- The Apocalypse is a Nonhuman Story
This essay assembles an archive of recent speculative apocalyptic narratives by women of color—LESLIE MARMON SILKO'S Almanac of the Dead (1991), OCTAVIA E. BUTLER'S Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), and NNEDI OKORAFOR'S Who Fears Death (2010) and The Book of Phoenix (2015)—in order to theorize an alternative apocalyptic mode that affords glimpses of nonhuman scales of force and action. In so doing, I connect discussions of apocalypticism with the nonhuman turn in theory and philosophy that has taken on increasing significance with the rise of the Anthropocene. More concretely, these novels are valuable resources for conceptualizing the way that the contemporary anglophone novel, a form that has traditionally centered on exceptional or representative individuals, wrestles with the representational challenges of depicting nonhuman agency and scale.1 These texts are key works in a countertradition of apocalyptic writing and speculative contemporary fiction. In bringing together the works of writers such as OKORAFOR and BUTLER, which circulate as genre fiction, along with SILKO'S novel, which is primarily positioned in the marketplace for literary fiction, I wish to avoid making an argument that hinges on the putative difference between speculative genre fiction and literary fiction. Instead, I argue that [End Page 523] these texts participate in a common countertradition of open-ended speculative fiction that is neither a characteristic of all genre fiction nor absent from all forms of so-called literary fiction. In this countertradition, nonhuman agencies and energies, as well as their unpredictable effects on the humans with whom they are entangled, emerge as crucial to any effort to understand our present moment. Consequently, I approach SILKO, BUTLER, and OKORAFOR as vernacular theorists of the entanglement of human and nonhuman agencies, actions, energies, and scales.
Silko's, Butler's, and Okorafor's conceptual and formal innovations produce a version of the apocalyptic in which humanity is exposed to and irreversibly reshaped by nonhuman forces and modes of agency. This is a departure from most apocalyptic fiction, which obscures the nonhuman scale of the apocalypse and replicates the blind spots of liberal humanism by ignoring those who fall outside of its model of the putatively universal liberal subject.2 This countertradition of nonhuman apocalyptic writing calls attention to the ways in which contemporary projects of world construction produce the apocalyptic conditions that pervade the present. In so doing, they make it clear that racial and gender injustice are central infrastructural supports for these projects. Instead of resigning themselves to a model of imagining the future that assumes that the fundamentally flawed infrastructure of modernity cannot be replaced or altered, these texts gesture toward more radically open forms of speculation about the future in which liberatory potential emerges from entanglements between the human and the nonhuman.
From the perspective of narrative form, these texts provide an alternative to the dominant tendency in apocalyptic fiction to operate within human-scaled narrative arcs that follow an individual, family unit, community, or nation through a transformational crisis. Examples of this tendency in literary fiction include Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (2014), which centers on a community; Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), which focuses on the nuclear family unit; and Chang-Rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea (2014), which operates at the scale of the wandering individual. Popular cultural examples can be found in the comics and television serial The Walking Dead, which oscillates between a [End Page 524] focus on an exemplary individual and transient communities, and in the charismatic individual heroes of multimedia young adult phenomena like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner. Evan Calder Williams points out one of the weaknesses of human-scaled treatments of the apocalypse when he observes that in such works "the structural is only approached through the personal."3 In this approach, interpersonal relationships and actions occupy the narrative foreground, and large-scale forces and energies that cannot be reduced to the scale of individual agency slowly recede to the background. Within such a model, it becomes easy to avoid acknowledging the role of slow violence in precipitating the apocalyptic conditions...