Mystery, Apocalypse and Utopia: The Case of the Ontological Detective Story

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Apocalypse in sf is often linked to a utopian transformation that creates a 'brave new world' on the ruins of the old one. This is a pattern that has often been noted by critics. However, a number of sf works display an interesting twist on this pattern, linking the apocalypse and the subsequent utopian transformation to the solution of an ontological mystery. Thus, they form an sf subgenre that might be described as the 'ontological detective story.' The typical plot of the ontological detective story, exemplified by Christopher Priest's Inverted World (1979), centers on the protagonist growing up in a world whose nature he/she does not understand. The world, then, is presented as a mystery to be solved, often with criminal undertones (the sinister conspiracy of an elite group), that further link this sf subgenre to the classic detective story. The solution of the mystery precipitates a wholesale ontological transformation, described in a language borrowed from the millenarian tradition of eschatological speculations. The article discusses this plot pattern in a number of recent sf works, such as Gary Kilworth's Theatre of Timesmiths (1984), Ian Watson's THE RIVER trilogy (1985, 1985, 1986), and Michaela Roessner's Vanishing Point (1993). It analyses the ideological implications of the ontological detective story as a generic hybrid between mystery fiction and utopia. While on the one hand the subgenre borrows its rationalistic bend and belief in the power of knowledge from the classic detective story, on the other hand it contains quasi-mystical elements, ultimately deriving from the Book of Revelation. Thus, it can be seen as grappling with the contemporary problematic of history in which the historical process often appears as an irrational nightmare or an enigma waiting for a solution. Yet the ontological detective story also demonstrates that no solution is final as the subgenre itself endlessly repeats the cycle of mystery-apocalypse-utopia.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)343-356
Number of pages14
JournalScience-Fiction Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Nov 1995


  • English literature
  • American literature
  • 1800-1999
  • fiction
  • utopianism
  • the apocalypse
  • the past
  • the present
  • mystery
  • literary historical approach


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