Size / / /


The Extractive Unconscious in Speculative and Science Fiction


The Face of Another



The Gas

 The Black Cloud


The Extractive Unconscious in Speculative and Science Fiction

In this article I explore the idea of an extractive unconscious[i]. I ask what it is, how it functions, and more specifically how this unconscious presents itself through science and speculative fiction. To do so I will closely read a range of novels for traces of the extractive unconscious, finding it between the lines and deeply ingrained in works produced under what I describe as petro-totality[ii]. Sigmund Freud explains that “at any given moment, only very little is contained in consciousness, so most of what we call conscious knowledge must, in any case, exist for prolonged periods in a state of latency—that is of psychic unconsciousness.” (2005: 51) This second consciousness that is “within us, married to the one we already know” (53) is, according to Freud, only made available to us in “slips,” dreams, and via therapeutic sessions. The unconscious for Freud is also the receptacle of all of our repressions and a motivator for our desires and drives.

Given this definition of the unconscious, I want to consider the points at which it intercepts and overlaps with a theory and practice of extraction. In this article I use a dual definition of extraction: in the first instance the extraction of resources, specifically fossil fuels and materials; and subsequently, Marx’s concept of the extraction of surplus value, which is the extraction of labour time during the working day (1976)[iii]. What then happens if we consider the unconscious and extraction, not overlaid but actually merged—an entire sphere of the unconscious that is dedicated to extractive desires, drives and dreams?

By coupling extraction with the unconscious, we do two things: firstly we illuminate the absolute structural reliance and infrastructural significance of extraction—pace the iceberg metaphor, the famous analogy that has been erroneously attributed to Freud, and points out that much of what we know of the mind is hidden like an iceberg below the surface; and secondly, we acknowledge that there is much of extraction we cannot immediately see. Imre Szeman elucidates that “dirty energy saturates our social and cultural imaginaries, shapes bodily affect and figures our deepest unconscious presumptions and desires” (2017: 442). Extraction, extractivism and more specifically resource extraction are the bedrocks of modern capitalism, shaping not simply economies but subjectivities as well. Extraction functions between the visible and invisible, digging up and excavating huge swathes of the ground, drilling deep into the earth and requiring machine or human labour to suck, drill, and extrude it out. Fossil fuels, the most prevalent energy desires, are hidden, not visible to the untrained eye, lost in the midst of a sea of seismic lines that geologists carefully tease out. Once exhumed they are slippery, liquid, and sometimes invisible, and require complicated infrastructures to carry and store.

Extraction has become less and less visible in the lived experience of those in the Global North. The coal-smeared faces of workers in Britain are anachronistic, and increasingly extraction has become “a process of transferring raw materials from underdeveloped peripheries to a highly developed core” (Parks, 2021: 353)[iv]. This power relationship between “center” and “periphery” illuminates the socially constructed nature of extraction and its embeddedness in class and colonialism. The relationship of the visible/invisible and center/periphery can also be seen to echo the conscious/unconscious. It is as if the entirety of modern capitalism is built on the earth’s repressed trauma of sedimentary layers. Ironically, even though extraction and the fossil economy are everywhere, structuring every energy or commodity relationship, they are also conversely nowhere, hidden, out of sight, a literal unconscious of our capitalist lives. Modernism has increasingly been focused on detaching itself from the very dirty energy that made it, a literal killing of the mother and father. While these oedipal desires are kept at bay by high fences, vast forests, rough seas, in places away from habitation[v], but nonetheless, as Freud proclaimed, the unconscious cannot be kept entirely away from the conscious, indefinitely. Splitting and leaking pipelines, massive oil spills, and burning forests, are testament to this.

Extraction is also explicitly connected to our current climate crisis, as “fossil capital” continues to be burnt to power insatiable production. Like repressed trauma, the effects of this extractive unconscious come out in heatwaves, droughts, storms, floods, and tornadoes. While Rob Nixon (2011) and Andreas Malm (2016) explain that the changes that extractivism has wrought on the earth are imperceptible as “slow violence,” this slow violence is accelerating, and can no longer be termed slow at all. The earth is entering a period of great acceleration where climate crisis repression may no longer be possible.

As we enter the age of the Anthropocene in full throttle, in this article I want to go back, and consider the period of “peak” cultural fossil energy, between 1955-1990: what we might call the childhood of the extractive unconscious. Therefore, all cultural production during this period, in some latent way, has a relationship with fossil energy, and becomes part of what I describe as petro-totality. A childhood spent in petro-totality impacts on the way the collective psyche develops, and subsequently will impact cultural production. For Patricia Yaeger the “energy unconscious” is not “out there” but is in every relationship we have with energy, and more specifically is teeming in all the classic works of literature we assume are about something else. As she explains: “We need to contemplate literature’s relation to the raucous, invisible, energy-producing atoms that generate world economies and motor our reading” (2011: 307). In a similar vein Mark Bould explains via the “anthropocene unconscious” that “if we start from the position that all cultural texts are about climate change—even in the most fleeting, evanescent way, and never denying whatever else they might also be about—then they are wide open” (2021:132). What Bould means, and what I will develop throughout this article, is that in living through the climate crisis, all cultural texts are in some way oriented to climate change, whether direct or latent. The same is true of the extractive unconscious, and as Bould and Simon Orpana (2019) argue, contra to Amitav Ghosh’s pronouncement that literary texts are missing specific engagement with petromodernity (2016), works made in the period directly before the acknowledged climate crisis are unconsciously brimming with overt and covert references to petro-totality and increasing regimes of extractivism.

During the period 1955-1990 our global production and consumption of fossil fuels exploded. The production of crude oil went from ten million barrels in 1950 to sixty-five million barrels in 1980. But ironically, as Laura Hindelang points out, post-1950 we see the total removal of crude oil from cultural and promotional representations (2021). As our reliance and extraction of fossil fuels increases, our representations change from black crude oil to the technologies used to extract them[vi], and the “benefits” of living on fossil energy. As she explains (2021):

Hydrocarbons have increasingly become represented not as sticky black stuff or oil spills, but rather euphemistically as “Energy”—something pleasant, magical, or technically sublime. Consequently, the mechanisms behind the burning and consumption of oil are regimes of in/visibility that represent fossil fuels as something different in visual media. (682)

Culturally, everything that happens in this period is saturated in fossil fuels: from plastic toys to television, from mass produced fish fingers to car cultures, and even the internet. There is no culture outside of fossil energy. However, the way that petro-totality is represented is never direct and requires a detailed look back at works that would otherwise seem to be about something altogether different. This leads me to ask how the extractive unconscious functions. Does it repress, or warn, or unleash? Is it offering a desire for extraction and petro-cultures? Or a warning against?

The answer is both. The childhood of petro-totality created a psyche where fossil fuels are both everything and nothing, and everywhere and nowhere, and thus the unconscious comes out to defend and reinforce this totality, as a desire for extraction. At the same time, I will argue that the works of speculative and science fiction channel the extractive unconscious as a warning of the conditions and limits to life that it imposes. Hidden within anxieties and repressions are critiques of petro-modernity and also tools for rejection and resistance.

If we are to accept that the extractive unconscious is latent, is everywhere, part of everything, but unseen and unspoken, and killing us in our waking lives, then science fiction constitutes its dreams. Here we can test out future and past fantasies about how we destroy the planet to flee to another, or perhaps how we come to save the planet, or a hope and wish-fulfilment of living upon an entirely new non-extractive planet all together. Science fiction has the capacity to make the invisible visible through imagining time collapsed and elapsed, through imagining resource extraction taken to its logical or illogical limits.

