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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   

The Royal Institution in London invites applications for a two-year Postdoctoral Fellowship position in the History & Philosophy of Science – to start between August and October 2024.

Location: 21 Albemarle Street, London with the opportunity for some remote working
Contract type: 2-year Fixed Term Contract, full-time, 35 hours per week
Salary: £39,000 - £40,500 per annum. Additional £1,000 annual discretionary stipend for conference and archival research fees

Application Deadline: 9.00am on Tuesday 14 May 2024

The Fellowship is funded by the Philip Freer Trust and is non-renewable.

This is an exciting new opportunity to complete publishable research, integrate into the history of science community and establish a programme of outreach activities. As successful applicant, you must be a researcher from the history of science community. You are eligible if you are a British citizen/national, regardless of where your doctorate was obtained. You may also apply if you have a doctorate from a UK university, but are not a British citizen, if you have the right to work in the UK.

You must be of ‘Early Career Status’ meaning that you must apply within 5 years of the date of your successful viva voce examination (between 1 April 2019 and 1 April 2024).
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Being Human is the UK’s national festival of the humanities. Each year researchers and staff from universities and research organisations are invited to take part in our by organising a public engagement event or activity, rooted in humanities research.

This year’s festival will take place 7–16 November, with the theme ‘Landmarks’. The festival have funding grants on offer to enable public engagement activities to take place as part of the festival. Applicants based at UK Higher Education Institutions and AHRC-recognised independent research organisations are eligible to apply for this funding. All festival activities need to involve a professional humanities researcher in both the planning and delivery.

Funded pathways 

  1. Institutional grants£4,000–£8,000 to organise a Festival Hub (Deadline: Friday 12 April) 
  2. Festival Event grants: up to £4,000 to organise a single event or multiple events (Deadline: Friday 12 April)

Unfunded pathway

  1. Festival Event: organise a festival event that does not require funding from Being Human (Deadline: Friday 7 June) 

 

Further details, guidance, and answers to some frequently asked questions, are available on the festival's website: https://www.beinghumanfestival.org/get-involved

Applying to Being Human Festival 2024 Webinar 

You can find out more about applying to the festival by watching the recording of our online information session ‘Applying to Being Human 2024’: https://www.beinghumanfestival.org/get-involved/webinar-2024

 

Romantic Trees: The Literary Arboretum, 1740-1840

Edited by Anna Burton and Amanda Blake Davis (University of Derby)

The editors invite chapters on individual tree species that are non-native to the British Isles, and also conceptual chapters that address Romantic trees beyond a single identifiable species. They are keen to include chapters by BIPOC authors; postgraduate and early researchers; and chapters that address Global Romantic texts and themes. Interested authors are encouraged to get in touch with any questions.

Abstracts of 200 words should be emailed to the the editors: Anna Burton (a.burton@derby.ac.uk) and Amanda Blake Davis (a.davis2@derby.ac.uk) by 29 April 2024.  First drafts of complete essays of 6000-7000 words, including notes and references, will be due 27th January 2025.

Collection Prospectus:

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Applications are invited for a postdoctoral position from 2 September 2024 to develop the research project WISE (Women Poets Inspired by the Sciences since the Romantic Era), funded by the University of Lille’s “Initiative d’Excellence”.

The closing date for applications is 22 April 2024. 

Candidates selected for interviews who do not reside in France may request online interviews. We anticipate that interviews will take place between 10 and 18 June 2024.

 

Further Particulars:

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The BSLS Executive Committee will have vacancies in the following roles: Chair, Secretary, Membership Secretary, Member at Large, and Overseas Representative (North America). Contact the current chair (jennihalpin at gmail dot com) with queries. Send nominations to the current chair and to the treasurer (bsls.treasurer at gmail dot com), ideally by 31 March.

The deadline for registration to attend the International Conference of Three Societies on Literature and Science on 10-12 April at the University of Birmingham in person is 17 March. To download the provisional programme, follow this link.

You can register via the website or directly here.

Online registration will remain open for a few more weeks.

