Part One of Four
You are floating above an urban landscape. It looks like all the cities you’ve ever been to have intersected, stretching out below you. You can hear the bustle of traffic and business, and occasionally you can discern some shout from a rooftop, asking what you’re doing up there. You try to answer the question posed, claiming you are motivated by freedom or tranquility, but it never satisfies the hecklers. Then again, satisfaction doesn’t seem to be their thing. By focusing your vision, you can see endless streams of information run through the city-dwellers. These aren’t natural to them, but appear to come from some deeper level, and the flow of content is maintaining their ennui. The tendrils of pure info are reaching up into the sky, and prick at your mind from time to time. They hurt.
Then, your vision enhances further, and you look upon the rotten machine that underlies this city and its manipulators. Vast armies are marching underneath the streets and houses, a massive underground force just waiting to emerge. You can start to see the city’s borders, heavily militarized, and beyond them the deafening sounds of bombardment. Before you can grapple with these visions, a final sensory expansion occurs. You can now see what powers the violence. Massive machines have hollowed out the earth, and the city rests upon its last foundations. Without any regard for self-preservation, great mechanisms have set their sights upon these final bits of land, threatening to plunge the world into oblivion. Your final vision is the city being burned for fuel, and the great fire sucks the air out of your lungs. Is this the end of it?
Suddenly, you snap back to the start of your vision. You look upon the city again, and where first you saw only misery, there is now a little hope. Writers, artists and other dreamers seem to be enjoying themselves amid the grey crowds, and their enthusiasms appears to be infectious. It’s not enough to overcome the dulling tendrils, but a more natural network flows gently in the subaltern. Some of this energy flows down into the ranks of the army, and it is being filled with deserters and insurgents. Even the domain of the machines comes to be affected, for you can see small patches of green where there were none before. Groups of dissident workers and soldiers are moving to these spaces and protecting them from the grasp of the machines. Unfortunately, the fall of the city is still unavoidable. You see the great fire consume the world beneath, but as this awareness fades you feel less dejected than before. You know this is not the end of it. You will breathe again.
Fiction is always the product of reality. That is a rather banal observation, but it does mean that fiction inherently reflects our perceptions and values. We tell stories, and in turn, they tell something about us. Beyond individual stories, the way we group our fiction into their genres also has significance. It shows which tropes we find most important in defining a story, and by grouping them like that we influence the way we write our stories. For example, while we may retroactively designate a story as ‘urban fantasy’ or ‘superhero fiction’, the proper codification of these genres is often the beginning of their cultural success. To be fair, the situation is one of chickens and eggs, because the popularity of similar works can spur on the creation of a genre naturally. Still, if no one is willing to make that process explicit, prospective genres won’t cultivate a specific audience, or serve a specific social goal.
In this essay series, I am going to involve myself in the creation of a genre. Like the process I’ve described, I will be working from the inspiration of existing stories, but I’ll also be filling in the details as to steer this new genre in a certain direction. There is a specific social purpose to this endeavor, a message which I hope to make explicit and inherent to the genre. The stories that this grouping designates are all set after the decline and fall of civilization. This is not cause for despair, for the stories also feature the revival of the environment, and the coming of a new sort of human society. Parts of this new world will resemble both prehistory and modernity, as it takes inspiration from both the far past and the inescapable present. Nevertheless, it will be its own thing, with its own tropes and unique aesthetics. I have dubbed it ‘anapnoic fiction’. The adjective ‘anapnoic’ derives from ἀναπνοή, an ancient Greek word that means recovery, or more literally, a breathing-again. I find the metaphor of breathing quite appropriate, because the creativity of human society is as vital to its health as oxygen is to us. Though the excesses of civilization will cause society to suffocate, its fall might renew the environment like a breath of fresh air.
However, I imagine that the idea of civilizational decline will sound horrible to anyone not familiar with the social theory I’m working from. Thus, in this first essay of four, I will explain my reasoning, and define the most important aspects of anapnoic fiction in the process. In the two parts that follow, I will go through the history of fiction and show how the idea of anapnoic fiction comes proceeds from its prototypes. In the fourth and final essay, I will provide a mixture of advice and warning about this potential genre, hoping to spur on the creation of future anapnoic works. Taken together, I aim to codify anapnoic fiction to the extent that it will nestle itself within our collective imagination. And to broaden the imagination, I must start by criticizing it. Let us begin.
