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Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene coverThis book first came to my attention in 2020. It wasn’t published then, but I was fumbling my way through a convention panel with Prema Arasu, who gave a talk on relationships with fish-people in films. It was fascinating, and so when Arasu said that the paper would be coming out soon, in this collection, I made a note, because I didn’t just want to read it. I wanted to review it. 

Well. Here we are, and it was worth the wait.

I’ll start with Arasu’s chapter, written with Drew Thornton, because it was my gateway paper, and because it’s a good representation of the book’s theme as a whole. They look at the sympathetic representation of oceanic hybrids in films such as Ponyo (2008) and The Shape of Water (2017). These hybrid creatures are both human and nonhuman, and can be read as means of navigating the ecological destruction that humans are currently inflicting on the planet. That this exploitative behaviour has historically been paired with the belief that all nonhuman beings are both other and inferior has led to both indifference and failing ecosystems. The inability to grasp that biodiversity is positively correlated with ecosystem resilience, for example, is a knowledge gap that has to be overcome, should we wish to reverse current trends.

The ability to empathise with nonhuman creatures, then, is one way of navigating environmental change. As Arasu and Thornton argue, “Faced with such a degree of change, numerous storytellers engage with the mythological hybrid monsters to explore the myriad possibilities of coexistence” (p. 151). This is certainly true. Audiences of The Shape of Water, for instance, are likely to empathise with the captive fish-man hybrid, and to support efforts to ensure his freedom and happiness in an eventual cross-species relationship.

If there is any consistent theme to this volume, other than the focus on fantasy and environment, it is the importance of empathy, and of using that empathy to construct sustainable and complex relationships with nonhuman life, or even nonhuman non-life. The first may seem more obvious than the second, but Tiffany Aching’s relationship with the Chalk in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (discussed in a chapter by Tereza Dědinová), and the role of the orogenes in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series (discussed in a chapter by Derek J. Thiess), both indicate the importance of geography and geology in our environmental relationships.

Those relationships, and how fantasy and myth can be used to explore them, are perhaps less explored in the wider literature than they could be. For instance, my own fiction, and my own academic work, is often strongly themed around ecology, including the complexities of human and nonhuman relationships, but I tend to approach this through the lens of science fiction rather than fantasy. Part of that bias, I’m sure, arises from my own background in the sciences, but part of it must surely be laziness: the kind of intellectual shorthand that rests on the familiar, and is so engaged (either actively or passively) with that familiarity, that alternatives get little to no attention.

The introduction to this book argues against this sort of limitation in developing and analysing environmental relationships. It claims that Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene is a text centred in resistance. Marek Oziewicz, one of the editors of the book, and the author of the introduction, states that the book:

builds on the emerging knowledge that the urgencies of the Anthropocene—pollution, global warming, biodiversity loss, climate change, and expansion of human populations paralleled by rising racism, exclusion, violence, and xenophobia—are primarily challenges to our story systems. The stories we have been telling ourselves about human exceptionalism (we’re the image of God), human entitlement (we’re masters of this planet), and human identity (we’re separate from and above “nature”) channeled our creativity into projects that transformed the planet—in our eyes—into a purely human domain. This is how we arrived at the Anthropocene. The thing is, these stories are not true. They legitimized but did not prepare us for the reality of a world ruled by a single species. (p. 1)

That’s a fairly lengthy quote, but it is I think a necessary one. Applying the reasoning here to Arasu and Thornton’s chapter, for instance, we can see that a film like The Shape of Water is a narrative in which the tensions of the Anthropocene are played out. In that film, the hybrid creature is seen, by military and scientific personnel in a government laboratory, as something to be cruelly exploited; this is representative of the stories of xenophobia and violence towards nonhuman species that have helped to create our current environmental crisis. That the person who ends up most advocating for the dignity and self-determination of the fish-man hybrid is a disabled woman who works as a cleaner—someone who is herself marginalised in several different ways—can be read as a pathway for resistance, since the empathy between the two argues for the possibility of reconciliation, and of co-existence, between the human and the nonhuman. 

The “challenges to our story systems” are ongoing. Those challenges are not always external. Yes, the environmental consequences of past and current actions do provide critical points of interrogation for the stories that so encourage unsustainable behaviour in the first place, but in many cases those stories are so entrenched that even attempts to move beyond them are shackled by existing bias. Christopher D. Foley explores this in his chapter on Moana (2016), where he argues that, despite the research into Polynesian culture that Disney performed during the making of the film, its ultimate portrayal of the shape-shifting demigod Māui was “deeply problematic” (p. 163). Linking Māui, through his theft of the goddess of nature’s heart,  with extractivism and environmental exploitation places blame where it does not belong; as Foley says, “it has not been indigenous Polynesian men but those from Western Europe and the Global North” (p. 168) who are primarily responsible for the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources. 

