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The road to a post-apocalyptic degree!

by YPU ADmin on February 15, 2018, Comments. Tags: American Literature, English, Humanities, and PhD


My name’s Christina and I’m studying for a PhD in English and American literature at the University of Manchester. Although I’m an English student, I didn’t arrive here through studying the subject as an undergraduate. Whilst studying for A-Levels, I signed up for a creative writing course at a Leeds FE college – which only confirmed I had no talent for creative writing. I’m still very glad I took the class because I met another student who spoke about the Cultural Studies degree she was enrolled on at Leeds University.

Cultural Studies taught me the importance of analysing popular culture and that television, popular music and cinema, as well as literature, are valid subjects for sustained academic enquiry. It was at university that I first began to enjoy academic work. I went on to complete an MA in Cultural and Critical Theory in the same department. By 2015, my research interests took me to contemporary American literature and I began a PhD on the post-apocalypse (or ‘the end of the world’ through war and other horrors) in contemporary American fiction. Fiction about ‘end-times’ interests me because it confirms our worst nightmares. Representations of post-apocalyptic survival tell us about our hopes for the future – an idea which is particularly important following contemporary upheavals in American politics and the beginning of the ‘Trump era’.


In my thesis, currently titled, ‘The Post-Apocalypse in Contemporary North American after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis’, I look at how the post-apocalypse – as an imagined world existing after a destructive catastrophe or event – has become a popular literary landscape for mainstream American authors. The post-apocalypse categorises a growing number of novels, including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014). I argue that, through this post-apocalyptic trend which includes zombie films like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) as well as literary novels, authors are grappling with changing ideas of ‘risk’ and ‘danger’, especially after the twenty-first-century events like September 11th 2001 and the financial crisis. Contemporary scholars are speculating on how these events, and similar crises, are changing our perceptions of ‘risk’ and danger after the millennium. Companies and governments are allocating and spending increased budgets on security. Defence is increasingly about the web and cyber-security as it is about national defence and borders. The prospect of terror attacks permeates the modern life of British and American cities. A famous sociologist called Ulrich Beck argues that risk is becoming an increasingly prominent feature of everyday life – so much so that, in the twenty-first-century, he claims that we are living in a ‘risk society’, where risk is near-permanent feature of most of public, whether at school or at work, and private life.

My thesis argues that the post-apocalyptic trend in contemporary fiction represents a literary and cultural effort to envisage a future whether the continual prospect of risk has been suddenly – and without warning – cut off by disaster. Uniquely, in the twenty-first-century, the post-apocalypse becomes a disaster-filled and yet still risk-free landscape. According to scholars like Beck, risk is a threat which is managed by our complex democracies, technology and media. After the apocalypse, these institutions have been removed or obliterated. Survivors which are the focus of novels like The Road are reduced to scavenging, and yet they live in a world in which the almost mundane sense of constant risk is replaced by immediate danger. I argue that these post-apocalyptic novels are crucial for interrogating public perceptions of risk in the twenty-first-century, and unease with the risk-management culture which has followed 9/11. The contemporary post-apocalyptic genre, therefore, is more than an outlet for releasing the effects of global climate change and other contemporary fears. The post-apocalypse places responsibility for safety and security back in the hands of survivors, and ultimately registers public anxieties about how the abstract prospect of ‘risk’ is changing how people live and act in the twenty-first-century.

Going Further

’31 Essential Science Fiction Terms and Where They Came From’, iO9,

A debate about the popularity of contemporary post-apocalyptic novels between two literature scholars in the literary magazine Public Books:  Ursula Heise, ‘What’s the Matter with Dystopia?’ & Andrew Hoberek, ‘The Post-Apocalyptic Present’,

‘Will 2017 be 1984?’, Alluvium Journal, . Caroline Edwards and Ben Worthy revisit George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in light of political events of 2017.

‘Zombie Preparedness: Graphic Novel’. Zombie graphic novel released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention educating readers about ‘emergency preparedness’

Science-fiction authors Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood discuss the category of ‘speculative fiction’