In the 21st century, a new genre of Anglophone fiction has emerged—the climate change novel, often abbreviated as “cli-fi.” Many successful authors of literary fiction, such as Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, T. C. Boyle, Michael Crichton, Ian McEwan, Amitav Ghosh, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Lydia Millet, David Mitchell, Ruth Ozeki, Nathaniel Rich, Kim Stanley Robinson, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Marcel Theroux, have contributed to this new genre’s efforts to imagine the causes, effects, and feeling of global warming. Together, their work pulls the issue-oriented and didactic approach of activist fiction into contact with the intensive description and site specificity of Romantic nature writing. Cli-fi knits these tendencies together into a description of the effects of a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate on a particular location and a vision of the options available to a population seeking to adapt to or mitigate those effects. Although cli-fi is resolutely contemporary and dedicated to creating new narratives adequate to current conditions, criticism devoted to the genre has carefully documented the persistence of national, masculinist, and anthropocentric tendencies in some of its major works. The dependence of cli-fi (and the environmental activism that inspires it) on capitalist visions of social progress has also received scrutiny. Some of these habits of representation have been inherited from literary predecessors such as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Ernest Callenbach, and J. G. Ballard. Ballard’s Drowned World has proved an especially complicated source of inspiration for this new genre of the novel. In their efforts to update the motifs of these predecessors to the needs of the present, 21st-century cli-fi writers have experimented with the temporality, central figures, and mood of their fiction. These efforts have brought distinctive types of speculative and science fiction, as well as satires of climate change activism and new hybrid realisms, under the cli-fi umbrella. Although the genre still wrestles with inherited limitations, in every permutation, cli-fi novelists have prized innovation, experimentation, and creativity. Finally, all of their varied efforts involving cli-fi unite around an expectation that humanity and the planet can survive the changes associated with the Anthropocene.
Climate Fiction in English
The Contemporary Anglophone Romance Genre
The romance genre is geared financially to a female readership worldwide: a genre written and consumed overwhelmingly by women, and with a male readership of around 14 percent. Since the 21st century, romance novels have generated over $1.3 billion dollars in sales per annum in the United States, where one out of four books sold and one out of two mass-market books sold are romance novels. According to romance publishing behemoth Harlequin Mills & Boon, the company publishes 120 new titles each month, drawing from a stable of 200 authors within the UK and a further 1,300 worldwide. A Mills & Boon volume is sold every four seconds in more than one hundred countries, translated into twenty-six languages. But the romance genre consists of more than Harlequin Mills & Boon novels. According to industry definitions in the United States and Australia, a romance novel consists of “a central love story” and “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (Romance Writers of America website). As long as these two basic requirements are met, romance novels can have any tone or style (barring a mocking or derisive one) and be set in any time (past, present, or future) or place (in the real world or in a fantasyland). They may include varying degrees of sensuality, from the modest discretion of Christian “inspirationals” to highly explicit descriptions of sexual acts in romantic erotica. They may also overlap with any other genre, such as chick lit, historical, crime, suspense, or thriller. The roots of the romance novel can be traced back to Shakespearean comedies, with the celebratory betrothal of the romantic couple forming the happy ending of such plays as Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or As You Like It. In prose fiction, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) are considered literary forebearers. The modern romance was shaped by British publishing firm Mills & Boon, which became a market leader in the genre by the 1930s with a distribution network in all British Commonwealth countries and colonies in the first half of the 20th century. During the 1950s, Mills & Boon novels began to be distributed in North America by Canadian firm Harlequin, and the two companies merged in 1971 to form the romance publishing powerhouse Harlequin Mills & Boon, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when it became the world’s largest publisher of romances, having 80 percent of the world’s market share of fiction. Over time, the genre changed its representations of gender and attitudes toward women’s work and domestic life. The 1970s and 1980s saw a gradual Americanization of the genre as New York firms muscled in on Harlequin Mills & Boon’s territory, publishing historical romances and diversifying contemporary romances to include American romantic protagonists, settings, and themes. The genre also became increasingly sexualized during this period through its depiction of sexual activity. The turn of the 21st century witnessed an increasing fragmentation of the genre as the rise of independent publishers afforded writers and readers the opportunity to explore niche markets: erotica, African American stories, paranormal romances featuring vampires, phoenixes, and werewolves, among other shapeshifting romantic protagonists, and many others.
