“This is not your world:” Extinction and Utopia in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

This paper was originally presented for Gothic Nature III: New Directions in EcoHorror and the EcoGothic, in October 2020. 

For nearly forty years, Hayao Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) has stood as a preeminent work of ecofiction. Set a thousand years after the destruction of civilisation by industrialised warfare, on an earth now covered by a toxic mushroom jungle, the film follows Princess Nausicaä as she attempts to bring an end to a war which threatens both her agrarian community and the future of humanity itself. The critical reception of Nausicaä has tended to read it as an eco-fable, depicting what Donna Haraway describes as the earthly salvation of “peace between humans and other-than-humans.”[1] What this reading ignores, however, are the far darker themes of the manga series upon which the film is based, in which the film’s dreams of natural harmony swiftly give way to the nightmares of mutation, manipulation, and extinction.

As I will argue, the Nausicaä manga (1982-1994), continued by Miyazaki in the decade following the film’s release, systematically undoes the utopianism of its cinematic adaptation.[2] While the film ends with Nausicaä’s messianic rebirth as the mediator between humanity and nature, the manga continues on to disturb the very notions of an independent ‘humanity’ and an undisturbed ‘nature.’ Nausicaä discovers not only that the ‘natural’ world of the mushroom jungle is itself an anthropogenic creation meant to purify the earth, but that the pure earth would be uninhabitable for she and her fellow ‘humans’—because they too were altered to live in a toxic environment. As the monsters of the antediluvian world emerge from their crypts to destroy the earth once more, Nausicaä battles to save a world without a future.

As a tale of extinction rather than salvation, I argue that Nausicaä functions less as an eco-fable than as a work of ecological Gothic. Specifically, this paper aims to show that the moments of horror in Nausicaä are built upon the utopian expectations of ecological fiction, and the abject ruin of those expectations in a world in which the very conceptions of humanity and nature are no longer tenable. I will begin by delineating some of the differences between the film and the manga, before moving on to examine the decidedly Gothic character of the latter text, and the complex interplay of utopia and anti-utopia found within it. Continue reading ““This is not your world:” Extinction and Utopia in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”

Into a Silent Universe: The Sublime and the Eerie in Byron and Ballard


This paper was originally presented for the Cultural Enquiry Research Group seminar series at Federation University, Ballarat in September 2019. 

Extinction is no longer news: everywhere stories abound of a humanity on the brink of collapse. No longer relegated to the distant reaches of deep time or the arcane will of a deity, the end of humanity is now increasingly lived and felt as an ongoing process. The countdown to global tipping points are not measured in the millions or billions of years, but by the decade—and even as the timescale of catastrophe contracts to the span of a human life, the mass of processes, actors, and systems leading into this disaster become inconceivably more complex. In the words of the philosopher of horror Eugene Thacker:

“The world is increasingly unthinkable  – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. […] To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part” (2011, 1).

The future, we are told, is not human, but posthuman: which is to say that we will no longer be able to recognise ourselves as ourselves as we drift further into a global order of ecological disaster. As N Katherine Hayles declares: “If human essence is freedom from the wills of others, the posthuman is ‘post’ not because it is necessarily unfree but because there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will” (1999, 4). In other words, we realise that the human subject was never truly separate from the material processes  relegated to the exterior of humanity, and as the world outside ourselves becomes unthinkable, so too do we become indistinct within the background noise.

Despite its seeming archaicism in the face of a posthuman future, I contend that the genre conventions of the Gothic, and its formula of “negative aesthetics,” are best suited to making sense of the catastrophe and decay which characterise that future (Botting 2014, 1). Just as the posthuman subject is structured around the human interior’s loss of autonomy from what lies outside, Gothic fiction follows what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has identified as a “particular spatial model” structured around the tensions of fragile interiors under siege from dangerous and desirable outsides (1986, 12). This model of the Gothic as a conflict between “what’s inside, what’s outside, and what separates them” thus lends itself well to depicting the anxious position of the posthuman subject—whose unstable, human interior is infiltrated and overpowered by the vast outsides of nature and machinery (ibid.). To elaborate upon this intersection of the Gothic and the posthuman I will look closely at a pair of aesthetic categories typical of the Gothic, namely the sublime and the eerie, to locate within the Gothic style a nascent sense of posthumanity.

Continue reading “Into a Silent Universe: The Sublime and the Eerie in Byron and Ballard”

Denying the Machine: Luddites, Monsters, and Pynchon’s Posthuman Gothic


As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!

With these lines from Lord Byron, Thomas Pynchon ends his essay on technology and humanity, titled “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” (1984), with a resounding affirmation of the Luddite cause. The “‘Luddite’ skepticism that dominates Pynchon’s politics” has been well-noted elsewhere, but nowhere is it clearer than in this essay just what a fraught and ambiguous conception of Luddism Pynchon adheres to (Thomas 2007, 146). Far from espousing a simply anti-technological position, Pynchon’s essay is shot through with ambivalence, moving from the revolutionary hopes of Byron’s poem to the recuperation of those same energies to the ends of an eventual entente between humanity and machine. Pynchon equivocates between these two positions, suggesting in one paragraph that “if the logistics can be worked out, miracles may yet be possible” and in another revealing that promise of perfection to be the scam of “an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing” (Pynchon 1984).

