Or, coping with impending doom through fictional impending doom
Today, I’m dropping politics for a hot minute, and I’m crawling back to my wheelhouse: literature. Specifically, I want to share some observations and personnal favourites from two overlapping genres: Post-apocalyptic and Dystopian fiction. For the blessed few that have never encountered those genres: PA refers to narratives taking place during or after a local or global cataclysm which destroyed civilisational infrastructure, and Dystopian fiction refers to narratives about authoritarian/oppressive societies, whether post-apocalyptic or not. A good, popular example of both is the Hunger Games series.
I’m mainly writing this here post for the sharing part I mentionned, but I also want to reflect on both genres as a whole; through consuming an inordinate amount of them, I’ve come to a few observations which I want to share with the digital void.
1-Cultural differences in writing PA/Dystopian fiction
Having read PA/Dys. fiction from all over the globe, I’ve started noticing some interesting patterns; specifically, how different cultures write/speak about apocalyptic/dystopian scenarios. Throughout my readings, I’ve formed a few broad categories with overlapping features: European, Commonwealth, American, and Indigenous Australian/American. I’ll be going over each of them separately, drawing parallels and contrasts where applicable. As with any generalized category, examples and counter-examples can be produced Ad eternaem. My goal is not to say “all PA/Dys. fiction produced in these areas fits these characteristics; I use this framework to illustrate the different ways we experience and extrapolate these scenarios.
American: Individual freedom and the hero’s burden
Let’s kick this off with the most prolific producer of fictional narratives, the U.S. of A. To my mind, three defining features of American culture influence its PA/Dyst. narratives: rugged individualism, the american dream, and “civic religion.” The first refers to the individualistic approach that permeates American culture; the individual citizen is presented as the end all, be all master of their own fate. This fosters an approach to politics, ethics, business, etc divorced from any consequences beyond the individual. In AP/Dys. narratives, this translates in narratives centered around spectacular individuals, upon whose shoulders rests the fate of civilisations. The Hunger Games is a good example of this, as is the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta. These narratives are also infused with the “American Dream” mythos, or the “rags to riches” story arc. In Hunger Games, this is examplified by Katniss’s journey from oppressed citizen to resistance hero; her position as resistance hero also strengthens the perception that movements center around one exceptional person. I digress, but these cultural phenomena could also explain the relative unpopularity of anarchism in the U.S.(real anarchism, libertarians/”anarcho”-capitalists are monarchists in denial). The final one, “civic religion,” is slightly weirder. Americans do not conceive of their country as most others do; that is to say, Americans revere the idea of America and its institutions more like a religion than a Nation-State among many. This leads them to view the founders as prophets, and the various legal documents structuring their society as religious texts, inviolate and inviolable. Now, in reality, the “founding fathers” of America were no different than those of Canada, South Africa, Australia, etc. except in their use of armed rebellion rather than slow political distanciation; white slaveholders who wanted to have all the money and land, rather than most of the money and land. The founding documents (declaration of independance, constitution, etc.) are also just like any other foundational documents; they are expressions of the founders’ ideas of a just society, and they outline the nation-bulding and lawmaking processes. Also of note here, the constitution is a copy/paste of the Haudenosaunee’s “Great Law of Peace,” the foundation for the Iroquois Confederacy. How does this translate to PA/Dys.? Well, usually, PA/Dys. narratives will include reference to an imagined Utopia (the world after the oppressive govnt. falls, the idealized past, etc.); in American PA/Dys. narratives, this Utopia will generally have a similar shape/outline to the country Americans think they live in, which usually amounts to the word “freedom” shouted at max volume.
In short, American PA/Dys. narratives tend to center heroic individuals as solutions to societal ills, said hero usually goes rags-to-riches, and the PA/Dys. world is meant to compare unfavourably to the country Americans think they live in.
Some of the most thought-provoking PA/Dys. narratives were written by Europeans, and, boy, is it worlds apart from the heroic onanism Americans engage in. European authors tend to center the loss of individual freedoms, like Americans do, but in a manner that integrates this loss into deeper systems of oppression. Two of the most famous examples are, of course, Orwell’s 1984 and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. While both narratives focus on individuals, their experience is framed as an infinitesimal part of a larger society. Winston in 1984 ultimately only acts as a guide to the book’s universe; in the grand scheme of things, his actions make little difference. As we learn at the end, his fate was sealed long before the book starts. Through this, Orwell invites us to think of authoritarian structures in minute details: what actions strengthen them, undermine them, what mechanisms are used, etc. Burgess’s novel works in much the same way; Alex’s story is simply indicative of larger societal trends within the world of the novel. While this version may be more depressing to the reader, it achieves something that American PA/Dys. narratives cannot: realism. While, true, the societies imagined by both authors are yet to become reality, there are plausible logical scenarios one can follow to get from the authors’ real world to the world they imagine in their books.
