Sunday, 17 October 2010

Realism in Post-apocalyptic fiction – a general introduction

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 [1957]). 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 [1957]. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: The Hogarth Press.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the Therapeutic

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.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Paradice Lost, Paradise Regained: homo faber and the Makings of a New Beginning in Oryx and Crake.

“Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake (2003)critiques modernity’s commitment to homo faber—he who labors to use every instrument as a means to achieve a particular end in building a world, even when the fabrication of that world necessarily demands a repeated violation of its materiality, including its people.”

(DiMarco 2005: 170)

This is basically the point DiMarco is trying to make in her article, which much like previous criticism I have read focuses mainly on the two characters of Jimmy and Crake and what exactly they represent. Crake, then, is “the quintessential homo faber” (DiMarco 2005: 170), the working man, the creator-man, the tool-using man. One of the theorists working with this concept is Hannah Arendt, who (quoted in DiMarco 2005: 174), says thathomo faber is contrary to animal

laborens because he has always destroyed nature, not worked with it.” As good a description as any of Crake, I should say. The problem, DiMarco (2005: 174) notes, is that in modern days homo faber has turned from altruistic, ethical and community-oriented goals for his powers of creation towards more selfish and inwards-looking goals – in the case of the scientists running Atwood's dystopia it is the pursuit of money and power and immediate physical gratification. The blame obviously lies with capitalism and commodification – a cornerstone of post-modernism – which Atwood is here attempting to overturn.

DiMarco, like Bouson, makes much of the division of labour between people: first there are the compounds and the pleeblands, then within the compound the 'words' and 'numbers' people, and finally Crake's own invention, the Paradice Dome which is a compound within a compound (DiMarco 2004: 177-179). DiMarco (2004: 178) calls this “[p]ower through enclosure”, the idea that there are 'wild' areas and 'civilized' areas and that it is within the civilized, metropolitan centres that the 'work' of the homo faber takes place. The problem, of course, is that the work of the compounds, although marketable, is hardly ethical or desirable or even necessary, and as we get to the post-apocalyptic part, we come to realize they are dangerous (such as the human-eating Pigoons). Interestingly, DiMarco seems to think Crake engineered the bio-plague for profit (DiMarco 2004: 183), and that seeing it as anything else (such as 'culture' work) would be a misunderstanding. This probably explains why DiMarco glosses over what Bouson called the 'assisted suicide' of Crake by Jimmy in the end, giving only this very odd interpretation of events: “[Jimmy] cannot allow her—or Crake—to re-enter Paradice in their known human existence, for both have “sinned” against the potential goodness of humanity. So he shuts the doors on them both and stands alone in Paradice.” (DiMarco 2004: 187). Although this fits with the general neo-Marxist, anti-capitalist reading of DiMarco, I personally think it stereotypes Crake's character too much: Oryx and Crake may be an exercise in the evident, but it would be a mistake to think the characters are mere archetypes.

DiMarco ends with an analysis of Jimmy's character, who according to her “has the ability to be compassionate and ethical, to see himself as embedded within the world as opposed to separate or above it” (DiMarco 2004: 187-188), and who has a closer relationship with nature and the living other (e.g. animals, plants): this is curiously reminiscent of God's Gardeners that we are introduced to in The Year of the Flood, although DiMarco obviously could not have read that book at the time of her writing this article. Some good points are made regarding Jimmy's character: despite all of his vices, what comes through ultimately is a likeable and ethical person who, unfortunately, did not have the same backbone has his mother had in rejecting the compound, homo faber world. When that world collapses, and we are left with the post-catastrophe world, Jimmy suddenly comes closer to the animal laborens, working only to live. “As he journeys toward Paradice it is as though he moves backward through history, tending to the reality that consumption for physical and emotional sustenance and survival is potentially separate from production for economic gain.” (DiMarco 2004: 190). The final part of DiMarco's article deals with the choice Jimmy is left with at the very end: should he hide from, attack, or interact with the other three human survivors he comes across? And if he chooses to interact, what kind of society will they rebuild? Will they follow in the footsteps of homo faber and instrumental philosophy, thus restarting the whole escapade, will they entirely abandon homo faber and find “some new way of community building and caring for one another” (DiMarco 2004: 194) or will there be something in between?

Way to go asking the question post-apocalyptic literature has been asking since the beginning!

DiMarco, Danette. 2004. “Paradice Lost, Paradise Regained: homo faber and the Makings of a New Beginning in Oryx and Crake”. In Papers on Language & Literature; Spring2005, Vol. 41 Issue 2: 170-195.

Friday, 17 September 2010

““It’s Game Over Forever”: Atwood’s Satiric Vision of a Bioengineered Posthuman Future in Oryx and Crake” by JB Bouson.

I recently read an interesting article by one Bouson, JB (whose gender I've yet to determine, but I'm leaning towards a she), and thought I'd jot down its contents before I forget.

The article is in regards to Oryx and Crake, in particular its vision of our very own bioengineered future. Bouson calls it a 'dystopian' novel, Atwood herself prefers 'speculative fiction', but I am not budging my label of 'post-apocalyptic'. The first point Bouson makes is “the division between the humanities and the sciences through the stories of her two male characters, Jimmy and Crake” (Bouson 2004: 140): aside from marketing jingles, Atwood's future seems to have no use for “word” people at all, focusing solely on “numbers” people like Crake. This, it seems, is at the centre of Atwood's dystopian vision: a world where scientists hold all the power and the liberal arts have become “little more than worthless pastimes” (Bouson 2004: 144) is also a world without ethics. The most ethical, altruistic scientist we find in this whole novel is probably Crake, and his solution is very much in character, but simultaneously very much not a solution at all: “in a strange twist on the idea of scientific imperialism, uses science not to conquer the natural world but to control human nature by creating his bioengineered and environmentally friendly hominids, the Crakers, as a replacement for humanity” (Bouson 2004: 141). Crake, then, represents the “the 'postmodern' scientific mindset that openly flouts the 'laws' of nature posited by modern science and works to collapse boundaries among species” (Bouson 2004: 145). However, it is exactly in the 'Crakers' that Crake fails: he is unable to genetically remove the desire to sing and dance, for curiosity, and ultimately for symbolic thinking of the kind that leads them to regard Crake as a God, Oryx as a Goddess, and Snowman/Jimmy as their prophet.

