science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction*

* I gave this paper at MLG-ICS 2013 in Columbus, Ohio. It is a development of my earlier post on Immobility, but here frames some of the problems of that text within the larger problematics of the genre question: post-apocalyptic fiction or science fiction?


The science-fictional world is not only one different in time or place from our own, but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes.
—Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction

Much as the historical novel fascinated the attention of Georg Lukács, science fiction has attracted the attention of Marxist critics for its attentiveness to history and historical movement. What then to make of post-apocalyptic fiction, that rapidly growing set of texts written by genre writers and literary authors alike, authors writing, at times, in the mode of science fiction and the older realism of which Lukács was enamoured? Little has been written specifically engaging post-apocalyptic fiction. James Berger and Evan Calder Williams have separately grappled with the implications of post-apocalyptic film; while, Teresa Heffernan has engaged the shifting valences of apocalyptic culture in the wake of postmodern theory. All three read post-apocalyptic cultural forms as a sign of the waning of the explanatory power of the apocalypse as a narrative that guides and structures meaning today or at least as a sign that its role has changed. I see post-apocalyptic fiction continuing the work of positing a telos to strive towards, but it seems to me that the end point posited by many works in this genre emphasize a reproduction of the present state of things over and above the type of radical break one could anticipate from either science fiction or an apocalyptic event. Indeed, post-apocalyptic fiction seems to arrive at an epistemological limit – things could be different from the present – but instead of crossing it, instead of extrapolating a radically different future, it imagines the continuation of the present ad infinitum.

In order to elaborate this mode, I’d like to make a distinction between the way science fiction figures the present as a historical moment subject to change, and the tendency of U.S. post-apocalyptic fiction to frame the contemporary as a perpetual present. I read the way post-apocalyptic fiction repeatedly dramatizes this limit in relation to critical discussions of science fiction, contrasting the form that enacts the future without difference to the form for thinking the future as difference. In developing this comparison, I move first to what Mark Bould has dubbed the “Suvin Event” (19); that is, Darko Suvin’s introduction of cognitive estrangement to discussions of the poetics of science fiction. I finish by reading Brian Evenson’s Immobility (2012) through Suvin’s poetics of estrangement to distinguish the inner logics of post-apocalyptic fiction from science fiction and to insist on the need for a constant and rigorous engagement with those novels that represent the stasis of life after the end and the theories of science fiction that insist on and demand that we think of the future.

Science fiction is, and has been, deeply indebted to the social contexts and historical moment from its own present, which it estranges in its extrapolations of the future. The way science fiction generates its extrapolations remains inseparable from its narrative operations as described by Suvin’s still-contested contribution to science fiction studies: cognitive estrangement. Cognitive estrangement describes the displacement of contemporary ideological and material commitments and presuppositions onto a fictional world which appears different from our own in a process that then necessarily allows us to perceive those elements with fresh eyes. So, science fiction is always already, on Suvin’s account, about the present. Within the estranged space-time, the cognitive mode of science fiction plays out a logical narrative, so that technological advancements and characters’ actions and relations develop and operate in rational accordance with the spatio-temporal conceit of the fiction. Cognitive estrangement works on both a formal level and the level of content, as it enables science fiction to warn, diagnose, proscribe, and act as “a mapping of possible alternatives” (12). Suvin argues that a common method for accustoming a reader to a new space and time was to “have the hero or heroine define it for the reader by growing into it” (79). The mediation of the protagonist, then, allows the reader to slowly come to terms with the estranging situation.

