energy and literature

This is the text for a talk I will give at the MLA 2015 in Vancouver on a roundtable “Envisioning the Energy Humanities, NarratingEnergy Pasts and Futures” in VCC West Room 121 from 10-11:30. 

Suggestions or comments welcomed! bbellamy [at] ualberta [dot] ca


The energy humanities excite thought, invigorate methodology, and entice research. In one jolt the proposition that humanities researchers, literary scholars among them, address history from the standpoint of energy joins against accusations of irrelevance that humanities departments face. In Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer’s provocation “The Rise of the Energy Humanities,” they pose a crucial question for our times: “How to work towards a sustainable energy future?” (Boyer and Szeman 2014). It would seem that there is no time like the present to come to terms, on a number of fronts, with the cultural, economic, and political roles of energy in late capitalism and its historical development.

In this way the energy humanities must operate in a reflective mode, since it comes late to the party otherwise populated by scientists and policy makers. But, the energy humanities ought to be anticipatory too, since humanities scholars bring a hermeneutic precision to the table that allows us to engage the relationship between narrative and duration. Put otherwise we seek to understand the contemporary (or many contemporaries) as energy soaked moments in history.


Where, how, and when to incorporate energy into our various and varied research programs? I would like to offer an all-too broad methodological schematic for the study of literature and energy. We could:

– include energy in the narrative frame in a New Historical approach
– locate the signs of energy through a New Critical practice of close reading
– assess trends across a set of digitized texts in a Distant Reading approach
– return to old archives, asking which Genres are germane to the study of energy?
– read for the gaps left by energy in a Symptomatic approach

New Historical and New Critical approaches could return to novels such as Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), which offers a bleak description of Coketown: “It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it…It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled” (Dickens 1994, 19). Here we see the obvious sign of coal’s impact on the realist novel. What can Hard Times tell us about the impacts of carbon energy on the industrial revolution or on the bodies that lived and labored in such places or on the soil, the air, and the water? Are other texts similarly marked?

A Distant Reading approach could look for energy keywords in a variety of texts and genres. Reading energy on the level of content would be a way to understand when and how an energy source arises in literary form and to ask which forms seem to come to terms with energy, in any given manner, most prominently and most directly. This approach could be a way to move beyond the broad questions, towards more focused research on stories about wood, about coal, about oil, about nuclear energy, and so on. We already know how to do these things, and it is amazing how attuned distant and close reading in particular are to gleaning for the narratological qualities of energy.

When it comes to Genre, considering my other work on post-apocalyptic narratives, I would ask, what does it mean to write about an energy scarce future in the midst of an energy rich one? And, what can we learn by reading against the grain in stories set after the end of petromodernity? Other questions materialize rather quickly once we begin to look for energy in relation to other literary genres.

We could perform a Symptomatic Reading that looks for energy as a kind of structuring absence. Amitav Ghosh asks why the oil encounter has not produced the same literary response as the colonial spice encounter did—there are many novels about the spice trade, where are the oil novels? A symptomatic approach to energy would need to follow Patricia Yaeger’s suggestion that “…energy invisibilities may constitute different kinds of erasures” than other invisibilities (Yaeger 2011, 309).


These suggested approaches cannot be read without attendant theoretical commitments, and it is my suspicion that once we wed them with our other driving concerns, such as decolonization, anti-racism, feminism, queer politics, and ecocriticism, we will begin to work towards a radical idea of what the energy humanities can be and do for our future. Perhaps it is the authority of oil as energy that precludes its narrativization on the same level as the spice encounter or the industrial uses of coal. Beyond a doubt, the fact that its role is being re-narrated today demonstrates that the age of its flourishing is at a crucial moment for intervention.

Works Cited

Boyer, Dominic and Imre Szeman. “The Rise of Energy Humanities: Breaking the Impasse.” University Affairs (12 February 2014) Web.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Penguin: New York, 1994. Print.
Yaeger, Patricia. “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale-Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power and Other Energy Sources.” PMLA 126:2 (2011): 305-10. Print.


naomi oreskes and eric m. conway's future history

Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present. —Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 10)
In 2013, two historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published a speculative piece in Daedalus titled “The Collapse of Western Civilization.” They subsequently expanded the piece into a short book of the same time, and, in the process, added a subtitle “A View from the Future.”  The book combines the science fictional conceit of an imagined future with a rigorously thought historical document in order to come to terms with the energy-ecology impasse. The text takes the occasion of the fictional “tercentury of the end of Western Culture (1540-2093)” to address the incredible failure to act on “robust information about climate change and knowledge of the damaging events that were about to unfold” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 10). The look backwards from the imaginary future of 2393, could be described as a kind of retroactive futurity, and it is through this device that Oreskes and Conway attempt to re-invigorate scientific reportage and transparency.[1] Through the synthesized modes of science fiction novel and history treatise, their intervention offers one way to come to terms with the inertia of our energy commitments in the present. In effect, they use a long durée as a narrative device, extrapolating the effects of a global time elapse.

In their own words, Orsekes and Conway have written a science fiction-historical novel. As a great thinker of both science fiction and history, Fredric Jameson’s description of the former seems entirely applicable here: “[Science fiction’s] multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (Jameson 2005, 288).[2] The negotiation of time, especially the way it is presented as rapidly passing before the reader’s eyes, has the effect of returning the reader to the present. Oreskes and Conway’s text pushes the reader to imagine just what energy commitments in the present mean for the future and precisely why it is so urgent not only to rethink those commitments, but also to rethink the whole network of scientific practice and economic doctrine that shore up oil-capital.

