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Writing complexity: the American novel and systems realism

Brindley, Nicola

Writing complexity: the American novel and systems realism Thumbnail


Nicola Brindley


Although the relationship between literature and science has been a major focus of research in the last few decades, the influence of complex systems science on recent American fiction has not yet been comprehensively documented. I argue that a significant body of that fiction is systems-aware and thus represents the world as a network of complex systems. In the first section of the thesis, I claim that the origin of systems fiction can be found in the nineteenth-century social novel, which displayed significant knowledge of system function. Despite the narrative challenges posed by the complex, nonlinear structure of systems, contemporary authors somewhat surprisingly turn to a broadly traditional form of realism rather than experimental literary techniques. Motivated by the desire for social engagement, systems realism conceptualises systems as fundamentally ordered and thus narratable, though it acknowledges that this order is frequently inaccessible. In the second section, I engage in a close reading of systems-aware fiction and explore the extent to which novels incorporate the principles and discourse of systems science. I suggest that these novels seek to understand social concerns through analogy and the creation of fictional models which foreground structural homologies between systems. In the third and final section, I argue that systems-awareness is vital to an understanding of recent ‘post-postmodern’ paradigms, and I demonstrate this through an exploration of emerging trends in fiction which are shaped by systems thinking. In particular, I focus upon the emergence of environmental concerns in recent American writing. To explore the extent to which authors have perceived reality as systemic and have engaged with the representational challenges presented by complex systems provides us with new ways of thinking about the novel as a form. For these reasons I suggest that systems realism is central to the contemporary history of the novel.

Publication Date Jun 1, 2014


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