Apocalypse TM

The stories we have about apocalypse don’t seem to take in how they are actually happening in real time. So what are they even for?

Alexander Chee

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A painted tableau of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the sky parting behind them, soldiers in disarray below them.
Victor Vasnetsov’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, through Wikipedia Commons

I have a new essay at the New Republic, a review of the new novels by Don DeLillo and Jonathan Lethem. I wrote about how their novels seem to describe different parts of the same apocalypse — the DeLillo describing the day it happened, and the Lethem telling a story from years later, in the aftermath — and so I wrote about them together and thought through the implications of that, and how while these novels might not warn us about the future, they might still tell us something about our present. Here is an excerpt:

In my speculative fiction course this fall, my students identified a place and time we referred to as Dystopia TM, a sort of abstracted postapocalyptic landscape that has become as familiar a backdrop as Victorian England, 1950s America, or any white suburb on television. The polluted sky and water, the ruined city, rebels living in the outskirts, the authoritarian government that took over after some vaguely named Troubles, all of which might as well get a TM, too. My students raised the possibility that we were living in a dystopia where people read Dystopia TM novels that didn’t tell them much about how the world worked, and that remains, to my mind, pretty much where we are right now in the United States.

My students were struck by how much the world of Butler’s Parable of the Sower felt like ours, and not the anodyne version sold to us in more recent popular entertainments. Published in 1993, Butler’s novel is now recognized as oracular, predicting among other things a president who runs his campaign on making America great again. If you’ve read the novel, it is hard not to see the man we just voted out. But describing a taboo by imagining a future where it can be described isn’t the same as predicting the future.

Something I feel like I saw a lot of over the last four years was a mania for predictions, especially regarding Trump. In a country with a justice system that offers its protections on what we might call a spec basis, watching him move against the law without any accountability, day after day, left many people feeling as if predicting his next move might at least feel, if not like…

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Alexander Chee

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.