It is the object of this paper to interrogate these equivocations in Pynchon’s essay, between humanity and technology, between miracles and machines, and to formulate what I identify as a specifically Posthuman Gothicism at the heart of this conceptual nexus. I wish to argue that in giving a contemporary voice to the Luddite cause, Pynchon simultaneously proposes both a Gothic aesthetics able, in his words, “to insist on the miraculous” and a paradoxically posthuman ethics able to “deny the machine at least some of its claims on us,” which together may “assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings” (Pynchon 1984). Further still, I suggest that Pynchon’s own fictions may in turn be read through this Gothic formula.  Continue reading “Denying the Machine: Luddites, Monsters, and Pynchon’s Posthuman Gothic”

“Down, Down, and Gone:” Gothic Cyberspace in Bleeding Edge


Out in the vast undefined anarchism of cyberspace, among the billions of self-resonant fantasies, dark possibilities are beginning to emerge (Pynchon 2013, 327).

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edge (2013), brings his longstanding concerns with technology and control into the digital age. The plot of the novel is too complex to summarise here, but can be understood as a mix of noir crime investigation, conspiracy thriller, and a latter-day cyberpunk homage set in the months following the dot-com crash of the early 2000s. The novel’s protagonist is Maxine Tarnow, a recently divorced mother of two and fraud investigator, usually of the financial kind, who is drawn by an old friend into a whole other world of crime: cybercrime. In Pynchonian fashion, the novel quickly descends into conspiracy, as collusion between tech companies, foreign governments and shadowy agencies crystallise. As the plot becomes overrun with loose threads of state-sanctioned barbarism, business malpractice, and cybernetic control, the lines converge on the web as a locus for the traumas of late capitalism, and for the hopes for another digital world which precipitated and fell away at the turn of the century.

The world that Pynchon dissects is depicted variably in the language of nineties and early-noughties pop-culture and in the darker tones of cyberpunk and the Gothic. Throughout the novel, the web figures as an otherworld just outside our own, where our dreams seek refuge and our nightmares take shape. In this paper, I argue that although Pynchon plays into the cyberpunk aesthetic, he ultimately redeploys its ambivalent terror and thrill for late capitalist economic and cultural capture to launch a critique against the world now made in its likeness. Looking back at the frenetic early years of the web, Pynchon forces us to see them through tragic rather than utopian eyes. This journey backwards in time begins with a departure from the surface web, through the forgotten and hidden passageways of cyberspace, down to the Gothic secret which lies at its heart. Continue reading ““Down, Down, and Gone:” Gothic Cyberspace in Bleeding Edge”

Dissolution & Decay: Traits of the Posthuman Gothic

The Posthuman and the Gothic

In her book on The Posthuman, Rosi Braidotti gives a startling portrait of the Posthuman approach to death:

What we humans truly yearn for is to disappear by merging into [the] generative flow of becoming, the precondition for which is the loss, disappearance and disruption of the atomized, individual self. […] This can be described also as the moment of ascetic dissolution of the subject; the moment of its merging with the web of non-human forces that frame him/her, the cosmos as a whole. We may call it death, but in a monistic ontology of vitalist materialism, it has rather to do with radical immanence. That is to say the grounded totality of the moment when we coincide completely with our body in becoming at last what we will have been all along: a virtual corpse (Braidotti 2013, 136).

Here Braidotti sums up the core elements of her conception of the Posthuman: the disappearance and disruption of the human subject; a repositioning of that subject within a wider cosmos of living matter; and the multidirectional mixing of the inside of the human with the outside of the universe. The Posthuman in this sense encompasses both the negative and the reformative aspects of life freed from the strictures of the human as a transcendent, universal category, out of which a myriad inhuman and unhuman forms of life may emerge. However, this passage provides a dark twist to the vitalist commitments its expresses. Although the moment of death is subsumed into a wider process of life, it also remains as an immanent and ever-present element of that process. In affirming the wider productivity and vitality of the material world beyond the human, we discover ourselves as something other than human. “‘We’ ‘ourselves’ are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces. There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was” (Fisher 2016, 11-2). Continue reading “Dissolution & Decay: Traits of the Posthuman Gothic”

Thomas Pynchon and the Posthuman Gothic

Abstract: In this paper I examine the works of Thomas Pynchon through the lens of the Posthuman Gothic. This approach turns away from the typical postmodern or satirical readings of Pynchon, and resituates him both within the Gothic tradition of warped realities and inhuman powers, and within the emerging field of the Posthuman, where these terrors are projected from the deep past into the near future. Looking to the strange amalgamations of human and machine in The Crying of Lot 49, I argue for a fruitful reading of Pynchon’s works through the aesthetics of horror.

From the strange amalgamations of body and machine in his first novel V. (1963) to the haunted cyberspace of his most recent novel Bleeding Edge (2013), Thomas Pynchon’s fictive treatment of technology is intertwined with the aesthetics of horror. Although rightly classified as postmodern novels, with all the satirical modes, irreverence, and meta-textual play typical of the form, Pynchon’s fictions just as often refuse these trappings and evade the critical consensus on his works. Following the current turn in Pynchon scholarship, I posit that “literary criticism has focused inordinately on [his] postmodern aesthetics,” (Maguire 2016, 95), and instead turn to the aesthetics of the Posthuman Gothic to uncover a Pynchon relevant to our ambivalent present and uncertain futures.

But first, two quick definitions, and a third clarification are in order:

Continue reading “Thomas Pynchon and the Posthuman Gothic”