- Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature ed. by Brett Josef Grubisic, Gisèle M. Baxter, and Tara Lee
There are two main types of dystopia: the classic authoritarian dystopia, perhaps best represented by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and the anarchic dystopia seen in cyberpunk fiction and countless post-apocalyptic films and novels. The latter is the most common contemporary form; indeed, the last few decades have seen something of a conflation of the dystopian and the post-apocalyptic both in fiction and in the critical literature.
That close association between apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic and dystopia is evident throughout this essay collection. Scholars trace the sorts of dystopian societies that recent Canadian, American, and Mexican authors have portrayed during the period of late capitalism, effectively demonstrating how fin de siècle catastrophism, globalization (particularly the signing of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]), environmental degradation, neocolonialism, and neo-liberalism have shaped the contemporary dystopian imagination. Most stress that the critical dystopia—which combines the tropes of dystopian literature with compensatory hints of utopian hope—has become the dominant form of the genre.
The collection is somewhat arbitrarily divided into four parts; many of the essays could have fit in any section. As the editors tell us, the first part, “Altered States,” concerns “the breakdown of old systems and the possibility of envisioning (or creating) new spaces.” It features Janine Tobeck’s discussion of agency in William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy, Hande Tekdemir’s analysis of revisions of and challenges to Frederick Turner’s “frontier hypothesis” in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, and Richard Gooding’s comparison of identity formation in adolescence and post-human speculations in M.T. Anderson’s Feed series. Carl F. Miller’s unconvincing study of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road suffers from a blind spot that recurs occasionally in the volume, as he attempts to relate references to consumer goods and shortages to late capitalism. These are in fact common tropes throughout post-apocalyptic literature. Greater familiarity with the genre would have produced better contextualization for McCarthy’s relatively conventional novel.
Part Two, “Plastic Subjectivities,” includes Annette Lapointe’s essay on the blurring of lines between animals and humans, and humans and food, in Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy; Gregory Hampton’s study of the parallels between Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series and James Cameron’s Avatar; and Joseph Campbell’s somewhat theory-heavy analysis of young adult dystopian fiction. Alexa Weik von Mossner provides an interesting analysis of the conservative “family values” in Susan [End Page 562] Beth Pfeffer’s Last Survivors series. The section ends with Sharon DeGraw’s insightful study of the city as dynamic space in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring.
In “Spectral Histories” various scholars look at the legacy of Mexico’s political history in the post-NAFTA period, as globalization and neocolonialism undermine utopian dreams. Critics like Maria Odette Canivell, Adam Spires, and, later, Luis Gomez Romero make the point that Mexicans do not need to speculate about dystopias as their historical reality has been full of them. Lee Skallerup Bessette studies Anne Legault’s Récits de Médilhault in the context of 1990s Quebec nationalism and ambivalence toward NAFTA. Robert McGill offers a detailed and enlightening analysis of Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma, showing how Vancouver and Los Angeles represent different views of the West Coast as the site of the ends of both time and space in myths about North America.
The final section, “Emancipating Genres,” begins with Robert T. Tally Jr.’s fine study of various forms of transgression in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Kit Dobson discusses allusions to Blade Runner’s Rachael in Larissa Lai’s Automaton Biographies and Douglas Coupland’s Player One. Owen Percy looks at how H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World are given contemporary, postmodern treatments by Canadian authors Ronald Wright and Michael Murphy respectively.