In other words, despite their set of strange characteristics, the 'Crakers' are human in all the important aspects. Likewise, the last apparent human survivor is a “words” person, someone who, in what Bouson terms the “post-catastrophe” world, is constantly plagued by words and wordplay, by clichéd bits and pieces of self-help books and whatnot. “If Atwood uses the clichéd language and borrowed speech that runs through Snowman’s mind to discredit her character, she also works to redeem him, in part, by revealing his reverence for art and language.” (Bouson 2004: 152). After civilization ends, as Jimmy notes, all that remain are the words, the stories, the legends: and these he is, during the whole course of the novel, passing on to the Crakers. The saving grace, then, of humanity, and the ultimate discrediting of the Crakean view of life.

Bouson, J. Brooks. 2004. ““It’s Game Over Forever”: Atwood’s Satiric Vision of a Bioengineered Posthuman Future in Oryx and Crake”. In The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 2004 39: 139: 139-156. Available: DOI: 10.1177/0021989404047051.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

On The Beach

Nevil Shute's On the beach (1957) is different. Very different. Perhaps the world it portrayed – one where Australia (and indeed the whole southern hemisphere) has narrowly escaped nuclear annihilation, only to succumb months later to the radioactive winds blowing in from the northern hemisphere – is what makes it so different. On the beach is post-apocalyptic in every sense of the word, except for the fact that the society described (mainly Australia) is in no way descending into barbarism and chaos: rather they are accepting of their fate, to various degrees, and life goes on to the very end. T.S Eliot's famous quote, which also adorns the title page is apt: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper”.

It made me think of the ad-hoc difference made between “plot” and “setting”, as if these two things were somehow divisible: the plot was good but the setting boring, or the setting was compelling and interesting but the plot was bland. It seems to me that what makes post-apocalyptic novels stand out is that the setting very often IS the plot. As I wrote in my post on the chronotope, the post-apocalyptic world is one that is re-discovered, as in a travelogue, and no-one would demand a travelogue to have a plot beyond the descriptive: “I came from here and went there and saw this”. In On the beach, the setting is one of a still-living and breathing Australia waiting for the inevitable, together with the submerged scouting trips by the last operational US submarine Scorpion all along the United States coastline which allows for a glance into what will soon be true in all the world.

The plot then, naturally, is 'merely' the lives, thoughts and feelings of those still alive to witness this – in particular the burgeoning but never consummated love affair between Commander Dwight Towers and Moira Davidsson, Peter Holmes and his slightly delusional wife and their newborn baby daughter Jennifer, and the egghead John Osbourne with his Ferrari and newfound passion for racing. Each tells a slightly different and quite compelling version of how to cope with the whimpering end of the world. Perhaps the only thing marring this setting and plot is the hunch I have that radiation would not work in the way Shute describes it, notwithstanding any potential 'cobalt' bombs used – the lethal fallout would have rained down and disappeared long before reaching Australia, and even if not it would have been rendered mostly harmless in 15 months time. The real problems, it seems to me, would be the unimaginable social turmoil brought on by such a war, the collapse of industry and most probable the inevitable famine and unstoppable mass of refugees from the areas of conflict. Although Shute addresses the issue of petroleum no longer being available, in the book it is truly a minor problem: trains and electric-powered trams, together with bikes and horse-drawn carriages can apparently completely replace fuel driven transport with nary a hitch. Likewise, until the very, very end (as in a few days until the radiation arrives), there is no sign of normal day-to-day business changing at all: people still show up at work, buy and sell things, plan their gardens and otherwise go about their lives, despite (or perhaps because of) the inevitability of their demise. It's a testament to Shute's skill as a novelist that he manages to pull it off.

Because he does, he really does. On the beach is a quiet, contemplative, incredibly solemn view of the post-nuclear holocaust. We are left with the image of empty houses in the morning air, completely untouched, bathed in the deadly, invisible and incomprehensible new threat to all life on earth that had been unleashed just slightly more than a decade before Shute's book was published. A new kind of sublime for our age, the nuclear sublime.

Of course, the nuclear sublime is now receding, and what comes next...well...that'll be for my thesis to find out, maybe?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Formulating a research question

“Usually, people wait for things to occur before trying to describe them. (Futurology has never been a very respectable field of inquiry). But since we cannot afford under any circumstances to let a holocaust occur, we are forced in this one case to become the historians of the future – to chronicle and commit to memory an event that we have never experienced and must never experience.”

(Schell 1982: 21)

When I explained to the professor in charge of the pro gradu seminar the topic of my thesis, he asked incredulously: “POST-apocalyptic fiction? Has the apocalypse already occurred?” Upon which I informed him it was, happily, science fiction I was going to write about.

This does however pose a problem, as Jonathan Schell also observed in his seminal The Fate of the Earth (1982), a book concerning the ever-looming threat of nuclear war of his time. I am supposed to produce an academic, perhaps even scientific text concerning events which have not, and hopefully never will occur. Where to start? How to approach the topic, the books, the narrative? For this, the good people at our department have provided us with the tools to formulate a or several research questions, questions that our texts should attempt to answer. I am now going to try to spell out at least a few such questions, around which I can work.

The questions need to be very carefully formulated, obviously. First of all, they need to be open ended: if they can be answered “yes” or “no”, they are no good. Wh-questions is key. Secondly, they need to be non-trivial: of interest to a larger community (whether the academic one, or the world in general) as well as avoid presupposing the answer in itself. Third, it needs to be empirically answerable from the available data. Obviously the key to all scientific discourse; in this case, obviously, the 'empirical data' must be the novels, rather than actual physical events (therefore, the question too must pertain to the novels, rather than an non-existent objective 'apocalypse' or 'post-apocalypse'). Finally, it must be motivated by a hypothesis: however open-ended the question is, and however much it avoids presuppositions, there is no point in formulating a question if one has no idea of what one is looking for.

A tall order, I'd say.

Nonetheless, these questions (I do not think I can manage with just one) will form the basis of my thesis, and will therefore need to be carefully thought out – even if they are amended later. I am currently considering writing about Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things (1987) and potentially Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003). As support I have quite a number of other post-apocalyptic novels, including Nation's Survivors, Matheson's I am Legend, Shute's On the beach, Mary Shelley's The Last Man and Christopher's Death of Grass. I have also recently acquired Mike Ashley's (ed.) very recent Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF (2010), which contains a slew of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic short stories and novellas which, no doubt, can be of some use to me as well. But the initial trio, with a particular emphasis on McCarthy, are my main focus.

In the questions below I have used just McCarthy since, frankly, it's too much to write something like “Auster, Atwood and McCarthy in their respective works” all the time.