The Contemporary Gothic
Xavier Aldana Reyes
The writings covered to by the umbrella term “Gothic” are so varied in style, thematic interests, and narrative effects that an overarching definition becomes problematic and even undesirable. The contemporary Gothic, drawing on an already fragmented and heterogenic artistic tradition, is less a genre than a vestigial type of writing that resuscitates older horrors and formulas and filters them through the echo chambers of a modern preoccupation with the social value of transgressive literature. In a century when the Gothic has once again exploded in popularity, and following a period of strong institutionalization of its study in the 1990s and 2000s, establishing some of its key modern manifestations and core concerns becomes a pressing issue. The Gothic may be fruitfully separated from horror, a genre premised on the emotional impact it seeks to have on readers, as a type of literature concerned with the legacy of the past on the present—and, more importantly, with the retrojecting of contemporary anxieties into times considered more barbaric. These have increasingly manifested in neo-Victorian fictions and in stories where settings are haunted by forgotten or repressed events but also by weird fiction, where encounters with beings and substances from unplumbed cosmic depths lead to a comparable temporal discombobulation. The intertextual mosaics of the contemporary Gothic also borrow from and recycle well-known myths and figures such as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster in order to show their continued relevance or else to adapt their recognizable narratives to the early 21st century. Finally, the Gothic, as a type of literature that is quickly becoming defined by the cultural work it carries out and by its transnational reach, has found in monstrosity, especially in its mediation of alterity, of traumatic national pasts and of the viral nature of the digital age, a fertile ground for the proliferation of new nightmares.
Ekphrasis is a Greek term whose etymological meaning is “to speak out” or “to show in full.” Debates on ekphrasis go back to classical antiquity and Homer’s lines on Hephaestos making Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the epic The Iliad (8th century bce). Ekphrasis was considered a mode of speaking capable of bringing absent things before the listener’s inner eye by aiming at enargeia, a vivid quality of language producing evidentia (evidence) and rousing emotions through lively, precise, and detailed verbal descriptions. Over the centuries, the term underwent a considerable narrowing-down of its original meaning and eventually, during the Second Sophistic, came to designate the description of works of art. However, ancient ekphrasis, in the broader sense of detailed and lively description, had a rich afterlife throughout the Middle Ages (e.g., in Geoffrey Chaucer), the Renaissance (e.g., in Shakespeare), Neoclassicism (in Joseph Addison’s essays and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s “Laocoön”), and even into the Romantic Age (e.g., in William Wordsworth and George Gordon Byron). In its narrower sense as verbal representation/evocation of or response to a work of art or visual object, it is a ubiquitous phenomenon in 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century literature, be it poetry or narrative fiction. Many modernist, postmodernist, and post-postmodernist literary texts are replete with ekphrases, but these ekphrases very often question any mimetic or illusionist aesthetic and no longer exclusively follow the paragonal model: instead of competing with one another, ekphrastic word-image configurations are more adequately described as intermedial constellations and collaborations. As a pertinent feature of 20th- and 21st-century poetry and narrative fiction—examples are novels by Julian Barnes, Antonia Susan Byatt, Teju Cole, Siri Hustvedt, or Donna Tartt—ekphrasis has also attracted the attention of literary scholars and theoreticians of culture. Due to the many attempts to conceptualize and theorize ekphrasis, any attempt to give a simple definition will not suffice. In the 1980s and 1990s scholars such as Murray Krieger, William John Thomas Mitchell, and James Heffernan theorized ekphrasis: while Krieger saw ekphrasis as a symptom of the semiotic desire for the natural sign and Mitchell discussed ekphrasis within a paragonal framework of socio-cultural power relations, Heffernan defined ekphrasis as the verbal representation of visual representation. Included among the seminal concepts and definitions of ekphrasis in the early 21st century are approaches from phenomenology and cognitive poetics or new reception aesthetics, the digital humanities, postcolonial and transcultural studies, and the environmental humanities. By going beyond questions of representation that have dominated ekphrastic criticism for a long time, functions of ekphrasis, in particular socio-cultural and ethical functions, have gained new attention.
