Thursday, 10 January 2013
Friday, 11 May 2012
Atwood, who has long talked of the moral imperative that drives her work, also believes in the transformative – and ethical – potential of imaginative literature, and indeed, Year, like Oryx, is a feminist, anti-corporate and radically ecological work in which Atwood, in sharing her fears of and outrage against current trends in contemporary society, also wishes to prod her readers to meaningful political thought and action. (Bouson 2011: 23)
Wednesday, 9 May 2012
The ﬁrst half of this essay argues that the idea of sustainability, and the question of species survival lying at its heart, poses a direct challenge not only to ecocritical orthodoxy, but to traditional conceptions of the humanities, as well. It challenges ecocriticism insofar as it exposes the untenability of the normative conceptions of nature which, under the name of ecology, have informed much ecocritical work. It challenges the humanities insofar as it forces them to revise the very understanding of humanitas that has traditionally underpinned them, and to recognize the arts as ‘‘anthropotechnologies’’, in Peter Sloterdijk’s terms: they are technologies of self-domestication that deal with human beings as evolved, biological creatures so as to make them governable. (Bergthaller 2010: 729)
Friday, 4 May 2012
The novel teeters, and we teeter with it, on the unstable brink that separates real from imagined, now from later, an exercise that blurs the line between what is inside and outside the self, between what is already present in our world and what may be yet to come.
(Snyder 2011: 473)
The pandemic—a singular traumatic event of global proportions, yet one that replays past private traumas for the protagonist—marks the moment at which these two registers of the narrative collide, or the moment at which they are revealed to have been one all along.
(Snyder 2011: 479)
It is this uncanny aspect of the protagonist’s experience, I contend, that is fundamental to the imaginative investments of the reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. Post-apocalyptic fiction serves as rehearsal or preview for its readers, an opportunity to witness in fantasy origins and endings that are fundamentally unwitnessable. We are horrified and yet thrilled to see ourselves and our world in the unthinkable plight portrayed here, and even more horrified and thrilled to see the origins of this plight in ourselves. (Snyder 2011: 479)
Such fictions allow us imaginatively to rehearse the end, a rehearsal that itself stands as both traumatic symptom and potential cure, as acting out and working through, as repetition and repetition-with-a-difference. Our awareness that such apocalyptic visions of human futurity mirror our own inner fears and desires does not mean that all trauma, whether individual or collective, will be consigned to the past, but it does help us to confront our status as subjects of history by looking to the future. (Snyder 2011: 486)
Thursday, 1 March 2012
Hello, um, Blogger.
It seems it has been since 2010 that I last wrote anything here? Well - I am, as it were, back in the saddle. My thesis proper is finished long since, and accepted with good grades and so on, and now I am in fact doing research in this very same field of literature! Isn't that exciting? This means I've a reason to write something in these here blog again, so I hope to be doing that a bit more frequently now. We'll see if the ratio of entertainment-academia becomes slightly more skewed towards the former or not - chances are they might?
Anyway, the purpose of this post is to approach/discuss the Dmitry Glukhovsky novel Metro 2033. Unfortunately this particular piece of Russian writing won't be a part of my eventual doctoral thesis since it's a translation, so my thoughts on it will largely be rambling rather than proper reviewing. Also, it's rife with spoilers, so if you want to avoid that, don't read I guess? It's a good book and I can recommend it, although the translation is spotty to say the least.
So: the premise is that somewhere around 2013 or so, a global nuclear war (the reasons for which are never discussed) devastates the Earth. Luckily for the Muscovites, the Moscow metro system is also the world's largest nuclear fallout shelter, and it is to it and its myriad tunnels and stations that the survivors flee. A decade or two later, people are still living underground, in societies formed along station or line boundaries or according to ideologies. The survivors' diet consists mainly of mushrooms and pigs that eat mushrooms.
The secondary premise is that the metro dwellers must remain such. The surface has become uninhabitably lethal. Aside from the radiation and the blinding sunlight, the surface is now home to mutated creatures, many of which it seems do not even have an equivalent animal it mutated from (such as the Librarians, unless they're mutated humans I suppose). What more, and this is even touched upon at some point, the rate of mutation makes little sense - it's difficult to imagine the kinds of monsters found on the surface could appear in scarcely a decade, not to mention the monstrosity in the Kremlin. Or, indeed, the Dark Ones themselves, the instigators of the whole plot of the novel.
