Peter Y. Paik


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

Cover Interview of March 22, 2010


What is the value of studying hypothetical transformations and imaginary upheavals overtaking fictitious individuals and societies?  The speculative context enables the mechanisms that measure and sanction political violence to become properly visible.

The interpretation of serious literary works is more liable to arouse the reader’s moralistic impulses, whereby political violence is likely to be grasped as inexplicable acts of inhuman evil.  But when one encounters fictional atrocities, when the victims belong to imaginary societies or to alternate realities, the perspective of the perpetrator, as well as that of the beneficiaries of his or her violence, assume an uncomfortably human proximity to the standpoint of the reader.  This is not to relativize actual atrocities or to excuse inhuman acts, but rather to seek a deeper understanding of the persistence of violence in human history, especially in an age that distinguishes itself from the past by its unequivocal condemnation of cruelty and by its embrace of humanitarian values.

Such understanding can only come about by engaging in a speculative activity that has been condemned as imperialist and rendered taboo under the ascendancy of post-structuralist deconstruction: the work of imaginatively inhabiting a certain perspective and seeing the world according to its terms.

The ability to inhabit another perspective is crucial to grasping the mechanisms of political change, for what is being transformed is a specific outlook.  The science fiction narratives I study are especially productive of this kind of reflection, as they show how an idea or action plays out within a concrete temporal sequence.  We are taken from one distinct point to another, as well as shown the consequences of the action that unfold.  As such, these texts evoke the experience of unwilled change that ensures the passing of one epoch into something new and different.

The pressure of tragic necessity is felt in the dangers that confront us in the present: the scarcity of vital resources, catastrophic climate change, and the inertia that afflicts our political and economic systems.  The contemporary critique of capitalist society by contrast depends on the health of the economic and political status quo: an oppressive authority that is “strong” is far easier to condemn than one that is weak and caught in the process of dissolution.  By contrast, tragedy, as the study of making decisions and suffering consequences, enables us to take the measure of what is intractable and what is transformative.

© 2010 Peter Y. Paik