While science fiction remains punctuated by moments of radical difference, I argue, the apocalyptic event of post-apocalyptic fiction tends to resonate as a difference that makes no difference. Translating Suvin’s reading of science fiction characters, the narrative strategy of having characters grow into the world stands out as a hallmark of post-apocalyptic fiction as well. But, rather than emphasizing difference and extrapolation, post-apocalyptic fiction tends depict a return to the all too familiar. The movement from apocalypse to reproduction describes the impasse that lies at the heart of post-apocalyptic narrative form. The apocalyptic event is an alibi, a dead letter, a formal placeholder preventing radical difference, keeping any real event at bay. If this is the case, then the estrangement of post-apocalyptic fiction doesn’t herald the advent of some new content or reveal any alternatives to the present, but exists purely in a formal capacity as accumulated formal sediment from earlier moments of science fiction, a generic residue of previous nows that continues to radiate meaning by structuring post-apocalyptic narratives. Which brings us to my question: what is at stake in a form that seems best read as science fiction, but under closer scrutiny is so in name only?

Evenson’s Immobility offers a glimpse of the operations and politics of post-apocalyptic fiction. The world of Evenson’s novel, full of complexities that are never fully revealed, is focalized through the central character, who wakes from a stasis-like deep freeze at the novel’s start. The starting point of the novel’s meditation on immobility is that of the paraplegic protagonist, who cannot use his legs and is told he needs to receive a drug-cocktail shot to his spine every twenty-four hours in order to slow its deterioration and stave off his encroaching death. The novel follows this disabled amnesiac across a torn and hostile post-nuclear landscape as he is carried by two special clones, a.k.a. “mules,” designed to heft a burden for several days before deteriorating beyond use. While the novel is named for the character’s own paralysis, it also flags the way communities in the novel seem to be trapped between extinction and reproduction.

The novel thinks several ways out of stasis that form both an itinerary of the novel’s narrative movement and a set of future possibilities. In terms of its narrative form, Immobility can be described as the movement through a set of estranging episodes, each linked by the focalizing character’s journey from one to the next: 1. Survival; 2. Long Term Solutions; 3. Extinction; 4. Difference; and, 5. Reproduction. In what follows, I move through each of these scenes, which at the same time promise different alternatives for the protagonist. Through each of these spaces, the novel presents a world where one can never be sure what will survive and return, indeed one bit of advice often repeated is “Always remove the head” (232). In this way, the novel provides instructions for how to read it through its estranging prose and makes its relation to cognitive estrangement central in measuring it against the operations of science fiction.

The first estranging situation, survival, blends familiarity with unease as it establishes the movement of both the protagonist and the plot. The novel opens with the main character waking to confusion – he eventually remembers his name is Joseph Horkai. We know that he has been in deep freeze storage, has been tasked with a mission for his “community,” and is unlike any of the people within this community. One benefit of this difference is his ability to withstand the hostile, post-apocalyptic environment outside. Horkai remains uncertain about his identity, whereabouts, history, and whether he can or should trust anyone. He writes a note to himself to make sense of his situation. It should be noted that his first reaction to the others around him is violent and hostile, but he is pacified and before he can learn any more about his past or his identity, he is tasked with retrieving a stolen item, “seeds,” from a place called Granite Mountain. Since he cannot walk, he is carried by the aforementioned mules.

The next scene, long-term solutions, hinges on a long term solution. Horkai discovers that the others who are holding the stolen item are just like him; this has the effect of intensifying the level of estrangement just at the moment when Horkai and the reader begin to understand more of the world around him. The reason he was selected for the mission becomes slightly less opaque – these others can withstand the outside, look like him, and greet him as a companion. Under Granite Mountain, there are a number of others frozen in storage, and Mahonri, the one who greets him, explains that the procedure of leaving one sentinel out while the remaining beings sleep allows them to guard a number of preserved seeds. In other words, the freezing extends their lives and their stewardship hopefully long enough to witness a return of flora and, with it, humanity. For a moment, here, the future seems uncertain: Horkai could attempt to retrieve the stolen item from the deep freeze or stay along with Mahonri and help them in their temporal bid to restart the experiment of life on Earth. Ultimately, and violently, Horkai maintains fidelity to his “community,” brutally killing Mahonri in his sleep and escaping with the stolen seeds. But, he doesn’t take the grisly advice to “remove the head,” Mahonri revives and gives chase. One narrative possibility for the future, staying with those like him, gives way to another, flight through the wracked countryside, and Horkai finds himself moving on to a third configuration of estrangement and another possible future.

