[Spoilers for “The Voice in the Night,” Mexican Gothic, The Girl With All the Gifts, Ambergris, the X-Files episode “Field Trip,” and Star Trek: Discovery.]
There’s something about mushrooms that gets our minds sporing. These spores sometimes take the form of stories: from Alice in Wonderland to Ray Bradbury’s “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!” to Sheri S. Tepper’s Raising the Stones to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, they proliferate in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror like shiitake on the underside of a log. We keep coming back to these old-school natural wonders, even as new technologies and social problems proliferate. Maybe it’s because mushrooms give us so much to work with—in the words of X user ophyliaXhamlet, "They’re tasty. They’re hallucinogenic. They’re poisonous. They are one. They are many. They will outlive us. You will eat them. They will eat you. And some of them look like little houses.”  These days, we know more about mushrooms than ever, but this knowledge has not dampened our appetite for fictional fungi: The Last of Us outperformed the far bloodier, sexier Game of Thrones.  Weird little guys win: but why? To understand why we keep telling tales about cordyceps and why audiences gulp them down like the omelet in Phantom Thread, we might start by looking to our shared history.
A Brief and Incomplete History of Human-Mushroom Relations
Mushrooms and humans go way back. Since we crawled out of caves, we found them and ate them and discovered that sometimes they filled our bellies, sometimes they expanded our minds, and sometimes they killed us. No matter the end result, we quickly realized their importance: Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old man who was found frozen in the Tyrolean Alps, was carrying a string of fungi for medicinal or spiritual purposes.  Whatever his reasons, Ötzi knew what was up: mushrooms are a modest source of nutrients and taste great sautéed with garlic (did the Chalcolithic Europeans know about umami?), but they’re also packed with polysaccharides, indoles, polyphenols, and carotenoids which have shown powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer effects. And their benefits go beyond the body to the mind and spirit; from India to Greece to Algeria and beyond, various cultures have drawn on mushrooms’ hallucinogenic properties for their sacred rites.
After the trial and error of ancient times, humans and mushrooms were off the races. We partnered with our fungal friends to make penicillin, beer, immunostimulants, bread, analgesics, soy sauce, and more. By the twentieth century, mushrooms were a known quantity, but they still existed primarily in the realm of the culinary: Kate Sargeant’s One Hundred Mushroom Receipts was published in 1899 and featured mystical-sounding recipes like Coprinus Comatus Soup (Shaggy Mane), Lepiota Procera Stew, and Baked Tricholoma Personatum. Sargeant also suggested that society was coming around on fungi:
The general opinion in this country regarding mushrooms has been, that with one or two exceptions, all forms of fungus growth are either poisonous or unwholesome, but it is very gratifying to observe the change that is rapidly taking place in the public mind. Soon public opinion will acknowledge that it is an established fact that the great majority of the larger funguses, especially of those that grow in fields and other open places, is [sic] not only wholesome but highly nutritious.
Less than a decade after One Hundred Mushroom Receipts was published, an Englishman named William Hope Hodgson wrote “The Voice in the Night”: the story of a shipwrecked man and his fiancée who happen upon an island covered in a spreading fungus. They fight their urge to eat it and fail, then discover that the other humans on the island have been completely absorbed by fungal growth. They try to stop eating what they now know to be deadly, but it is too late:
Yet our drear punishment was upon us; for, day by day, with monstrous rapidity, the fungoid growth took hold of our poor bodies. Nothing we could do would check it materially, and so—and so—we who had been human became—Well, it matters less each day. Only—only we had been man and maid!
Mushrooms weren’t just for dinner. As the next century would show, they were a source of literary inspiration—a wellspring of wonder and terror.
Sprouting Toadstools, Fed by Fear
Mushrooms didn’t exactly sweep sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, but much like their real-world inspiration they persisted, growing in the damp, dark crevices of the creative minds of every generation. They were a template for the anxieties of each age, seasoned with the fears of the era. In Ray Bradbury’s low-key, dread-filled “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!” they were aliens invading earth through mail-order mushroom kits; a sinister allegory for Cold War paranoia and children turning on their parents. By the 1980s mushrooms were newly awakened old gods in Sheri S. Tepper’s Raising the Stones, which wrestles vividly with post-Vatican II concepts of religion, second-wave feminism, and how you interact with a deity that’s physically present in your everyday life. Tepper’s explorations echoed her more famous contemporaries, Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin, but also dove into ecology and how we co-exist with the natural world. The Hobbs Land Gods are a fungus that grows underground and spreads. No one knows much about it and despite its prevalence, people are too busy living their lives to pay much attention. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a mistake.
