Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene:
Imagining Futures and Dreaming Hope in Literature and Media
Edited by Marek Oziewicz, Brian Attebery, and Tereza Dědinová
Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 250, $34.95
As an Amazon Associate, TLC earns from qualifying purchases.
Review by Christine Havens
This headline flashed on my cell phone’s lock screen recently: “Breaking: A second round of drastic water cuts from the Colorado River is set to hit Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico as climate change-driven drought deepens the water shortage in the Southwest.” Just a few weeks earlier, I was helping lead a book study of The Water Knife, a climate fiction (cli-fi) classic by Paolo Bacigalupi, at the invitation of the Diocese of Arizona’s Creation Care Council. This apocalyptic, dystopian novel, published in 2015, takes place in a drought-stricken American Southwest of the near future. The story occurs mostly in Phoenix, with California, Nevada, and Arizona the main participants in a violent water-rights battle.
The Rev. Pam Hyde, the diocese’s canon of creation care, said the group felt that using climate fiction rather than nonfiction for a book study would offer participants “something to grab onto” for conversations centered on creation care. Churches are needed at the forefront of this mission to counter “resistance to change the way we use the earth.” Book studies are one option in the diverse approaches the diocese hopes will answer questions like “Why is the church getting into climate-change issues?” and “What does climate change have to do with me?”
What intrigues me is that when I included The Water Knife in the list of titles I gave the council, I really did not think the group would choose it because of its bleak outlook and not-so-favorable view of Christians (Google “Merry Perrys”). And yet two of the participants have recommended it to other book clubs they belong to.
This brings me to Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene: Imagining Futures and Dreaming Hope in Literature, an intriguing and complex project edited by three literature scholars, Marek Oziewicz, Brian Attebery, and Tereza Dědinová, that explores the ecological influence of fantasy and mythological literature. Oziewicz’s introduction sets the tone of the anthology as he asserts that the “greatest challenge facing humanity in the twenty-first century is how to transition to an ecological civilization.”
One way to do this, according to this collective of storytellers, is to change our narratives. The stories told thus far, in which humans have positioned themselves at the apex of creation as well as in opposition to nature, helped to usher in the “urgencies” of what we call the “Anthropocene,” such as climate change. Oziewicz argues that the proliferation of dystopian literature results in part from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not sufficient to make the changes necessary for the earth to survive, let alone thrive.
Literary scholars examine a variety of fantasy narratives, ranging from TV shows such as Captain Planet to movies like Disney’s Moana to books from authors including J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, and Kim Stanley Robinson. The group eschews “discussions of dystopia,” instead looking to encourage “counternarratives that mobilize resistance, offer visions of equitable futures, and jumpstart conversations about translating visions into lived realities.”
Woven between the scholarly work, which, despite efforts to avoid jargon, still reads like academic writing, are evocative intervals — poems, reflections, illustrations — that offer the same plea from popular authors such as Jane Yolen, Katherine Applegate, and Jon Scieszka.
Works like this anthology and The Water Knife often express a popular impression that Christian teaching is ineffective or, indeed, responsible for that sense of exceptionalism entrenched in humans who consider themselves unconnected with creation. While this assessment stings, we must acknowledge that humans generally remain as stiff-necked as the Israelites wandering in the desert when it comes to admitting our responsibility for the effects of climate change.
If creation care councils want to address such questions, then the urgings in Fantasy and Myth should be heeded. They may go far to help persuade people that we do not have to live in a dystopian world; that we cannot focus solely on end-of-the-world stories but on “how can we work together to change the world” stories, like those found in “hopepunk,” a subgenre known for these tales of “radical hope.” Sound familiar?
One question I proposed in the study guide for The Water Knife was “What is your takeaway; does this novel inspire you to action in regard to creation care?” After reading Fantasy and Myth, I want to ask this: What is your takeaway from reading Scripture? How can these stories, which form the heart of our discipleship, help us work together to nurture God’s creation, of which humans are a part?
Christine Havens is a poet and writer and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest whose work has appeared in The Anglican Theological Review and Mbird, the blog of Mockingbird Ministries. She has an entry in this year’s AdventWord.