The novel accounts for each situation from within a new set of uncertainties, which act as a rewiring of the novel’s estrangement that sends jolts back to the start of the novel. Horkai escapes, the mules expire, and he tries to drag himself the rest of the way home. Much of this interstitial section is narrated in fragments filtered through Horkai’s delirium. During this scenario, he is visited by at least one group and one individual: the first take some of his precious treasure and the second rescues him and nurses him back to health. Between both encounters we learn about the stakes of Horkai’s mission – the stolen container holds not seeds but frozen fertilized human eggs. Horkai has in his hands the potentiality of an ambivalent future; here the novel deepens its debt to a science fictional setting and operations, and clearly reveals its investment in questions of futurity and reproduction. Horkai, a distinctly different entity, though not singularly so, holds the reproduction of a particular community in his hands. The significance of his power over the future connects to the previous situation, where Mahonri planned to use the fertilized eggs in the distant future. The novel has been working through both different spaces and different futures simultaneously: the community needs the eggs now; while, Mahonri needs them should the planet become hospitable once more. Both possibilities mark the novel’s concern with limits to the future and how integral reproduction – sexual, social, and, as we shall see, ideological – is to maintaining a particular shape of the present.

The narrative regains coherence once Horkai is safe and we enter the next scene, extinction. He learns that he is not paralyzed after all from his saviour, Rykte; the injections he received from the community were responsible for his immobility in the first place. The tension in this section escalates when members of Horkai’s community find them and beg him to return. He now faces a variant of stasis: extinction; that is, to follow Rykte and let the humans die. Again, he decides to return, but not without wondering: “Is Rykte right...is it better for humanity to die out?” (227). The novel’s insistence seems to be that though many alternatives confront the protagonist, in the form of contrasting versions of the future, he cannot veer from his path. Here the post-apocalyptic drive towards a difference that makes no difference at all accelerates as Horkai’s leaves Rykte bound for the community.

The fourth scene, difference, marks the closest that post-apocalyptic fiction comes to science fiction in Evenson’s novel and is also the clearest point of their divergence. On his way back to the community, Horkai is sidetracked by a strange building he remembers from a moment of delirium. What he discovers marks both the most opaque moment in the novel, a moment the novel itself cannot seem to resolve, and the closest Horkai comes to deviating from his path and breaking the cycle of stasis:

He moved carefully forward, rifle ready. The body was relatively recent, not the desiccated corpses he’d seen while travelling with the mules. It was naked. A stake had been hammered into its chest. It was extremely pale and hairless, just like him. He could not tell if it was a man or a woman; the facial features were ambiguous and the hips could have belonged to a boyish girl or an effeminate man. It had what looked like the beginnings of breasts, but the body itself was chubby and the nipples looked more like those of a man than a woman. Between the legs was no sex, neither male nor female, but instead a strange gelatinous casing that seemed to have been extruded from the flesh itself. He bent to have a closer look, but couldn’t figure their purpose. He was just reaching out to touch them when the creature opened one eye. (231)

The moment of the strangest occurrence is followed immediately by the moment Horkai’s decision to return to the community is the sharpest. Horkai thinks, “Back to the original purpose . . . focus Horkai” (232). Here stands the strongest example of how the novel tends to shrink away from difference, to yearn for more of the same, and to reject an as yet unknowable future, which places it squarely outside the progressive, even radical, tendencies of SF.

