The problem of capital and the question of its appropriate or desired relationship with political life and civil society shapes how readers, authors, and citizens understand and experience everyday contemporary life and its cultural products. Capital, in its post-1945 incarnation, is widely held to have been either in a state of crisis or responding to crisis (both historical and contemporaneously). Depending on the critic, these crises and their impacts are varied: the collapse of the 19th-century European balance of power, the rise of Keynesian economics, the birth of biopolitics, the Cold War and the specter of Communism, the repeating “systemic cycles of accumulation” endemic to the history of capitalism. This variant of capitalism that shapes contemporary life goes by many names, though the general consensus tends to call it “neoliberalism.” Despite its varying names, neoliberalism is generally held to be an economic doctrine that understands human freedom to be best achieved through free markets and entrepreneurial enterprise, privileging the individual above all else. Government should, therefore, be minimal; its role is to enforce the rules of the game but not to interfere in it. Neoliberalism is thus both revolutionary in its insistence on rethinking social life as solely economic life and an extension of long-standing values and arrangements of economic life that date back centuries. Contemporary fiction takes part in debates about the hyper-individualized neoliberal subject and neoliberal values in a multitude of ways and at a variety of scales. The predominant way is in its interrogation of neoliberal identity politics—either to reinforce or critique, or something in-between, the possibilities for subject formation under neoliberalism. At another remove from the individual text has been the challenge to long-standing genre conventions, particularly in the novel. If modern novelistic genres rose alongside earlier modes of capitalist accumulation, contemporary authors are reimagining them to reflect changing rationalities. Finally, at the meta-textual level, there has been a variety of critical attention given to publishing, its infrastructures, and the role of the artist for both the appearance and success of texts. Across all these approaches—both imaginative and critical—is a commitment to an ongoing examination of the ways neoliberalism in all its varied impacts inflects “how we live now.”
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.
William Gass coined the term “metafiction” in 1970 to get a handle on then-recent and innovative fictions by Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. In the critical context of the early 21st century, however, the term should be understood to name any fiction exhibiting a concern with the process, philosophy, and consequences of fiction-making. The history of metafiction is longer than that of the English-language novel. Metafictions dating from the last decade of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st typically concern themselves with the situation of discourse: they portray their characters awash in language that is potent because its origins and effects are myriad. Such metafictions ask how, why, and from where literary or narrative discourse stages its arrival on the page. In contrast, the major innovations of postmodernist, mid-20th-century metafictions are rightly characterized by Brian McHale as “ontological”; they urgently question the nature of reality as their language transports authors, narrators, readers, and characters among the different existential frames of history and fiction, past and present, and textual and corporeal reality. As a result of this difference, there is a gap between metafictional practice of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the work of metafiction’s most influential critics: Gass, Robert Scholes, Linda Hutcheon, and Patricia Waugh, all of whom studied the varieties of metafiction in the 1970s and 1980s. As contemporary metafictions attend to the situation of discourse, they dramatize how pieces of language move—not just across pages, but across plots, cultures, and philosophies. Various motives drive this contemporary interest in dramatizing how language moves and touches, including the influence of Deconstruction in the American academy. Deconstruction, like Marxist and psychoanalytic criticism, writes drama into the very making of meaning. Contemporary ideas and materials—from Twitter narratives to viral memes to massively multiplayer online role-playing games—have mobilized discourse in new ways and transformed many of the philosophical puzzles of mid-20th-century metafiction into aspects of lived reality. Contemporary metafiction, consequently, puts metafictional devices and concerns into a new relationship with representation (mimesis). The world has caught up with metafiction, if it ever really lagged behind, and new forms of metafiction are being developed now to activate metafiction’s older questions anew.