Futures for Literary Studies
The future of literary studies will be shaped by new and emerging trends in scholarly, critical, and theoretical work, by changes in the material conditions that enable that work, and, perhaps most importantly, by how the institutions within which it functions respond to recent changes in higher education that increasingly threaten the viability of almost all humanities disciplines. The material conditions that shape work in literary studies have changed dramatically in recent decades. The impact of digital technology has been nothing short of transformative, and the changes it has introduced are bound to continue to reshape the field. At the same time, the expansion of the canon, the transnationalizing of literary studies, the revitalization of narratological, formalist, and aesthetic criticism, the emergence of new interdisciplinary fields including the study of sexuality and gender, ecocriticism, affect theory, and disability studies, promise to continue to exert influence in the coming decades. The future from these perspectives looks promising. At the same time, however, the institutional sustainability of literary studies has come under threat as the liberal arts model of higher education has increasingly given way to a stress in higher education on vocational training in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines, which has worked to undercut the value and the attraction of literary studies. How the field responds to these changes in the coming decade will be crucial to determining its future viability.
Defining the grotesque in a concise and objective manner is notoriously difficult. When researching the term for his classic study On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (1982), Geoffrey Galt Harpham observed that the grotesque is hard to pin down because it is defined as being in opposition to something rather than possessing any defining quality in and of itself. Any attempt to identify specific grotesque characteristics outside of a specific context is therefore challenging for two reasons. First, because the grotesque is that which transgresses and challenges what is considered normal, bounded, and stable, meaning that one of the few universal and fundamental qualities of the grotesque is that it is abnormal, unbounded, and unstable. Second, since even the most rigid norms and boundaries shift over time, that which is defined in terms of opposition and transgression will naturally change as well, meaning that the term grotesque meant very different things in different historical eras. For instance, as Olli Lagerspetz points out in A Philosophy of Dust (2018), while 16th-century aristocrats in France may routinely have received guests while sitting on their night stools, similar behavior exhibited today would surely be interpreted not only as out of the ordinary, but as grotesque. Likewise, perceptions of the normal and the abnormal vary widely even within the same time period, depending on one’s class, gender, race, profession, sexual orientation, cultural background, and so on.
Literature and Science
Michael H. Whitworth
Though “literature and science” has denoted many distinct cultural debates and critical practices, the historicist investigation of literary-scientific relations is of particular interest because of its ambivalence toward theorization. Some accounts have suggested that the work of Bruno Latour supplies a necessary theoretical framework. An examination of the history of critical practice demonstrates that many concepts presently attributed to or associated with Latour have been longer established in the field. Early critical work, exemplified by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, tended to focus one-sidedly on the impact of science on literature. Later work, drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts, and on Mary Hesse’s and Max Black’s work on metaphor and analogy in science, identified the scope for a cultural influence on science. It was further bolstered by the “strong program” in the sociology of scientific knowledge, especially the work of Barry Barnes and David Bloor. It found ways of reading scientific texts for the traces of the cultural, and literary texts for traces of science; the method is implicitly modeled on psychoanalysis. Bruno Latour’s accounts of literary inscription, black boxing, and the problem of explanation have precedents in the critical practices of critics in the field of literature and science from the 1980s onward.
