Writing Our Extinction
Anthropocene Fiction and Vertical Science
Patrick Whitmarsh



The Vertical Anthropocene

Vertical Science and the Planetary Media Ecology

For those of us in the twenty-first century, the Anthropocene amounts to more than a period of human-influenced geology; it redescribes the industrialized planet as a manufactory of mass extinction. The acidification of the oceans, the altering of atmospheric chemistry, the pollution of regional ecosystems, and other environmental crises have been precipitated by developments in energy production going back to the eighteenth century, at least, and exacerbated by several key developments since World War II. Scientists and humanists refer to this postwar moment as the Great Acceleration: an exponential increase in the burning of fossil fuels, nuclear experimentation, the production of plastics, and the global expansion of media and transportation systems. Such postwar transformations constitute an inflection point in what we have come to call the Anthropocene, the geological epoch in which humankind’s impact on the planet is being ineluctably etched into the earth’s geology and atmosphere.1 These etchings constitute an anticipatory record of our species’ extinction: a history whose account we are now writing. This history is a largely vertical one, although it certainly includes elements of horizontal expansion—colonialism, imperialism, and geographical patterns of capital accumulation. In describing Anthropocene history as vertical, I am highlighting specific practices of elevation and excavation that consume massive amounts of energy in the postwar years—mining, drilling, dredging, earthmoving, aviation, jet propulsion, orbital mechanics, and space travel—and the institutions that dictate them. To examine these practices, this book turns to specific examples, including Project Mohole, Project Plowshare, the Explorer and Sputnik satellites, and the Apollo and Vostok programs, putting them in conversation with fiction published after 1960. Together, they make up a compendium of environmental disruption and damage, even as they precipitate the emergence of earth system science and an increasing awareness of anthropogenic climate change.2

Despite significant attention among literary critics to the intersections of literature and environmentalism, ecology, nuclear imperialism, settler colonialism, and technoscientific spheres of influence, the creative dynamic between postwar narrative fiction and styles of vertical imagining remains understudied. The resistance to a rhetoric of verticality is understandable, given its associations with elements of neoliberal politics: uplift, mobility, linearity, hierarchy, and progress. Vertical rhetoric often connotes success, ambition, promotion, climbing the corporate ladder, and orders of domination and subordination. Chains of command are vertical. Vertical management structures establish higher and lower orders of leadership. Moreover, the post‒World War II sciences so central to this book remain inextricable from operational military endgames of obliteration: “we may say that in the age of bombing,” Rey Chow writes, “the world has also been transformed into—is essentially grasped and conceived as—a target.”3 Literary critics and humanists have learned to be rightfully suspicious of vertical programs, which often reproduce heteropatriarchal academic models dominated by White men whose theoretical superstructures trickle down to women, people of color, and subaltern writers.4 Practices of post-critical reading resist the vertical binary between surface and depth that characterizes Marxian and Freudian interpretive methods. These practices develop relational approaches to texts, positioning meaning as an interactive phenomenon between surface details.5

Recently, opportunities for vertical methodologies have begun to reappear. In a 2020 essay, Anna Kornbluh diagnoses recent trends such as postcritique and weak theory as symptoms of economic liberalization in higher education, and argues for reintroducing “insurgent figurations of the vertical,” particularly dialectical ones, into critical discourse.6 For Kornbluh, the vertical urgency responds to the condition of ecological crisis that has produced the very flattening she identifies in these recent trends. In a cruel irony, academic shifts toward horizontal methods haven’t done away with vertical power structures as much as they have rendered ineffectual our ability to address them. Writing Our Extinction emphasizes postwar vertical culture for its ability to signal and illustrate a conflicted ecological consciousness. Even when verticality is bound up with troubling political motivations and power dynamics, its appearance in literary fiction tends to weaken these associations as much as it reinforces them, if not more so. As post-1960 writers explore the entanglements between verticality and planetary ecology, they reveal the ways that verticality itself troubles, and in some cases dissolves, its institutional foundations. Vertical perspectives reveal previously unknown vistas of planetary experience, displacing humankind within and throughout nonhuman scales of time and space. Seen from the vantage of geological time, the contours of human existence assume new forms. We come face to face with our un-human planetary past—what Quentin Meillassoux calls “ancestrality,” the time before organic life—and our unsettlingly un-human future, or what Ray Brassier calls (in a fitting complement to Meillassoux) the “anterior posteriority” of extinction, its already-having-happened.7 Such temporal immensities often manifest through vertical orientations, views of the world from above (the height of a satellite) and into the ground below (the earth’s strata).

The vertical imagination in literature is not specific to the post‒World War II moment, however, or even to the twentieth century. My point in focusing on culture and fiction after 1960 is not that the vertical imagination is a new development, but that it finds a wider and more profound purchase on the global consciousness via the circulation of materially reproducible planetary iconography such as Earthrise, the photograph taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.8 As recorded in the Apollo mission’s flight transcript, Anders’s remark upon seeing the earth through the spacecraft’s window captures the un-homely sensation of seeing one’s home planet from space: “Oh my god, look at that picture over there. That is the Earth coming up.”9 The repurposing of an ordinary phrase—that of watching the sun come up—casts a veil of uncanniness over the scenario. The comment frames the astronaut’s extraterrestrial position within a familiar social context. A decade later, mythologist Joseph Campbell commented that Anders’s photograph was “working its way slowly into our consciousness. One sees it in many places.”10 Earthrise was a visual component not only of a growing ecological sensibility but also of a material technological infrastructure of verticality.

This infrastructure spread earthward as well as spaceward as the geological and engineering sciences devised new methods for subterranean exploration, including new technologies for resource extraction. Industrial, military, and scientific endeavors to locate greater reserves beneath the planet’s surface have redistributed political interests not only upon a cartographic (horizontal) plane but also along a geophysical (vertical) one. Writers such as Nigel Clark, Bronislaw Szerszynski, Jan Zalasiewicz, and Ian Klinke have outlined the emergence of a subterranean geopolitics since the mid-twentieth century, an expansive and complex history in which financial incentives, environmental desolation, and political power intersect.11 The pursuits of the space race, geology, and atmospheric and nuclear sciences illuminate a set of new planetary frontiers that have emerged in the postwar decades: the famous final frontier and lesser known deep frontier.12 Within the vertical frame of documents such as Earthrise, we can perceive the suggestive alignment of multiple vectors: the vertical perspective of midcentury science, the ecological consciousness of a burgeoning environmental modernity, and the growing necessity of massive amounts of energy. These techno-visual developments make up a planetary media ecology of unprecedented scale: a system of imaging and imagining that has cultivated a feedback loop of planetary impressions. As scientific propensities for vertical exploration sponsored technologies that enabled such exploration, those very technologies produced images—inscriptions—of vertical experience; and as these images and stories circulated, they formed a material basis for the vertical imagination that inspired such technologies in the first place. In the postwar era, verticality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of scientific expansion, giving rise to advancements in air and space travel, resource extraction, and nuclear experimentation, as well as a vertical thematics of cultural progress. I refer to these developments collectively as the vertical sciences.

