Chloe Germaine, The Dark Matter of Children’s ‘Fantastika’ Literature: Speculative Entanglements

Chloe Germaine, The Dark Matter of Children’s ‘Fantastika’ Literature: Speculative Entanglements, Bloomsbury Perspectives on Children’s Literature (Bloomsbury, 2023), 232 pp. £76.50 Hb. £61.20 E-book. ISBN HB: 9781350167018

This is a sophisticated book, which despite being highly theoretical is also very readable. The book is a huge achievement: the culmination of the author’s immersion in a field for a significant time. It begins with a number of definitions as the author sets out how key terms are to be understood and used, such as ‘Fantastika’, ‘ecology’, ‘Dark matter’. Thus the book begins rather drily, but it does not continue in this vein despite the number of terms that need to be addressed and incorporated into Germaine’s argument. A number of ‘turns’ are outlined (the material turn, the linguistic turn, the speculative turn, the gothic turn, and the vegetal turn) but they are all beautifully and accessible described and their importance to the book is clear. The argument is set out clearly and its political timeliness is apparent: ‘My claim is that the literatures of Fantastika offer unique responses to, and mediations of, the condition of ecological belonging, a condition that is simultaneously real and speculative, material and imagined’ (1). This is a book that demonstrates the author’s erudition and activism on every page and I am glad to have read it.

The amount of theoretical and critical sources that are brought to bear on the author’s own thesis is impressive. All of the texts discussed in this book sound intriguing. Germaine is particularly skilful at this: introducing a book the reader may not have encountered before and giving just enough detail for that not to be an issue, but enough to make us want to read the text itself. After the brief examples mentioned, the introduction sets out the book’s critical context. The importance of writing for young people is clear: the contemporary climate crisis puts young people front and centre. They have agency in the imaginative worlds of these creative works that they do not have in real life. It is interesting to see that Germaine admits to having changed her mind about certain aspects of the work she has been doing for a few years now: ‘I am less optimistic in the present study than in my previous work because the texts I examine take on a real-world urgency in the contexts of a rapidly worsening global and ecological crisis’ (4). The book has a political imperative and rightly so. I found the pages on new materialism to be informative and clear. One thing I would like to challenge is the use of ‘Romanticism’ as the straw man in this theory: there is good current work being published that reads Romantic-period literature within the new materialism lens and that complicates the notion of ‘nature’ as separate from the human world, ‘outside of society and politics’ (159).

Quantum physics and the idea of ‘entanglement’ are particularly productive for Germaine’s readings. Dark Matter has an impressive scope in terms of the genres and number of texts within these genres that are carefully considered. Chapter One reads the ‘occult’ landscapes of post-war children’s fantasy in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973) and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960). Germaine argues that the novels ‘intimate Jane Bennett’s insistence that human power is really a kind of “thing-power”’ rather than focus, as others have done, on evidence of human subjectivity (40). The second chapter also focuses on fantasy but in texts written in the current century: Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, and Melvin Burgess’s The Lost Witch. Two Nigerian American writers and Burgess (who is from Bristol) use magic in their novels to ‘stage encounters between human characters and the more-than-human world’ (66). They gesture towards ‘panpsychist philosophy and animist cosmologies’ in order to ‘provide ethical reflections on being part of a world that is suffused with life’ (66). In this chapter, animism (newly configured as ‘new animism’) is found to be a fruitful counter to Western ideology.   

Artificial and animal life are identified as ‘entangled’ in Chapter Four in children’s books The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, Tin by Pádraig Kenny, and Wildspark by Vashti Hardy. The so-called ‘dark matter’ that is consciousness, or the ‘ghost in the machine’, is explored here and a further possibility for undoing the ‘persistent Cartesian dualism that constrains understandings of life and mind’ (122). Chapter Four thinks about the oceans of the ‘ecoweird’ in Frances Hardinge’s Deeplight and Sam Gayton’s The Last Zoo. The alien minds encountered there offer further means for exploring ‘the mystery of consciousness’ (126). The final chapter looks at plant life: ‘the proliferation of plant and fungal life in devastated environments both supports and complicates such narratives of youth agency, entangling children in more-than-human processes of materialization’ (20). The texts covered here are dystopian climate novels: Sita Brahmachari’s Where the River Runs and Lauren James’s Green Rising. In many ways, this chapter is the culmination of all that has gone before. In these novels, ‘the imagined agency of young people on which these hopeful climate futures rely is made possible through characters’ interrelationship with plants, trees, and fungi’ (159). The book is imbued with scientific knowledge and thought. As Germaine puts it: ‘Throughout this book, the concepts of ecology and entanglement entwine, and the readings of Fantastika seek to emphasise the ongoing conditions of violence and vulnerability, intimacy and estrangement, symbiosis and parasitism that are entailed in the making and unmaking of the phenomena, and, concomitantly, of the world’ (25).

Germaine acknowledges an ethical responsibility in writing the book. The way texts are approached enables new possibilities: ‘Paying attention to the entanglements entailed in the worldings of Fantastika is one way of considering this potential, and of imagining new modes of sociability and politics’ (28). Great claims are made for genres brought together under the term Fantastika which are justified in the ensuing discussions: ‘Fantastika has, since the eighteenth century, anticipated the posthuman turn, intimated ecological anxiety, and negotiated the shifts in consciousness of the human-planet relationship prompted by developments in science and industry’ (29). Fantastika ‘itself explores the intersection of science, philosophy, social theory, and politics’ (31). Germaine offers a ‘diffractive reading’ of the texts that follows, using a term more commonly associated with quantum physics.

It is refreshing to read a book that is determined to show how texts ‘matter’ in all senses of this word. The book contributes to our field by reading ‘literary criticism, philosophy, and science through one another and through the novels’ it encounters (33). I enjoyed reading it very much.

Sharon Ruston, Lancaster University