Dynamics of collapse in fantasy, the fantastic and SF
Issue 63 of Caliban, June 2020
Deadline for proposals: 15 October 2019
Apocalyptic patterns have fuelled SF, fantasy, horror and the fantastic for a long time. The central argument of many classics within these genres is the annihilation of the world or that of civilisation. In this respect, the example of R. Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954) is typical, with its pandemic turning people into the living-dead. The story spawned multiple movie adaptations, eventually giving birth to the “zombie apocalypse” sub-genre, via G. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Along this legacy, another post-apocalyptic piece was a fruitful inspiration to dystopian anticipation, albeit in a perspective closer to action films or motorised western movies: G. Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Here, it is the depletion of oil resources which brings about the end of civilisation. Thus, the pattern is similar to the evolution the world has actually known since the release of the movie, as the world oil production peaked in 2006, according to the International Energy Agency.
Closer to home, some recent works have been presented and/or interpreted by ecocritics as metaphors for climate change and the catastrophes it triggers: J. VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014) and its movie adaptation by Alex Garland, in which air alteration around a growing area causes mutations in the fauna and the flora; or P. Bacigalupi and T.S. Buckell’s fantasy novel’s The Tangled Lands (2018), in which excessive use of magic unhinges the environment.
Meanwhile, within the scientific community, more and more speak up to take stock of an undergoing collapse rather than to prevent a remote apocalypse. Among these authors, are the French astrophysicist J. Blamont and his Introduction au siècle des menaces, the American historian and geographer J. Diamond’s now classic Collapse(2005), in which he analyses the collapse of past societies to understand contemporary threats, or, of course, the regular reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These issues were already outlined in The Limits to Growth (1972), aka “Meadows report”, the seminal essay written for the Club of Rome, but these predictions were not taken seriously at the time.
The most comprehensive synthesis of all those works must be Comment tout peut s’effondrer (2015), written by the engineer in agronomics and ethologist P. Servigne and the independent scholar and eco-advisor R. Stevens, in which they study the implications of signs foreshadowing a “global […] economic and probably socio-political” collapse leading, potentially, to « the end of thermo-industrial civilisation » and which « might trigger a collapse of the human species or even of all but a few living species ». For the authors, the concept of collapse combines two complementary meanings. They borrow their technical definition from J. Diamond, “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time”, and combine it with a more pragmatic perspective borrowing from Y. Cochet : “at the end of the process which we will call collapse, the basic needs (water, food, housing, clothing, energy, etc.) are no longer provided to most of the population by services which are regulated by the law”. As for “collapsology”, a science the authors meant tocreate and which has since been developed successfully, it is “the transdisciplinary study of the collapse of our industrial civilisation and of what might come next, based on two cognitive modes, which are reason and intuition, and on scientific works of standing”. On this basis and in a perspective both technical and anthropological, collapsologists mean to explore a world in which “global warming is already causing longer and stronger heat waves as well as extreme events” and in which “we already witness water shortages in highly populated areas, economic losses, social unrest and political instability, as well as the propagation of contagious diseases, the proliferation of pests, the extinction of many living species […], the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, and the diminution of agricultural productivity”.
Caliban #63, entitled Dynamics of Collapse in fantasy, the fantastic and SF, intends to start a reflection on the more or less “collapsological” perspectives that our new context can bring to the creation or the reading of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works. Those may belong to the fantastic genre, in the classical sense of a supernatural intrusion in a realistic background or in the Todorovian acceptation of a sustained doubt as to the reality of the supernatural occurence. They may also pertain to fantasy (Todorov’s marvellous), in the classical sense of a universe in which supernatural events are either normal or beyond ontological doubt. Last but not least, they may belong to science fiction, in a broad acceptation in which the causes of collapse, whether realistic or not, are presented with Suvinian cognitive rigour. Thus, Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) pertains both to the fantastic in the classical sense and to SF, since the apocalypse is caused both by a pandemic (SF) and by the eldritch action of evil supernatural forces (fantastic). The whole spectrum of what can be called more or less loosely science fiction is thus relevant — from post-apocalyptic space opera such as the TV series Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) to various uchronia, dystopia, and works of anticipation which may focus more on sociopolitical evolutions and collapse rather than on technological evolutions and collapse
The works under study may be literary or cinematographic, of course, but essays on comics, boardgames, role playing games or video games are more than welcome.
The main approaches to these issues are the study of recent works that may have been influenced by the context of undergoing collapse, or the re-reading of older works from the standpoint of our new context and/or of reflections developed by “collapsologic”-minded scholars. Those works may also be used as starting points to question the concept of collapse, to ponder the ways they illustrate different kinds of collapse (such as collapse of climate, energy res
sources, infrastructures, finance, politics, biodiversity…) and their interactions, since each type may trigger collapses of a different kind, just as the proposed solutions to each may also trigger other kinds of collapse. Here is a non exhaustive list of relevant works with suggestions of potential thematic perspectives :
– Imagining the aftermath: The Walking Dead (comic book series and adaptations), Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, John Crowley’s Engine Summer, Mick Jackson’s Threads, Walter Murch’s Return to Oz, Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Planet of the Apes and its sequels. Any post-apocalyptic dystopia or dystopia about an undergoing collapse: George Orwell’s 1984, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green; the boardgames Outlive or Pandemic Legacy Season 2, the video games Forsaken, Falloutand Wasteland, the role playing game Polaris.
