Improbably Botany is a collection of sci-fi landscape futurism short stories that take our relationship to plants into the unknown.
By Zach Mortice
Wayward is a collective of landscape architects, architects, urban growers, artists, and other assorted creative types who design landscape installations for “exploring new models for how green space can work in cities,” says its founder, Heather Ring. The group’s experimental and often temporary projects emphasize creating “narrative environments that tell stories through the spaces.” The projects have included chromatic explorations of algae growth and weaving slow-growth sculpture from living trees.
It’s an outsider’s perspective on landscape design that might have earned Ring’s London-based band of designers the high school graduation accolade of “landscape architect most likely to commission a science fiction anthology,” because that’s just what Wayward has done.
Having raised nearly $16,000 during a successful Kickstarter campaign, Wayward will publish Improbable Botany, a collection of 11 short stories of sci-fi landscape futurism that extrapolate our current relationship with the planet’s flora into magical and terrible places. The book will ship in late October, in time for Halloween.
“We see science fiction as a future forecasting,” Ring says, “an ability to creatively look at what sorts of developments are happening right now, and what could potentially happen in the future.”
Edited by Gary Dalkin, the book includes full-color illustrations by Jonathan Burton that convey a warm and recognizable future, more playfully surreal than mercilessly technological. This sensibility is reflected in a number of the stories themselves. “The most iconic sci-fi around plants has either been a fear of nature taking over the world, or a seed being the last hope, like Wall-E,” Ring says. But Improbable Botany seems to suggest a middle third way, where nature is neither a vulnerable sacrament nor a devouring maw. Characters find small moments of charity and humanity amid tectonic shifts in their relationship to plants and their environment. The specter of climate change is an implicit undercurrent. This dynamic is expressed at an individual scale and at a global scale, often set in a near future that’s just off-kilter enough for us to recognize. In Eric Brown’s “The Ice Garden,” a mysterious country manor reunion story is brought about by some astral horticulture. In “The Bicycle-Frame Tree Plantation Manager’s Redundancy” by Ken MacLeod, we see a world where plants work as factories, growing complex mechanical elements, and where nature can be co-opted to leap ahead of the relentless pace of unsustainable globalized industry for only so long.
Ring sees this project and Wayward’s entire body of self-initiated work as a counterpoint to the dominant corporate practice of landscape design. The group’s members are the “wayward ones who really want the autonomy and the creative freedom to explore different things,” she says.
And that’s an open-ended sort of freedom that landscape architecture could stand to embrace. Landscape architecture’s current well-established paradigm largely conceives of landscape as elements of functional infrastructure. Ring is excited by the prospect of her book opening up new disciplinary avenues that consider landscape architects as bioengineers and landscape as technology, the humanistic endeavor that’s such a fundamental ingredient of sci-fi. As the profession casts about for a new lodestar, Ring may be tinkering with the spaceship that helps it get there.
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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