The vertical sciences begin to emerge in the postwar years, metastasizing in the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–58 and culminating with Earthrise ten years later—a vertical decade that had an enormous impact on new media and perceptual technologies. The IGY was a landmark series of gatherings among scientists from around the world, participating in numerous studies and research programs for the purpose of expanding human knowledge about the planet. One of the most famous and widely visible pursuits of the IGY was the construction and launching of orbital satellites by the United States and Soviet Union. These programs served the dual purpose of providing geophysical data as well as windows on foreign affairs, giving rise to a network of visual technologies encircling the globe.13 The import of this new planetary apparatus wasn’t lost on writers of the time. Hannah Arendt cautiously remarked in The Human Condition (1958) that the launch of Sputnik marked a “step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth,” and Alexander Marshack’s popular account of the IGY, The World in Space (1958), notably mentions human efforts to “escape” the planet.14 There emerges an ambivalent rhetoric of imprisonment and liberation around the vertical sciences in the decades following World War II, as the global community witnesses the fait accompli of rocketeer momentum.15

This momentum coordinates a series of overlapping phenomena that inform the emergence of post-1960 Anthropocene fiction: vertical perspectives on the planet, an increased attention to the ecological connectivity between human development and geophysical systems, and a sense of the earth as a script of humankind’s accelerating extinction. Moreover, the vertical sciences were in many ways wedded to the increasing global demand for energy; as Benjamin Goossen notes, even the term geophysics was, at the time, often used to describe vertical practices related to “surveying and mineral scouting.”16 Hardly science for science’s sake, environmental knowledge grew alongside policies of environmental exploitation. Theories of solar energy motivated the “conquest of space,” highlighting science’s colonial drive.17 The proximity of financial incentives and knowledge of the earth gave rise to concerns over ecological precarity and anxieties about humanity’s planetary existence: “I do not know whether you were frightened, but I at any rate was frightened when I saw pictures coming from the moon to the earth,” Martin Heidegger revealed in a 1976 interview; “We don’t need any atom bomb. The uprooting of man has already taken place. The only thing we have left is purely technological relationships. This is no longer the earth on which man lives.”18 Nearly two decades after Heidegger’s comment, Paul Virilio further articulated the link between perspective and existential concern: “Today, when we are all so worried about the ecological balance of a human environment seriously threatened by industrial waste, would it not be appropriate to add to the concerns of green ecology those of a grey ecology that would focus on the postindustrial degradation of the depth of field of the terrestrial landscape?” (italics in original).19 Virilio’s remark conveys two complementary insinuations: that of worsening air quality on a global scale, which diminishes visibility, and the inauguration of techno-verticality, which abolishes the horizon. Verticality’s aesthetic affordance lies in its ability to push readers and viewers toward new scales of experience, to reframe the object of their attention—especially when that object is humankind, or, more radically, the absence of humankind.

In addition to offering multiple close readings of key works, Writing Our Extinction provides an overview of the Anthropocenic consciousness that has increasingly occupied our vertical imaginations since 1960. Authors who participate in the development of this consciousness form a broad and diverse group: Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Tim O’Brien, Karen Tei Yamashita, Kim Stanley Robinson, Colson Whitehead, Reza Negarestani, Jesmyn Ward, and Hari Kunzru. As readers will note, there is an undeniable color line running through this group, and many of these writers draw our attention to ways in which the Anthropocene is economically, politically, and racially inflected. In other words, the Anthropocene does not describe a human-planetary dynamic authored by our species writ large, but a dynamic authored by specific practices and systems. What’s more, novel writing itself is not innocent of such planetary authorship. As a cultural form predicated on industrialization, deforestation, and resource extraction, the postwar novel registers two kinds of inscription: one on the page, and one on the planet. It is no surprise that writers working after World War II begin acknowledging, to a greater extent, the entangled networks of narrative, verticality, and species precarity. The second half of the twentieth century is characterized by an intensifying awareness of destructive feedback loops that tie together cultural institutions and geophysical systems, and usher humankind toward mass extinction.

Extinction Humanities

As a topic of theoretical import, extinction complicates literary and intellectual conversations about environmental precarity on an industrially accelerating planet and poses a challenge to humanist study and social thought. Many fetishize extinction as the supreme motivator of human survival by any means, as depicted in countless mainstream disaster narratives. Others provocatively see extinction as a solution, such as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), founded by Les Knight in 1991.20 Survivalism often valorizes the individual at the expense of collective and ecological interests, whereas VHEMT advocates for population control while mostly sidestepping the history of racial sterilization in the United States and elsewhere; yet both implicate us in crucial questions concerning extinction’s role in our daily lives: what does it mean to confront our extinction? What stories can we tell ourselves about our extinction—a process whose closure we cannot possibly witness? How do we narrate our species’ disappearance? “In a millennium or two,” writes Don DeLillo in his 1973 novel Great Jones Street, “a seeming paradox of our civilization will be best understood by those men versed in the methods of counter-archaeology. They will study us not by digging into the earth but by climbing vast dunes of industrial rubble and mutilated steel, seeking to reach the tops of our buildings.”21 The paradox of DeLillo’s passage lies in its imagining of simultaneous persistence and extinction—that some surviving, presumably educated humans (or a species capable of reading our ruins) will sift through cultural detritus to discern the “reasons for our demise.”22 The disappearance of humankind, DeLillo suggests, can be comprehended only by crafting a speculative, anachronistic subject that lingers beyond the scope of human time.

Such imagined disappearances frequently characterize what we might call the extinction humanities, a subcategory of the environmental humanities premised on what the end, and absence, of life on a mass scale means for human experience now. This speculative outlook exhibits a narrative valence; to make sense of our death, we must be able somehow to view the event after it has taken place. Sigmund Freud’s theorized death drive is a notable precursor to the extinction humanities with its explanation for the posttraumatic habits of soldiers returned from war, who effectively suffered a dislocation of narrative control.23 What Freud intuits in the individual psyche after World War I metastasizes during World War II into a collectively experienced social anxiety, informed by the emergence of a widespread material visual culture. Photographs of nuclear explosions, wartime atrocities, and the planet formed a visual program of postwar anxiety and apocalypticism. Furthermore, the global linkage of risks, and the capacity of new media technologies to transmit images of them, established an association between postwar precarity and planetary ecology: “The aesthetics, even erotics, of death is a long-running cultural concern in Western theory but one that today intersects with an emerging planetary consciousness,” writes Joseph Masco in a perceptive analysis of Freud: “one that demands scaling local dangers up to the earthly sphere and back again.”24 The death drive assumes global proportions after World War II with the rise of the planetary media ecology: a worldwide information infrastructure by which various extinctive transmissions—from images of nuclear detonations to aerial photos of oil spills—circulate the earth.