Oreskes and Conway use the device of the narrator to address an imagined future audience, while they simultaneously target the present. For instance, they distance the imagined future through the plain-spoken asides of the narrator. The narrator explains the politico-geographic language he uses like this:
Throughout this essay, I will use the nation-state terms of the era; for the reader not familiar with the political geography of Earth prior to the Great Collapse, the remains of the United Kingdom can be found in present-day Cambria; Germany in the Nordo-Scandinavian Union; and the United States and Canada in the United States of North America. (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 15)
This fairly neutral narrative device teaches the reader how to understand and grapple with the extrapolation at work in the text, in effect explaining the world of Oreskes and Conway’s present, the reader’s present, from a scientific-political angle.

Each chapter starts with a regional or continental map. These maps depict ocean levels in one geographic space across two temporal planes. The reader will recognize a map of his or her own present, and superimposed in a ghostly imprint is the land that was—will be—swallowed by the rising oceans.[3] At the start of chapter one, the map of the former Netherlands places Brussels on the coast, while it submerges The Hague, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, and the highlands around Apeldoorn become an island. The map that adorns the title page of chapter two swallows the floodplains of Bangladesh, and the map at the start of Chapter Three depicts what is left of Manhattan and the Borrows of New York City as a new string of thin islands. This device works to reinforce the temporal negotiation of the text itself, hammering home the ecological imperative of the text. Readers can look at the land that will be underwater and consider their own relationship to those places, not only geographically, but also temporally. In this way time becomes the central axis on which the political bid of The Collapse of Western Civilization turns.

The book is organized into three chapters, which separately take on the three overdetermined limits of imagining a time after present of oil-capital. The chapters are titled “The Coming of the Prenumbral Age,” “The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels,” and “Market Failure.” The authors also include a “Lexicon of Archaic Terms” and an Interview. The first chapter situates the reader within the temporal frame of the text, while the second and third chapters outline the mutually reinforcing cognitive limits of petromodernity and neoliberalism. The conceit of the lexicon is that the imagined readers of 2393 will not be familiar with terms prevalent during the height and collapse of Western civilization. The lexicon works to introduce the actual readers of the present time with terms that may be unfamiliar, despite their prevalence and accuracy. While the lexicon provides a snapshot of the overall logic of the text, the arrangement of the three chapters speaks powerfully to the inseparability of the problems of anthropogenic climate change, the overreliance on fossil fuels as energy source, and the dependence on the free mark to resolve these problems. Pursuing these logics, The Collapse of Western Civilization kindly but firmly insists that coming to terms with the energy-ecology impasse is only one crucial step; we must use our knowledge to act.

The first chapter works as a history of science leading up to the present of the narrator, which, at the same time, is partially the reader’s history and partially the reader’s future. The narrator tracks the development of anthropogenic climate change, and people’s awareness of it, from the discovery of CO2 to the rise of environmental movement, and from the foundation of the environmental protection agency to that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 16-18). Alongside the hard facts of scientific discovery, the narrator tracks a problem the problem of climate change denial. The narrator traces climate denial to the U.S. noting that “some countries tried but failed to force the United States into international cooperation. Other nations used inertia in the United States to excuse their own patterns of destructive development” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 18). Further, the narrator identifies the way scientists were—read are—stifled by their own practices as one of the crucial factors that stands between knowledge and action in the present.

Chapter two “The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” takes a step towards extrapolation as the narrator describes events as they unfold in the twenty-first century. They mention a series of artworks that endured through the heated debates that raged between scientific truths and the cash spent to buy scientific opinions.[4] For instance, in 2025 the U.S. introduced a National Stability Protection Act (modelled on the Sea Level Rise Denial Bill) which “lead to the imprisonment of more than three hundred scientists for ‘endangering the safety of and well-being of the general public with unduly alarming threats’” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 25). The narrator explains that this kind of response is described in his time as a part of the psychological phenomenon known as “human adaptive optimism,” which could be read as the mirror image of cognitive dissonance—the making of choices against one’s own understood best interests—or of what philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s calls fetishistic disavowal—‘I know very well what I do is wrong, but I choose to do it anyway.’

The text traces these explanations to their root in enlightenment thought. They call this impasse the fallacy of Baconianism, where despite their knowledge of the ecological threats generated by fossil fuel use they could not act on it. Unlike the Roman and Mayan empires, where historians, archaeologists, and synthetic-failure paleoanalysists are unable to agree on the engine of their ruin, in the case of the twenty-first century nation-states that referred to themselves as Western civilization experts agree that people “knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 14-15). The narrator refers to “the archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems” as evidenced in the very title of the position “physical scientists.” In this manner, they develop an enlightenment legacy—the impasse of knowledge and action—while insisting on the need to bring physical scientists into conversation with the social and humanistic sciences.

The turn to the future, and the shift from history to science fiction in the text, hinges on China’s decision “to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon-based energy sources” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 6).  According to this document as of 2050 the impact of these decisions were registered as China’s emissions rapidly fell. However neat the separation of history and science fiction appears in the text, their interplay is not so simple, as evidenced in the narrator’s declaration: “Had other nations followed China’s lead, the history recounted here might have been very different” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 19). The use of history and fiction here mixes truth about population control with speculation about carbon emissions, resulting in a kind of imperative that is familiar in science fictional environmental writing, but shows up here with a twist.[5]  Not, “if we continue on this path, this is where we will end up,” but “had we done as we knew we should have, things would have been different.”[6] The first statement is familiar from what we might call catastrophism, using the threat of a catastrophe to spur action, while the second seems to gain its affective punch from the careful generic dance of the text.[7]

“The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” grapples directly with the inertia of energy commitments. In it the narrator asks, “How did these wealthy nations—rich in the resources that would have enabled an orderly transition to a zero-net-carbon infrastructure—justify the deadly expansion of fossil fuel production?” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 35). The first answer has already been explained: denial. The second answer is that shale gas deposits could offer a bridge to renewables. The narrator addresses this answer by outlining its fallacies: fugitive emissions, the distribution system, it replaced clean rather than dirty fuel sources, the aerosols from coal actually have a cooling effect, and a sustained low price for fossil fuels prevented new energy sources from emerging (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 36-37). The results of not breaking free from this inertia are crippling heat waves, crop failure, rising ocean levels, and changing weather patterns. Here the temporal device works in the favour of the text as it avoids turning into an apocalyptic thriller. The narrator claims, “there is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 44). In a Hitchcockian move, Oreskes and Conway show the reader more by leaving it up to his or her imagination. Fossil fuels, the path of least resistance, are also the path that could prove humanity’s ultimate failure to adapt to the world of their own making.