The term “speculative fiction” has three historically located meanings: a subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems, a genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures, and a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating “consensus reality” of everyday experience. In this latter sense, speculative fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales, and more. Rather than seeking a rigorous definition, a better approach is to theorize “speculative fiction” as a term whose semantic register has continued to expand. While “speculative fiction” was initially proposed as a name of a subgenre of science fiction, the term has recently been used in reference to a meta-generic fuzzy set supercategory—one defined not by clear boundaries but by resemblance to prototypical examples—and a field of cultural production. Like other cultural fields, speculative fiction is a domain of activity that exists not merely through texts but through their production and reception in multiple contexts. The field of speculative fiction groups together extremely diverse forms of non-mimetic fiction operating across different media for the purpose of reflecting on their cultural role, especially as opposed to the work performed by mimetic, or realist narratives. The fuzzy set field understanding of speculative fiction arose in response to the need for a blanket term for a broad range of narrative forms that subvert the post-Enlightenment mindset: one that had long excluded from “Literature” stories that departed from consensus reality or embraced a different version of reality than the empirical-materialist one. Situated against the claims of this paradigm, speculative fiction emerges as a tool to dismantle the traditional Western cultural bias in favor of literature imitating reality, and as a quest for the recovery of the sense of awe and wonder. Some of the forces that contributed to the rise of speculative fiction include accelerating genre hybridization that balkanized the field previously mapped with a few large generic categories; the expansion of the global literary landscape brought about by mainstream culture’s increasing acceptance of non-mimetic genres; the proliferation of indigenous, minority, and postcolonial narrative forms that subvert dominant Western notions of the real; and the need for new conceptual categories to accommodate diverse and hybridic types of storytelling that oppose a stifling vision of reality imposed by exploitative global capitalism. An inherently plural category, speculative fiction is a mode of thought-experimenting that includes narratives addressed to young people and adults and operates in a variety of formats. The term accommodates the non-mimetic genres of Western but also non-Western and indigenous literatures—especially stories narrated from the minority or alternative perspective. In all these ways, speculative fiction represents a global reaction of human creative imagination struggling to envision a possible future at the time of a major transition from local to global humanity.
Northrup Frye expressed a scholarly impatience with what seemed to him the inconsequentiality of literary study, asking if criticism might provide “a coordinating principle, a central hypothesis, which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole" (1957). Cognitive literary theory did not actually answer to Frye’s scientism until almost fifty years later, and when it did, it moved quickly in many directions. But it did not (and still has not) coalesced into a unified theory. The vigor and excitement of the field derive from its openness to many different areas of brain science, the wide reach of its attention to so many varieties of works of imagination—their production, their reception, and their history— and its resistance to a centralizing dogma. In her introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies, Lisa Zunshine, scholar in the field and its best historian, describes cognitive literary critics as working “not toward consilience with science but toward a richer engagement with a variety of theoretical paradigms in literary and cultural studies" (2015). Scholars from most traditional humanities fields: philosophers (both analytical and phenomenological and philosophers of mind and of language), cultural, literary, and art historians, literary critics and linguists, for example, and social scientists as well (anthropologists, archaeologists, and ethologists), have found the various fields of brain science to offer new perspectives on some persistent questions. Studies by developmental psychologists have made major contributions. And as brain imaging has become more powerful and widely used, the hypotheses of neurophysiologists and neurobiologists have come into the picture. Evolutionary biology has made perhaps the largest contribution by providing the overriding argument in the field—namely that human potential, individual behavior, and group dynamics can be studied as emerging phenomena. This begins with bodies that have over the millennia grown into worlds in which competition and cooperation have built and continue to build cultural life.
Animals have prowled literature from its beginnings in the ancient world through medieval bestiaries and out from the margins of the novel in the modern era. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, animals’ literary presence has generated increasing critical interest. Animal studies, a relatively new interdisciplinary field, calls attention to the accelerating exploitation of animals in the period of industrial modernity and questions what it is possible to know about animals’ own experiences. Foundational theoretical approaches to understanding the historical and philosophical condition of thinking about animals—John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1972), Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), and Jacques Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002)—propose a fundamental aporia or gap between human and animal experiences, and they caution against the projection of anthropocentric categories onto animal lives. Many novels from this recent period likewise treat animals as charismatic strangers. Yet other contemporary literature sometimes reimagines human-animal relationships to insist on affinity and continuity. In such novels, animals prompt diverse and often experimental stylistic choices that put pressure on the novel’s traditional association with everyday life, the individual self, the boundaries of the nation, and empirical observation more broadly. Still, many recent novels remain essentially committed to a realist tradition. Some of these—most notably by J. M. Coetzee—depict relations of care between humans and often vulnerable or dependent animals that prompt reflection on the meaning of ethical action. In novels that purport to narrate from animals’ own perspective, writers likewise meditate on the ethics of interspecies relations as they use language innovatively in an effort to realistically evoke the sensorium of another species. Pushing the boundaries of realism, other novels reinvent the animal fable, using varying degrees of fantasy to imagine wild or domesticated animals as tropes that reflect upon human embodiment, community, and politics. Whether realist or fabulist, the novels of contemporary postcolonial and world literature particularly explore the power and limits of mapping histories of human belonging and domination onto animal figures, even as they often highlight the limitations of these comparisons. Not all of these approaches are equally invested in creating a literature that could materially impact the lives of animals in an era of diminishing biodiversity. However, uniting this varied and ever-growing array of novels is a question of how literature can represent the lives of intimately entangled bodies in a globalizing world.