The Dark Ones are not a part of the premise, exactly, seeing as they ultimately only appear a few times. They start our protagonist's journey through a task given to him by a member of a mysterious group, Hunter, dedicated to the preservation of the Metro. Artyom must travel to the centre of the Metro, Polis, in order to warn Hunter's superior about the threat of the Dark Ones, and so that they may find some way for his station to combat the encroaching monsters. Artyom, as befitting of a blank slate protagonist, obviously knows little of the Metro outside of his station, and is thus the perfect set of ears and eyes for the reader to experience it all through.
And that's what this book is essentially about: discovering the underground world of the Metro, with all its varied types of survivors, ideas, ideologies and mysteries. And they abound, oh yes: Glukhovsky, were I to use him in my thesis, fits very neatly into the definition I have made of post-postmodern writing. The novel's more than aware of the fact that fiction is fictitious, but it does not flaunt it like postmodern texts did (except in one particularly memorable dialogue towards the end, but that was a bit of authorial indulgence I had no trouble swallowing): rather it neatly incorporates the inexplicable and the supernatural into the general mood of the story. From the very first pages, we realize that Metro 2033 is a two-layered thing, where what is 'real' and what is just stories is constantly in question.
We gain access to most of the Metro via stories told to Artyom, starting from the very first pages, stories about other stations and lines, some grounded in reality while others are more fantastic. We (the readers) in turn experience the Metro through Artyom as he travels it, alternately finding that reality is not as fantastic as we were told, and alternately finding it is even more fantastic. This technique is not in itself something unique, but the layers of 'reality' versus 'superstition' effectively become so blurred it is entirely up to the readers sense of willing suspension of disbelief (please see my previous entry on Coleridge et al.!) whether or not they end up 'buying' the world of Metro 2033. Of course, 'buying' the world itself is what largely determines how effective the novel will be.
This brings us to the point of all this: where does Metro 2033 fit in on the arbitrary scale of science fiction rationality versus the kind of fantasy typically found in magical realism? I admit that I myself had actually played the game before I read the book, and I was therefore surprisingly enough prepared for the supernatural elements when they arrived (surprisingly because game narratives rarely follow their sources very closely), but I'm not sure how I would have reacted without prior knowledge of them. Probably with inquisitiveness: how do hypnotic voices emanating from pipes or stretches of tunnel with deadly effects on the human mind fit into the overall picture of ragged survival and very human conflict? Luckily, this same inquisitiveness is what Artyom feels, so our journeys happily coincide - what more, his companions are more than willing to provide their own interpretations of events, which either muddles or clarifies the issue, depending on how you wish to view it.
This duality is perhaps best presented through an event in the novel itself. Towards the last third of the book, when Artyom finally reaches Polis, Artyom has just experienced the memorable piece of dialogue I mentioned earlier. This happens on the station just before Polis, where he meets two hookah-smoking gentlemen who engage him in conversation. Allow me to reproduce a short extract from it:
"But do you believe in fate?" asked Sergei Andreyevich, inclining his head to the side and examining Artyom studiously, while Yevgeniy Dmitrievich turned away from the hookah with interest.
"No," said Artyom decisively. "There is no fate, just random events that happen to us, and then we make things up on our own later."
"Too bad, too bad..." sighed Sergei Andreyevich disappointedly, austerely looking at Artyom over his eyeglasses. "Now, I'm going to present a little theory of mine to you, and you see for yourself if it matches your life or not. It seems to me that life, of course, is an empty joke, and that there's no purpose to it at all, and that there's no fate, which is to say anything explicit and definite, along the lines of you're born and you already know that you're going to be a cosmonaut or a ballerina or that you'll die in your infancy...No, not like that. While you're living your allotted time...how do I explain this...It may happen that something happens to you that forces you to perform specific actions and make specific decisions, keeping in mind you have free will, and can do this or that. But if you make the right decision, then the things that happen to you subsequently are no longer just random, to use your word, events. They are caused by the choices you made. [...] And your life will gradually stop being just a collection of random events; it will turn into....a plot, I suppose, where everything is connected by some logical, though not necessarily straight, links. And that will be your fate.