It is here in the dreams of the extractive unconscious that works of science fiction work through the desires, nightmares, and impulses of petro-totality. For example, Graeme Macdonald in his reading of the energy unconscious via Star Wars attests that “SF is a privileged genre in this context because, with all the freedom and responsibility of its speculative and imaginative prowess, it always already bears the weight of Yaeger's question. Of all of the genres of modern cultural production it has throughout its history, in its myriad guises, been the most reflexively and consciously aware of energy as literary and material necessity, politico-environmental issue and techno-social system, to a far greater extent than the more orthodox forms of realism.” (2016) For Macdonald the excessive energy consumption in Star Wars is the unconscious lack[vii] of the 1970’s oil crisis. Brent Ryan Bellamy also concurs that “sf is crucial, as both cipher and symptom, to the endeavour of decoding the energy unconscious.” (2019: 6) Therefore, science and speculative fiction has been doing the work of the collective unconscious in relation to extraction for the last sixty or more years.[viii]

Where the theory of the extractive unconscious may differ from a theory of the energy unconscious is its focus on the relationship between specific human labour and the materials it harnesses. Extraction, understood as the defining motive of capitalism, means that we can understand it in a wider sense, to breach the merely physical and move between the social, psychological and physical, and indeed breach the gap between a psycho-social concept like the unconscious and a pseudo-physical concept like extraction. Here the focus shifts from the material being extracted and its use, to the process itself, a process which put into motion in an oil rig is a perfect metaphor for the extraction of surplus value from the worker.[ix]

Lime Kilns in Moira, Leicestershire. Photo credit: Chris Allen / Moira lime kilns / CC BY-SA 2.0.

I write from the city of Leicester, in the United Kingdom, which has an important historical lineage with industrial capitalism and shares borders with many coal mining towns. I set to find out if anything was still being extracted here. What are the nearest sites of extraction, and what does the UK still extract? The answer is limestone, for cement. Cement production sites lie within an hour from my home on each side. Much further north, in the North Sea, there is natural gas. For this reason, I decided to focus specifically on concrete and gas, as domestic and ubiquitous materials that are fundamental to modern life. Concrete and gas also have very specific cultural registers that feed into science and speculative fiction, and as I will explore, feed into and out of the extractive unconscious. It is significant to bring extraction “home” for the very reason that, as Andreas Malm asserts, Britain generated “more than half of the world’s emissions far into the nineteenth century.“ (2016:13) Britain is the mother and father of extractivism, which has been repressed for too long, and deserves to “smear it in the soot it has bequeathed to humanity.“ (245) Much of the machinery, factories, and logistics of the industrial heyday lie in ruins on the outskirts of non-descript towns, ravaged by phases of post-industrialisation, and reignited by rumours of fracking. These are the unconscious of extractivism.

I will discuss concrete as material, buildings, its production, and its social and psychological effects, but more specifically I will explore the use of concrete or cement as a central aspect of the narrative—both directly and indirectly—in Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another (1964) and J. G Ballard’s High-Rise (1975). I will explore the ways that concrete functions in these works to cover over, make invisible, or fabricate. Concrete functions as the perfect material of repression, to hide a body or nuclear waste, but it also has utopian signifiers and is symptomatic of encroaching modernism.

Gas, in contrast, is the perfect unseen, the precise metaphor for the unconscious, something invisible that all of life depends on. Where concrete often speaks about repression and enclosure, gas represents an uncontrollable burst of energy or anxiety, an invisible entity that can smother light or stop you breathing, cause adverse effects or explode. I will discuss the novels The Gas (1970) by Charles Platt and The Black Cloud (1957) by Fred Hoyle, where a gas or cloud is the central catalyst in the story. I will examine how each work utilises gas’ uncontrollable nature to destabilise social relations and threaten “civilisation,“ but at the same time the human resistance to such an invasion is to ironically mobilise more fossil fuels.

I will explore the ways that the prevalence of concrete and gas in these works correspond to specific social and political junctures that oscillate around extraction and resource demand. This resource demand has pernicious effects on the collective unconscious of society and erupts in cultural artefacts. The significance of the post-war period in instigating a post-scarcity cultural sensibility and its contrast with the oil shocks, recessions, and class antagonisms of the 1970s are important cleavages in the extractive unconscious, which I will unpack in the sections that follow.

Concrete: Footpaths, Bunkers and Tower-Blocks

Rugby Cement Works. Photo credits: Andy F, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Concrete is everywhere, is everything, is totally benign, banal, is the least exotic of the materials we discuss when we talk about extraction, so much so to be entirely invisible. However, it constitutes the largest anthropogenic mass on earth, with ninety million tonnes of concrete consumed a year in the UK alone (MPA 2020). It is everywhere and seen, but covers over and conceals simultaneously. It teeters between the visible and invisible in both its production and consumption. It is a shield, a mask, a skin, a barrier, a material to build with, and one to contain with.

Leicester city is shaped by its industrial past and its relationship to extraction, as while there are no coal pits, you do not need to travel far to find them. The sites of extraction in the East Midlands region are predominantly for cement and asphalt. You can only really see them from Google Maps: to drive by is nothing exciting. The work of extracting limestone is done by machines. But this is nonetheless a daily form of extraction that undergirds production and development in the region. Under an hour’s drive from my house you can find the cement works and quarries of Rugby and Ketton. Here, limestone is dug from the quarry and “cement clinker is manufactured by heating (typically 1400c-1500c) a carefully controlled and homogenised mixture of finely ground calcareous and clayey raw materials in a rotary kiln.“ (Mineral Planning Fact Sheet 2014)

Cement, the main component in concrete, requires a significant amount of energy, usually in the form of gas. After heat is applied to the limestone a huge amount of CO2 is produced. While it is domestically produced, the plants at Rugby and Ketton are owned by global mining corporations and have been for some time. Rugby Cement is produced from the Blue Lias, from which it derives its limestone. Limestone may seem dead or inert, but it is predominantly made by organic materials such as shells and corals on the seabed. It also contains a huge number of fossils, so in a sense it is teeming with life. In the same way that “fossil fuels“ are made of life but bring death, there is little reverence given to materials formed in the Triassic. And like fossil fuels, there is a finite amount of minerals available to produce concrete. It is non-renewable.

The trajectory and development of Ketton cement works expand to follow the demand for cement. Beginning in the 1920s and reaching full capacity in the mid 1970s, the production of cement follows deftly the economic booms and busts of the nation. Concrete spreads in ever increasing amounts throughout the country and the globe. It covers what little earth is left, it obliterates life and the living. It is the ultimate tool of repression. It covers over what is underneath; only a jackhammer, or psychotherapy, can unearth it. Concrete does not only cover over and repress what was originally there, it can provide an artifice, a costume, a façade, a mask. It can even mimic what was once there in rocks and gardens. Concrete and plastic are both “cheap“ materials, and therefore stand for accessibility and the everyday. Conversely, concrete has many utopian associations. Its possibilities were explored by architects of modernism and brutalism. Fyodor Gladkov’s 1924 Soviet novel Cement followed initial major social and infrastructural shifts, as did the widespread acceptance of concrete architecture in post-war Europe.

I propose that the presence and metaphor of concrete performs the extractive unconscious, in works that mine the societal neurosis of late modernism, and specifically draw on the connections between the physical the psychological and the sexual. The extractive unconscious uses concrete as a vehicle to perform both repression and its ensuing anxieties. This can be found in McEwen’s The Cement Garden (1978), J G Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) and more metaphorically in Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another (1964). The Cement Garden is set in a 1970s lower middle-class family. When the father and mother die the children take over as the parents. High-Rise follows the residents of a new development block of high-rises, that are meant to be state of the art. The novel follows the unravelling of both the building and residents. The Face of Another depicts a scientist who is scarred at work, and who then builds a mask to replicate his old face. It is set in a city in 1960s Japan.

In The Cement Garden we find a literal use of cement as an agent of repression. While the novel is not science or speculative fiction, it sets the scene for the primal act of repression, on which the other novels will expand. When the mother in The Cement Garden dies, the children decide to bury her in cement in the basement. This cement had been the very cause of the unravelling of the family, causing fights between the mother and father, and causing the heart attack of the father. Cement represents layers of repression, a covering up, but also is intimately connected to psycho-social relationships in the family. The Freudian act of children burying their mother in cement in the basement acts as a double act of the extractive unconscious: first, the material that arrives to cover over and obliterate the garden, and secondly the repression and denial of this very covering over and death. Concrete is transformed from a very inert material to that of a highly charged destructive material via its interaction with the family:

This time, surprisingly, a great fissure opened up and a large, satisfying piece of concrete came away. It was about two feet across and heavy to lift. I pulled it clear and rested it against the fence. I was about to pick up the hammer again when I heard Julie’s voice behind me. ‘You’re not to do that.’ She was wearing a bright-green bikini. (McEwan, 2006: 70)

Concrete signifies the beginning of the breakdown and subversion of the nuclear family, via death and incest. In this passage the protective cover of concrete is broken to reveal the hidden sexual desires of the brother for his sister. This psychological response to concrete is couched in a very specific historical period.

