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Speculative Fiction, Catastrophe, and the Devolutionary Imagination in Postwar Britain

Jaccard, Erik. Speculative Fiction, Catastrophe, and the Devolutionary Imagination in Postwar Britain. 2017. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

The reemergence of catastrophe as a dominant theme and figure in British speculative fiction after the Second World War coincides with a devolutionary turn in British politics and culture. In a moment when the British Empire is collapsing and the imperial state is reconfiguring around social democracy and managerial state culture, British speculative fiction utilizes catastrophe in order to explore the complex and often ambivalent narrative space in which interrogations of imperial Anglo-British history and culture open onto articulations of possible post-British futures. This dissertation explores how three sets of British sf catastrophe texts model this devolutionary imagination from historically situated English, Scottish, and Black British perspectives. Methodologically, it attempts to bridge a critical gap between devolutionary British literature and criticism and speculative and science fiction literature and criticism. I argue that juxtaposing the two modes illuminates overlap between the dimensions of British speculative narrative and devolutionary culture, where the former becomes the terrain on which the latter is enacted. I advance this claim first through a series of critiques specific to English, Scottish, and Afrofuturist genre history and literary criticism. The dissertation then explores the devolutionary imagination as rendered in the novels of the English catastrophe novelist John Wyndham, whose respective catastrophes of collapse and invasion index both a challenge to, and a reaffirmation of, imperial English culture in the 1950s. I trace the development of a Scottish postcolonial personalism in the 1980s fictions of Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks, whose novels engage with and overturn the ideological assumptions of English catastrophe fiction. I conclude with an analysis of the affective catastrophism embedded in the pulp and genre sf fictions of the British black diaspora in the 1990s writing of Two Fingers and James T. Kirk and China Miéville.

This dissertation is a co-winner of the 2016-2017 Heilman Dissertation Prize offered by the UW Department of English.

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