The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch is a complex novel that investigates topics like time travel and the end of the world. The novel follows Shannon Moss, an agent working for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who travels to possible versions of the future to solve crimes. Moss gets wrapped up in an effort to prevent the Terminus, or the end of humanity, which has been brought on by time travel and keeps advancing closer to the present. The Terminus is presented as an inevitable event, one that stems largely from the Naval Space Command (NSC) and the government’s desire to find the planet Esperance, where they think they will discover the secret to immortality through experimentation with quantum-tunneling nanoparticles (QTNs). Ultimately, Moss enters a time knot in which the crew of the Libra, who originally discovered Esperance and brought the Terminus with them, continually experience a mutiny among their members. In order to avoid the Terminus that has arrived in her present, Moss works to create a black hole that will reset terra firma.
Although time travel is not a reality in the real world, the themes that Sweterlitsch addresses, like the end of the world, are more applicable that one might think. In recent years, issues like the climate crisis have brought worries about the end of humanity to the forefront of people’s minds. Science Focus states that the end of humanity is inevitable. It is not a matter of “if” human extinction will occur, but rather “when,” thanks to issues like overpopulation, environmental destruction, and climate change. However, rather than a cataclysmic end to all life on Earth and the world going up in flames, the article suggests that nonhuman life will persist, and the Earth will survive and thrive without humans.
An article by The New Yorker outlines the thoughts of Toby Ord, a philosopher at Oxford University. Ord discusses the existential threats to humanity that exist and what could happen if they are not addressed. He states that humanity is currently on the precipice of extinction and has only two options – to either partake in a shared global effort to ensure humanity’s continued survival or to become extinct. Rather than natural risks like asteroids or super-volcanic eruptions, Ord believes that the most serious threats to human life are man-made, such as nuclear war, climate change, and pandemics. For the most part, he and other philosophers agree that it is the actions of human beings and our unsustainable ways of life that will lead to our destruction.
Most recently, the coronavirus pandemic is an example of a large-scale threat that the actions of human beings have perpetuated. Forbes states that, while the COVID-19 pandemic is not the end of humanity, it has brought humanity to its knees. The article describes how the pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people. A majority of people have worked to protect those around them, and yet the coronavirus has spread like wildfire throughout the U.S. because of individuals who see themselves as being at little risk of illness and refuse to acknowledge that their actions – like not wearing a mask or not physically distancing themselves from other people – have consequences on the health of others.
Surprisingly enough, fact and fiction appear to work in dialogue with each other in commenting on the real-life possibility of the end of humanity. In Sweterlitsch’s novel, it is the actions of human beings and their self-serving interests that bring the Terminus to the present. The greed of the NSC and the government in seeking out Esperance and chasing after immortality at the expense of the end of humanity is reminiscent of the lack of concern that real-life governments show by taking little action to slow down or reverse the climate crisis and ensure a sustainable future for the generations to come. In the novel, Sweterlitsch does not propose a definitive solution to real-world problems, but the underlying message of the novel suggests that the actions that humans take can make a difference. Just as our actions can bring about the end of humanity, they also have the opportunity to postpone the crisis. Ultimately, one of the questions that the novel leaves me with is, how do we realistically postpone the end of humanity at this point? Is it too late to make a difference and divert the course of events? And lastly, would the Earth actually be better off without humanity's interference?
Although Zone One by Colson Whitehead can be classified as a zombie novel, it is about so much more than just zombies. Whitehead uses the setting of a zombie apocalyptic to explore and expose topics like racism, capitalism, and government exploitation of citizens. While themes of racism are more subtle at first, the anti-capitalism commentary that Whitehead gives is clear from the first few pages of the novel. This commentary on capitalism is also intertwined with a commentary on the government, and how it exploits its citizens. The novel follows the story of Mark Spitz, one of the volunteer civilian sweepers assigned to exterminating the remaining zombies in lower Manhattan so it can be reinhabited. The events in the novel seemingly take place months after the initial outbreak of a virus that turns people into zombies. In this new world, essentially everyone who survives is said to suffer from Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD). In order to put a positive spin on the narrative and rebrand survival, the government promotes the idea of the “American Phoenix.” This rebranding comes with its own logo, of course, and as a part of the movement, the camps of survivors are renamed things like “Bubbling Brooks” or “Happy Acres.” Merchandise, such as hoodies and sun visors, are handed out. The so-called “pheenies” of this new America even have their own anthem, “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction). However, Whitehead implies that this movement is less about genuinely helping the survivors deal with the aftermath of the initial outbreak and emotionally process their trauma, and more about stirring the masses and encouraging them to risk their lives for the reconstruction effort.
