The Dark Matter of Children’s Fantastika Literature: Speculative Entanglements

By | October 13, 2023

What is Fantastika?

Fantastika is a word to describe fiction that deals in fantastical and speculative imaginings of all kinds. As an umbrella term used by critics and writers, Fantastika incorporates children’s and young adult literatures, as well as a range of genres and subgenres that cluster, like interconnected constellations, around the triple suns of ‘fantasy’, ‘science fiction’ and ‘horror’. The writer John Clute, who can be credited with coining the term ‘Fantastika’, calls it ‘planetary fiction’ because it first appeared in response to European Enlightenment ‘rationalism’ and the scientific revelations of that era, which disrupted long-held ideas about the place of humans in the cosmos. The literary critic Sarah Dillon identifies Fantastika as ‘Anthropocene’ fiction, connecting its origins in the European Enlightenment to the beginning of the era in which humans began to exert planetary-scale and epochal effects on the climate. Fantastika is not just a way of defining types of literature, then, but a way of understanding how storytelling, literature, and the human imagination has responded to, and developed in response to, changing relationships with our environment.

Fantastika & Ecology

In The Dark Matter of Children’s Fantastika Literature I make the claim that Fantastika is ecological fiction. In doing this, I use the term differently to those critics who define Fantastika in terms of genres of literature. The book does not explore the concept of genre, nor is it interested in defining generic boundaries, but, rather, it situates Fantastika as a means by which to respond to the difficulties of what I call ‘ecological belonging’. This is a state of being, or awareness, that provokes reflection on the complex relationships that constitute human being in a more-than-human world, that reveals the meshwork of relationships that sustain our lives and form the environments in which we live. Because of its ecological concerns, for me, Fantastika is not just a word to describe genres of fiction: it is about ethics. Ethics, as I explore the idea in the book, is about accounting for ecological interdependency, and about finding ways to develop better relationships of care, relationships that have become even more urgent in a time of climate crisis, ecological destruction, and mass extinction. In the book I claim that the ‘narratives of Fantastika are concerned with the ethics of ecological interrelationships’ and that the literatures of Fantastika offer unique responses to the condition of ecological belonging.

Why ‘Dark Matter’?

‘Dark matter’ is a phrase that I use to describe the physical, bodily, environmental, and material manifestations of the ethical problems explored in Fantastika. The word matter appears because the ethics of the book arise from a materialist perspective. I evoke the idea of ‘matter’ in the sense of materiality, or the physical stuff of the world, and in the sense of what ‘matters’, of meaning, or values – seeing the two meanings as intertwined. In this, I follow other philosophers of the ‘material turn’ in critical thought that has occurred over the past two decades.  Of course, ‘dark matter’ also refers to a topic of study in physics and cosmology, to the idea that as much as 95 per cent of the matter and energy that comprise the universe is invisible and undetectable. My evocation of this scientific idea of ‘dark matter’ points to the tentative explorations that are necessary in fiction, philosophy, and science. To develop better relationships of care, it is important to acknowledge that we do not, and cannot, know everything.  Dark matter is also called such because it is difficult, and asks us to confront precarity and vulnerability, both our own and that which we impose on others. It is dark because our comprehension of our ecological belonging is always partially occluded, and to encounter it requires a degree of negative capability and naivety, and the abandonment of a quest for certainties that would foreclose the future and constrain possibility within the light of the already known.

Why Children’s Fantastika?

The Dark Matter of Children’s Fantastika is a study of contemporary fiction written for children and young adults. The texts I include in my discussion are written for readers identified as older children, a group typically characterized by publishers as beginning at age eight or nine, and for young adults, a category that tends to be identified as beginning around age twelve. I suggest that Fantastika is alert to, and so able to reflect upon, the positioning of young people in entanglements that render them vulnerable and lay heavy responsibilities upon them. In other words, I am concerned with the writing we produce for children and young adults because of a troubling paradox that surrounds the idea of children as social and cultural subjects. In European and Anglo-American societies of the Modern age, children have been constructed as simultaneously a site of adult desire and expectation, while being silenced or otherwise marginalized from enacting social power in their day-to-day lives. This paradoxical construction of children by and within adult society takes on an even more pressing dimension in the context of climate change. The lack of meaningful action on the global climate crisis most severely affects the futures of young people but they continue to be excluded from the institutions that have power to change the status quo. At the same time, young people are often lauded as climate heroes whose valiant actions will turn the tide of complacency. This is a heavy burden indeed, and it is important to examine closely the fiction we produce for children and to think about how we are address them as individuals and a social group.  

