Prototyping the Anapnoic, Part 1: A Literary History

Part Two of Four

You find yourself trapped within an infinite library. You know the type. To your great joy, you discover that the books are not random assemblies of letters and spacing, but full and pleasant narratives. A good thing you like reading. Yet as you come to discover, their ordering is haphazard indeed. No order can be discerned among the rows and rows of shelves and bookcases. A nasty, involuntary thought yells out: SORT. An imperative if ever there was one. But how to go about it? An alphabetical order would mean a constant reshuffling of the collection. And as you discover, the books don’t even adhere to a single alphabet to begin with! An ordering by genre it is then. However, many of these books appear ambiguous in their thematic leanings. By putting them in one category or another, you feel like you’re judging them, boiling their complex stories down to a narrow set of tropes. The voice in your head persists: SORT. You feel like you’re going to be here for quite some time.

In the first part of this essay series, I gave an introduction to anapnoic fiction: what it is, what its key principles are, and what sort of social theories it gets its ideas from. Here, I would like to discuss the various fictions that inspired me towards the anapnoic to begin with. As anapnoic fiction is not actually a thing (yet), the works that inspired me to write this essay are most eclectic. In the greater stream of speculative fiction, several disparate subgenres are responsible for the current potential of an anapnoic fiction. Here I will sketch a rough history of each of these precursor trends, to see which thematic fragments they can contribute to the greater whole that is to be. For reasons of personal expertise and ease of ordering, my history will center around world literature, with any other media being relegated to the third part of this series.

In framing the (literary) history of anapnoic fiction, there’s one initial problem we need to confront. I find that whenever one tries to trace the history of a particular genre, there is the temptation to end up at one of the earliest works of literature, such as the Odyssey of the Gilgamesh epos. This gives a satisfying weight to one’s endeavor, since it portrays the genre in question as a universal theme of the grand narrative that is world literature. However, it could be argued that this tendency is rather self-indulgent, and implies that there is nothing really novel in the emergence of a genre. In relation to the possibility of an anapnoic fiction, I think this dilemma is well worth discussing.

Well then, how broad is our scope in determining the thematic precursors of anapnoic fiction? On the one hand, it has been established that the anapnoic is a reaction to civilization and its abuses. One could therefore suppose that the anapnoic was present right from the dawn of civilization, and rejoice in the literary wealth that would thus grant it legitimacy. But again, I think this conclusion is a little premature. If we go back to those foundational texts of civilization, and the social context in which they were written, we see that there can be no case of a ‘re-breathing’ of pre-civilized values. After all, the pre-civilized was alive and well at the time of the earliest states, which were themselves the new kid on the block. As such, these early literary epics are anti-anapnoic if anything; they sought to suffocate the breath of the barbarian in order to unleash a more civilized age.

Clearly, there can be no hint of the anapnoic as long as the uncivilized still draw breath. From the vantage point of world history, I believe that civilization completed its progress towards dominance during the Enlightenment. It was during this period that the European intellectual class came to regard the ‘wild native’ as nothing more than a curiosity, one that could not even hope to oppose the onslaught of capitalist imperialism. Unsurprisingly, this was also the era that societal progress came to be seen as the natural course of history, with ‘progress’ referring to the ever-growing exploitation of labor and resources that has seemed unstoppable since the start of the Industrial Revolution. These two factors together caused the alienation of our civilized existence from anything that preceded it. It is in this alienation that we find both the necessity of post-civilization, and the difficulty of actually establishing it.

So, since the anapnoic arises in opposing our alienation from the uncivilized, we will not find any anapnoic fiction that precedes the historical dominance of the civilizational narrative. If we want to find the true beginning of anapnoic fiction, of works that contain at least a whiff of the post-civilized, we must look at the history of modern literature, from about the 19th century onwards. To be even more precise, I would like to focus on the history of popular literature. Beyond some works of utopian philosophy, I simply don’t expect the literary tastes of high society to adhere to post-civilizational themes. While fiction is always a breeding ground of social mutation, such change occurs most easily in marginal spaces.  It is to be found in the cheap, the pulpy, and the low-brow, those works where the naïve and error-prone replication of social mores might produce the first seeds of subversion.

Knowing that the anapnoic begins in the subaltern, we can finally set off on our course through popular literature, in search of those elusive anapnoic prototypes. We begin with the rise of pulpy science/adventure fiction in the first decades of the 20th century, where themes of cultural decline and barbarian futures are slowly becoming apparent. My two prime examples of this development would be Barsoom, a series of ‘planetary romance’ novels set on a dying planet, and Conan the Barbarian, a collection of pulp stories that take place during a forgotten but mythical age. From a modern perspective, both of these franchises are highly problematic. Their protagonists are morally compromised in countless ways, and the plots smack of misogyny and racism. Nevertheless, what is distinctive about them is their willingness to explore the uncivilized as an authentic locale, not under the immediate threat of the colonialist mission. Insofar as the perspective of the civilized world leaks through, it is only implicitly colonial, and sufficiently blatant that we can deconstruct it with ease. For example: John Carter of Mars, the protagonist of Barsoom, is a southern civil war veteran with 19th century attitudes, and thus rather hostile to the more uncivilized elements of Barsoom’s society. Yet these explicit biases are precisely what enable us to imagine the setting outside of our unreliable narrator. So when the author compares the native Martians to Native Americans, calling both of them savage and uncivilized, we can turn the analogy on its head and express anticolonial solidarity with these aliens. While a thought exercise like this does not excuse the reactionary content itself, it explains how such a condescending narrative can still be of inspiration to actual anapnoic fiction.