The 1960s and 70s saw the widespread proliferation of concrete as a building material in the UK. What ensued was a cultural backlash by conservative critics of its hideous and banal appearance, and the association with the high-rise as a space for poor and migrant families. The Cement Garden transforms this social and indeed aesthetic anxiety into a private conflict and embeds it in the nuclear family. However, found within this anxiety is a fear of change, and indeed a fear of concrete itself as a material to mask and cover over, or replace. It represents a conflict between the countryside and city as opposing spaces; but the 1970s is also very much a time of class conflict and extractive labour as highly visible and contested with the miners’ strikes. In both The Cement Garden and Ballard’s High-Rise we are witnessing a transition from extraction and raw materials located within working class mining cultures, to the private family and the city, as a part of the deindustrialisation of Britain. The Cement Garden represents the sprawling suburbs and High-Rise the growing cities. In Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another (FOA) the work similarly responds to the modernisation of post-war Japan.

The cities described are dirty, and spaces and places are always breaking down. There is a dedication to describing dirt, dust, and the decay of the city or home. The material properties of modern life are mixing with the subjectivities of the characters, as if they are slowly morphing into each other. In each novel material, object, and place are all catalysts for a transformation and degradation of societal norms. It is the arrival of cement that foretells the deaths of the parents, it is the making of the mask that spurs on the scientist’s deviant behaviour, and it is the high-rise that is responsible for the behaviour of the tenants. While the idea of blaming something inanimate for the ills of society is preposterous, it functions in two ways; one as a scape-goat, or an act of repression, or diversion; and secondly it belies a preoccupation with the extractive unconscious, a desire for more, for more of what modernity/technology “could“ offer, if it weren’t for the fragile human desires. After all, even when the residents of the high-rise understand that the building is causing their demise they refuse to leave, and the scientist continues to put on his mask.

One of the most dramatic transgressions is the turn in each novel to incest. This taboo is only touched upon right at the end of FOA, but it is instrumental for unravelling the narrative of the scientist. There is also a hint at the idea of familial sex via the scientist calling himself the brother when he has his mask on. The Cement Garden frames the delinquency of the main characters, in leading them to decide to bury their mother and becoming “mother“ and “father“ when left to fend for themselves. The main protagonist—Laing—in High-Rise has a strange attraction to his sister, as things fall to pieces in the high-rise, where he rescues her and reverts to their childhood closeness. The authors are aware of the moral shock associated with incest and use it as an alarm bell to alert the reader to the crumbling social and moral code. But instead of moralising, the authors in fact rearrange the scenarios via the building, material, or object, to accommodate the transgressions.

The Face of Another

Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another (1964) is a speculative fiction work about a scientist who suffers major facial scarring after a lab accident. Working with liquid oxygen, he permanently disfigures his face and is only comfortable wearing bandages every day. The story is told through his diaries and it is as much a musing on living as an insider/outsider in post-war Japan, as it is about his personal fate and relationships. The scarring, or indeed bandages, illuminate the superficial importance of the face. As the protagonist cannot blend in in everyday life, he desperately longs to be “normal“ again and to receive the sexual and emotional recognition of his wife. This spurs him to fabricate a mask that could give him back some sense of normality and enable him to seduce his wife.

This novel speaks of and to the extractive unconscious because the main character is an industrial scientist, working in a lab in post-war Japan with extracted materials. Much of the book is about his journey to produce the mask, an object made from artificial materials that look real. The mask itself becomes a cyborg, but this living prosthetic is animated not by energy, but by his unconscious. The mask is a conduit whereby he can express his repressed desires, or indeed the repressed desires of society, or the desires of the outsider or foreigner (as the mask is itself a stranger). Abe is writing in post-war Tokyo where aggressive modernisation and development is transforming suburbs, the inner city, and traditional ways of life. Concrete and its construction would have been part of his everyday experience. And consequently, Abe regularly uses concrete as a term to describe the mask in relation to, and in relationship with, the concrete landscape of the city in which he lives: “The mask was growing thicker and thicker. It had grown at last into a concrete fortress that enveloped me; and I crept out into the night streets wrapped in concrete armour.“ (152) In this way concrete acts as a barrier and skin in the novel, but this is also a metaphor for being stuck or trapped, a paradox of safety and entrapment. The novel uses a very intimate and personal narrative as a stand-in for wider social and cultural issues. It mobilises the personal to explore human relationships with materials and uses the body as a conduit to discuss imperialism and nuclear war.

The book is a meditation on the interchangeability between the real and the fake, and outsider/insider. The scientist as the untrustworthy character is reminiscent of Frankenstein, but instead of using his skills to make a new creature, he disfigures himself—and then remakes himself. After stealing a prosthetic finger, he writes “I gingerly picked it up with the tips of my fingers; it had the soft feel of a living thing, and while I realised it was fabricated, I had the weird sensation that it could infect me with—well, with death.“ (23) The process of making the mask utilises his skills as a scientist and brings into play this relationship between the artificial and the real: “last of all I applied liquid resin to the transparent layer, that is, the thin florescent membrane to which I had transferred the skin surface I had bought, and which had a ratio of refraction close to that of keratin.“ (95) The mask is made of plastic—i.e., fossil fuels—and while it can mimic life, he realises it’s closer to something dead, noticing that “when it smiled it was a full feeling of death,“ (100) and “rather than the disorientation brought on by finding oneself with a new face, was the depression accompanying extinction.“ (100)

This realisation that the fossil materials can simulate life but, in the end, only bring death is symptomatic of the extractive unconscious emerging from Japan’s burgeoning petro-totality. As the mask fuses with the protagonist, it begins to take charge and instigate strange rebellious behaviour that is destructive, but also hedonistic and carefree. The mask, man-made and highly technical, represents technological modernity, like the factory where the scientist works, and the 1945 nuclear attack. Technology has replaced the moral and ethical codes in this new extractive fossil economy, as he explains: “with advanced nuclear chemistry as my god, rheology as the words of my prayer, and the laboratory as my monastery.“ (119) But Abe unpacks the collective failure of technology and modern capitalism, “the plans for the mask were not my own special desire alone, but merely the expression of a contemporary man’s common craving,“ (147) and subsequently, “but that I recognised the very lonely, abstract relationship in which everyone is an enemy.“ (148) Here, within the isolating city, and isolating marriage in which he lives, Abe draws an analogy between the scientist's own personal loneliness and the abstraction of the commodity relationship within extractive capitalism.

Concrete can cover over, but also protect. During the Cold War, with global anxieties about the bomb, it provides more than a cheap and fast building material: the chance of protection—a bunker. The mask becomes that form of protection for the scientist and what is revealed is that “the mask and I became one.“ (104) The context of a post-war post-atomic attack is fundamental to the novel. The nuclear works in covert ways throughout the book, in the direct accident and scars themselves. Abe talks about working with atomic chemistry, in the production of the mask and of the direct relationship between his scars and those of victims of the nuclear attack. The connection between his scars and the victims of nuclear war is only revealed very near the end, in the plot of a film he watches:

The right side of her face, which she revealed for the first time, was pitifully disfigured with keloid ridges and distortions ... no full explanation was given but the name “Hiroshima” was constantly repeated. (230)

The film he watches reinforces the role of the bomb in disfiguring residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destructive aspects of the very same technology that produced the mask. The mask is foreign, a stranger. Indeed, the Japanese title translates to a “stranger,“ or tanin.[x] So, the bomb dropped on Japanese soil and the subsequent spread of American imperialism is seen as culturally and physically polluting, as this scene in the same film underscores: “but all it could catch was distorted gluttony and prodigal wastage of life. A deep sea of exhaust gases ... numberless construction sites ...groaning bins for garbage disposal ... clanging fire engines ... and the continued bawling of television commercials.“ (232)

Here the modern capitalist city groans and the scientist identifies the personal and national trauma that has been repressed. The irony is that the scientist represses this scene too, casually suggesting that he went to a film in the middle of the book. The key aspect that connects it with him—in both being facially scarred—is omitted, only revealed to make the connection explicit at the end of the novel.

