The Leftovers of the American Century: Post-Apocalyptic Novels in America’s Declining Era, Brent Ryan Bellamy (Wesleyan University Press 978-0819580313, $ 24.95, 256 pages, pb) June 2021.

In this fascinating study of predominantly American post-apocalyptic fiction from the end of World War II to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, Brent Ryan Bellamy examines “the areas of American studies, science fiction, and science fiction. print culture ”to explain how these stories have changed over time, how they reflect the American political landscape, and how publishing forces have shaped their evolution. Bellamy’s theoretical apparatus is broad in scope – “a range of methodologies from critiques of nationalism to those of petroculture and a range of frameworks from critical race theory to critiques of feminist and queer studies of the future. reproductive, “as he puts it – but his reasoning remains clear. throughout, and it frequently orients the reader, reminding us of where we are at and what we’re about to tackle next. The book consists of a long introduction, seven chapters and a conclusion. “Post-apocalyptic novels do not deal with the end of the world,” observes Bellamy, but rather “express cultural anxiety about the end of American hegemony and the long, slow and painful acclimatization to life under it. neoliberalism, especially for those who up to this point have enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. In case that sounds too reductive, fear not, as Bellamy enriches and expands this idea in subtle and provocative ways through a myriad of close textual readings, the details of which are often as fun, if not more, than the conclusions we could draw from it. of them. Although “a dominant trend can be found in the post-apocalyptic novels examined in this book: they treat the crisis as an opportunity and encourage an understanding of history that counter-intuitively values ​​the individual over the collective and seeks a return to the current situation, ”Bellamy allows exceptions and borderline cases, which strengthens the integrity of his analysis. In the introduction, Bellamy, following on from the work of Veronica Hollinger, explains that instead of treating post-apocalyptic narratives as a genre or a sub-genre, her approach is to see them as a “fad” and drawing inspiration from a play by Umberto Eco on the difference between allegory and symbol, argues for the value of this mode being considered symbolically. “The post-apocalyptic text envisions how the characters might react to destructive events in the world,” while “the post-apocalyptic mode imagines how a culture, nation, or people might respond to the sudden transformation in its way of life from the most dramatic way. . “

An intriguing and innovative concept that Bellamy deploys to investigate this macro-textual post-apocalyptic mode is that of “leftovers”. Briefly, for Bellamy, this term operates on at least three levels, all of which hold his attention: “it identifies diegetic things (objects, people and places), literary concepts (forms, plots and styles) (remaining books) as as components and markers of a unique process of abandonment, failure and ruin. Just as the futures depicted in post-apocalyptic visions are “littered with the remnants” of their pre-disaster worlds, the “remnants” of the story elements themselves are not wiped out but rather shattered and recycled as text. in text. The rest is the key link between the different dimensions of Bellamy’s investigation, and it’s hard to do justice to its versatility of valences in a few short sentences.

The close readings I have mentioned begin with that of George R. Stewart The earth remains, Leigh Brackett Along tomorrow, Walter Miller Jr. A hymn for Leibowitz, and that of Richard Matheson I’m a legend, which serve to emphasize the fundamental point that the protagonist or narrator of post-apocalyptic stories tends to be privileged in complex ways. This opening chapter is useful for establishing a basis for tropes, but the progression from book to book seems a bit stagnant. Things come alive with the elaboration of ‘world destruction’ and ‘reduction’, after the work of Gary K. Wolfe, as key strategies for deciphering how these stories come together, and then applying the above to Sherri S. Tepper The gate to the land of women and that of Stephen King The stall. Three subsequent discussions consist, first, of an energetic comparison of the The postman with Kim Stanley Robinson The wild shore – the second offers a multitude of “alternative possibilities of social organization” absent from the first, rejecting the notion of a limited response to the disaster Farnham Freehold and LeVar Burton’s Consequences – Bellamy points out that while Heinlein may have been aiming at a critique of racism, it “rather aims at slavery … through a series of racist tropes” – and, third, an examination of the family and in particular the role of gender in Cormac McCarthy The road. Other texts probed, in the context of energy limitations, include Octavia Butler’s Parable of the sower, Emily St. John Mandel’s Eleven station, Pat Frank Alas, Babylon, by Peter Heller The dog’s stars, James Howard Kunstler Handmade world, and that of John Varley Slow apocalypse. The works of Colson Whitehead and NK Jemisin are also covered by the book’s closing pages.

Bellamy’s thoughts on the above stories are stimulating, but my favorite chapter is certainly the one on “The Remaining Books”. Details of trends and movements in the publishing industry, tracing the crest of midlist writers in the 1960s to the changes of the 1970s, the crisis sparked by “the historic Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue ”in the 1980s, which led to the rest of the books, the explosion of bestsellers in the 1990s and the proliferation of self-publishing, trade presses and genre / literary banter in the 2000s and beyond, it all constitutes a fascinating chronicle in its own right. Reading the hundreds of formula-based books in Deathlands and related series, for example – or learning that at the time of this writing, Permuted Press has published over 500 titles, including 290 in the apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and survival or horror-fiction categories ”- it’s hard to argue against the overwhelmingly conservative tastes of readers of post-apocalyptic fiction. The post-apocalyptic mode includes, unmistakably, a cottage industry whose success not only rests on but, as Bellamy so eloquently puts it, “guarantees the failure of every apocalypse.”

In the context of his project, Bellamy’s deliberate restriction to American works makes sense, but it might have been interesting to further explore the interplay between American post-apocalyptic narratives and those hatched elsewhere, especially given the rich post-apocalyptic tradition in the UK and the “parallel between the kinds of speculative fictions created in Britain at the turn of the century and those created in the United States today” to which Bellamy alludes. The endnotes are definitely worth checking out, and any key reference books one could wish for are duly cited. Two other titles of potential interest to readers who enjoy Bellamy’s Treatise are Post-apocalyptic patriarchy: American television and gendered visions of survival by Carlen Lavigne and The end in progress: bordering on the apocalyptic narrative, edited by Michael Titlestad and David Watson.

It is clear from Bellamy’s thoughtful, lively, and well-written work that while the post-apocalyptic mode embodies disruption in its narrative universes, if only to immediately reduce or negate the effects of such disruption, the mode itself seems particularly resistant to the real world. disturbances. “According to a bibliography of titles I have produced, the number of post-apocalyptic American titles more than doubled between 2001 and 2014,” Bellamy notes, and I hesitate to ask for the post-pandemic calculation. The post-apocalypse remains, and remains.


Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, editor of the roundtable, is co-author of a book of interviews with Robert Silverberg, Worlds traveler, who was a finalist for the Hugo and Locus Award in 2017. Over 30 stories and 100 Alvaro reviews, essays and interviews have appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Mountain peak, Analog, Speed ​​of light, Nature, Strange horizons, Under ceaseless skies, Edge of the galaxy, Lackington, and anthologies such as The best science fiction and fantasy of the year 2016, Cybermonde, Humanity 2.0, and This path until the end of time.


This review and more in the August 2021 issue of Place.

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