Papers, SFF

Worldbuilding in Ursula K. Le Guin

I have a new paper out! “Environmental Change as a Catalyst for Worldbuilding in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home” has just been published. You can find it in Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T. Barbini for Luna Press Publishing.

I have to admit, Always Coming Home is not my favourite Le Guin book. It’s actually quite far from my favourite. (That will forever be The Tombs of Atuan.) And if I’m being absolutely, perfectly honest, I find Always Coming Home to be over-detailed for my tastes. However, it is an absolutely excellent example of worldbuilding, and one that stems from cataclysmic environmental change. It’s part purported history, part thought experiment, part possible future, and what I find compelling amidst all that welter of detail is just how far the worldbuilding spreads. I mean, I know that in some corners of speculative fiction, writers will rabbit on forever and fucking ever about extraneous bits of encyclopaedia that are only marginally masked as story, but rarely is the focus so broad. Environmental change, in Le Guin, changes everything. Economics, family life, art, science… it’s all affected.

As an academic, that fascinates me. I’m interested in how speculative fiction deals with environmental change, and Always Coming Home is a deeply considered example of it written by someone much cleverer than me. Now, if only it had that creepy labyrinth…

Horror, Papers, Science, SFF

Inoculation and Contagion

I have a new paper out! Something very appropriate for the times, too, in that it deals with infection and disease. The paper’s called “Inoculation and Contagion: The Absence of Vaccination in Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and it’s free to read at Supernatural Studies. If you go to the table of contents for the issue you can also download a free pdf of the paper, which is great.

I love Dracula. I really do. It’s one of the great horror stories of all time, and yet when I reread it again a couple of years back, I began to wonder. Why is there no mention of vaccination in it? Two of the main characters are doctors. They treat vampirism as a contagious disease, and vaccination was, at the time of Stoker’s writing (and at the time the novel was set) an accepted medical practice. It was even a compulsory practice when it came to smallpox. And yet… nary a mention. Not even to say that it wouldn’t work so no use trying. Now, Stoker is long dead and so can’t be asked, but still… can a bit of research find a reason for this curious omission? It just might, I thought, and it has. Without verification from Stoker we can’t be sure if it’s the right reason, of course, but it’s certainly a plausible one.

And honestly, for me, plausibility is enough. My curiosity is satisfied. I would say, however, that just because you can’t vaccinate yourself against vampirism doesn’t mean you can’t vaccinate yourself against a number of other diseases. You can, and you should.

Papers, Science, SFF

Microbiology and Microcosms

I have a new paper out! It’s in Surreal Entanglements: Essays on Jeff VanderMeer’s Fiction, edited by Louise Economides and Laura Shackelford, published by Routledge. The paper’s called “Microbiology and Microcosms: Ecosystem and the Body in Shriek: An Afterword.” Which is a fancy way of saying that I’m talking about the human microbiome, the plethora of different species that live in and on the human body. Most of my academic work seems to sit in the intersection between science and speculative fiction, and this is another example of that.

Shriek: An Afterword is one of the Ambergris books; a series in which VanderMeer explores the city of Ambergris, which is the home of both humans and a fungal species called the gray caps. Fungus contaminates in Ambergris, and Duncan Shriek, one of the primary characters of the book, is slowly turning to fungus himself. Which made me think of the human microbiome, and how we are already host to fungal organisms – you and I and everyone have fungi living inside us as a matter of course, and so Shriek’s transformation is a sort of speculative extension of existing biology. It causes him – and everyone around him – to reassess his identity, and that reassessment is something that the human microbiome is prompting as well. We so often think of a human as being a singular organism, when we really are not. In reality, that apparently singular organism is more of a colony than anything else! How this impacts on the way that we think about ourselves is something I find just fascinating, and it’s that which prompted the essay.

Nonfiction, Papers, SFF

Humans as Ecological Actors in Post-Apocalyptic Literature

I have a new paper out! “Humans as Ecological Actors in Post-Apocalyptic Literature” has been published in MOSF Journal of Science Fiction, in their special issue on environmental SF. This is also the first paper I’ve ever co-written, and my fellow author is Meryl Stenhouse. It was a really enjoyable writing experience, so I think we’re going to work together again once we can figure out our next topic!

Post-apocalyptic literature is frequently environmental in nature, or explores significant ecological impacts. These affect the surviving human and nonhuman populations, and are characterised by scale. While some of the apocalypses of science fiction literature are limited to the destruction of a single species – as occurs, for instance, in P.D. James’ The Children of Men – others, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, illustrate an environmental collapse that destroys entire ecosystems.

Human response to apocalypse occurs on both an individual and a communal level, but that response, within the literature, tends to focus more often on social or economic consequences. However, the ability of humans to further shape their natural environment tends to be heightened in environmental apocalypse, as compromised ecologies become ever more vulnerable to human activity. The ability of humans to function as ecological actors, as shapers of surviving ecologies, is therefore not only a fundamental – if frequently underexplored – part of that narrative, but it also indicates potential pathways for real-life response to ecological apocalypse.

Notable, in the post-apocalyptic narratives explored in this paper, is how the impact of human behaviour on environment is dependent on apocalyptic scale. The construction of refugia, the realignment of surviving communities to sustainable practices, and the increasingly destructive human presence on ecologies incapable of reclamation contrasts with, for example, the increasing nonhuman biodiversity that can follow the widespread destruction of the human population.

Nonfiction, Papers, SFF

Confronting the Minotaur

I have a new paper out! “Confronting the Minotaur: Gender, Reconciliation, and the Labyrinth in Fantasy Literature” has been published by BFS Journal.

I love labyrinths, I really do. They pop up a lot in fantasy lit, and I’m always glad to see them. They always seem more exciting in fantasy than in real life, but such is the case for a number of settings, I’m sure. Anyway, over the years I’ve noted a number of variations related to gender: who solves the labyrinth, who’s settled in the middle of it, that sort of thing. One of the archetypal stories is of course that of Theseus, who – with the help of Ariadne – solves the labyrinth to confront the monstrous devouring Minotaur at the centre of it. If we take this as a basic pattern (albeit one that rests primarily on the European tradition of labyrinths, as opposed to those traditions from other parts of the world) we can see how such patterns are repeated in, for example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Whether the maze is made out of underground tunnels or the dead marshes, the risk of being eaten or otherwise swallowed up is significant. Does this pattern change, however, when the solver of the labyrinth is female? Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel is an interesting contrast here, where the monstrous devourer exists outside the labyrinth, and the centre is a place of science and safety.

I tinkered with this paper on and off for well over a decade, so I’m glad it’s finally been published. Let me know what you think!