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.

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!

Moonlight and Silver Bullets

I have a new academic chapter out! “Moonlight and Silver Bullets: Twentieth Century Racial Purity in Werewolf Films” has been published in All Around Monstrous: Monster Media in Their Historical Contexts, edited by Verena Bernardi and Frank Jacob. It’s out from Vernon Press now.

I love werewolf films. It’s a good thing I do, because there are a lot of them. Over 300 at last count – the first one dating from as early as 1913. But here’s the thing: go out into the street and accost ten random strangers. Ask them first how they would recognise a werewolf. Then ask them what kills a werewolf. Odds are, you’ll get the same answers from all ten people. Werewolves turn at the full moon, and they can be killed with a silver bullet.

Yet if you go back and look at werewolf mythology – and it’s been around for thousands of years – you’ll find that silver and moonlight make up tiny fractions of that mythology. Seriously, they may as well be footnotes they’re that minor in the scheme of things. So why have these minor elements of the myth come to be so widely held? Well, go back to the werewolf films and see when things begin to change. Up until the period around WW2, there’s a lot more variation in imagery. Enter The Wolf Man in 1941, and suddenly things begin to coalesce. Not all at once, but that’s the turning point. It could be that this was just a great film that made a lasting impact. But WW2, sadly, was also a time when eugenics began to rear its ugly head, specifically with regard to the nasty spectre of racial purity. And quite apart from werewolves, both moonlight and silver have long associations with purity. How do you recognise a werewolf? His mixed and beastly nature shows under pure light. How do you kill a werewolf? Hit him with a purity bullet, and it might kill him, but his dead body will turn back to its uncontaminated human form.

It’s very very nasty, and it may well be unconscious on the part of film makers and consumers, but the correlation – especially in the context of the times – is there.

Sacrifice in Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” Sequence

I’ve a new paper out! And it’s on a book series that is close to my heart: The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper, which was the fantasy staple of my childhood. I don’t know how many times I read The Grey King as a kid, but it was a lot. I think as an adult it’s been replaced by The Dark Is Rising volume as my favourite of the series, but it’s a close thing. I still read through all five books at least once a year, generally around Christmas, and I always get something new out of them.

You can imagine, then, just how thrilled I am to have a paper out on it. Cooper’s got some really interesting examples of sacrifice that pop up over and over again in the series, all of them quite distinct from the others, and that’s what I look at in my paper. “Sacrifice in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence” is out in issue #19 of BFS Journal. It focuses on what exactly makes a sacrifice: how knowledge and intent work together (or don’t) to form different types of sacrifice, and how the sacrifices made differ between mortal and immortal figures.

We’re used to seeing grand sacrifices in fantasy literature, but so much of the story Cooper tells hinges on the small quiet choices of characters like Jane Drew and John Rowlands, and for me these are often more compelling. These two characters are particularly small and mortal compared to the more supernatural, the more mythological, figures in the text, and it stands to reason that their actions are comparatively small and human, but they’re no less effective – and no less crucial – for all that.

Nature as Creative Catalyst

entanglementsI’ve a new book chapter out!

Actually, that implies there was an old book chapter. Nope! There’ve been a handful of papers, but this is is the first academic chapter I’ve had published. It rejoices in the name of “Nature as Creative Catalyst: Building Poetic Environmental Narratives through the Artists in Antarctica Programme”, and it is riveting stuff I tell you.

But if you think that title’s a mouthful, have a look at the collection that it’s in: Ecological Entanglements in the Anthropocene, edited by Nicholas Holm and Sy Taffel. Perhaps it’ll all be a bit clearer when I tell you that the working title of the project, for most of the time I was involved in it, was Working With Nature. Basically, it’s a collection of essays on the many different ways that people interact with their natural environment. Aside from mine, there are chapters on photographing the Australian landscape, suburban landscapes, postcolonial property rights in New Zealand, and more. The focus does tend towards the Antipodean, but it’s not the only setting explored.

My own chapter looks at New Zealand’s Artists in Antarctica programme. Every year, artists are sent down to Scott Base, to live and work with the scientists there. This is done in order for artists to communicate the Antarctic environment to the general public, in different ways than the scientists do. Basically, to give a more well-rounded experience of the continent to said public, who let’s not forget are the ones paying for NZ’s research programmes on the ice. The more invested the public is in Antarctic conservation and science, the better – at least as far as I’m concerned. Selected artists may be writers, film-makers, visual artists, textile artists, musicians, and so on. Being a poet myself, I focused on the visiting poets and how they built environmental narratives of their experiences.

I’m not going to lie, one day I’d love to be part of the Artists in Antarctica programme myself. Still, until that happy day, I can at least appreciate the work of the poets who have been able to go thus far… namely Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, Chris Orsman, and Owen Marshall. Lucky, talented bastards.