Lyric Poetry and Poetics
Lyric poetry is an ancient genre, enduring to the present day, but it is not continuous in its longevity. What happens to lyric poetry and how it changes during its numerous and sometimes lengthy periods of historical eclipse (such as the 18th century) may be as important to our understanding of lyric as an assessment of its periods of high achievement. For it is during these periods of relative obscurity that lyric enters into complex relations with other genres of poetry and prose, affirming the general thesis that all genres are relational and porous. The question of whether any particular properties of lyric poetry endure throughout its 2,700-year checkered history can be addressed by examining its basic powers: its forms; its figurative and narrative functions; and its styles and diction. The hierarchy of these functions is mutable, as one finds in today’s rift between a scholarly revival of formalist analysis and the increasing emphasis on diction in contemporary poetry. As a way of assessing lyric poetry’s basic operations, the present article surveys the ongoing tension between form and diction by sketching a critique of the tenets of New Formalism in literary studies, especially its presumptions about the relation of poetic form to the external world and its tendency to subject form to close analysis, as if it could yield, like style or diction, detailed knowledge of the world. Long overshadowed by the doctrinal tenets of modernist formalism, the expressive powers of diction occupy a central place in contemporary concerns about identity and social conflict, at the same time that diction (unlike form) is especially susceptible to the vocabularistic methods of “distant reading”—to the computational methods of the digital humanities. The indexical convergence of concreteness and abstraction, expression and rationalism, proximity and distance, in these poetic and scholarly experiments with diction points to precedents in the 18th century, when the emergence of Anglophone poetries in the context of colonialism and the incorporation of vernacular languages into poetic diction (via the ballad revival) intersected with the development of modern lexicography and the establishment of Standard English. The nascent transactions of poetics and positivism through the ontology of diction in the 21st century remind us that poetic diction is always changing but also that the hierarchy of form, figuration, and diction in lyric poetry inevitably shifts over time—a reconfiguration of lyric priorities that helps to shape the premises and methods of literary studies.
Surveying Pakistani-English drama, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry from the inception of Pakistan in 1947 to 2015 reveals how Pakistani-English writing developed and changed over the years, from a small marginalized genre in the early years of Pakistan to the dynamic, growing body of work in the 21st century. Bringing together writing by Pakistan-resident writers as well as those in the diaspora demonstrates both contrasts and links among them. Early writers such as Shahid Suhrawardy and Ahmed Ali and the role of Taufiq Rafat in the birth of a new contemporary poetry in Pakistan are included alongside a discussion of the extensive writings of Zulfikar Ghose, an early diaspora writer. This article covers the critical writings of Alamgir Hashmi, Tariq Rahman, and Muneeza Shamsie in defining and developing a new canon. The internationalism of Tariq Ali and the new multi-cultural British identity asserted by the writing of Hanif Kureishi—and indeed Kureishi’s links to his Pakistan-resident family—poet Maki Kureishi and the journalist Omar Kureishi are pointed out. The extensive English-language non-fiction written in Pakistan ranging from autobiographies, collected editorials, and newspaper columns to writings on art and literature are also given space, as are the creative memoirs of Sara Suleri and others, the plays of Ayub Khan Din and Ayad Akhtar, the poetry of Moniza Alvi and Imtiaz Dharker, and a wide range of fiction writers from Aamer Hussein and Daniyal Mueenuddin to Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie as well as newer voices such as Roopa Farooki, H. M. Naqvi, Fatima Bhutto, and Maha Khan Phillips.