From these early pulpy perspectives on the barbaric, we head towards greener genre pastures. In the middle decades of the 20th century, speculative fiction bloomed once more, whether in the form of Tolkien’s ‘high fantasy’ or the techno-optimist visions of ‘golden age’ science fiction. The forerunners of the anapnoic took from both these developments: Tolkien popularized extensive and fantastic worldbuilding, while space age stories developed the general tropes of future technologies. As a result, the sixties and seventies would bring stories set in far-off futures where the civilizational rhythm of decline and rebirth had once again taken root. The Ur example of this is Frank Herbert’s Dune, the science fantasy epic where a futuristic form of feudalism has beset a now interstellar humanity. The usual science fiction theme of ‘social progress through technology’ has been reversed here, as the universe is ruled through a byzantine network of autocratic interests rather than a utopian social order.

For a more in-depth look at this subgenre, let us look at a similar setting that was developed in the works of one M. A. R. Barker. Barker was a professor of South Asian Studies who in his lifetime constructed Tékumel, a roleplay setting that surely rivals Middle Earth in terms of intricate worldbuilding. Though he never achieved Tolkien’s fame, Barker also used his lifelong study of linguistics to fill his setting with its own fictional languages. Instead of drawing from Occidental mythologies however, Tékumel was inspired by Indian, Egyptian and Mesoamerican cultures, making it less Eurocentric and thus less culturally dominant. Furthermore, by setting it in a socially declined future, all manner of science fiction staples could be given a fantastical twist: the miraculous machines of space age sci-fi appear to the people of Tékumel as Roman ruins did to the artists of the Renaissance, artifacts of a forgotten age. I would say there’s something quite anapnoic about this subversion of modern technologies. From the perspective of the future anapnoic, some technologies are dead ends based in exploitation, to be looked upon as quaint technics from a poisonous past.

With their idiosyncratic mixture of fantasy and science fiction, the subgenre of works like Dune showed that the future did not solely belong to the hard sciences, to novels that consisted mostly of technical explanations in the fields of rocketry or robotics. Instead, the later decades of the 20th century would see an influence from the direction of the social sciences. Writers such as Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson would use various new theories in the fields of sociology, anthropology and ecology to enhance their speculative narratives. In this manner, they came quite close to formulating the anapnoic a generation early. One example of this would be Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, a prototype of anapnoic fiction if ever there was one. In this book, she used her experience with anthropology to present an ethnography of the future people of Northern California, a place where renewed indigeneity had been reclaimed from the ashes of civilization. Kim Stanley Robinson tried something similar with his book The Wild Shore, set in a devastated Southern California. However, as this book ended up being more post-apocalyptic than anapnoic, we have to look towards his other work for hints of the latter. For example, in his Mars Trilogy, Robinson gave idealistic colonists a chance to move away from Earth’s hierarchies. The resulting society ends up quite post-civilized. Meanwhile, in Shaman, he told a story set in the Ice Age, harkening back to a forgotten age like few before him. Really, if he was so inclined, anapnoic fiction would fit him like a glove.

Though the aforementioned authors came close to the anapnoic, they also made contributions to the genre in a more indirect manner. First, they proved that the ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ didn’t need to confine itself towards technology alone, that society and the environment could be loci of the scientific imagination. Secondly, the narratives they created were politically leftist and often concerned with social revolution. These stories weren’t just revolutionary in their content, they served a political purpose: the imagination of social alternatives as the forerunner of real political change. This was made most explicit in a speech Le Guin gave at the 2014 National Book Awards:

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”

If anapnoic fiction is to be anything more than a curious interaction of existing genres, it should take up this political project as intrinsically its own. Every genre is a vessel for specific types of stories, and the novel subcategory of anapnoic fiction can serve a refined political purpose through its specificity.

This overview of inspirational literature has been far from extensive. I can confidently state that I have not read most books in existence, nor do I know of many in particular. Nevertheless, I have tried to give a more concrete taste of what the anapnoic is like, where it gets its ideas from. As more authors participate in this genre project, I expect the collection of inspirations to grow ever more eclectic, though I would not like to see them grow too far from this core I’ve provided. Anapnoic fiction is inherently political, and the use of another genre’s tropes should not be taken lightly. As I will clarify in the fourth part, almost any hope of revolution can be subsumed in the civilizational whole, no matter how explicit one’s post-civilizational principles. We should be careful with what sources we use, and how we use them. With this in mind, I want to move on to the third part of this essay series, where I lay out some more anapnoic inspirations, those that lie outside of the literary realm. It is time to go beyond books, and see how other media pick up on the dormant themes of the anapnoic genre.

How long have you been here? You’ve made some progress sorting infinity, but every once in a while you feel like overthrowing your current paradigm and starting all over again. Yet you are too stubborn to desist altogether, and that awful impulse keeps you going as well. Sort, sort, SORT! After being stuck here so long you just want to live a little. There is no use to these stories as long as you’re trapped here anyway. So you start messing around a bit, tearing up books and toppling bookcases. You start collecting materials for the sake of it. Even bits of the floor do not escape your hunting and gathering. Then, one day, you feel like deathless entertainment has run its course. You use some of that knowledge that far precedes the written; two stones will do the job. Nice sparks turn to glows turn to flames. You see a good chunk of the place go up in smoke before the infinite sprinkler system kicks in. You wake up among the soggy ashes. Then you remember that some of the books were made out of seed paper, and that older books can contain spores and molds. In time, life will grow here. It will sort itself out.

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