Part Four of Four
The Ambassador from Above arrived by foot, coming out of the woodlands as if they had been waiting there all his life. While they were dressed according to local traditions, the outfit was still a little too formal and outdated to make them appear a natural member of the community. Nevertheless, an agreement had been made, and so they were adopted into a diplomatic family that could acclimate them better to the local way of life. Their knowledge about the community was remarkable, though this also appeared inorganic and rehearsed. Of all the skills they displayed in those first few weeks, only their agricultural expertise seemed genuine; it was good to know that even up there, the people still had a hands-on connection to the land. Had that not been the case, I am sure that the Ambassador would have been shunned as a creature of artifice, much too similar to the magnates of ages past. In any case, them and I got along well, and as the spiritual leader of my community I was proud to welcome them into it ceremonially. As I applied the ritual paints, I wondered about my own child, she who had been sent up there.
In the previous part, we completed our journey through popular fiction in search of anapnoic inspirations, precursors, and prototypes. Along with the initial introduction to this new genre and its basic themes, I think we have built up quite a store of knowledge about the meaning of anapnoic fiction. However, there are still several issues I would like to see resolved before I can consider this essay series complete. As none of them are large enough in themselves to form their own essay, I have grouped them into this eight-part list. Together they constitute a general guide on creating anapnoic fiction, providing tips on aesthetics, politics, and many other aspects of the creative enterprise. Though definitely an eclectic collection of advice, and therefore not as comprehensive as a complete ‘guide to anapnoic fiction’ would be, I hope that these specific pointers will prove useful nonetheless.
One: dare to be uncivilized
In the first part of my essay, I pointed to new developments in the study of prehistory, which allow us to re-evaluate the pre-civilizational, and inspire us to go beyond civilization altogether in our fiction. One of the most interesting aspects of studying these prehistoric societies is their relation to the environment. Though the idea of a ‘nature-respecting native’ is a tiresome cliché, one may very well make the case that in the absence of imperialism and capitalism (perhaps even patriarchy), man’s relation to nature would be significantly less exploitative. Is it any coincidence that the industrial age was conceived so gleefully by colonists and colonizers? Once you’ve had a taste of despoiling another’s environment, how can you stop?
With this indictment of the ways of civilization, I do not mean to put anapnoic fiction on the path to primitivism, the complete rejection of particular technologies and the glorification of eras prior to their invention. To me, this amounts to nothing more than fetishistic self-denial, as the attitude of exploitation never rests with the machine itself, but with how we conceive of its function. If the post-civilizational is to gain from the pre-civilizational, it is its attitude towards the environment, one of indigeneity rather than estrangement and extraction.
Here, then, we once again witness the anapnoic process: with the rejection of civilizational attitudes comes a renewed appreciation for that which is prior to it or outside of it altogether. In writing anapnoic fiction, one would do well to keep up with prehistoric anthropology, or with the study of people one could consider ‘indigenous’. While you shouldn’t shy away from the inspirational, be willing to admit imperfections as well. In challenging a seemingly inescapable paradigm, there is always the danger of distorting the alternative, of making it seem better than it is and spoiling one’s credibility as a result. Nevertheless, I fervently believe that bringing these forgotten perspectives into the limelight will do more good than harm, as there is nothing civilized about disdaining the uncivilized. So dare to be uncivilized.
Two: decline over disaster
Among the set of anapnoic precursors I outlined in the previous two parts, one finds a vast variety of plots and themes whose only ultimate commonality seems to be the connection to my overeager neologism. Nevertheless, from this collection of inspirational works I have managed to conceive a ‘sliding scale of anapnoic fiction’. By refining core themes and comparing the works involved, I’m now able to judge how anapnoic a certain work is, and which elements of that work have the greatest anapnoic potential. Through this process, I have made an interesting discovery about anapnoic plotting: gradual decline works better than sudden catastrophe.
To be clear, I’m not saying that no anapnoic work shall or should include the apocalypse, i.e. the sudden and irreversible destruction of human civilization. Since anapnoic fiction is all about the post-civilized, getting rid of the current civilization suddenly is a valid plot element. However, it is not the only way of achieving, and I’d argue it’s not the preferred way either. For one, something as dramatic as the end of the world could take one’s attention away from the current post-civilized state. The only way to avoid that is to let one’s setting take place far past this calamity, in which case I don’t see the need to elaborate on the specific end of human civilization. Furthermore, almost any apocalypse can come to look like an accident, rather than a deliberate catastrophe perpetuated by a cruel society. For example, if an anapnoic book was to take place after a nuclear war, the reader may very well be caught up in a misguided nostalgia, thinking the world before the apocalypse can be separated from the nuclear brinkmanship that led to its demise. This is clearly the opposite sentiment an anapnoic work is supposed to generate.
