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Apocalyptic Fiction, 1950–2015

Summary and Keywords

From 1950 to the 2010s, the genre known as apocalyptic fiction has grown in prominence, moving from the mass-market domain of science fiction to a more central position in the contemporary literary scene. The term “apocalyptic fiction” can be understood to encompass both depictions of cataclysms that destroy the Earth and texts that portray the aftermath of a disaster that annihilates a nation, civilization, or all but a few survivors of the human population. The term itself finds its roots in the book of Revelation, and while contemporary apocalyptic fiction tends to be largely secular in its worldview, important traces of the Christian tradition linger in these texts. Indeed, while apocalyptic fiction has evolved over the past sixty-five years in response to historical transformations in Western societies, much of it remains wedded to Revelation’s representation of women as the cause of apocalyptic destruction. The material of the 1950s reflects Cold War anxieties about nuclear war while presenting sexually liberated women as implicated in the same modernity that has created the atomic bomb. People of color are also depicted as threats that must be contained. The apocalyptic fiction of the 1960s registers a fascination with genetic, social, and literary mutation, ambivalently treating a variety of “others” as both toxic and potentially useful ambassadors to some new, postmodern condition. The 1970s see the emergence of feminist apocalypses, works that react against the sexist tendency to conflate female power and sexuality with apocalyptic menace. The 1980s introduce the “American apocalypse,” a subgenre that imagines a disaster befalling America in specifically economic terms. The 1990s, meanwhile, find combinations of the feminist and American apocalypse, while also beginning to bring environmental peril into focus. From 2000 forward, there is a renewed interest in broader, more global disasters, in part informed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Formally, this is the era of the “metapocalypse”—apocalyptic fictions that are self-reflexive about the conventions of the genre, including those involving gender and race. Nonetheless, several of the novels in this period still unapologetically introduce figures that recall Jezebel and Babylon from Revelation. Finally, the period since 2010 has seen a revived emphasis on economic collapse precipitated by neoliberal capitalism as well as the anthropocene.

Keywords: apocalypse, contemporary fiction, 20th-century fiction, science fiction, climate fiction, feminism, postmodernism, Cold War, capitalism, neoliberalism

Any discussion of “apocalyptic” fiction must begin with a working definition of this term. This entry will include analysis of apocalyptic and post-apocalytpic texts, and in some cases the term “apocalyptic” will be used to encompass both of these categories. Scholars sometimes treat apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives as fundamentally different from one another. However, post-apocalyptic narrative is always predicated on an apocalyptic event, and it often includes extended depictions of the incidents that precipitate this event as well as the details of its destructive force.1 Conversely, as James Berger has pointed out, in apocalyptic writing, “the end is never the end.”2 Apocalyptic narratives always include some aftermath, some survivor, some witness to the events, and in that sense, all narration—even prophetic narration—of apocalypse is also post-apocalyptic. It might be argued that inherent in apocalypse, with its Christian origins, is the hope of a posthistorical spiritual utopia, while post-apocalypse is fundamentally dystopian. Yet many novels that focus on a catastrophic event refuse any redemptive gesture, presenting what Jacques Derrida has termed “the apocalypse without apocalypse.”3 And many post-apocalyptic narratives are sufficiently critical of modernity that they treat post-apocalyptic existence as a utopian liberation from modern alienation.4

The modern apocalyptic tradition, broadly defined, is vast. Fascinating archives of this material can be found in non-English-speaking regions across the globe, from Asia and the Middle East to Latin America and parts of Africa. It includes forms ranging from poetry and comic books to television and film. This article focuses on Western Anglophone fiction, but even with this constraint in place, the body of texts that can be understood as apocalyptic is enormous. It comprises not only futuristic visions of mass destruction but also a wide array of novels and other literary forms that represent devastating historic phenomena, including colonialism, modern warfare, American slavery, and the Holocaust.5 Yet the specific subset of the Anglophone tradition examined here looks forward rather than back, combining the futuristic speculation of science fiction with the literary features of the broader apocalyptic tradition. While many of these novels make reference to historical events, they creatively read the patterns of the past and the omens of the present to imagine catastrophic futures.6

This contemporary apocalyptic fiction is also fundamentally modern and generally secular in its point of view. Granted, the term “apocalypse”—from the Greek word meaning “unveiling” or, loosely, “revelation”—finds its origins in the last book of the Christian Bible. In that text, the apocalypse or revelation in question can be variously understood as the Second Coming of Christ, the end of the material world, the disclosure of the New Jerusalem, or frankly, all of the other spectacular—and often ghastly—things Christ, on behalf of God and via his angel, reveals to John during his vision. As a consequence of this legacy, some scholars privilege texts that include substantial references to Revelation as quintessentially apocalyptic.7 Much if not all of the material analyzed here contains vital traces of the Christian tradition of apocalypse, especially in its treatment of gender. However, this contemporary fiction is concerned not with the end of a world understood through a religious lens but instead with the end of modernity itself—a modernity that in the West has come to define life as livable and human. Certainly, in some texts, the apocalypse genuinely destroys the world. More often, however, it is modern life that is destroyed, leaving survivors bereft of technology, medical treatment, large-scale social organization, education, legal structures, and other commonplace features of contemporary Western existence.8 A related question pertaining to classification within this category of literature is how much destruction must take place for a narrative to warrant the label of “apocalyptic.” One answer is that a civilization must be ruptured. In apocalyptic literature of the postwar period, it may be a nation that is devastated, or the human population, or the Earth, or even the universe itself. While many of the texts take as their premise a nuclear war or pandemic, increasingly the imagined disasters are economic in nature. Supply systems falter, hunger and violence spread, governments fail, societies crumble, and populations radically decline. Rather than present a local or personal calamity in apocalyptic terms, the texts portray sweeping disaster and its aftermath as the center of their plot.

One can trace the emergence of modern apocalyptic fiction from the beginning of the 18th century. However, the rate of production of Anglophone apocalyptic narratives increased dramatically in the early 20th century with the emergence of science fiction as a mass-market form of literature. Anglophone apocalyptic literature has seen still further growth in popularity and influence since the end of World War II. Global geopolitics were a central influence in the immediate aftermath of the war, when Cold War nuclear fears shaped the genre. Postwar apocalyptic fiction was still typically marketed as science fiction and was often shortchanged in terms of its literary merits. By the 1980s, however, apocalyptic fiction began to slowly lose its association with science fiction, as more well-recognized literary authors—those celebrated by critics for the semantic richness, narrative complexity, and intellectual scope of their texts—ventured visions of apocalyptic destruction and its aftermath. Derrida famously noted this proliferation of nuclear literature in 1984, accounting for it by hypothesizing that nuclear war itself is “fabulously textual.” Since no such war had actually occurred, he postulated, “one can only talk and write about it.”9 Apocalyptic fiction of the 1980s also began to focus on America’s apparent economic fragility in the face of growing globalization, and in the wake of the Cold War, 1990s apocalyptic material continued this preoccupation with economic decline. As the number of influential texts increased in the new millennium, apocalyptic fiction combined responses to the war on terror, environmental fears, and unregulated or “neoliberal” capitalism. Indeed, Slavoj Zizek lays all of these threats and more at the feet of the latter, arguing, “The global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its ‘four riders of the apocalypse’ are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself …, and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.”10

Given the pervasive notion in post-1950 apocalyptic literature that humans would likely bring destruction on themselves, it is no surprise that international politics and economics play a major role in many of these texts. Alongside such macropolitics, however, one finds a persistent, and perhaps more surprising, obsession with what has come to be called “identity politics.” The texts of the 1950s and 1960s clearly respond to the perceived threat posed by various “others,” including women, people of color, and the disabled. Increasingly, from the sudden proliferation of feminist apocalyptic narratives in the 1970s onward, the trend is toward those “others” writing back, resisting blame for the destruction of civilization and appropriating the genre to explore their own vulnerable status.

With respect to identity politics, the most conspicuous thread throughout virtually all of the material to be discussed here is an association of women with sexual and economic materialism that reflects the lingering influence of Revelation on the modern, secular apocalypse, a pernicious mythology that posits women as the source of apocalyptic destruction. As critics including Frank Kermode, M. H. Abrams, and Catherine Keller have argued, Revelation offers a set of foundational structures and motifs that appear again and again in secular form in subsequent Western stories: a seemingly timeless dance from moral corruption to punishing violence to an eternity of rewards or suffering.11 No element of Revelation is more lasting than its presentation of women. In this, the culminating book of the Christian Bible, women are the physical and carnal bodies that lock men into a physical world separate from the ethereal and light-suffused domain of God. As Mary Wilson Carpenter has observed in her brilliant feminist analysis of Revelation, “the text effects its power … by the exploitation of male sexual anxiety and the expurgation of that anxiety through its location in the body of the sexual Other, which is then exultantly destroyed and consumed.”12 While God and Christ reign from on high, women and their slithering counterparts sow evil on the ground. Famously, Jezebel and Babylon, also known as “the great whore,” incite Christ’s wrath.13 Christ rails that Jezebel “teach[es] and … seduce[s] my servants to commit fornication.”14 John presents Babylon as the real showstopper, however—a being whom he gazes on “with great admiration” until his angel guide chastises him.15 John observes, “The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.”16 Carpenter astutely claims, “the burning of the Whore is a necessary apocalyptic climax in Revelation—a required ‘catharsis’ of a carefully constructed anxiety and aggression.”17 Only the “woman clothed with the sun,” who appears in heaven and gives birth to “a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron,” a description associated with Christ himself, is exonerated from responsibility for the annihilation of the earth.18 Meanwhile, the 144,000 who are the first to gain access to New Jerusalem are those who are not “defiled with women.”19 To a striking and troubling degree, women remain subtle—and at times not-so-subtle—scapegoats in contemporary apocalyptic literature. Women continue to represent a physical realm that is both tempting and fragile—not only available for destruction, but, in the recurrent imagery of sexual promiscuity that haunts modern apocalyptic narratives, inviting destruction in a tradition that continues to conflate sex with ruin.

In an effort to map the shifting formal characteristics and thematic preoccupations of Anglophone apocalyptic fiction since 1950, this article is organized by decade. This approach reveals a rough correspondence between the fast-moving changes of the post-War era and this historically sensitive literary form. It also suggests more generally the way writers of this genre respond to earlier texts, building on and reacting against what has come before. Of course, there are instances where particular texts defy the overall trends, or where trends continue across the admittedly artificial boundaries of decades.

The 1950s: Cold War Fears

In his analysis of apocalyptic narratives of the postwar period, science-fiction author and scholar Brian Aldiss coined the term “cozy catastrophe,” observing, “The essence of co[z]y catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.”20 Coziness might seem an affect at profound odds with the terrifying new reality of global peril unveiled by the introduction of nuclear weapons at the conclusion of World War II. Yet there is also logic in this apparent paradox: nuclear weaponry revealed a hideous aspect of modernity even as it presented the imagination of authors with one of the surest ways to escape that horror—a global apocalypse that would completely neutralize modern “progress.” Indeed, Aldiss’s definition of the cozy catastrophe can be broadened to include a grateful retreat from many aspects of modernity—not only weapons of mass destruction but also social developments that have produced alienated urban working conditions, liberated women, and defiant subjects of other equality movements who threaten to displace bourgeois white men from their positions of power.

It is useful to begin with English writer John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), the text that for Aldiss ushers in the era of the cozy catastrophe. The novel imagines two sequential disasters: first, satellite weapons blind most of the world’s human and animal populations; then, triffids, giant mobile killer plants genetically engineered in Russia, break free of their confinement and wreak havoc.21 Protagonist Bill Masen evades the blindness by luck and must make a series of ethical decisions concerning the fate of his blind fellow Londoners. Placing the novel in the context of Wyndham’s biography as a veteran of World War II, David Ketterer offers a compelling reading of the triffids as figures for Nazis.22 As Adam Stock suggests, Wyndham’s novel can also be read in relation to the communist threat of the 1950s.23 Indeed, The Day of the Triffids is a true Cold War novel: on the one hand, the triffids—lying in wait in a diaspora of seeds, hiding in plain sight in the local hedgerow, blinding and killing with their venom, communicating in code, and operating in concert according to motives that are opaque—allegorize the perceived monstrosity of communists; on the other hand, scenes of the few sighted individuals literally chained to masses of blind and needy men and women can be read to figure the communist system writ large as a deadening threat to free will.

