LSFRC 2021 Papers
“So we can walk forward with knowledge of who we were before”: Landscape, History and Resistance in Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts
This paper is inspired by my M.A. research on the rise of dystopian young adult fiction in Ireland after the economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger and its subsequent crash in 2008. In this article, I argue that landscape in dystopian fiction becomes a site to recover history and to reclaim it as an act of resistance to a controlling ruling body. I wish to demonstrate this through a reading of Sarah Maria Griffin’s debut YA novel Spare and Found Parts. This paper is divided into three sections. First, I take a brief look at the role landscape plays in post-apocalyptic storytelling. After that, I analyze Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts and investigate the ways in which the landscape is regulated by the government in this particular dystopia. Finally, I examine how landscape becomes a site of resistance by allowing teen characters to access the past which led to the current dystopia, and how they actively reclaim the landscape and its history in an effort to build an informed and better future.
The Role of Landscape
Landscapes play a significant role in world-building in post-apocalyptic storytelling and often reflect the aesthetic of a particular type of dystopia—zombie apocalypse, alien invasion, climate change, etc. The dystopian landscape becomes a symbol of the pre-dystopian past, a reminder of what came before and is no more. It emerges as a space that invokes cultural memory and feelings of nostalgia. This is quite apparent in visual media, for example, such as graphic novels and video games. Games such as The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II, significantly, are known for their reimagining of familiar landscapes, as they show cityscapes humans fled and nature reclaimed. Games such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Nier: Automata follow a similar trend and depict human landscapes and cityscapes surviving beyond the society that lived in them. In these types of post-apocalyptic role-playing games, the landscape plays a huge part in gathering lore on the past and the civilization that inhabited these decaying spaces before, as the player character collects trinkets of a past long gone or explores buildings that have lost purpose and meaning in the current society. Landscape, thus, invokes cultural memory and, in a way, immortalizes the past that came before.
In the introduction of Arts of Living in a Damaged Planet: Ghosts of the Anthropocene, Gan et al. poignantly state that: “Every landscape is haunted by past ways of life” (2). They say this from an ecological standpoint, citing as an example plants whose animal seed dispensers are extinct (2). However, this idea of landscape carrying ghosts of the past resonates with my reading of landscape in dystopian storytelling, particularly in Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts. Irish literature, notably, has shown a disposition to memorialize loss through a distinct landscape.
As suggested by Oona Frawley, “nature and landscape become signifiers, lenses through which it is possible to examine cultural and historical developments” (1). Irish literature shows a tendency to preserve spaces by means of commemoration of the physical landscape, which often “memorializes loss” (1)—be that the loss of an individual who inspired the name of a particular place, or the social system associated with a space. Owing to the circumstances of Ireland’s history of colonization, and periods of large migration, it makes sense that loss often features in the literature and, as such, that landscape emerges as a space to represent it (1). Marie Mianowski, in her edited collection on contemporary Irish landscapes, similarly argues that “the experience of humans with place is preserved in landscape, mingled with the details of history and the power of myth” (4). Considering these views when reading dystopian settings enables us to see how loss and history associated with a particular space can be preserved by means of landscape.
By imagining a nightmarish extrapolation of modern-day anxieties, dystopias often feature a society that failed, and one that is trying to rebuild, however dubiously. Both often inhabit the same space at different times, albeit transformed by whatever catastrophic event brought the end of the previous civilization. That is, the past and the present are intrinsically connected in terms of place. The present would not be, if it were not for the past that preceded it. Judith Butler best summarizes this:
Places are lost—destroyed, vacated, barred—but then there is some new place, and it is not the first, never can be the first. And so there is an impossibility housed at the site of this new place. What is new, newness itself, is founded upon the loss of original place, and so it is a newness that has within it a sense of belatedness, of coming after, and of being thus fundamentally determined by a past that continues to inform it. (468)
Landscape in Spare and Found Parts
The landscape in Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts plays a key role in establishing the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the novel and in showcasing the extent of the devastation suffered by the surviving community. Griffin’s novel is a dystopian YA retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The city itself, at times, resembles a monster of decay brought back to life. Dublin—or Dublin’s corpse—comes alive in Griffin’s prose. The city is renamed Black Water City after the river that runs through it, Dublin’s River Liffey, darkened by destruction. Likewise, many iconic Dublin landscapes are completely altered after a catastrophic event.