In the third chapter, “Market Failure,” Oreskes and Conway return to the energy-ecology impasse from an epistemological and economic vantage. The narrator expresses frustration, once more, with Western civilization: “the victims knew what was happening and why...[and they]had the technological knowhow and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 48). In order to account for the lack of uptake of alternate energy sources, the narrator turns to, what he calls, the carbon-combustion complex. The complex is composed of fossil fuel extractors, refiners, and producers, manufacturers (who have come to rely on inexpensive energy), and a whole matrix of firms (advertising, financial, marketing, public relations) who promote and rely on fossil fuels. The intense interest in maintaining economic growth based on fossil fuels outweighs any desire to take up alternate, clean energy sources. Underlying these interests are the infrastructures of petromodernity.

Throughout the text, Oreskes and Conway deploy infrastructure as both a limit and what needs to be changed in order to break free of impasse. Infrastructure gets figured as something those in “passive denial” cannot be convinced needs broad changes (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 19-20). Further, it becomes a crucial term in the fictionalized debates over moving beyond fossil fuels: “Many said the time had come to make the switch to zero-carbon energy sources,” while, “others argued that the world could not wait ten to fifty years required to alter the global energy infrastructure, much less one hundred years it would take for atmospheric CO2 to diminish” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 39). In this way, infrastructure shapes the realm of possible secondary actions, so that primary environmentalist action could only be targeted at staving off further fossil fuel development, repurposing existing structures, and developing the requirements for new zero-carbon energy sources. Indeed, the caption of the map of New York City that adorns “Market Failure” reads, 
Once the financial capital of the world, New York began in the early twenty-first century to attempt to defend its elaborate and expensive architecture against the sea. But that infrastructure had been designed and built with an expectation of constant seas and was not easily adapted to continuous, rapid rise. Like the Netherlands, New York City gradually lost its struggle. Ultimately, it proved less expensive to retreat to higher ground, abandoning centuries’ worth of capital investments. (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 47)
This history in miniature acknowledges the way time itself becomes overtaken by space in the development and construction of the hulking infrastructures of modernity. The city is there. It grows and moves. In order to abandon the commitment to fossil fuels, we must turn away from the most energy intensive development in human history. As James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello persuasively argue in the The Oil Road, “The solution to the unsustainable extraction of oil and gas—from both an economic and an environmental perspective—is simple: stop drilling for oil and gas” (Marriot and Minio-Paluello 2013, 47). I would add to this, the solution to breaking free of the inertia that comes along with energy infrastructure is simple: stop building rigs, pipelines, and refineries and start re-imaging what those structures can be and do.

Works Cited
Asimov, Isaac (1983). “The Nightmare Life without Fuel.” Science Fiction: The Future edited by Dick Allen. New York: Harcourt Brace Javonavich. 34-36. Print.
Duggan, Jennifer (2014). “China pledges to cut emissions at UN climate summit.” Available at: < http://www.theguardian.com/environment/chinas-choice/2014/sep/24/china-pledges-to-cut-emissions-at-un-climate-summit>. [12 October 2014].
--- (2013). “How China's action on air pollution is slowing its carbon emissions.” Available at: < http://www.theguardian.com/environment/chinas-choice/2013/nov/21/china-air-pollution-carbon-emissions>. [12 October 2014].
Jameson, Fredric (2013). “The Historical Novel Today, or, Is It Still Possible?” The Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso. 259-313. Print.
--- (2005). Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso. Print.
Jansson, André and Amanda Lagervist (2009). Strange Spaces: Explorations Into Mediated Obscurity. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing. Print.
Liley, Sasha, Editor (2012). Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. Toronto: Between the Lines. Print.
Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia UP, 2014. Print.
Marriot, James and Mika Minio-Paluello (2013). The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea tot eh City of London. London: Verso. Print.

[1] André Jansson and Amanda Lagerkvist (2009) uses the term retroactive futurity in passing to explain a particular form of nostalgia. I use the term here to negotiate the way Oreskes and Conway’s text negotiates temporality.
[2] In Jameson’s recent essay “The Historical Novel Today, or, Is It Still Possible?” he calls for a further consideration of the connection between the historical novel and science fiction: “In what follows I will want to claim, however outrageously, that the historical novel of the future (which is to say our present) will necessarily be Science-Fictional inasmuch as it will have to include questions about the fate of our social system, which have become a second nature. To read the present as history, as so many have urged us to do, will mean adopting a Science-Fictional perspective of some kind, and we fortunate to have at least one recent novel [David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas] which, against all expectations, gives us an idea of what that might look like” (Jameson 2013, 298).
[3] According to a recent article on ThinkProgress.org the Earth is heating faster than scientists predicted (Romm 2014).
[4] They note that the most enduring artistic text from the period is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy (2004, 2005, 2007), which quickens the pace and effects of global warming to test various scenarios and human responses.
[5] Jennifer Duggan has been tracking China’s emissions, and appears hopeful about their fight against pollution and climate change (see Duggan 2013 and Duggan 2014).
[6] In this way, The Collapse of Western Civilization is not dissimilar from a 1977 Isaac Asimov essay that was printed in Time Magazine, titled “The Nightmare Life without Fuel.” The essay imagines a post-fuel world as a one where teams of workers dismantle automobiles for metal and tear down infrastructure and buildings in order to harvest rich yields of raw material. Asimov closes that piece by speculating: “If we had started 20 years ago, that might have been another matter. If we had started 50 years ago it would have been easy” (Asimov 1983, 36).
[7] For more on catastrophism see Sasha Liley’s edited collection of the same name (Liley 2013).


