The link between Paradise Lost and YA post-apocalyptic fiction

I’m working on a paper for an Apocalypse conference in Romania the details are fuzzy, but I wanted to make some notes to come back to later.

In short, the majority of contemporary post-apocalyptic YA novels are about Revolution. Unlike classic dystopian fiction like 1984 or even the more modern Never Let Me Go show a reality that can’t be escaped from. Resistance is really futile, if not only because systems of bio-power have nullified any possibility of Real Freedom.

For decades theorists have been commenting on the total inability (and yet the desperate need) to seek out freedom in order to get to a real, true act – one not simply a chain of causal reaction from within the power structure/system.

Foucault concluded revolution is necessary – even if impossible – only in the act of resistance and rebellion is there the possibility of Truth. Deleuze and Guattari talk about “deterritorialization”; Badiou talks about “courage” and “fidelity to the Truth Event.”

Of course we could go back earlier, when theorists were actually still talking about real, political revolution. Camus’ The Rebel or Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and many more had the seeds of these theories already.

Things seem to come together in Slavoj Zizek, who’s writings on revolution (even the justification of violent terrorism) are well thought out and linked to the thinkers who came before him.

    “There is… something inherently ‘terroristic’ in every authentic act, in its gesture of thoroughly redefining the ‘rules of the game’, inclusive of the very basic self-identity of its perpetrator – a proper political act unleashes the force of negativity that shatters the very foundations of our being.”

Why YA post-apocalyptic fiction?

We are living in what Fukuyama called “The End of History.” Modern, democratic, capitalist societies have a high enough standard of living and opportunity to make real revolution unfavorable for most citizens, who have more to lose than to gain. Fukuyama imagained a future without history – without change.

Of course this future isn’t what we’ve experienced in the past decade – the major failings of the US government and economy has produced some very real (if non-violent) movements of resistance. And there have been complete political revolutions in many other countries.

But we still feel, I believe, a kind of helplessness. We are stuck. The US government is too big, too powerful, for anything else to be imagined. Who could think of a revolution against America? It’s unthinkable. And yet we dream of imagined spaces filled with something else.

We escape into fantasies that begin with a clean slate – the post-apocalpytic genre – which take place after the fall of all modern governments. But interestingly, we do not write Utopias of a perfect, balanced world, nor depressing dystopias full of tragedy, pathos and longing (OK, we have those too, in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road)… but the most popular post-apocalpytic setting which dominates the “young reader” setting hinges on revolution.

Not coincidentally, we also have a post-apocalyptic TV series called “Revolution” which is based on the same themes. Hunger Games (Suzzane Colins), Divergent (Veronica Roth), Legend (Marie Su), Matched (Ally Condie) and Pure (Julianna Baggot). I also love “Wool” (Hugh Howey) but it’s not exactly YA.

What they all have in common is a totalitarian government who controls humanity, often through lies about the past and ritualistic sacrifices (Agamben’s Homer Sacer).

But then rises a hero. In the beginning, they may only dream about finding a new space, a space beyond the walls, outside of the dome, away from the reaches of the power structure. This yearning for freedom creates in them a real subjectivity, a difference.

Sometimes they are programmed somehow to resist. Sometimes their curiosity gets them into trouble with authorities whose unjust violence and power over their bodies can only be resisted. Often family members will be held as hostages, and as often die at the hands of the totalitarian state, proving it corrupt.

Surprisingly, these 15-16 year old heroines (they are mostly girls in YA dystopias) will soon start killing people. They may feel terrible about it, especially if they’ve had to shoot a friend or family member, or they may adapt to killing easily. It is justified in their eyes. They will gain followers and eventually triumph: a complete destruction of the social order. A complete break with authority, regulations, power.

It isn’t enough to be living away/outside the power – as long as the power still exists, they are not free. They need to go back and destroy everything, so the power has no reach on them.

This is the decade of revolutionaries. We have Spartacus. Hunger Games (which ends in political assassination by the heroine). Les Miserables the dramatization of a failed revolution that is still heroic and glorified. Dozens and dozens of other examples to prove that our most cherished heroes are rebels who resist, refuse and bear arms against the police and the government.

Of course, we can’t really imagine any setting that lionizes contemporary heroic rebels (like Anonymous, or Occupy Wall Street) because we are still in the system, we are still controlled by the power structure. Actual resistance would mean a very real extended stay in prison or Guantanamo Bay.

So instead, we read post-apocalyptic novels.

The link between Paradise Lost

But what all these really reminds me of, as a would-be Milton Scholar, is Satan’s struggle in Paradise Lost.

In exactly the same terms and conditions, with much of the same language, Satan seeks a space outside of God’s totalitarian order where he can think and speak freely, make his own choices, and be free. He justifies his actions through appeal to God’s manipulations, lies, control and injuries. He feels, instinctively, that freedom is a natural right, that must be fought for if necessary.

Ultimately Satan fails – his terroristic act in the garden, trying to get back at God through bringing harm to his new creations, was always forseen by God and was in fact a necessary part of God’s plan to bring salvation to Humanity. In seeking to go beyond the social order, Satan was acting precisely as God expected him to. He failed to escape the power.

But we have no problem seeing the virtue in other failed revolutionaries; Satan’s failure is not why he is unacceptable, why his story continues to fall on deaf ears.

The truth is that widespread belief in a westernized, infallibly benevolent God demands from us a place to put evil and sin. It can’t come from God, so there must be something else, somewhere else, where we can hide away the blame and the guilt and the shame.

For Christians, this is Satan – he is Christianity’s homer sacer and scapegoat. He is the necessary sacrifice, the dissident unjustly incarcerated, upon which the lie of Christianity can rest – he is the founding stone of the temple.

Allowing ourselves to see in Milton’s Satan the exact same revolutionary tendencies that are now accepted and glorified through the popularity of YA post-apocalyptic novels would be to remove that stone, and it is weighted in place by centuries upon centuries of tradition and hundreds of millions of believers.

Trying to shift that stone, to investigate the history, is a terroristic act in itself – so I suppose I could call myself a “literary terrorist.”