Dystopia, Science Fiction, Post-Apocalypse: Classics—New Tendencies—Model Interpretations. Trier, Germany: WVT, Handbücher zum Literaturwissenschaftlichen Studium [Handbooks for the Study of Science and Literature], 2015. 430 pp. €37,50 pbk.
Violence and Dystopia: Mimesis and Sacrifice in Contemporary Western Dystopian Narratives. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2015. 335 pp. $90.99 hc.
A Sense of Apocalypse: Technology, Textuality, Identity. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, Literature and Cultural Theory, 2014. 138 pp. $40.95 hc.
The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity Beyond Salvage. New York: Palgrave, 2016. 208 pp. $95.00 hc.
It would be somewhat disingenuous to suggest that the recent interest in end-of-the-world narratives has something to do with our current political situation; it is comforting to know, however, that authors and scholars continue to grapple with the myriad ways in which our present mistakes might destroy our future. As science fiction continues to mature, many authors of the twenty-first century are choosing to embrace genre fiction, and in our post-9/11 world of political and economic instability, ecological disaster, and continued marginalization of subaltern groups, we should not expect an end to the exploration of the end times any time soon.
The four volumes reviewed here might not offer the definitive word in dystopian or post-apocalyptic studies, but they do constitute a collective attempt to provide a welcome update to the field. It has been twenty-four years since James Berger’s After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (1994) was published, seventeen years since Tom Moylan’s Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (2000), and seven years since Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (2010). There have been a handful of other studies published over the last decade, but the number is surprisingly small when considering the recent uptick of dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013), Paolo Bacigalupi’s YA and mainstream novels, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2015), and even the Hunger Games novels (2008-2010) and films (2012-2015) cry out for analysis either in light of recent sociopolitical changes or in an attempt to assess the ways in which these texts have changed our understanding of the genre.
It would make sense at this moment to release a handbook on dystopia that would provide a clear definition of the genre, outline its various subgenres, and provide an analysis of major texts. Eckart Voigts and Alessandra Boller’s Dystopia, Science Fiction, Post-Apocalypse: Classics—New Tendencies—Model Impressions is part of WVT’s series of Handbooks to the Study of Science and Literature and, although some of the twenty-five essays it contains are interesting enough, none of them really presents anything beyond either a brief survey of a particular subgenre of dystopia or a surface reading of one or two important dystopian texts. With chapter titles such as “Cyberpunk and Dystopia: William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)” and “Eugenics and Dystopia: Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (1997),” it is clear that Voigts and Boller were aiming for a book that would be useful in the classroom, providing a wealth of background information for those new to the genre. Unfortunately, the chapters often rely too much on large passages of plot summary of a single text without clearly connecting the book or film to the subgenre each chapter is supposed to represent. What is left is a muddled and incomplete volume that could easily be replaced by M. Keith Booker’s Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide (1994), supplemented by his more recent Dystopia: Critical Insights (2012).
The three remaining texts reviewed here work to clarify the boundaries and the meanings of the genres they analyze. Although one prefers to use the term “dystopia,” and the other two favor “apocalyptic” or “post-apocalyptic,” and the texts each volume analyzes are often the same, each author clearly establishes his or her own definitions. While the definitions are all clear, there is no consensus on their meaning or scope of application. Rather than causing confusion or irritation, these differences work to create a clear range and focus for each work, in the process revitalizing dystopian and post-apocalyptic scholarship. In the first two books, the authors are not invested in dystopia or apocalypse so much as they are in co-opting these popular genres to make their analyses more interesting to the reader.
In Violence and Dystopia: Mimesis and Sacrifice in Contemporary Western Dystopian Narratives, Daniel Cojocaru analyzes twentieth- and twenty-first-century dystopian texts by applying René Girard’s theories of mimetic desire and scapegoating. Relying heavily on Girard’s work, Cojocaru suggests that one “common cause, or deep structure” that drives the dystopian narrative is the successful overcoming or sublimation of mimetic desire by finding an acceptable scapegoat upon which to transfer our violent urges (8). According to Cojucaru, dystopian fiction is often propelled by the eventual discovery that the scapegoat function is unsustainable because it leads either to a perpetual cycle of unending violence or to a rejection of desire itself. Cojucaru explains:
Across all chapters and throughout all the discussed texts, the following overarching narrative frame emerges … fragile human beings are “liberated” from the isolating structures of modernity, facing the choice of either engaging in mimetic rivalry with one another that eventually leads to globalized violent crowd formation or of renouncing mimetic conflict. The former choice leads to post-apocalyptic decay, as the crowds can no longer be dissolved through scapegoat expulsion…. [V]iolence has lost its restorative force, and [the discussed narratives] locate the source of the creation of (post-)apocalyptic environments in the problem of escalating, conflictive mimesis. (38-39)
This over-reliance on Girard to shape his analysis makes it clear that Cojucaru’s book is more an application of mimetic theory to a selection of dystopian texts than a comprehensive exploration of the genre itself, but Cojucaru’s choice of texts is novel enough to keep one reading.