(Metro 2033: 254-255)
Strengthened by the realization that the incredible events leading up to this point in his journey (that is to say, the plot of the novel) indeed constitute the plot of his life (hello, postmodernism), Artyom hurries on. However, in Polis, the description of the two gentlemen he spoke with earlier causes a different reaction. There are two factions in the station, one scholarly and one military. Both contend that the station through which Artyom passed and where he met Sergei Andreyevich and Yevgeniy Dmitrievich is in fact empty and uninhabitable. The military claim that people often experience hallucinations while there due to a gas leak, whereas the scholars come to believe people who see and speak with someone while there are special and chosen. This very neatly puts the ball in the reader's court: do we believe the military (it was just a gas leak, causing Artyom to hallucinate the whole conversation) or the scholars (it was exactly what it seemed to be; a bit of otherwordly providence, showing Artyom how special and unique he is to the plot of the Metro). Artyom himself is troubled, but Glukhovsky does not provide a definite answer either way, although he allows for both.
The one piece of suspension of disbelief we do have to accept, even if we go in for the harder science fiction route, is that mind control or telepathy or psionics what-have-you is now officially possible, potentially through the effects of a powerful experimental bioweapon released on Moscow during the war (which, in turn, might also be the reason behind the improbable monsters on the surface). This ability is particularly apparent towards the end, when they meet the worshippers of the Great Worm, who turn out to have a few capable telepaths among their numbers. Another example is the Kremlin and its inhabitants: demons or merely monstrous mutations? Once it is established that the human mind can now be affected in this way, by whatever means it is accomplished, one can easily explain most of the bizarre occurrences in the Metro by ways of this. Perhaps there are simply other creatures like the monster in the basement of the Kremlin who are capable of controlling minds, and these live here and there, preying on lone wanderers in dark tunnels.
Or, then we allow for the preternatural, in which case Metro 2033 is an interesting amalgam of the post-apocalyptic science fictional genre and horror writing, possibly set in the kind of world these guys are creating, where the bizarre and memetic exists just underneath and hidden away from the surface normality - except, of course, that in the Metro, it has all come bursting out of the woodworks following the nuclear apocalypse.
Being a post-postmodern reader myself, I accept both interpretations as equally valid. The rational, science fictional interpretation is canon, the one I would use if I were to be transported bodily into the world of the text and had to 'explain' what was going on. The other interpretation is the super- or metatextual one, the one that self-consciously uses the text to talk about issues outside the text or then about the text itself in relation to other texts. A metaphor, a comment, another layer. And read so, Metro 2033 is, to say the least, very enjoyable.
The translation is still incredibly spotty though, or at least it feels like it is. Yikes.
Glukhovsky, Dmitry. 2007. Metro 2033. London: Gollancz.
Sunday, 17 October 2010
I wonder if it is too much to say that realism is a key concept in post-apocalyptic (PA) fiction: are we not after all dealing with a subject that is inherently fantastic, describing events that have not, and cannot, take place? Well, that is only if you adhere to an idea of 'realism' as being something only associated with things (whether physical or psychological) that exist presently, or existed within living memory (historical novels, no matter how assiduously researched, can never be considered realistic within this definition, since they by necessity concern themselves with a time or place no longer in existence). Obviously this definition however is far too limited: a novel's sense of realism cannot be contingent on the subject matter. Rather it must be a factor of the text itself, the way the reader is approached through it.
To get the groundwork out of the way: obviously realism in a novel demands that the reader and author enter into a contract, a consensual, shared belief in the existence of certain things, such as contiguous time and recognizable space. The famous (almost cliché) remark of Coleridge's, the willing suspense of disbelief comes to mind: the author asks the reader to believe for the duration of the novel everything that is told in it. The reader does so willingly, albeit with a little help from a skilled author. I can imagine a postmodern, post-apocalyptic novel, where this contract is wilfully broken: fair enough, that is after all the role of the avant-garde in any situation, to make us aware of our own conceptual shortcomings. But a comment on language, or on the death of the author, or on any such thing would no longer be a comment on the apocalypse and its aftermath: for that, we have to believe it really happened. I contend that the moment the apocalypse merely becomes an obvious, over-extended metaphor that can at any time be reversed, it loses its sublime power and thus its true artistic viability.
This is of course only my opinion on it, but it does seem to be the general consensus among the post-apocalyptic canon (see my previous posts on the various books I've read and that I consider a part of this canon). Not one of them offer a post-modern or even modernist reading, they all stay firmly rooted within the realist tradition most famously described by Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1987 ). Watt (1987: 291) defines formal realism as follows:
[T]he particularisation of time, place and person; to the natural and lifelike sequence of action; and to the creation of a literary style which gives the most exact verbal and rhythmical equivalent possible of the object described.
