- Recycling ApocalypseA Review of Heather J. Hicks, The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity Beyond Salvage
Post-apocalyptic fiction has become arguably the defining genre of the contemporary period. A search on WorldCat reveals that Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake (2003) — which depicts the near-total extinction of the human species in a pandemic and its replacement by bio-engineered humanoids — has been a topic in over sixty dissertations and the subject of over 400 articles. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) has figured in roughly eighty dissertations and over 1,300 articles. Novels such as these have exerted an outsized influence on popular culture, given the current fascination with the post-human in such series as Westworld or the reboot of The Planet of the Apes — as well as the great success enjoyed by the narrative of the zombie apocalypse, which parallels the basic plotline of The Road, where a father and son must guard against being captured and eaten by cannibals. But the significance of today’s post-apocalyptic fiction remains very much in dispute. Should we understand the intense interest as a symptom of collective fear, whether of religious extremism, economic collapse, or catastrophic climate change? Does the spectacle of the destruction of a technically advanced civilization constitute a form of metaphoric atonement for the colonization of the globe by the Western powers? Or is the apocalypse a kind of figure for a fundamental psychic deadlock, a response to the loss of an otherness that could serve as a source of sociopolitical renewal for a society that remains incapable of transforming itself to avoid catastrophe?
In The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity Beyond Salvage, Heather J. Hicks analyzes six works by authors who have become widely known as representative of the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007), Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker (2012), in addition to the aforementioned Oryx and Crake and The Road. Her thesis — that the key theme of the post-apocalyptic novel is the collapse of modernity — challenges the familiar version of literary history, according to which the modernist aesthetic that is defined by seriousness of purpose and aspires to depth of insight is succeeded by a postmodern aesthetic that revels in irony, strikes deliberately superficial poses, and insouciantly repudiates the cultural authority accorded to high culture. Post-apocalyptic literature by contrast forms a sort of middle ground between the modern and the postmodern – it is marked by a certain seriousness in posing urgent questions about the future of humankind and the fate of the planet, while being close in formal terms to such more accessible genres as adventure fiction or horror fiction. Post-apocalyptic fiction is preoccupied with survival, which leads it to place an intense focus on the material conditions of existence. The collapse of industrial society throws the characters in these works back on their own resources to save themselves and their loved ones or to preserve the remnants of civilized ways.
For Hicks, the patron saint of the apocalyptic novel turns out to be Robinson Crusoe, the solitary survivor of a shipwreck who draws on his knowledge, instinct, skills, and religious faith to recreate on his desert island as best as he can the civilized existence that he has lost. In the novels under consideration, there has been or takes place a calamity on a planetary scale, such as nuclear war, a global epidemic, a zombie apocalypse, economic collapse, or the depletion of natural resources. The preoccupation with disaster results not in a wholesale repudiation of modernity as the source of inescapably destructive enterprises, but instead in the efforts of the protagonists to “salvage” various elements of the ruined civilization in the furtherance of life (15). Robinson Crusoe serves as the emblematic figure for such an undertaking. His presence can be felt in the watchfulness of the father in McCarthy’s The Road, whose “competence and acuity” ensure that he will...