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Posthumanist Readings in Dystopian Young Adult Fiction: Negotiating the Nature/Culture Divide.

Posthumanist Readings in Dystopian Young Adult Fiction: Negotiating the Nature/Culture Divide. Jennifer Harrison. Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Lexington Books, 2019. 138 pages. £43.00 (hardback).

Today, posthumanism is one of the most debated and lively trends in the discussion over dystopian fiction, not only for young readers. Numerous authors directly or indirectly address the technological and biotechnological ‘Otherization’ of the coming generations, making their characters clones, artificial people, uplifted animals or sentient A.I. At the same time, the relation between human and the environment is a source of concern, with last-resort attempts of many to battle anthropogenic climate change. The sheer number of publications and motifs in fiction testifies to the profound crisis not only of the notion of humanity, but also of other concepts: the rise of ALife (Johnston 2012) in particular challenges the divide between the natural and the technological, making the need for rethinking anthropology more urgent than ever.*

Jennifer Harrison’s Posthumanist Readings in Dystopian Young Adult Fiction: Negotiating the Nature/Culture Divide (2019), published in the Children and Youth in Popular Culture series, addresses this need in literary studies. Relying mostly on feminist and critical posthumanist literature on the subject, she first encourages the reader to read dystopia as the end of humanism – in particular, the humanism of the Enlightenment, characterized by the glorification of reason and by deeply ingrained anthropocentrism. She proceeds to analyse six well-known young adult dystopias: Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009), Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy (2008-2010), Neal Shusterman’s Unwind Dystology (2007-2015), Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Serie (2001-2006), and Adam Rapp and Mike Cavallaro’s Decelerate Blue (2009), structuring her analysis over the titular divide between culture (encompassing the notion of humanity) and nature (addressing the representation of contemporary environmental concerns). Such a choice of corpus enables her to move deftly between a zombie apocalypse novel, a space conquest narrative, a solarpunk novel and other genres, and is representative of the main currents in young adult dystopianizing fiction, making the overview rounded and thorough.

Out of the six analytic chapters, by far the most interesting is the first one, devoted to Ryan’s books. Harrison convincingly argues that the zombie narrative is in fact the story of the erosion and end of humanity. The decomposition of human body and family structures leaves no hope for any efficient answer from the traditional humanist values, and bares their inefficiency in the times of crisis, as well as the despair over the axiological vacuity experienced by contemporary human beings. This, naturally, stands in stark contrast with the picture offered by Lowry sixteen years earlier. As Harrison claims, her characters still believe that the reinstitution of the traditional humanism will effectuate a change for the better – naturally, to be expected from a technophobic narrative (Applebaum 2009).** She proceeds to present different facets of trying to salvage humanism from the wreckage of traditional notions: Shusterman creates his evantropian Camus Comprix (Bugajska2019) as a new whole from the dismembered bodies; Reeves challenges the linearity of time and, consequently, the idea of progress with new notions of fluid, subjective and alternative experience of temporality, and the same is emphasized by Rapp and Cavallaro, who make full use of the potential of the graphic novel while addressing consumerism as the dystopian outcome of narrowly understood humanism.*** In conclusion, Harrison voices the belief that the blind trust in science and technology, seen as extensions of the philosophies of the eighteenth-century conceptualization of man as machine, produces catastrophic results. She hopes that the texts directed to children, even in the face of the lack of children’s political rights, will bring about a change, unlikely to be initiated by their adult carers. ‘It may well be,’ she writes, ‘that posthumanism offers young people the most viable option out of dissatisfaction and depression, and toward a viable future’ (Harrison 125).

However, this satisfying study raises certain concerns. The structure and development of the argument is actually reinforcing the Nature/Culture divide that the author sets out to bridge. Quite often the comments on the bioconservative vs technoprogressive debate are based on selectively chosen sources, which results in simplified judgments, for instance, about family, human enhancement and emotions. The eco-critique of some of the books (as is the case with Unwind) is not very efficient and seems far-fetched, as originally they are not particularly oriented towards making a point in the environmental conundrum. An ecomodernist perspective would perhaps be more relevant than a heavy reliance on Alice Curry’s Environmental Crisis in Young Adult Fiction (2014).****

In general, though, Harrison proposes a way of reading a broad range of dystopian fiction consistent with the present dilemmas and succeeds in demonstrating that the contemporary crisis of humanity has multifaceted portrayals in literature for young readers. What is more, she makes clear that the explanatory and meaning-making power of the humanities seems to be exhausted, limited to the repetition of overused and irrelevant patterns that may lead to the very real abuse of people and the natural environment, stemming from the acceptance of false frameworks like ethnic or gender bias and anthropocentrism. As she comments in her critique of the Bildungsroman, ‘[the traditional humanities] suggest that the destruction of everything, including the environment, is of little importance in the face of the endurance of the individual consciousness’ (97). However, contrary to her conclusions, posthumanism does not transpire as an answer to the feeling of helplessness and frustration that consumes today’s world. The texts fail to offer a valid alternative to traditional humanism; rather, they portray desperate attempts to save it. These attempts, though, are doomed to fail. This very fact makes Harrison’s book part of the important current of seeking the way out of the anthropological crisis, and posthumanities a great tool to make evident the deficiencies of the accepted models of humanity.

Anna Bugajska
The Jesuit University of Ignatianum, Kraków

* See Johnston, John. AI and ALife, in: The Routledge Companion to Science and Literature , ed. B. Clarke, and M. Rossini, (2012). pp. 4-16.

**See Applebaum, Noga. Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young Adults , London: Routledge, 2009

***See Bugajska, Anna. Engineering Youth. The Evantropian Project in Young Adult Dystopias< /em>, Cracow: Ignatianum University Press, 2019.

****See: An EcomodernistManifesto, 2015.