It is no mystery why Wyndham’s novel inspired Aldiss to coin the term “cozy catastrophe.” After the collapse of civilization, Bill quickly encounters his romantic interest, Josella, and they eventually build a life with a few others on a tidy farm in Sussex. Despite the growing threat of the triffids, and the endless toil of farming, Bill questions whether they lost anything as a consequence of the apocalyptic events, recalling his modern life as “the muddle, the frustration, the unaimed drive, the all-pervading clangor of empty vessels” (192). Josella puts the matter even more baldly, stating, “I’ve been happier here than ever in my life before, in spite of everything” (217).

While Bill recalls the hubbub of London as a meaningless chaos reminiscent of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” what Josella retreats from is perhaps even more reminiscent of Eliot’s poem, with its tendency to revile modern sexuality.24 Ketterer persuasively reads Wyndham’s portrait of the suggestive anatomy of the triffids itself as capitalizing on “a fear of female sexuality.”25 That anxiety surrounding sexuality is given historical shape and nuance in the portrait of Josella. At the outset of the novel, she is a singularly modern woman, who, after a failed romance, moves out of her parents’ home and, to support herself, writes a book called Sex Is My Adventure. Yet Josella is increasingly embarrassed by the attention this book draws to her, and she embraces the opportunity the apocalypse affords her to detach herself from her sexual infamy. In a pivotal moment early in the text, Josella arrays herself in a rich gown and jewels, in order to say goodbye to the life that she had aspired to. In this finery, she conjures images of the first lady of the apocalypse, Revelation’s Babylon—indeed, Josella even asks if this luxurious attire calls to mind “Rome burning.”26 By the conclusion of the novel, Josella trumpets her hard-won distance from this sexually adventurous persona, declaring herself the “author” not of an infamous book but of her son, David Masen.27 To a large degree, the coziness in this story is attributable to a retreat to a premodern existence associated with Josella’s return to a traditional notion of contained, domestic femininity.

American Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959) and Australian Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) are two other influential novels of the period.28 Alas, Babylon is an especially compelling artifact of the late 1950s in its treatment of race. In Jacqueline Foertsch’s brilliant essay on the role played by African Americans in white-authored “post-atomic” novels of this period, she demonstrates the ways racial fears of black uprising were a mainstay. Perhaps to punctuate the impossibility of such a reversal of power, in Frank’s novel the heroic black character, Malachai Henry, is killed while helping the white protagonist, Randy Bragg, bring justice to a band of highwaymen. As Foertsch demonstrates, the Henry family’s obliging service to their white neighbors marks them as conforming to the archetypal African American role within these texts, what she terms “servant-savior-savants.”29

While the novel pays lip service to liberal politics with respect to African Americans, it is flagrantly conservative in its treatment of gender. Even as other women are successfully contained within Randy’s household through marriages, Rita Hernandez, a working-class Latina with whom he once had a dalliance, remains an outlier, running black-market goods through Fort Repose. Ultimately, Rita’s public role and obsession with wealth leads to her downfall. She and her brother conspire to traffic jewelry from Miami, not realizing that these metal goods are contaminated with radiation. When we last see Rita, the ring she has ripped from her finger has left an ominous band of discolored skin, and she bitterly quips that she also is married: “I’ve got a wedding band. I was married to an H-bomb.”30 This striking image of a public, “loose” woman, whose love of luxury marks her as wedded to destruction, renders Rita another salient descendant of Revelation’s Babylon, from whom the novel takes its name.31

In contrast to Wyndham’s and Frank’s texts, On the Beach (1957) resolutely resists providing any sense of coziness in the face of nuclear war. In this chilling novel, a series of nuclear exchanges has left all of North America uninhabitable. The novel takes place in Melbourne, where the population awaits their imminent deaths as wind currents carry the radiation ever further south. Shute’s text has long been celebrated for its influence in heightening global awareness of the risks of the nuclear arms race, viscerally capturing the stakes of what Derrida has termed “a remainderless destruction, without mourning and without symbolicity.”32 It levels a powerful critique against a modern technology that threatens human civilization, yet it resists retreating to fantasies about a joyful premodern existence that might be eked out of such a disaster.33 That said, Shute celebrates white masculinity in terms that chime with Wyndham and Frank’s novels.34

The 1960s: Postmodern Mutations

Two authors dominate the apocalyptic fiction of the 1960s: American Philip K. Dick and English writer J. G. Ballard. These two distinctive and enduring literary figures depart from their predecessors in both form and content. Sinister killer vegetables notwithstanding, the influential apocalyptists of the 1950s traded on a tradition of accessible, realist science fiction pioneered by H. G. Wells. By contrast, Dick and Ballard reflect the influence of the modernists in their rich allusiveness and formal experimentation. Paradoxically, however, while Wyndham and Frank share in the modernist nostalgia for premodern social forms, Dick and Ballard move into postmodern ontological terrain, exploring what freedoms might emerge from the chaos of a decidedly uncozy catastrophe. Indeed, rather than looking backward to possibilities of premodern communities where racial and gender hierarchies are staunchly preserved, their unsettling texts place race and gender at the forefront of their political concerns, and to a large degree treat the rise of women and people of color as terrifying but seductive symptoms of apocalypse itself.

Philip K. Dick’s apocalyptic narratives, including Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), are explicitly preoccupied with the Cold War nightmares of nuclear war, radioactivity, and genetic mutation.35 An early story by Dick, “Second Variety” (1953), already demonstrates the obsessions that will emerge in these longer fictions.36 Portraying the furthest thing from a cozy catastrophe, “Second Variety” is set in a decimated European war zone, where nuclear exchanges have left an environment of barren soil and dead trees. The armies on both sides remain in bunkers, while an ever-proliferating variety of robots called “claws,” originally devised by the Americans but now self-generating, occupy the Earth’s surface. The main character, Major Hendricks, an American soldier, learns from two Russian soldiers and the prostitute who is dwelling with them that the claws have begun to produce ever more complex models that now resemble humans. The Russians have discovered model numbers on these robots, with a wounded soldier being the first variety and a boy with a teddy bear being the third. This leaves them with anxiety about the second variety, creating a climate of paranoia in which all suspect one another. As the story unfolds, Tasso, the prostitute, is revealed to be the second variety. While the story elaborates a culture of paranoia that is a trademark of Cold War fictions, it also demonstrates a tendency, shared with Ballard, to present women as sinister others. Tasso tricks Hendricks into revealing a rocket that she then commandeers to take to the moon, the last safe preserve of humans. The well where this “blunt needle” rests is a nightmarish figure for the lethal, artificial sexuality that Tasso embodies:

A pit yawned, an open basement. Ragged ends of pipes jutted up, twisted and bent. They passed part of a house, a bathtub turned on its side. A broken chair. A few spoons and bits of china dishes. In the center of the street the ground had sunk away. The depression was filled with weeds and debris and bones.37

Like Wyndham’s triffids, the cavity in the ground doubles as a “vagina dentata,” with its jutting pipes, refuse, and bones. Meanwhile, the wrecked houses that surround it bespeak the end of a fantasy of domestic femininity to which savage high-tech warfare—and perhaps modernity more broadly—has laid waste.

In Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), Dick evinces a still deeper preoccupation with Cold War science and politics, basing one of his central characters, Dr. Bruno Bluthgeld (aka Jack Tree), on nuclear scientist Edward Teller.38 At this point however, Dick has moved from the hard-edged realism of “Second Variety” into what readers of Dick will recognize as his signature postmodern style, a kaleidoscopic jumble of off-kilter characters and situations. Alongside Dr. Bluthgeld, arguably the most important character in the novel is Hoppy Harrington, a phocomelus who lacks arms and legs as a consequence of his mother taking thalidomide. To some degree Dick uses those with various disabilities and differences to create shock effects in his novel. Yet while his counterpart Ballard’s heavy reliance on the third-person limited point of view means that it is the white male protagonist whose perspective is privileged, Dick fragments point of view, granting a voice and perspective to all of his characters in this novel. As a consequence, in Dr. Bloodmoney, though white male characters retain authority, the pain, confusion, and longing of “others” are often communicated with genuine authorial compassion.39 In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), which inspired Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 film Bladerunner, the themes of Cold War paranoia, genetic mutation, and various identity politics that Dick had established in the earlier texts continue, along with a deepening preoccupation with the power of media and capitalism.

Ballard, heir to the gothic sensibilities of Edgar Allan Poe and the decadent orientalism of M. P. Shiel, published four post-apocalyptic novels in the 1960s: The Wind from Nowhere (1962), The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1965), and The Crystal World (1966).40 He also wrote many short stories during this period concerned with post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures. As Umberto Rossi notes, Ballard’s primary literary influence in these early novels is Joseph Conrad.41 Yet in his ventures into the new ontologies created by apocalyptic events, Ballard breaks free of modernist nostalgia for a center that will not hold; instead he ambivalently reaches forward to consider the liberties such new, post-apocalyptic worlds might afford.

Ballard’s work, while avant-garde, is also an artifact of its era in its treatment of various others, including differently abled and queer subjects, as well as women and people of color, all of whom are treated as plot devices at best and, more often, as gothic others serving villains in white suits. Troublingly, it is the very alterity of these “minor” characters that substantiate the evil character of the villains. From another point of view, the villains are mere narrative portals for arrival at the violence and gothic horror of the disabled, blacks, and women. In Ballard’s corpus, the latter engender “fear and pain,”42 and they signify what the white male protagonists dread they may become in their struggle to escape memory, temporality, and rationality.

While each of Ballard’s novels deserves attention, his The Drowned World will serve as the primary focus here. This text again presents the fascination with the postmodern that defines this period. Rather than turning back to earlier human societies for romanticized archetypes, this novel explores with excitement the possibility of a “major metamorphosis,” in which unconscious human adaptation becomes “preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.”43 As in The Wind from Nowhere, the disaster that brings about this transformation is a natural one; in this case, roughly seventy years prior to the book’s time frame, solar storms increased the Earth’s temperatures and caused the global icecaps to melt. A small scientific team working in the flooded remnants of London is ordered to pull out and join the remaining human population in the polar region. Three members, including protagonist Robert Kerans, decide to stay because they have begun to experience pre-human, primordial memories, contained in their DNA, that are helping them to adapt to their new environment. They are soon beset by Strangman, a white-suit-wearing albino treasure hunter with a retinue of alligators, who, in a bid to gather the baubles of the lost civilization, drains the lagoon the team has called home. Kerans ultimately succeeds in reflooding the area, then departs south, following the path of his new prehistoric consciousness.

Strangman becomes a rare instance of decadent physical materialism being associated with a male character in this period of apocalyptic fiction. Certainly, in The Wind from Nowhere, the villain Hardoon hordes wealth and power, and the wind-defying pyramid he constructs could be read as a vain monument to his ego. In contrast, Strangman embodies expressions of wealth more often associated with women in this genre. In a number of scenes, he is shown compulsively looting wealth from the ruins of London. However, these scenes culminate in Strangman draping Beatrice in jewels, “her breasts smothered under a mass of glittering chains and crescents,” as though no novel of this period can escape the allure of a woman so attired.44 Strangman is surrounded by black crewmen, including a one-eyed man with a hunched back, who is characterized as a “giant grotesque parody of a human being.”45 The bizarre bacchanals of Strangman, his black crew, and Beatrice conflate otherness with mutation and associate both with terminal decay. In Ballard’s two subsequent post-apocalyptic novels, The Drought and The Crystal World, he continues to engage with the ways an apocalyptic event might shatter the modern social order. In Ballard’s world, women and racial “others,” along with queer and disabled subjects, become part of a landscape of alterity that serves as both the justification for and signature of apocalyptic events. These others rupture modernity, creating an aperture through which the white male protagonists attempt their flight to freedom even as they resist identifying with their liberators.

The 1970s: The Birth of the Feminist Apocalypse

In light of the deeply sexist uses of apocalyptic fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, it should not come as a surprise that feminists began to “use the master’s tools,” and the 1970s saw the introduction of a significant wave of feminist apocalyptic fiction, including Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World (1974) and Motherlines (1978), Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Raccoona Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution” (1977), and Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978).46 It seems noteworthy that many if not most of the best-known works of feminist science fiction to be published in the 1970s involved the collapse of modern civilization. In some cases, the violence of this collapse provides an opportunity for feminists to dramatize extant threats to women. In other cases, an apocalypse is necessary to lead to a feminist variation on the New Jerusalem, in which women are free from male oppression. In all cases, these texts evidence a defiance of the age-old conventions that present women as daughters of Babylon, as the well-spring of material vice that will destroy man. In form, whether continuing the traditions of realism or the postmodern experimentation of their immediate predecessors, the extraordinary artistry of these novels is often overlooked.

Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains (1969) provides a compelling gateway to this material.47 Carter offers the first major apocalyptic novel told from the perspective of a female character, a young and willful woman named Marianne. Her novel joins Ballard’s and Dick’s in gesturing toward the liberating potential of a fractured civilization. However, Marianne’s intelligent analysis undermines this fantasy, while her experiences of rape, abuse, and other physical suffering offer a material correction to the aestheticized and misogynistic visions of post-apocalyptic life generated by Ballard and Dick.

Like Carter, Doris Lessing also depicts apocalypse largely through the experience of a young girl. The Memoirs of a Survivor is narrated by a faceless voice that, though markedly gender-neutral, is universally understood by critics to be female, in part at least because Lessing originally subtitled the novel, “An Attempt at Autobiography.”48 The narrator lives in a deteriorating and largely empty city, where gangs of cannibals routinely seek their prey. Early in the novel the narrator discovers rooms behind the wall of her apartment, though in fact the wall adjoins a corridor. Later a man appears and delivers a twelve-year-old girl named Emily Cartwright to the narrator, who takes her in. Emily’s pet, a creature named Hugo with a dog’s body and cat’s face, materializes shortly after. As these plot elements suggest, while in some respects Lessing’s novel is deeply historical,49 it also continues the trajectory toward the surreal established by Ballard and Dick; indeed, Lessing goes further, avoiding Dick’s quasi-scientific explanations in her depictions of seemingly supernatural events. Like Ballard, Dick, and Carter, Lessing allows for the possibility of freedom being produced by the end of contemporary Western civilization. However, Lessing puts particular emphasis on how a catastrophe might lead to a new and better community. And like Carter, she ultimately presents the world that comes of social collapse as increasingly violent and predatory. The controversial conclusion to the novel suggests no physical recourse for these characters, who instead slip into a final ether of pure narrative when the wall opens and they pass “into another order of world altogether.”50 In her portrait of Emily’s coming of age, meanwhile, Lessing repeatedly depicts the adolescent girl in scarlet, while making dismissive reference to “a morality tale of the flesh and the devil.”51 These passages serve as a self-conscious rejection of the censorious presentation of women’s sexuality that has haunted this genre at least since John decried Babylon in 60 bce.

Joanna Russ’s The Female Man aligns with Carter’s text in presenting gender violence as central to apocalypse and post-apocalypse. In the most fragmented of the apocalyptic novels discussed to this point, Russ presents the interconnected narratives of four women who are actually versions of the same woman, created by different historical continua. In one narrative, Russ entertains the possibility that women in fact killed all men in a protracted war, while in another all of the men died from a plague. In its vision of a stark segregation of genders, Russ’s novel resembles Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, and Shari Tepper’s somewhat later novel, A Gate to Women’s Country (1988). In Charnas’s novels, men have triggered a nuclear apocalypse, and the few who survive blame women and enslave them. Again, in Tepper’s novel, “almost everyone in the world had died in a great devastation brought about by men.”52 However, in this narrative, it is women who have taken power, relegating men to garrisons beyond the walls of their towns, while slowly working to genetically engineer violence out of the male population. In the short story “The Screwfly Solution,” Raccoona Sheldon (aka Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree Jr.) offers an equally pointed apocalyptic vision. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that some sort of biological phenomenon is creating hormonal imbalances among men, inducing homicidal impulses toward women whenever sexual desire is triggered. In her deployment of her premise, Sheldon demonstrates the allegorical potential of apocalyptic narrative, especially in amplifying current trends and pursuing them to their logical outcome. In scene after scene in which women are violently assaulted or attempt to hide their gender in order to remain safe, Sheldon captures a reality that already exists in societies around the globe.

A final powerful instance of the feminist apocalypses of the 1970s is Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, which, like many of its predecessors, imagines a world that is scarred and irradiated by nuclear war. The remaining population lives simply, with little technology, and the intrepid female protagonist, Snake, is a healer whose story provides a rare instance of a thoughtful post-apocalyptic ethos of nurturing and care. As in the other texts produced by feminist authors in the 1970s, women are not portrayed as materialistic in Dreamsnake, and their sexual desire is presented as a natural aspect of human experience. Indeed, Snake’s provocative name—calling to mind as it does the serpent in the Garden of Eden as well as “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” in Revelation53—only underscores that women’s sexuality neither plays a role in having created the apocalypse nor should be understood as a locus of menace, fear, or disgust.

The 1980s: The Birth of the American Apocalypse

Relatively little of the feminist energy of the 1970s makes its way into the apocalyptic fiction of the 1980s. Indeed, while the 1970s saw an appropriation of the apocalyptic form by feminist authors, the 1980s, the so-called Reagan Era in the United States—produced a proliferation of apocalyptic texts set in California and New York that paired fears of global nuclear Armageddon with gnawing concerns about American economic decline. What will be called “American apocalypses” depict America collapsing economically while other nations endure, and they often use the depradations of the post-apocalypse to allegorize contemporary economic inequality in the United States.54 This preoccupation with economic catastrophe might have been in part a literary response to the oil embargo and recession of the 1970s or a more immediate reckoning with the slashing of social programs taking place in the 1980s. One important exception to this focus on the U.S. economy is American expatriate writer Russell Hoban’s influential Riddley Walker (1980), which is set in England millennia after a global nuclear war.55 The novel is best known for its narration in a broken dialect of English that is meant to capture the benighted condition of what is left of the human population. While Hoban’s setting made the novel something of an outlier in the 1980s, its narrative innovations are consistent with other material from that decade, which evinces increasingly experimental formal properties. Picking up the thread of earlier writers like J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and Joanna Russ, these novels increasingly traffic in indeterminacy and narrative fragmentation.

Trailblazing author Angela Carter proved ahead of her time once again in this new phase of Western apocalyptic fiction, and she remained a stalwart practitioner of feminist apocalypse all the while. Her 1977 novel The Passion of New Eve is perhaps the first major instance of an “American apocalypse” in the sense it is intended here.56 Its protagonist, Evelyn, is a British academic, who, against the warning of his friends, travels to New York City for a university teaching position. The admonishments about conditions in the United States prove accurate: he is confronted with a city in the midst of economic collapse and political upheaval, and a nation on the brink of a civil war fueled in part by racial and gender conflicts. As in Heroes and Villains, Carter produces a shocking panorama of brutal violence—much of it sexual in nature. Here however, Carter is more dedicated to exploring how apocalyptic conditions can provide a setting for the deconstruction of naturalized gender identities. Fleeing from his black lover in New York, Evelyn becomes the eponymous new Eve when he is abducted in the desert southwest by a radical feminist cult leader who subjects him to an unauthorized sex change. Carter’s self-conscious linkage of gender and apocalypse becomes more overt still when Eve reconceptualizes herself and the transvestite Tristessa, with whom she falls in love, as Tiresias.57 In this gesture, Carter, like Ballard, is responding directly to modernist fiction—in this case, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its repeated invocations of Tiresias and its use of barren, desert imagery to thematize the sterility of modern culture. And even more than in Ballard’s oeuvre, that engagement is largely a rejection of modernist ideology; in this case, Carter’s work constitutes a challenge to the conservative critique of modern sexual identities, including homosexuality, encoded in Eliot’s poem. Carter’s novel intensifies the nihilistic narrative sensibilities of Ballard and the aleatory feeling of Dick’s work to provide a harbinger of the sexy anarchism that will bloom anew in the cinematic desert of Australian George Miller’s Mad Max films beginning in 1979.58

As one might expect, the remainder of the major American apocalypses written in the 1980s were produced by Americans themselves. Though profoundly different from Carter’s in style, Kim Stanley Robinson’s apocalyptic narratives are also written from a politically progressive, leftist perspective. The first was The Wild Shore, which became part of a trilogy of books imagining three futures (one post-apocalyptic, one dystopian, and one utopian) for his home region, Orange County, California.59 The Wild Shore presents another striking early instance of the subgenre of American apocalypse, in this case underscoring that longstanding competitors such as Russia and Japan are thriving in the wake of the destruction of the United States. It is told in the first person, as a recollection of events by Hank, a teenager living in the ruins of America decades after three thousand neutron bombs were detonated across the country. The novel reflects the tensions with Russia that marked the 1980s; while uncertainty lingers about the specifics of the attack on the United States, Russia was almost certainly responsible. It also serves as an artifact of the intense economic competition with Japan that developed in the 1980s. In the aftermath of this bombardment, America is quarantined, with the Japanese patrolling its western borders to keep the remaining Americans in and those from other nations out. Joining a few earlier instances, including Richard Jefferies’s After London (1885), “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937), and The Memoirs of a Survivor, the novel is one of a growing category of post-apocalyptic bildungsromans.60 In these texts, young people (usually adolescent boys, but Lessing provides an exception) are attempting to progress into adulthood in a world where catastrophe has reversed economic, technological, and political progress. As recent scholarship by Jed Esty reminds us, in the bildungsroman the development of the modern nation state is often allegorized through the development of an individual youth.61 Perhaps predictably, then, bildungsromans set in post-apocalyptic conditions tend to bring particular attention to the absence of change in the societies in which the youths exist, symbiotically presenting the stagnation of young lives and the collapse of the nation.62

Madison Smart Bell’s Waiting for the End of the World (1985) is still another American apocalypse that merges nuclear anxiety with a dark vision of America’s economic condition.63 Set in the gritty underbelly of Brooklyn in the early 1980s, the novel builds toward a nuclear apocalypse, which it ultimately aborts. Bell’s text also shifts away from depicting the deployment of weaponry by nation-states, instead ushering in a vision of terrorism that will become ever more familiar in subsequent decades. It imagines five disenchanted men, who together plot to detonate a nuclear weapon under Times Square. Ultimately, the protagonist of the novel, Clarence Larkin, reverses course. As sobering as the threat of terrorism that the novel introduces is, its desolate vision of an American cityscape in economic ruins is perhaps the most haunting aspect of this novel.

Moving from East Coast to West, again the narrative is of physical apocalypse underwritten by economic menace. In this case, the catastrophe begins in America, leaving the nation briefly quarantined, before spreading across the remainder of the globe. Greg Bear, a prolific science-fiction author, has written a number of apocalyptic narratives, including the Forge of God and Darwin’s Radio.64 In Blood Music (1985), one of his most remarkable, Vergil Ulam, a misanthropic scientist at a Silicon Valley biotech company, conducts illicit private research in cellular computing and succeeds: he engineers cells which, through increasingly complex interactions, develop a new form of artificial—if organic—intelligence that transforms first the nation, then the world, and finally the universe.65 The behavior of Vergil Ulam becomes one of the most strident critiques of the dangers of modern science in this genre. In Silicon Valley, the emergent hub of unregulated, entrepreneurial capitalism, the drive for profit unleashes reckless—even apocalyptic—science.

Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, also published in 1985, is one of a short list of books that focuses on the lives of people of color after an apocalyptic event.66 It is a literary descendant of the work of Ballard and Dick, especially in its interest in mutation. In some respects, Johnson’s vision, like Carter’s, is even more indeterminate and aleatory than either of these earlier writers, and it also reflects a newly postmodern acceptance of racial and gender difference. Set sixty years after a nuclear holocaust, the novel takes place in the Florida Keys, in “the Quarantine,” described as “a place ignored by authority.”67 As in so many of the novels of the 1980s, here a constellation of characters live in desperate poverty, in this case amid the final shreds of American culture, a hodgepodge of Voodoo, Islam, Christianity, and technological and pop-cultural artifacts. The eponymous Fiskadoro Hidalgo is a young man of color who studies music with Mr. Cheung, an aging musician of Vietnamese descent. As in The Wild Shore, Johnson offers a post-apocalyptic bildungsroman of nondevelopment. The retrospective narration reveals that eventually a community who practices Islam ended the Quarantine and when they arrived, Fiskadoro was “the only one who was ready.”68 Yet, despite a traumatic initiation rite by a neighboring community, Fiskadoro’s only evident development in the narrative is as a musician. In this respect, Johnson successfully translates stasis from the conditions of the world to the characters themselves.