Furthermore, Foley states, the film also underlines problematic, primarily Western associations between women and nature, associations that ecofeminist scholarship argues “have long inspired the mutual subjection and exploitation of (indigenous) female bodies and the nonhuman world” (p. 168). This is an argument that was underlined, quite unexpectedly, by another text I was reading at the same time. In her book Colonising Myths—Māori Realities: He Rukuruku Whakaaro (Huia Publishers, 2011) Māori academic Ani Mikaere also explores how actively creative, and actively sexual, female figures such as the primordial earth mother Papatūānuku and the first human woman Hineahuone, were marginalised and made passive within Māori creation stories by Western recorders of those stories, in favour of an inserted supreme male creator that reflected the Christian beliefs of the recorders. Mikaere argues, as Foley does, that Polynesian mythology was a challenge to the pre-existing story systems of colonisation, and that those stories were altered, through the lens of colonialism, to better reflect the interests of those who did the altering. Certainly, within the context of Foley’s Moana chapter, the desire to assign blame to parties who are not responsible is reflective of a belief in equal responsibility for environmental damage. 

This is a belief that is patently not true, and supporting such assertions is one way of limiting individual, corporate, and national responsibilities towards environmental justice. What’s the alternative, then? How can fantasy and mythology stories construct systems that push back against stories that excuse or otherwise tolerate environmental injustice and dysfunction? 

It’s a little flippant to say that Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene answers that question with “Ask Donna Haraway,” but nonetheless, nearly every single one of the academic chapters here refers back to her. Admittedly, this gets a little repetitive, but then again the two major issues raised by Haraway, an academic who specialises in feminist and post-humanist thought—especially as it pertains to science and technology—are genuinely relevant to the topic of the book. The first of these issues can be found in the title.

What, exactly, does “Anthropocene” imply? Certainly there are a number of alternatives used to describe the geological period characterised by human impact on terrestrial systems. A few of these alternatives include the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene (spelled differently from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, which is unfortunate for me as I can never spell either), and my personal favourite, the Necrocene. Each has their supporters and detractors. The latter, including Haraway, consider that “Anthropocene” continues the human-centric thinking that is so fucking things up to begin with. It also generalises human behaviour, as if all humans are equally responsible for environmental degradation. The editors of the volume have stuck with the “Anthropocene” term nonetheless, presumably because, despite the issues, it remains the most widely used term. This continues an emphasis on accessibility that I’ll get back to in a minute, but first, the other Haraway influence: that of kinship.

In a multispecies world, many of the authors collected in this book argue, the idea of kinship is one that can be extended far beyond the nuclear family. Kin can be wider, broader; it can cross species boundaries. It is a way of looking at diverse systems as a valued community rather than as an egocentric extension of the self. Kinship values the other, and looks for ways to connect rather than exclude, to share rather than displace. 

Because so many of the authors in this book consistently reference back to the concepts of kinship and the Anthropocene, however, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been helpful to include short extracts from Haraway, on the grounds that not all readers will be familiar with her work. This sort of embedded referencing turns a collection into a sort of mini-tutorial, I’m aware, but—getting back to that emphasis on accessibility I mentioned above—Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene has been put together by editors who clearly want to produce accessible academic work. They do this in several ways. The first is in the structure. The book is organised into four different sections, each corresponding in thematic ways to earth, air, water, and fire. Each academic chapter is followed by a short piece from a creative writer, such as Nisi Shawl or Katherine Applegate, that talks about how they approach environmental issues in their fantasy work; these pieces tend to be between one and two pages long. Honestly, I think the editors could have leaned into this a little more, and had a more even ratio between application and analysis, but even so these are bite-sized pieces of approachability that act as mental palate cleansers between the papers proper. Similarly, each section includes a piece of flash fiction by Brian Attebery, very stylised accounts of interactions between Anthropos, or Child of Man, with the natural world. 

Moreover—and this is an issue that’s come up before in my Strange Horizons reviews of nonfiction titles—there is the issue of style. This is a remarkably accessible academic book. It’s clear that an effort has been made to encourage the academic writers, in particular, to produce readable prose. Most of them have risen to the challenge. The chapter on permaculture in the Tiffany Aching books, by Tereza Dědinová, takes the prize here, being both lucid and fascinating. There’s always one, however, and the wooden spoon here goes to the writer (I shall leave him nameless) who comes out with sentences such as, “This harks back to Kohn’s Peircian framework in which the semiotic capacities of selves might differ but are always connected via bodily mediated signification” (p. 44). Not only do I not have the faintest idea what this means—do you?—but serve me a chapter of this stultifying prose and I’ve lost the will to live. 

It does not build kinship, prose like that. I’m sure the fish-man would agree with me. It’s possible he doesn’t. I’d like to think we could find a way to get on regardless. That may be a fantastic goal, in subject and in object(ive); but fantasy, as this collection reminds me, is a means of challenging reality. 

It’s good to be reminded.

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold close to fifty short stories to various markets, and several novellas, two poetry collections, an essay collection, and a climate fiction novel are also available. She attended Clarion West 2016 and was the Massey University writer-in-residence for 2020.
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