Thursday, February 7, 2008

Significant Distortions of the Present in Earth Abides

If you google "significant distortion of the present," the Samuel Delany idea that I'm using to structure the first half of my science fiction course this semester, you'll come across two provocative review essays from Science Fiction Studies that analyze Delany's SF theorizing. They provide two slightly different perspectives on it, reflecting the evolution of Delany's own thinking from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s:

Patrick Parrinder: science fiction "uses the future as a convention to present a significant distortion of the present."

Kathleen Spencer: the function of SF is to create "a significant distortion of the present that sets up a rich and complex dialogue with the reader's here and now."

For more--and more recent--considerations and extensions of Delany's idea, check out Jeffrey Tucker's A Sense of Wonder and Madhu Dubey's Signs and Cities. What I'll do here, though, is start a list of the ways in which it is relevant to George Stewart's Earth Abides. Feel free to add to it!

  • Connie Willis, in her 2005 introduction to the edition of the novel we're reading in class, argues that all the post-apocalypse novels and short stories of the early Cold War years "were at least partly prompted, if not by 'nuclear dread' as Thomas M. Disch believes, then by an uncomfortable post-Hiroshima awareness that humankind's residence on Earth might be only temporary." She situates Earth Abides as part of a "vibrant, ongoing conversation among [post-apocalyptic] authors, not only being inspired by one another but also expanding on, arguing with, making fun of, going off on a tangent from one another."
  • I see the novel as also looking back to the immediate post-W.W. I era, literally (check out this PBS documentary, this Stanford University overview, and this recent book on the Great Influenza--and for a broader perspective, see William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel) and figuratively (from H.G. Wells's Outline of History to Madison Grant's Passing of the Great Race to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," many writers in the 1920s were speculating on the past and future of humanity and civilization), but through the lenses of new developments in the natural and social sciences, particularly in ecology and sociology.
  • Even more broadly, I would suggest that Stewart is putting his novel in dialogue with mid-20th C accounts of the "discovery of the New World" and the apocalyptic consequences of the Columbian exchanges for the descendants of the earliest settlers of the Americas.
  • I think you could find many places where the novel engages contemporary concerns about the effects of segregation and racism, urbanization and suburbanization, and capitalism and the culture industry on the American people, particularly through those who Stewart imagines would most likely survive not only the "Great Disaster" itself, but also the "Secondary Kill," not to mention the ways in which the community the SF-area survivors he focuses on develops over the generations.
  • It's worth looking into the characterization of Em over the course of the novel and more generally at the ways in which Stewart engages issues of race and cultural difference for insights into the strengths and limitations of early Cold War liberalism in America.

In class in a couple of minutes, we'll get into more specifics on these ideas. After class, we'll see if any students want to add to this list!

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