Poiesis is not the lyrical impulse associated with poetry as much as it is the making by which the poet (poietes) produces lively enactments associated with literature as it reflects on the nature of things. Moving beyond Plato’s notion of mimesis as a literal or passive copy of what happens to be, Aristotle conceived of poiesis as ranging over what might be in order to create a high-level product of the human intellect for reflection and the development of character. Across the literary tradition, poiesis developed into a full-fledged theory of literary creativity. Operating between a realist pole and an imaginative pole, poiesis countenances both probabilities and improbabilities as it creates its lively enactments according to changing forms and contexts. From Aristotle’s poiesis to Fowler’s poioumenon to Tolkien’s mythopoiesis, the term shifts back and forth between the act of making, the thing made, and the world made. Although any number of determinist accounts have attempted to explain poiesis, poiesis in our time ultimately becomes an indispensable product of human consciousness. Poiesis expands awareness beyond the immediacy of what is apparent in order to understand the nature of things close and remote, real and unreal, in local settings vividly realized through the medium of literary art.
Prosody refers, most broadly, to versification and pronunciation. Historically, prosody referred to the branch of grammar that contained versification as a subsection, but since the late 19th century literary scholars and poets have interchanged versification and prosody, while linguists use prosody to refer to pronunciation. Since the beginning of the 20th century scholars have also referred to prosody as a “poetics,” or a system of meaning-making, and do not directly engage in analysis of meter but rather use the term prosody to signify any aspect of literary style or figurative language that might contribute to the affective register of verse-form. The philological register of prosody may use versification in order to make a claim about how a verse-form reflects a national, historical, or even ethnic character, a practice that began in earnest during the mid-18th century and persists into the 21st century, though with some critical distance. Because the measure of verse is subjective and historically contingent, debates and discussions about prosody are a constant and tend to repeat. There is no one progress narrative of prosody, writ large, but the progress narrative of poetry within prosodic discourse is one of its main tropes. That is, while there are theories of prosody that posit progression, there is little agreement about the evolution or even naming of prosodic systems. Each history of prosody therefore posits a new theory. Thus, the theory of prosody might always be seen as the proliferation of conflicting theories about prosody, in no way limited to one national language; in fact, theories of prosody from other languages applied to English are much older and more robust than theories of prosody that derive from only English—for instance, measuring English by Latin prosody, or French, or German, and so on. Despite the proliferation of conflicting theories, scholars who work on prosody nevertheless agree broadly that, like the subject of grammar under which prosody was historically a subset, prosody is a set of interrelated features in language that, according to how you measure these features, either appear to adhere to a particular system or do not. Also, scholars agree that, like grammar, prosody as an interpretive system often hovers between the prescriptive and the descriptive. In the conflicts over theories of prosody, adherents to one system attempt to convince adherents to another that theirs is superior, and these debates and conflicts continue unabated in linguistic prosodic criticism. Those who practice literary prosodic criticism in the 21st century tend to adopt a system of verse-measure with little interest in its history, or even with what linguistic prosodic critics might call a sharp disregard for its inaccuracy. Linguistic prosodists—who have made significant advances in the field—are sidelined by the momentum of a literary history that has rendered their ongoing work too specialized for general use. There are also those who believe that prosody—or, rather, specific paralinguistic features of prosody—exists, like grammar, in particular bodies, to be awakened or cultivated by a particular kind of reading or hearing ear or a particular kind of feeling body. Trends in cognitive science have influenced one strain of theorizing about prosody as a form of subconscious knowledge in no way dependent on the cultural formations that may have organized sonic features into recognizable systems. Historical prosodists, those who study the history of thinking about prosodic form but also practice prosodic reading, posit that prosody is culturally contingent and, along with phenomenology, might be better considered as a part of cultural criticism rather than a privileged key to poetic meaning. Finally, where prosodic theory happens is a live question. Whether discourse about prosody (or meta-metrical discourse, as in Gascoigne or the various grammars discussed here) is prosodic theory or whether poets writing in a variety of prosodic forms (whether interpreted by critics or not) posit prosodic theories in their practice is at the heart of what many mischaracterize as a divide between historical prosody and other theories of reading. This divide is artificial, but the fact is that disagreements about what and how prosody means have led to a variety of approaches to the study of prosody in poetry, and despite this disagreement prosody is nevertheless taught in most academic settings as if it has an agreed upon past, present, and future.