Although set in a world where supernatural flesh-eating zombies exist, the topics that Whitehead addresses in the novel, like PASD and what is essentially propaganda for the reconstruction effort, mirror conditions and events in the real world. For instance, PASD is reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition often afflicting soldiers due to the horrors they witness during war. The propaganda described is also reminiscent of the propaganda distributed in America during World War II. The National World War II Museum describes how the U.S. government created the Office of War Information (OWI) specifically to oversee the propaganda initiative. As part of this initiative, artists, filmmakers, and intellectuals were recruited to design posters, pamphlets, newsreels, radio shows, and movies that would persuade the American public to support the war effort. Posters were one of the most important products of the initiative, and they were mass produced and distributed around the country. National Archives showcases some of the more famous posters, such as those depicting Rosie the Riveter (“We Can Do It!”) and Uncle Sam (“I Want You for U.S. Army”). The article describes how these types of posters were created to encourage men and women to join the war effort, either by enlisting in the armed forces or working on the home front.
The previous article by the National World War II Museum describes how propaganda works by using psychological tactics, guilt, and emotions. The posters were not just meant to encourage and inspire Americans, but also to warn, scold, and scare. Ultimately though, the goal was to convince the public to support the war effort by appealing to their patriotism and loyalty. Psychology Today states that, even though propaganda can be used to achieve “good” ends, like the end of a war or a successful reconstruction effort, it is still problematic because facts are often distorted or ignored in the effort to sell the product. This becomes clear in Whitehead’s novel when the reality of the situation is revealed – that camps are being overrun with zombies at an alarming rate and everything is far from normal, despite what the government wants its citizens to believe. It turns out that the government’s relationship with Fort Wonton and the work on Zone One is simply PR, as it will be years before the island can realistically be resettled. Thus, the government in Buffalo is exploiting the citizens at Fort Wonton and presumably will not send aid even though the living dead are besieging them.
Taking all of the events from the novel into consideration, it is clear that Whitehead is against the institution of capitalism and the corrupt ways that governments promote their causes and exploit their citizens. The government in the novel promotes the idea of the “American Phoenix” in order to advance the reconstruction effort and use civilians as free labor. Ultimately, the government goes as far as to betray their own people by not revealing their true intent with the Manhattan project and presumably not sending aid when Fort Wonton is overrun with zombies. That being so, Whitehead’s novel makes me wonder, how is the U.S. government exploiting its citizens today? Is the government’s promotion of capitalism harming U.S. citizens more than it is helping? What type of propaganda is being promoted today?
American War is a haunting novel by Omar El Akkad in which war is depicted as a plague just as much as an actual virus is. Although this novel describes a fictional American civil war, El Akkad draws inspiration from real wars that America has fought in and the real injustices that have occurred. He essentially flips the narrative, showing the detrimental effects of war within the American landscape while the Middle East thrives, rather than the other way around. The novel tells the story of Sarat, a young and innocent child who is transformed into an instrument of revenge. Throughout the novel, El Akkad explores topics of injustice, from the senseless massacre of civilians to the grooming and exploitation of children in warfare. One of the greatest injustices that is described is the treatment of prisoners at the Sugarloaf Detention Facility. There, Sarat is tortured until she cooperates with her capturers, undergoing punishment in the Light Room, the Sound Room, and eventually waterboarding. In the novel, it is implied that her capturers do not know exactly what crimes she has committed and are torturing her to get the confessions that they want. Sarat spends several years imprisoned on the island, even after confessing to crimes she has not committed. She is only released after the war is over and is then forced to sign papers agreeing to not seek legal action against the U.S. government for her imprisonment.
Shockingly enough, the conditions that Sarat experiences while imprisoned in the Sugarloaf Detention Facility are based on the actual conditions that prisoners were subjected to at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. An article by Amnesty International UK describes the history of Guantanamo Bay. The detention camp was established following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a part of the “war on terror” declared by President George Bush. There, individuals who were perceived to be enemy combatants were held and tortured. Since its establishment, 779 people have been taken to the facility, but only seven have been convicted, and even then, it is believed that the trials were not fair. NPR states that the interrogation program has been in shutdown since President Obama took office in 2009, yet as of September 11th, 2020, 40 detainees have remained in Guantanamo Bay.
The Guardian outlines some of the horrific torture methods that were used by the CIA at Guantanamo Bay, which they called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some of these techniques included rectal feeding and rehydration, confinement in a box, waterboarding, beatings and threats, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and forced nudity. The Conversation states how, despite the unethical nature of these methods of torture, many government officials still voice support of them as a way to punish people and gain intelligence. Interestingly enough, a recent U.S. government report has suggested that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques is ineffective. Input from scientists supports this suggestion, as it is known that stress, fear, and physical injury negatively impact the brain and a person’s ability to remember information. Some professionals involved in human intelligence and special operations in the field, like former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who NPR interviewed as a part of the previously noted article, agree that torture is not the most effective method. In the article, Soufan states that building rapport with al-Qaida suspects was more effective and produced more information than torture techniques such as waterboarding.
