Apocalypse Never

By Jerome WinterApril 25, 2015

Paradoxa 26, Sf Now by Rhys Williams and Mark Bould

IN CONTEMPORARY SF, the postapocalyptic wasteland has become the predominant setting for futuristic imaginings. Recent cinematic examples include Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013), Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie (2015), and the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). On television, The Walking Dead reigns supreme, with a spin-off in development, while new shows such as 12 Monkeys and The Last Man on Earth cultivate a strong following. In printed fiction, the emergent subgenre of climate fiction (cli-fi) now includes eco-dystopian masterworks such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy (2003–2013).

The more sophisticated offerings among these postapocalyptic fictions often highlight how end-of-the-world fantasies can often perpetuate triumphalist narratives of global capitalism, and this is one of the key launching points for Mark Bould and Rhys Williams’s recent special issue of the scholarly journal Paradoxa. This special issue — called Sf Now — examines cutting-edge trends in science fiction literature and theory, and it offers several articles that expand on Mark Fisher’s notion of “capitalist realism,” or the idea that challenges to capitalist norms are often preemptively rejected as fruitless and unrealistic. The issue offers a polemical indictment of this wide-ranging repressive tendency as it mines SF culture for signs of utopian-oppositional promise. All in all, Bould and Williams present a timely, prodigious, provocative, and ultimately groundbreaking new collection of essays, interviews, and reviews on the state of SF culture today. 

Sf Now begins by examining the drive to depict global catastrophe in contemporary films. In “If the Engine Ever Stops, We’d All Die,” Gerry Canavan moves beyond the absurd premise of Snowpiercer — a globally circumnavigating train in perpetual circuit around a postapocalyptic winterscape — to plumb the depths of the film’s engagement with global class conflict and the hubristic geo-engineering of climate change. Similarly, Carl Freedman’s “Capitalist Realism in Three Recent SF Films” examines the absurd spectacle of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), the conspicuous consumption of Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), and the terminal depression of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects (2013). Freedman spares this last taut thriller the brunt of his withering critical gaze because, as Freedman’s adroit hermeneutics of suspicion demonstrate, Cuarón’s and Jonze’s films are broadly symptomatic of capitalist realism, whereas Soderbergh’s film lays bare the collusion of drug companies and the pharmaceutical industry in manipulating brain chemistry for profit.

Sf Now then transitions into the world of print fiction. In “World Systems and World Science Fiction,” Andrew Milner argues for the usefulness of Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-system theory in explaining the historical and contemporary imbalances of the international publishing market for SF as well as the “structural compromises” by which the periphery repurposes the cultural production at the core. From Milner’s perspective, Wallerstein’s idea of the world-system is useful because it describes the underlying regime of brutal economic inequalities that enable a few privileged nations to subordinate the rest of the world as dependents and recipients of cultural productions and flows. Milner in turn also marshals book-publishing statistics and translation rates to argue that the European semi-periphery of Germany, Russia, and Poland has customized the products of Anglo-American SF for specific local contexts.

Vividly articulating this global inequality, the volume also boasts a pièce de résistance in an interview with Junot Díaz conducted by Taryne Jade Taylor. Díaz recounts his own early experience as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic to the United States, and he passionately expounds his view that SF cannot be adequately grasped as a cultural and literary phenomenon without reference to its frequent deployment of thinly veiled political allegories in which underdeveloped countries become satellitized to neo-imperial centers of power. This compelling theory is not quite a critical commonplace, and it therefore benefits from Díaz’s deft articulation, especially his incisive skewering of spurious post-racial color-blindness.

The collection also includes two other fascinating interviews from popular SF practitioners who explore the expanding dimensions of global SF. Grace Dillon interviews Stephen Graham Jones, who argues that the distinctiveness of indigenous American writing often depends on a resistance to mundane realistic protocols. Likewise, Jessica Langer interviews Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, who discusses the role non-Western spirituality plays in constructing her unique SF imaginings.

In addition to these fascinating interviews, Sf Now also includes a rich selection of critical articles on fictions set in postapocalyptic futurescapes. In “Reproduce, Reuse, Recycle,” Zak Bronson shows how China Miéville’s Railsea (2012) elevates trash-picking and dumpster-diving to the art of pastiche and détournment, and he describes what this aesthetic of salvage means for capitalist narratives of flourishing infinite expansion. Given that global capitalism feeds off the accumulation and exploitation of future resources to secure its survival, Bronson argues that the postapocalyptic aesthetic reveals how the detritus and refuse of capitalist expansion can lodge a critique against the greed and myopia of such a process. Bronson makes the case that in Railsea Miéville offers an enduring image of the retro stylings inherent in the salvagepunk aesthetic via the chaotic expansion of rail lines vertiginously zigzagging across an emptied-out ocean floor.