In the next BioCriticism webinar, on the 8th of March at 2pm CET (Paris time). Fleur Hopkins-Loféron (CNRS / Sorbonne Nouvelle) will give a talk on "French Visual Culture and the Microbial Imaginary since the Early Twentieth Century". Her respondent will be Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (University of Oxford). All are welcome.

“Tiny New World : French Visual Culture and the Microbial Imaginary since the Early Twentieth Century”

8th of March 2024, 2 pm CET

Speaker: Dr. Fleur Hopkins-Loféron (CNRS and THALIM laboratory, Sorbonne Nouvelle University)

Respondent: Prof. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (University of Oxford)

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84056711478?pwd=ekZyODVXYkdETXZRb3gyRU1kc3V3dz09

Meeting ID: 840 5671 1478
Passcode: 529273

Abstract: From the beginning of the 20th century, the French media imagination was struck by what was called the “microbial fury”, in the wake of Louis Pasteur. Microbes were everywhere, in the form of “love microbes” or “jealousy microbes” in vaudeville plays, as the main character in novels of scientific imagination or as a decorative element in Art Nouveau wallpapers. By presenting the rich multiform imaginary of the microbe in the twentieth century, in the visual and intellectual culture of the time (invader, tiny beauty, miniature world, chimera, monster, etc.), this talk intends to question the metamorphosis that this mysterious being has undergone over time (ally, individual, source of life, etc.). Particular emphasis will be placed on the visual cultures of the sublime, miniaturisation and the infinitely small.

Fleur Hopkins-Loféron is a postdoctoral researcher at the CNRS (UMR THALIM). Her work focuses on the points of contact between scientific imagination, history of science and technology, and the occult. Her thesis focused on early French science fiction, and in particular the merveilleux-scientifique movement (Voir l'invisible. Histoire visuelle du mouvement merveilleux-scientifique (1909-1930), Champ Vallon, 2023). Her most recent research studies the success of a form of fakirism à la française in Paris in the 1930s (Fakir. De l’Homme de Douleur au gourou, PUF, 2024). She is also the editor of the "Fantascope" collection, published by L'Arbre Vengeur, which is dedicated to the re-publication of tales of the scientific imagination. A regular contributor to La Septième Obsession and Les Cahiers de la BD, as well as artistic adviser to Le Dessous des images on Arte, she explores popular culture in all its forms (Mercredi. Icône gothique, Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2023). 

Kirsten E Shepherd-Barr is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford.  Her books include Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett (2015), Science on Stage:  From Dr Faustus to Copenhagen (2006), and Modern Drama:  A Very Short Introduction (2016).  She is also co-author, with Hannah Simpson, of two recent articles on theatrical engagements with climate change.

The BioCriticism webinar is organised by Liliane Campos, and funded by the Institut Universitaire de France.

The next deadline for BSLS postgraduate and early career researcher funding applications is the 1st of March 2024. Applications are accepted quarterly, by the first of March, June, September, and December. Bursaries may be used towards the cost of presenting research papers at conferences, for archival and research trips, for the attendance of summer school, workshop, or training events, and for childcare costs associated with these activities. 

For details see https://www.bsls.ac.uk/funding/

For 2024, the annual conferences of the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS) and the European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (SLSAeu), together with the biennial conference of the Commission on Science and Literature (CoSciLit), will be combined into a single meeting. This will be the first time that these three societies have joined together to share research at the many intersections of literature and science. 

Registration is now open.

  • In person, waged  £250
  • In person, unwaged £150
  • In person or online, hardship fund recipient £0
  • Online, waged £80
  • Online, unwaged £40

 There are also options to sign up for our conference dinner (vegan set menu) at Birmingham's award winning Asha's Indian Restaurant on Thursday April 11 and for trips to our BIFoR FACE forest research facility and the Ruskin Land forest site on Saturday April 13.       

Please note: There are only twenty places available on the visit to Ruskin Land and the BIFoR FACE site on Saturday 13 April, so if you would like to join this trip you should register as soon as possible.

The BSLS has very kindly agreed to subsidise the first forty bookings for the conference dinner made by unwaged delegates attending in person, so if you are one of these delegates and would like to join us for the dinner you may want to book soon too.

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