World Building, World Reduction: Science Fiction, White America, and Totality

Today I want to offer some remarks on the sub-genre of science fiction commonly known as the post-apocalyptic in order to address the topic at hand, thinking totality as remedy to the trouble with the trouble with diversity. This variety of science fiction story imagines a near-future scenario set just after a major destructive event. The plague has already run rampant. The flood has ended. The bombs have long gone off. The fashioning of such a story set after rather than before revises the older apocalyptic plot. The post-apocalyptic mode is not typically concerned with the thrilling how of survival. Instead, it focuses on what new world may be built in the ashes of the old. In this way, post-apocalyptic novels offer a slightly less subtle estrangement effect than many science fiction novels do. These are not alien worlds; they are cognitively reduced versions of our own. The thinning out of the world that appears in post-apocalyptic texts offers a chilling lesson for thinking totality without something like diversity, for thinking totality without imagining what does not appear, for thinking totality without considering the overdeterminations of class. It is this connection between the real world we know and the fictional version of it that gets destroyed in these novels about which I would like to make a few brief remarks today.

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The image to the left is of Lincoln Kilpatrick in whiteface as Zachary from Boris Sagal’s film The Omega Man (1971). The film was based on Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and featured Charlton Heston as its leading man.

World building is a key term for speculative fiction of all kinds. Here is an example of world building from a 1950s post-apocalyptic novel:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. If he had been more analytical, he might have calculated the approximate time of their arrival; but he still used the lifetime habit of judging nightfall from the sky, and on cloudy days that method didn’t work. That was why he chose to stay near the house on those days. (Matheson 13)

The novel is Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954). The passage reveals the central conflict of the novel with an air of mystery. Besides establishing the opposition of Neville and an unknown “they,” this passage reveals little about the world or its characters. We do learn that Neville does not easily change his habits, something that the novel will continue to include as a kind of refrain. Matheson’s book features a common trope of post-apocalyptic novels, in which the last human stands out against a number of dead or very alive, very threatening others.

In I am Legend, Neville, a single, white male holed up in his house with whiskey, Schönberg, and rage, signifies as completely incidental to history, manifesting the melodramatic alienation of his particular standpoint. The contrast the novel reveals, however, is located in its critical, didactic lesson about the relation of the dominant (here the white male) to historical change. While Matheson’s novel smartly engages with a changing American racial and cultural milieu, it does so by introducing an ideologically volatile narrative solution: by revealing its last man protagonist as the (unwitting) champion of conservative white male values, I am Legend (just as unwittingly) establishes a trope that has since been consistently remobilized in order to affirm the same reactionary fears it originally sought to undermine. Thus, the clever reversal of political polarity in I am Legend reappears in contemporary post-apocalyptic novels only in failed form, unable to affect a similarly meaningful deconstruction of inequality; here, the clever plot twist becomes symptomatic of nothing so much as the history of a genre too long accustomed to a reactionary conservatism.

The dominance of post-nuclear apocalyptic survival stories emerges for suburban white Americans in the 1950s—just after the Bomb—but has a possible different resonance for black Americans left behind in the inner cities after white flight. In their co-curated exhibit, From the Bomb to the Crash: Geographies of Disaster in the American Century, Laura Finch and Jessica Hurley explain, “White flight, aided by federal and municipal investments in highway construction, suburban housing stock, and mortgage guarantees, recreated the inner city as predominantly African American at the same time that the inner city was being written off as the inevitable ground zero of a future nuclear war.” They also cite a Civil Defense Administrator in Phillip Wylie’s post-apocalyptic novel Tomorrow! (a novel ahead of its time ecologically and disturbingly of its time racially), who makes the connection shockingly clear when he says, “Niggertown was right at ground zero” (Qtd. in Finch and Hurley 2014). The overlap of ghettoized city cores and the imagined space of nuclear destruction illuminates the white supremacist fantasies that vie for dominance in the post-apocalyptic imaginary.

It will come as no surprise that in The Apocalypse in the African American Tradition (1996), Maxine Lavon Montgomery describes two U.S. political agendas “one predominantly white, the other primarily black,” as having “conflicting notions of what constitutes an apocalypse” (Montgomery 1996, 1). Thus, explicitly or not, race becomes a locus of contest for the post-apocalyptic novel—these novels are predominantly written by white people about white people and they make claims about the future with racial implications. One need not look far to find other texts like Wylie’s, Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold (1964) imagines a post-nuclear future where the family emerges from the bomb shelter into white slavery. Revisionary texts such as Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirship Chronicles (1978) and Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis Trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989)—break Wylie’s mold as they refuse to disavow Indigeneity or race, in exception to the general history of the genre; they make strange the white future that is typically imagined to survive unchanged even through apocalyptic destruction.

For the post-apocalyptic mode, I would compare world building to what Fredric Jameson calls world reduction: a particular attempt to imagine “an experimental landscape in which our being-in-the-world is simplified to the extreme,” which is based on “a principle of systematic exclusion, a kind of surgical excision of empirical reality, something like a process of ontological attenuation in which the sheer teeming multiplicity of what exists, of what we call reality, is deliberately thinned and weeded out through an operation of radical abstraction and simplification” (Jameson 269, 271). I am Legend can imagine a world without class only as a consequence of the universalization of a specifically white version of race; thus, the trick for me is not to diversify the literary field as a corrective to the genre’s racism, but rather to read the genre’s racism as an account of how to grasp class, its social modulation, and its invisibilities.

The above text was taken from my talk at the MLA for 2016. My thanks go to the organizers of the roundtable “Who’s Afraid of Totality? The Trouble with the Trouble with Diversity” Jen Phillis and Kevin Floyd.

Works Cited

Finch, Laura and Jessica Hurley. From the Bomb to the Crash: Geographies of Disaster in the American Century. Web. 2014.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005. Print.
Matheson, Richard. I am Legend. Garden City: Nelson Doubleday, 1954. Print.
Montgomery, Maxine Lavon. The Apocalypse in African-American Fiction. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1996. Print.

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