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Two books—one fictional, one dictionary—probe how we conceive of our changing world

An Ecotopian Lexicon

M. Schneider-Mayerson and B. R. Bellamy, Eds.
University of Minnesota Press
344 pp.
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Extinction Events (Stories)

Liz Breazeale
University of Nebraska Press
131 pp.
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The books reviewed here dwell on the work of words in an “Anthropocene,” a term itself critiqued as hubris-filled, which glosses the question of who is responsible for the forcing of physical processes and the role of the nonhuman in transforming a habitable planet. Both come from an arts and humanities tradition that worries at how we make sense of ourselves, the world, and our place within it—concerned that such contemplations are always partial, relational, and unfinished.

A growing environmental arts and humanities literature and practice has emphasized the emotional and psychological impacts of an Anthropocene that foregrounds a series of endings—from the extinction of species to the curtailing of life on Earth—as well as a series of challenges, from resilience to survival. What words do we use to describe the conditions we live in, the challenges we face, and the futures we want?

An Ecotopian Lexicon—“ecotopian” meaning out of place—offers a fascinating collection of non-English or newly invented words that impart something of the complexities of everyday life in an era of warming skies and oceans, mass degradation, precarity, and insecurity, each of which also helps map a possible future. The stated work of words here is to clarify, diagnose, and stimulate action.

Some of the terms are already circulating through academia and popular media. These include “solastalgia,” coined by Glenn Albrecht, which connotes a feeling of powerlessness and grief when faced with the sweeping change of a landscape that is still lived in, and “heyiya,” from Ursula Le Guin, which means to turn away from ecocidal practices. Some speak to an experience of place or its physical transformation (“godhuli” being a particularly evocative example, meaning refracted sunlight seen through the haze of dust kicked up by cows as they seek shelter). Some hint at earthly forces and cosmologies (such as “qi,” meaning a self-balancing order within the Universe that connects all and subsumes chaos). One greeting, written as “~*~,” connotes the feel of a light breath of air blown over the back of your hand; it is borrowed from dolphin societies to convey something of the electronic vibrations in which our bodies become enrolled.

This is a book that wants to stir passions, which in turn become a means of realizing desired futures. As such, it resonates with the Twitter work of so many climate scientists, which hinges on the relaying of dire facts in tones that urge action. The lexicon’s “borrowing” of words, although mindful of a continued coloniality, nevertheless presents a welter of experiences, felt and articulated.

The words of Extinction Events, although similarly situated in “endings,” do a different kind of work. These words do not offer a map, nor do they seek to stir passions toward the future. Rather, they evoke, somewhat in the vein of Italo Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics (1), a planetary history that winds its way tightly into the lives of fictional women who face unsettling losses—from the disappearance of islands to the erosion of marital bonds.

What survives an extinction event? What emotional and psychical, as well as physical, traces remain? What does it feel like to anticipate cataclysm? And to experience the falling apart of maps that can no longer situate and orientate us? Breazeale’s stories press time and again on these questions, as the flesh of mother and daughter merges with the ash of volcanoes (“Ashcake”) and a memory of a kiss retains its Earthiness, even as it becomes a molecular cloud in the cosmos (“The Supernova of Irvin Edwards”).

At times, the subsuming of a human lively time by the “deep time” of the Earth is a little heavy-handed, but the best of this collection is profoundly affective. “Devil’s Tooth Museum,” for example, is a tour de force that ostensibly hinges on an effort to reopen an impact crater exhibition and museum center after the death of the protagonist’s sister, Syl. Syl’s presence haunts the site, prompting the girls’ grandfather to further the physical breakdown of the exhibits, even as the narrator strives to mend them. In the dusty, Lysol-scented atmosphere, the violent extinctions wrought by the impact merge with the final breakdown of a simulator and the loss of a sibling: “A cataclysm, the air vibrating. In the panels, across the glass cases, the swarm of colors perforating the dark and in the tremors Syl, her imprint a shattered cone, a remnant, a brokenness that inhabited the innermost hollows of the Earth.”

If An Ecotopian Lexicon makes futures with words, Extinction Events dwells on all of us as future fossils in the making.

1. I. Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

About the author

The reviewer is at the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, G12 8QQ, UK.