The conclusion of the 1980s marks something of a break from the newly emergent subgenre of the American apocalypse. Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things (1987) and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) at least ostensibly return to a more global perspective, while offering a crescendo of high postmodernism in their formal fragmentation and subversion of realism.69 Whereas Markson’s novel dwells on the subjective and perhaps hallucinatory experiences of its globe-trotting narrator in solipsistic terms that leave little room for reader identification, Auster’s text offers a more universalized representation of economic collapse and suffering.70 In the Country of Last Things is an epistolary novel, narrated by Anna Blume, who is writing to an old friend. At nineteen, she traveled across the sea in a “foreign charity ship” to search for her journalist brother William in a country that is in chaos.71 As in Auster’s other novels, there is a metafictional quality in which the objects and events that are described appear to be self-conscious textual constructs. To wit, the very city from which Anna Blume writes is gradually disappearing, as though being physically erased from the page. Yet other descriptions—of chronic hunger, closed schools, abrupt regime changes, rubble- and body-strewn streets, desperate scavenging, and dangerous gangs—seem to override postmodern technique with a sort of universal realism of suffering and chaos. In an interview, Auster explains that he drew his vision from the Warsaw ghetto, the siege of Leningrad, the conditions in the developing world, and New York City in the 1980s.72 Auster’s sense of New York in terminal collapse resonates with Madison Smart Bell’s grim vision. Indeed, while the novel seems remote from American shores, it is itself another, more furtive rendering of the American apocalypse, removing readers from the United States only to confront them anew with allegorical images of an isolated and broken nation. These novels, with their toxic stew of Cold War anxiety and economic despair, offer a powerful corrective to the romantic mythos of the Reagan years and set the groundwork for more narratives of American apocalypse to come.

The 1990s: Apocalyptic Interregnum or Feminist Apocalyptic Renaissance?

Following Philip Wegner, Brian McHale has provocatively called the 1990s “the interregnum”—a period of aesthetic uncertainty when the destiny of postmodernism came into question and new cultural forms emerged in advance of the galvanizing events of 9/11.73 Poised as this decade is between the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the beginning of the war on terror in 2001, one might also expect a downturn in the volume of apocalyptic fiction. To some degree that expectation is borne out in terms of the relatively small number of prominent apocalyptic publications during this period. A few do stand out, however, and they also mark a departure from the indeterminate and carnivalesque postmodern qualities of the prior three decades. The influence of the feminist appropriation of the apocalyptic genre resurfaces in a significant number of these texts, and in several instances it is grafted with a continuing vision of American apocalypse—this time concentrated on the West Coast.

One exception to this preoccupation with American cataclysm is female English writer P. D. James’s The Children of Men (1992), which offers a critique of patriarchal power and violence using the setting of London, the tools of realism, and a scenario of global rather than national destruction.74 Alternating between chapters narrated in the first and third person, the novel focuses on a few months in the life of Theo Faron, an Oxford history professor living in a world facing the imminent extinction of the human race. Set in 2021, the novel’s premise is that the last person was born in 1995, after a mysterious plague of infertility called “Omega” struck every man on Earth. While the novel borrows its title from the Book of Common Prayer, its plot brings gender into stark focus, suggesting that “children of men”—that is, children whose fates are in the hands of those of the male gender—are at great risk. Before the onset of Omega, Theo himself has killed his own young child, accidentally running her over with his car. He eerily concedes in his diary that he would have loved her more “had she been prettier.”75 This domestic destruction is paralleled in the narrative by Theo’s cousin Xan’s political regime, which, in response to Omega, has set up a system of draconian laws and practices that he implements as a dictator under the title of “Warden of England.” In the course of the novel, one woman, Julian, proves to be pregnant; at the conclusion, Julian gives birth to a boy, and Theo kills Xan in order to protect Julian and her son. In the novel’s final, disturbing image, Theo assumes the mantle of power, donning Xan’s coronation ring. The recurrent images of men posing a threat to peace and justice while trading on fertility as a means to unfettered power constitute a powerful critique of patriarchy in the novel.

James also directly addresses the association of apocalypse with the figure of Babylon. Near the conclusion of the novel, Xan remarks of Julian, “Don’t romanticize her. She may be the most important woman in the world, but she isn’t the Virgin Mary. The child she is carrying is still the child of a whore.”76 In this fleeting instant, James offers another insight into the misogyny that plagues so much apocalyptic discourse, in this case suggesting the way patriarchal male power hinges on treating women as chaste vessels of their bloodlines. The figure of the whore threatens to upend patriarchy itself, and for a man as deeply invested in masculine models of power as Xan, such a threat is effectively apocalyptic.

American writers produced the remaining major apocalyptic fiction of the 1990s. Two remarkable novels published in 1993, African American author Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and eco-feminist Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, continue to reflect this stark new investment in feminist realism, combining it with complex treatments of race within the framework of the American apocalypse.77 The novels share a striking number of similarities. Both are set in a California of the not too distant future in which drought, heat, and hunger are chronic realities.78 In both, too, America itself has collapsed economically, and foreign multinational corporations exploit America for its labor pool and natural resources. And, like Fiskadoro, both stand out in foregrounding people of color as their main characters and primary concern.

The novels take distinct approaches in other respects. Parable of the Sower is profoundly dystopian, confronting the reader with ceaseless violence—from beheadings and amputations to immolation and rape. Indeed, Butler is unflinching in presenting rape as an entirely routine and expected part of women’s and children’s lives in the future she depicts. Butler’s narrator, Lauren Olamina, is one of the most memorable protagonists in the genre: the novel begins with her fifteenth birthday, and already at this age, this young black woman is beginning to develop (or “discover,” as she insists79) a set of beliefs she comes to call “Earthseed,” which take as their fundamental precept that “God is Change.”80 After Lauren’s family dies, she disguises herself as a man and sets out northward with two neighbors in the hope of cultivating a community around her new faith. The remainder of the novel follows her on the road as others join her group, all the while being chronically beset by attackers.81 The novel was followed by a sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), which further explores the struggles of Lauren and her community.82 While it also includes graphic violence, Starhawk’s novel focuses largely on the pacifism, interracial harmony, sexual freedom, and holistic healing practiced by the denizens of San Francisco. The complex debate among that city’s citizens about how to sustain this hard-won existence in the midst of apocalyptic suffering across the remainder of the state and nation distinguishes Starhawk’s remarkable novel as what Tom Moylan terms a “critical utopia.”83

While also set largely in California, Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon (1995), resists the emergent realism deployed by James, Butler, and Starhawk, instead self-consciously carrying the postmodern aesthetic impulse of Philip K. Dick into the 1990s.84 His novel constitutes yet another instance of the American apocalypse, offering a sharp critique of “all the broken-up, tired American reality” and satirizing various American institutions, including its consumer culture and mass media.85 Nonetheless, as yet another novel that thematizes genetic mutation while simultaneously experimenting with mutated literary form, it is striking that Lethem’s text presents a retrograde view of disability and otherness reminiscent of the works of Ballard and Dick.

Jean Hegland returns to feminist realism in her 1996 novel Into the Forest, where California becomes the setting of an American apocalypse for a fourth time in the 1990s.86 Teenage sisters Nell and Eva survive the collapse of American society and the death of their parents in their remote home in the northern part of the state. The precise nature of that collapse is not explained. First the electricity supply becomes unreliable and there are reports of a war abroad; soon electricity and gas are entirely unavailable. As in so many of these novels, the loss of modern technology leaves the characters without access to news and uncertain about the scope of the catastrophe. Picking up on a thread that has characterized American apocalyptic literature since its inception, Hegland draws parallels between her contemporary white characters and Native Americans of the past. In this case, Hegland’s novel traces Nell’s increasing identification with the original inhabitants of California after a stranger brutally rapes her sister. Depictions of rape in the midst of apocalyptic chaos are a recurrent element in feminist narratives that resist the older misogynist conflation of women’s sexuality with apocalyptic threat. What is distinctive here is that, after Eva’s sexual assault, Nell comes to think of Native Americans who were victimized by white settlers as “sisters.” By the conclusion of Into the Forest, Nell and Eva have sought refuge in the woods like those imagined siblings. Before doing so, in a moment that seems to pay homage to Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, they burn down the house they grew up in as a disavowal of their previous life and as a way of diminishing the likelihood that they will be preyed on by other attackers. This conclusion again suggests that Hegland is aligning white women with Native Americans as victims of white male patriarchy. While offering an intriguing feminist vision of apocalypse, the novel largely occludes the racial dimension of Native American experience, instead suggesting a seamless continuum between the white teenagers and the indigenous tribes that once peopled the West Coast. Moreover, by writing about white women’s appropriation of Native American traditions rather than about contemporary Native Americans, the novel arguably continues their marginalization.

The 2000s: Welcome to the Metapocalypse

The dawning of the new millennium saw a considerable uptick in the publication of major apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. More than ever, the novels respond to the genre itself as a tradition, self-consciously departing from or conforming to a set of increasingly identifiable conventions. As a character in English novelist Marcel Theroux’s Far North reflects, “human misery has few varieties: tent camps, forced labor, hunger, violence, men taking food and sex by force.”87 Many of the novels of this period include such open acknowledgments of the formula of post-apocalypse, becoming instances of what may be termed the “metapocalypse.” Part of that self-consciousness plays itself out in elaborations or revisions of the gender dynamics of the genre, stretching back to Revelation. In some of these novels, Babylon comes roaring back into view. Yet in others, new strategies of dissociating women from apocalypse are born. There are also more engagements with the interface between colonial discourse and the apocalyptic tradition. Many of the texts return to a more global apocalyptic perspective than their immediate predecessors, and they wrestle with the historic tension between Islamic fundamentalists and the West by invoking one of the seminal “last man” narratives, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.88 In these and other terms, the impact of the events of 9/11 and the war on terror are evident in many of the texts, as are increasing environmental concerns and fears related to the human toll of neoliberal capitalism.

Lest it appear that apocalyptists were done with California in the new millennium, noted California author T. C. Boyle wrote several West Coast narratives during this period with an apocalyptic emphasis. Of particular interest is his 2001 short story set in California, “After the Plague,” from a collection by the same name.89 The story is remarkable on several fronts; first, in its self-conscious defiance of genre conventions, it is a rare attempt to treat apocalyptic events humorously.90 Second, in its portrait of Sarai, a physically monstrous, consumerist, and malignant woman who attaches herself to Francis, the story’s protagonist, it also suggests the tradition of associating women with apocalyptic destruction has survived into the new millennium. Third, when Francis at last frees himself from Sarai, Boyle creates perhaps the ultimate cozy catastrophe. The annihilation of the human race brings relaxation, bounty, and, most importantly in California, an end to bad traffic. In a new century in which environmental threats have become far more grave, the coziness of a retreat from modernity becomes more intimately bound up with fantasies of a pristine natural world, free of human polluters. While Boyle’s story is self-consciously American in its preoccupation with California’s newly depopulated grandeur, it departs from the American apocalypse subgenre by sidestepping these earlier works’ preoccupation with economic collapse (instead presenting its narrator as newly affluent as a result of the leftover wealth of his home state) and explicitly treating the plague itself as a global phenomenon.

Continuing in a somewhat humorous vein, American Brian K. Vaughan’s 2003 graphic novel, Y: The Last Man, explores the centrality of gender to the apocalyptic tradition in a still more pronounced fashion.91 Vaughan’s text takes the terminology of the “last man” tradition literally, imagining a near future in which all of the men on the planet, save one, Yorick Brown, are instantly killed. The novel uses this premise to offer a deeply ambivalent meditation on gender relations and power. The novel offers pre-apocalyptic images of women enjoying their recently achieved power and freedom in military, government, and professional roles, as well as in their social and sexual relations. Such images can be read as celebratory, and the novel also includes references to major feminist issues, including honor killings and sexual double standards. But Yorick’s foregrounded economic vulnerability also invites the interpretation that feminism has empowered women at men’s expense. Once the disaster befalls the men of the planet, Yorick must hide his male identity, as he is at risk of being sold into slavery or even killed by a new group of radical feminists who have adopted the warlike traditions of the Amazons. As women behave violently and struggle against one another for power, the text could be read to imply that feminism’s critique of patriarchy has been misguided and unfair.

