Brian McHale • What Is the End of the World Good For?

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.

As my contribution to this guest blog, I was intending to write about the use and abuse of end-of-the-world science fiction when the end of the world caught up with me.

I had planned to denounce science fiction for its generally frivolous and unreflective approach to the end of the world – its lack of seriousness about apocalypse. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, as I hardly need to tell you, are ubiquitous in contemporary science-fiction narratives across all media platforms.  But such scenarios mostly function as reset buttons, wiping clean the world’s slate, giving survivors an opportunity to rebuild civilization from scratch. Or the apocalypse can serve as the pretext for realizing erotic fantasies (the last-man-and-last-woman motif), or as a kind of playground or theme-park, a sound-stage on which adventures can be played out amid the ruins, as in the Mad Max movie franchise or in much current Young Adult dystopian fiction and film.  Think how much fun we could have if none of these other people were around!

* * *

Apocalypse has always been science fiction’s stock-in-trade, though its modalities have changed over time. Alien invasion has never lost its dark grip on the collective apocalyptic imagination since the time of H.G. Wells’s original War of the Worlds (1898). Nuclear holocaust, once a dominant modality, has since the end of the Cold War been edged out by other end-of-the-world scenarios: cosmic disasters (asteroids, worlds in collision), ecological collapse, and of course plague outbreaks, not to mention the zombie apocalypse which is so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture (and which is often affiliated with the outbreak narrative). The result is always drastically to reduce the human population to a struggling remnant, as in Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), or to a last couple, as in W.E.B. Dubois’s “The Comet” (1920), or even to a single individual, the last man (rarely woman), as in Mary Shelley’s seminal novel by that name (1826). The last man motif has enjoyed a long run in popular culture, beginning with Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954) and its three movie adaptations (1964, 1971, 2007, under various titles), which is often cited as the model for zombie-apocalypse stories (though technically Matheson’s walking dead are vampires, not zombies).

Susan Sontag, writing in 1965, saw that the apocalyptic science-fiction movies of the ‘50s served as an opportunity for “participat[ing] in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity” (“The Imagination of Disaster”). It is certainly the case that the mass death that is a precondition for the last man (or small-band-of-survivors) motif is rarely taken seriously. Death on a planetary scale is reduced to a premise for action-adventure entertainment, or at best for reflection on – as the subtitle of Dick’s post-apocalyptic novel Dr. Bloodmoney puts it – How We Got Along After the Bomb, that is, how survivors took advantage of the slate wiped clean by apocalypse to build the world anew. There are exceptions: in Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984),the last man to survive an alien onslaught on his home world becomes a charismatic messiah-figure throughout the galaxy, the object of obscure hopes for ultimate survival; while in Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy (1987-89), Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-13), and Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (2015),the near-total extinction of the human race by (respectively) nuclear war, engineered plague, and cosmic accident, and the plight of the handful of survivors (such as the “seven Eves” of Stephenson’s title), is accorded something like the weight and sobriety it deserves.

In general, however, the current popularity and predictability of post-apocalyptic scenarios heightens the odds against serious treatment of the motif in genre fiction or film. Serious engagement with mass death generally seems reserved for “crossover” literary fiction, such as Colson Whitehead’s literary novel of the zombie apocalypse, Zone One (2011), Russell Hoban’s linguistically inventive Riddley Walker (1980), or Cormac McCarthy’s merciless The Road (2006) and its equally unrelenting film adaptation (2009). In the end, perhaps it requires the methods of the literary avant-garde to genuinely come to terms with universal death – the methods, let’s say, of Samuel Beckett’s The Lost Ones / Le dépeupleur (1971), or of Maggie Gee’s less celebrated postmodern metafictions, Dying, in Other Words (1981) and The Burning Book (1983). Gee at least has the honesty to admit that the only truthful perspective on the end of the world is that of . . . no-one at all:

This is a city, though who is there who can tell. For miles there is nothing left standing: light falls upon miles and miles of litter and ice and ice and litter and chaos …. No speech, and no stories. The last great story was death: someone failed to tell it, or else no-one wanted to hear. (Dying, in Other Words)