Realism is a historical phenomenon that is not of the past. Its recurrent rises and falls only attest to its persistence as a measure of representational authority. Even as literary history has produced different moments of “realism wars,” over the politics of realist versus antirealist aesthetics, the demand to represent an often strange and changing reality—however contested a term that may be—guarantees realism’s ongoing critical future. Undoubtedly, realism has held a privileged position in the history of Western literary representation. Its fortunes are closely linked to the development of capitalist modernity, the rise of the novel, the emergence of the bourgeoisie, and the expansion of middle-class readerships with the literacy and leisure to read—and with an interest in reading about themselves as subjects. While many genealogies of realism are closely tied to the history of the rise of the novel—with Don Quixote as a point of departure—it is from its later, 19th-century forms that critical assumptions have emerged about its capacities and limitations. The 19th-century novel—whether its European or slightly later American version—is taken as the apex of the form and is tied to the rise of industrial capitalism, burgeoning ideas of social class, and expansion of empire. Although many of the realist writers of the 19th century were self-reflexive about the form, and often articulated theories of realism as distinct from romance and sentimental fiction, it was not until the mid-20th century, following the canonization of modernism in English departments, that a full-fledged critical analysis of realism as a form or mode would take shape. Our fullest articulations of realism therefore owe a great deal to its negative comparison to later forms—or, conversely, to the effort to resuscitate realism’s reputation against perceived critical oversimplifications. In consequence, there is no single definition of realism—nor even agreement on whether it is a mode, form, or genre—but an extraordinarily heterogenous set of ways of approaching it as a problem of representation. Standard early genealogies of realism are to be found in historical accounts such as Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel and György Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel, with a guide to important critiques and modifications to be found in Michael McKeon’s Theory of the Novel. This article does not retrace those critical histories. Nor does it presume to address the full range of realisms in the modern arts, including painting, photography, film, and video and digital arts. It focuses on the changing status of realism in the literary landscape, uses the fault lines of contemporary critical debates about realism to refer back to some of the recurrent terms of realism/antirealism debates, and concludes with a consideration of the “return” to realism in the 21st century.
The concept of remediation, as elaborated by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in Remediation: Understanding New Media (1999), is premised on the notion that media are best understood in interaction rather than in isolation. Every artistic medium, they argue, orients itself in relation to another medium, whether respectfully—as in the case of an online literary database that seeks to provide easy access to faithful facsimiles of manuscripts—or competitively—as with a videogame that seeks to replace the linearity and passivity of print with open-ended interactivity. Bolter and Grusin describe individual media in turns of two basic impulses: immediacy, or the attempt to erase the mediating function and present the illusion of directly represented reality; and hypermediacy, or the attempt to foreground the mediating function, exposing the impossibility of direct representation. They employ the same vocabulary to describe the interaction of media. Every act of remediation—every representation of one medium in another—necessarily involves both immediacy and hypermediacy. A digital edition of a literary text grants access to the words of the original print artifact (immediacy), yet by including audio readings and video commentary draws attention to its digital-specific affordances (hypermediacy). A digital archive gathers together high-resolution, color-accurate reproductions of materials scattered in rare-book libraries around the world (immediacy), yet by granting free and instantaneous access to these precious, fragile objects, fundamentally transforms the experience of engaging with their analog originals (hypermediacy). Insisting that one approach media through interaction, Bolter and Grusin’s theory of remediation positions the movement of content from one medium to another as a form of translation—a transformative act in which much is lost as well as gained.
