Monday, 13 October 2014

Apocalypse No

Amongst the many literary sub-genres I keep an eye on with a view to one day doing some work is the dystopian novel, particularly the Young Adult variety. There are so many – I've tagged 120 of my works with 'dystopia', 56 with 'dystopian' and 33 with 'apocalypse' on Librarything (though there's some overlaps). The types of dystopia presented move with the cultural and political times: obviously nuclear war figured prominently between the 50s and the late 80s. Various shades of authoritarianism are similarly present in Cold War-era fictions, while environmental collapse starts to appear in the 60s and really gets going in the late 70s. Climate change becomes the most common theme in adolescents' fiction in the 90s. There are also some oddities: I own a copy of the graphic novel Apocalypse Meow, which depicts the Vietnam War as fought by Viet Cong cats and American rabbits. Tim Lebbon's Bar None parodies John Wyndham's post-holocaust tales as a quest narrative between Welsh pubs, while Dick Morland's Albion, Albion draws on 80s fears to present a Britain descending into fascism as a response to football hooliganism.

Thank heavens football has become the expensive preserve of the middle classes with better manners.

The YA dystopian genre might change the nature of its disaster, but the structures don't much change. Children, we're wearingly told, are the future. Adults are compromised, cynical, defeatist or plain evil. They've let terrible things happen or deliberately caused them. The young are the innocent victims and only they have the moral purpose and intellectual clarity to save civilisation (or at least to try).

There's also something interesting going on around the origins of this morality. Heroes from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen are Kantians: only in the most sophisticated versions do they experience philosophical ambiguity or confusion. For the most part, they just know what is the right thing to do (the most horrific of these smug know-it-alls are of course Peter, Susan, Lucy and eventually Edmund  in C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales: that train crash couldn't come soon enough for me), and this is what makes these particular individuals heroes/chosen ones or whatever. Adults, it seems, are Benthamites or consequentialists: those who aren't simply enemies of Justice are rendered passive by their failure to act boldly. The kids, however, are uncompromised by calculation: their morality is pure and instinctive, though we rarely find out where it comes from. My assumption is that this is simply authors pandering to readers just discovering philosophical and ideological principles. Certainly this is how it worked for me: I inhaled this kind of stuff as a teenager, which is how I ended up joining Militant and marching for a multitude of causes. Certain issues seemed (and to some extent still seem) obvious: inequality, environmental degradation, nuclear weapons and so on.

Whether my reading led me to sharp-edged politics or politics led me to this kind of fiction, I couldn't say, but I'm still a member of CND, I'm a union activist and a supporter of various kinds of radical causes. No doubt if I'd been around in the 1640s I'd have been a hardline Royalist, a Roundhead or a Digger, at least until the serious billhook work hoved into view…

But recently, I've become rather suspicious of developments in dystopian fiction. Partly it's me, partly it's them. Me first. Quite simply, exposure to more and more sophisticated theory, plus living a more compromised life, means that the hard edges and simply solutions proposed by dystopian fiction – particularly the YA kind – no longer suffice. It's like the move from Marxism to Gramscian socialism, and thence to Foucault. Marx thought the oppressed masses would grasp the obvious nature of their situation. Gramsci explored the reasons why they didn't (hence the notions of cultural and political hegemony) and Foucault identified the distributed, discursive and internalised aspects of power and oppression as a lived experience. From this perspective, the Kantian purity of the dystopian hero looks evasive.

Which leads me to the second point: it's the books that changed too. Recently I read a very interesting dystopian novel, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, one of the recent flood (sorry) of disease dystopias (very fitting as the papers get hysterical over Ebola). Not long ago I read Peter Heller's The Dog Stars and before that, James Kunstler's World Made By Hand series. They're starting to worry me. Mandel's novel is far more sophisticated than the others: it follows a rag-tag travelling orchestra between tiny settlements of survivors around the former US/Canada border, detailing the protagonists' fractured memories of the past and how it impacts on their current conditions. Heller and Kunstler's novels are about individuals and small communities getting on with life post-technology.

