Settler colonial utopias need catastrophes: Brittany Henry, ‘Survivalism, the Jeremiad and the Settler Colonial Utopian Imaginary in James Wesley Rawles’s Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse’, Western American Literature, 55, 1, 2020, pp. 65-96


Excerpt: While dystopian fiction has enjoyed popularity across the twentieth and into the twenty- first century, in recent decades public enthusiasm for the genre has skyrocketed as writers and filmmakers have increasingly turned to dystopian and apocalyptic representation to diagnose and warn against a range of social, political, economic, and environmental crises. Western American literature and fi lm have not been immune to the dystopian turn in popular culture, as evidenced by the prevalence of frontier mythology in dystopian and apocalyptic tales (as William Katerburg and Barbara Gurr have both noted) and the frequency with which dystopian and apocalyptic texts choose the US West as their setting or engage tropes of the Western genre in their storytelling. Examples abound but include novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s Th e Road, Octavia Butler’s Parable series, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias Triptych, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Th e Water Knife, as well as television series and films such as Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity, George Miller’s Mad Max films, The Walking Dead franchise, and HBO’s Westworld. Despite this, western studies has seen a relative dearth of scholarship taking up the dystopia in a serious way as a relevant and important genre to the field (Katerburg’s 2008 Future West: Utopia and Apocalypse in Frontier Science Fiction is a notable exception). This essay seeks to initiate and participate in a more sustained engagement between western American studies and dystopian and apocalyptic scholarship and cultural production. I am particularly interested in the opportunity western studies offers to bring dystopian scholarship into conversation with settler colonial theory in order to understand how the history and mythology of the US West informs the speculative futurities envisaged in American popular culture, in particular the religious and gendered ideologies that structure these narratives. Such a project, I contend, enables us to put more critical pressure on the political investments of a genre consumed by a wide swath of the American public.

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