Miéville’s engagement with refashioning the catastrophe of history returns when the collection makes a foray into alternate history; Sf Now includes two essays which examine the parallel history genre. In “Alternate Histories and Conflicting Nows,” Glyn Morgan analyzes the case study of Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) to help demystify the contractedness of our time-bound historiography. Additionally, Mark Jerng’s “The Use and Abuse of Racial Counterfactuals” shows how the racially inflected thought experiments of counterfactuals — i.e., what if the Southern states defeated the Northern ones in 1865? — not only underpin Civil War alternate histories, but also Supreme Court jurisprudence.

One of the editors, Rhys Williams, offers an interesting theoretical contribution called “Cognitive Impurities” that reads H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) in order to view boundary pollution as a site for counter-hegemonic energies within the SF genre. Williams shows that Wells fuses and blurs the otherwise discrete, autonomous categories of the human and the animal in Dr. Moreau’s creation of monstrous chimeras. Williams then theorizes that this transgressive violation of stable boundary construction entails an undermining of the ideological status quo that undergirds capitalism. As another exemplar of such cognitive impurities, the reader might look to “The Politics of World-Building,” in which Dan Hassler-Forest theorizes Janelle Monáe’s “blissfully eclectic neo-Afrofuturist soul music” and its indebtedness to SF world-building. Likewise, in a provocative ping from another culturally dominant medium of pop SF, in “Misanthropy without Humanity,” Tom Tyler discusses the anti-humanism in the videogame Plague Inc. (2012) and the estranging perspectives that bacteria, viruses, and parasites can afford gamers. Rhys Williams also interviews Steve Fuller, who holds out hope that post- and trans-humanism might help redress the current political double bind in which our species finds itself.

A wide-ranging piece by Graeme MacDonald, “Improbability Drives,” makes a startling connection between the resurgence of space opera in postwar SF and the post-1970s oil crises such that the gap between the hot rods of American Graffiti (1973) and the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars (1977) ceases to seem so vast; as a consequence we can begin to understand why the recent literary space operas of M. John Harrison and Iain M. Banks also manifest a preoccupation with petroleum. In an unlikely way, the hyperbolic imaginings of space opera allow us to think through and beyond our own addiction to fossil fuels. Likewise, in “On Our Waste Containments and Energy Futures,” Brent Bellamy investigates the technocratic expertise of Michael Madsen’s documentary film Into Eternity (2010) for its evocative negotiation of the “energy unconscious” that haunts contemporary science fiction culture.

From a different ecologically-informed angle, Sherryl Vint’s “Theorizing the Animal in Science Fiction” demonstrates how recent primate-oriented SF — specifically, the latest Rise of The Planet of the Apes (2011) reboot and Karen Joy Fowler’s award-winning We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) — interrogates the neoliberal and biopolitical sanctifying of binaries by which humans come to dominate animals. Joan Gordon also interviews Kij Johnson, who argues that animals in fiction operate as ludic metaphors for otherness and intimacy that are in no way reducible to one-to-one correspondences. In another powerful challenge to anthropocentrism (by way of insightful discussions of Iain Banks, Greg Egan, and Kim Stanley Robinson), Veronica Hollinger’s “Humanity 2.0” posits that the next upgrade of the human species will pivot between either cyborgian abjection or the sublime transcendence of the human. Revisiting a question that specifically haunts postapocalyptic narratives as well as all future-oriented fiction, Hollinger asks the reader to ponder the necessarily open-ended question of whether the posthuman will be explained by a radical break with the past. As further invitation into the exciting state of SF criticism today, the collection closes with reviews from Malisa Kurtz and Chris Pak, who respectively discuss The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014), edited by Rob Latham, and Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson.

These articles, interviews, and reviews are all keenly aware that the postapocalyptic imagination depends on an attitude of disillusionment that presupposes that hope once sprang eternal in the human heart. Lauren Berlant (cited by Canavan) identifies this naive faith in the future as “the cruel optimism” of the everyday that agonizingly wears away at the aspirant because such hopes cannot avoid being gradually crushed by the reality of late capitalism. As the postapocalyptic imagination and the work collected here reminds us, however, SF can also offer a generous critical toolkit for thinking not only through genre-specific preoccupations, but also for thinking beyond all our horizons to a futurity far more enticing than postapocalyptic catastrophe.


Jerome Winter, the Associate Editor of LARB’s SF page, is a PhD student studying science fiction and contemporary American literature at the University of California, Riverside.

LARB Contributor

Jerome Winter, the Associate Editor of LARB’s SF page, is a PhD student studying science fiction and contemporary American literature at the University of California, Riverside. His essay “Epistemic Polyverses and the Subaltern: the Postcolonial World-System in Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore and River of Gods” will appear in the November 2012 issue of Science Fiction Studies. He is currently working on a dissertation on science fiction and globalization.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.