A hundred years before the novel takes place, technology had advanced greatly. Humanity came to rely heavily on androids which provided an endless source of information. An electromagnetic pulse in an event that came to be known as The Turn ended that world and introduced a disease that caused people to either die or be born without limbs. The surviving ten thousand inhabitants of Black Water City return to a simpler way of life devoid of technology and attempt to rebuild despite the echoes of the epidemic caused by The Turn. It has become common for people to have an augmented limb. Protagonist Nell Crane struggles to fit in even then, as she lost her heart because of the disease and was given a mechanical one instead, which constantly ticks and makes her feel like an outsider. Her father, a Victor Frankenstein-like figure, is credited as the inventor behind the augmented limbs many seek. The landscape and the spaces people are allowed to inhabit in this small surviving community are symbolically controlled by the government. For one, all must follow three core rules:
1. The sick in the Pale, the healed in the Pasture.
2. Contribute, at all cost.
3. All code is blasphemy. (Griffin n.p.)
The rules seek to keep the population under control. All must contribute to society when coming-of-age and computers are absolutely forbidden. One of the rules, however, manifests geographically: while the healed and wealthier are allowed to live in the Pasture with its green fields and idyllic sceneries, the sick are confined to the Pale, the greyer space which still carries the scars of the one hundred years of epidemic post-Turn:
Far outside the boundaries of Black Water City, a silent, guarded line between the Pale and the Pasture. The world changed there. The sick were raised and grew and contributed in the Pale; the healed lived and farmed and prayed in the tall grasslands of the Pasture. (24)
This spatial separation is also a class segregation: while those in the Pale are depicted as working-class and spend their days in hard labor towards rebuilding the city and serving the community, those in the Pasture seem to do minimal work, get better houses and have servants at their disposal. Significantly, those in charge of society are referred to as “The Pastoral Council.” The power lies in the Pasture, and the Pale is in service of it. The “Library Complex,” said to contain a relic of the old world—the written internet—is confined to the Pasture “away from civilian eyes” (15); very few are granted access to it. Nell dreams of being allowed to view such a source of information. But evidently, knowledge is strictly controlled by those in power.
As explained by Raffaella Baccolini, “dystopias show a profound interest in history and, more precisely, in its control, which often implies its revision and even erasure” (115). That impulse to control history is a theme largely explored in Griffin’s novel. Besides restricting access to documents of the past and rigorously prohibiting the use of technology, “official history” perpetuates that the past was singularly bad and has nothing to offer to the present. An irony, considering the ruling government refers to itself as “The Remaining Hibernian Senate” (Griffin 220), implying they are a continuation of those in power prior to the Turn. Nell, who thirsts for knowledge more than anything, is critical of people’s acceptance of this restrictive view of history:
She was sure that the rest of the folk in Black Water City were afraid only because they didn’t ask questions, because they believed what they were told. If all you’d ever heard about the history of your world was horror stories about gleaming boxes full of bad knowledge, of course you’d be afraid. (28-29)
She opposes this fear of past technology, rationalizing it as born out of ignorance. She shows an awareness of the unreliability of those who are telling the story, those with authority. As noted in another instance in the novel: “Asking for a computer was like asking for a gun . . . They frightened the wrong people, and the wrong people wanted them gone.” (121) “The wrong people” have the decision-making power to make them go away. The Council is very much preoccupied in concealing the past that led to the current society and suppressing any attempt to access the communal history related to this past. They “revise” and “erase” history to their advantage and to promote their version of the story. Not only do they seek to manipulate the distant pre-Turn past, but they also attempt to rewrite the recent past and memories of the last years of the epidemic. This is exercised in their control and use of the city spaces. The Gonne Hospital—a famous Dublin department store, repurposed to house the sick after the Turn—for example, is symbolically burned in front of the public, as if to exorcize the trauma that transpired inside:
Hundreds and hundreds of people had died there. The old building had become so contaminated that the council had decreed it unsafe and ordered that it be burned. Ostensibly this was to kill the ends of the virus and stop the aftershocks; but the whole city doomed gas masks and gathered to watch it, a terrible red ceremony. It felt like an exorcism, like ghosts of their sick past scorched out. (83)
The burning of the building aims to erase events related to the sick and the epidemic. It’s a cleanse exercise attended by the whole community. The potential of landscapes and landmarks to invoke cultural memory informs the Council’s decisions. Contrastingly to the hospital, a monument referred to as “The Needle”—the forgotten Spire of Dublin—is the first thing wrapped in plastic to be preserved after the Turn:
It had been left to stand, it was said, because it told no stories. It had no face, no body, no myth. It was just a needle, towering to the hot sky, too slim and smooth to climb, made of such stuff that nobody could even write histories upon its surface. (101)
This is indicative of the conscious totalitarian effort to control information through the regulation of landscapes and landmarks.
Landscape as a Site of Resistance
As further outlined by Baccolini, “history, its knowledge, and memory are . . . dangerous elements that can give the dystopian citizen a potential instrument of resistance” (115). Thus, knowledge of the past is crucial for the dystopian protagonist to have agency and set about changing their world. Once the Council is controlling the information passed down to people and keeping written records under surveillance at the “Library,” the landscape becomes the main source to access memory of the past, to keep its ghosts alive. The cityscape around Nell and her contemporaries is a constant reminder of pain and trauma, but also an impediment to the council’s attempt to erase history. As seen in the case of the hospital, the ostentatious display of burning down the “house of failure” (Griffin 104) is ineffective. Nell recognizes the building used to be a department store, something that no longer exists and has no use to her and her peers. Moreover, when she trespasses into the hospital years after its burning: “lo and behold, there are rooms in there untouched by the fire” (83). The records of the epidemic remain in the rooms of the building, still standing. History cannot be erased or rewritten as long as the space that witnessed it remains. The next step, thereafter, is to resist attempts to censor and regulate knowledge of the past and the spaces inhabited by survivors.
A key feature of dystopian YA is the rebellious spirit of teen protagonists, as they become aware something is not quite right with their society (Sheldon 718). Accordingly, Nell and the other young people in the novel are shown to resist the push to ignore the past and technology. For Nell, the loss of the shared memory of the past and its great discoveries is an impairment and informs her decision to create a computer that looks human, so as to not alienate her peers. Others, she learns, also long to understand their past. They, however, see in the landscape around them a chance to recover their history. They defy the rhetoric that the past has nothing to offer but regret. Their resistance is exercised in the ways they interact with the landscape around them and their conscious effort to reclaim its lost history.
This type of resistance is better actualized with a young underground group of inventors. The Lighthouse Cinema, a five-story underground building, has survived as a structure which is reclaimed by young revolutionaries as a secret base to study “forbidden” technology. While by day they work as “mechanics, bakers, researchers of plants” (Griffin 171), they have been secretly caring for the building—Nell notes the strong smell of cleaning solution, “as if all the badness of this building’s past was being scrubbed out” (156). The building is repurposed as a workshop where they can secretly study and try to better understand banned technology which they recover by exploring abandoned spaces around the city.
