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Title:Toxic gardens: narratives of toxicity in twentieth-century American and British fiction
Author(s):McQuiston, Erin
Director of Research:Markley, Robert
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Markley, Robert
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Schaffner, Spencer W.; Littlefield, Melissa M.; Alaimo, Stacy
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):science fiction (SF)
toxic narrative
Abstract:This dissertation studies the roots and development of toxic discourse in Anglo-American science fiction. I analyze a range of literary works, including Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), H.G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods (1903), Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think (1947), Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Richard Powers’s Gain (1998), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009). My consideration of this literary tradition marks a departure from early models of ecocriticism which focused predominantly on U.S. nonfiction and realist “mainstream” fiction. I trace the continuities and innovations in narratives of toxicity across four broad periods in the history of science fiction: early “proto-science fiction,” which draws heavily on allegorical and mythic structures (particularly of the Edenic garden); the early 1900s, when the conventions of the toxic narrative begin to solidify in science fiction pulp magazines, and then shade into Cold War-era fiction preoccupied with nuclear fallout; a subsequent “Silent Spring era” that imagines landscapes and bodies haunted by pollution and pesticides as well as radiation; and post-modern/contemporary science fiction marked by complexity, ambivalence, and genetic determinism. This study also delineates connections between the science and practice of toxicology and the literary artifacts that depict toxins, including memoirs, popular science writing, and comic books as well as science fiction novels and short stories. An SF-inflected toxic discourse also appears in late twentieth and early twenty-first century “mainstream” fiction. Across this wide body of literature, three themes appear consistently: a fascination with the permeability of bodies, the dramatization of mundane and/or invisible threats (especially through gender and reproductive failure), and a deeply ambivalent attitude toward technology and the scientists who wield it. In many cases, these texts display competing – and even contradictory – responses to these issues. While SF is best known for responding to cultural and techno-scientific developments, this study reveals that the genre is constitutive, in addition to being reflexive or interpretive; as such, the study of SF is crucial for understanding the development of an increasingly complex and culturally pervasive toxic narrative. This literature suggests a culturally practicable alternative to the ideal of a pristine, un-touched nature; the toxic narrative represents a serious effort to reconcile the global with the microscopic, the natural with the unnatural, and the body with its environment.
Issue Date:2015-01-21
Rights Information:Copyright 2014 Erin McQuiston
Date Available in IDEALS:2015-01-21
Date Deposited:2014-12

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