How does Cormac McCarthy's The Road fit into the context and historical progression, if any, of post-apocalyptic science fiction of the last four decades (1970-2010)?

What are the narrative/rhetorical/symbolic etc strategies that McCarthy utilizes in The Road in order to create the fiction of a believable post-apocalyptic world?

How does post-apocalyptic fiction mesh with the idea of Lyotard's meta- or master narrative, in particular considering McCarthy's The Road, Auster's In the Country of Last Things and Atwood's Oryx and Crake?

The third question would enter into the wonderful world of post-modern theory, although that might just be fun, really. Combined, all three questions would create a tripartite thesis, in which I place the novel(s) in a historical context (after defining what 'post-apocalyptic' means), perform a deep reading of its/their actual content, and then finally apply a piece of postmodern theory on them to see if they sink or swim (i.e., I enter, briefly, into the possibility of post-postmodernism, and whether or not these novels might apply).

This could work.

Edit: Since writing this, I have put some more thought into it, and changed my last (and most important) question to be something like:

In what way(s), if any, are McCarthy's, Atwood's and Auster's post-apocalyptic tales pushing the boundaries of (post-apocalyptic) (science) fiction: have they entered into the realm of the post-postmodern?

I'm digging my own grave here, of course, with trying to define 'post-postmodern', but I'd still like to try!

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1986. The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge. University of Manchester: Manchester.

Schell, Jonathan. 1982. The Fate of the Earth. Jonathan Cape: London.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Art of the Evident

Margaret Atwood's two recent forays into the world of post-apocalyptic/dystopian literature is, I think, a successful one. Although I would say that something in the environs of 80% of both novels concern the dystopian, near-future world destined to destroy itself, the apocalypse itself (and the post-apocalypse) is such an important event that everything else in the novels is informed by it (meaning I can discuss them as specifically 'post-apocalyptic' novels).

The below is fantastically spoilerific, and the novels themselves quite good, so I really, really recommend not reading this unless you enjoy spoiling the story.

Oryx and Crake (2007) is the first novel in the series. It begins quite powerfully, describing all the necessary elements of Atwood's fantastical world in a single chapter: a man calling himself Snowman lives in a tree on the scraps of yesterday, his only companions odd, created humans ('Crakers') to whom he functions as a sort of prophet or demi-god. We are given an idea of the pre-apocalyptic world first through the brand/company names: BlyssPluss, ChickieNobs, AnooYoo, HelthWyzer, HappiCuppa, and so on. A hyper-consumerist-capitalist society, in other words. We also learn, very soon, that almost all natural species of our world have long gone extinct, replaced by lab-grown gene splices, including a particularly nasty species of giant pig, called a Pigoon – by virtue of being like a balloon in size. Visible from the beach, the towers of some city that was caught in the rising waters of global warming is now only home to sea birds. The environment is harsh, there are daily storms and the sun's rays are more harmful than not, suggesting a hole in the ozone layer. A hyper-consumerist-capitalist, morally bankrupt, god-complexed society. If it weren't for the abject misery of the Snowman, the reader is probably already happy that the old was swept away.

The story then turns to the Snowman's childhood – or, more precisely, Jimmy's childhood. It is told in a precognitive manner, with constant references to the future, which gives it an almost breathless feeling. Now we are truly immersed into the dystopian, pre-apocalyptic world of Atwood's. Jimmy is a 'compound brat', a child living within the safety and comfort of corporate-run compounds, surrounded by walls and safeguarded by the sinister CorpSeCorps (yes, “Corpse Corps” - the art of the evident in action). Jimmy's father is involved in the creation of the Pigoons, as well as many other gene-spliced animals, including Jimmy's own rakunk (raccoon-skunk) he names Killer. His mother, on the other hand, seems to have once been a top scientist, but now spends most of her time at home smoking too much and generally not living up to the American Dream. She is a subversive, a person who has realized the utter corruptness of the system, and has decided to escape it (which she eventually does, an act that haunts Jimmy for almost the rest of his life).

Contrasted with the compounds are the “pleeblands” - where regular people live, except that it is assumed the pleebs are filled with diseases, poverty and crime (and nothing in either book seems to suggest otherwise). The pleebs – once again, she couldn't be more obvious in her naming – are us, the rabid consumers who fund the whole corporate horror culture, swallow their slogans whole, and generally act exactly like 'they' want us to act. To drive the point home as cleanly as possible, Atwood has replaced the government, the army, the police; everything, with the CorpSeCorps (Corporate Security Corporation; alternatively Corps as in the Marine Corps). Ostensibly, they are there to protect the corporations as a private security contractor, but in reality they control everything in the same way Big Brother controlled everything in 1984: through violence and surveillance.

Using classic storytelling techniques, Atwood tells two tales at the same time (the post- and the pre-apocalyptic ones), with the same protagonist. As time goes on, the two timelines close in, and soon we are reading about how Jimmy survived the man-made apocalypse, rescued the 'Crakers', and ended up naked and alone in a tree by the beach. The two characters in the title, Oryx and Crake, are there for a reason: Jimmy is, after all, just the eyes, ears and mouth of the reader-author, since he is mostly incapable of actually doing anything, instead merely observing and following the flow. Crake is his one and only friend, a boy-genius who grows up with an intense dislike for the human race as a whole and a desire to, in short, replace it with a wholly new one. These are the Crakers that he creates, with a long range of characteristics, habits and so on that would, in his eyes, eliminate the destructive tendencies in human nature (the most oft-cited example of these changes being seasonal mating, coupled with a 'group sex' kind of tradition in which there can be no obvious father, and therefore no obvious family units). Sex is also the way he goes about ending the human race, by creating a pill called “BlyssPluss”, a sort of super-viagra that is apparently irresistible to any who try it. He spreads it across the whole world, and they begin the pandemic which in a few short weeks wipes out almost everything and everyone. Oryx, on the other hand, is the one person who can make Jimmy act (through his love for her), which he does, at the very end when he kills Crake for killing her. It may be noted that it was never really explained why things went down the way they did in the end, but perhaps Crake had it planned all along: kill her, have Jimmy kill him, then have Jimmy lead the Crakers to safety, and then let Jimmy die (since the Snowman, although Abominable, is also quite a hopeless survivalist).