The immediacy of extinction introduces a sense of lived futurity to everyday life. Such a concept of futurity is unique to our post-1960s contemporary moment, in which the consolidation of ecological knowledge, technoscience, and industrial acceleration have given rise to what Masco calls the “Age of Fallout,” or “a way of recasting historical categories and periodizations to recognize the future-oriented planetary environmental consequences of historical and ongoing industrial activity.”25 Masco’s fallout carries a powerful dual meaning: the fallout of nuclear war, but also the disorienting experience of living in the aftermath of disaster, in a world driven by consumption, contamination, and exploitation. The year 1960 marks the beginning of a broadening social awareness about large-scale eco-catastrophes, originating in works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and expanding like a mushroom cloud in Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989).26 Coincidentally, Silent Spring was published in the year of the October Crisis, a singular moment in Cold War history that nearly escalated to violent conflict, and The End of Nature in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. These parallel histories form what might be called an archive of ongoing extinction, the slow engineering of humanity’s nonexistence inscribed in planetary media. The Cold War and the increasing frequency of eco-catastrophes since 1960 are complementary narratives that orient humanity toward nonexistence, albeit according to different ideological investments and value systems.

It has been the tendency of industrialists and politicians to write off eco-catastrophes as anomalies—as bugs rather than features of capitalist development. Yet, if we adjust our settings, reframe the capitalist plot, and seriously consider the escalating intensity and frequency of such disasters, we find that progress quietly turns into precarity. Justin McBrien provocatively labels this account of precarity the Necrocene, arguing that the “history of environmentalism is the history of capitalism realizing its own principle of becoming extinction through the conceptual system of planetary catastrophism” (italics in original).27 Precarity takes hold at a global scale, manifesting as an elemental function of postindustrial capitalism and producing what Virilio calls “the delocalization of all accidents”—the simultaneous experiencing (or witnessing) of calamity via the new planetary media ecology (italics in original).28 Although Virilio’s interest is in the virtual experience afforded by telecommunications, he compares the experience of delocalization to that of radioactive fallout: “while radioactivity [is] able to circulate with impunity from East to West, contaminating entire continents in passing, the electromagnetic transmission system of the interactivity of future information superhighways is part of the same phenomenon of global reach” (italics in original).29 Like nuclear fallout, Virilio suggests, information follows complex and unpredictable paths, circumventing market barriers and state control.

Nuclear catastrophe and fallout produce a distinctly vertical scenario of postwar anxieties. Often detonated either belowground (as at test sites) or in the air above their targets (Little Boy, dropped by the Enola Gay, exploded hundreds of meters above Hiroshima), nuclear threats become a fixture of aerial and subterranean spaces. The Cold War fallout shelter introduces another element of extinctive verticality, carving out hollows in the planet where terrified citizens might gather in the event of an attack. Nuclear disaster wasn’t the only harbinger of extinction fueling the mid-twentieth century’s vertical imagination, however. As early as 1956, paleontologists hypothesized that one of the most iconic and debated extinction events in planetary history—the Cretaceous-Paleogene event, responsible for the eradication of nearly seventy-five percent of life on earth, including the dinosaurs—may have been the result of a meteor.30 Suddenly confronted with the possibility of impacts originating from beyond our atmosphere, scientists wrestled with the prospect of geological catastrophism, a paradigm long rejected by adherents of Charles Lyell’s gradualist uniformitarianism.31 In the late 1970s, geologist Walter Alvarez and his father, Luis, discovered evidence beneath the Yucatán Peninsula of an impact event marking the boundary between the Cretaceous and Paleogene. The discovery is accompanied by a historical irony: an experimental physicist, Luis Alvarez had observed the bombing of Hiroshima from a plane following the Enola Gay.32 A new vertical threat now loomed alongside nuclear war: that the planet floats in a vortex of so-called kill curves, orbital arcs of meteors coursing through the earth’s gravity well. “Astronomical observations of earth-crossing comets and asteroids of various sizes can be used to estimate the expected average times between collisions of large or small objects with earth,” writes geologist Michael Rampino; “Geologists must look up as well as down to unlock the story of our changing planet.”33 At roughly the same time that science introduces new vertical frameworks for thinking about the planet, the threat of extinction assumes a major role in cultural discourse.

Today, new challenges have been added to the list of pending global accidents. Climate change and disease outbreaks pose distinct threats to the security of peoples, communities, and countries. Our refusal to learn from these events in any long-term fashion speaks to our general inability to organize them narratively, to understand what is being written. Like Freud’s traumatized soldiers, our apparent failure to anticipate and internalize the markers of slow extinction leads to neurotic repetition at institutional levels. Historical recollections are insufficient to prepare ourselves; what we need, in Rob Nixon’s words, are “stories of anticipation.”34 Such stories recast the present as a stage upon which the future is prefigured, permutated, and authored. The prospect of extinction reintroduces the concept of the archive as a space that not only logs the past but outlines the future. As Claire Colebrook writes, extinction both fuels and compromises the archival impulse: “There can only be a human archive if the human body couples itself with various systems (inscriptive, technological, agricultural, scientific, moral, political, familial), but these same tendencies toward order are also generative of disorder” (italics in original).35 For Colebrook, the logic of inscription itself is intimately tied to the necessity of extinction. The pharmacological dynamic of deconstruction—the coexistence of the medicinal and the malign—describes the counterintuitive insight of humankind’s relationship to extinction: that we understand our current ecological predicament precisely through the very technologies that produced it. In the twenty-first century, the archival impulse bears a troubled relationship to extinction. With the expansion of new digital technologies and server farms, our extinction is being presciently archived in more ways than one: in the documentation of scientific knowledge but also in the planetary scars left by ballooning energy consumption.

Archival methods connote more than mere documentation, however; they tell us stories. Practices of archival identification, inclusion, and description reveal judgments that correspond to a particular vision of history. What can such practices tell us of the ways we understand our extinction, the very foreclosure of archivist activity? Where is the human in the context of endangerment? Where—and what—is the archive of an ongoing process? If, as Mark Bould suggests, the Anthropocene constitutes “the unconscious of ‘the art and literature of our time,’” then the archive undergoes a radical recontextualization.36 Planetary scale displaces categories once considered foundational, including those that oppose the legibility of the past to the obscurity of the future. The prospect of extinction broadens the relation between time and the archive. History is no longer restricted to the domain of that which has already happened, that which can be narrated in retrospect. The ecological depth of our industrial endeavors and the extent of their impact on the biosphere have extruded history into that which, counterintuitively, has not happened. Anthropocene temporality sets in motion narrative feedback loops that reveal archives of untold stories.

Our extinction is one such untold story. If humankind’s extinction has been augured by industrial activity, beginning with a historical state of affairs in which capital accumulation shifted from the earth’s surface to its subterranean mineral reserves, then we can think of human extinction as being vertically inscribed into the geophysical matter of the earth.37 The planetary present and future make up a geological script, one that is hardly linear; just as our industrial past determines our present and future, our postwar understanding of climate crisis conditions our perception of the past. In an illuminating reading of Anthropocene logic, Colebrook upends the linear understanding of humankind’s impact: that through its industrial modernity, our species disrupted a stable ecology. By contrast, she insists, it is the Anthropocene itself that produces the exceptionalist dream of a return to nature, of humankind engineering itself back to ecological stability.38 In a similar sense, extinction is not the result of a loss of nature or deviation from the natural; rather, it is the reality of extinction itself that produces the ideal of nature and valorizes the ideology of survival. Colebrook elsewhere describes the framework for this outlook, quite fittingly, as extinct theory, or the acknowledgment that theoretical discourse itself evolves from the precondition of extinction: “if theory after theory has any meaning, should it not refer to a hyperbolic and minimal theoretical condition in which we consider not simply the formal absence of a population but an actual disappearance?” (italics in original).39 Colebrook’s wager is not proposed lightly. How are humanists to make sense of a future not for humans? What do fiction and theory have to offer this dark imagination? How can we reconceive the archive in an age of extinction?