Our breathless imagination
Can a new genre of fiction contribute to social revolution? The destructive forces of mankind are powerful and numerous, and the unchecked exploitation of our planet’s resources is currently poisoning both mankind and its environment. Surely some storytelling cannot come to combat this great material violence. However, cultural forces are still involved in the moral justification and social reinforcement of hierarchy. In this case, I believe the mass extraction of labor and resources is justified through a deep-rooted philosophical myth: the idea that we are separate from nature, that we are fundamentally different from other animals and even certain groups of people by virtue of our ‘civilization’. Since this notion is reinforced by our popular fiction, perhaps a slew of new fictions clustered into a single genre can come to counter it. This then is the central purpose of anapnoic fiction.
If we want to reconstitute the connection between ourselves and our environment, we must confront those preconceptions that have alienated us from the uncivilized. We start this process by asking an important question: in the absence of any sort of civilization, what is left of human society? This is a well-trod question of political philosophy, and we can answer it with unsettling ease; imagining the barbarian comes quite natural to us. We will tend to believe that the uncivilized are creatures of instinct, driven by raw impulse, with an affinity to nature that expresses itself in either primitive virtue or social Darwinism. Their lives are imagined to be nasty, brutish and short; were we to come across an old and happy savage, we could only explain it in terms of simplemindedness and lack of ambition. Our clichés are double-edged: the barbarian is either an ignoble predator or a pacifistic ignoramus.
The stereotypes I’ve presented are anything but flattering, and for good reason. After all, were we to see the process of civilization as anything other than ‘necessary progress’, we might be inclined to organize against it. Various interests are served by our contempt towards any system that strays too far from a late capitalist existence. But now that we have taken note of this propagandistic trickery, we can begin to unlearn it, and free our imagination. To conceive of a positive alternative to that which has been presented as inevitable is itself a revolution.
From the preceding, it’s clear we need to create new stories, which can present an alternative to that ominous phenomenon we call ‘civilization’. One way of doing so is to look at our collective past; what were the true conditions of humanity’s pre-civilized existence? Since all present communities have been influenced to some extent by the reach and intrusiveness of civilization, we will have to seek much of our data indirectly, through the fields of anthropology and archaeology. Though these sciences originally took part in the othering of the prehistoric and the uncivilized, their modern incarnations stand at the forefront of a radical re-evaluation of ‘civilization’ and its perceived values. As it is currently understood, prehistoric humans were quite familiar with what we would consider ‘progressive social values’, even if these concepts had not yet been reified into distinct ideological shapes. Indeed, pre-civilized society was remarkably fluid in its social forms, moving back and forth between various forms of government depending on seasonality or demographics. Even in the early days of agriculture and settlement, an egalitarian ethos appears to have been maintained. Unfortunately, history begins with the invention of writing, an innovation that is intimately tied up with the emergence of the first states. As such, we don’t have an honest perspective on the uncivilized; the term ‘barbarian’ itself derives from Ancient Greek chauvinism towards those who spoke a foreign language (though that obviously includes people we would ourselves consider ‘civilized’). An authentic history of the uncivilized thus remains largely untold in the conventional channels of modern media. While echoes of the truth resonate in the biased fiction of our civilized histories, it is rather difficult to separate one from the other when there is not the material basis that we find in archaeology or anthropology-and even this can be twisted. In the end, a lot of knowledge pools will have to be taken in, including the actual indigenous perspectives that a lot of these sciences either absorb or ignore. Only in this manner might anapnoic fiction be something more than useless speculation, becoming a genre with something real to say about the world outside of civilization.
