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Mammoth Speculations

4:00 PM, Friday 30 Mar 2018 (30 minutes)
East Grand River
AcademicScience fiction
Matthew Chrulew

Centre for Culture and Technology, Curtin University

The woolly mammoth has often appeared in speculative fiction as a figure of lost connection. Its distinctive significance lies both in its temporal and geographical overlap with humans during prehistory, and its centrality to scientific debates since the Victorian period around questions of extinction, geological time and climate change. The mammoth has been particularly prominent in twenty- and twenty-first century scientific controversies. Debates over the cause of Pleistocene megafauna extinctions weighed up theories of overkill (human hunting), overchill (climate change) and overill (disease), often informed by differing theological and philosophical conceptions of the extent and limits of human agency within the natural world. Current debates around rewilding projects (such as the ecological experiment of Siberia’s Pleistocene Park) and de-extinction projects to clone and breed extinct animals back into existence likewise draw heavily on perceptions of responsibility for the disappearance of the mammoth and other species. Philosophical evocations of the mammoth, meanwhile, often use it as a figure of ecological immersion and reciprocity from which we have become alienated. Fictional encounters with mammoths have drawn upon these themes, exploring both human environmental destructiveness and vulnerability to climate, histories of colonisation and survival, and the capacity for ecopolitical remediation, repair and redemption. This paper will examine examples including Jean Aeul’s pre-historical fiction Earth’s Children series (1980-2011), Stephen Baxter’s science fiction Mammoth trilogy (1999-2001), and Eleanor Arnason’s alternate history novella Mammoths of the Great Plains (2010). As the objects of hunting and coexistence and the subjects of anthropomorphic description and ecological and political speculation, mammoths in these narratives play a central role in expressing and negotiating prominent environmental concerns of the turn of the millennium—such that, I will argue, the mammoth can be considered the totem animal of the Anthropocene.