Curtis, Claire P.: Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract: "We'll Not Go Home Again.".
Claire P. Curtis's Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract is a diverse interdisciplinary study combining the theories of political science with literary analysis to produce some interesting and surprising results. Curtis examines several influential postapocalyptic novels and a short story by Octavia Butler through the lens of "social contract thinkers" Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Rawls. While the early chapters discuss straight-forward interpretations of postapocalyptic works, such as Lucifer's Hammer, Alas, Babylon, and Malevil through the lens of the traditional social contract (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau), the latter chapters offer more nuanced readings of Butler's texts through the newer social contract theories of Rawls, demonstrating how Butler's works both accept and challenge the traditional role of the social contract in rebuilding a society.
Structurally, Curtis divides the book into an introduction and six chapters, each of which considers a particular text or the work of one author in relation to a theory of the social contract. The first chapter begins with two works, On the Beach and The Road, that do not fit Curtis's social contract interpretation, essentially showing how the social contract theory does not apply to some postapocalyptic works as there is nothing left to rebuild. In Chapters two through four, she examines postapocalyptic novels that fit well with the traditional social contract thinkers (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau). The final chapters of the book examine Rawls's theories and the ways in which Octavia Butler's works, especially those in the Parable series, help to unify and expand upon the traditions of the social contract in a postapocalyptic setting. Curtis begins each chapter with a brief overview of the literary text and an examination of the political theory that will be applied to the work. She then continues with an extensive reading and summary of the literary text in relation to the chosen theorist. Chapters close with a brief discussion of the novel(s) and social contract connection as well as any endnotes.
In the Introduction to the work, "Thinking of the End of the World," Curtis starts off personally, recounting what interested her in postapocalyptic literature--the TV movie The Day After. She goes on to describe her interest not just in the visual destruction portrayed in the film, but the remaking of the society afterward, which sparked this study. She notes that her choices of novels focus on the idea of "starting over"(3) and that the interest in the social contract arises because "fictional postapocalyptic accounts present the useful falsehood that there is a ground--a state of nature--from which we can come together and renegotiate our lives" (6). The Introduction lays the groundwork for Curtis's discussion of postapocalyptic texts as viewed through political philosophy.
The first chapter, "Last One Out, Please Turn Out the Lights: On the Beach and The Road," begins with two examples that do not fit the social contract theory framework: Nevil Shute's On the Beach and Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Ultimately, she argues that these two works do not fit the model of "starting over" as nothing remains in their respective worlds to rebuild. The chapter is well-reasoned as to how the worlds in which these books take place cannot allow for the rebirth of civilization under a new social contract; however, starting off with this perspective weakens the argument maintained throughout the book that postapocalyptic fiction, in its very essence, is an examination of the social contract and the shift from nature to society. This chapter would have served the argument better coming later in the text after demonstrating how social contract theory enhances the reading of postapocalyptic texts.
Chapter Two, '"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short': Hobbes and Lucifer's Hammer, the Classic Postapocalyptic Text," rallies with a direct discussion of the social contract from a Hobbesian perspective and how it appears in Niven and Pournelle's novel. Here, Curtis demonstrates how Hobbes's state of nature is one that is "covetous and quarrelsome" and that humans seek out leadership (17). Her reading of Lucifer's Hammer brings together Hobbes's theory, as well as a discussion of gender and race in the novel utilizing Carole Pateman's The Sexual Contract and Charles Mills's The Racial Contract.
Curtis explores the quintessential American postapocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon in Chapter 3: '"Industrious and Rational' John Locke and Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon: The Rational Life Postapocalypse." In this chapter, she focuses on the "work ethic" of the characters in relation to Locke's perception of the social contract (68). Although admitting that Alas, Babylon does not accurately present the devastation of a nuclear war, Curtis emphasizes that the novel does function as a "description of how a group of rational and sensible people can overcome the destruction of catastrophe and rebuild a community based on the importance of private property" (90).
