Thunderstorm image courtesy of Pixabay

After looking at the foundational Western text in this tradition, The Book of Revelation, (described by George Bernard Shaw as 'the curious record of the visions of a drug addict'), this second year module traces key apocalyptic ideas through the late nineteenth and twentieth century and up to the present day, taking in invading aliens, impacting comets, genetically engineered plagues and unnamed disasters. We range through variations of science-fiction, from novels to short stories, from trauma and cannibalism to the blackest of black humour and visions of spiritual peace. Texts we've read together have included:

  • H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898). How does a Martian invasion reflect fears of Social Darwinism and European war, and an Englishman's guilty awareness of imperial crimes? Watch as poor old Putney gets it in the neck ...
  • W. E. B. Du Bois's 'The Comet' (1920). How and why did Du Bois bring the sci-fi apocalypse to bear on questions of racial and economic inequality in '20s America? 
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963). Apocalyptic technology and US neo-imperialism on a bizarre tropical island dictatorship where the local religion's highest act of communion is two people pressing the soles of their feet together. Hard to summarise, great to read.
  • Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood (2009). Often students' favourite text of the year, this comi-tragic novel from Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy sees a genetically engineered plague wipe out much of humanity, unleash new species, and raise questions about the links between capitalism, social injustice and environmental disaster. Is humanity a planetary mistake that deserves to be eradicated?

As well as looking at fiction, the module also explores two films – such as Dr Strangelove and The Day After Tomorrow – to understand how this most rampant of popular culture themes has played out through another medium. More broadly, topics and points of focus such as the environment, capitalism, race and technology build each week through the seminars and lectures, as we travel from the early days of the Christian era to the first decades of the 21st century. 

"A really fulfilling module. Because the texts were so resonant (and at times, sad... The Road had me in tears for a few days!), I found that when it came to writing the essays, I had a lot of motivation, and felt as though what I was writing about was very real, current and meaningful. It was a very enjoyable module!" Gemma Symons, BA (Hons) English, 2016

Module leader: Dr David Sergeant