We had a lot to learn about our fungal friends, and in the scientific realm we did. In stories, we continued to meet unfortunate ends.
In 1996, the New York Times Magazine described mushrooms as “shadowy presences” and noted that they were the newest threat to human health.  The X-Files episode “Field Trip” agreed: Mulder and Scully become trapped inside a giant mushroom, have a shared hallucination, and eventually realize they are being digested by it. We might love lager and antibiotics and portobellos stuffed with breadcrumbs, but we couldn’t shake the idea that mushrooms had it out for us, however passively. They were low-key everywhere: in hospital air, in the fields and caves of North Carolina, and eventually inside of us, suffusing our systems until we expired in a painful, dream-like haze. Stripped of historically specific fears, a crux of mushroom mythology began to solidify: by the time you realize you’ve been infected, it’s too late. Our ignorance, arrogance, obliviousness—however you spell human frailty, it leads to our doom. You could argue that this behavior is understandable: mushrooms seem so innocuous and still somewhat mysterious. You could also argue that by this point, we should know better.
Spoiler: we don’t. We learn more but grow no wiser. Mostly, the stakes just change. By the 2000s, mycologists were acutely aware of mushrooms’ power and promise, as well as what we didn’t know; from cleaning up toxic waste sites to treating anxiety and depression (first explored in the ’70s but coming back around), they were both a known quantity and a persistent puzzle. In the stories of the new millennium, the relationship between human and mushroom becomes more active but no less fraught: rather than being unaware of nature, our scientific strides made us think we could master it. We fail to respect Earth’s delicate ecological balance at our peril: the mysterious and deadly mushroom people in Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris trilogy are driven underground, and the rest of the population must deal with the results of colonialism in the form of fungal bullets, fungal surveillance systems, and uncomfortable questions about how we treat beings we don’t consider a threat—and what happens when they start to fight back. It is telling that the city of Ambergris, the concept of which drives many of his stories, was founded upon extremely shaky moral ground: the mushroom people or grey caps were never an actual threat, but then whaler-cum-pirate Cappan John Manzikert had a weird dream about them, decided they were dangerous, and massacred them. A city founded in violence begets more violence; VanderMeer’s tales seed the idea that we might do better extending a hand instead of a fist to those we share a space with—especially if we don’t know what they can do.
The question of how we treat those we perceive as a threat comes up again in M. R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, this time cutting closer to the bone: a zombie-like fungal infection rips through humanity and eventually leads to the breakdown of civilization as we know it, illustrating what happens when we cannot or will not adapt. I want to emphasize the “as we know it” part: we could have possibly found a way to live with the infected or at least alongside them, but instead treated them as a problem. On one hand, it’s understandable to want to try and eliminate a person that lives on flesh. On the other hand, they’re still people—intelligent beings and in this case children—and one could argue that that should prompt us to look for solutions beyond us vs. them. Another variation of us vs. them plays out in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s lush Mexican Gothic, which is less large-scale apocalyptic but equally disturbing: the Doyle family realizes the power of a mushroom strain and commits all manner of atrocities and taboo acts to continue reaping its benefits. Mushrooms are not victims but a source of immortality—a neutral force that Howard Doyle approaches with impure intentions.
Meanwhile over on Star Trek: Discovery, the crew’s intentions towards mushrooms are less sinister, though still driven by a desire for power: astromycologist Paul Stamets (named after the real-life Paul Stamets, who has the same job minus the astro-) and his research partner Justin Straal develop a spore drive, which allows the ship Discovery to teleport through the mycelial network. Drawing on what the real-life Stamets calls the underground web  is a game-changer; eliminating the travel time needed with warp drive means that a ship that can arrive anywhere at any time. But it comes with a price: a living being must live in symbiosis with the spores, and connecting that being to the spore drive causes them great pain. This violates Starfleet’s code of ethics; Spock recommends that records of the spore drive be purged and no one speak of it again. This doesn’t exactly happen, but the point is that even when you just want more horsepower, messing around with mushrooms has consequences. These are cautionary tales for our species—when we try to twist the natural world to our designs, someone pays the price. Ultimately, that someone is us. What is less defined in fiction is how we could work with mushrooms to our mutual advantage: what it looks like to approach with curiosity, take the time to really understand, and truly partner instead of take. It could help to take a filament from earlier mycologist Beatrix Potter,  who never wrote stories about mushrooms but channeled her reverence for the natural world into The Tales of Peter Rabbit.
