Culture | Environmentalism, as told by octopi

Though naive, George Ter-Stepanian’s 1989 sci-fi novel was ahead of its time

The Green Revolution is a lie. In a revolution, people’s interests get hurt, great sacrifices are made, and by the end, things are vastly different than they were before. The Green Revolution isn’t going to happen as long as people think changing a few light bulbs and turning the lights off will do the job.

Written in Armenia in 1989, before the fall of the Soviet Union – and well before the green movement became so popular – George Ter-Stepanian’s science fiction novel Wiser than Humans attempts to show how much it will take to avert environmental disaster.

The novel tells the story of a group of environmental scientists, kidnapped over the Bermuda Triangle by a bunch of super-intelligent octopi called Dorils. The Dorils live at the bottom of the ocean and have witnessed the rise of the human species with increasing alarm, as humans wage war among themselves and on the planet. The Dorils kidnap the scientists to enlist their help in getting people to change their ways, before Earth becomes uninhabitable for both humans and Dorils alike.

The English translation of Wiser than Humans was launched at McGill’s Redpath Museum on January 22 by translator Christine Mitchell, the author having died in 2006 in Montreal. Ter-Stepanian was a Soviet environmental scientist, whose efforts were crucial in preventing several environmentally destructive projects in his native Armenia from going through, including a nuclear waste dump that would have poisoned the drinking water of 1.5-million people. He decided to write the novel to make environmental issues accessible beyond the scientific community – one of the few who took climate change seriously in the days before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

The book was clearly written by a scientist, and contains a lot of specific, real-world, factual information about environmental degradation and detailed descriptions of how the mysterious technology of the Dorils would work. There are a few romantic plot threads, and even a subplot about a jewel robbery, but they come off as haphazard additions to the book’s overall message.

The Dorils themselves have a utopian, communist society where everyone works happily for the good of the greater underwater community. All ecological damage is attributed to greedy capitalists. Only with the incredible technology of the Dorils are the kidnapped scientists able to convince the world to work together to save the planet.

While the book does a good job laying out the problems facing the early green movement, the prescriptions it offers are a little far-fetched, even for a science fiction novel. In radio addresses at the end of the novel, the scientists propose such solutions as outlawing all pollution, outlawing war, outlawing hunting, and most spectacularly, rerouting every nation’s military budget toward environmental protection.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how naive – even dangerous – these solutions are. “Pollution” can mean just about anything, from coolants in refrigerators used to store food and medicine for impoverished countries, to car exhaust, to fuel burned for heat or cooking – and let’s not even get started on the ideas of outlawing war or taking away military budgets. Utopic as these solutions might sound, they’re simply not viable. If the green movement is going to have a hope of succeeding, we need more than naive solutions that discredit the movement and make its ideals seem ridiculous.

Wiser Than Humans conveys just how badly humans need to take responsibility for their environmental impact, and the huge obstacles that face those who try. While the book’s literary features won’t exactly qualify it as a work of art, and its suggested solutions are unrealistic at best, this 1989 work was well ahead of its time. And its precocious message needs to be understood now more than ever if humanity is to survive on this planet. It’s either that, or pray that a bunch of octopi will save us.

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