Katherine Lawless’ exploration of the “atomic unconscious“ posits it as a dualism between the exceptional one-time nature of an atomic explosion and “the rendering banal of nuclear power, where nuclear power is represented not as a life-saving technology for the human race, but as simply another way to boil water.“ (2018: 46)

These same dynamics of are navigated in FOA. On the one hand Hiroshima is “exceptional“ “horrific“ “violent,“ and this side is predominantly hidden, and only is able to come out in the neurotic rantings of the scientist, violent tendencies of the mask, and sense of foreboding anxiety in the story. On the other we have the everydayness that nuclear power and extraction have become woven into (Japan began to use nuclear power in the 1960s). This is where it seeps into everyday life and becomes prosaic. There is a push and pull of nuclearness throughout the book that is never resolved.

The figure of the wife and her body represents the natural, the traditional, while the figures of both the scientist and the mask represent the artificial and the destructive: “the mask by its very existence is basically destructive.“ (167) However, because of the narrative structure and the agency of the wife, we are not able to fully embrace this simplistic and dualistic polarity. The wife refuses to play nature to her husband’s culture and is complicit in the very act of falsity—she knows it is him all along. The very act of blaming the scars and disfigurement for the scientist’s own personal crisis is proven to be false, as he slowly unravels the past and sees that it was not the scars that estranged him from his wife, but his own actions, pride and paranoia. It is he that was responsible for his own downfall. The novel is therefore about extraction’s afterlives, the afterlives of a weapon made by extracting uranium, the extraction of substances to make the mask, and the ongoing extraction needed to rebuild Japan. Each one of these steps and stages is a material ontology informing a psychological affect, and told through the intimate relationship of a man and his wife, as they navigate the extractive unconscious.


The cluster of auditorium roofs, curving roadway embankments and rectilinear curtain walling formed an intriguing medley of geometries—less a habitable architecture, he reflected, than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event. (28)

Here, in High-Rise (1975), J. G Ballard’s quintessential take on brutalism, we find an intricate connection between a building, materials and the unconscious. While Ned Beauman’s introduction to the 2014 addition claims that High-Rise is not about architecture, Ballard’s earlier and later novels that focus on behaviours in relation to spaces and places would contradict this. Whether the buildings are merely a symptom of the people or the people symptoms of the buildings, we aren’t entirely sure, but their bodies are oriented in a specific way to the structures. This preoccupation with the built or made environment and its encroaching neurosis are very much a symptom of the extractive unconscious in Ballard’s work. High-Rise takes a social anxiety—the council flat high-rise—and its opposite, an idea of utopia found within the concept of modern architecture[xi]—and intermeshes it in British class society. High-Rise questions whether it is the building or indeed “humanity“ that goes hierarchical and feral at the first chance they get. But more importantly it is a very specific book, set in a specific place, about specific people, with very specific jobs—and subsequently, roles—in the high-rise. The novel, as Ballard suggests, could have been written as an ethnography. He describes England as “a sort of disaster area“ (2014: 251) that was experiencing great change in the 1960s and states that he wanted to “reveal the strange psychology of these tormented people.“ (251) Roger Lockhurst situates High-Rise within the debates around modernist and brutalist architecture that were happening globally, citing the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe towers in 1972 and conflicts at the Aylesbury Estate in London as testimony for some that modernism had failed (2016). And therefore, Ballard’s novel sets out a premise “that the pristine, shiny worlds of rational order and design, envisaged by modernists, in fact induces its own forms of perverse psychopathology, a violent revolt of the unconscious at the environments intent on erasing it.“ (2016)

However, in true Ballard style, his focus of critique is never squarely fixed on one object. The residents move back and forth with their infatuation of the building, as does its creator-architect, Anthony Royal. Ballard addresses three things in the book: class struggle, varying professionalisation, and architecture and living spaces. All three were being fundamentally pulled apart and put back together in the 1970s. With respect to each of these areas we have relations of extraction embedded within them. Class struggle begins very much around extraction: the diversification and increase of white-collar and different blue-collar jobs is a response to a cut back on jobs in the extractive and industrial industries, and there is no struggle more visible than the miners' strikes. However, it is the burgeoning industries in media, health, and psychology that are notable in the book, alongside the shifting role and agency of wives and mothers. The character Wilder is the only character to openly critique the high-rise, thinking momentarily “of his wife and children far below him, deep in the lowest seams of the building like the exploited woman and child labourers of the nineteenth century.“ (82) Here we find a direct link to Karl Marx’s Capital (1976), but the tower block becomes the new factory, and in the same vein as contemporaneous writing by Mario Tronti this “social factory“ (2019) is mined in discrete floor hierarchies.

The building is represented as having an agency of its own. Laing notes on retuning  from work that “the high-rise had managed to extend itself during the day. Lifted on its concrete legs, the forty-storey block appeared even higher ... the high-rises seemed almost to challenge the sun itself.“ (19) This dominating tower that makes residents “constantly aware of the immense weight of concrete stacked above“ (62) solicits violent reactions from the them. They spend the course of the novel either obsessing over the building or destroying it. The novel performs in many ways as a love or break-up letter to concrete: “Laing was still exhilarated by the high-rise ... at present an empty concrete basin surrounded by parking-lots and construction equipment ... the massive scale of the glass and concrete architecture ... sharply separated the development project from the rundown areas around it.“ (2014: 3) Here, concrete separates the residents from the past rundown areas, it performs the role of whitewashing or covering over the past. However, Ballard continually oscillates between its utopian possibility and unsettling quality: “at first Laing found something alienating about the concrete landscape of the project—an architecture designed for war, on the unconscious level.“ (5) Descriptions of concrete as block, wall, cast and poured are contrasted with its powdered form in the dust that comes down the vents and shafts and fills the puddles outside. There is a sense that concrete is the residents’ entire world, slowly invading their lives; yet, they have a strange compulsion towards it. A magnetism that presents itself as a form of accelerationism towards speeding up the cycle of entropy—as if they are mining their own demise. As things run out, and the power is cut, the building not only mimics the blackouts of the 1970s and the rubbish crises, but it becomes a microcosmic symbol for what happens if the extractive unconscious is taken to it limit. Everything unravels, as cheap nature gives up, and psychological collapse is not far behind.

By connecting the material of concrete with the unconscious, Ballard captures a double anxiety—an anxiety of the high-rise itself and a fear of peak oil, or limited energy, provoked by the political economic conditions of the 1970s. The name chosen for Laing was evidently to associate him with R.D Laing, the anti-psychiatry radical, and the connections with psychology don’t stop there. They begin with insomnia, which is an epidemic in the high-rise. (10) “At parties people discussed their insomnia in the same way that they referred to the other built-in design flaws of the apartment block“ (11) and “the insomnia so many of his neighbours had suffered had been some kind of unconscious preparation for the emergency.“ (132) It is not clear if the insomnia is caused by the building or the social fears of the residents, but the building is continually read like an almanac for their psychic make up.

