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  • Apocalypse, Inc.Incorporating the Environment into the Boom/Bust Cycle in Fin-de-Siècle Science Fiction
  • Steve Asselin (bio)

Popular fiction in the closing days of the nineteenth century was awash with apocalyptic scenarios, ranging from stories of future wars and alien invasions to narratives about global ecological collapse, arising from spaceborne catastrophe or from the result of humanity's own dangerous meddling in the global environment. Many (if not most) of the narratives that make up the late Victorian apocalyptic fad were squarely situated in the realm of speculative fiction, especially in their imagining of new technological innovations. The new forms of weaponry in such narratives included early versions of nuclear bombs and other technological weapons that had the potential to wipe out all (human) life on the planet (Gannon 2005). The recent revival and recontextualization of nuclear criticism away from weaponry in the strictest sense, however, and toward all forms of technology with the potential to endanger global survival (Wallace 2016) is an apt reminder that technology [End Page 181] that is not weaponized may still carry with it the threat of apocalyptic consequences. Apart from atomic weapons, the technologies that have animated modern anxieties of extinction—ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, ecosystem-poisoning pesticides, and the many greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change—were not intended as tools of war but as a means of generating profits. Revisiting the apocalyptic milieu of late Victorian popular fiction, this essay examines some of the earliest examples of such "nuclear" technologies—new forms of industry that late Victorian authors speculated had the inadvertent potential to wipe out humanity. The authors of these fictions seek to critique the speculative nature of reckless capitalism and unrestrained industry by incorporating economic theory into their narratives. They achieve this by exploring one of the key economic concepts that had been promulgated by midcentury political economists: the concept of the business cycle, or the pattern of boom and bust inherently tied to the speculative aspects of finance. One of the key innovations of these stories is to imagine the consequences of the boom and bust cycle for the world's environment, showing that speculative capital's frenzied oscillation between acquisition and crash can have apocalyptic consequences for the planet itself, not just for investors. Yet even as these stories adopt economic rhetoric to critique it, they remain bound by the discipline's anthropocentric outlook and its own belief in self-correction as a solution to speculative excess.

In this paper, I examine three science fiction (sf) short stories from the popular periodical press at the fin de siècle who envisioned ecological disasters arising from economic activity: "The Aerial Brickfield" by John Mills (published in Windsor Magazine, 1897), "A Corner in Lightning" by George Griffith (published in Pearson's Magazine, 1898), and "Within an Ace of the End of the World" by Robert Barr (published in Windsor Magazine, 1900). From the outset, these stories demonstrate the way scientific and financial speculation are linked by detailing the economic and manufacturing processes required for scientists to turn their inventions into viable enterprises, featuring as protagonists inventors who are also predatory capitalists or in thrall to one. The new technologies they introduce allow for the capitalization of natural resources previously outside the market, leading to an (anticipated) period of economic prosperity. However, the authors also introduce the dangers [End Page 182] associated with such extravagant, speculative ventures: the strong possibility of a crash. These stories illustrate not only the collapse of the financial scheme in question but also project the collapse into the very environments that extractive economics have overexploited. This essay considers speculative finance from an earlier historical vantage than many of the other essays in this special issue, examining modes of speculation directly related to technological innovation, manufacturing, and commodity production rather than the more abstract practices of contemporary neoliberal financialization; nonetheless, fin-de-siècle speculative fictions expose many of the same trends that other contributors in this issue observe—especially the tendency of speculative finance to inflict catastrophic damage on the planet's future for the sake of windfall profits in the present. In this regard, fin-de-siècle sf narratives offer...


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pp. 181-203
Launched on MUSE
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