By Ruby Hamilton
Why do we continue to depend on 20th century language of dystopia today?
After the Apocalypse, Srećko Horvat, (2021), Polity Press
Terminal Boredom, Izumi Suzuki, (2021), Verso Books
‘The future is going to be boring’. So said J.G. Ballard, science fiction’s greatest exponent of the uneventful apocalypse, during a 1995 interview. For him, the dazzling dreams of techno-futurism, its ray guns and flying cars, were eclipsed by the more likely reality of a world where ‘everything has happened’ and ‘nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again.’ From the vantage point of a not-exactly-‘boring’ 2021, what might have been a more accurate assessment is that our visions of the future would be boring. At least, this is the perspective advanced by Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat in his book After the Apocalypse, in which he worries that our capacity for future-gazing has slowed down. The apocalypse is already here, he says, so why aren’t we imagining what comes next?
From reboots of Westworld and Mad Max to the all-pervading symbology of The Handmaid’s Tale, our vocabulary for talking about the future is ironically stuck in the past. This is not to say that we are not living in the dystopia we always feared (of course we are!), but that there is a dripping glibness to coolly diagnostic platitudes such as ‘Orwellian’ or ‘it’s like something from Blade Runner’. They are now lazy shorthands — caveman grunts of ‘surveillance, bad…’, ‘technology, bad…’ — that have accrued a certain cultural currency through their popular use, but often end up oversimplifying and homogenising what they seek to diagnose; like autofill responses, as opposed to analysis. While the appeal of these references is rooted in their identification of the acute shortcomings of late-twentieth century capitalism, there is something strange about their continued cultural dominance: for if the function of science fiction is ‘to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of the present’, as Fredric Jameson has it, why are we so attached to seeing today through the lens of 20th-century dystopia? It is as if, by anachronistic sleight of hand, we have confused our own retrofuturism for an accurate prognosis of the present.
In reading Terminal Boredom, a collection of short stories by the cult Japanese science fiction writer Izumi Suzuki (originally written in the 1970s and 1980s, but only recently published in their first English-language translation), the question of why we find ourselves returning to the dystopian imaginings of the late 20th century seems particularly pertinent. Is the attractiveness of this cultural zeitgeist attributable to a certain (misplaced) nostalgia for when our present dystopia was seemingly just the bad dream of a better yesterday? Or perhaps there is even a perverse comfort in deciding that the dystopia has arrived on time, looking exactly as expected, terra cognita. For if we consign ourselves to a narrative of inevitable causality, as if this was a prophecy or fable, cryptogram or writing on the wall, are we not just the unfortunate heirs of a future not of our own making? This idea of passive inheritance is particularly pernicious because it eviscerates all thinking about any alternative futures. The cultural theorist Mark Fisher describes a myth promulgated by neoliberal capitalism that the future will be ‘more of the same — but on higher resolution screens with faster connections’. Is there not something similar happening here?
In the case of Terminal Boredom, it is hard to parse what about these 40-year-old stories feels ‘modern’ and ‘relevant’. One cannot help but think that the matriarchal utopia of the opening story, ‘Women and Women’, is all a bit second-wave, and the proto-cyberpunk premise of the second story, ‘You May Dream’, reducible to a certain post-war techno-futurist imaginary. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the general datedness of her concepts is not overly important. Undoubtedly, it helps that the collective of translators — six, as opposed to one — have all opted for sleek, contemporary prose, and that specific temporal indicators within the stories are few and far between. Suzuki’s writing is permeated by a tonal ambivalence, which can be chalked up to a wider normalisation, or naturalisation, of dystopian thinking.
It is exactly this normalisation of the apocalypse that troubles Horvat in After the Apocalypse. As he has it: ‘“Normalization” is not merely the process of humans [adapting] to a situation after the disaster; it is much more an ideological process through which the very abnormality of a given situation is being transformed into something that is now described as the “new normal”’. In a similar vein, although each of Suzuki’s stories takes place in a different science fiction future, rarely does her writing itself indicate this genre. Instead, it reads like kitchen sink realism: the thrums and drones of technofascism are just background noise. In most of the stories, the world is recognisably an extrapolation of our own (and specifically, of Suzuki’s home country), but the details of how they came to be this way are fuzzy; or, as one character explains, ‘[t]ime passes, the planet has its many histories, and things decline. That’s all there is to it.’ Even in the collection’s most fantastical story, ‘Forgotten’, a searing critique of imperialism Trojan-horsing as a domestic space opera, ‘there is no intergalactic war, just a minor skirmish’. In every permutation, it is the same: the never-ending damp squib apocalypse.
