In Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology, Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer argues that speculative fiction offers a rich vein to theorise catastrophe and crisis in ways that are not paralysing or demoralising, drawing on the work of those such as Octavia E. Butler and Kurt Vonnegut. This book admirably succeeds in showing its source material to offer a repository of potential paths forward through multifarious possible futures, writes Frankie Hines.
Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology. Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer. University of Minnesota Press. 2019.
How can we theorise catastrophe and crisis in ways that are not paralysing or demoralising? Is it still possible to chart a path out of the Anthropocene and its seemingly irresolvable contradictions, or is it too late? If the possibility remains, what resources can we marshal to aid us in this project? In Theory for the World to Come, Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer argues that speculative fiction—comprising works across a number of genres that envision multifarious possible futures—contains a rich vein of inquiry into these questions. For Wolf-Meyer, speculative fiction is a kind of social theory that is capable of weaving around the foibles and contradictions that haunt most theory. Both traditions, he argues, ‘ask us as audiences to imagine the rules that undergird a society and its human and more-than-human relationships’ (5). Speculative fiction is not just a utopian project of envisioning ideal societies, however: it is also concerned with the more prosaic and tentative, but no less necessary task of finding ‘ways to live through the apocalypse’ (15).
Through readings of novels by Octavia E. Butler, Stephen Graham Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and John Wyndham, films including Blue Collar (1978) and RoboCop (1987) and works by the geologist Dougal Dixon and the journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, Wolf-Meyer seeks out theories ‘that will help to build a sustainable, equitable world after collapse’, or that ‘will change the possible futures that have come to grip our imaginations’ (18). These readings are oriented by a framework comprising three terms: extrapolation; intensification; and mutation. Works of social theory, including works of speculative fiction, tend to evince one or other of these ways of imagining the future. Extrapolation refers to approaches which imagine the future functioning of a social institution otherwise unchanged: how capitalism will look in a few decades, or what form the family might take. Intensification involves imagining an increase in a phenomenon’s potency or pervasiveness: what would happen if the logic of the market comes to subsume an even greater segment of social life, or if extreme weather becomes yet more extreme. Mutation occurs when radical, unpredictable transformations of existing phenomena are envisioned: how societies might respond if the family was replaced by some wholly new set of arrangements, or if climate trends reversed themselves and a new Ice Age suddenly began.
Situated alongside Wolf-Meyer’s theoretical observations are autobiographical chapters dealing with his experiences of living in Michigan, California and New York. Lines of connection are drawn between these passages and the readings that comprise the bulk of the book: Wolf-Meyer’s reflections on growing up in the Detroit suburbs link up with representations of that city in RoboCop and Blue Collar, his account of California as a state constantly on the verge of one catastrophe or another is placed in dialogue with Butler’s fiction and his discussion of deindustrialisation and environmental contamination in Binghamton, New York, draws on The Twilight Zone and the horror film C.H.U.D. (1984). The inclusion of these substantial autobiographical passages (they might be better termed autoethnographic or autotheoretical) is perhaps a curious decision, yet these chapters never fail to provide insight, and their relevance to the book’s broad themes—crisis, catastrophe and responses to these—is indisputable.
That fiction can be mined for theoretical insights is not a wholly new argument, yet Wolf-Meyer’s conceit succeeds for two reasons in particular. First, it is grounded in an admirably radical critique of the academy: that is to say, of the primary site in which social theory is produced today. The theoretical modes and approaches that have emerged and become dominant since the 1950s have, in Wolf-Meyer’s view, been tainted by their origins in a context marked by a ‘sense of comfort, a lack of hardship, an acceptance of global, national, and local power relations, [and] an acceptance of a certain kind of inevitability inspired by a general level of prosperity’ (9). Social theory, he contends, has been defanged by the complacency of European and North American societies over the last several decades, and has been too willing to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. Importantly, Wolf-Meyer does not exempt himself from this critique, nor does he insulate the imagined reader: both are products of an academic milieu that values above all work that ‘reinforce[s] already-existing modes of knowledge production and theoretical models’ (12).
Second, the argument of Theory for the World to Come succeeds insofar as it is designed specifically as an intervention into the complexities and bewilderments of the current moment. The introductory chapter gives an outline of what we know about the next few decades, and what we don’t know, that is both frightening and accurate: we can expect rising sea levels, mass extinctions and food shortages as a bare minimum, but might just as easily also see epidemics, economic recessions and/or natural disasters, all exacerbating and exacerbated by each other (3). This is proof of what Wolf-Meyer calls Wyndham’s rule: ‘The apocalypse is never singular; it is always multiple. In its multiplicity, the apocalypse is unimaginable’ (4). This attentiveness to the problematics of the present and near future might mean that the book will lose some of its punch in the coming years, but clearly Wolf-Meyer believes—and I would concur—that this is a price well worth paying.
Theory for the World to Come is a slender volume, clocking in at 100 pages exactly, as part of the University of Minnesota Press’s Forerunners: Ideas First series, which prioritises exploratory theoretical interventions, the result of thought-in-process rather than finished products. As such, to point out topics that go unaddressed and lines of inquiry that remain unresolved would be to miss the point somewhat. Nonetheless, it is interesting that Theory for the World to Come lacks a theory of what (speculative) fiction is. Social theory and speculative fiction have in common the quality of being speculative, but the latter is also defined, surely, by its fictionality. In light of recent theorising around the nature of fiction and its relation to fact (see, for example, David Shields’s ever-more-relevant Reality Hunger ), Wolf-Meyer’s reluctance to question the category jars somewhat. ‘Speculative fiction’ encompasses, for Wolf-Meyer, films, novels and at least one overtly non-fiction book; high- and low-brow texts; sci-fi and social realism alike; and the book could benefit from asking what draws these together under this rubric.
On the book’s final page, Wolf-Meyer observes that social theory and speculative fiction are ‘not just a game of “what if?” but a challenge to complacency and resignation’ (100). Rather than merely diagnosing problems, both these modes of thinking pose ‘necessarily unsettling’ questions about alternative worlds and how to bring them into being (100). This is also the modus operandi of Theory for the World to Come, which treats its source material as a repository of possible paths forward, and of tools to chart them. Wolf-Meyer succeeds at this task in admirable fashion, and in doing so provides a study that is likely to be of significant interest to students and scholars working in the cultural and literary disciplines, those whose inclinations are theoretical and especially those working at the intersections of these areas.
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Image Credit: Joshua Trees, Mojave Desert (Rennett Stowe CC BY 2.0).