the contested politics of the u.s. post-apocalyptic novel

These remarks are the public presentation portion of PhD defence. I remain thankful to my friends and colleagues for attending--they offered a crucial intervention, converting my anxiety adrenaline into performance adrenaline, or at least that's how it felt.

Before I begin, there are many people I would like to thank. Today, I will restrict myself to those who helped directly with the writing of this presentation and those present here today, and leave the rest for the Acknowledgements of my dissertation itself. Thank you to Alexandra Carruthers, Marija Cetinic, Jeff Diamanti, and Katie Lewandowski for helping me as I prepared this talk. Thank you to Dr. Janice Williamson, our fearless chair, to Dr. Priscilla Wald, Dr. Natalie Loveless, Dr. Mike O’Driscoll, Dr. Mark Simpson, and Dr. Imre Szeman for taking the time to read my work—I eagerly look forward to our conversation. Thank you also to those of you here to listen today. I hope you find it lives up to your expectations. The title for my talk this morning is:

The Contested Politics of the U.S. Post-Apocalyptic Novel

It seems humorous to me now that I decided against studying stories that centered on the apocalypse itself. I could not commit myself to researching such a sensationalist genre where implausibly everyone seemed to survive. How was I to know that implausible survival would be precisely what I could come to expect from the U.S. post-apocalyptic novel as well? For instance, take an opening paragraph of a recent novel:
“On the map, their destination had been a stretch of green, as if they would be living on the golf course. No freeways nearby, or any roads, really: those had been left to rot years before. Frida had given this place a secret name, the afterlife, and on their journey, when they were forced to hide in abandoned rest stops, or when they’d filled the car with the last of their gasoline, this place had beckoned. In her mind it was a township, and Cal was the mayor. She was the mayor’s wife” (Lepucki 2014, 3).
This is how the narrator of Edan Lepucki’s California (2014) begins the novel. It contains in miniature instructions for the post-apocalyptic plot: after catastrophe look towards a new Edenic beginning, document destruction, struggle with adversity, leave things behind, and, at the end, re-form the social. Compare it with how Hig, the narrator of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (2012), begins to recount his story:
“I keep the Beast running, I keep the 100 low lead on tap, I foresee attacks. I am young enough, I am old enough. I used to love to fish for trout more than anything” (Heller 2012, 3).
The first striking point of comparison is the gruffness and closeness of Heller’s first person to the distanced knowledge of Lepuki’s third. Curiously, too, this difference deepens when we notice that Lepuki’s narrator describes a couple, and, though Hig mentions his late wife on the first page, Heller’s is a confident solo pilot. Each character anticipates their future as much as they look back on their past. They express a relationship to fuel and are fixated on survival. California and The Dog Stars are examples of U.S. post-apocalyptic novels that fit into the literary fiction end of the form’s literary-popular spectrum. These two novels stand at one coordinate of what I am calling the contested politics of the post-apocalyptic novel. 

Popular U.S. post-apocalyptic novels have tended to include blight and toxicity as elements of their story worlds. There are stark examples, the gory death of anyone who feels that tickle of the Captain Trips disease in their throat in Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) or, looking back further, the barren deserts and anti-intellectual climate of Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1964). Devastated story worlds are not only the stuff of the popular side of things. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) banishes any colour but ash grey from its landscapes. We find a different kind of devastation in Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009) as the narrator muses on his colleague Julia’s vision of the future. 
She says her goal “is to connect the coasts and the north-south borders with great corridors of wild land—farms, forests, suburbs reclaimed by nature. One day there will be no more cities—their shells will be ghostly interruptions of the new nation, which will be composed of rural communities linked in all directions. Even if we aren’t here, the land will be: My money will keep it safe. When the rain comes back—ever the optimist—this is where her utopia will be” (Amsterdam 2009, 125).
Amsterdam’s narrator relays Julia’s plan for the future despite the signal that their part of the world has been plagued by drought. In this way Amsterdam’s novel takes a step away from the blasted setting of the popular variants of post-apocalyptic novels. Cast between the craggy-rock worlds of earlier novels and the green hope of novels like Lepucki’s and Heller’s, Thing We Didn’t See Coming offers a tantalizing read precisely because it does not offer a revelation of what disaster has taken place. In each of its nine vignettes, there are hints that some major event has transpired, but the first person narrator has no vantage from which to determine what went wrong. Amsterdam’s novel recognizes that knowledgeable exposition has become a tired trope of the post-apocalyptic novel. Thus, through its formal innovation, Things We Didn’t See Coming differentiates itself from the popular strain of the post-apocalyptic novel, while thinking critically about what it can and cannot plausibly represent.

The narrative form of the post-apocalyptic novel, how the story is told, lends it generic coherence despite this contest over what it can (or should) do. The work of British literary critic Frank Kermode on the apocalyptic provides a rich place to begin a formal understanding of the post-apocalyptic novel.  In The Sense of an Ending, Kermode suggests apocalyptic concerns allow individuals and societies to locate themselves in space and time—we know where we are because we can see that we are headed for an ending. Post-apocalyptic novels undertake an inversion of Kermode’s apocalyptic narrative, beginning from the apocalyptic end and working towards resolution in a new origin.

