much a part of them, that many choose to stay there, rather than leave for a far-off place which has been engineered and subdued to be paradise of sorts for their race.

(The television show "Roswell" echoes Henderson's "People" stories, of course, but, typical of a television series, focuses more on soap operatic elements and teenage angst. While rare, there have been some television series in which the setting and surrounding community has had pastoral-style significance. "Homicide: Life on the Street" (set in Baltimore) and "Little House on the Prairie" (set in the frontier town of Walnut Grove) come to mind.)

Examples of Pastoral Science Fiction


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Web page created 1 June 2000. Last modified 17 July 2000.