The study of pre-civilized societies certainly helps us to re-evaluate the meaning of ‘civilization’, to consider its benefits and drawbacks outside of its own ideology. However, the goal of anapnoic fiction is not to replicate this state cleanly and completely. The relation between the anapnoic setting and the course of civilization is just too complex for that. Allow me to explain. In the anapnoic narrative, a period of civilizational decline has come to an end. By way of metaphor, we could say that the ‘wounds of civilization’, such as environmental destruction of capitalist exploitation, have healed. Nevertheless, deep wounds leave a scar, and so a ‘post-civilization’ will contain traces of that which came before. Sometimes the remnants will be very material, in the case of ruins and relics. The physical presence of civilization can take a long time to erode, and some of its infrastructure might even be worth preserving. Other remnants will be located within the mind: oral narratives that tell of a mythical past, half-remembered technical knowledge coated in mysticism, a basic literacy that allows access to lost tomes. By these examples, I mean to show that ‘civilization’ is both a mentality and a physicality, and that neither of these factors is done away with easily. The reason for this is that even in times of civilizational decline, our livelihood depends on its tools and methods. Thus, we cannot exist outside of civilization until we radically rethink our attitudes and rebuild our environment. Otherwise we will be trapped within a cycle of suffering until the Earth gives out from under us. A lot of post-apocalyptic fiction betrays such narrowmindedness: whoever survives the initial disaster just goes on to replicate what came before, never considering what excesses may have caused such catastrophe in the first place. Anapnoic fiction should be better than that. It ought to deal directly with the legacy of environmental and spiritual exploitation, elaborating on the process by which mankind has overcome these ailments. While the past can inspire the future alternative, pushing the rewind button on human history is neither feasible nor desirable. We must take the present into account. Luckily, there are many contemporary thinkers who criticize ‘civilization’ in a constructive manner, suggesting ways in which it can be reformed into something more equitable. Combining that critique of contemporary civilization with the study of the pre-civilized world, we create the theoretical basis of anapnoic fiction. Luckily, there already is a body of work that accords to this methodology. It is called ‘post-civilizational’ theory‘, or ‘post-civ’ for short. Though some of its sources (like the one linked) can oversimplify the nature of civilized or ‘primitive’ societies, I find its basic synthesis to be quite inspirational. By socio-scientific study of past and present, it comes to construct the future.
The Anapnoic Principles
Armed with the necessary background in social theory, we can begin to codify the core principles of the anapnoic genre. Within the elements I have mentioned so far, I can discern three categories. The first, which I will dub Revival, concerns the flourishing of life in the wake of societal and ecological decline. ‘Life’ can be interpreted literally and figuratively; as nature blossoms, so does society, the two no longer separated by that arbitrary concept of civilization. Along with Revival comes Return, a return of certain pre-civilizational attitudes that have either been reinvented or rediscovered. Fluid social norms, saturated with an ecological awareness, will enable the resumption of a natural harmony. However, the past is never as perfect as we remember it, and civilization won’t be overcome neatly. As such, the third core principle of anapnoic fiction is called Remnant, referring to the traces of the old world. Whether material or spiritual, civilization leaves its imprint upon humanity and the earth. That needn’t be all bad, as the comforts of modern technology are also tied up with the horrid course of human history, but the bad parts are sure to occasionally recur in the post-civilized world. Anapnoic fiction does not present a utopia, just the potential for a better world.
The preceding paragraphs have been my attempt at explaining anapnoic fiction, a form of genre fiction that clearly required some explanation. I could flatter myself by calling it ‘unprecedented’, but surely that term would only apply in its negative sense, as it implies my supposed innovation is without any preceding theory to ground it. By contrast, I hope to have provided here some definition to the concept, based in exciting social theory. I used that theory to shape three core principles of anapnoic fiction. The principles are necessary, synergistic, and each a mix of positives and negatives. With all that behind us, we are now firmly on the path of the anapnoic, which carries with it a new perspective on civilization, and on the fictions that sustain it.
Those ‘fictions of civilization’ are what I’d like to end on, for they oppose the emergence of anapnoic fiction most directly. Their pervasiveness is most apparent when we contrast anapnoic fiction with similar genres. For unlike apocalyptic fiction, which sees only darkness beyond the confines of civilization, the anapnoic aims to be more hopeful and imaginative. And unlike the naïve futurism of classic science fiction, which cannot even see beyond state and capital, that optimism does not come at the cost of ignoring present dangers. In short, anapnoic fiction is an uncivilized confluence of civilized genres; only by holding on to the principles sketched above can we distill its elusive presence from existent genre fiction. That process will be the focus of parts two and three, as I explore the hidden history of the anapnoic; for now, just remember Revival, Return and Remnant. The rest will follow naturally.
Naturally, that’s how it’s supposed to be. You open your eyes, and the city is gone. Only the patches of green remain, but you can hardly see them through the thick smog, residue of burned flesh and concrete. There is great mourning among the people who remain, as you gather from their week-long wailing. Then, the misery makes way for hesitant celebrations; the machines have consumed themselves, and none wish for their return. The right lessons have already been learned, and the flow of this new world will not be founded in the profits (or prophets) of endless growth. Instead, what lives is known to die, and that which doesn’t die is known to change. The free beings have no taste for toil, yet they labor one final time; they cannot abide the stink surrounding them. And so, power plants are built out of plant power, which suck up smoke and blow out air. Slowly, your light penetrates the receding darkness, and the people take note of you once more. They greet you as a lost friend, and call to you with whatever name they recall: Sun, Surya, Helios, Taiyang. You know this is a beginning. You breathe again.