Much like DeLillo’s counter-archaeologists, Anthropocene archivists turn not to libraries, private documents, and other institutional collections, but to the “curatorial spaces,” in Kathryn Yusoff’s words, that compose our geophysical verticality: landfills, boreholes, orbital arcs, nuclear debris and fallout, and the dispossessed and buried remains of colonial genocide.40 These spaces provide a documentation of the past as well as a strong intimation of our planetary future. Here we encounter not, as Jacques Derrida once suggested, “a total and remainderless destruction of the archive,” but a redescription of the archive as geological material.41 As observers of these Anthropocene archives, we perceive ourselves in new relations with other species and earth systems, our behaviors installing themselves in the long consequences of geological and atmospheric temporalities. In such archives, the distinctions between human and nonhuman traces blur, but not in a way that diminishes the value of our stories: “Art and writing are pulsations that are irreducible to the cosmos,” Colebrook writes, “but also in vibration with the cosmos—the chaosmos. Those modes of writing [ . . . ] are responding to the new rhythms of the earth—writing that aims to imagine what it might be to perceive a world without humans.”42 Insofar as the Anthropocene leaves constitutive impressions on the planet, our species courts extinction as an ongoing process and practice of ecological upheaval—an archival geology of cultural production on a planetary scale.

The concept of archival geology troubles familiar distinctions of media and periodization. As the temporal scale expands to include the planetary, classifications between, for example, the Victorian and Cold War eras appear increasingly miniscule. It would be a mistake to lose sight of our archival and disciplinary frameworks altogether, however. Archival geology directs us to consider the differences that characterize media, history, and region with interdisciplinary rigor—to understand the ways that human forms are attuned to their planetary being, conscious of their entanglement with geophysical processes. In archival geology, we bear witness to the excesses and aesthetic interventions of human civilization (particularly in the industrial and postindustrial eras) as well as the liminal spaces where these human forms bleed into the planetary nonhuman. The meaning of something such as Robert Smithson’s iconic work of land art, Spiral Jetty (1970), for instance, changes with fluctuating water levels of the Great Salt Lake. Novels like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) and Hari Kunzru’s White Tears (2017) assume new meanings both with the unearthing of mass graves of Black and Indigenous peoples and with our broader understanding of the modern carceral state’s impact on local environments. Moreover, archival geology encourages us to look at the ecological meanings not only of aesthetic works but also those of scientific, industrial, and political provenance. Abandoned mines, disused subway systems, dead satellites, landfills, energy infrastructures, and other cultural leftovers transform into ambiguous traces as they drift in obsolescence along planetary pathways. Insofar as the Anthropocene underwrites our continued commitment to humanist study and cultural critique, it expands our network of focus to include the slow (but accelerating) reactions through which cultural objects, including literature, enter the domain of the planet.

Defining and Periodizing Anthropocene Fiction

The incorporation of vertical perspectives in postwar fiction enables its writers to address the planetary domain so central to our modern ecological project, which includes both environmental justice and postcolonial redress, in the harsh light of the Anthropocene. For environmental humanists and ecocritics, this means negotiating the feedback loops that locate regional disruptions within larger global networks, as Ursula K. Heise has lucidly demonstrated.43 Heise’s methodological reframing and emphasis on the role of global risk in ecocritical discourse set in motion much enterprising scholarship that aimed to bring a global, if not planetary, consciousness to bear on local challenges and injustices—from Nixon’s “transnational ethics of place” to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s call to “connect deep and recorded histories and put geological time and the biological time of evolution in conversation with the time of human history and experience.”44 Embodied in narrative techniques of zooming in and out, floating above and delving beneath, verticality configures a set of metaphorical and rhetorical gestures by which post-1960 fictions mediate our ability to think across local and global scales.

Zooming in and out mobilizes questions of scale by suturing discrete perspectives. Scale is discernible not in the details of given images or representations but in the relations between these details and those of alternative viewpoints. In Joshua DiCaglio’s reading of the educational Powers of Ten films (1977), which situate the earth in relation to microscopic and macrocosmic orders of magnitude, zoom techniques are crucial to scientific practices that produce “knowledge at the planetary scale by observing differences that are discernible at the level of the planet. It is because these knowledges are so disjointed that we need something to tie these disparate scales of observation together to portray scale itself.”45 In Powers of Ten, the shifting magnitude clarifies the ways that scale intervenes in our perception, revealing and concealing various particulars. But how does this specifically visual and spatial effect manifest in literary narrative? In the chapters that follow, I demonstrate that literary verticality yields an aesthetic and critical provocation for readers: in the narrative descriptions and experiences that attend their vertical moments, these fictions introduce temporal impressions in which human existence finds itself possessed by the specter of its own extinction. Put another way, the texts on which I focus deploy vertical perspectives to underscore humankind’s sedimentation within broader scales of geological time, both preceding and following the lifespan of our species on the planet.

These literary works engage the Anthropocene through techniques of ekphrastic verticality, geological perspective, and planetary focalization, rather than by plotting human actors in an overdetermined causal relationship with environmental crisis. As Min Hyoung Song argues, narratives of climate fiction frequently fall victim to Edenic dreams of prelapsarian nature, fantasies of human mastery, and other constructs that reintroduce teleological certainty. According to Song, these narrative frameworks are inextricable from the very cultural ideologies that have exacerbated climate change: “Not only are many available forms of storytelling ill equipped to imagine climate change, it would seem, but they replicate the very ways of knowing that have made the problem more possible and that obscure the kinds of literary forms that might emerge from the world as it is.”46 He identifies here a crucial dilemma at the core of environmental narratives—the seeming inability of plot to compensate for the multiplicity of human behaviors and worldly possibilities—and argues that climate fictions might structure themselves around the open-endedness of plot as a means to counter futility.47 Vertical negotiations of scale offer a means of visualizing such open-endedness by situating potential futures within the material present. The vertical imagination of post-1960 fiction is an aesthetic answer to the challenges of planetary scale and ecological disruption, offering a metaphorical optics through which humans might conjure alternative presents.

For this reason, I refer to the major texts in this book as Anthropocene fiction rather than climate fiction—much less postwar or postmodernist fiction, neither of which conveys the planetary scope these texts express. Although suspicious of grand narratives, Anthropocene fiction deviates from postmodernism’s narrative iconoclasm in that it affirms a picture of planetwide metamorphosis set in motion by human industry. The Anthropocene may begin with humans, but it likely won’t end with us. As an epoch of human-induced environmental upheaval that is initiating a widespread sixth extinction, which may include even humanity’s extinction, the Anthropocene has the strong potential to outlast human existence on earth.48 Anthropocene fictions direct us to intuit the ways that our nonhuman past and future permeate the present, opening onto new planetary vistas as a means of expressing the gulfs of deep time. However, they also reveal the ways that human culture and civilization have infused themselves into the planet, altering its systems and processes, and catalyzing the very disruptions we seek to remedy through our sciences and technologies. In this respect, Writing Our Extinction shares some concerns with Adam Trexler’s noteworthy Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (2015); but whereas Trexler argues that “nearly all Anthropocene fiction addresses the historical tension between the existence of catastrophic global warming and the failed obligation to act,” I claim that much Anthropocene fiction is not ostensibly about climate change at all.49 Rather, post-1960 Anthropocene fiction works to focalize vertically the geophysical mesh in which climate change occurs and in which human actors conceptualize the sensitivity of their actions (or inaction).

