Category Archives: Literature

Animation: Annihilation, Utopia, and Climate Change

Video by The Atlantic

JV Animation


“I’m not a fan of fiction that’s totally hopeless,” says Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation, in an interview with The Atlantic, animated in the video above. “You find ways of documenting the world as it is, [with its] beauty, and you wind up redefining utopia and dystopia.” VanderMeer goes on to explain how, in writing fiction about climate change and environmental crises, he hopes to “push us out of our complacency.”

“We can’t live the way we live now,” he says, “but there are ways in which we can live in a useful and interesting and comforting and satisfying way within what’s happening.”

Author: Caitlin Cadieux

See video here.


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Beasts at Bedtime in Chicago Review of Books

‘Beasts at Bedtime’ Explores Environmental Themes in Children’s Lit

Liam Heneghan’s Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature conjures a world of natural magic and wonder. Animals are more than animals, trees are more than trees, the moon and the stars draw close, and they are all mysteriously intertwined.

This marvelous book is an introduction to environmental themes in children’s literature as well as a model of literary criticism accessible to a broad audience—because it must be. Such work must be accessible, because environmental issues are so critical and the need for increased environmental literacy so urgent. The genius of the work, however, is Heneghan’s ability to speak from a wide variety of experiences and perspectives with one exceptionally lively, congenial, and coherent voice. On the surface we encounter a scientist, teacher, and father; but in the depths we see flashes of a child, animal, and sprite.

Read more here.

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This World is Full of Monsters

This World copy

Cover image by Armando Veve

Jeff VanderMeer’s corpus renders the conceit “science fiction that rises to the level of literature” obsolete if not absurd.  His work is obviously literary.  His vision is original and far-ranging, and his writing, masterful and perennially astonishing.  However, one really must read a varied selection of his stories and novels to understand the sheer force of his imagination.  Though I’ve been reading and following his work only since he published the Southern Reach Trilogy, I’ve also been immensely rewarded by delving backward into his beautiful, utterly convincing, and hypnotic Ambergris trilogy.  And still, I am stunned by the imaginative range of work that VanderMeer publishes in one calendar year.

Last year, for example, VanderMeer published This World is Full of Monsters, a long and elaborate story or “novelette” about alien invasion and planetary transformation.  The story is a kind of successor to Area X, as well as a new kind of Area X in its generic and stylistic transgressions.  Much more than an extension of previous work, This World is a kind of Fibonacci series of iterations, as if every turn in VanderMeer’s imagination was followed by another, which occurred on a higher level because his psyche was somehow expanding in an organic though not quite natural manner.  I begin with a pedantic summary, but only because I think it might be of use to future readers and commentators.

At the beginning of This World, a creature disguised as a story enters the home of the narrator.  It cuddles up to him but then invades his body and psyche.  In the first part of his transformation the narrator becomes a plant creature, part human and part tree.  The story-creature plants him in the earth, and the narrator falls asleep for a hundred years.  He wakes to a transformed and utterly ruined landscape, finds his way back to his old street, and lives in the exposed, flood-damaged foundation of his former home.  There he meets his doppelgänger and learns that the “other” had taken his place and lived with his family while the narrator was asleep.  His “brother” is a monster, from which the narrator cannot extricate himself, but he eventually withers away so that the narrator can live.

Lonely, and utterly disoriented in an unrecognizable, hostile landscape, the narrator wanders aimlessly trying to decide, in an existentialist mode, when and how to end his life.  He then enters a slightly more coherent environment.  It’s wildly surrealistic and troublesome but somehow aesthetically whole.  Eventually, the hero realizes he is inside a kind of leviathan, or giant worm, where he is being schooled against his will.  What initially appears as a landscape through which the narrator moves and suffers, is actually the interior of a giant beast, sampling and digesting him in a sense.  He manages to escape, but is nearly drowned when the beast, pursuing him, falls into a lake and creates a great wave.  The narrator holds onto a single-celled creature as a life raft, but kills the creature when they reach the shore, as it becomes apparent the cell is trying to consume him.