That was what I was going to write about for this blog: the science fiction genre’s abject failure, apart from some rare and liminal examples, to engage seriously with the greatest of its great themes, the end of the world. But then in the spring of 2020 along came covid-19, and I was compelled to re-evaluate my position. When the pandemic lockdown reached my part of the world in mid-March, and all the libraries closed, I was forced to resort for my science-fiction reading to books that had stood unread on my home bookshelves for a long time – in some cases a very long time – supplemented by occasional online purchases of newly-published novels. Only a few of these narratives were strictly speaking contagion-themed, but most of them, new and old, were apocalyptic in one way or another, just by virtue of being science fictions; it comes with the territory.

* * *

Thus it happened that during the pandemic spring and summer I read Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy of Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and Maddaddam (2013), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009), in all of which epidemics or pandemics figure. I also read N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (2015-17) and (digging deeper into my personal backlist) Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967), which count as end-of-the-world novels but not as plague novels.  Among the brand-new books I read, there was no contagion in Neal Stephenson’s Fall or, Dodge in Hell (2019), and neither were there any in William Gibson’s Agency (2020). At least there were none in either of Agency’s time-frames, near-future and far-future, though evidently there must have been plenty of world-ending pandemic disease raging in the offstage interval between those two moments.

Stephenson’s Fall illustrates why science fiction seemed so perversely relevant in the pandemic. Enormously long (880 pages), Fall or, Dodge in Hell is a novel with many moving parts – too many.  One of those parts, early on, involves a visit by some bright, young over-privileged East Coast college students of the near future to a region of the American Midwest that they derisively call Ameristan.  In Ameristan, the zone outside the urban centers, consensual reality has disintegrated.  People there are fed datastreams that cater to their own preconceptions about the world, confirming and amplifying them.  Targeted by predatory algorithms, trapped in feedback loops, victims of self-fulfilling prophecies, they each live within their own tailor-made pocket-realities.  Meanwhile, the elites, including these young travelers, can afford to pay for the services of online curators who edit out disinformation and “fake news” from their datastreams and keep them grounded in real reality.  It is a world of reality-pluralism run amok.  Reading Fall in the first half of 2020, when our world seemed to be disintegrating into warring tribes, each outfitted with its own weaponized epistemology and ontology, was like reading the least fanciful, the most mimetic of realist fictions – more faithful to the way we live now than any contemporary realist novel in the bookstore.  And yet it says on the copyright page that Fall is a work of science fiction.

No doubt it sounds perverse, but reading apocalyptic science-fiction like this one during the pandemic turned out to be not an alarming experience, serving only to exacerbate one’s anxiety, but a strangely comforting one. What works like Fall, Agency, the Maddaddam trilogy, the Broken Earth trilogy and all the rest offered was not so much an image of what was happening to us – none of them is very “faithful” to reality in that sense – or a plausible forecast of what might happen, or even a reassuring scenario of how we might weather the worst of it and come out the other side as survivors, and might even be able to enjoy ourselves in the adventure-playground of our future’s ruins.  Rather, these science fictions were valuable because they conducted thought experiments; they staged alternatives, plausible or otherwise, and thinking about alternatives just then, even dire ones, was comforting, liberating and useful – a good use of one’s imagination.  The value of science fiction to readers under lockdown was precisely its capacity for prompting us to think of, think about and think through alternatives.  This helps explain, perhaps, why science fiction seemed to some of us so much more relevant and compelling than contemporary realism – seemed, indeed, to take the place of contemporary realism – in the year of covid-19.

Brian McHale, Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at the Ohio State University, is the author of four books about postmodern literature and culture, including Postmodernist Fiction (1987) and The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (2015), as well as the co-editor of five other volumes.  Co-founder of Ohio State’s Project Narrative, he is a past president of the International Society for the Study of Narrative (ISSN), and was a founding member and president of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (ASAP).  He was editor-in-chief of Poetics Today from July 2015 through June 2019.


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