Thursday, February 23, 2012

Apocalypse Not Now; or, why the end of the world is a cliché

I admit to having a low tolerance for post-apocalyptic science fiction.  I just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which was excellent but as much as I could take.  When I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, I was in a bad mood the whole rest of the summer, so I tend to stay away from books I should otherwise probably read, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if it means having to plunge myself into a world in decline or collapse.

Of course, I recognize that this is just a personal preference, but it seems an appropriate abuse of a blog to turn a personal preference into a virtue.  So, I’d like to make the case against the end of the world as a cliché that does more harm than good, both for fiction and for ourselves.  But first, let’s give the cliché its due. 

I remember how revelatory it was to read early William Gibson and Neal Stephenson and to see how cyberpunk broke with much of the science fiction that preceded it.  The cyberpunks refused to allow technology to solve social problems.  New technologies only created different arenas where social conflict played out.  This brought a whole new political sensibility to science fiction, and it made some of the stodgy hard SF that came before it seem not only dated but reactionary.

As a cyberpunk sensibility came to prominence within SF, narratives about courageous scientists solving the world’s problems with inventions were replaced by dystopian visions of hackers trying to outwit multinational corporations that facilitated environmental devastation.  As a corrective, this cyberpunk sensibility was, and still can be, important.  However, as a dominant narrative trope, it has its limitations.  What started out as a progressive critique can easily morph into a kind of fatalism.  If you’ve read one too many books with cynical, well-armed protagonists, you know what I mean.   If I want to see angry, white men trying to figure out what to do based on nostalgia for a lost world, I’ll just watch Fox News.

One of the most intriguing (though also infuriating) post-cyberpunk books I’ve read is Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  What makes it post-cyberpunk is its refusal of the clichés of apocalypse.  Doctorow’s novel envisions a post-scarcity world where many of the problems that obsess us now have been solved.  However, unlike pre-cyberpunk SF, those solutions aren’t the point of the book.  The book investigates what happens next.  How do people live in a kind of utopia where social interactions remain important?  The first half of the book lays out an amazing world that is so refreshingly free from cyberpunk concerns that I was able to realize how oppressive that worldview had become.  The second half of the book is inexplicably concerned with how rides work in the future-Disneyworld and a real let down, but that’s another issue altogether.

Of course, I would like to take the best of both worlds and write about a plausible future that doesn’t deny challenges yet doesn’t give into them either.  In fact, the apocalyptic mindset of the villains of the novel I’m writing has made their characterizations one of the easier tasks I’ve taken on.

Things are going well with my novel.  I’m 125 pages in and about to head into the crucial section of the book.  I’m actually going to step back from writing for a week to think about it more (and to catch up on a cascading to-do list I’ve been neglecting).  In other writing news, I hope to see Cedar Fallsians at the Final Thursday Reading Series tonight for a reading in honor of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Nancy Price’s Sleeping with the Enemy.  I’ll be premiering a new flash fiction monologue.  I also have a humor piece coming out soon in McSweeney’s, one of my favorite ezines.  I’ll shamelessly plug it when it gets published.

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