Although scholars generally agree that satire cannot be defined in a categorical or exhaustive way, there is a consensus regarding its major features: satire is a mode, rather than a genre; it attacks historically specific targets, who are real; it is an intentional and purposeful literary form; its targets deserve ridicule on the basis of their behavior; and satire is both humorous and critical by its nature. The specificity and negativity of satire are what separates it from comedy, which tends to ridicule general types of people in ways that are ultimately redemptive. Satire is also rhetorically complex, and its critiques have a convoluted or indirect relation to the views of the author. Satire’s long history, which is not straightforwardly linear, means that it is impossible to catalogue all of the views on it from antiquity through to modernity. Modern criticism on satire, however, is easier to summarize and has often made use of ancient satirical traditions for its own purposes—especially because many early modern theorists of satire were also satirists. In particular, modern satire has generated an internal dichotomy between a rhetorical tradition of satire associated with Juvenal, and an ethical tradition associated with Horace. Most criticism of satire from the 20th century onward repeats and re-inscribes this binary in various ways. The Yale school of critics applied key insights from the New Critics to offer a rhetorical approach to satire. The Chicago school focused on the historical nature of satirical references but still presented a broadly formalist account of satire. Early 21st century criticism has moved between a rhetorical approach inflected by poststructural theory and a historicism grounded in archival research, empiricism, and period studies. Both of these approaches, however, have continued to internally reproduce a division between satire’s aesthetic qualities and its ethical or instrumental qualities. Finally, there is also a tradition of Menippean satire that differs markedly in character from traditional satire studies. While criticism of Menippean satire tends to foreground the aesthetic potential of satire over and above ethics, it also often focuses on many works that are arguably not really satirical in nature.
Science fiction (SF) emerges as a distinct literary and cultural genre out of a familiar set of world-famous texts ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966–) to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008–) that have, in aggregate, generated a colossal, communal archive of alternate worlds and possible future histories. SF’s dialectical interplay between utopian optimism and apocalyptic pessimism can be felt across the genre’s now centuries-long history, only intensifying in the 20th century as the clash between humankind’s growing technological capabilities and its ability to use those powers safely or wisely has reached existential-threat propositions, not simply for human beings but for all life on the planet. In the early 21st century, as in earlier cultural moments, the writers and critics of SF use the genre’s articulation of different societies and different possible futures as the occasion to reflect on our own present, in ways that range from full-throated defense of the status quo to the ruthless denunciation of all institutions that currently exist in the name of some other, better world. SF’s global popularity has grown to the point where it now looms quite large over cultural production generally, becoming arguably the most popular narrative genre in existence, particularly in the sorts of SF action spectacles that have dominated the global box office of the first two decades of the 21st century. It has also become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the things we used to think of as SF and the advanced communication, transportation, and entertainment technologies that have become so ubiquitous and familiar that we now take them for granted, as well as the growing prevalence of political, economic, and ecological crises now erupting out of the pages of our science fictions, like our very worst dreams come to life.
1922: The Annus Mirabilis of Literary Modernism
The year 1922 has been known as the annus mirabilis (“miracle year”) of Anglo-American literary modernism, chiefly because of the near-simultaneous publication of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. The distinctive historical character of 1922 remains an ongoing concern: the year was at once a time of traumatic memory of World War I and a moment of renewed ambition for the radical experiments of modernism. During the war, Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf had enjoyed an unusual opportunity to revise and extend their aesthetic ambitions. Each of their works registers the more defiant provocation of postwar literature, but each confronts the powerful resistance of cultural and political authorities who saw the efforts, especially of Eliot and Joyce, as both meaningless and dangerous. The postwar period also saw the rapid expansion of new technologies (especially in transport and telecommunications) and a consumer society keen to enjoy the availability of freshly circulating material goods. D. H. Lawrence described the end of war as both a relief and a menace. This double valence captures the contrast between searing memories of battlefield death and anticipation of pleasure and plenitude in the Jazz Age. The central figures in this entry are at once newly confident in the adversarial mission of modernism and fully aware of the social complacency and cultural conservatism arrayed against them. The immediate felt disturbance of these works came through their formal challenge, in particular through the intersecting uses of many-voiced and multi-perspectival montage, an assemblage of fragmentary views, and a diversity of speaking tones. This conspicuous technique appears in closely related terms within the early films of Dziga Vertov and the postwar philosophy of logical atoms developed by Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the formal inventiveness exhibited during the year is no more prominent than the social concern. Especially as in 21st century, historical studies of the period have recovered the depth of interest in questions of race, empire, sexual debility, and social failure.
