Date of Award

2015

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

Abstract

The new millennium has witnessed a staggering outpouring of literature, film and art which depict dystopian and post-apocalyptic societies. These stories have come in the form of massively popular films like the Matrix and Hunger Games trilogies; Emmy-winning television adaptations such as The Walking Dead; and Pulitzer Prize-winning novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-nominated Never Let Me Go. In the last five years, a wave of critically-lauded video games – The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and Dishonored come immediately to mind—have depicted dystopian worlds while reaching mass audiences. Combined, The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite sold over 12 million copies in 2013 alone. The combination of award recognition and mainstream popularity these texts have garnered speaks to their burgeoning cultural significance. John Joseph Adams notes that dystopian stories went through an earlier cycle of cultural prominence in the Western reading world after WWII—a popularity forged in the shadow of the twin horrors of the hydrogen bomb and the Nazi Holocaust. Adams wonders if the genre’s sudden resurgence is connected to widespread global conflict: “Is it because the political climate now is reminiscent of the climate during the Cold War? During times of war and global unease, is it that much easier to imagine a depopulated world, a world destroyed by humanity’s own hand?” (2).

While the concept of “global unease” is certainly central to the re-emergence of fiction that depicts widespread violence, destruction, disease and political strife, the truth is that the international political climate resembles very little of the Cold War. Rather than a long-simmering conflict between established nations with legacies of military and economic might, the contemporary global community is more frequently defined by amorphous entities. International corporations, global community organizations and groups of non-state actors both engage and defy nation-state governments, while individuals, corporations and states all participate in an expansive and complex global economy. In my dissertation, I argue that the antagonisms that arise from these transnational exchanges are both the subject and the modus operandi for dystopian stories which analyze, and are influenced by, terrorism and events of mass destruction. This project explores the myriad ways that contemporary dystopian fear is woven into a global culture in which terrorism, biological warfare and scarcity of natural resources coalesce to create cultures of anxiety and paranoia that exist alongside more cosmopolitan conceptions of globalization.

To understand the contemporary proliferation of dystopian stories, the genre itself needs to be seen within the synchronal rise of globalization. In chapter one, I argue that dystopian literature has been produced in a variety of forms through the last century, and that the best way to understand its current significance is to first contextualize the genre within the history of early twentieth century transatlantic travel and communication that precedes twenty-first century globalization. Chapter two turns to issues of memory, trauma and representation in American fiction dealing with the September 11th terrorist attacks. A host of prominent writers use the imagery of burning skyscrapers and human rubble that the attacks engendered to argue that contemporary terrorism and terrorists need to be understood as emerging from the processes of globalization. Don DeLillo and Jonathan Safran Foer, in particular, insist that terrorism is both a physical and cultural phenomenon, and that psychologies of terror impact global culture. My third chapter moves to fiction in the War on Terror decade, investigating the role of regional identities and organizing communities in a globalized world as they are depicted in a range of texts and films. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Alfonso Caurón’s Children of Men not only dramatize but explore globalization critiques that focus on concerns about population growth, migration, and scarcity of resources. As critics of globalization raise these concerns, the disassembling and rebuilding of families in dystopian fiction stands in for the interaction that individuals and small groups have with the global community. In focusing their stories on small groups of survivors who form improvised domestic units, McCarthy, Boyle and Caurón position the family as a counterbalance to a myriad of dystopian global crises. The final chapter of my project uses Paolo Bacigalupi’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Windup Girl and the celebrated American video game Bioshock Infinite to theorize about the present moment. As the War on Terror decade lapses into the global financial recession of 2008-2009, dystopian fiction moves away from the drastic imagery of catastrophic urban destruction, and instead transitions toward a discussion of the anxieties which animate post-recession culture: class conflict, the gulf between corporations and individuals, and the further depletion of world resources.

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