Guest commentary: Karen Feldman ... Martian messages

Professor's book illuminates what aliens are trying to tell us

Brian Tietz
FGCU associate professor Eric Otto looks at environmentalism through a science-fiction lens in his book, “Green Speculations.”

Photo by Brian Tietz

Brian Tietz FGCU associate professor Eric Otto looks at environmentalism through a science-fiction lens in his book, “Green Speculations.”

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Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. And then there are times when fiction reveals strange truths about life.

That Eric Otto became a college professor falls under the first category; his new book, “Green Speculations: Science Fiction and Transformative Environmentalism,” the second.

Growing up in St. Petersburg and then Naples, Otto didn’t read much. He earned an associate degree at Edison Community College (now Edison State College), learned to play the guitar and began teaching others. He realized he could make money teaching while going to school. He also learned about the brand new local university, Florida Gulf Coast University.

Under the guidance of FGCU professors such as Joe Wisdom, Maria Roca, Jim Wohlpart and Rebecca Totaro, he grew to love reading and discovered he was good at thinking and writing.

One class he took covered Florida writers, including Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her classic work, “Cross Creek.” The chapter on the food she created had him wolfing down cornbread and other Southern specialties for weeks. Something else he digested: “It made me realize that literature and words can have an impact on people.”

He delved further into environmental literature, graduating in 2000, then going on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in English at the University of Florida. In 2007, he joined the FGCU faculty, teaching environmental humanities.

“Green Speculations” is an expanded version of his doctoral dissertation, which examines science fiction’s take on environmentalism.

Although the conventional message of science fiction is how to save the world with technology, “That’s not the way environmentalists think about it,” he said. “They are usually suspect of technology. There’s a subset of books that say we’re damaging the world and we need to think more about certain practices we engage in.”

The medium also can serve as a mirror and a means of connecting to nature.

“When there’s an alien attack, the aliens are us,” he said. “It’s a metaphor. H.G. Wells is talking about colonialism when showing Martians attacking us. In that type of story the aliens will point out ‘What you’ve done to other species, we are just doing that to you.’ ”

If the water system malfunctions and there’s no drinking water, “We suddenly realize we are part of nature, whereas having a faucet, a functioning grocery store and banking system gives us the feeling we aren’t really animals.”

Brad Busbee, FGCU associate professor of English and chairman of the FGCU Department of Language and Literature, believes Otto has made a great case, observing in his review of the book: “The notable insight of ‘Green Speculations’ is how science fiction, with its imaginative worlds and possible futures, makes visible the costs and damages of our current economic systems that are simply ignored, overlooked or erased by particular ideologies. Eric C. Otto’s study greatly expands the purview of ecocriticism and makes an impressive case for the relevance of science fiction in environmental discussions.”

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