We are not all of us similarly enmeshed, of course, nor do all humans share equal (or even comparable) responsibility for environmental justice. As a concept, the Anthropocene remains perpetually problematic and pale in color. Binaries of life and death, human and nonhuman, and natural and artificial have often worked to obscure the contours of racial dispossession and exploitation that inform the Anthropocene in many ways. In the last several years, numerous scholars have offered provocative rebrandings such as Capitalocene, Plantationocene, and Chthulucene.50 These labels speak to various social, racial, and economic inequities as well as the disproportionate distribution of environmental effects in the postindustrial world. They reveal histories and contingencies often overlooked in broad appeals to the Anthropocene, most crucially those pertaining to the forces of capital, racism, and the widespread exploitation of newly discovered planetary resources: “the slave trade consisted of not only the organized deportation of millions of Africans to continents and islands,” writes Françoise Vergès, “but also a massive transfer of plants, animals, diseases, soil, techniques, and manufactured goods from Europe.”51 The Anthropocene is not a story of humans, in other words, but of specific humans and systems. It is a story of economically and racially motivated restructuring and extraction, reducing human bodies to instruments of political and industrial power. Writing Our Extinction makes these dynamics visible within the unfolding contours of what we often call the Anthropocene, and at various times foregrounds Capitalocene, Plantationocene, and other -cene narratives. Histories of exploitation, dispossession, exclusion, and violence form the bedrock of modernity’s material reconstitution of the planet. Only by coordinating these multiply interacting systems can we comprehend the full depth of the Anthropocene’s impact.

The interactivity of systems has attracted the attention of literary scholars over the past decade or so, both in ecocriticism and beyond. Critics as varied as Cary Wolfe, Bruce Clarke, Priscilla Wald, Kate Marshall, David Alworth, Caroline Levine, Nathan Hensley, Philip Steer, Anna Kornbluh, Heather Houser, Michael Dango, and Carolyn Lesjak have been drawn to the relationships between system, network, assemblage, and other signifiers of complex arrangements, putting questions of form in conversation with history, culture, and material practice.52 Lucidly summed up by Levine, many of these systems-oriented analyses reveal “that networks and enclosures are constantly meeting, sometimes sustaining and reinforcing one another, at other times creating threats and obstacles.”53 Such an outlook is useful for reading Anthropocene fiction, which coordinates the historical encounters between human and planetary systems. Forms are unstable but material sites constantly being redetermined by the dynamics of contact playing out within and between them. In Devin Griffiths’s helpful reframing, form is “a promiscuous feature of the world,” a contingent occurrence within an ecology of material relations.54 Although not traditionally formalist, such attention to form suggests that certain aesthetic variations of the novel enable authors to elucidate the many manifestations and multidimensional effects of systems in the postwar Anthropocene. Put another way, form matters for the ways authors envision and depict persons, technologies, and other cultural agents within shifting planetary networks.

Insofar as they court the relations between and among social, discursive, and planetary bodies, Anthropocene fictions do not conform to standard genre, modal, or stylistic boundaries. They include works of historical fiction (such as DeLillo’s Underworld [1997]), magical realism (Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest [1990]), science fiction (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars [1993]), Southern Gothic (Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing [2017]), and other hybrid literary modes. Rather, the term Anthropocene fiction triangulates three elements: a technique of ekphrastic verticality, a conceptual engagement with planetary scale, and a post-1960 periodization. As in any attempt at periodization, there are outliers and complications in my categorization of Anthropocene fiction. Noticeably, the novels on which I focus tend to cluster not around the late-1960s and 1970s but in the period after 1980. The reasons for this include escalating ecological and industrial crises, but it is also the case that the Anthropocene as a term did not find voice until the 1980s and wasn’t popularized until the 2000s. Furthermore, the extension of speculative narratives into mainstream spheres of cultural production (from Netflix originals to Oprah’s Book Club) has led to new literary transformations.55 Anthropocene fiction emerges and operates within this transformative timeline as a narrative mode that is vertically attuned to humankind’s planetary context.

Although climate change is an increasingly urgent component of this planetary context, it is rarely the explicit concern of Writing Our Extinction. Even after the publication of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature and the meeting of the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (in 1990), Anthropocene fiction has not become expressly climatological but comprehensively ecological. Landfills and air travel, pollution and boreholes, satellites and nuclear test sites—all are complicit in anthropogenic climate change, constituting a multitude of apertures through which human agency transfers into the realm of the planetary. By drawing on vertical perspectives and impressions from the sciences, Anthropocene fiction uncovers these apertures and casts them as intimately wedded to a post-regional, planetwide geophysics. Writing Our Extinction puts landfills in communication with air travel, boreholes in communication with pollution, nuclear test sites in communication with satellites, and reveals the vertical networks that link them together. Through this network, a distinctly post-1960 material culture of the earth emerges.

Another way of putting this is that Writing Our Extinction presents these varied scientific and industrial developments as entangled. These entanglements are not merely spatial but extend into the temporal such that past and future become entangled with the present, and disparate temporal scales become ambiguously enmeshed. For instance, the histories of human civilization and industrialization become entangled with the geological past, and the planet’s anthropogenically altered future entangles with its present. Traffic jams elicit intimations of prehistoric extinction events (as in DeLillo’s Underworld); the imagined future colonization and extractive infrastructure of Mars recalls the vast earthmoving and land reclamation projects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (as in Robinson’s Red Mars); and the organizational models of the antebellum plantation and forced labor under Jim Crow dovetail with depictions of the racist and environmentally harmful practices of the postwar carceral state (as in Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing). Through this multitude of overlapping and intersecting temporalities, Anthropocene novels evince a variation of what Nixon calls “slow violence,” or the manifestation of injustices over timescales that prevent these injustices from being seen as violent, especially by those who benefit materially from them.56 Likewise, Anthropocene fiction reframes humankind’s relationship to its own extinction, presenting readers with a slow extinction that has already begun even if its culmination remains uncertain: a gradual vanishing “that unravels great tissues of ways of going on in the world for many species, including historically situated people,” in Donna Haraway’s words.57 Thinking of extinction not as an event but as a process, an unfolding, an unraveling—less an object than a hyperobject, an entity that pervades imperceptibly large dimensions of space and time—allows us to conceive it as both a geophysical phenomenon and a narrative practice.58 To the extent that our culture leaves its mark on the planet, it remains as a trace within the “sequence of rocks” that future geologists might read.