Exit Eden

Exit Eden No. 14 by Doug Fogelson

At what seems like a turning point in the narrative, the hero settles into a kind of temporary home, the dead shell of a turtle-like creature, and crosses the lake, very slowly because of a “glacial” current, resolved to die when he reaches the other side.  However, Dead-Shell grows a mouth and begins to speak, once again transforming the narrator.   His interior flows up and out of him and hardens into a golden “honeycomb” exoskeleton.  Now, part insect, part marine creature with fins, and part astronaut with a large glassy eye like the helmet of a space suit, he begins to accept his transformation.  (I won’t say what happens at the very end.)

Though I would not dare to assert the purpose or meaning of the story, partly because I believe it has no conventional purpose or meaning, I will mention some obvious thematic threads.  This is clearly a story about an invasion, though like the Southern Reach Trilogy invasion may be a response to gross human transgressions.  If Annihilation was prompted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, as VanderMeer has suggested, the ocean expelling humans in This World would seem to follow suit.

The narrative is also obviously about radical transformation.  By radical I mean not only that humans and other creatures are transformed, as organisms, but that there is a violation of almost every biological category.  Humans become plants, rocks become beasts, landscapes  and bodies of water are sentient creatures, and everything merges, or attempts to merge with everything else.  VanderMeer has mentioned that the story is influenced by weird biology.  This World seems not only an expression of natural weirdness, but the inability of human beings to understand and appreciate what already exists on the planet, including radical and pervasive symbiosis, because of the limitations of our analytic schemes.


Entangled, by Joshua Mason

There is also a strong theme, throughout, of stories having autonomous existence.  The “story” line is, perhaps, the most provocative and important creative and philosophical thread.  The topic is so pervasive and the story so insistent on the ontological status of stories, it seems the reader is being provoked to consider the concept at face value.  It is generally known that VanderMeer has been thinking about story telling in the Anthropocene.  And while Humanities and Social Science scholars constantly assert that culture influences nature, they are less likely to consider stories as nature—that stories are not only tools but creatures, with some kind of unique ontological status.

VanderMeer has also suggested the post human as a descriptor for This World, and while the story certainly resonates with Borne and the Borne story, Strange Bird, VanderMeer’s work here is even more radical than that critically-acclaimed biotech fantasy.  While biotech as we imagine it might be regulated and contained, at least for a time, the biotech of story-telling in an age of information warfare and renewed American culture of lies is far more of a threat.  Genetically engineered insects and self-aware robots may become another downfall, but the world is already under siege if not defeated by malignant stories.

Echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhhood’s End, VanderMeer’s surrealistic, apocalyptic narrative plays with biblical themes and ends in ecstatic release.  The ending may be poetic justice for a race ill equipped to survive on a planet demanding certain types of restraint, or a conclusion so mythic it must be followed by a new beginning.  In either case, this is a narrative about beginnings and ends capable of transforming our existing stories about beginnings and ends.

As an experimental work of fiction, This World of Monsters is a resounding success.  It’s wildly imaginative, philosophical provocative, and plays authoritatively and productively with literary themes, forms, styles, and voices throughout.  Though I consider it a significant literary work, I’m not certain that it must be read as literature.  I imagine it can be appreciated by those who understand science fiction as a categorically experimental genre.  It may be that This World is less likely to be appreciated by readers who bring preconceptions about VanderMeer’s work, what counts as a story, or even what counts as literature, to this remarkable oeuvre.  This is a story about stories, and about the transformative power of stories, that strives to transform everything we know about them.  And to the extent that it suggests the world is full of monsters posing as stories, it may strive to transform everything we know about the world.

Circling back to literature, This World is Full of Monsters is teeming with allusions to epic poetry, scripture, and surrealism in various media and historical moments.  Ultimately, VanderMeer’s genius here reminds me of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.  It cannot be accounted for by the artist’s time, place, or culture.  It’s a kind of weird, living organism we didn’t know existed.  A work this audacious and ambitious is more than a story, or story about stories.  It’s a new world colliding with the old.


