Ed. Sarah Doyle & Allen Ashley
Reviewed by Megan Turney
I read a paper a few months ago by professor and author Bryan L. Moore on the ‘Evidence of Decadent Humanity’. In the essay, Moore discusses the evolution of ecocentric science fiction, a sub-category that he likes to call ‘eco-tastrophe’ literature. He states: ‘it is commonplace and somewhat justified to think of SF as most regularly locating our neighbours in imagined, faraway worlds, but at least in some cases, SF is as focused on the earth – our fellow animals, flora, rocks, oceans and rivers’. Moore also quotes Kingsley Amis’ 1960 survey of SF, New Maps of Hell, to support his argument that the sub-genre ‘has the potential for activism, social critique, and the ability to make “some contribution to the security of our future”’. I was constantly reminded of this paper whilst reading Humanagerie. Created by editors Sarah Doyle and Allen Ashley, the collection originated from Ebionvale Press’ call for poetry and short story submissions that tackle how behavioural patterns in humans and animals mirror, intersect, and clash with each other. Although I wouldn’t necessarily label the collection as entirely SF, it certainly is an excellent example of eco-centric speculative fiction, with every text aiding in the overall detachment of the reader from any solid ideas of reality they thought they had, provoking that typical kind of intense self-contemplation that comes with reading this genre.
I found that the common ideas running through Doyle and Ashley’s final choice of texts were the writers’ attention to troubling and often bizarre human nature; fascinating theories on human and animal biology; deliberation of how post-humanism would actually be received in our contemporary society; and the exploration of climate change, global warming and the post-apocalyptic environment that humanity appears to be surging towards. These topics are presented in such inventive ways in each of the 45 texts that make up its 176 pages, that one can’t help but re-evaluate their own relationship with nature, especially in an era where humanity’s attempts to pave a future where we are so technologically advanced that we are ‘self-reliant’ comes at the detriment of our planet. Obviously, our relationship with nature has changed, is changing, and will continue to change but, depending on one’s current attitude to the role humanity has in protecting it, there will probably be texts in this collection that have a more powerful effect on some readers than others. Indeed, how aware of this we believe we are, is likely measurable by which stories we relate to, and just how strongly we react to them. However, I do believe that the talent of the writers, and the captivating nature of this collection, will still highlight to every reader just how intimately our actions affect the world we live in, especially the dire consequences.
One of the joys of reading this collection was not knowing what to expect from one poem or short story to the next. The style of these texts dabble in magic realism and fantasy to the almost academic; each style as engaging as the last. Even though I could easily recommend every contribution, there are a select few that I find myself returning to. The key element that that drew me to these specific texts was their focus on the often unusual, but always compelling, question of what it means to exist. So, in no particular order, my personal favourites included: ‘The Orbits of Gods’ by Holly Heisey; ‘Crow and Rat’ by James Dorr; ‘Aquarium Dreams’ by Gary Budgen; ‘Polymorphous/Stages of Growth’ by Oliva Edwards; ‘And Then I Was a Sheep’ by Jonathan Edwards; ‘Hibernation’ by Sandra Unerman; ‘Wojtek’ by Mary Livingstone; ‘Notes for the “Chronicles of the Land that has no Shape”’ by Frank Roger; and ‘Her Audience Shall Stand in Ovation’ by Jason Gould.
The resounding moral I was left with after finishing Humanagerie was the stark reminder that humanity really doesn’t possess the power or authority to control nature the way we think we do. I actually read this collection amidst the wave of ‘the 10 year challenge’ trend on social media, which took a surprising but welcome turn when many saw the opportunity to redirect its focus to how landscapes around the world have changed since 2009. As one could imagine, the transformations in that time are distressing. It was an apt sign that this ‘eco-tastrophe’ literature is all the more relevant now. To paraphrase literary critic Karl Kroeber, this kind of literature can serve as a powerful lesson in ‘how our world [is becoming] so exclusively humanised as to be self-diseased.’ To agree with the writers of Humanagerie, it is considerably ironic that we continue with such detrimental practices. Whilst nature has the power to persevere without us, we certainly wouldn’t be able to survive without it. So, finally, it surely seems like the right time to recommend such an outstanding contribution to this increasingly essential genre, especially one that emphasises our need to be more aware of humanity’s destructive behaviour.