From our place on the surface of the planet, with familiar surroundings and the comfort of stable horizons, it is often difficult to intuit the multiple temporalities circumscribed by the Anthropocene; but when we find ourselves suddenly displaced along vertical perspectives, new realities come into focus. By diverting our attention toward the processes taking place above and below us, verticality helps us think of the deep time of geology, the seeping contamination of landfills, the extraction of raw materials, and even the earth system as a whole. It lets us imagine ourselves as microscopic organisms when observed from the distance of an orbital satellite; and it allows us to conceptualize the ground beneath our feet not as a place, a region, or a country, but as a planet. Verticality aids us in navigating the disorientations of scale—in seeing ourselves not only as a culture or civilization but as a planetary force akin to weather, waterfalls, tectonic plates, and global climate. It permits us to see ourselves, as Arnarulunnguaq once did, as extinct—as geo-relics, future fossils. Along with the analogy between industrial intervention and writing, verticality gives rise to another literary analogy, between distant and close reading. This is a messy analogy, and I do not mean to suggest that satellite views correspond to distant reading and examining geological core samples corresponds to close reading. Different scales afford different kinds of information and new patterns of connectivity. Shifting between distant and close reading requires us to recalibrate our scopes, as does shifting between the orbital and the subterranean. The analogy here underscores a negotiation of scale. Just as literary critics adjust their expectations and intuit unique features depending on the scale of their methodology, so too do scientists. As a text, the planet is a body that invites radical modifications of scale.

The major writers found in this study—Don DeLillo, Hari Kunzru, Reza Negarestani, Tim O’Brien, Thomas Pynchon, Kim Stanley Robinson, Jesmyn Ward, Colson Whitehead, and Karen Tei Yamashita—address and render scale to different degrees and from different directions, yet all invoke the aesthetics of verticality. They complement these aesthetics, which draw significantly on the visual culture of a planetary media ecology, with temporal reframings that put human characters in touch with their geological genealogies and fossil futures. Extinction often remains a spectral presence in novels of the Anthropocene, yet one that informs their aesthetic and conceptual maneuvers. Insofar as the Anthropocene names an epoch centered on the industrious power of the human species, it all but guarantees humankind’s disappearance. The categorical applicability of the Anthropocene is simultaneously constituted and dissolved by the representational limit of human extinction: “If at some point we vanish,” geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes, “it is likely no one else will fret about the definition of the Anthropocene.”59 The Anthropocene will both persist after we’re gone and become epistemologically irrelevant. In keeping with this paradoxical feature, Anthropocene fiction deploys aesthetic and perspectival strategies that court indeterminacy, if not impossibility: points of view that permit unlikely details, details that inform incommensurable proclamations of objectivity, and overlapping timelines experienced simultaneously. Readers and characters of Anthropocene fiction face up to the counterintuitive realization that, as Roy Scranton ominously puts it, “this civilization is already dead” (italics in original).60 Confronted with the knowledge that humans have left an inscription in the annals of geological time—one that also imperils our continued existence on this planet—we cannot help but imagine ourselves as somehow already extinct: as, in the words of Underworld narrator Nick Shay, “the species factually absent from the scene [ . . . ].”61

The Structure of This Book

Addressing these intersections of extinction, verticality, and narrative, Chapter 1 gives an account of the kind of fiction Writing Our Extinction takes as its primary subject, the post-1960 Anthropocene novel. Post-1960 Anthropocene fiction does not denote a specific style or literary mode, but a particular confluence of narrative, cultural, and visual dynamics that engage the issues of scale and representation in the Anthropocene epoch. The chapter examines the interplay of these dynamics and the ways that they illuminate an emerging ecological consciousness in a major work of late-twentieth-century fiction: Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997). Often noted for its encyclopedic form and dark perspective on the Cold War United States, Underworld is rarely discussed for its environmental themes, which include toxic waste, nuclear testing, and land use. Moreover, DeLillo repeatedly connects these themes to activities of elevation and excavation, making conceptual links to the midcentury vertical sciences. Placing Underworld and other DeLillo works in conversation with twentieth-century land artist Robert Smithson, I argue that this author cultivates an aesthetic of planetary realism, illuminating the ecological consciousness of the Anthropocene. Ironically, Underworld’s planetary aesthetics also direct us toward the deep complicities between such consciousness and the industries that made it possible, revealing the post‒World War II decades as a period of strong Anthropocene emergence that we call the Great Acceleration.

The only chapter to focus on a single writer, Chapter 1 also argues for DeLillo as a writer whose long career—especially from 1976 and Ratner’s Star to 2010 and Point Omega—offers a uniquely sustained literary account of the Anthropocene across multiple novels and writings. Identifying Underworld as the apotheosis of this account, I claim that it frames its post‒World War II outlook as a retrospective on not the Cold War but rather the Great Acceleration, the postwar and postindustrial phase of the Anthropocene. Despite its specific chronological focus, Underworld repeatedly exceeds these temporal limits, indexing a geological time beyond human measure—resulting in what I call the novel’s archival geology. The representational challenge of archival geology—a concept that includes the industrially driven annihilation of the human species—engenders a paradoxical feeling of proleptic extinction. Over the course of its eight hundred‒plus pages, Underworld affords readers multiple opportunities to engage the prospect of their own proleptic extinction: the sensation of reading-while-extinct. In its encyclopedic coverage of the latter twentieth century and its serious engagement with the ecological fragility of postindustrial society, Underworld (especially when viewed alongside other entries in DeLillo’s oeuvre) serves as an exemplar of what Anthropocene fiction is and what its literary effects are.

The remaining chapters of this book move on from establishing the effects of Anthropocene fiction to examining the complex cultural relationship between several literary texts and key scientific, technological, and industrial developments in the vertical sciences. Chapter 2 turns its attention to geological questions in the wake of the IGY, with particular attention to Project Mohole. Proposed as a way to resolve the controversy over continental movement, Project Mohole undertook the unprecedented task (outside of fiction, at least) of drilling to the planet’s mantle and taking core samples. In addition to demonstrating the project’s ambiguous scientific goals and proximity to the oil industry, this chapter argues that Project Mohole unearthed a geological unconscious in twentieth-century culture that surfaced in multiple works of fiction. I identify this geological unconscious in several moholean texts: Hugh Walters’s The Mohole Mystery (1968), DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1976), Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest (1990), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1992), and Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008). This chapter thinks of processes of drilling, excavating, and exhuming as inscriptive practices, etching a story of human industry upon the planet that necessarily includes humankind’s extinction. The fictional narratives that I observe in this chapter imagine parallels between writing and undermining, writing as an act of engineering the planet.

Presenting their narratives as analogous expressions of geoengineering, these writers reconceive extinction as a gradual consequence being written by concurrent industrial practices. In each writer’s work, Project Mohole’s legacy surfaces in different ways and to different degrees. Walters, DeLillo, and Robinson refer to the concept explicitly, whereas Yamashita and Negarestani amplify the cultural anxieties born out of Mohole’s speculative efforts. Together, their novels participate in crafting, along with Project Mohole itself, a sense of subterranean uncertainty that I call speculative geology. This uncertainty entails not just an epistemological gap but an existential worry: that the ground below our feet might turn out to be hollow, lacking the carboniferous remains that provide us with energy, or even horrifyingly alive, an agent in unforeseen ways.