After a lengthy summary of Girard in the introduction, the book is divided into four chapters, each dedicated to the work of two or three authors and built around a new connection between sacrifice and dystopia. The second chapter of the book, “Sacarfices,” posits that the car crashes in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973) and David Cronenberg’s film adaptation (1996), as well as in Chuck Palahniuk’s novels Fight Club (1996) and Rant (2007), fail to bring about the utopian futures for which their characters long. Cojucaru then claims that, conversely, Brad Anderson’s film The Machinist (2004) suggests that “true conversion and repentance rather than the further perpetration of violence through the sacarfice” is the only “solution to the sacrificial crisis of the modern” (37; emphasis in original).
The third chapter, “Atrocity,” argues that Iain Sinclair’s novels use “psychogeography” to uncover the hidden scapegoat used to erase older city structures and to usher in the “non-places of modernity” (37). The author then analyzes novelist Peter Ackroyd’s work and argues that, for Ackroyd, violent urban and cultural renewal is unending. Cojucaru’s examinations here have little to do with the dystopian, and although he contends that neither author’s work has been subjected to such a rigorous Girardian analysis before, it is not exactly clear why that is so necessary. The connections Cojucaru makes between Ackroyd and Sinclair are original enough, but by this point in the book the constant reliance on Girard begins to stifle some of the more interesting threads that could have been followed.
The final two chapters, “Crovvds” and “Violentropy,” focus on the possible consequences of the failure of the scapegoat to alleviate the violence of mimetic desire. The fourth chapter uses Ballard’s later work, the writings of Stewart Home, and David Peace’s GB84 (2004) to demonstrate the advent of uncontrollable, violent crowds in situations where scapegoating fails to work. The final chapter argues that the post-apocalyptic scenarios of Iain Sinclair’s Radon Daughters (1994), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003), and the fiction of Will Self illustrate Girard’s conception of the entropic decay that results when the scapegoat mechanism breaks down. Here Cojucaru returns to dystopia, and even if some of the texts examined are not obviously apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fictions, they do clearly fit his main themes of violence and degeneration. Cojucaru’s observations in these final chapters seem more cohesive and better structured than those at the beginning of his book.
Marcin Mazurek’s A Sense of Apocalypse: Technology, Textuality, Identity is volume 40 of Swiss publisher Peter Lang’s Literary and Cultural Theory series. In this slim volume, Mazurek argues that advances in technology have worked to trouble our conceptions of the subject and personal identity and that post-apocalyptic narratives illustrate the transition to a post-technological world. As with Cojocaru’s book, Mazurek’s text makes an exploration of the apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic genre secondary—and his contentions about technology and self have been explored before in works such as Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1992)—but the combination of interests that structures the first two chapters is worth examining.
Mazurek focuses almost exclusively on films, maintaining that “their unprecedented visual intensity, triggered by rapidly developing media technologies … offers an almost immediate illustration/interpretation of any imaginable cultural phenomenon” (14). In the opening chapter, Mazurek provides a short history of pre- and post-apocalyptic film, outlining the differences between the two over time and the ability of the latter to convey the anxieties of an identity transformed or even co-opted by technology. Mazurek argues that over the last few decades, post-apocalyptic film has moved from tales of the wholesale destruction of humanity to narratives detailing fears of a loss of self, a transition he describes as the shift from “apocalypse-as-destruction” to “apocalypse-as-metaphor” (29; emphasis in original).
The second chapter uses a number of David Cronenberg’s films, along with the Alien films (1979-) and Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990), to show the destruction of corporeality as a function of both secular and eschatological apocalypse tales. The chapter then shifts to an examination of “the idea of apocalypse as handled and represented in and by theory” (49) before ending with a brief analysis of the apocalypse (or the transformation) of theory itself.
The remaining three chapters of Mazurek’s book pretty well abandon any desire to interrogate post-apocalyptic texts, focusing instead on the author’s investigation of the ability of technology to alter our sense of reality and identity. The third chapter is somewhat clearer than the second in its examination of the effects of advances in visual technologies on our understanding of “stable and tactile reality” (16). Here Mazurek uses the work of historian Bruce Mazlish to argue for the inability of modern humanity to be separated from the machine; and he uses the work of Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord to suggest that new technologies have separated representation from reality, allowing representation—or the spectacle—to “control social reality to such a degree as to ensure the smooth and undisturbed operation of this reality’s consumption cycles” (76). The fourth chapter of the book builds on the third, first exploring virtual space and then Bukatman’s notion of terminal space as illustrated by hypertext before examining the effects of digital and virtual realities on our understanding of the postmodern city. The fifth chapter uses Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1993) to show how its characters’ fictional interactions with cyberspace represent the posthuman. These chapters move fairly far afield from the previous chapters’ focus on the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, but they might be useful for someone looking for a synthesis of Debord and Baudrillard or who did not receive the same information in Bukatman’s book.