Given the detrimental effects that imprisonment has on Sarat’s physical body and mentality that El Akkad describes, he does not condone the use of torture or the prolonged detention of individuals. The women that were released from Sugarloaf had a hard time reintegrating back into society after being tortured and imprisoned for so long. In fact, several of them committed suicide and Sarat herself was so embittered and broken from her time there that she agreed to release the Reunification Plague as a final act of revenge. That being said, El Akkad’s novel brings up a plethora of additional questions concerning torture and imprisonment. Why has it taken so long for these techniques to be prohibited, especially when alternative methods have produced better outcomes? What does it say about us as a society that we have been so complicit with the use of such violent and destructive techniques? How can we improve the system?
Station Eleven is a fictional dystopian novel by Emily St. John Mandel. The novel describes the life experiences of people before and after a deadly flu pandemic devastates society. In the aftermath, the novel follows a troupe of actors and musicians called the Traveling Symphony, who travel around the Great Lakes region and perform music and plays in the small towns of survivors that are left. Throughout the novel, Mandel explores the importance of the arts. Despite the dangers of the world post-apocalypse and the necessity of carrying weapons while traveling in order to protect themselves, the members of the Traveling Symphony ultimately believe that they are doing something noble by keeping art alive. The inhabitants of the small towns have suffered greatly and are not very welcoming to strangers, but many still welcome the Symphony, whose performances draw large crowds and evoke emotional responses. Besides the Symphony, the Museum of Civilization also takes form, in which reminders of the past, such as cellphones and motorcycles, are preserved for future generations.
The nature of the flu that Mandel describes in the novel is extremely similar to the outbreaks of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 that we have seen in the past two decades. Although COVID-19 has not been quite as destructive as the flu in Mandel’s novel, there are similarities in the way that the characters in the novel and people in real life have responded to these diseases. In both cases, the diseases have evoked a lot of fear and chaos. Although COVID-19 has not caused society to collapse and technology has not been lost, people in America, like the characters in Mandel’s novel, have turned to the arts to seek comfort and distraction during these uncertain times. An article by UN News notes that, despite the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the arts, such as the great financial losses that have resulted from the closure of museums and the cancellation of concerts, art has flourished throughout quarantine. Performers have adapted to new health guidelines and explored online options, neighbors have sung to each other out on balconies, and people have spent more time on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. If it was not obvious before, COVID-19 has definitely highlighted the power and importance of the arts, as it has mentally and emotionally brought people together.
The importance of the arts goes beyond merely bringing people together and providing comfort though. An article by Psychology Today notes how closely entwined art and culture are, stating that, “Art reflects culture, transmits culture, shapes culture, and comments on culture.” A paper by the American Planning Association further explains the connection between art and culture, stating that healthy communities preserve their history and develop new expressions for current times through art. Art offers a way through which stories can be told and community identity can be expressed. Certain types of art media, like paintings and novels, are physical reminders of culture that can last for centuries. Even if electricity and the Internet fail, as occurred in Station Eleven, art can live on. Lastly, an article by HuffPost adds that art in general is essential for the human spirit, as it makes you think and feel things, transports you to another place, and shows what words cannot.
Despite the essential role that art plays within cultures, careers in the arts are often underappreciated and stigmatized. As USA Today reports, there has been a de-emphasis on liberal arts programs, as society tends to favor science, engineering, and other disciplines that are viewed as essential. In highlighting the importance of the arts in society in her novel, especially following the pandemic, the future that Mandel paints is optimistic – even though society has been devastated, the arts have survived and thrived, proving them to be just as essential as, if not even more essential than, science and engineering. However, the future of the arts in the real world remains uncertain – although COVID-19 has brought to light the importance of the arts, can the arts recover from the great financial losses that the pandemic has caused? Will its importance be elevated, or will it continue to be underappreciated and underfunded?
Future Home of the Living God is a fictional novel by Louise Erdrich, an Ojibwe author. The novel is formatted as a series of journal entries written by a woman named Cedar, who is using them to document her pregnancy and struggles during a confusing time period in which evolution appears to be reversing. Throughout the novel, Erdrich explores the topic of women’s rights, particularly in the context of reproduction. Women are the main focus of the novel, as they are giving birth to babies that are seemingly the product of devolution. As a result of the mass fear and hysteria that this mysterious phenomenon elicits, pregnant women are imprisoned, and it is implied that their babies are either killed or experimented on. The situation ultimately progresses to the extent that any woman who is of childbearing age and commits a small crime, like running a stoplight or jaywalking, is taken and forcibly artificially inseminated. Similar to the real world, the government in Erdrich’s novel appears to be largely controlled by men, who are making these decisions about women’s bodies.