Chapter 3 continues these subterranean concerns, but pairs them with concerns from above: specifically, issues of satellite surveillance and nuclear damage. Unlike previous studies that have addressed the nuclear threat as visited upon the United States by foreign powers, however, I turn my attention to the nuclear anxieties embodied in the earthmoving fantasies of Project Plowshare and the surveillance network of orbital satellites. Although Plowshare experimented with what it called peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs), environmental groups saw the potential for vast ecological damage in the controlled detonations—damage that would eventually be realized in nuclear catastrophes such as occurred in the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl reactors. These nuclear anxieties had less to do with the apocalyptic dread of potential annihilation than with unpredictable consequences emanating from the scale of planned explosions. The height of atmospheric elevation provided human observers with a vantage (both physical and metaphorical) from which to comprehend the transformation of the planet’s surface by atomic detonations. In this way, even the PNEs of Project Plowshare invited vertical speculations on the future of the earth.

The chapter focuses on three texts of varying length, style, and complexity: Don DeLillo’s short story “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age (1985), and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). DeLillo’s and O’Brien’s works both invoke the aerial perspectives of orbital technologies; “Human Moments” features two characters in an orbital space station, and the narrator of The Nuclear Age entertains perceptual fantasies of circling above the earth. Together, these texts illuminate a perspectival dimension that I call the orbital field: a narrative point of view that puts the planet into a new focus. Complementing this orbital space, O’Brien’s narrator also digs a fallout shelter in his backyard and concocts a scheme for selling uranium to energy companies, combining the subterranean vector of speculative geology with the atmospheric anxieties of fallout. The Nuclear Age features several moments of aerial and geological contemplation, imagining its human narrator as inhabiting not a horizontal landscape but a vertical continuum, providing his satirical narrative with an often unhinged and disorienting tone. Finally, the chapter skips back in time to 1973 and Gravity’s Rainbow. After the explicitly vertical and planetary perspectives of DeLillo and O’Brien, Pynchon’s landmark text reveals itself to be an important genealogical marker—not only of postmodernist fiction but of environmentally concerned Anthropocene writing. This chapter attends to the novel’s ecological characteristics and interests, and its framing of them within vertical dimensions implicit in wartime technologies. Gravity’s Rainbow gives expression to an emergent planetary consciousness in which energy, verticality, and extinction are entangled, producing an experimental form that encourages new points of view.

The fourth chapter vocalizes a question the project’s title begs: namely, whose extinction? Here, I reframe colonialism’s relationship to midcentury science in light of longer racist histories in the United States. This chapter looks at several contemporary works that revolve around the lasting legacies of racism and slavery, and their associations with verticality: Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999) and The Underground Railroad (2016), Hari Kunzru’s White Tears (2017), and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017). Each of these works telegraphs the convergence of ecological damage and racial injustice, establishing a geophysical link between the land management practices of slavery in the Americas with the large-scale industrialism in the late twentieth century. In particular, these writers highlight the ways in which postindustrial institutions such as the modern carceral state, waste and pollution, policing, and earthmoving projects all emerge from the long history of slavery in the United States. The mid-twentieth-century vertical sciences thereby appear as one stage in the development of American land management, which finds its modern origins in the plantation.

In its focus on the racial dynamics that inform the Anthropocene, Chapter 4 attends to issues of oppression, exploitation, and labor that form a rich theoretical intersection between social and environmental justice. I elaborate this intersection through a concept that I call fossil labor, a practice of cyclical exploitation in which Black bodies are managerially forced to work the earth while simultaneously being associated or identified with the earth. This relationship gives rise to a sense of Black planetarity in which writers of color imagine a mode of radical resistance by aligning themselves (and their characters) with a planet that subverts efforts at imperial domination. Drawing on theories of racial geography and geology, I claim that these writers envision Black resistance as rising through geophysical matter, pushing back against White oppression by manifesting as an extinctive force. Just as Western science gives rise to the environmental hazards that invite extinction, White racism gives rise to the social hazards that undermine its institutions.

Writing Our Extinction ends with a short “underview” that considers the idea of resilience in the face of environmental collapse, and the ways in which planetary authorship and the extinction humanities can give us a nuanced sense of recuperative agency. Looking at Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), a work of Black planetarity not previously mentioned, this conclusion reminds readers of the significance that authorship and narrative have for marginalized and dispossessed communities. The destabilizing perspectives that accompany vertical science and planetary authorship reveal new accounts of our ecological place and representative strategies for telling the human story in ways that account for our differences. Planetary experience asks that we acknowledge such differences while working to imagine new modes of communication, empathy, and collective agency. Only through such imaginative work is there hope of writing resilience into the extinction we have authored thus far.


Introduction: The Vertical Anthropocene

1. Although coined in the 1980s, the term Anthropocene was popularized by Paul Crutzen in the early 2000s. See Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’IGPB Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18; and Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (January 2002): 23, Delineations of the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration have occupied scholars for the past two decades, prompting numerous interventions and publications. On the development of the Great Acceleration as a period of the Anthropocene, see Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?,” Ambio 36, no. 8 (2007): 614–621,[614:TAAHNO]2.0.CO;2. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s recent work theorizes the implications of the Anthropocene for historiographic work and provides an extensive overview of the relationship between climate science and the humanities. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021). For more on the relationship between the Great Acceleration and environmental injustice, see Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 12–14. For a broader overview of Great Acceleration history, see J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016).

2. McKenzie Wark has pointed out the irony that our understanding of anthropogenic climate change owes much to wartime technologies that themselves contributed to environmental damage. See McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (London: Verso, 2015), 170–182. For a more extensive overview of the relationship between military technology and emerging climate science, see Paul Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010). Finally, although mining and drilling (not to mention industrial modernity writ large) predate 1945, the postwar era witnessed an explosion in resource extraction as energy demands skyrocketed and profits were funneled through a small number of multinational conglomerates. See Martín Arboleda, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 2020), 245–246.

3. Rey Chow, The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 31.

4. See Michelle M. Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 92.

5. See Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski, eds., Critique and Postcritique (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

6. Anna Kornbluh, “Extinct Critique,” South Atlantic Quarterly 119, no. 4 (2020): 771,

7. See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (2006), trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008), 10; and Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (London: Palgrave, 2010), 230.

8. For more on Earthrise’s impact and circulation, see Bruce Clarke, Gaian Systems: Lynn Margulis, Neocybernetics, and the End of the Anthropocene (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 102–106.

9. “Chasing the Moon Transcript: Part Two,” American Experience, WGBH Educational Foundation, As Clarke notes, the original image was altered and rotated to give the perspectival impression of an earthrise. See Clarke, Gaian Systems, 103.

