The Subverse - Season Three

In the third season of The Subverse, host Susan Mathews explores another elemental theme — fire. Join us for a series of thoughtful conversations, with experts in varied fields, centred around fire and the way it has influenced the world around us.

Episode 2

Frankenstein and Fire: Reading from the Margins

In this episode, Susan Mathews is in conversation with Prof. Robert Romanyshyn—an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and an author of eight books including Victor Frankenstein, the Monster and the Shadows of Technology: The Frankenstein Prophecies (Frankenstein Prophecies). Romanyshyn’s special area of concern is the psychology of technology, especially in terms of the climate crisis and impact of digital media on our social structures.

Much of his life’s work has been devoted to understanding Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a gothic horror tale that, as he points out, has been prophetic in many ways. In his book Frankenstein Prophecies, he asks eight questions that uncover how Shelley’s classic work haunts our world. Combining Jungian theory, literary criticism, and mythology, he seeks answers to the query at the heart of this book: who is the monster?

In the first six questions, Romanyshyn explores themes of resurrecting the dead, melting polar ice, and whether Frankenstein is a prophecy of the dying of nature, the creation of new species, last human generations, and the loss of place in a digital wired space. In the book’s final two questions, he asks whether the story is a prophecy of radical ethics, and one of new beginnings. Uncovering some seeds of hope in Shelley’s work, he examines how the Monster’s tale reframes her story as a love story.

In keeping with the theme of fire in this podcast season, we spoke of the symbolism of fire—both ambiguous and double-edged. In Greek myth in particular, the symbolism of fire is bound up with the myth of Prometheus, one of many stories which explains how humankind came into possession of fire.

We zoomed in on the fire related metaphors in Frankenstein (exemplified in the subtitle ‘The Modern Prometheus’, alluding to the Greek fire myth), and how many of these speak to our present ecological crises. There’s fire as lightning that struck down a tree early in the book; the use of electricity and galvanism; the digging up of the dead in cemeteries and charnel houses as analogous to the mining of fossil fuels; solar light versus moonlight; and the Monster running away to the Arctic north, promising to burn in a pyre after Victor Frankenstein’s death.

We also discuss a different kind of fire, which is not just a burning down or a melting away or extraction of fossil fuels, but a counter-fire. Counter-fire as in the hope left in Pandora’s jar. In speaking of this fire, Romanyshyn also speaks of splendour of the simple, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the miracle in the mundane, fire as living spirit, and Natura Naturans, the Anima Mundi.

More about the guest

Robert Romanyshyn has published essays in psychology, philosophy, literary and education journals, written a play about Frankenstein’s Monster, done radio and TV discussions as well as online interviews, webinars, podcasts and made a DVD movie of his trip to Antarctica. In addition, he has given keynote addresses at conferences, lectured at universities and professional societies, and conducted workshops in the U.S., Europe, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand.

Check out his website. For more information about his courses, check out

Episode 1

Tracing the Pyrocene: an ecological three-body problem

In Season 3 of The Subverse, we are journeying into ‘fire’. In this opening episode, we speak with Prof. Stephen J. Pyne, a fire historian, urban farmer, and emeritus professor at Arizona State University, U.S.A. Pyne has written over 40 books, most of which are centred around fire. In this conversation, we focus on his book The Pyrocene: How we Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next, published in 2021.

The discussion began with how fire is, for humans, our defining ecological trait. We are unique fire creatures on a unique fire planet, and as keepers of the flame, we need to somehow get the right mix of fire in the world to balance our interests and those of others. In his book, Pyne proposes a fire-centric perspective on how humans continue to shape the Earth. The book renames and redefines the so-called Anthropocene according to humanity’s primary ecological signature, which is our ability to manipulate fire. As he states in the book, “the sum of our fire practices is creating a fire age that is equivalent in stature to the ice ages of the Pleistocene.” In the narrative he lays out, the pyric prism he uses is what he terms as an ecological three-body problem.

The history that Pyne narrates chronicles three fires. First-fire is the fire of nature that appeared as soon as plants colonised continents, about 420 million years ago. Thanks to cooking, a dependence on fire became coded into hominin DNA. Second-fire was an act of domestication, perhaps the model for all pyrotechnologies, in which people had transformed wildfire into hearth and torch. Third-fire is qualitatively different. Pyne points out that third-fire burns lithic landscapes no longer bounded by ecological limits. With a source of combustibles, which are essentially unbounded, inadequate sinks for the effluent, from cooking food and landscapes, we are now cooking planets. The sum of Earth’s three fires is creating the fire-informed equivalent of an ice age, and instead of ice amassing more ice, fire is generating more fire.

This pyric transition also means that fire vanished as a serious object of inquiry. Fire with its flame, glow, heat, and crackle has been reduced to the most elemental chemical and physical expressions, each isolated and engineered, so that what had been ‘fire’ became ‘combustion,’ and combustion has become only its constituent parts. What we erased were traditional and indigenous knowledges of living with fire. Pyne writes, “Earth’s fire story was not just about the visible, the sudden, and the novel: the invisible, the incremental, and the traditional were equally part of the emerging order.” “The absence of fires where it should be was as critical, if less conspicuous, as its exaggerated presence.” So, dealing with a deficit of good fire rather than a surplus of bad fire, and foregrounding fire as a serious object of inquiry are crucial.

We wrapped up the episode speaking about aesthetics and fire. Pyne noted that how we understand the regeneration of nature will depend on how we regenerate our aesthetics. If we see the future world only through past perspectives, we must see it as a loss. We need an appreciation and creation of art suitable for our remade world and a robust aesthetics for our age.

More about the guest

Apart from being such a prolific scholar of fire, Stephen J. Pyne spent 15 seasons with the North Rim Longshots, a fire crew at Grand Canyon National Park, 12 as crew boss, with another three seasons writing fire plans for other national parks.  He lives in Queen Creek, Arizona. His next book is a fire history of Mexico.

You can find him on Twitter or on his website.