In contrast to these metapocalypses that light-heartedly spoof various aspects of the apocalyptic tradition, Canadian Margaret Atwood’s work of the 2000s has a more biting satirical relationship to Revelation. Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, consisting of Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013), also restores some of the feminist energy of the 1970s and 1990s to new millennial apocalyptic fiction.92 In Oryx and Crake, she invokes the tradition of Babylon, depicting Oryx, a former victim of human sex trafficking, as the figure who spreads a global plague. Yet rather than adopting the age-old mythology of female sexual menace, Atwood critiques it, identifying late capitalism as the force that strips Oryx of her humanity and precipitates the apocalypse. In Atwood’s vision, the same unbridled consumerism that drives dangerous genetic research transforms Oryx from a child into a commodity available to a hungry global market. The novel underscores the potentially pervasive commodification of all humans as genetic research is aggressively commercialized and also imagines a near-future work culture that transforms workers into de facto slaves. Humans have been fully engulfed in a world where, as Oryx puts it, “everything has a price.”93 These are the apocalyptic conditions that merely find their final expression in Oryx’s distribution of plague-carrying Blysspluss pills. In this purposeful spread of a biological weapon, as well as references to more localized terrorist acts, Oryx and Crake is also among the many narratives that emerge after 2001 that link their apocalyptic vision to the events of 9/11.94 In The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam Atwood continues to explore the links between capitalism and human suffering while resisting the apocalyptic tradition of presenting sexual violence as an expression of divine justice.

Famous for its dazzling postmodern style, English writer David Mitchell’s body of work contains frequent allusions to apocalyptic scenarios. His 1999 novel Ghostwritten includes a plotline involving a variety of potentially apocalyptic outcomes, from a comet strike to global nuclear war.95 His 2004 Cloud Atlas reflects the complex interweaving of postmodern and genre influences that have defined the new century.96 Cloud Atlas includes six interwoven stories, all of which are markedly inspired by earlier writers and genres, and its centerpiece is a post-apocalyptic narrative that clearly plays homage to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Mitchell joins the new generation of writers who resist the older misogynistic conventions of apocalypse. Most of his female characters actively disrupt the cycles of violence his novel chronicles; their defiant humanity echoes the legacy of the feminist interventions of the 1970s.

A less overt metapocalypse, and perhaps the defining post-apocalyptic narrative of first decade of the new century, is American Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). The visibility of this post-apocalyptic novel was unprecedented due to, among other things, a Pulitzer Prize, its selection for Oprah Winfrey’s highly influential book club, and its adaptation as a major film released in 2009.97 While McCarthy’s trademark idiom and sensibility define the novel’s style, its arresting images of a bleak, lifeless American countryside build on the wastelands conjured by T. S. Eliot, George Miller, and others. McCarthy also rejuvenates the Babylon tradition, in this case by depicting the only significant female character in the novel as a self-described “faithless slut” who has taken death as a lover in her “whorish heart.”98 She commits suicide to be with this lover, surrendering to the horrors of the world rather than joining the protagonists on their visionary quest for salvation.99 The Road joins The Passion of New Eve and Parable of the Sower as one of the most violent novels under discussion here. In this case, an unspecified global disaster has created nuclear-winter-like conditions where nothing can grow. The novel’s unnamed protagonist travels across a devastated American landscape with his young son, who was born at the time of the disaster and knows no other reality. They move southward in a constant search for the few final vestiges of food that have not yet been scavenged, while always under threat by other survivors, almost all of whom have turned to cannibalism in the absence of other food sources. Like Oryx and Crake, McCarthy’s novel can be read as a response to the events of 9/11. In particular, the novel uses subtle references to Robinson Crusoe to pit a conventional notion of Western humanism against a vision of retrograde barbarity that echoes some characterizations of Islamic fundamentalists.100 The book is also remarkable for dramatizing the pain of a parent forced to watch his child suffer in the midst of apocalyptic conditions—a theme no other apocalyptic writer has explored with such focus and power.

There is no mistaking the meta in English author Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The Stone Gods (2007), which similarly deploys the Crusoe narrative, this time far more overtly.101 Winterson’s novel, like Mitchell’s, includes postmodern techniques of fragmentation and self-reflexivity, and features four narratives set in three time periods on at least two different worlds. In all four sections the main protagonist’s name is Billie Crusoe (or Billy), and the first and last include brief quotations from Robinson Crusoe. All four of the narratives also include characters that share qualities with Defoe’s Friday. Along with making the Crusoe references more direct, Winterson also makes more explicit use of colonial tropes. Her text vacillates between a fascination with a new world that might transcend the limits of Western humanism and a yearning for wholeness and tradition embodied in the figure of a lost mother.

It is interesting to note that in the late 2000s, two English writers use the post-apocalyptic genre as a means of reconstituting a 19th-century fantasy of the American frontier. This motif is also present, famously, in George Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, with its imagery of the Dogs of War as Native Americans besieging the refinery community, which figures as a de facto western settlement.102 In Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse (2007), the American frontier is inverted, with Franklin Gomez setting out east to attempt to join the mass emigration out of a destroyed America back to Europe.103 In his portrait of America reduced to a local and mercantile economy, while entertaining the notion that other nations may still be prospering, Crace adds another American apocalypse to the roster. Along the way, Franklin meets Margaret, and the novel becomes a variation on the cozy catastrophe by gradually constituting Margaret, Franklin, and Jackie—their adopted daughter—as a robust family unit. While the novel self-consciously raises and then rejects the possibility that the red-haired Margaret will figure as a stand-in for Babylon, at other moments it deploys the conceits of western adventure to establish a traditional vision of gender roles.

Marcel Theroux rethinks the frontier western via the post-apocalypse in more subversive terms. In the opening passage of Far North: A Novel (2009), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, its remarkable protagonist, Makepeace Hatfield, reflects that “somewhere along the ladder of years I lost the bright-eyed best of me.”104 Yet, in the story that Theroux tells, Makepeace’s abiding decency is both moving and inspiring. The grown daughter of American Quakers who years before had voluntarily moved to Siberia in order to turn their backs on modern life, Makepeace crossdresses as a man throughout the narrative, and considers herself an able “frontiersman.”105 Indeed, she talks the talk and walks the walk of a tough sheriff in a frontier town that has been depleted to a handful of desperate survivors in the wake of years of chaos triggered by global climate change. While Crace’s novel uses the conceit of the frontier to offer a heterosexual romance, Makepeace’s sexuality is as fluid as her gender identity.

Like Margaret Atwood, Theroux self-consciously engages with conventions of apocalypse and gender that come from Revelation. Crucially, Makepeace will recall throughout the novel that she was called a Jezebel during a brutal gang rape in her youth, a moment that again captures the ways that women become focal points of apocalyptic rage and blame. This theme is underscored by the suggestion that her own father may have been complicit in her attack, sacrificing her in order to preserve his own reputation as a man of God. In a departure from more conventional evocations of Revelation’s apocalyptic women, Theroux’s novel implies that violent and hateful misogynistic acts performed in response to the apocalyptic tradition guarantee—and even accelerate—humanity’s trajectory toward its own destruction.

Just as references to the “new world” activate the semiotics of colonialism, evoking American mythology of the frontier conjures the Native Americans who peopled that land. Crace demurs on this aspect of frontier America, making no reference to Native Americans. By contrast, Theroux’s novel, like Hegland’s, attempts to make post-apocalyptic experience legible through comparisons with the non-modern existence of indigenous tribes, in this case the Tungus who inhabit the Siberian wilderness. This text marks a significant departure from many earlier apocalyptic texts in that it recognizes the existence and difference of Native peoples without demonizing or glorifying them. Makepeace respects the Tungus’ difference from the white settlers and refugees, but her preference is for a modern existence. At various points, Makepeace observes that the white population had begun to resemble the Tungus, and in this way Theroux explores how the environment shapes and can reshape human experience without mythologizing or eliding actual Native populations. That said, presenting Makepeace as a heroic cowboy in this northern frontier still prioritizes the white narrative.

2010 and Beyond: Growing Economic Fears

The 2010s have seen a continued flourishing of the apocalyptic form. Predictably, an increasing number of the novels anticipate the exhaustion of fossil fuels and the effects of climate change. The impact of 9/11 also lingers in several of the texts. Yet, perhaps most powerfully, one sees a range of fears regarding capitalism, including the economic vulnerability of individuals and the insidious penetration of capitalism into their subjectivity, as well as more macroeconomic concerns regarding the sustainability of capitalism itself. While the perspective in these novels generally remains global, a number of the most recent bring new, ecological dimensions to the American apocalypse.

Capitalism is front and center in Canadian Douglas Coupland’s Player One: What is to Become of Us (2010), which combines fears regarding a collapse of the global oil supply with an immanent portrait of economically precarious individuals.106 Coupland depicts four characters who meet by chance in the lounge of a hotel airport in Toronto, only to experience a global apocalypse precipitated by the price of oil spiking to $250 a barrel. All four characters are deeply dissatisfied and are attempting to create new lives for themselves; they are, as a religious zealot who encounters them later observes, “a depressing grab bag of pop culture influences and cancelled emotions, driven by the sputtering engine of the most banal form of capitalism.”107 The four protagonists come to terms with the “relentless entropy” that unfolds around them as an extension of the events of 9/11.108 Karen reflects, “Something far greater than 9/11 has occurred—the entire world has now turned into the Twin Towers, and it will never feel normal ever again—and that, in itself, will be the new normal.”109 The novel presents contemporary subjectivity as a tepid pastiche of social media artifice, consumerist yearning, and human-resources induced hype propped up by an unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels. Although it acknowledges the chaos and loss created by the end of cheap oil, the novel’s conclusion takes an optimistic tone, embracing change and aligning the characters in cozy pairings. Profound disruptions send the characters reeling, but the novel also registers relief about the emergence of a new way of life.

American writer Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) brings intellectual charge to the zombie apocalypse genre, using it to offer a similarly dire vision of Western subjects—in this case, Americans—deadened by their dual roles as workers and consumers.110 And like Player One, Zone One bears traces of the events of 9/11, taking place in a lower Manhattan (the eponymous Zone One) full of drifting ash. In this case, the ash is from the incinerated bodies of zombies (or “skels” as they are known in the text), after a zombie plague has either killed or transformed most of the world’s population. The novel narrates three days in the life of a man who goes by the nickname “Mark Spitz,” who, along with his “sweeper team,” is attempting to wipe out the “stragglers” in Zone One. Stragglers comprise a subset of the skels who endlessly repeat a single moment of their lives, often some rote aspect of their work. The team performs this task on behalf of Buffalo, the power center of a new, neoliberal government that has branded the survivors of the plague “the American Phoenix.” In its portrait of the new regime’s attempts to rally survivors through this public relations campaign as well as sloganeering and promotional items, Whitehead’s novel joins Atwood’s, Winterson’s, and Coupland’s in its intense preoccupation with a contemporary form of capitalism that seeks to mass produce, manipulate, and monetize the interiority of contemporary citizens. Whitehead pointedly suggests that New Yorkers (and by extension Americans) were already zombies before the plague via flashbacks that trace Mark Spitz’s coming of age through a series of dehumanizing jobs and social relations. At the conclusion of the novel, the wall around Zone One is breached, and, in his apparent excitement with the downfall of the American Phoenix, Mark Spitz, like Coupland’s characters, can be read to reflect a longing for a future, however transformed, that is not defined by capitalist kitsch.

In contrast to Coupland’s novel, which treats women as complex subjects and avoids assigning them blame for the collapse of civilization, Whitehead’s novel offers another iteration of the association of women with apocalyptic ruin. In this case, the American Phoenix campaign becomes embodied in the form of the brusque and disingenuous Ms. Macy, and a similarly barbed critique of women’s complicity with capitalism emerges in the portrait of Spitz’s sweeper team leader, Kaitlyn, an avid devotee of the current economic system. While Kaitlyn isn’t (quite) partying in Rome astride a seven-headed beast, Whitehead implies that she, like Babylon, “summoned the plague” through a life of luxury and privilege.111 Whitehead’s treatment of race is more enigmatic. An African American novelist, Whitehead has treated race directly in a number of other recent novels. In this text, however, there is only passing mention that Mark Spitz is African American.112

In its slow-motion image of destruction, American Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (2012) may prove one of the most apt allegories to date for the actual experience of the economic, political, and ecological instability all humans will confront in the Anthropocene. The almost imperceptible slowing and attenuation of socioeconomic systems its characters endure introduces a variation on the apocalyptic tradition that might be called “the narrative of apocalyptic habituation.”113 Though not marketed as young adult fiction, it follows the experiences of eleven-year-old Californian Julia through a true global crisis: the rotation of the earth begins to slow dramatically. By the conclusion of the novel, when twelve years have passed, each day lasts several weeks, leaving the Earth baking during the periods of protracted daylight and frigid during its long periods of darkness. The novel is far less graphic than many of its contemporary counterparts, with only muted references to looting and violence. And in some respects this is what makes it more affecting: rather than calling on generic violence that has become boilerplate, Walker captures what Rob Nixon has termed “slow violence,” and what Frederick Buell has termed the “slow apocalypse.”114 As one dismaying revelation follows another, Julia and her community continually adapt. Helpless to reverse the phenomena that befall them, they continue to live their lives with poignant determination.

Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), like Far North, was nominated for a National Book Award, suggesting the literary acclaim that continues to be directed to this genre.115 And like Walker’s narrative, Mandel’s text emphasizes habituation, with the protagonist of the novel, Kirsten Raymond, remarking, “You can get used to anything.”116 While more circumspect in its critique than several of the other texts written during this period, the novel includes a grim portrait of contemporary capitalism as exemplified by the machinations of Hollywood. Refreshingly, the character who personifies the vapidity of this industry is not a woman but rather the handsome womanizer Arthur Leander. While none of the characters in the novel are directly implicated in the outbreak of the plague that destroys human civilization, Arthur’s narcissism and careless parenting yields a tyrannical son who terrorizes survivors with his violent religious fanaticism. Kirsten herself possesses the qualities of the hardened woman warrior figure appearing in narratives ranging from Far North to the most recent Mad Max film, Mad Max: Fury Road.117 While Makepeace is adept with a rifle, Kirsten throws knives.

Another female writer also published an apocalyptic novel of some note in 2014, returning more directly to the tradition of American apocalypse by concentrating her portraits of economic malaise exclusively in America. Edan Lepucki’s California: A Novel, also suggests that the obsession with California among American women apocalyptists has not flagged.118 In this text, protagonists Frida and Cal are living in the California wilderness after Los Angeles has become unlivable. Climate change has triggered freak storms and other weather anomalies, and earthquakes have compounded the destruction. In her preoccupation with climate as a central apocalyptic threat in the narrative, Lepucki joins Theroux as one of the first practitioners of what has come to be known as climate fiction or “cli-fi. ” In California, the economic impact of weather distortions, compounded by oil shortages, has further undermined the social order, and the wealthy have retreated to so-called Communities. The novel explores the political tension inspired by these economic disparities, including acts of terrorism. It also raises the increasingly common—and timely—theme of the danger of charismatic demagoguery and the suspension of human rights in times of social chaos.

Canadian and American writer William Gibson’s 2014 novel, The Peripheral, once again brings concerns with contemporary capitalism into sharp relief.119 Gibson’s complex novel imagines a near future in which a series of apocalyptic events referred to collectively as “the jackpot,” and driven by climate change, have led to the death of 80 percent of the human population. An unknown party in this future has developed a computer server that can access alternative time continua, permitting visits to pasts that will never occur because of the activity of the time traveler. In the course of the novel, this technology permits Wilf Netherton, a public relations representative from the future to collaborate with Flynne Fisher, a tough young woman living in a pre-jackpot rural America beset by crime and economic stagnation, to solve a crime she witnessed in Wilf’s time. Gibson has made his name with a series of novels, stretching back to Neuromancer (1984), that imagine the world in a state of near collapse from pollution, corruption, and wealth concentration.120 This text marks something of a departure, however, flirting with the category of cozy catastrophe; while Flynne’s economically precarious world bears some resemblance to his earlier visions, Gibson’s post-apocalyptic London is relatively peaceful and its small population comfortable. Characterizing the unfolding apocalypse that led to this future as “a progress accompanied by constant violence,” Gibson imagines that in the course of civilization’s collapse, “science had started popping,” with innovations in energy, medicine, and computer science leading to a world of considerable beauty, yet in which democracy has been overtaken by a worldwide “kleptocracy.”121 By the conclusion of the novel, Flynne and her small community have been so enormously rewarded financially by their involvement in the future that they have begun to steer the global economy, and they are attempting to press their continuum toward a safer and more just future—one that does not include the jackpot. Yet, questions linger about whether they themselves have become kleptocrats.

Korean American novelist Chang-Rae Lee’s novel, On Such a Full Sea (2014), presents still another variation on the American apocalypse, this one thinly disguising current capitalist dynamics in the guise of a post-apocalyptic future.122 In Lee’s vision, the U.S. government has been replaced by “the directorate,” a managing system that oversees economic relations between wealthy enclaves known as the “Charter villages” and work communities that raise food for the villages under a largely invisible but ruthlessly strict management regime. Beyond the walls of these communities lie sprawling, unregulated areas known as the “open counties,” where brutality and lawlessness are the norm. The conditions that have led to this rigidly stratified society are both environmental and economic. Environmental refugees from “New China” founded B-Mor, the company town at the center of the narrative. They fled conditions of industrial pollution in China that were beyond endurance. The opportunity for these refugees to settle in the former city of Baltimore is created by a level of economic erosion that is only a degree more severe than that currently besetting present-day Baltimore, Detroit, and other American cities. Lee writes that the city’s abandonment was the result of a “revolving cast of governmental bodies that overreached in their efforts or were disastrously neglectful, all of them downright clueless.”123 Along with extreme weather created by climate change, endemic cancer besets the American population, and it is this latter scourge that drives the narrative. The protagonist of the novel, Fan, a sixteen-year-old Asian American woman, sets out from B-Mor to try to find her boyfriend, Reg, who has been abducted by a pharmaceutical company because of his apparent immunity to cancer. The novel carries Fan through the counties to a charter village, while the legend of her defiant departure inspires acts of resistance against the hegemony in B-Mor. Lee’s novel adds to the small but growing set of texts that make race central to their narratives of capitalist apocalypse.

The number of important apocalyptic works of fiction only continues to grow at the midpoint of the decade. American Paolo Bacigalupi’s bestselling novel The Water Knife (2015) continues to interlace the themes of voracious neoliberal capitalism and environmental destruction.124 Set once again in a drought-devastated Southwest, Bacigalupi’s work of cli-fi displays the capacity for apocalyptic world-building that he has continued to hone throughout his brief but prolific career as novelist, beginning with The Windup Girl (2009).125 In the future Bacigalupi imagines, prolonged drought and political corruption have left America a “brokeback version” of itself, in which states conduct military operations against one another in an effort to preserve access to ever more attenuated water sources.126 Its hobbled economy is heavily dependent on Chinese investment, and it is also reliant on humanitarian aid from China and the United Nations. Portraying horrific violence unprecedented even in this viscerally violent genre, The Water Knife presents the conditions in Phoenix, where much of the action takes place, as “true apocalypse. The world after all the rules had stopped existing.”127 The central villain of the novel is Catherine Case, a cold-blooded businesswoman who controls water rights along the Colorado River by deploying mercenaries, or in local parlance “water knives,” to cut off various populations’ access to water. Its portrait of Case indexes the continuing misogynistic influence of Revelation on contemporary apocalyptic narrative: Decked in “gold and diamonds,” Case as Babylon presides from Las Vegas, a contemporary Sin City that finds its inspiration in Revelation’s Rome.128 To be sure, the novel’s deployment of blistering apocalyptic imagery of the American water crisis as precipitating “the end of times,” provides a powerful political critique.129 However, embodying monstrous capitalist greed in the person of a beautiful, bejeweled woman, diverts attention from the realities of which gender runs most of America’s corporations and wields most of its political power.

Published a few months after Bacigalupi’s novel, Gold Fame Citrus (2015), by American Claire Vaye Watkins, again combines some of the oldest and newest elements of the apocalyptic tradition.130 Watkins, like so many other authors, writes about California in this novel, imagining it as an arid wasteland devastated by chronic drought, where only stragglers linger in defiance of mandatory evacuations to the East or Northwest. This text is another particularly pronounced instance of cli-fi, and like its antecedents, it also offers powerful images of the economic impact of coming climate change. The remaining population in California has been disavowed as outlaw “Mojavs,” and they are now subject to widespread economic discrimination and detainment in labor camps. Indeed, poverty and social dysfunction become the catalysts for the plot: while they are attending a rain dance in LA, Chicana protagonist Luz Cortez and her boyfriend, Ray, encounter a toddler who is being neglected and abused by the group of lawless young people that is in charge of her. Luz and Ray impulsively take the child and flee, first back to their adopted home in Topanga canyon and then across the Mojave Desert, which has become home to a vast and mobile “dune sea,” known as the Amargosa. The novel is striking in its continuation of the tradition of using references to Native America’s conquest as an analog for the newly devastated white civilization, while exploring the connection between the American post-apocalyptic tradition and frontier mythology. In its skeptical portrait of a charismatic male cult leader, it joins the work not only of Lepucki and Mandel, but earlier feminist writers Lessing and Carter, hinting that these recent woman-authored texts have feminist roots that are not always obvious. Yet, troublingly, the novel also continues to animate stereotypes of women from Revelation. As Luz increasingly endangers herself, Ray, and the child in the course of the novel, all the while attired in the haute couture clothes and accessories of the “starlet” whose house she and Ray had been squatting in, the shades of Babylon are unmistakable. Watkins’s text suggests that Luz’s father, a religious fanatic who was repelled by her adolescent body, set her on this destructive course by emancipating her as a child into the hands of a brutal modeling industry in which she was routinely degraded and sexually assaulted. However, Watkins’s choice to deck Luz in the jewels and swag of the starlet cross-fertilizes this more sensitive back story with overshadowing signifiers of a familiar, deadly feminine materialism.

Apocalyptic novels have engaged with many themes and forms over the course of the 20th century: the cozy catastrophes and nuclear fears of the 1950s, the mutated bodies and texts of the 1960s, the feminist defiance of the 1970s, the emergence of the American apocalypse in the 1980s, a new fusion of feminism with the American apocalypse in the 1990s, the metapocalypses of the 2000s, and finally the apocalyptic critiques of capitalism that dominate the second decade of the new millennium. The nagging sense that women engender apocalyptic danger for which there may be no failsafe haunts much of this material, inspiring feminist writers to lay bare more immediate threats in a world both weaponized and monetized by patriarchy. Writers of color have likewise begun to decode the racial animus that has long shaped apocalyptic discourse. Throughout this period, the apocalyptic genre plays a vital cultural role, giving voice to fears and articulating hope.

Review of the Literature

Scholarly studies of contemporary apocalyptic literature have increased markedly in the past two decades. They include Frederick Buell’s From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century (2003), David Leigh’s Apocalyptic Patterns in Twentieth-Century Fiction (2008), Elizabeth Rosen’s Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination (2008), Teresa Heffernan’s Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Twentieth-Century Novel (2008), Peter Paik’s From Apocalypse to Utopia: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (2010), and Russell Samolsky’s Apocalyptic Futures: Marked Bodies and the Violence of the Text in Kafka, Conrad, and Coetzee (2011).131 Several of these monographs examine popular cultural depictions of apocalyptic events, while others focus primarily on canonical modern and postmodern texts that gesture toward apocalyptic themes. The recently published volume Apocalyptic Discourse in Contemporary Culture: Post-Millennial Perspectives on the End of the World (2014), edited by Monica Germanà and Aris Mousoutzanis, includes discussions of many of the speculative apocalyptic texts discussed in this article, as well as ascendant theorists Slavoj Zizek, Giorgio Agamben, and others.132 Heather Hicks’s monograph, The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity beyond Salvage, examines post-apocalyptic literary fiction produced since 2000.133

Deeper reading in this field should begin with the scholarship of Northrop Frye and M. H. Abrams, which set the groundwork for analysis of the apocalyptic genre through readings of Romantic poetry. In Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), Frye explores William Blake’s multifaceted engagement with Revelation.134 In Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957), he theorizes a transcendent and liberating reading experience that he characterizes as apocalyptic.135 Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971) offers a sweeping picture of the influence of Revelation on not only Romantic poets but also major poets of earlier and later eras.136 Steven Goldsmith’s Unbuilding Jerusalem: Apocalypse and Romantic Representation (1993) presents a comprehensive rejoinder to what he understands to be the formal, dehistoricized approach of Frye, Abrams, and other critics, reasserting the political uses of apocalyptic discourse in Romantic poetry.137 Mary Wilson Carpenter provides an incisive feminist critique of all three critics in “Representing Apocalypse: Sexual Politics and the Violence of Revelation” (1995).138

Even more influential on major scholarship concerning postwar apocalyptic narrative is Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1967).139 While the foundation of his analysis is modernist rather than Romantic literature, Kermode shares the conviction of Frye and Abrams that the tradition of Revelation pervades Western consciousness. He interrogates the fixation of modern subjects on endings and crises, and challenges their sense that their own relation to the end is somehow more urgent or dramatic than that felt by those living in other epochs.