The high-rise performs the work of capitalism by individualising and atomising each resident: “the high-rise was a huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation“ (6) and subsequently “a new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool unemotional personality.“ (43) This “social type“ is designed as the perfect worker; however, there is irony in these statements, as what unravels is anything but cool and unemotional. In fact, “in many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.“ (45) This psychopathology is then able to run riot in the high-rise, and conversely, residents give up their day job in favour of engaging with nightly raids and sadistic behaviour. This disconnection with their day jobs and the outside world follows a reluctance in talking about the high-rise, and what goes on there. A collective repression is staged by the residents of the “world out there,“ the phone lines are cut, and no one leaves the building. Here, the building performs a concrete layer of repression: itself a container to hold the desires, fixations, and dreams of the residents performing a literal unconscious. As the building itself learns to live “off grid,“ it provides the perfect emblem for the contradictory impulses of the era and indeed the extractive unconscious: wrapped up in and made of the very stuff of modern techno-fossil economy, yet simultaneously savagely rejecting and dismantling it.

Gas: Speed, Psychosis, and Suicide

Gas is the ultimate invisible. You can’t see it, but you can sometimes smell it. Gas represents total uncontrollability. You cannot run, or hide from it, it is everywhere, and can be highly toxic or totally inert. The word “gas“ originated from the Greek chaos— empty space, and can expand infinitely into any shape. It is necessary for sustaining all life, and it is extracted from land as natural gas in vast quantities to provide energy.

The changing air composition is one of the driving factors in the climate crisis, as we shift to higher and higher percentages of CO2. Because gas is invisible and unseen, climate change has been a harder pitch to make than plastic in the oceans or the rainforest. While unseen like the unconscious, it provides the foundation on which all life exists. The EU has conveniently declared natural gas a “green“ energy. This is catastrophic for the air and the land[xii]. Methane, a gas obtained by natural gas extraction, supercharges global warming, and fracking—a method of extruding shale gas from the ground—is devastating for land and water sources[xiii]. Is calling natural gas “green energy“ the ultimate act of denial and repression? Here, extraction polices are motivated by the extractive unconscious. Gas is the twenty-first century’s steam, brimming with potential, amorphous and modern. As T. J. Clarke expands:

Steam could be harnessed; steam could be compressed. Steam was what initially made the machine world possible. It was the middle term in mankind's great reconstruction of nature ... steam is power and possibility, then; but also, very soon, it is antiquated—it is a figure of nostalgia. (2002: 157)

Steam and coal smoke, in contrast to gas, are in your face, so much so that they prevent you seeing anything. A station filled with the quivering hazy puff of coal driven engines and the hiss of released steam is lived, worn, and registered as an emphatically visible occurrence. On the other hand, oil and gas powering transport, heating, and appliances are virtually invisible. Did this invisibility in our move from steam to gas usher in a period of mass denial? If this is the case, we are talking about the extractive unconscious as a historically recent event that follows the specifics of petroleum and natural gas within the period of petro-totality.

Erdgasfoerderplattform A6-A (Nordsee). Photo credits: Gregor Julien Straube (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Natural gas’s predominance as a form of energy has only occurred since the 1960s, so this is a recent form of fossil energy. The extraction of gas in the UK moved from gas houses that extruded it from coal, to the discovery of the North Sea gas fields in the 1960s. A national pipeline was laid to transport this invisible substance from the north of Scotland to homes and industry up and down the UK, part of a national grid of seven thousand kilometres of pipelines. The National Gas Museum, one of its only kinds in the UK, is based in Leicester, close to where I live, situated on the workers' cottages of the old gas house of Leicester. Town gas was produced here by a working team from 1879, and the gas house was in operation until 1969. The Museum is small and full of the relics of gas-powered objects over the last century. It’s a fascinating space, as it captures our fossil memories, or lived experiences with fossil fuels, just as a car museum does. A museum performs the role of a personified memory. It is our past, and memories that make up the unconscious.

The unconscious is always looking back, it cannot look forward. This museum performs like an unconscious, a collective misremembering of extractive experiences. Run only a few days and a few hours a week by one lady, it is as inscrutable as a dream and fading from memory. In post-war Europe gas also had a very heavy connotation as a weapon of destruction used in warfare, and most horrifically as a tool of genocide by the Nazis. However, this is gas at its extreme; what most experience is much more akin to Rob Nixon’s “slow violence.“ (2011) Those who live, and have lived historically on the apex of polluted cities, next to industrial plants, and increasingly in the Global South where industrial-style production has moved, breathe dirty air every day. This slow violence limits children’s breathing abilities, chronically affects those with co-morbidities, and research has even found that particles of pollution are found in the placenta of babies[xiv]. But the slowest violence is what it is doing to our atmosphere: every fossil fuel that is taken from the ground and burned is turned into CO2.

Gas’ invisibility has been a major selling point, performing neoliberal capitalism’s “nothing to see here“ attitude. Petro-totality went to ground, was everywhere but nowhere to be seen. However, gas has been gaining visibility in recent years. Its role in global conflicts and the incidents and resistance to fracking are two key developments. Artist Oleksiy Radynski explains that the first deal between Germany and Russia to export Siberian oil and gas was brokered in 1970 and “In 1997, the first studies for an undersea natural gas pipeline in the Baltic had been launched, paving the way for the Nord Stream project meant to connect Russia and Germany directly under the Baltic seabed, bypassing transit countries like Ukraine, Belarus and Poland ... the Yuzhno-Russkoye gas field would become the primary source of natural gas flowing through the Nord Stream pipeline.“ (June 2022)[xv] This pipeline has since ceased, owing to Russia’s attack and current war on Ukraine (but for how long we don’t know).

My reason for discussing this event is that this is the here and now of gas reality. It speaks of a world desperate to hoard and maintain its attachment to fossil fuels. Our addiction has not waned, even if we have identified a problem. Fracking also exhibits a similar desperation to hold onto our addiction. It is the shock therapy of the fossil economy. It uses vast amounts of water to pound the shale into submission, to release its gas and petroleum, often leaving sites and spaces with terrible water pollution, subsidence, and mini earthquakes[xvi]. Fracking has recently brought resource extraction back into the lives of those who live in ex-coal mining or post-extraction towns. The vast coal seams in Nottinghamshire have recently been subjected to requests for permissions to frack. These towns are still recovering economically from the shock that closing the major industry of coal inflicted in the 1970s and 80s. Here in a sense is the rub: they are not looking to open the coal mines to use the coal, but to extract gas via the ground. The movement in popular consciousness that gas is in some ways better than coal is leading to even greater, more desperate measures to obtain it. As the UK faces what is termed an “energy crisis“ brought about by the Russian-driven conflict, it is using this as an opportunity to expand oil and gas extraction in the UK itself, with the approval of Shell’s new gas field, Jackdaw. These current examples illuminate the ongoing embeddedness of petro-totality. They illuminate its stubborn grip in the face of untold catastrophes. They speak of deep denials.

While gas informs these collective cultural amnesias, in SF, gases, air and clouds perform unspoken anxieties and dramatic transformations through the extractive unconscious. Because of gas’ invisibility it appears inert and harmless, but the unseen is often feared the most. Science fiction writers have often used gas as an indicator for things having taken a turn for the worse: if the very air we breathe is toxic (The Gas, The Sheep Look Up, Interstellar, White Noise) or in short supply (The Expanse), we have moved away from a functioning biosphere to either a techno-sphere or dystopia. Differing gas composition on planets has been fundamental for stories of inter-planetary and intergalactic space travel, and the idea of a "cloud of gas" lifef-orm challenges our understanding of life itself.

However, I want to discuss two works that are set very much on British soil, and deal with gas as an intruder, and as a catalyst for dramatic and horrific changes. The two novels The Gas (1970) by Charles Platt and The Black Cloud (1957) by Fred Hoyle represent two very different periods. One is characteristic of massive growth and stability, as we enter petro-totality; the other, like High-Rise, evolves out of economic and energy stagnation. Nonetheless, both demonstrate an overt loyalty to petro-totality on the surface; however, as I will explain, the extractive unconscious reveals an altogether different response.