The second novel, The Year of the Flood, concern a different, but interconnected set of people in the same world – in the same city even – as Jimmy, Crake and Oryx. The two main characters, Toby and Ren, are both members of a sect called God's Gardeners, who were also mentioned in Oryx and Crake. The Gardeners believe in the imminent coming of the Waterless Flood, which will wipe away all but the faithful. Their belief is a fascinating mix of new age eco-green thinking and modern-day scientific Christianity, and their thoughts take almost complete control over the characters in the novel: each chapter, more or less, begins with “The Gardeners used to say...” or “Adam One used to say...” (Adam One being the leader of the sect). Although there are plenty of rather frightening aspects to the cult, as there must be, it does seem like Adam One, the founder and leader, really is as sincere as he appears to be. Once again, the novel mostly concerns itself with the childhood and adulthood of the characters involved, including B(Ren)da, the childhood sweetheart of Jimmy, but this time the past and the present (pre- and post-apocalypse) seem to come together much more strongly. The children they grew up with return as adults, the survival skills they learnt are put to use, their creeds, holy days and traditions are used as a basis of a new culture, and their old enemies still stalk the new wilderness. It may be noted that Oryx and Crake ended in a cliffhanger, a cliffhanger that is finally resolved in The Year of the Flood, in quite a masterful manner. Atwood also goes deeper into the world she created, seeing as all her characters are now pleebrats instead of compound children. The pleebs, it seems, really are as dangerous and inhospitable as the people in the compounds believe, unless you find yourself inside a corporate stronghold of some kind, which both Toby and Ren do. I do not believe this novel can be read without first reading Oryx and Crake (or reading it afterwards – either way, both are needed for the full picture) – there are plenty of events, characters and groupings that only really make sense after reading both novels.

I called this essay (post?) 'The Art of the Evident', because that is the strongest impression I got from reading Atwood's work. From the fanciful product names to the endless lists of never-explained-but-clearly-immoral jargon, Atwood's dystopia is a frightfully obvious vision of all that can and will go wrong in the world if we allow it to continue in its current downward spiral. Everything she does or writes just piles it on higher. Instead of real leather, they have 'fleather'. Instead of real hair, they have 'Mo'Hair', the result of a gene-spliced lamb of some kind. Instead of animal meat, they have soy-everything. Except, of course, the ones who do want 'animal protein', who will eat endangered species to get it – or why not the ones who are so desperate for an animal protein burger they'll buy a SecretBurger (the 'secret' meat being so ridiculously thinly veiled that it's not even a veil, really). The HappiCuppa franchise is really just Starbucks, except even nastier on the rainforests (supposedly). HelthWyzer first makes you sick with their pills, and then make tons of money off the treatment. ChickieNobs are chicken muscles grown on sticks – 'no brain, no pain', although that too might just be marketing rather than truth. There are religious groups like the “Known Fruits” or the “PetroBaptists” which consists of, well... Hell. A name like “Petrobaptist” is pretty much about as in-your-face as you can get! It is all very, very 1984, except of course it has been updated to 2012-standards instead. The final obvious thing is of course that it was all coming to an end -anyway-, even without Crake's specifically engineered plague: generally when we read a contemporary post-apocalypse, the end seems neither inevitable nor desirable (since we live in it), whereas in Atwood's novel, it is both.

I would not claim post-apocalyptic fiction is subtle most of the time. You take an inconceivably terrible event of some kind, which brings an end to the-world-as-we-know-it, and then you putter about the aftermath, bringing to fore this or that aspect of the world we left behind (often discussing in length the causes of the apocalypse and ways to prevent it). Survivors, as I explained in an earlier post, is particularly flagrant about this, but all post-apocalyptic works enjoy their own special brand of pathos. This is probably why we like reading them, after all! Atwood, however, takes this lack of subtlety to a new level. She creates a whole world, run by short-sighted idiots, and then she kills it through the self-same methods that allowed said idiots to run it. She does it through amazingly skilled prose, believable characters, fantasy-author level and beyond world building (this is meant as a compliment), and a great storyline. Make no mistake, they're eminently readable and enjoyable books.

But they are also pastiches. There is a certain point up to which you may write about evil corporations taking over the world before it becomes vaguely ludicrous (that point is crossed when they're called “Corpse Corps”). The horror/wonder of genetic modification can be discussed up to a certain extent, and then it just crosses over into “what the hell” land (Lamb-Lion splices for religious purposes is pretty much up there). The disparity between the rich and the poor, the well-educated and the “plebs” can be discussed at some length, but there has to be some leeway for regular, normal people as well (this point is crossed when every single feature of the 'pleeblands' is described as if from the eyes of someone who's watched 24/7 news coverage of gang warfare in the inner city and has extrapolated this to encompass everything that is not within a compound). Atwood's Earth is a living, breathing world, teetering on the edge of oblivion, and the fact she managed to pull that off is a testament to her skill as a writer. That notwithstanding, it ends up reading like a Kilgore Trout story delivered straight (or, as if Kilgore Trout was suddenly given the ability to write good prose, instead of just coming up with good ideas). Kilgore Trout, of course, being Kurt Vonnegut's famous science fiction writer, who in turn is modelled after Theodore Sturgeon.

I'm not so sure, though, that it is a pastiche of a post-apocalyptic novel. In fact, the post-apocalypse is every bit as serious and gritty as any other described. This pastiche/parody/over-the-topness is more a feature of the pre-apocalyptic world, her dystopian vision. Atwood's book asks us to consider the environment, consumerism, endangered species and genetic modification, and gives us a hypothetical and somewhat exaggerated extrapolation of what might happen if we continue following the trends she's perceived in the world. I wonder if this may be that can be termed a post-post modern book as well, and if it is in that case one of the first post-post modern works of post-apocalyptic fiction (I'd love to say post-post apocalyptic, but that might be reserved for book three ;). A fascinating, if very different, breed of books, nonetheless.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A Slew of Post-Apocalyptic Classics

Recently, I have caught up on my post-apocalyptic novel reading, and have finished a number of old classics as well as more recent works in the genre, and thought I might as well write down my most immediate impressions of them, and how they 'handle' the whole concept of the post-apocalyptic. What makes many of these different from the traditional 'nuclear apocalypse' is of course that only one of them (A Canticle for Leibowitz) in fact concerns itself with that particular Armageddon scenario.

