I bought this book, a rambling collection of essays on ways of thinking about and responding to ecological crisis, as travel reading on a trip to Ukraine. At the airport, it was interesting enough, mixed with the excitement of setting off (and my guilty immersion in this engine of climate change). But the sometimes elliptical style didn’t quite gel for me. ‘It matters,’ is a key Haraway refrain. ‘OK, it matters,’ I kept thinking. ‘And?’

This edge of not-quite-getting-it persisted as I explored Kiev, though it didn’t stop me enjoying her account of an art-science project using pigeons to track pollution. And her ‘SF’ refrain I found stimulating, with its plural evocations: string figures (a wonderful symbol of informal complexity), science fact (plenty to chew on in this department), science fiction (never far away), and speculative feminism (we’re a million miles from the boring targets of anti-feminist bores here).

But by the time my friend and I had our tent pitched in an acacia glade near the Dnieper River, next to a lake heaving with mating frogs, far removed from humdrum humanity, this book really began to kick in. ‘Compost’ and ‘humus’ are further Harawayisms, playful alternatives to the academic categories of ‘posthumanism’ and ‘the humanities’, images which draw our attention to Haraway’s insistence on imaginatively sinking into the fertile more-than-human life-and-death mixtures and fusions of the biological world. And it took immersion in a particularly vivid part of that world — teeming with insects, birds, and plants, heaving with humid greenery — for my mind to properly open itself to Haraway’s poetics.

‘It matters,’ in the attention-scattered airport, had just one dimension: yet another plea for attention which seemed vague and platitudinous. But the puns on ‘matter’ (as in material, or mother) began to resonate in the earthy idyll by the lake, opening a second dimension, then many more. Matter matters; Haraway is a materialist. Not a cold preacher of abstract mechanism, locked into smug reaction against religion. And not a manipulative industrialist, or manipulated consumer. She respects and loves embodiment as our primary ontological ground, and her love embraces difficulty and darkness as well as radiant pleasure.

So — to proceed backwards through the title — why ‘Chthulucene’? Haraway sees the much-touted Anthropocene as more a boundary event than an epoch, which seems right. Another name proffered for this transition — via Kim Stanley Robinson — is ‘The Great Dithering’: the decades we are living through between unarguable collective awareness of ecological crisis and decisive collective action. Chthulucene is a slightly clumsy, but ultimately resonant attempt to tentacularly reach beyond this Dithering. Its Lovecraftian element is in a way twice-removed: Haraway cites the spider Pimoa cthulhu, native to her Californian home, as her inspiration. It in turn was named, of course, by a Lovecraft fan scientist. Haraway tweaks the spelling, shifting an ‘h’, to evoke chthonic. Author of ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1984), she takes technology seriously; but her kind of materialism also takes seriously Nietzsche’s admonition to ‘remain true to the earth.’ And she reaches past the inhuman coldness of the Great Old One via etymology (done well, a tactic which I always find endearing). ‘Tentacle’ is from the Latin for ‘to feel, try’. Where Lovecraft deployed tentacles to evoke slimy otherness, Haraway’s commitment to cross-species bonding allows her to present ‘tentacular thinking’ as an affective, provisional1 alternative to the chill of patriarchal absolutes (of which Lovecraftian void and chaos are to some extent shadows). The Chthulucene is the hoped-for, felt-towards epoch Haraway strives to find emerging in the very midst of our Anthropocene boundary. The more-than-human but still feeling animism it evokes is key to dissolving the ego of the Anthropos which is such a powerful engine in the ecological imbalance ‘Anthropocene’ describes.

‘Make Kin Not Babies’ sticker, made by Kern Toy, Beth Stephens, Annie Sprinkle and Donna Haraway

Why ‘make kin’? Population control is a tricky subject, mired as it is in either implicit racism or outright disregard for human life. Haraway doesn’t comprehensively address the problems involved, but she does stake out her territory in a refreshing way. ‘I think babies should be rare, nurtured, and precious,’ she says,2 steering clear of the both the ‘progressive’ (Christian) affirmation of uncontrolled birth rates and the nihilist resignation of antinatalism. On the other hand, ‘kin should be abundant, unexpected, enduring, and precious.’ She takes a lead from anthropology’s critique of the notion that kinship is exclusively about blood ties, and — with cross-species symbiosis in mind as much as intra-human voluntary bonds — extends the idea of ‘making kin’ to form a broad idea for persisting and flourishing social connectivity in a world which would probably fare much better all-round with less humans.

The concluding chapter here presents ‘The Camille Stories’, a series of fictional histories of a future in which ‘the Communities of Compost’ propagate the idea of ‘make kin not babies’, and raise the children which are born into selective symbiosis (or sympoesis, ‘making-with’) with endangered animal species. The vision of Camille’s psychogenetic fusion with the monarch butterfly, and her trouble- and meaning-filled deepening of her bond to this species, is challenging, dazzling SF (in all Haraway’s senses of that term). Camille and her non-genetic descendants, down to a 25th century with 3 billion humans on the planet, take inspiration from present-day indigenous resistance such as the Mazahua women in Mexico, and from modern creative work such as the novels of Ursula le Guin and Philip Pullman, Miyazaki’s Nausicaä, and the astonishing Inuk performer Tanya Tagaq. It’s heartening to read of a future grounded in the sensibilities of such artists.

And why ‘staying with the trouble’? ‘Noninnocence’ is a key term for Haraway. For all the utopian tinges to her thinking, she resolutely refuses the delusions of ‘blank slate’ thinking: the idea that there’s such a thing as an unblemished ‘state of nature’, or that it might be possible to create one in a fresh start. Her refusal of binary thinking shines here, in acknowledging both the dire realities we are now entrenched in and the necessity of hopeful responses. Her future history relates:

Compostists eagerly found out everything they could about experimental, intentional, utopian, dystopian and revolutionary communities and movements across times and places. One of their great disappointments in these accounts was that so many started from the premises of starting over and beginning anew, instead of learning to inherit without denial and stay with the trouble of damaged worlds.3

Modernity and its category work proved terribly durable for hundreds of years after the withering critique conducted in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries had made explicit adherence to the tenets of philosophical and political modernity unthinkable for serious people, including scientists and artists. Modernity was driven underground, but remained undead. Making peace with this vampire ancestor was an urgent task for the Communities of Compost.4

There’s an ambivalence here. While simplistic ‘starting over’ is firmly rejected, ‘vampire ancestor’ is a strong label for something you want to ‘make peace’ with. There’s little discussion here of what might be worth salvaging, if anything, from the inheritances we are supposed to integrate rather than reject. However, the statement of intent is crucial; and Haraway’s vision is clearly capacious enough for many debates.

Staying with the Trouble makes me think of Peter Harrison‘s challenging The Freedom of Things, which rejects ‘solutionism’ and tries to look squarely at the failures of leftism, and the impasse of late capitalism, without flinching in despair or hope. There is in Haraway a similar resolute refusal of stock responses, of business-as-usual, apocalyptic fear, or salvation fantasies. But Haraway begins to move, to speculate — tentatively extending tentacles into a future which we know will be tough, and which requires of us intelligent, noninnocent, imaginative thinking and dreaming.