In the post-apocalyptic novel the origin of historical time within the story is identical with the end of the historical time of the reader. Put differently, post-apocalyptic novels develop claims about the present as they work through an interpretation of their historical conditions. Thus, we could say that the post-apocalyptic novel attempts to look beyond the telos, beyond the ending, of the apocalypse by distancing the confines of the present through an estranging, apocalyptic event. Their formal inversion generates a newly cleared space in which to imagine how social ways of being might change. I call this device cognitive reduction—the elements of life under late capital are stripped away, inviting imaginary scenarios to unfold in their place. Despite all of their setbacks, these novels still promise to engage in thinking beyond the apocalyptic imaginary outlined by Kermode, and that, to me, makes them worthy of our time and attention.

Before I proceed too much further, I should answer two questions: why talk about the novel and why the U.S. post-apocalyptic novel in particular? I am a literary critic by training, and an explanation for why I took up the post-apocalyptic novel as the centerpiece of my study may not be needed in this company. However natural this decision seems, there was choice involved. I found that the novel allowed for me to avoid the sensational images of post-apocalyptic film (I have somewhat of an axe to grind about the Emmerich perspective so widely used in his and other apocalyptic films). Further, the novel has a rich history in grappling with historical change, which can be seen in the assessment of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel by Georg Lukács and the description of “setting” in U.S. literary history by Phillip Fischer in Hard Facts. The post-apocalyptic novel offered the occasion for me to ask questions about history, form, and politics (which just so happen to be three of my favourite things).

The United States acts as a geographic boundary for my dissertation for both practical and methodological reasons. As for the practicality of it, I had to limit the number of texts I would address in the dissertation: even a focus on the post-World War II United States meant leaving many novels out of the dissertation. The methodological reasoning was that United States has been going through a major historical transition in the late 20th and early 21st century. It has been moving from a phase of historical dominance as an economic and political superpower to a phase of uncertainty. Three particular moments of this change interest me most: first, the moment of U.S. dominance just after the War at the zenith of what has been generally called the American Century; second, the tightening grip of neoliberal dominance in the mid-1980s; and, third, the moment of free fall between the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the on-going global financial crisis of 2007-2008. The coincidence of U.S. decline and a veritable rash of post-apocalyptic novels struck me as the ripest relationship to consider in my dissertation.

When I began to plot out the dissertation, I was intrigued by the way these novels seems to be operating, simultaneously, with uncanny precision in their estimations of the scope of our current crises and with a wildly inaccurate sense of what to do in the face of these various cataclysms. I began to trace this seeming paradox of acuity to their role as national allegories. U.S. post-apocalyptic novels, in particular, struggle with how historical change takes place. They seem to want to come to terms with how to maintain the way of things in the face of knowledge that this might not be the most equitable, ethical, or environmental way of life. Their main theory of history seems to be that of rupture—that only the apocalyptic event could restore order, enabling a return, or just a turn, to a mode of social organization that will restore the promise of what the U.S. could be. The problem for a critic reading these novels is that this is a corpus composed of exceptions. The way they represent the apocalyptic break and what they will suggest should follow in its wake varies wildly from one novel to the next, which makes the post-apocalyptic novel as form into a site of contest. The inversion of Kermode’s apocalyptic narrative turns the post-apocalyptic novel into a veritable sandbox for storytelling.

Along with those first two coordinates of the more popular or literary variants, these novels also struggle politically over what is to come. For instance, on the one hand, James, Wesley Rawles’s Novels of the Coming Collapse take a libertarian position, placing the individual and that individual’s allegiance to a cadre of trusted militia-survivalist patriots at the core of its post-apocalyptic enterprise. The United States have collapsed and anyone from on the road, whether they are cannibals carrying copies of Mao’s little red book, I kid you not, or folks claiming to be from the U.S. government, they are not to be trusted. Rawles’s novels make a political bid through their encyclopedic form, which is codified in their extensive glossaries: these will be novels people learn from and look to in the event of actual crisis. On the other hand, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore (1984)—the first novel in a trilogy that imagines three different versions of Orange County, California—brings a realist approach to the post-apocalyptic novel. The novel meditates on what life might look like in the wake of a targeted apocalypse: the fictive conceit of The Wild Shore is that a world government banishes the United States to technological backwardness and political obscurity through a nuclear strike. The politics of Robinson’s novel are equally contained in the form: the novel is a kind of microcosm of the Three Californias trilogy precisely because it presents multiple social ontologies in conflict without judiciously selecting one as dominant or preferable. Robinson, rather than fantasizing about how history could consecrate his politics, depicts a rich, plausible post-apocalyptic world. As an aside, I have included my mapping of this novel with the Jamesonian adaptation of A.J. Greimas’s semiotic square. I would be happy to offer further explanation of this device after my talk.

In order to get to the bottom of the adaptability of the U.S. post-apocalyptic novel to different political ends, I chose to understand it as a mode or sub-genre of science fiction, because of the latter’s much lauded capacity to think historically, to grapple with difficult questions, and to encourage its readers to think critically. I suspect that we can adopt the way Fredric Jameson describes science fiction to the post-apocalyptic novel, as well:

“its multiple mock futures serve the...function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (Jameson 2005, 288).
Gerry Canavan and Priscilla Wald give life to Jameson’s theoretical formation in their “Preface” to a special issue of American Literature on science fiction:

In a world whose basic coordinates are under constant flux from eruptions of ecological crisis to the emergence of genomic science, from the global realignments of religious fundamentalism to the changing parameters of liberation theology, from the ongoing unfoldings of antiracist activisms worldwide to the struggle for LGBTQ rights, the estrangements of SF in all its forms, flavors, and subgenres become for us a funhouse mirror on the present, a faded map of the future, a barely glimpsed vision of alterity, and the prepped and ready launchpad for theory today” (Canavan and Wald 2011, 247).
Thus, the contested politics of the post-apocalyptic novel could be read as a contest over the future of the state and the social in the wake of the political uncertainty generated by U.S. economic decline and military action on the world stage. Because the post-apocalyptic novel’s imagined futures are contested, they invite an engagement with literary form, history, and politics that has implications for understand the relationship between U.S. hegemony, global capital, and the possibility of a more equitable future.