Heather Hicks’s book, The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity Beyond Salvage, is the strongest here. She joins her assertions about modernity to a thoughtful, well-developed analysis of newer texts within the genre. Rather than using a slim connection to apocalypse or dystopia as a flashy vehicle to invigorate her work, the post-apocalyptic is clearly her destination from the outset. Her goal is to examine a handful of recent post-apocalyptic texts as support for her contention that contemporary post-apocalyptic novels work to challenge—and suggest ways to revitalize—modernity. Hicks’s book relies on the reader to accept her contention that modernity has never disappeared and that post-apocalyptic texts are uniquely able to contest the modernist forces of “contemporary consumer capitalism and/or economic globalization” (14). For Hicks, the texts she analyzes are more effective in their critiques than their postmodern precursors because they conform to the more traditional genre conventions of the apocalyptic narrative. Hicks also asserts that “the hope that is often characterized as largely absent from much post-apocalyptic fiction is actually encoded within these novels’ generic forms” (21). Thus, Hicks’s book works to champion the basic or less experimental components of the genre while showing how this more traditional approach is able to breathe new life into criticisms of modernity.
The chapters in The Post-Apocalyptic Novel are based in part on the chronological publication dates of the texts Hicks analyzes, but they are also separated by distinctions within the genre itself. The first two chapters focus on works that concentrate on the events building up to the apocalypse, while the last two are more resolutely post-apocalyptic, with the third chapter serving as a bridge.
In her first chapter, Hicks posits Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake as a counter-apocalypse, a narrative designed to challenge the misogynistic overtones of the Book of Revelations while also challenging the colonial impulses of modernism. Hicks sees several of the characters in the novel taking on the role of the Whore of Babylon or of Jezebel, suggesting that economic need is a more plausible impetus for prostitution than moral failure. She also sees Jimmy/Snowman’s defense of the subaltern “Crakers” at the end of the novel as a reversal of the traditional colonial impulse found in earlier apocalyptic narratives. Hicks argues that, in these ways, Oryx and Crake challenges the misogyny and imperialism in both the biblical text and in modernism.
Hicks analyzes David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas (2004) in her second chapter, suggesting that the novel’s embrace of a non-linear narrative works to trouble the linear thinking of modernity. Hicks writes, “for Mitchell, his play with genres becomes the opportunity to weigh the modern construct of historicism against the cyclical understandings of temporality” (22). Although Hicks’s conclusions in this chapter are perhaps less concrete than elsewhere, she is able to make a case for the ability of a cyclical apocalyptic narrative to highlight the “political power that inheres in linear historicism” (23).
The third chapter argues that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2009) further explore modernism’s links to colonialism. In these novels, Hicks suggests, the protagonists serve as Crusoe figures, their interactions with their Friday counterparts creating both a “postcolonial skepticism about modernity and nostalgia for it” (23). Hicks posits that these novels map colonial fears of the “savage” other onto contemporary post-apocalyptic anxieties, using a journey into the post-apocalypse as a substitute for a journey to the new world in order to “investigate the challenges to the current Western models of identity such a transition might create” (23).
The fourth and fifth chapters bring readers up to date with several recent post-apocalyptic texts. The fourth uses Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2012) to examine the ability of both kitsch and the sublime to transform modernity. Focusing on the female characters in the novel, Hicks argues that “[t]hey signal the ultimate fusion of the sublime and kitsch, both in the triumph of the zombie horde and in the avant-garde vision that links the novel’s hybrid form back to Benjamin’s hopes that kitsch could serve as a vehicle for radical change” (23). The final chapter focuses on the YA novels of Paolo Bacigalupi, arguing that the emphasis on youth in these novels symbolizes the desire for eternal youth in capitalist empires. For Hicks, the end of youth in the post-apocalypse worlds of Bacigalupi’s narratives is a symptom of the decrepitude brought by the end of modernity.
The four books reviewed here are timely and welcome interventions in dystopian and post-apocalyptic studies. But they also leave the door open for other scholars who will continue to push our conceptions of these genres, fit new or unexamined works within their confines, and find new ways to explore some of the more defining texts. As long as the world has not yet ended, there will be more ways to imagine its passing.
Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.
Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.
─────. Dystopia: Critical Insights. Hackensack, NJ: Salem, 2012.
Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.
Paik, Peter Y. From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010.
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