This is firmly rooted in the empirical, rational, Enlightenment tradition of the early 19th century. The Arts often follow science, so too in the case of the early novels: science purported to describe a natural world without the vagaries of religion, superstition or subjectivity, to provide an accurate and objective view of the world. Much like that, the early realist novelists wanted to give their reader an unromanticized view of the world (often to the outrage of their contemporaries, who were scandalized by the themes of sex, lust and violence that had hitherto been considered too vulgar for the Arts). None, once again, of the novels I have read have had any scruples about hiding the realities of the post-apocalyptic world (with the slight exception of Shute's On The Beach, whose future vision ended with a whimper rather than a bang). Even without gore and violence aplenty, however, the post-apocalyptic novel remains a clearly realistic one.
Morris (2003) points out two central tenets of realism: contiguity, and the search for truth. Contiguity is basically what Watt (1987) spoke of above: namely a contiguous chain of events that eventually lead to a conclusion. There is a distinction, of course, between story time and narrative time. Story time refers to the whole chain of events from start to finish. As an example, let us take On The Beach: an escalating world tension leads to a launch of nuclear warheads by a small third world country, which is misconstrued as an attack by one superpower upon another. In the nuclear exchange that follows, a 'powder-keg' akin to pre-World War I Europe is ignited, as everyone takes the opportunity to solve their own disputes. The result is that the entire northern hemisphere is destroyed. Unfortunately, the cloud of radiation that killed everyone that wasn't killed in the original exchange is now slowly moving down south with the seasonal air currents, killing everything in its path. Australia and New Zealand, where the action takes place, will be the very last to go. In the end of the story, everyone dies. This is the story time. The narrative time does not even encompass all of this: it begins in the post-apocalypse and ends there. Whenever the narrative jumps to a past moment or a future moment (analepsis and prolepsis), it does so within story time. Thus contiguity is created, and maintained. There is of course also the matter of psychological contiguity for the characters and many other situations in which an ordered chain of events is desirable.
The search for truth, on the other hand, is another feature of realism and the realist novel. In the beginning I mentioned Coleridge's suspension of disbelief and the contract between author-writer. What this contract is based on is that the reader suspends their disbelief for a good reason, a moment of grace to allow the writer to rely whatever insights (truth) he or she wants to. If at the end of a narrative these insights, or truths, prove inconclusive or irrelevant, then the author has broken the pact with the reader (this is, in general, what happens in postmodern novels, who have a tendency of avoiding any even semi-conclusive endings). In On the Beach, like many other PA novels, the first and most pressing questions are without fail: what happened and why. This is the basic quest for truth that generally colours a post-apocalyptic narrative. In many, but far from all, stories, the author also offers a solution, a way to prevent the disaster. In many others, the author provides us with an alternative future instead of dwelling on the past (e.g. the aptly named Survivors). In some, like On the Beach, neither the past nor the future seem to hold any promise. But it is here we are reminded of the basic fact of post-apocalyptic literature: it is science fiction. Until the moment it becomes fact, everything described in a novel such as Shute's is preventable. This, of course, was the great truth of the Cold War-era novels of nuclear Armageddon: the Arms race must stop, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction must be abandoned, and a more peaceful form of dialogue must be adopted in order to prevent On The Beach from happening.
Morris, Pam. 2003. Realism. London: Routledge.
Watt, Ian. 1987 . The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: The Hogarth Press.
Sunday, 19 September 2010
A few scribbled comments (amounting to more than 1000 words – oops!) to round Atwood off for now, this time an article written by Stephen Dunning in 2005.
I quite liked this article. He starts off by reminding the reader there are essentially two kinds of dystopias: the Orwellian and the Huxleyian. The boot stamping on your face forever, or the more subtle vision of Huxley's Brave New World, which emphasises the carrot rather than the stick, but is no less totalitarian. Dunning places Oryx and Crake into the Huxleyian tradition, and with good reason:
It finds our current vulnerability to unprecedented disaster arises not from dystopian societies with hostile political structures, underwritten by oppressive metanarratives, and established through threat of imprisonment, torture and death, but rather within the qualitative vacuum of a culture that has lost its "great" narratives.