The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Exterior (shutters).


Read This World is Full of Monsters at

Image Sources:
Armando Veve, Doug Fogelson, Joshua Mason, Bosch.







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Create/Engage, Inspire/Provoke, Think/Change



The DePaul University Institute for Nature and Culture is excited to invite you to a panel discussion with four activists/artists/ecologists who are engaged in crucial struggles for our planetary future and provide models of hope in these arduous times.

Tuesday May 15th 2018, 7 – 9 pm
DePaul University, McGowan South,
1110 W Belden Ave, Chicago, IL 60614 (Room TBA)


Taylor Brorby is an essayist, poet, and memoirist whose work centers on hydraulic fracking and climate change in western North Dakota.

Lucas Foglia’s photographs challenge the concept that humans and nature operate in opposition, while simultaneously highlighting the relentlessly uneasy, absurdly comedic integrations of our technologies in the natural world.*

Shannon Heffernan is a reporter with WBEZ. She has covered environmental news and criminal justice issues. She also reports on poverty, labor, and climate change.

Nat Mengist cultivates equitable, land-conscious partnerships through training in garden education, nonprofit leadership, and post-humanities scholarship.

Sponsored by the DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture.


*Foglia’s third book, Human Nature, was just published by Nazraeli Press. His next solo exhibition opens July 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. (Images beneath title by Lucas Foglia.)




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by | May 3, 2018 · 14:07

Heneghan Book Launch Event and Reception: Wednesday May 2nd

RSVP for reception so we can order enough food.  However, everyone is welcome to attend the event, whether or not they RSVP.

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by | April 2, 2018 · 15:34

Planet of Microbes

post by Liam Heneghan


Please join the Institute for Nature & Culture as we welcome DePaul Professor of English Ted Anton for a reading and discussion of his most recent book, Planet of Microbes: Perils and Promise in the Earth’s Essential Life Forms.  

Wednesday, April 4, 4:00-5:30 p.m., DePaul University, McGowan South, 204

[Ted’s] new book explores the latest discoveries that may reshape the future of our planet and our understanding of where we came from, detailing the ways in which the world’s tiniest, and sometimes most dangerous, microorganisms are being tapped as allies in seeking better health and a sustainable future.

From microbreweries to volcanic hot pools, the bottom of the ocean and miles below the earth’s surface, from our gardens to our bodies to Mars, a hidden living world is deepening our vision of life’s capabilities.

Planet of Microbes puts a new spin on a remarkable era as powerful new tools reveal the abilities of microbes that respire minerals, make our wine, and shape our climate, in ways that might have therapeutic relevance. A comprehensive yet integrated overview of the microbial world around us, integrating concepts from many different disciplines and drawing lines of interdisciplinary activity where normally people don’t see them, it reveals the ways in which microbes have shaped the planet and  all life around us.


See video from WTTW’s Chicago Tonight:

Block quote from Anton’s website.

Image and book can be found here.

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Everything is Headed Toward Annihilation

Film review by ­­­Matthew Skolnik and Christine Skolnik

Alex Garland’s latest film, Annihilation, loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling and critically-acclaimed novel by the same name, explores creativity and self-destruction as well as the fuzzy boundaries between the human, natural, and alien worlds. The advancement of Area X diminishes the role of “barrier islands.”  The rest will be history.

Area X, the mysterious and amorphous antagonist and setting of the film, also known as “The Shimmer,” creates beautiful, disturbing, and at times terrifying hybrids from the raw materials of the natural world.  This creative aspect is recognized by the researchers and rendered aesthetically in the film’s hybrid landscapes.  Flora, fauna, and “the elements” are all exceedingly strange, colorful, and in some cases terrifying. Though generally surrealistic and often moving as well as striking, some of the landscape elements might come across as a little kitsch.  Intentional or not these seemingly false notes disturb the otherwise hypnotic dream-state of the film.

