Aris Mousoutzanis, Fin-de-Siècle Fictions, 1890s/1990s: Apocalypse, Technoscience, Empire

Aris Mousoutzanis, Fin-de-Siѐcle Fictions, 1890s/1990s: Apocalypse, Technoscience, Empire (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) 258pp. £55.00 Hb.ISBN: 978-1-137-26365-0

In Fin-de-Siѐcle Fictions, 1890s/1990s: Apocalypse, Technoscience, Empire, Aris Mousoutzanis introduces a succinct and passionate examination of the ‘shifts in the relations between power and knowledge’ that register ‘in the popular cultural production’ of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and represent ‘transitions in the connections between science, technology and empire in apocalyptic terms’ (29). This is a persuasive examination of the ‘patterns and disruptions, continuities and ruptures, equivalences and disjunctures in the ever-renewing narratives of the End’ that are produced by the societies and peoples of Britain and America as a means of interpreting change (43) as Mousoutzanis situates the two fin-de-siѐcles as necessary parts of the process of degeneration and decay of one century as another comes into being (19). However, this is not a straightforward comparison of these bookends of the twentieth century, instead it is focused on fictional engagement with the ‘continuities between the social, cultural, and political anxieties that [are] sublimated in the apocalypse culture of the two periods under consideration’ (4). Mousoutzanis presents a comprehensive discussion of trauma theory, apocalypse, and the conflation of technology and science (technoscience) in terms of their effect on the culture and fictions of Empire – both British and American. This investigation deftly moves from a cultural translation of Carnot’s Second Law of Thermodynamics, which serves as an ideal metaphor for the closed-circuit internal repetitions of the follies of Empire, into discussing the inter-relativity of entropy and degeneration as fin-de-siѐcle fictionally dominant themes. At this point, it must be said that the Second Law of Thermodynamics plays a large part in this discussion, and Mousoutzanis convincingly demonstrates how it infiltrates the nineteenth-century cultural mind-set, colouring responses to the potential for degeneration at the heart of Empire(s).

Split into two sections – the first on technoscience, the second on Empire – Mousoutzanis ties together entropy and degeneration with Imperial concerns, discussing fiction such as H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds alongside Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Star Trek: The Next Generation in terms of apocalyptic and/or reverse colonization; the socio-political fear that governs the dominant Empire. Particular attention is paid to the bilateral part played in apocalyptic narratives by ‘nonlinear dynamics’ (92), better known as chaos theory. It is made clear that apocalypse cannot be perceived as a singular (linear) manifestation, with ‘deterministic chaos [having] a major impact in two distinct trends in the apocalyptic culture of the late twentieth century’ (94). And so the ‘network apocalypse’ or ‘butterfly effect’ that brought about such things as the ‘Y2K phenomenon’ (94) and is detailed in a discussion of The Terminator, is twinned with a postmodern tendency towards ‘suspicion’ of ‘the very notion of an “end” in itself’, described by Mousoutzanis as ‘anti-apocalypse’, deferring and repeating as it gives rise to ‘“rebirth” and “revelation”’, and seen in films such as Planet of the Apes and Alien, which he describes as ‘endlessly narrativising the aftershocks of a catastrophe yet to come’ (95). A theory that fits in with Mousoutzanis’s discussion of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return (The Gay Science), a speculative process condemning us to an endless repetition of words, thoughts, and deeds played out identically each time – a paradoxically horrifying ordered chaos.

Mousoutzanis makes a clear argument for the socio-political ambivalence and potential that comes with technoscientific advance, mirroring it with plentiful fictional examples from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). A social ‘pushmi-pullyu’ worthy of Dr Doolittle, the societal scope of technoscience is staged as both cause for excitement and concern. This is made particularly clear in Mousoutzanis’s analysis of nineteenth century fiction, with an acutely compelling argument for the combined forces of entropy and degeneration present in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) as offering no clear-cut narrative acceptances. While he acknowledges that the ‘apish’ Morlocks ‘are often seen as a species expressing contemporary fears regarding the development of the industrial classes into a deprived and deformed species’, Mousoutzanis - drawing on Kirby Farrell’s evaluation of the Morlocks as ‘former victims’ of the Eloi -  also reads their aggression as ‘an effort to respond to and deal with past trauma’ (78). If these are monsters, they are of our making, and there is a sympathy in this study of Wells’ often maligned Morlocks that is hard to resist. In line with his central thesis, Mousoutzanis suggests there is little separating Wells’ Victorian Time Traveller from the Morlocks, with both sides ‘white, industrious, intelligent’ and ravenous for flesh (79). In the Morlocks, then, there exists a ‘combined reference to entropy and degeneration […] brought together not just in terms of the relation of these theories to contemporary technological revolutions but in terms of their embeddedness in imperial discourses and practices’ (79). They are as much a reflection of what is as what might be, and what may be lauded as technological advance by some is shown to carry with it a level of ‘apocalyptic speculation’ (25), with an implicit warning of the interconnectedness of progression and degeneration.

There is much to be gained from Mousoutzanis’s interrogation of the two end-of-centuries, not least a realization that the attempt to assign order to our existence is illusory; there is an uncanny unbreakable dialectic between order and disorder, as part of a temporal circularity: as Mousoutzanis states, ‘it is still necessary to revisit past narratives of future apocalypse’ (227). And his is a finely balanced argument, identifying both sides of technological advance. The ‘potential for information technology to stave off entropic forces’, illustrated in Mina Harker’s typewritten collation of all the accounts connected to Count Dracula, is offset by the potential for ‘information overload’ (90) in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, ushering us towards the dissipated and degenerating incomprehensibility of YouTube, where millions watch as other play video games, injure themselves, or just film cats. The only negative in Mousoutzanis’s detailed and engaging consideration of the triumvirate of apocalypse, technoscience, and empire would be that, although he adeptly incorporates the voices of others into his argument, they sometimes overshadow what is a clear and thought-provoking narrative. But it is more than understandable that passion for one’s subject matter evinces the desire to draw in as much material as possible, and the sources used are always cogent to the discussion, so perhaps this might best be considered as a plea for more. Certainly, Mousoutzanis’s closing teaser of the potential for future analysis based on ‘post-millennial apocalypse’ (222) an area in which the current reviewer is already engaged) is something that would be keenly anticipated. For anyone with an interest in fin-de-siѐcle fictions of all forms, including Gothic, horror, SF, steampunk, and cyberpunk, or even just science geeks who want to develop their understanding of the wider implications and impacts of technology and invention, Mousoutzanis’s Fin-de-Siѐcle Fictions will be an inspiration for years to come.

Jillian Wingfield, University of Hertfordshire