New American Civil Wars: Aspects of the Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the U.S. from 2006-2019

  • Christina Brennan

Student thesis: Phd


Since the new millennium, major Anglophone authors, including Colson Whitehead, Max Brooks, Sandra Newman, Lionel Shriver, Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, Chris Beckett, Omar El Akkad and Christopher Brown have popularised post-apocalyptic genre fiction. This popularity appears to be a formal response to new challenges in the twenty-first century, triggered by global trends which range from anthropocentric global warming to globalisation. This thesis addresses how a range of American literary and genre authors adapt a compelling set of post-apocalyptic motifs to imagine new challenges to U.S. politics in the twenty-first century. The most notable of these tropes, dating from the late 2000s to the early 2010s, is the motif of future civil war or secession in America. These texts are concerned with three additional themes or scenarios which are apparent across this canon: censorship (after states separate and information cannot be shared across closed borders); state nationalism (as states compete for resources); and partisan rhetoric (which translates into civil violence). With these three recurrent themes, this thesis proposes that the American post-apocalypse is concerned with first, a new era of partisanship in America and, second, the centrality of media to these profound trends. Despite the global scale of these post-apocalyptic representations, their recurring landscapes are specific to America. These fictions repeatedly engage with key features of America’s identity and government in the twenty-first century – from the globalised economy after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis to diplomatic tensions with nations including the Russian Federation. What does this genre revival say about the contemporary moment, especially as populism has come to define American democracy and the international order has become strained? This thesis reassesses this revival within the long history of American apocalypticism, exploring how core texts are responding to the rapidly changing dynamics of twenty-first-century politics and international relations. As Frank Kermode observes in The Sense of an Ending (1966), history continually returns to the apocalypse as the symbolic motif for unfolding significant events. This thesis argues that a new phase in the post-apocalyptic imagination has emerged from American politics. This phase is marked by a long-term disillusionment with political and government institutions. This backlash is evident from the 2016 election of President Trump. However, this disillusionment had gradually emerged over the two previous decades. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis played a crucial part in changing American perceptions of its global power. This event was concurrent with the rise of the Internet as a platform for public debate. The Internet has also changed how misinformation has been deployed both within the U.S. (to stoke political disillusionment) and against U.S. international relations. This thesis argues that the relationship between the U.S.’s uncertain global standing and the post-apocalyptic novel, shadowed by changes in mass and new media, tells an important story. It analyses a diverse range of post-apocalyptic fiction to contend that the genre is central to critiquing the relationship between media, news and American politics. Early twenty-first-century authors re-imagining the post-apocalypse in ways which anticipate and critique key features of American populism. In this canon, the post-apocalypse is driven by misinformation, the cult of personality and mainstream media engagement in partisan rhetoric. With America entering an unprecedented political era, genre fiction is potently articulating the emergence of new political trends, including ‘post-truth’ politics, which will become vital to rethinking the value basis of future American politics and international relations.
Date of Award1 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorIan Scott (Supervisor) & J. Michelle Coghlan (Supervisor)


  • U.S.
  • Civil War
  • Science-Fiction
  • Literature
  • America
  • Twenty-First Century
  • Post-Apocalypse
  • Genre

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