My solution would be to replace the archetypical apocalypse with a longer, more gradual decline. Not only does this portray the fall of civilization as the logical end-point of its inherent flaws, but it parallels the present state of calamity know as global warming. Climate change is a slow burn, but all the more dangerous for it, as a gradual shift allows vested interests to obfuscate the effects. By introducing such continued complacency on the part of state and capital into the pre-anapnoic world, a creator can ensure that their post-civilizational themes hit home. Even better, the gradual decline of civilization offers an immediate opportunity for the post-civilized world to arise; a story’s characters can set up their hut while the walls are crumbling. It is thus not necessary for an anapnoic plot to start after the fall, as long as the new world is set up in those spaces abandoned by the old. It is important to show the modern-day reader that they do not need to wait for this world to end if they desire a new one, and that the anapnoic is inspired by real ideological movements with their roots firmly in the present.
Three: old world blues
As stated before, the trappings of civilization do not need to have eroded completely at the start of an anapnoic plotline. What matters is that they are in the process of being replaced, and hierarchical power is no longer the dominant paradigm. Even when the post-civilized is fully established, there will be a Remnant of civilization, since that is one of the three key aspects of anapnoic fiction I outlined in part one. This Remnant will be more or less present depending on the time that has passed since the onset of the post-civilized world, but only consists of a material or spiritual reminder of the world before, and not the real manifestation in the form of civilization. The latter is what I would like to elaborate on here: the way that civilization itself, referring here to the forces of state and capital, might remain or recur even in the most utopian of times. Again, since this goes beyond the principle of Remnant, it is not at all required for a creator to incorporate it in his anapnoic work. However, many of the anapnoic precursors do still contain a state presence, and allowing for it might make one’s creation seem less incredible. It’s a sad fact that many still see post-civilization as overly utopian, so by maintaining the spirit of civilization a looming danger, one can temper the impression that the old world can be overthrown in one fell swoop.
Well then, what form do hierarchical institutions take when they try to ignore their fall from dominance? Based off historical inspiration and philosophical consideration, I can make an educated guess. First off, I think that organizations like the state or organized religion would try to find a competitive edge with the liberated bliss of post-civilizational living. One thing they could appeal to is tradition, the literal history that comes with a long-established institution. Paired with the allure of a secret society or a corporate ladder, I can see people being pulled back into these dead hierarchies. Nevertheless, they’ll be sure to discover the suffering that’s paired with it, and try to move back into the merry wilderness. This is where civilization is losing the struggle, and the only way it can parry is by closing the literal or proverbial gates to those looking for an exit. The last remaining institutions will militarize, turn into mini-dictatorships, all to fight a useless battle against the call of a new nature. By analogy, the fallen civilization is like a Venus flytrap: eager to lure people in, but just as eager to lock them up and digest them alive. In the end though, this predatory creature known as the state, the corporation or a hundred other names will die a slow death to attrition, as people abandon the old world for that older-world-made-new-again known as post-civilization.
With any fiction created under capitalism, there is a danger that your work will be taken by the powers that be and twisted in such a way as to undo it of its subversive power. This process, of radical art being turned into something commercially friendly, is called recuperation. Since anapnoic has so far been uncodified, it has not enjoyed the sort of attention that would bring the cultural capitalists down upon it. Its precursors however have certainly suffered from the effect, as any fiction that enjoys broad popularity cannot be marketed on the basis of its subversive elements. It is my fear that should the idea of anapnoic fiction enter into the broader culture, it will be used in ways that are not inherently hostile to state and capital. Were this to happen, the compromised fiction would be anapnoic no more, but just an aesthetic husk devoid of any real radical themes. To anyone who has become interested in the idea of anapnoic fiction, this is a warning: don’t let them recuperate this. If they do, either disown it or reclaim it. Since anapnoic fiction is inherently political, any fan that would lament its politicized nature is no fan at all. I’m sure you’re all familiar with these disingenuous cultural consumers.