Given Horkai’s decision to turn away from the most radically unknowable difference in the novel, the twist at the end is almost unsurprising: Horkai completes his mission and is forcibly sequestered back into the deep freeze. A short fifth section, and reproduction may not be quite the right name for it, concludes the novel, ending with the line: “Ah, he thought, just before the sudden inrush of extreme cold. I’ve been in storage. They must just be waking me up” (253). At this moment in the novel, a comment of Fredric Jameson’s refreshes itself, “a narrative must have an ending, even if it is ingeniously organized around the structural repression of ending as such” (283). While the overt lesson of the novel’s closure seems to be one about political attachment and faith, its true lesson, about aesthetic-epistemological limits to imagining the future, arrives as the cycle apparently starts over again in the image what came before.

Horkai’s return to the community measures the depth of collective belonging as the ending of Immobility insists on the reproduction of a certain set of relations. The takeaway of this approach to post-apocalyptic fiction is that the genre seems to be about arriving at epistemological limits in a positive sense; it thinks of the future based upon the present as more of the same. Indeed this is part of the takeaway for science fiction, too, which always has a penchant for allowing us to think the present as history. But, as I have been arguing here, post-apocalyptic fiction is not science fiction, though it may seem to operate like it. Post-apocalyptic fiction preoccupies itself with managing and containing difference. A rephrasing of Freedman’s statement, that science fiction is a genre that thinks the difference that difference makes, could be that “post-apocalyptic fiction is about the difference that makes no difference at all.” Thus, I would suggest that what Evenson’s novel so wonderfully captures is not only the universal stuck-ness and stasis of our contemporary, global condition, but the immobility that lies at the heart of the post-apocalyptic genre itself. That Horkai is a character apart marks the hidden class relations at the heart of the novel and, simultaneously, a dialectical reversal of its title: Horkai is not immobile; he is precisely the most mobile character in the novel and as such is able to witness and engage in the most situations and offer the fullest account of what is happening in the world. Horkai marks the novel’s collective sub-text as a deeply classed, often masculine, and (hetero)normative desire for the future to resemble the present along either the lines of the reproduction of the community.

Thinking of post-apocalyptic fiction as a genre distinct from science fiction does offer an additional moment of clarity with which to understand Horkai’s encounter with unassimilable difference. Immobility treats the present as history caught in stasis, marking a reversal of the narrative intent framed by apocalyptic revelation – from the break and rupture issues not a new situation, but a return of what came before. Unlike science fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction doesn’t map possible alternatives; it only seems to hold open the space for such mapping to take place. This openness is especially clear in Horkai’s strange encounter: one only knows that there is a path not taken, and not what content would fill that particular future. A generous reading of the novel would see this as the trace of what could be a future outside of stasis – a radically feminist, queer future. Immobility symptomatically suggests that a better future exists and, crucially, that seeing a path to that future, recognizing it, or knowing it, will absolutely not bring it about. This is the central problem of the text – how is it that we can encounter the very limit of our own thought and capacities and miss the chance to act? When Horkai encounters the alien being there is no level of cognitive estrangement present that can frame it reasonably within his or our own understanding, and instead we get an attempt to place the figure within the physical embodied realm of reproduction. Rather than push the limits of thought and action, Horkai returns to the familiar, dramatizing a contemporary epistemic and ontological problem. Post-apocalyptic fiction, in short, replaces science fiction’s tendency for cognitive estrangement with an estrangement of social and sexual reproduction that forms both the ultimate description and limit of its problematic.

Works Cited
Berger, James. 1999. After the End: Representations of the Post Apocalypse. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.
Bould, Mark and China Miévill Eds. 2009. Red Planets. Eds. Middletown: Wesleyan UP.
Evenson, Brian. 2012. Immobility. New York: Tor Books.
Freedman, Carl. 2000. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan UP.
Heffernan, Teresa. 2008. Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Twentieth-Century Novel. Toronto: U of Toronto P.
Jameson, Fredric. 2005. “Progress versus Utopia, or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopian and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso. 281-295.
Suvin, Darko. 1979. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: Poetics of a Genre. New Haven: Yale UP.
Willams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, 2011.

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