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Breaking Through Fungal Preconceptions

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

On the Portrayal of Mushrooms in SFF

A brief thought experiment:

  • Take a moment and think about mushrooms…just mushrooms…whatever comes to mind…

  • Now, think about mushrooms as you have encountered them in SFF

In the realms of Science Fiction and Fantasy, fungi has been responsible for global takeovers and zombie-like populations, evil-influences and the most grotesque of body horror. Mushrooms have served as satellites dishes for alien invaders and spongy vessels for noxious spores. The mere mention of fungi in the SFF genres is evocative, but almost solely as a malign influence. Perhaps the only common trope that evades the deadly and wicked is the magic mushroom, both hallucinatory and transcendent. What intrigues me are the countless ways in which mushrooms and their mycelium benefit our world, along with the inherent treasure trove of literary possibilities.

Five years ago, I read, The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. This was my first formal introduction to the proposition of the ‘Wood Wide Web’. Tree roots and mycelium combine into what is known as a mycorrhiza. The word itself is a kind of intertwining of the Greek nouns for fungus (mykós) and root (riza). Through this connection, the vast underground network has become known as the Wood Wide Web. As far as naturalism, fungi was once viewed as something that brought disease and dehydration. Now, certain kinds of fungi are known to exist in a symbiosis with other plants. The network can help warn other plants of attacks by aphids, through a symbiotic process that is far more efficient with the help of mycelium.

The above paragraph reads like SFF, but literal groundbreaking research continues to reveal secrets in regards to the Wood Wide Web. World Trees and giant mushrooms are well-known devices in SFF, those sky-piercing structures for worlds and foreboding figures on the dark horizon. The prospect of a union between a World Tree and mushrooms, one that could mimic our world and the internet (not to mention, the ground beneath our feet) is hard to ignore. In reality, mycelium can be used to weave clothes and grow into formidable structures. Mushrooms are rich in nutrients and can grow quickly and readily in dark and dank environments (Hello, grim worlds!) Mycelium is so abundant in nature—every footstep in the woods impacts over 300 miles of mycelium—it is the latent ‘magic’ everywhere. Psilocybin/Magic Mushrooms can seem to astral project our souls as surely as they can help treat depression and mental illness, depending on the dosage. The dividing line between SFF and the real world is beyond thin. There is no clear line, only a blur, as research continues to uncover more secrets about the fungal world.

Mushrooms deserve a fresh look in the SFF realm, as surely as they needed one in Science and Naturalism. Perhaps my motivation for this brief essay is one of surprise, rather than disappointment. With so rich a thing as fungi, so complex and mysterious, so abundant and yet hidden, why not explore its benefits? Rather than falling into cliche and using fungi as an instrument of fear and destruction, why not as a uniter and provider?

Take a moment and think about mushrooms…just mushrooms…whatever comes to mind…

By Hayden Moore

October 26, 2021

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