Without further ado, here are the novels (oh, and: huge spoiler alert, so don't read unless you want to):

Survivors by Terry Nation (1976)

This is the book that inspired the eponymous TV-series (according to the inside flap – Wikipedia says the novel was written based on the series; chicken and the egg anyone?), which I haven't seen but which is without a doubt very good. The novel itself, I must say, is not perhaps my idea of high literature, even when compared to some of the other science fiction novels in the genre (notably The Death of Grass). In Survivors, almost everyone is wiped out suddenly by what is essentially the Black Death, except the survivors simply label it “the 'Death'” - a flu-like disease which, after an initial six day incubation period very swiftly leads to the demise of 99.99% (or some such ridiculous number quoted by one of the doctors) of the infected. The few thousands remaining must survive on scavenging and, eventually, rediscover agriculture and toolmaking. A group mentality is born, where some simply band together to farm, whereas others band together to loot, or to rule over the farmers – essentially returning to a feudal type society where a strong-armed baron rules over hamlets or individual farmhouses. Finally, in a move reminiscent of The Last Man, Abby and her group decide that the British winters simply cannot sustain life, and they decide to move south towards the 'cradle of civilization' where winters are milder and life less harsh.

What can be said of the book? It is, I believe, a case of classic science fiction extrapolation almost getting out of hand. Through a series of increasingly unlikely encounters, we the readers are introduced a varying bunch of factions formed directly after the apocalypse. Early on, for instance, Abby meets the founding members of the National Unity Force, which eventually turns into a classic robber baron-type organization, levying taxes, laying claim to loot, and even imposing conscription on those it arbitrarily considers to be within its jurisdiction. In another encounter, we are given a brief look at a man named Garland, the fourth son of an earl, and a textbook example of a 19th century adventurer, up until then a relic. Capable, tough, forever gallant and above all relishing every moment of the post-apocalypse, he's either a sociopath or just someone who realizes he's found his niche at last. Garland wishes to reclaim his family's mansion and rule those around like a benevolent dictator, and is participating in a sort of guerilla/Robin Hood campaign against the 'squatters' who have taken up residence there to do so. Although the only real action hero in the novel, Garland is killed off-stage from something as unheroic as a gangrenous wound. Various other encounters also give us a glimpse into Nation's perceived version of post-apocalyptic Britain, including a travelling band of scavenger-traders, operating out of Birmingham, which attempted to reinstate the gold standard, and a group of boatsmen near Dover that ferry the willing across the channel to France in return for food and petrol (although these might very well have been swindlers).

The philosophical side of the apocalypse is also explored, almost immediately and with about as much subtlety as the political/social landscape mapped above. The main philosophy, which is, Abby's view that the survivors cannot rely on scavenging and using up the materials of the old world, but must rather endeavour to rediscover old techniques, both for farming and for making tools and such, is contrasted with the short-term goals of looters and tough guys like the NUF, who are content with living off the remnants all around. The decision for the exodus to France, for instance, is prompted by Abby's realization that they simply haven't the time or manpower to do anything except plant the bare minimum for survival every year – which will eventually lead to their tools and equipment breaking down, without them ever having had the time to relearn how to make them. The unsubtle criticism of modern day man's ineptness is all around, including an early encounter with an older professor sporting a hearing aid with only two more batteries, who asked Abby if she knew how to make something as relatively simple as a candle or a glass decanter.

In short, Survivors is a survivalist fantasy first and foremost, concerned with the rediscovery of 'old' skills and a gradual return to a simpler, agrarian society, which is nonetheless frustrated by the ambitions of men with guns wishing to wage war (a word often thrown around, both regarding the NUF and Garland's skirmishes). Although it is bleak, it is never hopeless, especially as the core group around Abby shows itself to be uniformly made out of 'good guys' (with the possible exception of Tom Price). Nation only scratches the surface of the psychological and emotional side of things, preferring to stick solely to practical topics – perhaps a good way of going about it for a TV series, where the actors and the director can provide an emotional outlet, rather than the text itself. Unfortunately though, although there is plenty of drama and excitement, the novel reads more like a textbook on practical post-apocalyptic survival than as a story about humanity struggling to cope (socially, psychologically) with its new surroundings.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)

This is essentially a long short story, or a novella, or some other such appellation, seeing as it's not a very big work. I wanted to jot down my thoughts on it right after Survivors, since much like Nation's novel, this one too is set in Britain. Christopher's apocalypse comes in the form of a virus that specifically targets cereals – wheat, grain, rice. Much like in Survivors, the pre-apocalypse is a time of propaganda and attempts to avoid widespread panic, but the main characters (John Custance, Roger Buckley and gunshop-owner Pirrie with families) soon realize where things are going: very soon, food stores will run dry, and life will become a desperate struggle to find food. Unlike Survivors, however, there is no 'Death' on a massive scale: everyone is at least initially still alive. Since we can't have a post-apocalyptic survival tale featuring millions of people walking the roads, Christopher solves the 'problem of too many people' by having the government threaten to launch nuclear bombs on all major cities to curtail the population (which, I believe, does not ultimately happen). In a curious twist, it is in fact these hordes of soon-to-be ravenous people who are the main 'threat' in the novel, and essentially what Custance and his band are pre-emptively escaping. Of course, they're not the only who got that the idea, and they soon meet all the other roving gangs in anarchy-stricken Britain. Their goal is an isolated and easily defensible plot of farmland, set between a rapidly coursing river and unassailable mountains, which is tended by John's brother. On the way they pick up some survivors, leave others behind, kill to defend themselves and kill to eat and above all begin to lose most layers of basic human decency in a cavalcade of “it was us or them” justifications.

The story itself is a lot more contained than Survivors, in that it only details a single journey across the land, rather than years of agriculture, childbirth etc., which might be one reason for it being more compelling as well. But the main reason, perhaps, why The Death of Grass is so captivating lies in the fact that our heroes aren't the good guys. They are, in fact, looters. They are, in fact, a band of armed men who will do whatever it takes to survive – and not only that, they will also justify it. In the end, it is revealed that John's brother has (predictably) already found a likeminded group, who have already moved in and fortified the farm. The brother is willing to let John and his family enter, on the condition the rest of John's band is left outside. Rather than keeping with filial loyalty, John doublecrosses and kills his brother and the gang he lives with, and moves in in his stead. 'It was us or them'. Much of this 'evil' influence comes from Pirrie, who is in many ways a sociopath of the Garland type – a person who relishes in the newfound freedom of the post-apocalypse, except he does not hold on to any old chivalric ideals. Instead, he kills his hateful wife the first chance he gets, and then 'claims' a younger girl for his own at a later point. Yet his usefulness and skill with the rifle makes him indispensable. Despite allowing all of this to happen (or in some cases making it happen), the reader cannot help but root for Custance and his band. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the apocalypse: where else is the mentality of eat or be eaten clearer than when it comes to the bare necessity of procuring food? Any other type of apocalypse would, first of all, have killed off most of the populace, and second of all, left traditional food crops unscathed – in this version, all that remains are potatoes and too many mouths to feed.

