Imagination as a Tool of Resistance: A Review of Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene
Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene: Imagining Futures and Dreaming Hope in Literature and Media. Edited by Marek Oziewicz, Brian Attebery, & Tereza Dedinová. Bloomsbury Academic, April 2022.
We live in a geological age that we call the Anthropocene. But what is the Anthropocene? Originally, the term was almost exclusively used in the geologic sense—as a way to denote the massive changes caused by human industrialization that will be traceable in the physical and ecological record of the planet. But the term has become much more than a scientific demarcation and has opened up a complex conversation about where humanity belongs in the discussion of Earth’s future.
Climate change is the “greatest change facing humanity” according to Marek Oziewicz, one of the three editors of Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene: Imagining Futures and Dreaming Hope in Literature and Media. The market-driven reluctance or even refusal to act on scientific information has made the use of the term “anthropocene” more than a neutral acknowledgement of humanity’s impact on the planet. Ozciewicz posits that this label has become a potentially dangerous term as it acknowledges human activity without recognizing the negative and destructive aspects of industrialization, reinforcing the all-to-common perspective of humanity as the center of the universe. As the essays in this collection highlight, there is increasing concern that this human-centered focus, divorced from any real sense of responsibility, has led us to our current crisis. As a part of the resistance to this neutral way of centering humanity, fantasy is a crucial tool for tackling both the literal destruction of our ecological future and our metaphorical conceptualization of the era.
Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene is a collection of essays, poems, artworks, and criticism from a range of fantasy authors, creators, and teachers that demonstrate how fantasy and the power of story can help us “reimagine ourselves and our place on a multi-species, biodiverse planet” rather than our too-common conception of humanity as the ordained exploiters of depleting resources. On the surface, fantasy may seem like a strange tool to tackle real issues. “Fantasy,” both as a term and a genre, suggests the opposite of reality, and despite its success in books and other media, it continues to have a low-rent reputation as escapism. But good fantasy actually tackles real-world concerns in a way that creates distance between the reader and reality. This distance can provide clarity and open our minds to new possibilities—and, as many of the writers in this collection argue, it can also create hope.
While science fiction is more generally associated with climate change and other real-world issues, the SF genre has more often than not focused on the disaster scenarios—extrapolating dystopia from our present difficulties rather than offering hope. This is one of the reasons why the editors and contributors to this collection have embraced fantasy and myth as crucial tools in how we conceptualize and analyze our current situation, and all of its possible futures. The line between fantasy and science fiction has never been a solid demarcation, so there are some authors and works included that could fall into either category. I will admit that, prior to reading this collection, I was also inclined to look to science fiction when thinking about climate change, and didn’t consider fantasy as a conduit for serious reflection on the real world. Which is a little embarrassing, given how often fantasy has been used as the vehicle to look at issues like war, prejudice, family relationships, and other very real concerns.
Fantasy as commentary on and reflection of the real world is not new; J. R. R. Tolkien included a strong thread of anti-industrial commentary in Lord of the Rings. This same commentary is at play in the works of contemporary writers all over the world. And many writers and creators are growing more open about their intention to refresh and reshape the way we think about our own world. Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene covers a range of works in different media and from many different perspectives. From world-famous works like those of Terry Pratchett, JK Rowling, NK Jemisin, and Disney films, to the mythology of indigenous peoples and children’s animated television, the range of perspectives is wide and the issues varied.
A common thread through many of the essays is the way fantasy allows for new narrative frameworks that reject destructive, colonialist perspectives—or at least ask us to consider the possibility of alternative viewpoints. Two such fantasy stories may seem a little surprising, given their source: the Disney animated films Moana and Frozen 2. Both stories center allegories of human-driven environmental destruction, with Maui’s theft of the Heart of Te Fiti acting as (problematic) allegory for damaging fuel extraction, and Frozen 2 offering an anti-colonialist take on the destruction of indigenous ways of life that are more balanced with the natural world. Even these “safe” and deeply commercial stories can play a role in resisting the framework of anthropocentric thinking.
Not every fantasy story needs to provide a grand allegorical perspective to create positive change. As the essay “Fantasy for the Anthropocene” highlights, humor is also an important tool to recalibrate our perspectives. For example, the early-grade chapter book series AstroNuts “radically decenters the human” by focusing on non-human characters, giving a voice to various animals as well as the planet itself. Even stories featuring an anthropomorphic dung beetle have the potential to open new avenues for exploring our current crisis and to widen our perspective.
One of the most powerful elements of fantasy is its ability to center us in a different reality. And yet, every good fantasy story reflects reality, too. Much like our own reflections in the mirror can reveal things we may not have noticed otherwise, the power of fantasy and myth to reveal truth through fiction is a powerful tool for shaping the way we think about the world. Instead of escaping reality through story, Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene outlines the ways story can offer a different kind of escape: liberation from our own anthropocentric conception of the world and the immense harm that conception has caused.
Amber Troska is a writer, copy editor, book blogger, and media critic from central Virginia. She is a regular reviewer for the Canadian feminist magazine Herizons and occasional contributor to the Tor.com blog. She has a BA in Fine Art that is utterly irrelevant to her life choices and considers buying books and reading them two completely different hobbies. You can find her on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The review author was acquainted with ARB editors through previous reviews. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.