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.

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