Philosophically, the apocalypse (much like Survivors) brings out old, nasty traditions. The women are relegated to second-tier citizens almostinstantly, and in some cases (as detailed above) literally become goods that can be claimed. The men, on the other hand, very quickly place themselves into a pecking order, with John Custance and Pirrie on top. In one memorable scene, they meet another group of armed men, and John suggests they team up for security. The leader of the other pack, however, wishes to stay top dog – and Pirrie shoots him down with no remorse. Afterwards, all the men of the other group pile in to shake hands with John, and almost immediately begin calling him “Mr. Custance” - only a step below 'Lord' or 'Sir'. This theme of leadership is one the two novels share, and the implication seems to be that as long as the chosen leader is strong, the group will thrive. Although John initially thinks of his role as leader as only temporary, by the time they gain their stronghold, he is sure that his children will become rulers after him, in an unprecedented return to old system of inheritance.

The Death of Grass is not a survivalist book in the same way as Nations' novel, as it does not concern itself with the truly long term, or with any organizations or the like that might form. Rather it is an exploration of exactly how swiftly and ruthlessly 'civilized behaviour' evaporates in the face of the apocalypse, and of the elements that replace it: tribalism, nepotism, survival of the fittest. Refreshingly, our heroes aren't the 'good guys' who watch as others devolve, but rather just a group of survivors among others, looking out for their own. The text is minimalistic, and much is left to the reader's imagination, but in my view it works very well. It is terse and sometimes terrifying, and highly recommended.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

For once a novel wherein I've watched a movie adaptation (I say 'a' since there are many) before reading the book (or short story). The movie in question was the recent Will Smith flick, and I can honestly say that although the movie was a beautiful rendition of post-apocalyptic, post-human New York, it didn't really have anything to do with Matheson's story.

In I Am Legend, the world has inexplicably been taken over by what appears to be vampires, the living dead. Blood-drinking, repelled by garlic, religious symbols and their own mirror image, and slain by stabbing a stake through their heart or by exposing them to sunlight, they at first truly appear to be the supernatural. Robert Neville believes himself to be the last survivor, and makes do as well as he can in his fortified house, which every night comes under siege by his old neighbours and friends. His life is carefully timetabled, and he fills the daylight hours with equal measures of vampire-killing and scavenging, or doing other tasks around the house, such as securing every opening with garlic. He is particularly tormented, for some reason, by the women, and is apparently of a rather horny disposition, and sleeps poorly at night with the aid of too much alcohol and ear plugs. At first, Neville appears rather self-destructive, breaking things in frustration, sometimes coming close to exposing himself or his home to the vampires. Over time, we are given glimpses into his past, the progress of the disease and the events leading up to his isolation. And Neville also gives himself a reason for existence: finding out what exactly the disease is all about.

This is a very effective technique for a novel of this type, where we only have a single protagonist to worry about, and none other he can interact with (until the end stages of the book). His frustrations and his discoveries slowly make the picture clearer. He finds the bacillus that causes the change, and figures out how it functions. He realizes that some things (such as garlic and sunlight) are (sometimes lethal) allergic reactions, whereas others (such as mirrors and crosses) are merely strong psychosomatic ones. He alsofigures out where the bacillus came from: a result of radioactive mutation, spread through ubiquitous 'dust storms', which in turn are the result of some other, more mysterious calamity suffered earlier (perhaps a nuclear war – referred to as the “bombings” (p.45) that are causing said dust storms). In a way, then, the apocalypse of the vampire plague was caused by human hand as well, if nothing else due to the (apparently global) dust storms. He places a great emphasis on the fact that the whole 'vampire' myth is ultimately only a result of deranged minds, religious fervour and the yellow press.

The one thing Neville does not figure, despite his research, is that some might not be as badly affected as others. The great end twist, which also explains thename of the novel, is that the 'living', non-crazed vampires have found a way to live with the disease, and eventually even thrive (and send a spy, Ruth, to find out more about him). Neville, as the sole surviving 'human', has become a sort of terrifying legend to these people – a day-time hunter who can kill any of them at any time, a terrible scourge upon them possessing mystical powers (i.e., he has become a 'vampire' to the vampires). He is, finally, executed for his 'crimes', albeit these crimes were committed without him being aware of it (although he does become a surprisingly dispassionate person by the end of the novel).

In this novel, like in the two previous ones, the agent causing the apocalypse is not exactly a result of human action, although the connection between the 'bombings' and the mutated bacillus is a fascinating one. The only other thing connecting this to the other novels I've read is that Neville, too, survives on scavenging – except he never has a thought to agriculture, since he is only one man, and has more than enough food to get by. Instead of fear of looters or gangs, he simply fears the monsters gathering outside his door every night. He does worry about his belongings – his generator, for instance – but not that they are stolen, only broken. Although there are several aspects of survivalism in his day-to-day life, Neville is ultimately never in any real danger of the elements. Rather, it is the day-night cycle that controls his life, and which also forces him to stay at one place (although he, unlike his Will Smith movie-self, never seemed to make any particular effort to contact any other potential survivors).

What then is the philosophy of this one? It is a character study, for sure – how does a single man survive in a world surrounded by sub-human monsters? There are the various aspirations and desires of the main protagonist, above all the will to explain the end of the world. That will appeased, Neville seems to be at some kind of peace; until Ruth shatters that. It seems though that even after Ruth's appearance, he still didn't have any desire to truly understand the new vampiric society that had appeared unbeknownst to him. As the title of the book proclaims, he has become a legend, relic of old times, left behind and, finally, exterminated. That, in addition to the bombing-induced dust storms, with a healthy dose of survivalism, seems to be what I Am Legend brings to the table of post-apocalyptic discourse.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)

This one is perhaps the most difficult of the bunch to categorize and to discuss, since it does not only concern itself about the end of the world and the immediate aftermath, but rather details the post-'Flame Deluge' world's slow and steady rise from the primitive 'darkness' directly following the apocalypse all the way to a rediscovery of atomic energy and the eventual re-destruction of the world. This is all seen through a succession of abbots for the (catholic) monastery dedicated to St. Leibowitz – a saint whose purpose in life was to safeguard the secrets of the old world until the new would be capable of learning from them again.

