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When ‘What if?’ becomes reality: New Deakin research group shines light on the fantastique

Beginning as a prominent genre within French literature, ‘the fantastique’ is a category of literature and cinema that has often defied clear definition.

Over the years, ‘the fantastique’ has evolved into a term that includes a wide range of texts across various art forms, including speculative and science fiction, fantasy, horror and the supernatural.

From zombie cinema and ghost stories to superhero comics and AI imaginaries, the question that many of these works seems to consistently ask is this: ‘What if?’  

These ‘What ifs’ of the fantastique have long held the fascination of readers, writers and viewers, often because they encapsulate elements of both reality and fantasy.

What role, then, might these fictional works play in 2020: the year of some of the biggest challenges humans have so far encountered in the twenty-first century?

In the era of climate change and COVID-19, are we perhaps living in a world where many ‘What if?’ scenarios have become reality?

A newly formed Deakin University research group is grappling with the significance of the fantastique in the modern age.

As an interdisciplinary network, Reading/Screening the Fantastique consists of postgraduates and academics working within film studies, literary studies, creative writing, education, bioethics, technoscience, gender studies, media studies and more.

Although first established at Deakin, the group extends beyond the university to other scholars around Australia, with the potential to connect with others overseas in the future.  

Recently, we have been discussing the many ways in which the fantastique provides novel opportunities for audiences to make sense of the various crises being faced in the world today – be that the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency, racial violence, or global political tensions and instability.

There is a growing need for academics to deeply consider how the above genres and texts help people navigate these particular issues. 

COVID-19 and the fantastique

Speculative fiction and horror are perhaps the two primary genres within the broader category of the fantastique that offer the most relevant narratives pertaining to viral pandemics. 

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) depicts the decimation of the human population by a flu pandemic.

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013) follows the lives of various people embroiled in the effects of ‘the waterless flood’: a worldwide pandemic intentionally spread by a misanthropic scientist hoping to reset the planet and its natural environments in the absence of humans. 

Zombie cinema and television often engage with a similar viral theme.

Netflix’s Kingdom (2019), written by Kim Eun-hee and directed by Kim Seong-hun, is a recent example of a pandemic narrative that considers a variety of ethical dilemmas faced by those attempting to stem the spread of a zombie disease. 

I Am Legend, both the novel by Richard Matheson (1954) and its various film incarnations, offers a cross between the traditional vampire horror story and a post-apocalyptic zombie take-over, as protagonist Robert Neville races to cure humans of the horrifying disease that turns them into blood-sucking monsters.   

These fictional scenarios are grim, but rather than turning away from these fantastique narratives during COVID-19, audiences are consuming them more voraciously than ever.

Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) are two examples of films that have seen a surge in popularity during COVID isolation.  

Depicting mass panic, the tragedy of patient triage and the monotony of quarantine, these fictions are now being reflected in emerging collaborative projects that collect real-world stories about living during the pandemic, such as the Pandemic Archive and the State Library of Victoria’s Memory Bank

As a research group, Reading/Screening the Fantastique explores the ways in which these texts encourage audiences to consider the fragility of the human condition in the face of viral outbreaks, allowing them to engage in vital, ethical conversations regarding the chaos and management of pandemics. 

The “unreal” Anthropocene?

Like COVID-19, the climate emergency is something that is considered by several members of Reading/Screening the Fantastique in their own research.   

Image of a sign at a protest: there is no planet b

The works of Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (2008), Atwood’s aforementioned MaddAddam trilogy, and recent Australian examples such as James Bradley’s Clade (2015) and Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink (2016) reflect potential future scenarios of climate chaos, often envisioning how science and technology play a role in attending to these disasters. 

Atwood emphasises the modern extinction crisis, Doyle the sinking of Pacific islands as sea levels rise, and Bradley the intersections between climate change, viral pandemics and techno-scientific advances.

Such texts are often categorised as climate fiction, described by Emeritus Professor Andrew Milner and writer J. R. Burgmann as a subgenre of science fiction that addresses many of the above concerns. 

These works are simultaneously real and fantastical, portraying apparently impossible circumstances that are now being experienced in reality as the impacts of anthropogenic climate change intensify. 

For example, the recent catastrophic 2019-2020 Australian bushfires demonstrate how apocalyptic the real-world situation is becoming – we no longer require apocalyptic climate fiction to show us this. 

All the same, Assistant Professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson notes that many climate fiction novels provide detailed examples of possible political responses, giving readers a ‘roadmap’ of how to tackle the climate emergency.

There is subsequently some potential for these works to explore what may or may not work when facing the dire consequences of environmental catastrophe.

The future of the fantastique 

As Australia and the world attempts to make sense of COVID-19 and climate change, where does this leave the fantastique – a category of diverse genres defined by their dealings in the unreal?

When the unreal becomes real, what is left to learn from these texts? 

As suggested above, fantastique fictions provide opportunities for audiences to consider unreal possibilities, but also understand real-world consequences of modern-day crises. 

Can certain texts help us understand how humans are irrevocably changed by these events? Can they provide ‘roadmaps’ for how we tackle real crises when they seem so unreal?

These questions are just some of many that researchers involved in Reading/Screening the Fantastique attempt to answer in their work.

We hope to expand on these important conversations as everyday life continues to change in the context of these issues.  

Interested in learning more about fantasy, horror, the supernatural, speculative and science fiction? Reading/Screening the Fantastique is a community of writers, postgrads and academics keen on all things ‘fantastique’. 

Rachel Fetherston is a casual academic at Deakin University

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