There is a certain cross-continental, cross-generational affinity, then, between the dystopian realism of Suzuki’s writing and Ballard’s apocalyptic boredom. His own collection, Terminal Beach (1964), set against the backdrop of an old nuclear testing ground, is afflicted by the same sense of inertial temporality that permeates Terminal Boredom. In both cases, ‘terminal’ seems to describe a particular cultural condition, most famously diagnosed by (ex)neoconservative Francis Fukuyama as ‘the End of History’: the powerful myth that capitalism — no matter what prefix we dress it up in, be it post-Fordist, late-stage, neoliberal, disaster, etc. — is here to stay. As the narrator of Suzuki’s story ‘You May Dream’ proclaims, with typically ‘fatalistic resignation’, ‘before me, the world stretches out flat, smooth and featureless’. In another story, where ‘the past and future have vanished and countless nows continue infinitely’, the euphoric hit of infinite possibility — ‘I am now completely free and can go to any now I choose’ — soon fades into the exhaustion circumscribed by finality. And yet, despite this shared sense that the future was withering away in front of them, atrophying into the Fukuyam-ist world order of global liberal democracy, the strain of disaffection in Suzuki’s work is notably different to that recorded by Ballard. Where Ballard was always partly absorbed in England’s suburban bourgeoisie, and thus concerned with the pathological banality of his own class, Suzuki’s punkish sensibilities were more obviously, well, punk.
Punk is meant here in the sense of a ‘No Future’ ethos, expressed most fervently by young people who found themselves looking at an increasingly bleak tomorrow. If there is one defining flaw with this new edition of Suzuki’s work, it is the lack of prefatory material — which is a shame, considering her biography sets the scene for her eventual ennui. Born in Allied-occupied Japan in 1949, Suzuki came of age in the crucible of the radical Japanese New Wave. In the 1960s, she worked in a factory before becoming a ‘pink film’ (erotica) actress and performer in an underground theatre troupe; in 1973, she married experimental saxophonist Kaoru Abe — references to this ‘clamorous modern jazz’ appear throughout Terminal Boredom — and it was only in the decade that followed that she turned to science fiction, before taking her own life in 1986. The kind of art that Suzuki surrounded herself with was both produced by and about her generation of disaffected youth. Watch Shūji Terayama’s 1971 Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets, in which Suzuki briefly appears, and you’ll see what I mean: it is a violent, anarchic 137 minutes, coloured in acid punks and greens, with the star-spangled banner aflame. One of Suzuki’s characters drolly narrating ‘I devote myself to the acme of emptiness’ would be just as at home in this riotous contemporary film as in her proto-cyberpunk dystopia. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Italian philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi dates ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ — that is, of a certain perception of the future, no longer inflected by earlier utopianism — to 1977, amidst punkish cries of ‘No Future’, or that the earliest story in Terminal Boredom appeared in print that same year.
More often than not, however, it is the past, not the future, that is a hazy concept in Suzuki’s fiction. In the opening pages of ‘Women and Women’, a story set within an eco-utopian future from which men have been banished, there is clearly some scepticism regarding the old world’s industrial ‘hymns of progress’. As one character asks, how can this agrarian idyll be ‘backwards’ when ‘looking at the world through the lens of progress is how the rivers and oceans came to be polluted?’ In other stories, however, the inverted arcadianism of nostalgia makes a utopia of the past. In ‘That Old Seaside Club’, where rehabilitation takes the form of a virtual simulation for restaging younger years, ‘there’s something in the air that gets you all wistful and nostalgic’, while in ‘Forgotten’, a character’s current distress is ironically offset by the prattling radio in the background: ‘So, this is sixties week! We’ve been flooded with so many great listener requests. I want to play them all. Next up is “Satisfaction”. You all heard this one by any chance?’ There is a danger in affirming the cliché of 1960s utopianism, but it is also undeniably tempting to wistfully invent a time when the future was still on the table.
Suzuki’s stories are at their best when they realise the perversity of their own cynical, deflationary perspective. In the title story, she registers the prevailing post-apocalyptic structure of feeling as ‘just passive, ambiguous contentment’. The sensory overload of unfettered digital capitalism, coupled with rising unemployment and widespread political disaffection, has resulted in a numb and habituated mode of being that is only roused by a vicious kind of distraction. It is an obvious point, but her Ballardian eye for the pathologies of hyper-banality retain their shock value. For amidst her scathing wit and cynicism, Suzuki is perceptive enough to understand the catch of this condition is that it is at once totally unnatural and perversely logical: for if boredom demands violent stimulation, and the resultant overcharge demands narcotisation, how do you get out of a present with a huge ‘No Exit’ sign flashing above it?