Nell’s first trip to The Lighthouse nearly resembles a fairy tale, as she enters a new world hidden beside her own, full of impossibilities come to life. The smell of cleaning products, the bright lights, a contrast to the rationed electricity in the city, and the tech unabashedly used all around her. The preservation of the building is shown to be a deliberate effort to recover their lost past. At first, Nell does not understand why the building is called “The Lighthouse,” however, it is explained to her:
Because that is what it was called. Before us, before anything happened, when this city was a real city with real things to do and places to go and no disease and no war. We have to honour what came before us if we can hope to even come close to rebuilding it . . . (153)
This echoes Nell’s belief that there is no future without the past. The naming is a promise to honor history and keep moving forward in the face of adversity. While the older generation seems crippled by the traumatic past, the younger generation seeks to move beyond grief and shame and attempts to do more than just survive. The building is a testament of past achievements and signals the potential to repeat and improve on positive aspects of their past, while “scrubbing out” the bad. By allowing dystopian characters to access the past that a controlling government is attempting to silence, the building itself becomes a site of resistance, a place to exercise critical thinking and rebellion.
The type of resistance present in Spare and Found Parts is subtle. Within the story itself, the resistance is referred to as a “tiny revolution.” And Nell thinks of her rebellious peers as “the small collective of revolutionaries and restorers” (171). The type of activism, of resistance, presented in the novel is quiet, underground, not ready to openly defy those in power yet, it lacks confidence—they keep waiting to discover “something more” in order to convince the council of their cause: “We’ll tell everyone when the time’s right” (164), they tell Nell. This is a quieter resistance. But the rebellious instinct is there. The spark that may start a larger-scale revolution is there. By exploring and reshaping the darker spaces of their city and the past associated with the landscape around them, the young rebels begin to access memory of the past, reclaim it and learn from it in order to respond to the injustices of their society.
We finish the novel as Nell is about to present her contribution to the council and publicly argue on the societal value of accessing their communal history. She reckons her android “can show us where the world was headed before the Turn, so we can walk forward with knowledge of who we were before, so we don’t make the same mistakes” (394). The warning at the heart of the novel is clear: there is no bright future if one refuses to learn from the past. A closer reading of Griffin’s novel allows us to examine a larger trend in post apocalyptic stories, where the landscape of a world in ruins becomes an unexpected instrument of resistance and can be the spark to set a rebellious spirit in a path of discovery and ignite a revolution.
Baccolini, Raffaella. “‘A useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past’: Memory and Historical Reconciliation in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling.” Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini, Routledge, 2003, pp. 113-134.
Butler, Judith. “Afterword: After Loss, What Then?.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning, edited by David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, University of California Press, 2003, pp. 467-474.
Frawley, Oona. Irish Pastoral: Nostalgia and Twentieth Century Irish Literature. Irish Academic Press, 2005.
Gan, Elaine et al. “Introduction: Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene.” Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, et al., University of Minnesota Press, 2017, pp. 1-16.
Griffin, Sarah Maria. Spare and Found Parts. Greenwillow, 2016.
Horizon Zero Dawn. PlayStation version, Sony, 2017.
Mianowski, Marie. “Introduction: Experiencing and Representing Irish Contemporary Landscapes in Literature and the Arts.” Irish Contemporary Landscapes in Literature and the Arts, edited by Marie Mianowski, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 1-10.
NieR: Automata. PlayStation version, Square Enix, 2017.
Sheldon, Rebekah. “Dystopian Futures and Utopian Presents in Contemporary Young Adult Science Fiction.” The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 113-724.
The Last of Us. PlayStation version, Naughty Dog, 2013.
The Last of Us Part II. PlayStation version, Naughty Dog, 2020.
Gabriely Pinto holds an M.A. in Anglo-Irish literature and drama from University College Dublin, completed as the 2018/2019 recipient of the Maria Helena Kopschitz Scholarship. She has a B.A. in English and Portuguese languages and literatures from Federal University of Rio Grande. Her research interests include contemporary Irish young adult fiction, speculative fiction, and gender studies.