As humans become more and more enmeshed in protective layers of technology and welfare, of offices and comforts, it nevertheless appears that discontent remains a consistent – perhaps even a growing theme – of personal and political life.
It’s against this backdrop, arguably, that we are seeing the emergence of a genre of fiction that uses desolation as way to explore what, beneath and beyond the protective layers, it is to be a human.
Sometimes this is dystopian fiction, like the Hunger Games or the End of the World Running Club. Other times it’s a situation in which someone finds themselves alone or travelling in a vast expanse, like the Shepherd’s Hut or The Road.
The core of these and other books is that the protagonists are thrown back on themselves – their bodies, their brains, their survival skills – with no recourse to the armoury of stuff available to them in contemporary civilisation.
Apart from the sociologically interesting question about why people are writing and reading these kinds of stories now, there are other ways of looking at them too. One is by way of comparison with Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’, the existence that is left in situations of war when everything else, most notably ideas of human rights, are removed. Another is in comparison to the existential freedom of Satre, where all that matters in the end is the ability of the human subject to choose that there is nothing but autonomy at the human core; everything else is contingent and inessential.
The book that I’ll ( probably) never write would explore how desolation fiction is a response to the world we find ourselves in, looking at both the sociological and the philosophical underpinnings.