(Dunning 2005: 86)
This loss of 'great narratives' is of course a post-modern concept, borrowed directly from Lyotard, although Dunning refuses the post-modern label and prefers “late modernity” (although this does force him to translate 'postmodern' into 'late modern' whenever he discusses it in the text, and then I have to translate it back in my head...anyway). This culture, Dunning goes on to argue, has lately, with the fall of the Soviet Union, lost even the political alternative to the old religious narratives, leaving only unfettered scientific progress behind. A pattern can be discerned, I would say. Dunning claims that the “sacred narrative” (Dunning 2005: 87) is being excised from the world and replaced with ideas stemming from “the laboratory and ledger” (science and capitalism).
Much like DiMarco's text on homo faber, Dunning also goes back to antiquity and then to the beginning of 'modernity', when science ousted the old traditions, without however truly offering an alternative. He speaks of 'orders of desire' (which I believe corresponds to the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs):
Modernity can offer no convincing rationale for pursuing second-order desires, which require the suppression or deferment of first-order desires to achieve higher ethical (often communal) goals, precisely because, as both Huxley and Atwood recognize, modernity rejects the traditional cultural narratives that give such goals their authority.
(Dunning 2005: 87)
I should read more Lyotard, but I would assume such a traditional cultural narrative might be something like 'God', who, through the advance of science, has now become a mere “God of the gaps” (Dunning 2005: 88), only powerful wherever there has been no scientific explanation yet. Oryx and Crake is then a “darkly comic critique of our triumphant scientific modernity that is only now beginning to reveal its true shape, having finally exhausted the resources of the world it has systematically destroyed” (Dunning 2005: 88-89). Sounds a bit post-postmodern to me, I must say!
Dunning's article, as the title suggests, focuses on psychological, or therapeutic elements in the text (another postmodern concept, incidentally). Thus we see the relationship between Jimmy and Crake, and the relationship between the compounds and the outside world, as elements of a mentally ill world (or culture). One of the major elements is the lack of communication between people: when Jimmy entertains himself by having love affairs with bored compound wives, they are entertained by his way with words: “it is telling that they find his considerable linguistic skills appealing, suggesting that on some level, they recognize the nature of their deprivation, the cause of their extraordinary loneliness. Community, even a community of two, requires communication.“ (Dunning 2005: 91). Likewise, the image of Jimmy and Crake as adolescents sitting back to back with their computers seems to suggest that “they are not present to each other at all, or perhaps virtually not present” (Dunning 2005: 92). This, of course, is hogwash, brought on by Atwood's amazing inability to grasp what a video game is actually about (which is quite staggering, considering how central a role her 'Extinctathon' game plays), but Dunning nonetheless probably captured her authorial intent with the scene. In essence, the separation between mind and body is becoming more and more acute, which leads to a sort of split personality for those afflicted (where the body, for instance, is merely entertained by pornography, executions and violence). This is a typical Freudian concept, Freud also belonging to the modernist tradition (Dunning 2005: 94); the separation between the id, the ego and the superego.
Crake's solution to Freud's problem (that we all have base, often destructive needs, that have to be sublimated or expressed in some less destructive way for society to survive) is to entirely replace homo sapiens with his own species – the Crakers – through genetic manipulation (Dunning 2005: 95). As I already mentioned in some of my other article reviews, this kind of backfires, with Jimmy-Snowman teaching the Crakers in the post-apocalypse of Gods and Goddesses and giving them the beginnings of a mythical framework just like the one Crake attempted to eliminate. Atwood could probably not have made it more obvious through the Crakers' 'exodus' from 'Paradice (Dome)', after all. Dunning has an interesting insight into Crake's character here: why would he kill Oryx (who is important to the Crakers) in front of Jimmy, knowing full well this would make Jimmy kill him, while leaving the Crakers in Jimmy's (a “words” person) hands? Why not leave Oryx alive, or why not take care of the Crakers himself? Dunning suggests that Crake is, ultimately, only human, and that in killing Oryx he follows his own inner qualitative and unscientific first-order desire to own her in death, which would not be possible if either both Jimmy and Oryx survived, or Jimmy and Crake did (Dunning 2005: 96). Curious stuff.
The end result, however, is what we see in the post-apocalypse: new “sacred narratives” being constructed by the prophet Snowman and embraced by the Crakers who, despite Crake's intentions, remain at least “marginally human” (Dunning 2005: 98). “Thus, whatever solutions we may hope for must come at least partially by way of recovery, recovery of some form of great narrative that reestablishes culture firmly in the cultus from which science has torn it” (Dunning 2005: 98). In other words, “numbers people” 0, “words people” 1. Hooray!
Dunning, Stephen. 2005. “Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the Therapeutic” In Canadian Literature; Fall2005, Issue 186: 86-101.