– How it all goes crashing down:
● with a bang (Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, Max Brooks’s World War Z, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, Stephen King’s The Stand, Dan Simmons’s Ilium and Olympos, China Miéville’s Embassytown; the movies Deep Impact, Blindness, Contagion, Perfect Sense, The NeverEnding Story; the boardgame Pandemic; Mark Rein-Hagen’s role playing game Vampire: The Masquerade)
vs with a whimper (Asimov’s Foundation, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, Crowley’sLittle, Big, Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore; Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy; Francesco Nepitello’s role playing game The One Ring – especially its campaign The Darkening of Mirkwood).
● inescapable (Le Guin’s « Paradises Lost », Orson Scott Card’s The Call of Earth, Asimov’s « The Last Question », C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, Joss Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse; the board games Small World, Vinci, War of the Ring and the role playing game The One Ring)
vs. preventable (Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Lord of the Rings, The Farthest Shore, Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the board games Pandemic and Arkham Horror or the role playing game The Call of Cthulhu).
● individual responsibility (Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, Drew Goddard’s film Cabin in the Woods, Terry Gilliam’s12 Monkeys, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire; the video game Plague, Inc.: Evolved; the episode trilogy « Weirdocalypse » concluding the animated series Gravity Falls),
vs collective responsibility (the TV series Dollhouse and Black Mirror, the board game Anacrony, Clifford Simak’s novel City, the movies The Day After Tomorrow and Idiocracy and more generally political dystopia),
vs third party responsibility (the series of novels and movies Left Behind or the video game Judgment: Apocalypse Survival Simulation, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s film This is the End)
or intermingled responsibilities (Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or David Wong’s This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It)
Submitted articles will be double-blind peer-reviewed. They can be written either in English or French and will not exceed 30,000 signs (including spaces, footnotes and bibliography). They must be sent by 15th Oct, 2019 to both these email addresses:
 In 1964, starring Vincent Price; in 1971, starring Charlton Heston; in 2007, starring Will Smith.
 “In the New Policies Scenario, production in total does not peak before 2035 […] never attaining its all-time peak of 70 mb/d in 2006”. Nabuo Tanaka, dir. “World Energy Outlook 2010”, International Energy Agency, 2010, p. 125.
 cf. Maddie Stone, “The Monsters of Climate Change”, Earther, 2018, https://earther.gizmodo.com/the-monsters-of-climate-change-1829826348
 « Introduction to the Age of Hazards ». J. Blamont, Introduction au siècle des menaces (2004), available in French only.
 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005, Londres: Penguin Books, 2011, p. 6-10.
 « How Everything Might Collapse : A Collapsology Handbook », Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, Comment tout peut s’effondrer : petit manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations présentes, Paris : Editions du Seuil, 2015. Available in French only.
 Servigne and Stevens, op. cit., p. 25-26.
 Ibid., p. 129.
 Diamond, op.cit., p. 3. Quoted in Servigne and Stevens, op. cit., p. 178.
 In the original: “le processus à l’issue duquel les besoins de base (eau, alimentation, logement, habillement, énergie, etc.) ne sont plus fournis à une majorité de la population par des services encadrés par la loi ». Yves Cochet, « L’effondrement, catabolique ou catastrophique ?”, convention, 27th May, 2011, Institut Momentum, https://www.institutmomentum.org/l’effondrement-catabolique-ou-catastrophique/. Quoted in Servigne and Stevens, op. cit., p. 15.
 In the original: “exercice transdisciplinaire d’étude de l’effondrement de notre civilisation industrielle, et de ce qui pourrait lui succéder, en s’appuyant sur les deux modes cognitifs que sont la raison et l’intuition, et sur des travaux scientifiques reconnus” Servigne and Stevens, op. cit., p. 253.
 In the original: “le réchauffement provoque déjà des vagues de chaleur plus longues et plus intenses et des événements extrêmes [et l’on] constate déjà des pénuries d’eau dans les parties densément peuplées, des pertes économiques, des troubles sociaux et de l’instabilité politique, la propagation de maladies contagieuses, l’expansion de ravageurs et de nuisibles, l’extinction de nombreuses espèces vivantes […], la fonte des glaces polaires et des glaciers, ainsi que des diminutions de rendements agricoles”. Servigne and Stevens, op. cit., p. 67-68.
 See Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, 1976 p. 7-8.
 Servigne and Stevens, op.cit., p. 124-125.