The Gas

The Gas (1970) by Charles Platt is a pornographic work about a gas accidently emitted by a research laboratory, which once inhaled induces extreme sexual and violent responses. While the work could be disregarded as merely an erotic novel, it leads on from The Cement Garden, High-Rise and The Face of Another in its preoccupation with sexual taboos and the role of a material in transforming or confronting them. Platt’s choice of gas is intentional: as an amorphous and totally uncontrollable material it can easily penetrate the physical and psychological make-up of the population. As Vincent, the main protagonist, outlines:

The research project I was working on. There was an accident. I can't tell you very much because of security ... this accident, anyway, it was an explosion, and I think I was partly responsible for it. It killed several of my friends and associates and it released a rather strange kind of liquid from an underground storage tank ... it is now for all purposes a gas. “A yellow gas?“ “A yellow gas, yes. It isn't poisonous; it isn't the usual kind of germ warfare weapon ... its biological effect is to stimulate the production of sex hormones. Its secondary effect is to relax some of the conscious thought processes and mental controls.“ (1980: 23)

The gas lifts the lid on the unconscious and unleashes our hidden libidinal desires. The work makes a clear connection between a material—industrially produced, from and for what we don’t find out, and the unconscious. The choice of gas is significant as Platt would have grown up seeing the extensive infrastructure being built in the UK to transport gas from the North Sea to the rest of the country and would have also been aware of the use of gases as a tool of warfare. The author is also fully cognisant of the political and social contradictions in the early 1970s: class struggle with strikes and a sense of post-war political failure and melancholia in the UK, as it ceases to be the Empire it once was: “the Civil Defence people bumbling around, supplying emergency rations of chocolate and biscuits to people who are going out of their minds and need medicine that isn’t available because the government failed to alert the drug laboratories, and anyway, there’s probably some post office strike, or the telephone engineers are working to rule.“ (24)

As Vincent tries to flee the gas and get his family further north every interaction has the potential to become sexual or violent or both. Pages are stuffed full of detailed erotic sexual escapades, some sensual and consensual, others horrifying and violent.

The novel is also full of sexist, misogynist tropes and while there is an attempt to critique the current moral and technological status quo it falls short, as the liberation provided by sexual release is tinged with violence and control. However, if we read the novel through the lens of the extractive unconscious, and look for signs of petro-totality, it transforms into a novel about energy. In the first chapter we find the direct correlation between sex, speed and fossil energy:

“It's warm,“ she said after a minute. “Mind if I take my sweater off?“

He didn't answer, guiding the car through a Z-bend, coming up fast behind a big petrol lorry and nipping out across the double white line and overtaking. (14)

The multiple forms of transport used to get away from the gas provide an opening for this reading. The Gas is a road novel that only manages to make its way across the south of England, and like Yaeger’s (2011) reading of the classic road book, Kerouac’s The Road (1957), the novel is full of forms of transport and energy. But unlike The Road, which is full of petrol abundance, transport in The Gas is frustratingly difficult, as it seems fossil energy is in short supply. Indeed, oil supply at the time was being threatened by the sixty-day war in the Middle East, which escalated in 1973.

So Platt replaces this lack of fossil energy with an overdrive of sexual energy. The hedonism of extravagant resource consumption that Macdonald identifies in Star Wars is echoed in The Gas, but replaced not with the high consumption of fuel, but with the high consumption and action of sex and violence. Bodies become machinic, or aroused by machines, on exposure to the gas: “Suddenly he felt totally united with the steering wheel, the accelerator pedal, the seat under and behind him, the roof over his head. The waves of swelling pleasure emanating from his prick seemed to be coming from the car itself. He accelerated; the sense of danger and excitement increased;“ (29) and later “the motion of the aircraft under him smooth and drifting like a cloud drugged him into a euphoric stupor.“ (65) However, this same excess of sex is not akin to the ubiquity of free-flowing oil in the never-ending gas station in The Road. Sex is not on-tap. It is intertwined with a sense of fear and lack. The overall sentiment is closer to war or the apocalyptic.

The desire for acceleration and for the machine in The Gas shares similarities with the manifesto of the Italian Futurists. Their artistic desire to become war machines and escape the limiting confines of the human body echo a period of massive technological change. While the Italian Futurists hint at the phallic and at the machoism of the male metal body, sex is only ever implicit in the metaphors and artworks. The Gas makes the erotics of fossil fuel and combustion explicit. Benjamin Noys explains that “what the futurists highlight is that accelerationism is always an intervention or a selection of forces, particularly structured by the need to integrate labour within a new ‘mechanical’ configuration.’“ (Noys, 2014: 17). The Italian Futurists were making sense of new technologies and the mechanization of labour via the Fordist style factory at the turn of the century. In contrast, travel, mass-production, and the invention of plastic were hallmarks of the mid-century. The move from the Futurists' pre-occupation with production and war, to The Gas’ preoccupation with sex, the unconscious, and the social marks a key transformation from the site of production to reproduction. The battlefield, or factory becomes the bedroom. Marxist feminist writers, such as those in Lotta Feminista, identified the site of the home (reproduction) as a site of production in the 1970s. Alongside this massive changes in the labour market meant more women were working and the types of jobs people were doing are associated with femminised labour in service, admisintration, and care.  Predictably nothing is said in The Gas about reproduction specifically, beyond the act of copulation. The aftermath of babies, abortions, and sexual health crises are avoided. It is as if we were already machines.

Sex, and the female body is finally turned into an entirely machinic and sadistic tool for experiments in the laboratories of Cambridge University: “the catalogue of atrocity was endless and everywhere the students were taking readings.“ (134) Noys explains the Futurists’ “contempt for women indicates the usual armoured trope of erecting the hard, phallic and mechanised male body over and against the feminised: soft, liquid.“ (2014: 15) On viewing the horrific experiments done to women in the University: “’why,’ muttered Vincent ... ’it’s just coming out in the open, that’s all…those kids’ve always felt that way about women, underneath.’“ (133) This deep-rooted misogyny is presumed in the novel to be a product of a highly technical and scientific society, but the horrific experiments lead us to ask: how does the extractive unconscious manifest in misogyny and gender relations? In what way is extractivism gendered?

Data is literally being extracted from the women who are made to perform. Women are violently forced to play nature to men’s culture, are exploited and extinguished like fossil fuels that run in parallel to the sex. The proximity of fossil fuels, technology, and sex in the book underscore a deep-rooted longing for the combustion engine and petro-totality, but the treatment and description of women illuminates the patriarchal and misogynist structure of this desire and its systems.

Platt falls short of considering what a critique of this system would require, as he satirises women’s liberation in the character of Cathy. Cathy, the initial sex kitten, transformed and traumatised, joins a large group of other disenfranchised women who set about the routinised murder of men. This basic stereotype does not allow women any agency and directs the women into the same machinic sadistic and violent actions of the men. This insurgence is quickly overthrown and offers little or no threat to the cosy nuclear family, which emerges unscathed, bar the normalised incest at the end of the novel.

The final confrontation is not with an external character but as part of a simulation in the psychology department with Vincent’s own ego, as he is made to believe he kills his own wife. This final confrontation validates the ongoing presumption that sex and violence are intertwined, and our unconscious is awash in sadistic fantasies. Vincent, however, does kill someone, and the only moment of moral reprehensibleness is that he thinks it’s his wife. Here again the only morality lies in the relationship of the cosy nuclear family, that manages to escape unharmed from the gas. The apparent release of the sexual urges of a repressed society do not provide any relief or release for the protagonists, but are more akin to what Jacques Lacan calls “surplus jouissance,“ (2008) in this case a desperate urge for sex with no end. The frantic and manic sexual escapades are on auto, much like a machine extracting material from the earth. The desperation of capitalism for profit, and extraction as the tool, are played out by the characters in this sexual frenzy.

Where concrete speaks of division, a covering over and suppression of sexual urges, gas allows the full embracing of capitalist potentiality, but with no release. The specific pairing of material and psychological states make The Gas an important contribution to discussions of the extractive unconscious. At is most fundamental the book is about energy, the displacement of the fossil energy that was waning during the 1970s, and onto the bodies of the citizens, as they simulate the longed-for peak extraction of the previous decade. But ironically, they would have less than a decade before it returned.