The political stakes of my research are that we can and should know the world, especially in the face of the relentless accumulation of capitalist production and its devastating social and environmental effects. My dissertation does not offer a grand scale mapping of literary endeavours and elements, nor does it offer a molecular assessment of each novel’s humming particularity; rather, it immanently studies the U.S. post-apocalyptic novel against the historical conditions of U.S. declining hegemony. In this way, my project takes its cue from American Studies, which invites a number of methodologies and approaches under one roof in order to see where the tensions lie and, crucially, where they might lead. Indeed, as I develop this study for publication, the production of U.S. post-apocalyptic novels continues unabated as does their political contest. In light of recent developments and the insight they offer, I find myself returning to a symptom only briefly mentioned in this talk: the talk of fuel in California and The Dog Stars. How are the post-apocalyptic novel and its settings sustained by the ideology of energy? Do post-apocalyptic novels offer a vantage from which to assess what critics have come to call petroculture? Does the contested politics of the post-apocalyptic novel read differently, with more urgency perhaps, when considered in light of our current anthropogenic climate crisis? These questions are meant to tantalize. Please do feel free to stay for the discussion of my thesis and, whether you stay or other have places to be, thank you for coming.

Works Cited

Amsterdam, Steven. Things We Didn't See Coming. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.
Gerry Canavan and Priscilla Wald. “Preface.” American Literature 83.2 (June 2011): 237-249.
Heller, Peter. The Dog Stars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005.
Lepucki, Edan. California. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014.


into eternity, on our waste containments and energy futures

This is the text of paper that I delivered at the Science Fiction/ Fantasy Now conference at University of Warwick in August. Thanks to Mark Bould, Valerie Savard, and Rhys Williams.

The first shot of Michael Madsen’s documentary film Into Eternity (2010) captures the border between the snowy Finnish woods and what appears to be a transformer station in grayscale. The shot draws a visual comparison between the skeletal trees, standing silently, and the vertical structures interlaced with cables in the background. Several large stones sit in the foreground of the shot. The only sound comes from the low rumble of bass drum. The shot fades to black and a new shot fades in. The camera tracks down a well-lit concrete tunnel and the title fades into focus “Into Eternity: A Film for the Future by Michael Madsen.” A few more rumbles of the bass drum sound as the camera rounds a corner, revealing a narrowing of the tunnel that fades into pitch black in the back ground. Here, the voice over beings: 
I would say that you are now in a place where we have buried something from you to protect you and we have taken great pain to be sure that you are protected. We also need you to know that this place should not be disturbed and we want you to know that this is not a place for you to live in. You should stay away from this place and then you will be safe. (Madsen 2010)
The shot cuts from the tunnel to a rock wall covered with signs and diagrams in the deep dark. Trickling water can be heard. At this point two minutes into the film, even before Madsen speaks to the camera and to the audience from the dark of the tunnel, a central problematic has already been established. The opening voiceover launches the film’s science fictional stylistic conceit as an address to the future in so far as it asks the viewer to imagine a fictional being receiving the message—“you should stay away from this place”—thousands of years from when it was recorded. The reason for the ban on entry to “this place” has not yet been revealed, and still the visual comparison of the trees and the rock with the power lines and cables, the slow movement of discovery down into the earth while an audible warning plays, and even the low rumble of the bass notes speak to the core problem of the film: how to keep future entities—human, post-human, or alien—from entering Onkalo, Finland’s nuclear waste storage facility, for at least one hundred thousand years.

Through Into Eternity’s science fictional conceit of addressing the future, we discover that the working components of Onkalo are deceptively simple—the signs of warning and the entombed waste. To reach a future when the waste will no longer cause harm, the warning signs must remain constant and undisturbed, while the tomb must maintain a stable state for the waste. Later in the film, Madsen explains to the camera that “it is quite possible that we will not be understood by the future, especially by the distant future” (Madsen 2010). The historian of technology Maja Fjaestad describes one of the film’s main themes as the “imagined technological competencies of future humans” (Fjaestad 372), while, in film scholar Andrew Moisey’s words, the project captured by the film seems to want to “lure the distant future closer to the past” (Moisey 114-115). This “luring” names precisely the temporal negotiation undertaken by the film, and is captured in its opening scene as its talking heads try to conceive of how to keep future generations away from the toxic spent by-product of the energy generation of the recent past. By following the development of Finland’s solution to nuclear waste storage, Into Eternity presents an account of the impasse between the consequences of modernity’s energy use and the continuation of life on Earth as we know it.

Nuclear energy has been receiving more attention of late. In the face of anthropogenic global warming, much of this can be accounted for due to nuclear fuel’s zero level of carbon emissions, but framing nuclear energy as relatively environmentally responsible raises a set of concerns not imagined in the nuclear debates of the mid- to late-twentieth century. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while recognizing the clear advantage of a zero-emissions energy source, are quick to elaborate the barriers to increasing use of nuclear energy, including “concerns about operational safety and (nuclear weapon) proliferation risks, unresolved waste management issues as well as financial and regulatory risks” (Bruckner et al. 5). Of these prospective threats, it is waste that is the most difficult to incorporate into the calculation of environmental sustainability. To begin with, the risks of nuclear energy frustrate existing territorial frameworks of measurement and jurisdiction, even as decisions about the future of nuclear energy remain largely in the hands of individual state actors. “Embracing nuclear power,” historian of science and technology A. Bowdoin Van Riper suggests, “saddles national governments—and, by extension, the entire human species—with the problem of dealing with spent nuclear fuel” (Van Riper 99). Compounding the difficulty of distinguishing the jurisdiction of nation and species is the radically more challenging prospect of calculating the time of nuclear waste.

