Pipework: Energy, Environment, and Dystopia in Post-1960 Anglo-American Culture
The billowing pipe is integral to the dystopian imagination, as sure a sign that we are in dystopia as is the leafless tree, the burnt-out vehicle, and the overcrowded metropolis. Take Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), whose cities are replete with pipework, spewing gas into the night, or, as literary examples, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) and Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001), whose ‘steampunk’ industries fume relentlessly
Observing the prevalence of pipes, exhausts, cables, chimneys—the oil pipeline, the sewer, the retrofitted tower block, the car exhaust, the power grid—in late-twentieth-century literary, cinematic, and televisual dystopias, Dr Harry Warwick's Fellowship asks: What is the relationship between dystopia, energy infrastructure, and the environment? Might the genre’s preoccupation with energy infrastructures not hold unique critical potential for the present, characterised as it is by growing ecological awareness?
Dr Warwick's Fellowship will focus on post-1960 Anglo-American fictions, since these coincide with the era of growing public climate change awareness in the UK and USA. The project examines shifting depictions of energy infrastructure in 1960s and 1970s environmental dystopias, later cyberpunk and steampunk dystopias, the ‘space opera’, and the recent resurgence in dystopian culture. Why are such texts drawn to depictions of energy infrastructure? How do their portrayals change between media and across time? What alternatives to fossil fuels have they envisioned? How have their projections of climate collapse influenced popular imaginings of that eventuality?
Blade Runner (1982) is set in Los Angeles in a dystopian future.
The Drought depicts a world on the brink of extinction, where a global drought, caused by industrial waste, has left mankind in a life-or-death search for water.
This project’s emphasis on the centrality of pipes, factories, and fumes to dystopian iconography challenges the view, expressed often within the ‘energy humanities’, that climate change is, if not unrepresentable, at least rarely represented. Quite the contrary: dystopias abound with images of pollution.
Blade Runner’s smoggy Los Angeles is paradigmatic, but since the 1960s a range of dystopian fictions have brought climate change down to street level. J. G. Ballard’s The Drought (1965) envisages a world without rainfall, and in Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) the greenhouse effect afflicts New Yorkers with year-round humidity.
The protagonists of climate dystopias rarely leave home without their breathing aid—a scarf covering the nostrils, perhaps, or an oxygen mask. In Sarah Crossan’s Breathe (2012), all but the privileged few require an air tank to survive. Might the critical potential of these late-twentieth-century dystopias not lie precisely in their efforts to make climate catastrophe proximate, tangible, and breathable?