10. Eugene Kennedy, “Earthrise: The Dawning of a New Spiritual Awareness,” New York Times, April 15, 1979, Mere months before Earthrise was taken, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog released its premier issue, featuring a 1967 composite digital image of earth taken by the ATS-3 satellite. See Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools (Fall 1968), Brand would include Earthrise itself on the cover of the 1969 issue of the Catalog. For more on Anders’s photograph and its cultural implications, see Benjamin Lazier, “Earthrise; or, the Globalization of the World Picture,” American Historical Review 116, no. 3 (2011): 602–630,

11. See Nigel Clark and Bronislaw Szerszynski, Planetary Social Thought: The Anthropocene Challenge to the Social Sciences (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021); and Jan Zalasiewicz, The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Zalasiewicz’s work as a geologist and as Chair of the Anthropocene Working Group has been instrumental in re-envisioning human activity along a vertical axis, particularly insofar as recent science is challenging the conventional divide between human by-products and “natural” rock, as seen for example in the emergence of plastiglomerates. See Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “The Geological Cycle of Plastics and Their Use As a Stratigraphic Indicator,” Anthropocene 13 (2016): 4–17, See also Ian Klinke, “On the History of a Subterranean Geopolitics,” Geoforum 127 (2021): 356–363,

12. Final frontier is a term made famous by the television series Star Trek in the 1960s. For more on the deep frontier, see Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (London: Verso, 2016), 365–387.

13. See Benjamin W. Goossen, “A Benchmark for the Environment: Big Science and ‘Artificial’ Geophysics in the Global 1950s,” Journal of Global History 15, no. 1 (2020): 149–168, For background on the geopolitical dynamics of the IGY (particularly between the United States and the Soviet Union), see Jon Agar, Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), 343–348.

14. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 1; and Alexander Marshack, The World in Space: The Story of the International Geophysical Year (New York: Dell, 1958), 171.

15. For more on the rhetorical confluence of liberalism and spaceflight, as well as the lingering specter of colonialism, see Dale Carter, The Final Frontier: The Rise and Fall of the American Rocket State (London: Verso, 1988), 200–209.

16. Goossen, “Benchmark,” 154. Martín Arboleda underscores the dynamic between verticality and energy extraction in the twentieth century, linking the mining of planetary resources with the rise of the United States to “the status of indisputable superpower during most of the twentieth century,” a geopolitical and economic supremacy founded on the exploitation of fossil fuels. See Arboleda, Planetary, 12.

17. Marshack, World, 13.

18. Martin Heidegger, “‘Only a God Can Save Us’: Der Spiegel’s Interview with Martin Heidegger,” in The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, ed. Richard Wolin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 105–106.

19. Paul Virilio, Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose (London: Verso, 2008), 41.

20. See Les U. Knight, “The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement,” VHEMT,

21. Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street (New York: Penguin, 1994), 209.

22. Ibid.

23. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 10–12.

24. Joseph Masco, “The Six Extinctions: Visualizing Planetary Ecological Crisis Today,” in After Extinction, ed. Richard Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 83.

25. Joseph Masco, The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 18.

26. For a helpful treatment of the distinctions between natural disaster and eco-catastrophe, see Kate Rigby, Dancing with Disaster: Environmental Histories, Narratives, and Ethics for Perilous Times (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 16–23.

27. Justin McBrien, “Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene,” in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason W. Moore (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016), 119.

28. Paul Virilio, Open Sky, 69.

29. Ibid., 70.

30. Michael R. Rampino, Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 29.

31. Lyell’s theory of uniformity and its acceptance by geologists has had a long and complicated history. For more on its influence and the mischaracterizations that often accompanied it, see Stephen Jay Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 115–132.

32. Rampino, Cataclysms, 32.

33. Ibid., 60.

34. Nixon, Slow, 216.

35. Claire Colebrook, “Extinguishing Ability: How We Became Postextinction Persons,” in Eco-Deconstruction: Derrida and Environmental Philosophy, ed. Matthias Fritsch, Philippe Lynes, and David Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 268–269.

36. Mark Bould, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (London: Verso, 2021), 15.

37. For more on the transition from land-based agricultural forms of capital to forms based on mineral reserves, see Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016), 320–326. For a speculative treatment of the broader dynamics unfolding between capitalism and extinction, see Ashley Dawson, Extinction: A Radical History (New York: OR Books, 2016).

38. Claire Colebrook, “We Have Always Been Post-Anthropocene: The Anthropocene Counterfactual,” in Anthropocene Feminism, ed. Richard Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 18–19.

39. Claire Colebrook, Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, vol. 1 (London: Open Humanities Press, 2014), 43.

40. Kathryn Yusoff, “Epochal Aesthetics: Affectual Infrastructures of the Anthropocene,” in Accumulation: The Art, Architecture, and Media of Climate Change, ed. Nick Axel, Daniel A. Barber, Nikolaus Hirsch, and Anton Vidokle, an e-flux Architecture volume (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022), 15.

41. Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives),” trans. Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis, Diacritics 14, no. 2 (1984): 27,

42. Colebrook, Death, 226–227.

43. See Ursula K. Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 59.

44. See Nixon, Slow, 245; and Chakrabarty, Climate, 7.

45. Joshua DiCaglio, Scale Theory: A Nondisciplinary Inquiry (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 233.

46. Min Hyoung Song, Climate Lyricism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), 107.

47. Ibid., 116–120.

48. For more on the discourse and concern surrounding a sixth extinction, see Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014). For accounts of humankind’s short-lived existence on the planet—and the planet’s ability to outlast us—see Adam Frank, “Earth Will Survive. We May Not,” The New York Times, June 12, 2018,; and John Greene, “Humanity’s Temporal Range,” in The Anthropocene Reviewed (New York: Dutton, 2021), 13–21.

49. Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 9. For more on the distinctions between the Anthropocene and climate change as descriptive categories, see Julia Adeney Thomas, Mark Williams, and Jan Zalasiewicz, The Anthropocene: A Multidisciplinary Approach (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2020), 69–86.

50. For an entertaining and intelligent treatment of the list of -cenes, see Bould, Anthropocene, 7–9.

51. Françoise Vergès, “Racial Capitalocene,” in Futures of Black Radicalism, ed. Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (London: Verso, 2017), chap. 4, ProQuest Ebrary.

52. For early applications of systems theory in literary studies, see Tom LeClair, In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1987); and Cary Wolfe, Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the “Outside” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). For studies that bring together systemic topics across a range of disciplines, including literary criticism, environmentalism, sociology, history of science, visual media, architecture, and more, see the following: Bruce Clarke, Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008); Priscilla Wald, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Kate Marshall, Corridor: Media Architectures in American Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); David J. Alworth, Site Reading: Art, Fiction, Social Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Nathan K. Hensley and Philip Steer, eds., Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019); Anna Kornbluh, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019); Heather Houser, Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020); Michael Dango, Crisis Style: The Aesthetics of Repair (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021); and Carolyn Lesjak, The Afterlife of Enclosure: British Realism, Character, and the Commons (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).

53. Levine, Forms, 119.

54. Devin Griffiths, “The Ecology of Form,” Critical Inquiry 48, no. 1 (2021): 71,

55. See the essays in Rachel Greenwald Smith, ed., American Literature in Transition, 2000–2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), especially Lee Konstantinou, “Neorealist Fiction,” 109–124; Kate Marshall, “New Wave Fabulism and Hybrid Science Fictions,” 76–87; and Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, “Climate Change Fiction,” 309–321.

56. See Nixon, Slow, 6–10.

57. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 38.

58. See Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 1–24.

59. Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 131.

60. Roy Scranton, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” in Energy Humanities: An Anthology, ed. Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 388.

61. Don DeLillo, Underworld (New York: Scribner, 1998), 63.