Creating cultural historiographies in Erin Swan’s Walk the Vanished Earth
There is a certain tension of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction that exudes a curious prairiecore vibe. I’m not talking about flare-skirted dresses and basket weaving, but about dreamlike journeys through a semi-rural American landscape that take understated, down-to-earth approaches to sci-fi. station eleven is probably the best-known example of this trend that I literally just made up (full disclosure, I’ve only seen the show) – and sometimes, a bit of Greedy and some of Westworld HBO series.
This subgenre (I’m hesitant to use prairiepunk, which has apparently been claimed by a specific fandom – I’m hesitant to use “-punk” appellations at all) is filled with visual explorations of our relationship with the natural environment. at the dawn of renewal. It’s a breeding ground for obsolete or hidden technologies that are romanticized and mythologized by various characters. There’s a sense of movement, drifting, and even a bit of the surreal Midwestern vibe that Samuel R. Delany captured so well in Dalgren– a literary oddity that lesser science fiction writers aspire (and fail) to replicate. And like life on the prairie, there’s also this central pillar of family — biological or otherwise — and the way people cling to each other’s ideas.
Explore the Lost Earth follows the same paths with convincing, sometimes confusing results.
Erin Swan’s debut novel tells tales of a strange American dynasty spanning two centuries: the 1870s, 1930s, 1970s, 1990s/2000s and a distant future on Mars where the last descendant from the dysfunctional family Samson becomes responsible for reviving humanity. The Martian is Moon, a young human raised by her two strange uncles on a planet of dust, until the day when their small nomadic group arrives in an abandoned space station. It is here that Moon finally begins to uncover his past and understand the beginnings of his future.
For all its time jumps, the story orbits around a very tight set of quasi-Puritan fixations: control of bodies (particularly of women), lineage and heritage, and repressed trauma. The early chapters with Bea — the ragged, selectively mute pregnant girl who harbors a giant in her womb — felt awkward and unsettling. At first glance, it looks like a regressive deconstruction of brownness into wide-eyed animalistic victimization; Bea is a victim of abuse and has largely withdrawn into herself. His inability to express himself to others draws on old tropes, albeit rooted in historical racism. Meeting adult Bea later in the novel—by this point, she’s an avid painter and capable of polite conversation—never really improves the feeling that she’s built on a foundation of tired stereotypes. Finally, Bea blends into nature and becomes closer to a myth than a mother – a choice that remains thorny and weird in my head.
The Floating City is another choice that sits uncomfortably between a romanticized post-disaster New Orleans and Swan’s methodical depiction of a ravaged, flooded planet. This is probably where Station Eleven’s vibes are strongest – the idea of a survival bohemian community rising from ruin, a community that still celebrates and preserves art, history and humanity, even knowing that more floods and more destruction will come. It is an ephemeral shelter, but knows its function as a refuge that maintains a feeling of decency and salubrity in the face of chaos. Swan comes across as an optimist, or at least someone with clear ideas about what they hope for in a future where everything is drowning.
Despite my reservations about certain narrative and stylistic choices, Explore the Lost Earth is a book that I read easily, regularly, from beginning to end. Swan is particularly good at small, unassuming turns of phrase that employ the familiar fixed cadence and sense of economy that characterizes most creative American nonfiction. There’s an almost formal literary quality to his style that sometimes smoothes out the orderly chaos unfolding in this post-apocalyptic world. WTVE is ripe with highly polished snippets of dialogue, and a particularly effective exchange between Moon and a girl she finds inside a screen that showcases Swan’s flair for polish and control.
As station eleven, WTVE is a contemporary exploration of cultural historiography that is typically downplayed in mainstream science fiction that prioritizes people and survival. It shines best when Swan is about to present us with something new – when Paul first plays with the idea of a disaster-proof utopia, or when Red Star sends a group of women into the space for fertility experiments (sometimes the plumbing through the latter evoked a slight twinge at Claire Denis’ brilliant film high life, but it’s a story with a rather different message). The Red Star scenes are probably some of my favorites in the book.
But the book is also aware of the shortcomings of white narratives – for better or worse, there’s a recurring thread of meta commentary on history, historiography and mythology that often undermines the power of ambition. of Swan (herself, a white American author) for the novel. For the best or for the worst, WTVE is largely a product of its creator in the way it addresses everything from gender to class and race (even Chantrea’s underage Southeast Asian character, in particular, felt a little careless) and at times I felt he deliberately avoided pushing the uglier side of humanity for the sake of his overarching message of self-determination and survival. The result is a patchy read at times, mostly in earlier chapters, which is ultimately overshadowed by Swan’s crisp prose, bold scope, and earnest take on an uncertain new world.
I walked on the missing land is published by Viking.
Alexis Ong is a weak-ankled freelance culture journalist who writes primarily about games, tech, and pop culture. His work has appeared in The Verge, Polygon, Kotaku, Rock Paper Shotgun, VICE, Dazed Digital, and more. weak spots include sci-fi, internet archaeology, comics, boxing, and old games. You can find it on his website Or on Twitter.