Although the subject matter here is serious enough, and the events throughout are likewise dire, Miller never lets go of his humorous side. From the description of Brother Francis and his fear of the great demons of Fallout, to the much later domne fighting with his electronic dictation machine and failing miserably, it's hard to read through the whole book without laughing. Considering post-apocalyptic novels tend to lean towards the sad and depressing, it was a bit of a change. That, and survivalism is never a question in this story. The monks of St. Leibowitz go through good times and bad, but as monks, they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves in a manner all the white-collar British middle class men and women of previous books have been entirely unable to do. That, and the story only actually picks up centuries after the Flame Deluge, when most of the old world has been reduced to rubble and legend.

My edition (Orbit, printed 2009) has a cover picture which encapsulates the central tenet of the Order of St. Leibowitz – both its positive and negative sides. The picture is of a shopping list – “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels – bring home for Emma” - except that the P has been beautifully illustrated in the manner of old religious manuscripts, and the rest of the text is written in fancy Gothic lettering. In other words, what the monks do is preserve everything from the old days, often by making endless and meticulous copies of it, without actually understanding the importance or relative unimportance of the texts. In one instance, a brother makes a gilded, illustrated, beautiful copy of a blueprint, retaining the lines and 'squiggles' of the original but adding all the trappings of a medieval manuscript to its margins and wherever he felt it was permissible. The brother, of course, had no idea what the blueprint was actually of, or even what it had been used for, or the fact that the original print as it was was a lot more readable and usable than his illustrated copy. The fact that, when later on a mission to bring both the copy and the original to New Rome, he is robbed, the robbers only take the copy rather than the original points out how skewed the concept of what is valuable and what is not has become.

However, eventually the value of the monk's hoard of knowledge does become apparent, and their musty old libraries are finally visited by the learned men of the new renaissance. Despite some tensions, the purpose of the monks of St. Leibowitz is actually realized, and the narrative shifts to a present-day or perhaps near-future scenario (or far future, perhaps, for Miller). Suddenly, there is the threat of nuclear war again, and soon enough it does come to pass – the total annihilation of the human race once again. This time, however, the church has sent out a space ship to a colony in the stars, containing the whole Memorabilia of the Leibowitzian monks – and thus ensuring the continuation of their mission.

The book goes through too many characters and events and epochs for me to succinctly state what the philosophy of the novel is, aside from what I've discussed above. Miller briefly describes the formation of new kingdoms and realms, of new wars and warlords and bids for power, of religious crises and a technological renaissance. One might ask if it's really a good idea to preserve past knowledge, especially if it's just going to lead to a repeat of the original mistakes. Then again, the monks also preserved the knowledge of the Flame Deluge and warned against that, yet no-one took heed. In other words, a fairly pessimistic outlook. The most powerful image the book leaves is that of a brotherhood of monks keeping the old knowledge alive forever and ever, whether or not they know what it once was for. It is, ultimately, impossible not to sympathize with their task, and hope that some day the circle can be broken.

The circle, incidentally, is something that can no longer exist in modern post-apocalyptic literature, at least not if the writer is astute enough – something I will comment on in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. The reason is simple: fossil fuels. But that is not something one can assume Miller would have thought of back in 1959.

I will continue with Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood in a separate post, and possibly also discuss In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster and finally Cormac McCarthy's The Road, since I have a feeling these might be the central novels around which I will concentrate my thesis.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Towards a Post-Apocalyptic Chronotope – An introduction

Mikhail Bakhtin, the famous Russian formalist, was the one who introduced the concept of the chronotope, or “time-space”, in an essay titled “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel – Notes towards a historical poetics” (1975):

"In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope."

(Bakhtin 1981: 84)

Bakhtin goes on to say that the chronotope in essence “defines genre and generic distinctions” (Ibid: 85); he takes as an example three quintessential types of ancient Greek romance novels. The basic structure of star-struck lovers, shipwrecks, adventures in far-away places, kidnappings, war, attacks by pirates etc. still saturate our big screens and trashy adventure novels today, in a tradition set down over a thousand years ago. To describe the chronotope of the Greek romances, Bakhtin introduces the concept of adventure-time. Adventure-time is the duration of all the adventures between the start and the (happy) end of the novel, which nonetheless does not take any biographical time. That is to say, there is no change in the personality or affections or anything else of the characters involved, the adventure (no matter how prolonged) has taken no actual time, such time as one might add in a biography.

"In this kind of time, nothing changes; the world remains as it was, the biographical life of the heroes does not change, their feelings do not change, people do not even age. This empty time leaves no traces anywhere, no indications of its passing. This, we repeat, is an extratemporal hiatus that appears between two moments of a real time sequence, in this case one that is biographical."

(Bakhtin 1981: 91)

This, however, is only the chronos. The topos is not unaffected by this strange dilution of time-space. Bakhtin notes that there are no identifiable traces of the era “no matter where one goes in the world of the Greek romance, with all its countries and cities, its buildings and works of art” (Ibid). The space in the Greek romances is purely abstract – and vast. “In order for the adventure to develop it needs space, and plenty of it” (Bakhtin 1981: 99). If there is an attack by pirates on the sea, resulting in a shipwreck and a kidnapping, there are various spatial considerations that need to be taken into account (the sea, the boats, where the kidnappers take their victims, where the shipwrecked end up), but in a real, geographical sense, none of these need exist – although the novel might mention countries or seas, they are entirely interchangeable. Thus follows, that the Greek romances take place in “an alien world” (Ibid: 101), to which the heroes have no ties or relationship and which is filled solely with random chance, that governs every event in their adventures. This is not, however, an alien world in the sense of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars adventures (which were strongly laced with exoticism, like much of the sci-fi of that era) – there is no opposition here between known and unknown, native and non-native. For that reason alone it has been hard, Bakhtin points out, for scholars to date the romances any more closely than five or so centuries!

So what does all of this signify for the post-apocalypse? The example above was of a larger whole, a super-chronotope if you wish. Bakthin also writes of 'smaller' chronotopes, and chronotopes attached to certain motifs. Within the super-chronotope there can occur smaller chronotopes, and chronotopic thought can also be used to consider for instance how individuals are portrayed. The character of the Greek romance chronotope is, for instance, someone who is forced (by chance, fate) to move spatially, yet also one who endures it all and emerges unscathed (as if no time had passed whatsoever) (Ibid: 105). I believe that trying to find a post-apocalyptic (super-)chronotope, and identifying the various chronotopic motifs within that chronotope, might be a considerably more fruitful path than merely trying to define a post-apocalyptic genre, since that to me seems as pointless as trying to define science-fiction as one heterogeneous 'genre'. Let us consider, in brief and quite abstractly, what the spatial and temporal features of the post-apocalypse are:

First, there are two 'times' in the post-apocalypse: now and then. 'Then' is the pre-apocalypse, 'now' is the post-apocalypse. The point of the apocalypse is sometimes instantaneous (the bombs fall, almost everyone dies) and sometimes drawn out (the plague slowly destroys society), but there is always a defining moment when things are no longer as they were before, and there is no return to that previous time, no matter how subtle this change may be (in Shelley, for instance, this moment is the siege of Constantinople). However, whereas the post-apocalyptic timeline might very well be biographical (to borrow Bakhtin's term), the pre-apocalyptic time tends to be an amorphous whole, a 'then' of indistinct memory and nostalgia: this 'then' usually corresponds to the reader's, and author's, 'now', or some other period of historical time.