Two things are really starting to bother me about this kind of text. Firstly, they seem to imply a certain satisfaction with the extermination of the vast majority of the population. Having cleared the planet of most of us, resourceful and intelligent individuals can get on with living a simpler life: it's like a mix of Walden, Wagon Train and The Good Life served on a bed of billions of bodies with added self-congratulations. There's little examination of the politics, sociology or technological which led to disaster: instead there's a dramatisation of good/intelligent survivors triumphing (or not) over bad ones. This critique isn't a new idea, of course: Brian Aldiss wrote about the 'cosy catastrophe' in his 1973 history of SF Billion Year Spree. In them, he said, middle-class people had rather a jolly time once the initial horror passes, after which they rebuild a society in their own image - try John Wyndham's work for examples, although I should point out that I'm a fan of Wyndham and think there are tougher moments. The excellent author Jo Walton wrote a very good piece on cosy catastrophes and their readers (link is to her summary: original article has vanished) in which she
argued that the cosy catastrophe was overwhelmingly written by middle-class British people who had lived through the upheavals and new settlement during and after World War II, and who found the radical idea that the working classes were people hard to deal with, and wished they would all just go away.
More contemporary texts have gone for the cosy catastrophe much more enthusiastically. Wyndham's generation had lived through World War Two, fighting, liberating concentration camps, having their cities blitzed, coped with rationing or seen pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: they didn't need much in the way of imaginary leaps to conceptualise the apocalypse, and can perhaps be forgiven for a degree of comfort. No such excuse applies to contemporary texts like The World Ends in Hickory Hollow in which good ol' Texas values carry on regardless, or Heller's The Dog Stars which actively seems to promote the apocalypse as a way of making space for hunting-shooting-fishing types to lead a more 'natural' life unencumbered by the mores of 'civilisation': that the protagonist spends a lot of time in his aeroplane looking down on the world and other people implies a certain contempt for the (slaughtered, unfit) masses which I've seen in a lot of aviation and mountaineering books from the 20s and 30s. People, these books seem to say, are largely scum and deserve what they get if they lack the skills and mental resources to survive. Walton points out too that while 50s readers (many of whom wouldn't be SF readers) wanted the poor to go away if they weren't going to settle for gainful employment as maids and footmen any more, the cosy catastrophe has made a home in Young Adult novels because 'teenagers do want all the grown-ups to go away'.

This isn't just an SF trope of course: pretty much every children's novel starts by removing parents to allow the adventures to start, whether it's adoption, going to stay with relatives for a holiday, orphans or disaster. Aunts and uncles may be good or bad, but they're about as close as you want your relatives – parents just impose authority and spoil all the fun. Famous Five, Swallows

While Station Eleven focuses on culture and World Made By Hand promotes hand crafts and small communities, I can't help feeling that they're little removed from the gun fetishism of The Survivalist and similar texts, despite their very different tones.

However, what struck me about Station Eleven and the other books I've read recently is that they're the products of decadence. Surely only a society that luxuriates in its impregnability and superiority can afford to fantasise about having it all taken away? These books are virtually all by, about and read by Western white people: I really doubt that Syrians and Yemenis are consuming dystopian novels in the midst of their troubles. The power of these texts is in the fantasy of stripped-down, individualist society in which a hero's innate strengths are revealed, having been crushed under the oppression of civil society pre-Disaster (I suspect this is what fuels rightwing politics in our societies too, hence all the opposition to 'political correctness' etc.).

Obviously nobody wants to read novels about protagonists doing good works by getting elected to the parish council or sitting on committees (except for me: I love George Eliot and Trollope), but however elegiac some of these dystopian novels can be, there's an implied rejection of ambiguity, complexity, communitarianism and empathy at their heart. This genre ignores the real struggles of our own lives and denies the tougher ones of the vast majority of the world's population. It normalises abundance and luxury, then lets us test our resilience by fantasising about living just like most of the world's people already do, but in the safety of our warm homes and safe communities. I once thought that the readership was people genuinely worried about oncoming disaster - now I think it's made up of people who either rather smugly look forward to it, or those who think it will never happen to them, because we're on top of the heap. A World Made By Hand is – like many dystopian texts – a way of criticising the way we live now by proving that stripping society down to small-town values, religion and self-reliance by force of necessity demonstrates our own moral and political failures, yet much is ignored: racial and sexual prejudice, the need for dissent and diversity and much else besides. I can live with the decadence frivolity of the Apocalypse, but the sheer conservatism of the genre is what's now turning me away from it.

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