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.


  1. Hey just found your blog man. Good stuff. I just finished my thesis in June.

    My driving question was "How will a 15 minute silent reading session effect the writing affect of fourth grade students?" The title of the the finished thesis was "Connecting Reading and writing to improve student perceptions of writing."

    But as I run an apocalyptic blog I am very jealous of your topic.

    And lastly, feel free to borrow from my reviews/book reports.

    my library may be of use to you as well.

    good luck. I'm pulling for you.

  2. Ooh, thanks! Always useful to have someone else who's up to date about all things PA. I myself have found myself so caught up in the thesis writing I haven't really had time to read any fiction (well, I have been slogging through The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF [edited by Mike Ashley, 2008, London: Robinson], which has been a bit of fun!).

    I shall add you to my watchers. And blog roll, if that's okay? :)

  3. That's great thanks.

    If you're so inclined you should join the PA forums. I'm a moderator there. You'll find yourself in like-minded company.

    Again good luck with the thesis.