The Last of Us Is Not the End
The encroaching climate crisis is one of the latest boogeymen to appear in sci-fi and its sibling genres, and understandably so; the strangeness of what may come and what’s in many ways already here provide a lush breeding ground for all kinds of barely-fictional scenarios. Amidst the turmoil, mushrooms are still very much on our minds; The Last of Us has achieved critical success as a video game and then a television series, showcasing old yet very modern fears of sickness, zombification, and societal collapse. and the idea of a “cycle of violence”; the last part specifically has been compared to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with what some critics have said is a distinctly Israeli perspective . In addition to modern concerns, the storyline draws on familiar mushroom tropes—humans vs. nature, visual creepiness (there’s something viscerally awful about a blooming fungus skull), loss of control over one’s mental facilities—sharpened by the dark, gritty, emotional storyline and, later, acting and production. It certainly can’t have hurt that the show came out on the tail end of an actual global pandemic. Covid doesn’t cause fungal growths and zombification, but spending three weeks alone on a ventilator followed by probable death is an equally nightmarish scenario.
You could argue that the pandemic primed us for The Last of Us—that experiencing the strangeness and horrors a virus can create first-hand was key to its acclaim. But there was more to it than just prescient, powerful storytelling, and it comes back to mushrooms. Corrado Nai outlines this well in “Science, Fiction, and Fungi: What The Last of Us Gets Right,”  pointing out that
- Global warming is a training ground for fungi.
- We don’t have a single vaccine against fungal diseases.
- Fungi are overlooked in healthcare.
- When it comes to pathogenic fungi, it really is a vicious cycle.
For all these reasons, mushrooms have storytelling staying power. They probably won’t turn us into zombies, but they might survive weather extremes and could even feed us when other crops fail: scientific studies show that fungi may already be adapting to increased heat.  It would be good for us if they stuck around. Dubbed “climate warriors” for their ability to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, mushrooms’ unique gifts help delay the effects of global warming and protect our planet. They also quite literally knit the two states of being together, decomposing dead things and turning them into soil so other things can grow.  On the fiction front, they’re weird and cool in a way that goes beyond trends and zeitgeist anxieties, though they certainly reflect both.
Mushrooms Nourish a Collectivist Vision
Over a hundred years after Blue Book Magazine published “The Voice in the Night,” we remain fascinated by fungi. They are alien and native, ancient and modern, life and death in one little eukaryotic organism (and they’re not always little: Google Humongous Fungus and thank me later). They’re interesting by their very nature; our minds provide the seasoning. Until very recently, mushroom tales have tended to traffic in the kind of awe and wonder colored by horror. They’re all about our fear of nature and attempts to use or master it. But slowly and quietly, much like our fungal friends, a new type of mushroom fiction has begun to emerge amidst the zombies and colonizers and experiments gone awry.
In Becky Chambers’s 2021 sci-fi novel A Psalm for the Wild-Built, mushrooms are building material; one of many ways we live in harmony with nature in an optimistic, solarpunk world. Put another way by journalist Elly Belle: “you believe in individualism? mycelium networks exist and you think rugged individualism is the path to success?”  Although Chambers’s novel may not be a direct reflection of mycologist Merlin Sheldrake’s non-fiction book Entangled Life, it is hard not to see the two in unconscious conversation (not unlike how mycelial networks communicate to amplify fungal, plant, and bacterial interactions). In Entangled Life, Sheldrake argues that although fungi have many practical uses, examining how they operate collectively is equally if not more valuable. “Coordination takes place both everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.” This means distributing nutrients, warning of insect attacks, and transmitting poison.  There’s so much going on with mushrooms and we’ve only brushed the surface.
What this means for humans is still being explored. But in stories and science, the idea of man vs. nature is perhaps becoming passé, or at least more complicated and nuanced. More and more, we are moving beyond the idea of fungi as tool  to the concept of partner, no matter how silent and non-sentient: the idea that being bipedal and verbal are marks of superiority starts to crumble in the face of floods, flash fires, and the possibility of fungal infections. More and more, we realize that we cannot cowboy our way out of this mess alone and have much to learn from our neighbors. As we continue to look to mushrooms for answers, perhaps more writers will see them as everyday heroes, and their stories will reflect how we could work together to survive.
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