Timothy Morton describes the time of nuclear waste, in his book Hyperobjects (2013): “There is no away to which we can meaningfully sweep the radioactive dust. Nowhere is far enough or long-lasting-enough…The future of plutonium exerts a causal influence on the present, casting its shadow backwards though time” (Morton 120). For Morton, then, the time of nuclear waste involves a thinking of two times at once. The present and the future are one way to name these temporalities, which could be measured by the time when the waste is toxic and when it is not. Another way would be to think of the time scale of the human next to the time scale of the waste. That we do not have access to an epistemology of geological time is at the source of our concern about the radioactive half life of nuclear waste. Neither of these conceptions of time thinks about the energy created in the first place. The whole problem of nuclear waste arrives on the scene precisely because of the energy demands of late capital. Whichever formulation of plutonium’s “causal influence” and overshadowing of the present, Into Eternity manages the temporal crux of nuclear waste through the science fictional conceit of an address to the future.

The figure of the earth as container cuts across these two novel challenges—jurisdiction and temporality—in the contemporary debates about nuclear energy’s relative ecological costs and benefits. The IPCC has suggested that in order to maintain life on the planet as we know it we must leave all remaining reserves of oil in the ground (NewScientist 2013). In an odd inversion, relying more heavily on nuclear energy in a turn away from oil and natural gas will mean placing a whole lot more material into the ground in long term storage facilities like Onkalo. This inversion does pinpoint the way that debates about the time of energy—from concerns about peak oil to carbon reduction measures and from the energy demand met by nuclear fission compared with the shelf life of nuclear waste—are insistently emplotted in space, in this case the ground, in the very earth itself. The level of risk involved in this plan remains palpable throughout Madsen’s documentary in a way that sets the film apart from other recent documentaries concerned with the legacies of nuclear power.

Madsen’s film takes an approach to the topic that one might hope for in this complex situation: a presentation of facts. The film engages the engineers, scientists, and technocrats of the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant and the tomb they are constructing to house its spent nuclear fuel, while simultaneously grappling with “the disturbing idea” that our “most lasting legacy will be the nuclear waste we bury” (Van Ripper 102). Construction on Onkalo began in 2002 and the storage facility is slated to accept the first shipments of nuclear waste in 2020. Estimates indicate that the site will remain open for a century before being sealed and will eventually house 5500 tons of highly radioactive waste: “Placed in copper canisters insulated with a layer of dense, impermeable clay and sealed using advanced welding techniques, the waste will be inserted into a network of horizontal shafts bored through solid granite 450 meters (1500 feet) below the surface” (Van Riper 99). Onkalo is the Finnish word for “cave” or “hiding place.”

Madsen’s film does a compelling job of uncovering the inconsistencies in the plan to construct Onkalo. Despite its simplicity, the architects at Onkalo, like those at the U.S. waste containment project in Carlsbad, New Mexico, cannot settle on a method to keep future human, post-human, or alien others, out of the tomb. Michael Brill, the architect for the New Mexico facility designed seven options to keep intrudes out: A landscape of thorns, “a dark masonry slab, evoking an enormous ‘black hole,’ an immense no-thing, a void,  land removed from use, worthless,” spikes bursting through a grid, or a rubble landscape (Brill 1993). To add this list, the experts at Onkalo suggest using many reproductions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) to keep people out. While these methods of keeping out curious entities would seem suitable for the present, they may not keep out the very addressees of the film—countless unknown and unknowable others from the future. Madsen address these imagined future viewers of the documentary promising that “We will leave written information for you in all the major languages of our time” and telling them that these are attempts to “give you a feeling, rather than give you a detailed message” (Madsen 2010). Similarly, the plan to pass on information about Onkalo by telling future generations founders when Madsen points out that keeping information about the long term waste storage in a “permanent manner” (Madsen 2010) shares the same risks as short-term nuclear waste storage—the power might go out, conditions might change in the archives, or wars might cause the political climate to change on the surface.

Used heavily in the film, the technique of the sound bridge mirrors the desire for consistency and transmission from one moment to the next. On screen, as the Kraftwerk song “Radioactivity” plays, cameras move attached to the automated arms that cycle the rods of radioactive material into the reactor, as the engineers and scientists in the film puzzle over this temporal problem of representation—that the sign for Danger! will change over the course of one hundred thousand years. Cameras track slowly down long hallways, behind supply trucks outside of facilities. Crane shots, dolly shots, and careful tracking shots show workers preparing a vat of material for water storage. These sequences are shot at a higher frame rate and the figures move in a slight slow-motion, mimicking a music video effect. They are unified by the beat of the song as shot cuts into shot. Another deployment of the sound bridge happens with the experts that are interviewed. Similarly, talking heads are introduced with a title and a shot, but sometimes as they speak the shot cuts to another expert who appears to sit listening, attentively, to the words of the first. Here the sound bridge suggests that they have received the message attentively just like the viewer should, just like the future view may. The experience of the film as an aesthetic object stands out as an affective experience that supports the problematic described through its dialogue and interviews. Put differently, the science fictional atmosphere remains in productive tension with the film’s documentary elements.