By “Commonwealth,” I refer to the collection of settler-societies established under the British empire; specifically, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. These tend to follow the European model quite well, showcasing the individual experiencs of persons living in either Post-apocalyptic or dystopic settings, in the context of a much broader society. The key difference lies in the importance of landscape to these authors. My main examples here are Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Miller’s Mad Max (particularly Fury Road). In Atwood’s novel, both rural and urban landscapes are used to signify that this Dystopia is not merely a disconnected fantasy world; the novel takes place in familiar settings so as to impress upon the audience that this society might be a few years down the line, if things go awry in a certain sequence. Mad Max seems completely different, however, doesn’t it? It does, at first glance. However, one can easily see Miller’s attempts at decentering any one character; others have said this before, but Max is not the hero of Fury Road. Neither is Furiosa, for that matter; neither of them are the protagonnist either. They are, ultimately, small actors in a much larger system, and it is only by working together that they can achieve anything. The desert here also emphasizes the importance of cooperation, and the futility of totalitarian rule; Immortan Joe might rule over his people, but he only does so through hoarding essential resources (that are in no way scarce), right in the middle of a goddamn desert.
Indigenous American and Australian
Two things: I currently live in North America, therefore I live on stolen land, and I am in no way suggesting here that there is any cultural overlap between Aborigenese and North American Indigenous populations. However, in broadstrokes terms, the novels I’ve read from both currents tell me that there is some overlap in how oppression is perceived in both cultures. Namely, that these authors do not see PA/Dys. narratives as some cataclysmic shift from our current way of life; they mainly regard it as an acceleration of extent systems of oppression. The two main novels I will refer to here are Metis writer Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, and Aboriginese scholar Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. Both novels deal with the aftermath of continuing environmental degradation, and the ensuing cumbling of settler-nations. In Marrow Thieves, Euro-Americans suddenly stop dreaming en masse, and somehow convince themselves that harvesting indigenous people’s marrow will heal them; this acts as an allegory for real-world settler-indigenous relations, only here the cannibalization is literal rather than figurative. Throughout the novel, Dimaline invites the reader to see this not as a farfetched, ludicrous scenario, but merely as the logical endpoint of settler-liberalism; there is a “business-as-usual” vibe to the whole ordeal, one in which indigenous populations have been living since Europeans first invaded their lands. If this sounds depressing, I assure you that it is nothing compared to Wright’s book. In Swan Book, the “Post-apocalyptic dystopia” is…the real world? Maybe ten years down the line, in fact; nothing much seems to have changed, except that Nation-States everywhere are breaking down due to environmental disasters, resource wars, and diseases. Like Dimaline’s novel, there is a very strong sense that this state of affairs is par for the course for indigenous populations. But how does that differentiate them from Euro-American PA/Dys. narratives? Mainly, these novels work by limiting their extrapolation to a much bigger extent than even European PA/Dys. narratives; the fact that you can recognize your own world in these novels make them that much more effective.
2- A list of media you should consume, and my comments on each
Or, where I lack inspiration to write a proper subtitle, and compensate by poking semi-ironic fun at myself.
-The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline (Metis)
I’ve recounted some key aspects of this novel above; I’ll add here that it’s a fantastic read. It’s intended for teenagers/young adults, so expect less violence, more optimism, and just a dash of naivete; a great novel all-around, even jaded Serious Adult Persons will find something to like.
-The Swan Book, Alexis Wright (Waanyi people)
How to describe this one? Well… The Marrow Thieves, except for adults. Structural violence abounds, the tone oscillates between rage and despair, and there is no happy ending; it’s also a fucking slog to get through, owing to the dream-like quality of the writing. And it is the one novel everyone should read, especially white folks in settler-nations like myself. To give you a taste of the tone, the opening line is “Upstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll’s house.” It’s honestly one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Strongly advise reading 1-2 pages at a time, then taking the time to digest before moving on.
-The Road, Cormac McCarthy (American)
The one American I include, and its the one that destroys every one of my earlier arguments about American PA/Dys. narratives. No bother, trendbreakers are welcome. The Road is probably the only novel more depressing than learning that Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven while her kids were in the other room; McCarthy took a look at all post-apocalyptic narratives, and said “you guys realize the whole country would burn down without maintenance, right?” Following a man and a boy, the book drags us on a journey through the charred landscapes of America, where having a shopping trolley and two bullets in a pistol makes you a rich man. Worth the read, if you want to kill any apocalyptic fantasies you may harbor.
-Nineteen Eighty-four (European)
This one isn’t good so much as a story, but as an extended definition of authoritarianism. Orwell takes care to explore the mechanisms of totalitarian rule in minute details, and lays out his thesis as to the most effective means of controlling a population. Also, some conservatives might do well to read it, because many of them seem to ignore what “Orwellian” means.
-The Long Dark
This one is a must; stranded in the Canadian wilderness, the player has to expand a significant amount of grey matter figuring out how to survive. The long stretches of silent walking through the woods leave plenty of time to appreicate the beauty of the game world, and listen to the amazing soundtrack.
-This War of Mine
Okay, this one isn’t really PA/Dys., but I’ll count it anyways. The player controls a group of survivors in a war-torn city, just struggling to feed themselves, and keep their brains bullet-free. This is a game where “should I rob this old lady” and “is a carrot worth a bullet in the back” are recurring questions. Strongly recommend.