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REVIEW: The Overstory by Richard Powers

TONY

She remembers now why she never had the patience for nature. No drama, no development, no colliding hopes and fears. Branching, tangled, messy plots. And she could never keep the characters straight. (p. 419)

Enter The Overstory, and this quote is the reflection this book needs. By turns beautiful, insightful, heavy-handed, and queerly new, The Overstory has grown on me from what I first thought was a confusing, lyrical mess to one of my favorite SFF books of the year.

Like the work of Jonathan Lethem, especially As She Climbed Across the Table, The Overstory appears to be less a work of science fiction and more a work of fiction about science. That particular line is one that Margaret Atwood claims, too--specifically, that she writes speculation about what can happen, not science fiction about what couldn't. Yet, where both she and Lethem embrace speculation, is that same possibility present in The Overstory? This is a book told over decades, but they're primarily past decades--and as for the future, there’s no real scientific novum here...or is there? Is this fantastic? Magical realism? Clifi? Or a new kind or botanical science fiction?

Certainly it would be new, as SFF has generally given plants the short shrift, unless they're talking or triffids. Some excellent recent books have worked to overcome the bias against plants, including Sue Burke's Semiosis, but the weird and wonderful green world is often treated as invisible backdrop only. This is to the detriment of SFF generally, as some of the weirdest life on Earth (and certainly some of the largest, oldest, smallest, and most other superlatives you can think of) is plant. The Overstory, then, finds itself in a liminal space that's perhaps a little too sciencey for mainstream fiction (despite Powers's National Book Award), but not speculative enough for SFF.

This is exactly what we need. On the one hand, the character Dr. Patricia Westerford is one of the only practicing botanists in fiction since Ellie Sattler wondered about gastroliths and sick trikes in Jurassic Park, and we could definitely use more like her--especially since it's abundantly clear that Powers knows what he's writing about and captures well botanical science on the page. On the other hand, The Overstory's liminality may well restrict it to limbo--again too sciences or not speculative enough, but also without staking a claim for either being fantastic (the trees are all talking), scientific (and the botanical and ecological science knows why), or literary (who cares about what the scientists do, anyway?). However you look at it, The Overstory's position is a tough one.

But let me make my position clear: I want more. I want forest fiction. I want SFF about botanists. I want our boundaries between what's literary and SFF, between speculative and clifi, to continue to erode. I want more of this kind of play, and I want books like The Overstory to guide us through what comes next.