In Chapter Four, '"Man is born free; and everywhere is in chains' Rousseau and Malevil: The Responsibilities of Civil Life," Curtis examines Robert Merle's Malevil in light of "the Rousseauean motivation behind entering into the social contract," and Jean Hegland's Into the Forest as a representation of a work reflecting a "rejection of civil society"(93). While Malevil exhibits Rousseau's social contract theory in action, Into the Forest demonstrates a rejection of the social contract and a return to a Rousseau's state of nature. She uses this reading of Into the Forest as a transition to a more complex reading of social contract theory in postapocalyptic novels, especially works outside of the common framework of catastrophic destruction followed by societal rebuilding led by a white male.
Chapter Five, '"Maybe Effort Counted' John Rawls and Thought Experiments," shifts the discussion to the twentieth-century political theorist John Rawls and his theories on the social contract. Curtis offers an examination of Butler's short story "The Book of Martha" in order to think through Rawls's hypotheses. Whereas the novels discussed in the previous chapters analyze works that employ a white male perspective, she refocuses the social contract discourse on texts that investigate the postapocalyptic landscape from the point of view of more diverse characters. She also uses this chapter to identify and explore the gaps presented by the confines of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. According to Curtis, the strictures of classic social contract thinkers limit postapocalyptic texts in three distinct ways: choices are limited in dramatic situations, and when they are made more realistic, they become less believable; main characters lack diversity; and there is "an inability to grasp the nature of human vulnerability and the conditions needed to confront that vulnerability" (118). Thus, this chapter demonstrates how looking at Rawls can enhance readings of postapocalyptic tales that do not fit the more traditional framework.
In Chapter 6, '"To take root among the stars' Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Rethinking the Social Contract," Curtis uses Butler's Parable of the Sower to discuss the reshaping of the social contract: "Octavia Butler ... manipulates both the script and the idea of the social contract" (135). Curtis explores the nature of race and gender in relation to the social contract, which offers more complexity in the reading than earlier chapters as those novels were restricted to the primary viewpoint of the white male.
Chapter Seven, '"We can choose' Octavia Butler's Parable of the Talents and the Meaning of Security," continues with a strong reading of Butler's Parable of the Talents and its relation to social contract theory. Curtis notes, "Most postapocalyptic fiction, following the framework of social contract theorists, is interested to explore the movement from insecurity to security" (161). This observation shapes the discussion of Butler's Parable of the Talents while examining security and control in (re) establishing a civil society.
Overall, Curtis's writing is fluid, although she uses the second person heavily, which sometimes distracts from the points being made. It is surprisingly clear of jargon considering that she reads these works through a theoretical lens, and she hits her stride when discussing the textual elements that relate to the theoretical underpinnings of the work. Literary scholars, especially those who study or teach apocalyptic and postapocalyptic fiction, as well as political scientists interested in social contract theory and society's responses to monumental challenges to the status quo, should find this volume useful and engaging. It certainly introduces some curious thought experiments. There is an extensive use of primary texts throughout, both of political philosophers as well as the novels being examined.
Beyond the primary texts by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Rawls and the postapocalyptic novels, Curtis utilizes only a few other sources supporting the premise or readings of the texts. Her choices for discussion include well-known texts that fit into her social contract model, but leaving out the geo-political World War Z by Max Brooks is a misstep as it fits nicely into the discussion of the social contract, especially as the zombies themselves are more a catalyst for societal change than they are simple monsters. She does mention that she does not include Brooks's text as she is "not interested in the zombie end here" (16). Although not addressed explicitly, the works that fit most soundly into the social contract theories are those that were published in the 1950s and the 1970s, whereas those published later in the 1990s and the early twenty-first century challenge the more direct application of the social contract.
There are few book-length studies focusing on postapocalyptic literature (and certainly none that examine this specific angle). Curtis's volume has strengths that outweigh the flaws and adds much to the scholarly discussion of literature of the fantastic. It provides a clear interdisciplinary analysis of key postapocalyptic works and should be on the shelf of anyone who studies or teaches the works addressed.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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