Second, the apocalypse is unlimited spatially, it expands in all directions – the whole world is affected and changed by it. Generally, Armageddon tends to be global. However, in some cases it needn't be – consider for instance 28 Days Later, in which only the United Kingdom is affected. Nonetheless it fulfils the requirements of the post-apocalyptic chronotope, since it is the whole world of the characters and that of the viewers that has been affected. Had half the movie been dedicated to relief efforts outside the UK, the evacuation of refugees and so on, it would have been a disaster movie with zombies, not a post-apocalyptic vision of an empty England.

In any which case, the defining aspect of the post-apocalyptic chronotope is the rupture in the generally accepted timeline, which has left (spatially and temporally) both the reader and the author in the 'then', whereas the characters and the novel have been transported into the 'now'. The post-apocalyptic novel, in short, is a sort of travelogue of the post-apocalyptic novel's 'here and now'. In the post-apocalyptic novel, there are constant references and comparisons between the post- and the pre-apocalyptic world, but unlike the chronotope of the travelogue (which also makes such comparisons, between the native land of the author and the foreign lands of travel), the post-apocalyptic narrator cannot return, either temporally or spatially, to his or her 'native land'.

This very superficial definition, of course, is merely a beginning, and needs to be much narrowed down. Nonetheless, the basic premise of a spatial and temporal point of no return, of the division into pre- and post-, can form the basis of a more thorough post-apocalyptic chronotope. The addition, and identification, of typical post-apocalyptic motifs and their chronotopic constitution will certainly be of further help.

Bakhtin, M.M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Ecological Post-Apocalypse - The World Without Us

A little while ago I read Alan Weisman's wonderful non-fiction book The World Without Us, and thought it'd be interesting to consider it in comparison to its genre. Make no mistake - despite it being a work of popular science rather than prose fiction, it's still essentially post-apocalyptic fiction, even if it skirts around the subject a little. What it gives us is a compelling and well fleshed-out vision of an alternative future that is, nonetheless, based on an entirely fictional and highly unlikely premise. Weisman, in his book, asks the simple question: "What if we all disappeared tomorrow?". Thus, rather than creating a complicated fictional world around typical tropes such as nuclear annihilation, a long-dragged out eco-catastrophe or an asteroid colliding with earth, he can simply observe the world without us. In post-apocalyptic fiction in general, I think this has been a surprisingly uncommon question to ask. Instead of a storyline following a ragged band of human survivors, his storyline follows the ragged remnants of the biodiversity we've left behind, and its struggle to reassert its right to the planet. Like most post-apocalyptic fiction, it's not really about the survivors either, but about the reasons for the apocalypse itself - the challenges the world has to overcome with us gone are all things happening right now. What's fun about Weisman is that the real ecological apocalypse is what will happen UNLESS the premise of his book is fulfilled, which is a nice twist.

It has to be admitted that the book is written like a screenplay for TV; filled with flowering prose it is not. The way he introduces the various characters and events reads like directions to the cameraman (or like Tom Clancy), and much of the text itself could be converted directly to a documentary voiceover. This is perhaps not unsurprising considering Weisman's background as a journalist, and in the context of this book it functions marvellously: the purpose of screenplay prose is, after all, to put images as clearly and succinctly into our heads as possible, and I think The World Without Us manages that just perfectly.

As a resource for anyone wishing to write post-apocalyptic fiction, this book is invaluable. Ever wonder what would happen to skyscrapers, left alone for long enough? At what point all of our largest constructions, from bridges to dams, would begin to crumble? How soon the forests would repopulate the abandoned fields, how the animals would retake their old territories, what would happen to our useless domesticated pets (some of which, happily, aren't quite as useless. Yay, cats!), and how plants imported by humans might affect the end result. Did you, when you wrote your post-apocalyptic world, ever think of what would happen to New York once the pumps stopped working? Or what would happen to the over 400 nuclear power plants when their coolant water finally dried away and the fuel rods were exposed to the air?

Although he theorizes much (with solid, scientific backing, mind), he also visits many locations which are in essence miniature versions of his vision, such as Chernobyl, the Korean DMZ and an absolutely fascinating place in Cyprus called Varosha, which was a beach resort that was abandoned when the country was split in twain in the 1970s, and since then jealously guarded by the Turkish military.

His thoughts on how quickly everything we leave behind would disappear is, to say the least, sobering, as is the descriptions of civilizations that have already disappeared, such as the Mayans. Throughout, his message is clear: ecologically, the human post-apocalypse would indubitably be Eden, and the only things we would leave behind would be our bronze statues and a couple of things we carved into solid bedrock (oh, and a lot of nuclear waste and plastic).

The post-apocalypse is usually a dreary thing, and that is for a reason I believe. We tend to anthropomorphise the world, and if things are going bad for us (people) then things ought to be going bad for everything else as well. I believe this is sometimes referred to as 'pathetic fallacy'. This book essentially proves the opposite. The visions of post-nuclear deserts or ash-ridden skies or eternal winter or whatever scenario the post-apocalyptic imagination can conjure up are all, in the long run, brief seconds in the ever-crunching wheel of life which will, soon enough, retake the earth, with or without us. I don't know about you, but I at least feel a little of the existential blight of the coming end-of-the-world lessen when I think of just how much better off the world will be without us.

On a purely philosophical level, however, I still think it's pretty neat to be able to think, feel, observe and share stuff that happens in this world, so I'm not saying we humans are -completely- defunct in the universal order of things. Just that we really should stop breeding and consuming. Now excuse me while I go back to chewing on chocolate grown on another continent while surfing the Internet on a computer containing bucketloads of petroleum in my nicely centrally heated apartment.

(Picture of Varosia/Varosha taken from here, with licence :