Essential reading for those who wish to understand the key role science fiction played in the evolution of apocalyptic literature in the 20th century is Warren Wagar’s Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things (1982).140 In this exhaustive study, Wagar understands apocalyptic science fiction to be registering a sense that “the modern era of history … is already approaching its endtime.”141 Another study from this period distinguished by its clarity and scope is Lois Parkinson Zamora’s Writing the Apocalypse: Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction (1989).142 Zamora concerns herself with how a number of major modern and postmodern writers from across the Americas engage with history through the mythic structures of the apocalyptic tradition. Fiona Stafford’s The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin (1994) provides still another crucial building block for understanding the variety of forms apocalyptic fiction has taken.143

The 1990s saw the publication of two additional influential volumes. Richard Dellamora’s indispensable edited collection, Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End (1995), assembles a range of essays that analyze apocalyptic narratives—spanning fiction, film, music, and other cultural forms—through a variety of theoretical lenses.144 James Berger’s After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (1999) is the study that has perhaps been the most influential on new millennial scholarship.145 Berger offers a provocative framework that reads both fiction and other cultural forms as symptomatic of historical catastrophes that have left humankind in a post-apocalyptic condition.

Several theorists also figure crucially in contemporary research on apocalyptic narrative. Derrida’s writings, especially “No Apocalypse, Not Now” and “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy,” have proven essential for many of the critics discussed above.146 More recently Zizek’s work, Living in the End Times, has offered a political framework for understanding Western apocalyptic consciousness.147 Finally, the work of feminist theologians Catherine Keller in Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (1996) and Tina Pippin in Apocalyptic Bodies: The Biblical End of the World in Text and Image (1999) supply invaluable context for understanding the patriarchal and misogynistic elements of Western apocalyptic thought.148

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                                                                                                                          Vaughan, Brian K., Pia Guerra, and José Marzán Jr. Y: The Last Man. New York: DC Comics, 2002.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Walker, Karen Thompson. The Age of Miracles. New York: Random House, 2012.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                              Watkins, Claire Vaye. Gold Fame Citrus. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                Whitehead, Colson. Zone One. New York: Doubleday, 2011.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                  Winterson, Jeanette. The Stone Gods. Boston: Mariner Books, 2007.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                    Wyndham, John. The Day of the Triffids. New York: Modern Library, 1951.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                      Further Reading

                                                                                                                                      Abrams, M. H., Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                        Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                          Aldiss, Brian W. Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction. New York: Doubleday, 1973.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                            Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                              Buell, Frederick. From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century. New York: Routledge, 2003.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                Buell, Frederick. “Global Warming as Literary Narrative.” Philological Quarterly 93.3 (Summer 2014): 261–294.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                  Cooper, Lydia. “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as Apocalyptic Grail Narrative.” Studies in the Novel 43.2 (2011): 218–236.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                    Dellamora, Richard, ed. Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                      Derrida, Jacques. “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy.” Translated by John P. Leavey Jr. Semia 23(1982): 63–97.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                        Derrida, Jacques. “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives).” Translated by Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis. Diacritics 14.2 (Summer 1984): 20–31.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                          Dewey, Joseph. In a Dark Time: The Apocalyptic Temper in the American Novel of the Nuclear Age. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                            Esty, Jed. Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                              Foertsch, Jacqueline. “‘Extraordinarily Convenient Neighbors’: African-American Characters in White-Authored Post-Atomic Novels.” Journal of Modern Literature 30.4 (Summer 2007): 122–138.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                  Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                    Goldsmith, Steven. Unbuilding Jerusalem: Apocalypse and Romantic Representation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                      Germanà, Monica, and Aris Mousoutzanis, eds. Apocalyptic Discourse in Contemporary Culture: Post-Millennial Perspectives on the End of the World. New York: Routledge, 2014.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                        Heffernan, Teresa. Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism and the Twentieth-Century Novel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                          Hicks, Heather J. The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity Beyond Salvage. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                            Keller, Catherine. Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World. Boston: Beacon, 1996.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                              Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                  Leigh, David J. Apocalyptic Patterns in Twentieth-Century Fiction. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                    Montgomery, Maxine Lavon. The Apocalypse in African-American Fiction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                      Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                        Paik, Peter. From Apocalypse to Utopia: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                          Pippin, Tina. Apocalyptic Bodies: The Biblical End of the World in Text and Image. New York: Routledge, 1999.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                            Rosen, Elizabeth K. Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination. New York: Lexington Books, 2008.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                              Samolsky, Russell. Apocalyptic Futures: Marked Bodies and the Violence of the Text in Kafka, Conrad and Coetzee. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                Stafford, Fiona. The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                  Wagar, Warren. Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                    Zamora, Lois Parkinson. Writing the Apocalypse: Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                      Zizek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. London: Verso, 2011.Find this resource:


                                                                                                                                                                                                        (1.) The “contemporary” period is often dated from 1945, but this article uses 1950 as its starting point because the one major work of apocalyptic fiction in the late 1940s, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, is more reflective of pre-war trends and concerns. Specifically, the novel focuses on the experiences of Isherwood Williams after a global plague decimates the American population. In its portrait of the few remaining Americans gradually adopting survival techniques reminiscent of those practiced by Native Americans, the novel is most reminiscent of two earlier works, Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, in The Scarlet Plague and Other Stories (Dover, NH: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995), 1–40; and Stephen Vincent Benét’s “By the Waters of Babylon,” in Selected Works, ed. Benét (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1942), 2:471–483.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (2.) James Berger, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 5. Berger elaborates, “The apocalyptic text announces and describes the end of the world, but then the text does not end, nor does the world represented in the text, and neither does the world itself” (5).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (3.) Jacques Derrida “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy,” trans. John P. Leavey Jr. Semia 23(1982): 95. Derrida’s profound influence on the literary criticism of apocalyptic texts is especially evident in Berger’s work, as well as Richard Dellamora’s edited collection, Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995); and Teresa Heffernan’s monograph, Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism and the Twentieth-Century Novel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (4.) For further analysis of the relationship of dystopian and utopian currents within apocalyptic literature, see Heather Hicks, The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity Beyond Salvage (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 7–9.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (5.) For some examples of studies that take this approach, see James Berger, Teresa Heffernan, and Russell Samolsky, Apocalyptic Futures: Marked Bodies and the Violence of the Text in Kafka, Conrad and Coetzee (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011); and Lois Parkinson Zamora, Writing the Apocalypse: Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (6.) An indispensable resource on the hundreds of short stories and novels generated within the field of science fiction during this period is Warren Wagar’s Terminal Visions, in which he exhaustively treats this corpus. This article is different in focus, specifically attending to novels and short stories that have been recognized as especially literary, were written by major literary figures, had particular popular influence, or manifest a level of complexity and imagination that reward extended and close critical attention.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (7.) For studies that focus on literary works that are closely keyed to Revelation’s apocalyptic vision, see Zamora, Writing the Apocalypse; Maxine Lavon Montgomery, The Apocalypse in African-American Fiction (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996); David J. Leigh, Apocalyptic Patterns in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008); and Elizabeth K. Rosen, Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination (New York: Lexington Books, 2008).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (8.) Some recent scholarship has begun to see this post-apocalyptic condition in terms of what Giorgio Agamben terms “bare life” in his influential book, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998). For one instance of such scholarship, see Nicole L. Sparling, “Figuring the Mother in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men,” Frontiers 35.1 (2014): 160–180.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (9.) Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives),” trans. Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis, Diacritics 14.2 (Summer 1984): 23.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (10.) Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2011), x. Zizek’s thought has been especially influential among recent scholars, including whose work was recently collected in Monica Germanà and Aris Mousoutzanis’s recent edited volume, Apocalyptic Discourse in Contemporary Culture: Post-Millennial Perspectives on the End of the World (New York: Routledge, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (11.) Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971); and Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Boston: Beacon, 1996).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (12.) Mary Wilson Carpenter, “Representing Apocalypse: Sexual Politics and the Violence of Revelation,” in Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End, ed. Richard Dellamora (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995), 119.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (13.) The King James Bible, eds. Robert Carroll and Stephen Pricket (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Revelation 17:1.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (14.) Revelation 2:20.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (15.) Revelation 17:6.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (16.) Revelation 17:4.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (17.) Carpenter, “Representing Apocalypse,” 118.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (18.) Revelation 12:1, 12:5.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (19.) Revelation 14:4.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (20.) Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 294.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (21.) John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (New York: The Modern Library, 1951).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (22.) Among other evidence, Ketterer cites the common war-time nickname for the Germans, the “Krauts,” translates into “cabbages” or “weeds,” terms also applied to the triffids in Wyndham’s novel (107). See David Ketterer, “John Wyndham’s World War III and his Abandoned Fury of Creation Trilogy,” in Future Wars: The Anticipations and the Fears, ed. David Seed (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), 103–129.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (23.) Adam Stock, “The Blind Logic of Plants: Enlightenment and Evolution in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids,” Science Fiction Studies 42.3 (November 2015), 437.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (24.) T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ed. Michael North (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (25.) Ketterer, “John Wyndham’s World War III,” 107. Ketterer argues that the anatomy of the triffid plant evokes female genitalia, including its venomous stinger, which lies in a “tightly-wrapped whorl … emerging … from a sticky mess in the base of the cup” (as quoted on page 108).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (26.) Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids, 71. The phrase “Rome burning” is shorthand for the tradition that Nero fiddled while Rome burned in 64 ce. The historical proximity of the Great Fire of Rome to John’s subsequent production of the book of Revelation is a reminder of the complex connections between the mythologies of Nero and Babylon.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (27.) Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids, 210.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (28.) Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon (New York: Perennial Classics, 1959); and Nevil Shute, On the Beach (New York: Scholastic, 1957).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (29.) Jacqueline Foertsch, “‘Extraordinarily Convenient Neighbors’: African-American Characters in White-Authored Post-Atomic Novels,” Journal of Modern Literature 30.4 (Summer 2007): 124. Foertsch associates this servile characterization of African Americans with a tendency to “exclude … them from the history explosively unfolding around their white counterparts. Their imperviousness or obliviousness to the massive dangers that are the stories’ primary themes removes them from the narrative action and from the very meaning of the bomb itself” (125).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (30.) Frank, Alas, Babylon, 261.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (31.) In Revelation 18:9, “the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her” cry as they watch Babylon burn. Revelation 18:10 continues, “Standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.” This passage reminds us that in Revelation, Babylon is presented both as a promiscuous woman and as the corrupt city of Rome, the capital of a vast and wealthy empire.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (32.) Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” 30.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (33.) Another novel of the period that views the collapse of civilization with—at times comical—despair, is Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (New York: EOS, 2006). The novel begins six hundred years after a nuclear war, in a new dark ages of ignorance and religious fanaticism. Yet the devastation of human civilization teaches the survivors nothing: over ensuing centuries, technological knowledge is gradually recovered, only to trigger yet another nuclear war. Along with this grim perspective, Miller’s novel also anticipates the preoccupation with genetic mutation that will emerge more fully in the next decade, culminating with emergence of a two-headed woman as Earth’s new Eve.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (34.) Benjamin Kohlman offers an interesting reading of On the Beach as heralding the beginning of narratives that imagine a posthuman earth. See Benjamin Kohlmann, “What Is It Like to Be a Rat? Early Cold War Glimpses of the Post-Human,” Textual Practice 28.4 (2014): 655–675.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (35.) Philip K. Dick, Dr. Bloodmoney (New York: Mariner Books, 2012); and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (New York: Del Rey, 1968).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (36.) Philip K. Dick, “Second Variety,” Space Science Fiction, May 1953. Project Gutenberg.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (37.) Dick, “Second Variety,” n.p.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (38.) Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005), 351.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (39.) For a persuasive reading of the gender complexities of Dr. Bloodmoney that argues that the book is about a crisis in masculinity, see Valerie Holliday, “Masculinity in the Novels of Philip K. Dick,” Extrapolation 47.2 (Summer 2006): 280–295.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (40.) J. G. Ballard, The Wind from Nowhere (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1962); The Drowned World (New York: Liveright, 1962); The Drought (New York: Liveright, 1965); and The Crystal World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (41.) Umberto Rossi, “From Dick to Lethem: The Dickian Legacy, Postmodernism, and Avant-Pop in Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon,” Science Fiction Studies 29.1 (Mar. 2002): 30, fn 3.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (42.) Ballard, The Drought, 71.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (43.) Ballard, The Drowned World, 25.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (44.) Ballard, The Drowned World, 151.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (45.) Ballard, The Drowned World, 108.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (46.) Suzy McKee Charnas, Walk to the End of the World (New York: Berkley, 1974); Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor (New York: Vintage Books, 1988); Joanna Russ, The Female Man (Boston: Beacon, 1986); Raccoona Sheldon, “The Screwfly Solution,” in Out of the Everywhere, and Other Extraordinary Visions (New York: Ballantine, 1981), 53–75; and Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake (London: Pan Books, 1978).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (47.) Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (New York: Penguin, 1993).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (48.) Gillian Dooley, “An Autobiography of Everyone? Intentions and Definitions in Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor,” English Studies 90.2 (April 2009): 157.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (49.) Lessing has stated that the decline of social conditions she depicts mirrors the sorts of “waves of violence” created in the recent past by “Hitler, Mussolini, Communism, white supremacy, systems of brutal ideas that seem for a time unassailable, then collapse” (as quoted in Dooley, “An Autobiography of Everyone?,” 161).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (50.) Lessing, 213.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (51.) Ibid., 185.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (52.) Sheri S. Tepper, The Gate to Women’s Country (London: Corgi, 1990), 346.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (53.) Revelation 12:9.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (54.) These two properties—an economic collapse (rather than a natural disaster, plague, or nuclear strike) and the sense that other nations remain intact—seem essential to the emergent subgenre of the American apocalypse. One might speculate that the first property reflects the fact that American economic power—even more than its military might—defined its national identity in the twentieth 20th century. The second perhaps reflects a similar centrality of American exceptionalism to America’s self-conception. It is the loss of these somewhat intangible attributes that constitute a true American catastrophe in the fictions of the 1980s and beyond.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (55.) Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (56.) Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago, 2007).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (57.) Carter, The Passion of New Eve, 146.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (58.) Mad Max, directed by George Miller (Burbank, CA: MGM, 1979).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (59.) Kim Stanley Robinson, The Wild Shore (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1984). As Carl Abbot observes, “the trilogy is a set of variations on the common trope of ‘seeing the future in California’” (72). See “Falling into History: Imagined Wests in the ‘Three Californias’ and Mars Trilogy,” in Kim Stanley Robinson Maps the Unimaginable: Critical Essays, ed. William J. Burling (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009): 67–82.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (60.) Richard Jefferies, After London; or, Wild England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980); and Benét, “By the Waters of Babylon.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (61.) Jed Esty, Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (62.) For an alternative reading of the novel as a bildungsroman, see Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., “Possible Mountains and Rivers; The Zen Realism of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias,” Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology 20.1–2 (Winter/Spring 2012): 149–185.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (63.) Madison Smartt Bell, Waiting for the End of the World (New York: Penguin, 1985).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (64.) Greg Bear, The Forge of God (New York: Tor, 1987); and Darwin’s Radio (New York: Ballantine, 2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (65.) Greg Bear, Blood Music (New York: Ace, 1996).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (66.) Denis Johnson, Fiskadoro (New York: Harper Perennial, 1985).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (67.) Johnson, Fiskadoro, 12.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (68.) Johnson, Fiskadoro, 12.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (69.) Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things (New York: Penguin Books, 1987); and David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1988).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (70.) As Joseph Tabbi suggests, “through Kate, … Markson has perfected a world of self-reflective, self-validating illusions” (766). See “Solitary Inventions: David Markson at the End of the Line,” Modern Fiction Studies 43.3 (1997): 745–772.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (71.) Auster, In the Country of Last Things, 85.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (72.) Paul Auster, interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1992), 307.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (73.) Brian McHale, “Break, Period, Interregnum,” Twentieth-Century Literature 57.3–4 (Fall/Winter 2011): 328–340.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (74.) James, The Children of Men.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (75.) James, The Children of Men, 29.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (76.) James, The Children of Men, 238.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (77.) Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Warner Books, 1993); and Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing (New York: Bantam, 1993).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (78.) Butler and Starhawk offer two of the first contemporary climate change novels (a subgenre now sometimes referred to as “cli-fi”). For a fascinating contextualization of Butler’s novel among other narratives of environmental crisis, see Frederick Buell, “Global Warming as Literary Narrative,” Philological Quarterly 93.3 (Summer 2014): 261–294.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (79.) Butler, Parable of the Sower, 261.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (80.) Butler, Parable of the Sower, 76.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (81.) In Madhu Dubey’s reading of the novel, she astutely argues, “Sharing the bleak view of racial progress that impels the neo-slave narrative genre, Butler revisits slavery in order to dispute dominant public narratives of the civil rights movement as inaugurating a postracial phase of national history” (360). Dubey also convincingly demonstrates that Butler weds her racial thinking to a timely critique of global economic conditions. See Madhu Dubey, “Octavia Butler’s Novels of Enslavement,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 46.3 (2013): 345–363.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (82.) Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Talents (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (83.) In his well-known formulation, Moylan explains that critical utopias acknowledge “the limitations of the utopian tradition,” in Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (London: Methuen, 1986), 10. As Fiona Tolan observes, “acritical utopia offers a critique of both the socio-political situation and the utopian solution” (“Feminist Utopias and Questions of Liberty: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as Critique of Second Wave Feminism,” Women: A Cultural Review 16.1 [2005]: 20).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (84.) Jonathan Lethem, Amnesia Moon (New York: Harvest, 1995).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (85.) Lethem, Amnesia Moon, 176. In his analysis of Lethem’s literary debt to Dick, Umberto Rossi observes, “Lethem … shows a typically Dickian attention to the ‘small people’ and the life they lead in a globalized world that is crowded with simulacra both on the screen and outside of it” (28). Lethem stresses that the disorientation and fragmentation presented in the novel is a singularly American condition, with one character observing, “In America everybody’s already wandering around lost. Even before the changes” (114).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (86.) Jean Hegland, Into the Forest (New York: Bantam, 1998).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (87.) Marcel Theroux, Far North: A Novel (New York: Picador, 2009), 148.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (88.) Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719 (New York: Penguin Books, 2003). The “last man” tradition became an important apocalyptic sub-genre among the English romantic novelists and poets of the early 19th century. For a thorough account of the emergence of this tradition, see Fiona Stafford, The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (89.) T. Coraghessan Boyle, “After the Plague,” After the Plague: Stories (New York: Viking, 2001), 281–303.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (90.) Boyle has indicated that “After the Plague” was intended as a rejoinder to the conventions of post-apocalypse, remarking in an interview, “I’m so tired of these post-apocalyptic stories where Mad Max-type characters are fighting over gasoline in the dirt” (T. Corraghessan Boyle, “Boyling Point: TC Boyle is So Good, It’s Laughable,” interview with Dan Bennet.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (91.) Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and José Marzán Jr., Y: The Last Man (New York: DC Comics, 2002).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (92.) Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (New York: Anchor-Random House, 2003); The Year of the Flood (New York: Anchor-Random House, 2009); and MaddAddam (New York: Doubleday, 2013). Though a powerful voice concerning a range of women’s issues, Atwood has always resisted being labeled a feminist, and is willing to take a critical stance toward the women’s movement. An instance of this complexity is her most famous novel the The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), in which an environmental collapse and consequent infertility of most women has led to a situation in which the remaining fertile women are enslaved by the revolutionary Christian government that has taken over the former United States. While superficially reproducing the sorts of feminist critique in the gender-centric apocalypses of Sheldon, Tepper, and Charnas, Atwood’s work is more ambivalent toward second-wave feminism, presenting its anti-pornography campaign as a potential road to female enslavement should a global catastrophe destabilize the American government.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (93.) Atwood, Oryx and Crake, 139.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (94.) Atwood has indicated that she was in the midst of writing Oryx and Crake when 9/11 took place, and that the threats it raised were “preoccupying her” when she completed the book (“Writing Oryx and Crake,” 322).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (95.) David Mitchell, Ghostwritten (New York, Vintage, 1999).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (96.) David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (New York: Random House, 2004).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (97.) Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Vintage, 2009).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (98.) McCarthy, The Road, 57.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (99.) For a fascinating reading of the novel as a quest narrative, see Lydia Cooper, “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as Apocalyptic Grail Narrative,” Studies in the Novel 43.2 (2011): 218–236.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (100.) For more on this reading, see Hicks, The Post-Apocalyptic Novel.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (101.) Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods (Boston: Mariner, 2007).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (102.) Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, directed by George Miller (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 1981).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (103.) Jim Crace, The Pesthouse (New York: Vintage, 2007).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (104.) Crace, The Pesthouse, 3.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (105.) Crace, The Pesthouse, 16.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (106.) Douglas Coupland, Player One (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2010). Player One should not be confused with another novel about the decline of global civilization in the face of a “Global Energy Crisis,” Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (New York: Broadway Books, 2011), 217. While Player One condemns a culture in which humans become “grab bag[s] of pop culture influences,” Ready Player One revels in this sort of identity, imagining a contest in which the player with the most pop culture (and geek culture) knowledge will win, becoming staggeringly wealthy and powerful in the process. Cline’s novel portrays a near future in which an oil shortage, climate change, and geopolitical instability have left America and the remainder of the Earth in ruins. In a vein reminiscent of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), and more directly, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (New York: Spectra, 2000), Cline imagines that in a world in which daily physical existence is a deadly struggle and mobility is greatly restricted, most humans live their lives online, in this case, in OASIS, “a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity now used on a daily basis” (1). The novel launches a very specific form of capitalist critique, in which the media and technological productions of capitalism are revered for the utopian pleasures they provide, while multinational corporate greed is systematically critiqued. Like William Gibson’s The Peripheral (New York: Putnam, 2014), Cline grimly portrays poverty and suffering in a broken economy, while entertaining the possibility that a profoundly artificial future in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few progressively inclined parties, may be humanity’s best hope for survival, and may even create a sort of utopia.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (107.) Coupland, Player One, 136.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (108.) Coupland, Player One, 130.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (109.) Coupland, Player One, 168.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (110.) Colson Whitehead, Zone One (New York: Doubleday, 2011).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (111.) Whitehead, Zone One, 47.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (112.) This has prompted critic Ramón Saldívar to observe, “With the near-total annihilation of humanity has come as well the near elimination of racial difference and of racial strife, as if only a complete and total destruction of contemporary life will allow for the end of the color line” (13). See “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative,” Narrative 21.1 (2013): 1–18.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (113.) Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles (New York: Random House, 2012).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (114.) Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); and Frederick Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century (New York: Routledge, 2003).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (115.) Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (116.) St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, 195.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (117.) Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (118.) Edan Lepucki, California: A Novel (New York: Little, Brown, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (119.) Gibson, The Peripheral.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (120.) Gibson, Neuromancer.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (121.) Gibson, The Peripheral, 321.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (122.) Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (New York: Riverhead, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (123.) Lee, On Such a Full Sea, 19.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (124.) Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (New York: Vintage, 2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (125.) Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2009).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (126.) Bacigalupi, The Water Knife, 22.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (127.) Bacigalupi, The Water Knife, 112.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (128.) Bacigalupi, The Water Knife, 53.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (129.) Italics in original, Bacigalupi, The Water Knife, 20.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (130.) Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (131.) See Peter Paik, From Apocalypse to Utopia: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); and Russell Samolsky’s Apocalyptic Futures: Marked Bodies and the Violence of the Text in Kafka, Conrad, and Coetzee (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (132.) See Germanà and Mousoutzani, Apocalyptic Discourse in Contemporary Culture.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (133.) See Hicks, The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (134.) Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (135.) Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (136.) See Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (137.) Steven Goldsmith, Unbuilding Jerusalem: Apocalypse and Romantic Representation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (138.) See Carpenter, “Representing Apocalypse.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (139.) See Kermode, The Sense of an Ending.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (140.) See Warren Wagar, Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (141.) Wagar, Terminal Visions, xiii.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (142.) See Zamora, Writing the Apocalypse.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (143.) See Stafford, The Last of the Race.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (144.) See Dellamora, Postmodern Apocalypse.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (145.) See Berger, After the End.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (146.) See Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now” and “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (147.) See Zizek, Living in the End Times.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (148.) See Keller and Tina Pippin, Apocalyptic Bodies: The Biblical End of the World in Text and Image (New York: Routledge, 1999).