The Black Cloud

The Black Cloud was written by Fred Hoyle 1957. Hoyle, a scientist, writes a detailed and “plausible“ scenario of a massive gas cloud moving towards the earth, which turns out to be a sentient alien being. The extractive unconscious runs through the book on many levels, as while the work contains critical questions about government, power, science, and extra-terrestrial life forms, it is a product of its techno-determinist and petro-totality era. The world governments try to deny and repress the existence of the cloud itself, but ironically, while it appears that the scientists are the enlightened ones, they reiterate and concur with extreme extraction and fossil energy—advocating stocking up on oil and gas and lionising human use of inanimate energy throughout the novel.

The very name “the black cloud“ approximates it to the smog filling the air in coal-fuelled cities in the UK. The black cloud represents the internal conflict of the fossil economy. On the one hand it is polluting, filling the air with black clouds and smog, heating the earth as it approaches extreme temperatures, a menacing presence on the earth. But on the other, it represents progress, development, modernism, and intelligence. There are multiple plot lines and slips that reveal a connection between the black cloud and fossil fuels throughout the book. There is the continually smoking Marlowe, and the open log fires in the colleges (“Lot of nonsense we hear nowadays about these closed stoves ... the best form of heat is in the form of radiation from an open fire“ (31)). This rejection responds directly to the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1956, which forbade the burning of some wood and coal in cities. The act was passed after the Great London smog of 1952, which left a lasting imprint on those who lived through it, as the city was literally choked by a black cloud. The rejection of this law is embedded in the rejection of its replacement: gas. Gas heaters replaced the standard coal or wood fireplace. The black cloud of the great smog becomes the black cloud of the story, a menacing presence, a massive ball of gas, a tangled web of personified energy.

When Kinsley and the Astronomer Royal’s plane cannot leave the US due to the fog, there is a meeting of cloud and fossil fuels; this happens again when the black cloud is finally spotted by civilians: “it came from the clear skies of Arabia. Engineers of a large oil company were drilling in the desert ... the Arabs pointed to the cloud, or rather to a blackness in the sky.“ (96) This very specific reference to oil extraction in the Persian Gulf firmly connects the novel with the Persian Gulf Residency. This “residency“ gave Britain access to Arabia’s oil during a period where oil production tripled. Once it is finally acknowledged that the black cloud is hurtling towards earth, the scientists reflect that “there is accordingly no serious problem in building up adequate fuel stocks—it is even possible that our present stocks might be sufficient ... a more serious issue is ... whether we can pump gas and oil fast enough.“ (57) This sentiment belies a collective sense that oil is abundant and unproblematic. After the cloud passes earth they surmise that “industrial populations fared far better than the less fortunate peoples, emphasising the importance of inanimate energy and of the control of machine.“ (123) Each of these specific reflections, subtle slips, and embodied expressions betrays a deep psychological embeddedness in fossil energy during Hoyle’s time, with the only “way out“ of the bind being to accessing more fossil energy! The contradictory position of the cloud, both representing fossil energy on the one hand and the necessity of burning of more and more fossil energy to protect the world from the cloud on the other, is a contradiction internal to both modernisation and indeed capitalism: that capital would destroy its own means of life just to make a profit. This irony is not entirely lost on Hoyle, as when the scientists try and extract information from the black cloud, they fail. Extraction is the overriding and overbearing schema on which all transactions are based; but in this context, humans are faced with the unextractable.

The discovery that the cloud is alive transforms it from being a benevolent physical manifestation to a potentially malevolent entity, which forces the characters to ask questions about themselves, and their own civilisation and technology in relation to it. This great revelation, in the last part of the book, illuminates two things: firstly, it retroactively personifies the often-de-personified nature of energy, of its products, its materials—of oil spills and black clouds, of industrial smoke. It looks back and asks the question: is energy alive? Secondly, it poses a fleetingly utopian idea, that of the cloud producing its own fusion energy, a life-form that has moved beyond its reliance on petro-chemicals to the sun’s energy. As the cloud articulates to the scientists: how do you survive without an efficient way to “produce food chemicals?“ (162). Set against the normative everyday petro-reality of the story and of the scientists, these two propositions are radical and anti-petro-totality. If fossil fuels are themselves alive, if they are given reverence and treated as sentient life, their extraction and consumption shifts, and our relationship to them is fundamentally changed. While fusion energy is the great net zero fantasy, its proposal by Hoyle in the 1950s speaks to somewhere beyond the fossil saturation of the era, and raises the question of fossil inefficiency. However, the critique is always addressed to the governments running the world: “has it ever occurred to you Geoff, that in spite of all the changes wrought by science—by our control over our inanimate energy ... we are living in a society that contain a monstrous contradiction, modern in its technology but archaic in its social organisation?“ (90) There isn’t space in this narrative to consider the political nature of petro-chemicals here on earth, even if the cloud manifests them.

After over a year of ignoring the scientists and each nation hiding the truth from each other, the national response is to reserve energy: “Wolverhampton was the first town in Britain to impose a nightly blackout.“ (104) The Blackout, as in High-Rise, represents an energy failure and a failure of modernism, which couldn’t be timelier as the UK faces the prospect of a winter of blackouts in 2023. As the cloud approaches the earth a sequence of events happens: the earth suffers from extreme heat, and as the cloud settles around the sun, we get extreme cold. “By June it became clear that the temperature of the earth was likely to be raised everywhere by some thirty degrees Fahrenheit.“ (106) Accelerated climate change reveals the catastrophic results of changing temperatures on earth, in a way very prophetic, given in our current circumstances. The black cloud, a latent metaphor for fossil fuels, increases heat to deadly levels. However, the response of the scientists is still overridingly techno-determinist: “The death-roll in the U.S. remained quite small, thanks largely to the air-conditioning units“ (109); and later, “Nortonstowe was now fortunate in possessing a large air-conditioned shelter.“ (111) Here cooling is only provided by burning more fuel and subsequently heating the earth.

After extended discourses with the cloud, a rather petulant Kingsley, annoyed with the interference of the United Stated government, calls their bluff by threatening to use the cloud to exterminate the United States. This is then retaliated to by a hundred and fifty nuclear rockets being sent to the black cloud to poison it. This is a clear reference to the contemporaneous Cold War and represents the “best“ the current global world order has to offer. The cloud merely sends the rockets back, which inadvertently kills masses of people.

It is later revealed that the cloud is leaving, and the reason given is that answers to the “problems“ of the universe were beamed out into space, and followed by nothing. As the cloud explains “it has been argued, not I think very plausibly, that these singular occurrences arise from an abnormal neurological condition followed by suicide,“ (194) which then causes a vast nuclear explosion. The scientists race to obtain the cloud’s superior knowledge, which cannot be received through language; instead, the cloud proposes: “of your sense organs, the best suited to the receiving of complex information is your eyes.“ (197) A visual apparatus is then built. Weichart is the guinea who uses it. After a few days, he dies. Kingsley then volunteers. He tells the cloud to slow down, but nonetheless, has a maniacal reaction. Significantly, this last section focuses on both the cloud’s and scientists’ psychological and cerebral states. The motivation of the cloud to investigate a suicide in the universe, in some ways intimates a subjectivity attributed to the universe, and to matter. The connection between a neurological disturbance, or suicide, and a nuclear explosion accords subjecthood to energy. The scientists are, in the end, unable to obtain the information from the cloud, as Kingsley dies. The scientists have met their match, and indeed so has extractivism, in the un-extractable entity, where logic and knowledge cannot not save them. Here the limitations of human technology are directed back at our use of energy and fossil fuels, and the story acts as a warning for our own limitations, prejudiced and narrow-mindedness.

However, the epilogue (strangely set in 2021) belies a fixation on the same energy source and the black clouds that took us through the book. A letter is received from one of the scientists, John McNeil, to a great grandchild: “all afternoon and evening I sat before an open fire in my rooms in Queens’ College.“ (209) This very small slip, that presumes we are still using the same energy sources, the same polluting carbon smoke, collapses the sentiment of a reengagement with the future energy sources of the black cloud, and neatly frames the work’s underlying adherence to petro or carbon-totality.


