Archive for February, 2011

February 10, 2011

Peter Y. Paik, From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe

My review of Peter Y. Paik’s From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe appeared in last week’s sunday guardian, here. This one was difficult to write: I’m not sure reviewing an academic book for a mainstream audience even makes sense. I enjoyed reading Paik’s book, though more for occasional insights than for any sustained argument.

The point I’ve made about writing criticism of Moore is one I’d love to go into in more detail if anyone feels like discussing it. I attempted a Lost Girls paper a couple of years ago and found myself doing exactly the same thing that I accuse Paik of here.


The word “utopia” refers to a perfect society, governed by an ideal socio-legal system. Yet the term, coined by Thomas More in 1516, literally means “no place”. Over the centuries various works of literature have considered what utopia would look like; Plato’s Republic is an early example. The science fiction genre has often explored the dystopia, utopia’s opposite, in which everything has gone horribly wrong and “perfect society” means “totalitarian government”. What is perhaps less discussed is the massive, catastrophic change that would be required to bring about such a state of affairs.

In From Utopia to Apocalypse Paik analyses a selection of science fictional texts in the light of the insights they provide into revolutionary politics. He stresses upon the totalitarian impulse at the heart of revolutionary politics; what the book’s blurb describes as the “fantasy of putting annihilating omnipotence to beneficial effect”. Among the works he examines are Alan Moore’s comic Watchmen, Hayao Miyizaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind and three films: Jang Joon-Hwan’s Save the Green Planet, the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy of movies and James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, adapted from the work of the same name by Alan Moore. The focus on comics especially is an unusual and not unwelcome choice – the texts examined here are definitely science fiction, but none of them are the novels or short stories traditional to the genre. Equally welcome is the decision to explore cultural products from Asia as well as the UK and the USA.

At all points the book stands in danger of turning into the Alan Moore show. In addition to the chapter-and-a-half dedicated to Moore’s work (in a book that contains only four chapters this feels unbalanced), the introduction is dominated by a discussion of his Miracleman. This isn’t necessarily a flaw – these sections are smart and engaging – but it does make the work as a whole seem a little unbalanced. The Moore chapters are good, but they’re not particularly relevant; partly because Moore has been studied extensively before, but also because his fiction is so self-consciously commenting on itself that it’s easy for a critic to slip into merely explaining what the text is already doing.

Paik’s strongest chapters are the ones dealing with slightly less mainstream texts. He makes an insightful study of Save the Green Planet, a Korean movie that chronicles the interactions between a violently angry man and a businessman whom he believes to be an alien of a race that secretly controls humanity. But the book’s biggest strength by some distance is its in-depth study of Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. The exploration of the choices of a character who is portrayed as simultaneously saint-like and destructive (Nausicaä effectively chooses to sacrifice the entire human race to a higher cause) is nuanced and fascinating. Coming after this a final chapter on The Matrix and V for Vendetta feels like a bit of a let-down. The comparison of the politics of the latter film to those of the original comic is entertaining but hardly new.

It’s hard to decide who the intended audience for this book might be. Some sections might be rather intimidatingly scholarly for a casual reader who is not well versed in political theory. On the other hand, Paik spends a part of his introduction painstakingly explaining the connections between popular cultural products and the societies that create them; to the hypothetical academic reader this is rather like reinventing the wheel. It’s also interesting to note that Paik engages comparatively little with the major science fiction critics (barring a mention of Carl Freedman and a few references to Jameson; Zizek and Badiou, by contrast pop up on every other page). On the whole this is a good thing. I’m certainly in favour of more critical angles being brought to science-fiction criticism, and certainly wouldn’t advocate that critics all keep reading and referring to the same people ad infinitum; on the other hand, to contribute to a conversation you need to be a participant in it.

One thing that From Utopia to Apocalypse does seem to lack is a final chapter. A book like this one is never going to lend itself to a neat conclusion but it seems to end more abruptly than one would like. Despite these flaws, however, Paik’s book is engaging, often rigorous and very well worth reading.