Peter Y. Paik


On his book From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe

Cover Interview of March 21, 2010

In a nutshell

From Utopia to Apocalypse is a study of political upheaval and revolutionary change, as they are portrayed in works of speculative and science fiction.  It is my contention that science fiction and speculative narratives, by virtue of their fantastic character, enable us to imagine in vivid terms the experience of sweeping political change and social transformation.  The narratives I discuss in this book—the superhero comics of Alan Moore, the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, the cinema of Jang Joon-Hwan, and the manga of Hayao Miyazaki—depict, with unblinking candor and rigorous equanimity, the violence committed in the name of founding a new order or destroying an unjust one.  As such, they compel us to come to grips with the unrelenting compulsions and uncontrollable forces that are unleashed in the process whereby one kind of order gives way to another.

For example, in Miracleman, a revisionist superhero comic by Alan Moore, the superhuman beings tire of serving an unsatisfactory status quo and decide to take over the globe.  They force the leaders of the world into retirement, eliminate poverty, destroy all nuclear weapons, and heal the environment from the ravages of industrial pollution.  But these acts of humanitarian compassion soon reveal a darker side: the superheroes essentially become dictators who declare themselves to be gods, while any dissent against their rule becomes reduced to inconsequential spectacle.

Though it has little in common with classical tragedy, Miracleman contains an indelibly tragic dimension, for it lays out in vivid terms the harsh price entailed for achieving what most would consider a glorious outcome.  The other narratives I look at contain similarly cruel dilemmas and wrenching twists: mass murders that trigger world peace and thus remain unpunished, the destruction of annihilating weapons that has the consequence of eliminating the technologies for creating abundance and guaranteeing human survival in an increasingly toxic planet, a program to rescue humans from their violence that requires the horrific suffering of a small number of innocent individuals.  The protagonists in these works find themselves trapped in tragic conflicts, but these predicaments, which often exact a terrible price, turn out to be the necessary precondition for passing into a wholly new or entirely different state of affairs.