Although derived from a fictional stressor, the imprisonment of pregnant women and violation of women’s rights are eerily reminiscent of real-world events, both past and present, all around the globe. As the National Women's History Alliance notes, women in the U.S. have only gained the right to vote, to own property, to receive higher education, and to enter professions like medicine and law within the past two centuries. Even then, women’s rights in the U.S. have been complicated by issues of race, so even as white women gained more equality in the eyes of the law and society, women of color and indigenous women did not benefit as much. Women from other parts of the world may not even have these rights at all. Presently, women’s rights issues in the U.S. include women’s enrollment in military service, sexual harassment, and reproductive rights.
As the Center for Reproductive Rights notes, reproductive health care services address so much more than just abortion. They also address contraception, pregnancy care, sex education, domestic violence resources, affordable childcare, and prevention of forced sterilization and female genital mutilation. However, even in terms of abortion, which is legal and constitutionally protected, these services are often difficult to acquire or are stigmatized. These services are not guaranteed either, as politicians and lawmakers have been working to overturn Roe v. Wade and cut off access to reproductive health care services like those offered by Planned Parenthood. Amnesty International provides startling facts about world reproductive health that also apply to the U.S., such as that 47,000 pregnant women die every year due to complications from unsafe abortions and more than 14 million teenage girls give birth every year, mainly as a result of rape or unwanted pregnancy. Thus, reproductive rights are definitely a valid but uncertain topic currently.
Given the state of affairs Erdrich describes and the unhappy ending of the novel, in which Cedar is indefinitely imprisoned and her baby is taken from her, she does not offer a positive commentary on the future of women’s rights. While the reversal of evolution does not seem likely in the real world, it is quite possible that women could lose their rights, especially concerning reproduction, or that women’s rights in general could never progress enough to ensure that women are truly equal to men in the eyes of the law and society. After all, the government – and men – still exert control over women’s bodies. That being said, is it so unlikely that, if society inevitably collapses due to a pile up of stressors like the current pandemic and climate crisis, women's rights could deteriorate?
The Year of the Flood is a work of speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood. It is a post-apocalyptic novel that contains themes of environmentalism and explores the relationship between humans and the environment. Throughout the novel, Atwood exposes the exploitation of the environment by society, presenting a future in which a mass extinction of animals has occurred, once fertile farmland land has become barren, and entire ecosystems have been slaughtered. Endangered animal species, and the new animal splices that are created, are exploited for human gain. Pigoons are used to grow new human organs for transplant, Mo’Hairs are used to grow luxurious hair for humans, and following a honeybee die-off, the Corps even develop a new hybrid bee that is essentially a cyborg spy.
Reading this novel brings to mind all of the conservation issues that we as a planet are facing today. According to the Living Planet Report 2020, the population sizes of wildlife have dropped 68% on average since 1970. Concerning land, up to 90% of the world’s wetlands alone have been destroyed in the past three centuries. This destruction has been caused by humans – by companies exploiting the natural world for monetary gain and by governments who do not pass laws to prevent this exploitation from happening. As a result, ice sheets are melting, forests are burning, seas are rising, and extreme weather is occurring all over the world. Clearly, it is more than just the bees that need saving.
Various solutions to these issues exist in the real world. The National Geographic suggests that the only way to effectively combat climate change and prevent the unravelling of ecosystems is to increase land conservation efforts so that 50% of all land is kept in a natural state. On the other hand, the World Wildlife Fund suggests that switching to a plant-based diet is one of the best actions we can take to help the planet, as the production of food alone is one of the biggest causes of habitat loss and destruction. Less land would be used to harvest crops, and fewer greenhouse gases would be emitted. Another suggested method is switching to 100% renewable energy sources, like wind, solar, and wave power. All sources agree, however, that political activism on some scale has to occur in order to incite real change.
While Atwood offers a commentary on the present-day treatment of the environment through the parallels present in her story, she does not offer up a definitive solution. The Gardeners, who are vegetarian and eco-friendly, appear to be a solution at first, but they are flawed as they partake in contradictory practices and ultimately take no action to prevent the exploitation of the environment. The MaddAddams, a sect of the Gardeners, take too violent and harmful actions. This makes me wonder, is Atwood insinuating that, since humans are the problem, the best solution is to get rid of all humans, like the pandemic is intended to in the novel? Or is she suggesting that the solution to this crisis lies somewhere between the Gardeners and the MaddAddams – in being environmentally conscious and seeking change, but not doing so in a violent or destructive manner?