On the matter of recuperation, I also bear a second warning, perhaps as dire as the first. Anapnoic fiction is not only a political genre, it is a leftist genre. Therefore, appropriation by centrist capitalists is not the only bad thing that could happen: it might also be claimed by rightists. Since the post-civilized is at least partially inspired by non-modernist traditions, by the methods and philosophies of the indigenous and pre-civilized, there is a risk of the genre being taken in ethnonationalist directions. If there’s one group of people who loves claiming ancient roots, its chauvinist authoritarians. To anyone with even the slightest knowledge of political history, these claims are patently ridiculous. Nationalism is a relatively recent invention, as are the various myths used to back up ethnonationalist sentiment. The aims of Post-Civilization are ecological and anarchistic. If any pre-civilized society is used to back up rightist sentiment, the anapnoic author can simply reject those traditions. Anapnoic fiction is inspired by the past, but not bound to every facet of it. The appeal of prehistoric society does not lie with claims to blood or soil. Instead, we are excited by the real and natural alternatives before us, synthesizing them with our present perspective to create a greater whole.
Five: the magical apocalypse
I first conceived of anapnoic fiction when I asked myself the following question: what if the apocalypse was magical? I had realized that given the Left’s general critique of civilization, its fall might present an opportunity for liberation. Then, I considered that a world filled with this true freedom would take on such alien forms that it might as well be considered fantastical. The metaphor of magic seemed most appropriate, and so potent that I want to preserve it in my current conception of the anapnoic.
To be clear, I am not saying that all anapnoic fiction should incorporate elements from the fantasy genre, i.e. wizards and faeries and spells. Whether something is magical in anapnoic fiction, depends on whether the creator uses it to elicit a sense of wonder. Since the post-civilized world may be somewhat unfamiliar with the old world, the Remnant can itself be depicted in a magical way. Or, considering the wild social forces that would be unleased under post-civilization, much of the anapnoic society would appear magical to us. What matters about these elements is that they are super-natural; they stand outside of what is considered ‘natural’ by the civilized, the post-civilized, or both.
But wait, there’s more. Working through my metaphor, I discovered a second, subtly different conception of magic. The supernatural perspective can be fun, but ultimately it’s a framing device to create a momentary sense of wonder. My second form of magic, which I will dub ‘neo-natural’, is about making that sense of wonder permanent. As I said back in the first part, the idea of civilization rests on the imagined separation between man and nature. Since this conceptual barrier is dissolved in the post-civilized, they will naturally have an entirely new attitude towards nature and their place in it. The way I conceive of this, their attitudes will involve a reverence towards the cosmos, a respect for its ecologies, and a general sense of wonder towards life, the universe and everything. This attitude is scientific, without mistaking conquest for understanding. This attitude is magical, without mistaking ignorance for mystery. In short, this attitude is neo-natural, and it’s shared between a creator and their post-civilized characters. If employed well, this idea is going to change some minds.
Before I move on, I would like to offer a final warning on incorporating elements of magic into your anapnoic fiction. If one portrays the pre-anapnoic world as magical and mysterious, you also invite an impression of uncertainty and therefore possible danger about the tools of civilization. The logical end-point of that is primitivism, which I don’t need to emphasize is extremely problematic. Once again, the destructive tendencies of civilization are not due to the tools themselves. Of course certain tools incentivize certain nasty attitudes, like the ease that guns grant to the process of killing, but other tools can be the means of liberation. Just think of the many people who depend upon certain technologies for their very existence. What’s more, other technologies are entirely at odds with the interests of civilization, since they allow us to subvert it. To make a long story short, civilization deserves to be depicted as unsettling and unnatural, but technology doesn’t.
And while I’m squashing problematic implications: don’t make it seem like the fall of civilization is worth the suffering it produces. Post-civilization is certainly a social improvement, but if its rise came at a cost, that should be lamented. While the apocalypse is magical, don’t let that turn you into an accelerationist.
Six: timeless aesthetics
Though genres are defined by tropes and themes, the way they embed themselves in our popular fiction usually goes paired with the development of an aesthetic. The coherence of a genre’s ‘look’ tends to depend on its ‘narrative width’: the more specific and/or niche a genre operates, the stronger its associated aesthetic. With some subgenres, such as steampunk or vaporwave, I would argue that the aesthetic is the dominant feature, narrative themes falling to the wayside as the form is recuperated. Since anapnoic fiction has strong narrative themes, and operates in a specific political environment, one would expect a well-defined aesthetic to develop in no time. While I already see hints of a unified style among its precursors, I would like to hold off from codifying the anapnoic aesthetic. The reasons for this are twofold. One, it could restrict the genre’s look before it had a time to grow organically, and two, overemphasizing the aesthetic could leave it wide open for recuperation. Instead, I would like to offer several directions that anapnoic fiction could go in aesthetically, leaving the specifics to the actual future creators. However, before I lay out these areas of aesthetic interest, I want to discuss the golden rule of anapnoic depiction.