The worst thing that a collection entitled Terminal Boredom could do, however, is get so wrapped up in its own complacency and fatalism that it forgets to entertain. Thankfully, Suzuki’s highly readable, almost pulpy style makes it easy to not get weighed down with the complexity of what she is doing. In this sense, she mobilises what Jameson calls ‘strategies of indirection’: the dressing up of science fiction — adorned with all the accoutrements of absurdist, campy detail — distracts us from ‘our own defence mechanisms’ against ‘unmediated, unfiltered experience’. The collection is scattered with surrealistic features, from a passive-aggressive talking chair to a not-quite-human family who try, with the stilted grammar of an early American sitcom, to invent their own suburbia. In particular, she has a knack for a tongue-in-cheek soundtrack: Sun Ra’s Heliocentric plays alongside burgeoning interplanetary tensions in ‘Forgotten’, while the decidedly downbeat ‘You May Dream’ takes its name from an upbeat song by Japanese rock group Sheena & the Rokkets. In this latter story, there is a delightful spikiness to the narrator’s commentary, reminding us that even in a world where cryosleep is the norm, you can’t escape conversations with people you can’t stand: ‘We’ve been friends for years, but not once has she ever surprised me. I don’t care who it is, everybody’s got to have a side to them that takes you by surprise, typically something childish: an unexpected purity, naiveté, coldness…’ But the outlook is not total cynicism, bereft of all authentic feeling: ‘You May Dream’, like almost every story in this collection, is a study in the self-conscious failings of its own dejection, leavened by a reasonable gallows humour.
From the perspective of 40 years in the future, though, I cannot help but wonder if there is something almost quaint about Suzuki’s punkish irreverence and pitch-black humour. It often seems that her kind of disaffected boredom, and the radical punkish spirit underpinning it, has given way to what Horvat calls a burgeoning sense of melancholia. For Horvat, ‘the COVID-19 Apocalypse was an X-ray machine that revealed everything that was rotten both with global capitalism and with our governments, both with the so-called “free market” and with the “nation-state”’. Alongside the pandemic, the ongoing climate emergency has produced its own post-apocalyptic feeling of ‘solastalgia’ (the emotional distress caused by environmental change). One of our current challenges, he writes, is to learn how to live with this everyday melancholy without letting it ‘fade out — or rather, be repressed — with the “new normal”’.
I thought about Horvat’s book while reading Terminal Boredom for a number of reasons. For a start, the news articles he cites could easily feature as small absurdist asides in their very own science fiction anthology: a ‘funeral march’ for a glacier; a holidaying couple ordering wine by drone during a pandemic; a nuclear ‘Exclusion Zone’ selling $19 canisters of air with ‘the unforgettable smell of abandoned structures of the Soviet Union’. He is cautious, however, of exactly this assumption — of ‘the danger of aestheticising and enjoying disaster’. For him, the ongoing apocalypse is ‘a semiotic machine’ that naturalises and commodifies recent events in order to repress the resultant melancholia. Indeed, is it really so surprising that capitalism, with its pathology of extraction, expansion, and exploitation, might also then extract semiotic value from its own apocalyptic failings? When it gets to the point that face masks are being described in The Guardian as having ‘a soft and utilitarian aesthetic — like something on the Starship Enterprise’, you have to wonder if this is the aesthetic counterpart to Naomi Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’: marketing the world as a dystopia is okay, as long as it pays.
After the Apocalypse is a thrilling but ultimately exhausting read. In some ways, it suffers from the same condition that plagues the characters of Terminal Boredom: thinking about the future is so overwhelming, we might as well distract ourselves with something else — even if that distraction is to be found in the post-apocalyptic fiction section. Horvat’s point, however, could not be timelier. He’s right that we’ve lost our knack for productive futurism and that, as he argues again and again, ‘the Herculean task of today is not only to understand the Apocalypse but to imagine a future that comes after’. This is about as far as he gets, but it is a point that warrants our attention. Critically, this argument also relies upon him giving due attention to the imaginative potential of science fiction. He handles allusions to science fiction films and books (including Ballard’s Terminal Beach) with a complexity that buzzwords such as ‘Orwellian’ lack. Writing about Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), for example, he draws on its time travel set-up to talk about the ‘shift in temporality’ that is necessary for conceiving of what comes after the apocalypse. Perhaps this kind of analysis is a variation on the technique of détournement, which, according to Guy Debord, restores ‘subversive qualities to past critical judgments that have congealed into respectable truths’. For if the language of 20th-century dystopia is around to stay — and I think it is — at least it doesn’t have to result in 20th-century thinking.
If there is anything to take away from Terminal Boredom, then, it should be the vivacity of Suzuki’s punkish imaginary in the face of an increasingly unimaginable future. In particular, she has a flair for endings. Her very best have a strange ambivalence to them — a sly suggestion that perhaps things didn’t have to be this way, or that the track still might change. Just as Horvat reminds us that ‘another end of the world is still possible’, Suzuki implies that a different future is out there, so long as we don’t mind entering uncertain terrain, ‘leisurely, with no particular place to go, stewards of a new anxiety’.
RUBY HAMILTON is reading for an MSt in English at Hertford College. You may find her living in a shotgun shack…
Art by Isabella Lill