To briefly conclude: cultural texts produced during petro-totality and peak extraction adhere to and reinforce the supremacy of fossil fuels. Whether this is done consciously or simply by engaging in the fields that they find themselves in, they come to us dripping in oil and gas. However, what I have explored in this article is that these same works, and specifically the novels I have focused on, contain an inherent fear of these fossil fuels, an unconscious conviction that they are not good for us and the planet. This response, while experiential—stand by an exhaust pipe and you will cough—was repressed by what Lawless describes via the notion of the atomic unconscious: the benefits of fossil energy are seen to outweigh the costs (2018). The benefits of flying from London to New York outweigh the future possible furnace-earth scenarios.

This collective repression did not happen unaided, and the role of fossil corporations in covering up research cannot be denied; however, what I am saying is that our collective resistance was already there, it was already part of the same narratives and cultural production that celebrated and embraced fossil energy. Inbuilt within fantasies of speed and technological advancement are the perils of such paths. The books that I have explored all tap directly into this fossil anxiety, written during booms and busts of oil and gas production, but very much immersed in its epic domination. By searching for clues to this collective unease, set amid the fantasies of fossil brilliance, we do two things: firstly, we undermine fossil totality; and secondly, we find clues to the embedded forms of resistance we already had.

Fossil energy is alive, it exists in very specific places where people live, and has very specific trajectories and histories embedded in colonialism, geo-politics, and capitalism. These stories are there and need to be told again and again. So too with the hidden critiques and interrogations in fiction that can be found and mobilised to de-petro-totalise the discipline.

In this article I looked at works of SF and speculative fiction that used concrete and gas as a metaphor for both repression and uncontrollable anxiety. Science and speculative fiction are able to dream out the extractive unconscious through implausible and future scenarios, so what may be much more latent in other literary genres can becomes the material of the works. In each novel the social code breaks down, whether this is through a process of implosion (The Face of Another and High-Rise) or the imposition of an external force (The Gas and The Black Cloud). What this breakdown tells us is that while petro-totality may be totalising and all-encompassing, the side effects are felt in the minds and bodies of those who live it. The novels make direct connections between specific extracted materials and psychic states, giving us clues to map out and further understand the extractive unconscious.


[i] The idea of the extractive unconscious is developed from Patricia Yaeger “energy unconscious“ (2011) with debt to Jameson’s political unconscious (1981), and more recently Bould’s “anthropocene unconscious“ (2021).

[ii] See Marx (1992) where he discusses “total social capital“: the entire turnover of capital, a totality.

[iii] Please see my further development of a theory of extraction in “Feeding Like a Parasite: Extraction and Science Fiction in Capitalist Dystopia“ in Economic Science Fictions (2018)

[iv] This critique of making extractivism something that happens “out there“ is echoed by Gago and Mezzadra (2017), when they try and re-centre extractivism in terms of its relationship with financial instruments and the extraction of the social.

[v] While these acts of extractivism “out there“ are very much “here“ for those who live alongside them, as Macarena Gomez-Barris explains in her writing on indigenous communities that face the direct impact of extractivism (2017).

[vi] Hindelang looks at The Story of Oil (1909), and compares it to publicly available images of oil after 1940. For example, if we look at BP’s advertisements after 1950 the focus is on technology and the reanimation of oil as a smiley animated drop, that is there to help. In classic films such as Boom Town (1940) and Tulsa (1949) oil rigs and infrastructure are centre stage, navigating the new riches and conflicts brought about by big oil. Big oil’s conspicuous absence from film until well into the 21st Century is something that needs further unpacking.

[vii] Here I refer to Jacques Lacan’s use of the term lack: it is lack that causes desire to arise (1961)

[viii] Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972) can be seen as a prototype of a SF novel on extractivism. A “virgin“ planet covered in trees, supplying wood to a barren earth. A hypermasculine baddy who kills and rapes at will.

[ix] Marx (1976)

[x] See Introduction to 2006 copy Kaori Nagai

[xi] Early forms of modern architecture: Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, De Stijl looked for simplicity where form follows function, this was also about providing architecture for the masses, in apartment buildings over houses.





[xvi] Artist and Writer Rachel O’Reilly has developed a project titled The Gas Imaginary to explore what she sees as the transition from vertical to horizontal mining with fracking (O’Reilly 2016), see:

Reference List

Abe, K. (2006) The Face of Another, London, Penguin Group

Ballard, J. G (2014) High-Rise, London, HarperCollins

Bellamy, B.R. (2019) ‘Neuromancer: The Cultural Logic of Late Fossil Capital?’ Open Library of Humanities, 5(1): 54, pp. 1–26, DOI:

Bould, M. (2021) The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture, London, Verso Books

British Geological Survey (2014) Mineral Planning Factsheet, Crown

Brunner, J. (1977) The Sheep Look Up, London, Quartet Books

Clarke, T. J (2002) ‘Postmodernism and Steam’ in October, Vol. 100, Obsolescence (Spring, 2002), pp. 154-174, MIT Press

Corey, J. S. A (2011) Leviathan Wakes: Book One of the Expanse, Croydon, Orbit Books

Freud, S. (2005) The Unconscious, London, Penguin Books

Gago, V. & Mezzadra, S. (2017) ‘A Critique of the Extractive Operations of Capital: Toward an Expanded Concept of Extractivism,’ Rethinking Marxism, 29:4,574-591,

Ghosh, A. (2016), The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 11.

Gomez-Barris, M. (2017) The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives, Durham, Duke University Press

Hindelang, L. (2021) ‘Oil media: Changing portraits of petroleum in visual culture between the US, Kuwait, and Switzerland,’ in Centaurus, 2021;63:675–694.

Hoyle, F. (2010) The Black Cloud, London, Penguin Group

Jameson, F. (2002). The political unconscious: narrative as a socially symbolic act. London, Routledge

Lacan, J.  (2008) The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, W. W. Norton and Company

 Lawless, K. (2018) “Mapping the Atomic Unconscious: Postcolonial Capital in Nuclear Glow.” In Mediations 31.2 (Spring 2018) 41-54. Available at

Le Guin, U. (1980) The Word for World is Forest, St Albans, Granada Publishing

Lockhurst, R. (2016) ‘An Introduction to High-Rise’ available at:

Macdonald, G. (2016) ‘Improbability Drives: The Energy of SF’ in Strange Horizons, 15 February 2016, available at:

Malm, A. (2016) Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming, London, Verso

Marx. K. (1992) Capital Volume II, London Penguin Group

Marx, K. (1976) Capital Volume I, London, Penguin Group

McEwan, I. (2006) The Cement Garden, London, Vintage Books

MPA (2020) UK Concrete and Cement Industry Map to Beyond Net Zero, Mineral Products Association

MPA (2014) The UK Cement Industry, Mineral Products Association

 Nixon, R. (2011) Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Cambridge, Harvard University Press

 Noys, B. (2014) Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism, Alresford, Zero Books

 Orpana, S. A. “The prism of petrol: drive, desire and the energy unconscious in Anna Kavan’s Ice.” Inscriptions 2, no. 1 (2019): 27.

Platt, C. (1980) The Gas, Manchester, Savoy Books

Parks, J. (2021) The poetics of extractivism and the politics of visibility, Textual Practice, 35:3, 353-362,

Radynski, O. (2022) Nord Steam Studies, in Against Catastrophe,  available at:

Szeman, I.  (2017) ’On the politics of extraction’, Cultural Studies, 31:2-3, 440-447, DOI:10.1080/09502386.2017.1303436

Tronti, M. (2019) Workers and Capital, London, Verso

Yaeger, P. (2011) “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” PMLA vol. 126, no. 2, 2011.


Carina Brand is a Senior Lecturer in Visual Art and Contextual Studies at De Montfort University, where she researches interdisciplinary Marxist and Feminist readings of art and culture. Her published work includes 'The Necropolitics of Reproduction: Black Feminism, Mothers and the Death Drive’ in Politics of the Many (2022) and ‘Feeding Like a Parasite: Extraction and Science Fiction in Capitalist Dystopias’ in Economic Science Fictions (2018).
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