Texts and Approaches

In Chapter 1, ‘Occult materialism: The landscapes of classic fantasy’, I acknowledge the history of Fantastika in children’s fiction in by examining two post-war British fantasies, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising (1973) and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960). These fantasies are paradigmatic in terms of a dark, inhuman mode of speculation that emerged during this period of writing for children. Expounding a set of propositions that I call ‘occult materialism’, I identify in

Cooper and Garner’s fiction specific figurations of materiality that have persisted in contemporary Fantastika. These books evoke the materiality of fantasy landscapes and the vibrant things that inhabit them, and suggest affinities with recent speculative and eco-materialist philosophies.

The second chapter, ‘Animate worlds: Magical encounters in contemporary fantasy’, moves into the twenty-first century but stays with the genre of fantasy. Here I discuss the YA novels, Akata Witch (2011) by Nnedi Okorafor, Children of Blood and Bone (2018)by Tomi Adeyemi, and The Lost Witch (2018) by Melvin Burgess, and examine how they develop the materialist concerns of fantasy in new directions. These are fantasy texts that engage in ambitious world building, invent syncretic magic systems, and gesture to expansive animist cosmologies that reveal a spirit-infused materiality. Here I identify a growing interest in an animist ontology, tracing how these writers imagine a plurality of minds suffusing organic and inorganic matter.

In Chapter 3, I turn to the issue of the ‘mind’ itself and consider the philosophical and scientific conundrum around the emergence of consciousness in evolutionary history. Chapter 3 takes seriously the ‘hard problem’ of the mind through readings of The Wild Robot (2016) by Peter Brown, Tin (2018) by Pádraig Kenny, and Wildspark (2019) by Vashti Hardy, examining their speculative depictions of artificial intelligence alongside the ethical implications of the various theories about the emergence of consciousness.

In Chapter 4, ‘Precarious Interdependence: The Oceans of the Ecoweird’, I move from a discussion of consciousness and artificial intelligence to an analysis of the strange minds imagined in ecoweird fiction. The Weird is a different modality of Fantastika to that of either Fantasy or Science Fiction, one that deals more overtly with the ‘outside’ of human experience. Contact with the ‘alien’ minds of the gods in Frances Hardinge’s Deeplight (2019), or the strange being known as the ‘Seamstress’ in Sam Gayton’s novel, The Last Zoo (2019), functions as a catalyst for characters to question their sense of belonging in precarious worlds. My concern in this chapter is with how weird fiction imagines relationships of interdependence between humans and their environment, with a focus on the oceanic spaces.

Chapter 5 moves from the ocean to the woodland to consider contemporary climate fiction and its dialogue with the recent ‘vegetal turn’ in philosophy. As well as increasingly being recognized as vital actors in climate crisis and in possible solutions, plants have inspired a plethora of political writing that emphasizes collective subjectivity and agency in the Anthropocene. Drawing on these debates in environmental philosophy and critical plant studies, I read Sita Brahmachari’s Where the River Runs Gold (2019) and Lauren James’s Green Rising (2021), two dystopian climate novels in which plants, trees, and fungi play vital roles.

The importance of Dark Matter in imagining the future of Climate Change

Given the ways in which children and young people are finding their own ways of expressing their ideas about climate change in a growing body of youth-authored works, my contribution in The Dark Matter of Children’s Fantastika, which focuses on adult authored works, can only be part of the story. Nonetheless, there are important ethical imperatives that emerge from my analyses. These concern the matter of how to live as part of a more-than-human collective and foster solidarity, as well as the troubling obligations and vulnerability this entails. My work highlights the contingency of entangled lives and subjectivities, to draw attention to the difficulties, but also the possibilities, that occur as a condition of precarity and ongoingness. We are not heading into a safe future, nor into a world where life will be simple, nor ethical choices easy. Though it eschews both eschatological and utopian imaginings, Fantastika is not a pessimistic mode. It does, however, underscore the sense that there are no easy answers and that the ethical propositions I have identify as ‘dark matter’ are not road maps for transformative change, even if radical action is taken now. Such is the situation given by what literary critic Adeline Johns-Putra calls ‘the radically unknowable future conjured up by the Anthropocene.’ Whatever happens with the present situation of the climate crisis, however, there is ample material to be found in the dark matter of children’s Fantastika for reimagining the world and remaking the future.

Chloé Germaine, author of The Dark Matter of Children’s ‘Fantastika’ Literature, is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK and a co-director of the Manchester Game Centre. She is on Twitter here, and you can find her university profile here.

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