Space colonization and subterranean dwelling have been staples of speculative fiction since at least the nineteenth century, but the invention of nuclear weapons and the prospect of global environmental collapse have, certainly since the Cold War, made proposals offering vertical escape from the surface of the planet a matter worthy of serious consideration among engineers, planners, military strategists, and countercultural futurologists. The shift in the conception of utopia, from the lateral displacements typical of its classical formations to the vertical modes of descent and ascent considered in this article, suggests a structural relationship between utopia and catastrophe produced out of the new conditions of global threat inaugurated by atomic weapons. While the prospect of impending global catastrophe would appear to lead to a dystopian or even fatalistic acceptance of the limits of human life on Earth, the most devastating assessments of humanity’s future have also produced utopian proposals for the reimagining of human potentiality below and above the surface of the planet. In a real sense, then, catastrophe has become the precondition for the establishment of utopia, both as the compelling threat that demands a plausible response to impending annihilation and as the necessary event that apocalyptically clears the ground for new modes of living.
John Beck is professor of modern literature at the University of Westminster. His publications include Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature (2009) and, as coeditor, American Visual Cultures (2005).
Mark Dorrian holds the Forbes Chair in Architecture at the University of Edinburgh. His publications include the coedited book Seeing from Above: The Aerial View in Visual Culture (2013). A collection of his essays is forthcoming under the title Writing on the Image: Architecture, the City, and the Politics of Representation (2014).