Even without the formal element of the sound bridge, the talking heads generate uncertainty. Van Ripper contributes to this observation through his own treatment of the talking heads and he suggests that the interviewees “project none of the confidence of traditional documentary ‘talking heads,’” speaking instead in “soft, halting voices with long pauses between and after thoughts” and, rather than cutting to a new shot after the subject has stopped speaking, “Madsen frequently holds the camera on the subject’s face, waiting—like a patient but disappointed teacher—for something more substantive” (Van Riper 101). The bind that I identified in the opening shot between quiet storage in the earth and the intervention of some future being repeats itself in these moments as the film never allows its viewer to forget the sheer impossibility of imagining how the future will divert from the present.  This insistence provokes the productive realization that Madsen and each of his experts are not actually addressing the future. Instead they imply a far future viewer who, for the interim can only, disappointingly, be a viewer from their own present. One problem with nuclear waste and the human temporality is that time cannot pass quickly enough. Even though we can conceive of multiple future possibilities for Onkalo—nuclear waste containment, cultural consistency, cultural change, breach by humans, or breach by unknown others—which emphasize that the present is a moment where decisions need to, and can, be made, geological time still only crawls by. The logic of containment in the film seems to insist that whatever our energy future looks like, something will be left below in the deep dark.

Patricia Yaeger offers a language to name the problem Into Eternity grapples with in her PMLA editor’s column, “Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” She raises the idea of an “energy unconscious,” (Yaeger 306) a structuring presence that is often outside the described events of a narrative and suggests that “…energy invisibilities may constitute different kinds of erasures” (Yaeger 309). This energy unconscious follows Jameson’s assessment of the literary as a “socially symbolic act” in The Political Unconscious (1981) where the conflicts and impasses of the present find expression through signs and symptoms that must be interpreted. Similarly, Yaeger posits, 
We might argue that the writer who treats fuel as a cultural code or reality effect makes a symbolic move, asserts his or her class position in a system of mythic abundance not available to the energy worker who lives in carnal exhaustion. But perhaps energy sources also enter texts as fields of force that have causalities outside (or in addition to) class conflicts and commodity wars. The touch-a-switch-and-it’s-light magic of electrical power, the anxiety engendered by atomic residue, the odor of coal pollution, the viscous animality of whale oil, the technology of chopping wood...(Yaeger 309-310)
Yaeger’s schema resonates with a scene that captures Sami Savonrinne, a blaster at Onkalo, in a long shot where he is two-thirds into the frame and two-thirds down it, flanked by a half-lit rock wall that runs out of the top of the shot. He says, 
This tunnel feels like a time capsule sometimes. When you arrive in the morning it may be sunny, almost like summer outside. When you come out at the end of the day, it may have snowed like hell. The weather will have completely changed and you think “how long do I actually spend in that tunnel?” And likewise: you go to work and it is dark, and when you come back up after work it is dark. And it feels like time has stopped. (Madsen 2010)
However, the worker and his “carnal exhaustion” appear as the sign of a deeper moment in the film, a moment closer to what I imagine Yaeger had in mind. Thus, I would suggest that nuclear waste acts as a glaring symptom of this energy unconscious and that Madsen’s film offers an occasion to plumb its depths. The discursive symptom, “the field of force that have causalities outside the text,” in Into Eternity is that no one can seem to imagine a sign or symbol that could last even a few hundred years, let alone 100, 000.

Into Eternity clarifies the idea of an energy unconscious, and outlines the problems associated with the study of energy in the humanities. As Madsen’s film confirms, the problem of narrative is indissociable from the discursive and political limits of the present. The film offers us a sense of the vast chambers lurking beneath surface, the catacombs entombing radioactive waste, that are at the same time a symptom of our comfortable energy reliance above the surface. The film investigates one solution for one country’s nuclear waste—to engineer and design the place where things might be laid to rest beneath the surface until their latent poisons dissipate. And yet, guided by some strikingly relevant science fictional writings, I would like to conclude by suggesting an image that completely opposes and arrests the visions of the future presented in Madsen’s film.

Into Eternity seems incapable of thinking the kind of future we get in Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story “The People of Sand and Slag” (2008) as anything but a nightmare image.  In a distant future Montana, three mutated, genetically engineered, and weeviltech implanted humans oversee a mining operation. They seem to be capable of eating the very refuse, tailings, mine dumps, and slimes spewed out by the machines tearing up the countryside, they can re-grow severed limbs, and they appear to heal from cuts near instantly. The plot revolves around the trio discovering a dog wandering out among the tailings—they are baffled by how this creature could survive. One of the three revealingly observes, “‘It’s as delicate as rock. You break it, and it never comes back together” (Bacigalupi 45). The three react to the dog, a survivor from a different time, the “dead end of an evolutionary chain,” (Bacigalupi 53) much in the same way that a reader might be estranged by the three demigod humans who eat sand and slag for dinner. They vacation in Hawaii; the narrator describes his partner’s grace as a swimmer: “She flashed through the ocean’s metallic sheen like an eel out of history and when she surfaced, her naked body glistened with hundreds of iridescent petroleum jewels” (Bacigalupi 52). The future, in “The People of Sand and Slag” presents the opposite solution to Onkalo’s containment: a kind of total immersion. This solution to the problems generated by our energy commitments remains unimaginable by Madsen’s experts. It inverts the idea of the Earth as containment and renders “delicate” the very deep stone that appears so solid and immutable in the walls of the opening shots of the film. Onkalo is not a solution to the problem of nuclear waste. It is merely a stop-gap solution, a massive sludge bucket of leaky refuse that we are not quite sure where to stash. The quiet elegance of the snow covered trees and imploring address—“this is not a place you should live in”—could both be lost on future humans, as they certainly would be on Bacigalupi’s people of sand and slag.

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