The characters and the environment are also destructive.  Destructive and self-destructive.  Garland’s version gives each main character a motivation to self-destruct.  Portman and Isaac excel at intimating the creative and destructive complexities of committed relationships.  Portman’s character says about her husband’s mission, “The silence around it is louder than usual,” but silence is as much a cause as an effect of their marital struggles.  On one level the various character motivations are psychological clichés; on another level they are intellectually provocative and moving. The film has an “organic” quality in the sense that inter- and intrapersonal conflicts mirror the larger environmental and cosmic drama.

“It’s not destroying.  It’s making something new.”

The female ensemble cast is interesting to reflect on in terms of creation and destruction.  While “the feminine” is typically stereotyped as creative, the fact that members of the all-female research team play different roles and are all strong, “masculine,” and “destructive” in various ways, undermines mythical structures and social stereotypes.  And while science is presumed to be inherently destructive in the sense that science kills in order to understand, the Garland narrative suggests, through language as well as action, that the irrational urge to destroy may be a cause of intellectual curiosity.

The larger forces of environmental destruction in the film seem alien, throughout, but on the condition that we imagine the cosmic as an outside of “nature.”  And perhaps, more pointedly, when we ignore our own alien and hostile behavior.  The permeability of the self and the internalization of destructive drives call the distinctions between the human, natural, and alien into question throughout the film.  Is alienation an external or internal problem?

Another creative aspect of the film is the manner in which it subverts the common dystopian science-fiction tropes of mega cities or desertified environments, in the Blade Runner movies or the Mad Max series of films, for example.  These environments are staples of various literary, film, and now graphic novel genres.  The tropes of unbridled urban expansion and desertification are here replaced by an environment evolving into a variation of itself—a “neotropical” realm.  Left to the will of “The Shimmer” post-evacuation, abandoned buildings and military bases become home to strange and beautiful incursions, while still retaining elements of brutality.  Thus the dance of creation and destruction is accelerated and heightened.

Garland owes this alternative dystopian vision to VanderMeer whose novel is not only a descriptive master piece but also a kind of manifesto for the natural world.  In the novel, Area X is not only setting and character, but alternately antagonist and protagonist, depending on one’s perspective which VanderMeer seems to manipulate. Some of this Escher-like quality is lost in the film, in which Area X is primarily an existential threat, though the sheer aesthetic quality of the best set elements and special effects also recruit us over to the other side.

This could even be the case with some of the most horrific elements.  One might think a screaming wolf-bear could only be an antagonist, but in this context the creature can also be conceived as a product of an environment rebelling against the invasive behaviors of mankind.

The same can be said of the various familiar and yet strange facsimiles of nature.  If humans as a product of nature are destructive, then their familiars and antagonists may conversely be creative.

At one point in the film, the leader of the expedition, the venerable Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a complex, villainous performance comparable to her performance in Single White Female, remarks that the biologist is “confusing suicide with self-destruction.”  Though this statement, like most of the sententious dialogue remains unclear, the character also marks the ubiquity and unconscious nature of self-destruction.  Her comments oppose a programmed self-destruction to suicide as a willful, existential choice.  If self-destruction is a law, however, suicide is merely a rationalization or, more accurately, self-deception on all fronts.  Before the expedition the geologist says of Area X, “I watch it grow closer. There’s only so long someone can do that.”  However, on some level, it remains unclear whether the existential threat is ultimately external or internal?

“You’re confusing suicide with self-destruction”

One serious complaint is that the film loses track of itself in its penultimate act.  This seems an expression of either artistic hubris, or a kind of stress response of a creator overwhelmed by his creation, not coincidentally untethered from its original.  It also reads, for obvious reasons, as a unconscious performance of self-destruction.

Some fight, some are vanquished, some succumb, and some willingly become part of the alien landscape.  At the end of the day, however, the “choices” seem irrelevant, because there is no “outside” of our own, already alien human nature. In this Garland remains faithful to VanderMeer’s great novel.


Image Sources:



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