To put it simply, the golden rule of anapnoic depiction is that anapnoic societies should appear as natural as possible within their setting. It should be clear how the anapnoic society operates, why it eschews the more familiar methods of civilization, and how its members adapt to nature without dominating it. The goal here is to make the post-civilized appear more natural than the civilized. You see, the ideology of civilization has been embedded deep within our popular culture, attempting to exempt itself from our imagination. After all, we suspend our disbelief in countless ways when enjoying popular fiction, imagining fantastical creatures or dazzling urban landscapes, yet the ruling ideas of state and capital are rarely affected. We are meant to assume that these social powers are and always will be operating in the manner we’re familiar with, when that doesn’t even hold true within the relatively short span of human history. If something as fraudulently ‘natural’ as the modern nation-state can present itself as inevitable, anapnoic authors should have no problem in presenting their worlds as perfectly conceivable. As people gain awareness of our pre-civilized existence and the argument against civilization, we may in time find the post-civilized future more natural than anything existing at present.
Now that I’ve explained the prime directive in depicting anapnoic worlds, I can begin to present some general advice on anapnoic aesthetics. My first tip is rather obvious: since anapnoic fiction takes thematic cues from indigenous and pre-civilized societies, their aesthetics can be used for inspiration. The key thing here is to not appropriate their culture wholesale, as that would be both overly derivative and generally insensitive. Instead, look into the way that their culture and environment inform their aesthetics. Worldbuilding operates from the bottom up, so use the material reality you’ve created for yourself to craft a ‘natural’ society. If Gods, magic or other supernatural elements exist within your setting, these are simply one more part of nature, so involve them in shaping the anapnoic world.
Of course, your setting does not need to depend wholly on indigenous and pre-civilized sources. Since almost all anapnoic fiction contains a Remnant of civilization, you can use past or present societies to form the aesthetic basis upon which the post-civilized will be founded. For example, you could make use of the Victorian Era as a setting in order to create the anapnoic equivalent of steampunk. You could even move beyond history altogether, and create anapnoic varieties of high fantasy, space opera or cosmic horror. Whatever your basis however, the anapnoic principles of Revival, Return and Remnant all imply the existence of civilizational decline. Any anapnoic setting should therefore involve the inherent crisis and subsequent fall of civilization. Since it is the current crisis of climate change and late capitalism that has awoken the anapnoic genre to begin with, I consider the ‘default’ Remnant of an anapnoic setting to be a modern-day or near-future society. The basic aesthetics of the pre-anapnoic world can thus be sought quite close to home.
As I said at the start though, there is no definitive aesthetic to anapnoic fiction, even in a ‘default’ setting. But how can that be? Since the anapnoic aesthetic derives for a large part from its Remnant, one would expect a present-to-near-future scenario to look quite conventional and invariable. However, such would only be the case if you neglect an important aesthetic factor: the temporal relationship between civilization and post-civilization. Because there is no strict precept about the timespan between the old and the new world, or even about the need of a clean break altogether, the anapnoic creator is free to play around with this. The decline of the pre-anapnoic may occur simultaneously with the rise of the anapnoic, where post-civilized peoples are actively agitating against the ailing Remnants of civilization. The transition to post-civilization may also be a thing of the far past, presenting a world where no obvious Remnant is present, or at least nothing that obviously resembles the tools of civilization. Or, to quote the creators of Caves of Qud, a setting’s past could be a ‘layercake of fallen civilizations’, the transition proceeding slowly as civilization erodes with each cycle of rise and fall. Given such interplay of social forces, whichever temporal relation you pick should have a big effect aesthetically. And with all the variables I mentioned in play, from the anapnoic society to its civilized predecessors to the relation between them, there should be a lot of space to innovate aesthetically. I can’t wait to see what the anapnoic creators of the future come up with.