The Booker Prize and Post-Imperial British Literature
In the particular and peculiar case of the Booker Prize, regarded as the most prestigious literary award in the United Kingdom (as measured by economic value to the author and publisher, and total audience for the awards announcement), the cultural and economic valences of literary prizes collide with the imperial history of Britain, and its after-empire relationships to its former colonies. From its beginnings, the Booker prize has never been simply a British prize for writers in the United Kingdom. The Booker’s reach into the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose cultural and economic alliance of the United Kingdom and former British colonies, challenges the very constitution of the category of post-imperial British literature. With a history of winners from India, South Africa, New Zealand, and Nigeria, among many other former British colonies, the Booker presents itself as a value arbitrating mechanism for a majority of the English-speaking world. Indeed, the Booker has maintained a reputation for bringing writers from postcolonial nations to the attention of a British audience increasingly hungry for a global, cosmopolitan literature, especially one easily available via the lingua franca of English. Whether and how the prize winners avoid the twin colonial pitfalls of ownership by and debt to an English patron is the subject of a great deal of criticism on the Booker, and to understand the prize as a gatekeeper and tastemaker for the loose, baggy canon of British or even global Anglophone literature, there must be a reckoning with the history of the prize, its multiplication into several prizes under one umbrella category, and the form and substance of the novels that have taken the prize since 1969.
The Early Black Atlantic Conversion Narrative
Prior to the last decade of the 20th century, literary critics generally, like Thomas Jefferson before them, dismissed the role religion played in the writings by and about the first generation of English-speaking authors of African descent. Christ’s injunction to his followers to bear witness to their faith, however, gave that first generation the sanction, means, motive, and opportunity to speak truth to power during the 18th-century period of the transatlantic Protestant Great Awakening and Evangelical Revival. The early Black evangelical authors, such as Phillis Wheatley in poetry and Olaudah Equiano in prose, used narratives of their religious conversions as both testaments to their own faith as well as models of spiritual belief and secular behavior for their primarily white readers to follow. The writings of Wheatley and Equiano also exemplify how early Black authors who adopted Christianity could appropriate its tenets to challenge the institution of slavery.
Travel Writing in the Age of Globalization
Globalization and global travel have existed for centuries. It is over the past century in particular, however, that travel has become truly global, in the sense that most and not just some travel can in some way or other be said to globalized. Indeed, with the invention and spread of new technologies of mobility (like jet travel), and new technologies of information (like the internet), as with the increasingly invasive impact of human activity on the planet at large (like global warming), it is difficult to conceive of travel in the 21st century that is purely “local.” Travel in the age of globalization, then, is at one and the same time both more widespread yet also more irrelevant than ever. As humans, goods, and information move around in ever-increasing quantities, and at ever-greater speed, it seems that mobility is at an all-time high in human history. On the other hand, as a rising number of people and places are interlinked through ever-faster travel and various forms of communication technologies, the local and the global are becoming harder and harder to distinguish. In this, travel writing has faced a range of challenges that are both old and new. With contemporary travel writers facing a global reality that is very different from the colonial legacy of a traditionally Eurocentric genre, travel writers in the age of globalization have been forced to radically reconsider the itineraries, the destinations, the purpose, and the identity of the traveling subject. Traditionally defined as a white (European) male, the global traveler of the 21st century can take on many forms in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality. At the same time, however, a large number of contemporary travel writers have found it hard to break with the mold of old, desperately continuing to pursue the exotic adventure and the untouched “otherness” of the blank spaces of a map that, in the age of Google Earth, satellite navigation, jet and space travel, global warming, and an explosive growth in human population, are no more.