Seven: genre troubles
With its specific precepts, it’s quite clear to me that anapnoic fiction can best be considered a new genre. Nevertheless, with many new genres there is still the tendency to root it in what came before, particularly in terms of terminology. In the case of a sufficiently radical and left-oriented genre as this, the most obvious link would be to the -punk suffix, a meta-designation for cyberpunk, steampunk, and related varieties. These are genres with a similar disdain for authority, focus on subaltern perspectives, and faithfulness to certain technics and aesthetics. Nevertheless, these genres are also generally set in urban environments, and the presence of advanced technology is emphasized rather than obfuscated. As such, I have consciously divorced the anapnoic from this movement. Many of the -punk attitudes carry over quite elegantly, and inspiration may be shared between the two, so the separation is far from absolute. But a separation it certainly is.
While working on the final stages of this essay series, a second question popped up with regards to genre: why don’t I simply call this post-civilized fiction? A valid question indeed. My initial response would be that I am quite proud of my neologism, and that replacing it entirely would be a lot of work. But that’s a practical matter, and I want to justify it in terms of its content. In that case, it seems to me that post-civilized fiction is something broader than the specifically anapnoic. To qualify as the former, all one needs to do is depict a post-civilized society: set your story in the future, portray some sort of ecological utopia, and it’s technically count as a piece of post-civilized fiction. Anapnoic fiction is different, because it more thoroughly involves the past and present state of humanity to create the future. Firstly, it is the pre-civilized past that gives us inspiration and hope. While that element is already implicit in post-civilizational theory, anapnoic works lean into it a little more. Secondly, it is the dire present that provides the means of decline and eventual Remnant. Anapnoic fiction tries to be more than utopian, and so a backstory of civilizational crisis and misery is almost unavoidable. All these essential tropes can be filed under Revival, Return or Remnant, which is why I came up with them in the first place. Therefore, to qualify as properly anapnoic you need all three elements, and a work that neglects one of these entirely should filed under that more general category of ‘post-civilized fiction’.
Lastly, I have also noticed that anapnoic fiction itself seems to fall apart into two subcategories. Inspired by a similar division that exists within the fantasy genre, we can speak of ‘low’ and ‘high’ anapnoic fiction. The difference between them is determined by the role of technology within the post-civilized setting. Roughly speaking, low-anapnoic settings appear more technologically simple, with societies consisting of smaller and less complex political entities in what is probably a more hostile or infertile environment. As for high-anapnoic settings, they go all out on the aspect of Revival, certainly in terms of aesthetics and technology. Here are found bountiful, sustainable societies, who are still self-reflective about the follies of civilization. They may also appear more speculative generally, as they tend to take place so far past the original era of decline that anything familiar has long since passed into history. This is not necessarily so however; a far-future low-anapnoic setting may very well seem more fantastical than a more near-future high-anapnoic one. Of course, many of these tendencies are themselves rather speculative as long as anapnoic fiction has not established itself fully. Still, I believe this subdivision is a likely direction for more deliberate anapnoic works to head towards, as the sophistication of a post-civilized society can vary wildly within this genre. Once again, I am eager to see how these issues will work out.
Eight: take it wherever you need it to go
In the preceding paragraphs, I have presented you with a lot of precepts, regulation, and a lot of stern words. My final message on anapnoic fiction is therefore to enjoy yourself in creating it. Whatever inspiration you have gained from this series of essays, treasure it, and be willing to discard any advice that didn’t gel with you personally. The point here was to present my idea for a new genre, one that I recognized in existent fiction but also made up as I went along. If I’ve failed to see some important elements of my own genre, especially some elements that prove to be problematic, be sure to bother me about it incessantly. If any of you kind readers would be willing to create something within this genre, or even if you would simply start using it in your vocabulary, I would be overjoyed. One always hopes to have hit upon something, anything, when writing so much on so little. In any case, I had a great time writing this, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. May it inspire you.
The Ambassador from Below arrived by our own emissary’s shuttle. A good thing it had been automated, for she seemed unnerved by its technics and rather incapable of piloting it herself. We imagined that she had not had much of an opportunity to learn our ways from down on the earth, and certainly the shift in gravity levels was not something that she could have gotten used to beforehand. Nevertheless, we welcomed her into our community openly, and she was adopted into a diplomatic family that could teach her better the ways of our people. Her etiquette proved impeccable, and her skills in matters of agriculture and simple crafts was certainly that of a natural. It was good to know that our Lower comrades still saw the use of simple technics, for we believed they only enhanced our connection to the land if employed properly. Without them, she may very well have been shunned as a cruel primitivist. Instead, we were happy to incorporate her into our communal mind, even if we still felt severed from the one we had sent Below. But then this process of ambassadorship was itself the symbol of an even greater connection: the one between Above and Below.