A Unified Scene? Global Fictions in the C21

Kristian Shaw

The twenty-first century has been marked by an unprecedented intensification in globalisation, transnational mobility and technological change. According to Peter Boxall, there has been a ‘turn in the fiction of the new century’ to reflect this ‘contemporary global condition’ (Boxall 141). This turn is especially pertinent to any discussion of literature from Britain or the United States – elite nation-states that are increasingly subject to, and complicit in, the spread of globalising forces. As Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo argue, ‘the nation-states of the West have become homes to a host of diverse and sometimes incommensurable cultures […] They have developed into sites of extraordinary cultural heterogeneity’ (Inda and Rosaldo 21). The English language mirrors globalisation in its imposition of a unitary code constantly being adapted to specific cultures and localities. However, global interconnectedness reveals the continuation of deeply unequal power structures in world society, often exposing rather than ameliorating cultural imbalances, and subsequently deepening radical inequalities of access and asymmetrical relations. Globalisation is consequently best positioned as both an economic and cultural phenomenon, responsible for engendering an emergent convergence culture of mutual dependence, and leading to exclusion and segregation as much as integration and interaction. For this reason, Mike Featherstone is wary of positioning globalisation as synonymous with universalism. Conceptualizing the globe as ‘a single place’ creates ‘a sense of false concreteness and unity’; instead, global culture should involve ‘heaps, congeries and aggregates of cultural particularities juxtaposed together on the same field’ (Featherstone 70).


Globalisation is leading to both exclusion and segregation as much as integration and interaction.

[Image by DIBP images under a CC BY license]

It is possible to identify several contemporary authors who are not only identifying and tackling the post-millennial condition, but envisioning how the future will be shaped by the engendering of shared fates brought about by globalisation. Concerning themselves with the interconnectedness of global citizens and spaces, these authors propose new imaginative configurations of identity, community and socio-political interdependence that respond to the inherent common problems which cultural interconnection brings. Indeed, this penetration of global forces into local lives and landscapes shapes and defines cosmopolitical events, leading Zygmunt Bauman to conclude that ‘we are all being “globalized”’ (Bauman 1). Accordingly, Robert Eaglestone identifies ‘the communities of which each of us feels a part, is central to understanding the contemporary novel’; as a result, this will necessitate a ‘general rethinking of what “we” means’ (Eaglestone 4, 105). Following this reasoning, the globalised condition requires an entirely novel form of narrative representation, accurately reflecting the experience of existing as a constituent member of an interconnected global community. By demonstrating a willingness to forge new and intensified dialogues between local experience and global flows, and between transnational mobilities and networks of connectivity, certain contemporary fictions imagine new cosmopolitan modes of belonging and the development of an emergent global consciousness founded on the cross-cultural interdependencies of the post-millennial world.

British author David Mitchell incorporates these concerns into the structural and aesthetic fabric of his fiction, offering a new direction for the twenty-first century novel. Ghostwritten (1999), Cloud Atlas (2004) and The Bone Clocks (2014) are a mixture of differing cultures, literary styles and genres that reflect the cultural relationality and complex globality of the contemporary moment. Rita Barnard categories such fictions that involve ‘human interconnection, causality, temporality, social space’ as ‘global’ novels, which may ‘provide the conceptual preconditions for a cosmopolitan society’ (Barnard 208). Indeed, the convergence culture of globalisation has led Mitchell to explore the interdependence of narrative identities, in which individuals’ lives are bound up and integrated into the lives of others. In Ghostwritten, which enacts a global sweeping movement from East to West, beginning in Okinawa and concluding in New York, this inexorable interpenetration of the globalised world somehow unravels the progressive potential of cultural interconnection – globalisation begins to actively dismantle localised forms of territorial belonging. The title of the novel itself betrays how the complex infringement of local and global flows influence and shape connectivities: ‘We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us’ (Mitchell 296). The interlinked narratives also question the extent to which globalisation emerges ‘from the centers of the West, pushing other alternatives out of existence’ (Hannerz 24) and proves to be increasingly responsible for the erosion of cultural diversity and territorial heterogeneity: ‘The same shops are anywhere else…Burger King, Benetton, Nike…High streets are becoming the same all over the world’ (Mitchell 12). Although the twenty-first century is increasingly characterised by what David Held would term ‘communities of fate’ – whereby actions in one part of the world have direct consequences on other cultures and communities – that is not to say that globalisation has reached an end-point. Accordingly, globalisation in Mitchell’s novels continues to shape and infringe upon separate localities to differing degrees of influence, resulting in some cultures and communities becoming implicated in the spread of Western homogenisation, while others become disenfranchised as external forces infiltrate and destabilise localised territorial belonging.


Globalisation is responsible for the erosion of cultural diversity.

[Image by Marco Bellucci under a CC BY license]

Correspondingly, Cloud Atlas imagines a cosmopolitan consciousness that exists across temporal and spatial divides in order to suggest the human potential for active co-operation and collaboration. By forging transnational attachments across history, Mitchell imbues globalisation with an historical dimension, linking its destructive processes to periods of imperialism and colonial rule. The trans-temporal narratives, stretching from the eighteenth-century South Pacific to a bleak post-apocalyptic future, interrogate whether the global multitude may resist an approaching planetary finitude and re-imagine a future free from a Hobbesian self-cannibalisation:

One fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself […] for the human species, selfishness is extinction. Is this the entropy written within our nature? If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe diverse races & creeds can share this world […] such a world will come to pass. (Mitchell 528)

And yet, neither Cloud Atlas nor Ghostwritten suggest a global borderless future or a dismantling of the nation-state system. Instead, the novels suggest that planetary connectivity may lead to, or provoke, the re-emergence of national frameworks as the specificity of local concerns and histories proves incompatible with the brute force of latticed global networks. By demonstrating an acute sensitivity to the positive and negative effects of globalisation, Mitchell interrogates the feasibility of fashioning realistic global futures from fragmentary pasts, while acknowledging that unprecedented levels of connectivity and awareness of cultural inequalities are tempered by an exacerbated Western homogeneity.

While the transnational mobilities of Mitchell’s narratives operate as a direct consequence of globalisation, linking individuals, cultures and institutions above and beyond the rigid boundaries of existing nation-states, Teju Cole’s Open City, published in 2011, strengthens the focus on the global risks of non-elite migration in localised urban settings. Open City revolves around the day-to-day experiences of the Nigerian-German protagonist Julius, who leads a detached and isolated life in his New York neighbourhood. Julius falls into the habit of ‘watching bird migrations from [his] apartment’ and wonders if ‘the miracle of natural immigration’ is ‘connected’ to his urban wandering as he reproduces the patterns of migration which have characterised innumerable periods of history in New York (Cole 4). Cole’s local settings therefore operate as microcosmic analogies for the global relations of the wider world and betray how globalisation of space both affects localised experience and destabilises existing global-local distinctions. Through a series of frequent walks across the social spaces of the city, Julius encounters various transnational characters who have developed homogenising strategies to construct a form of ethnic solidarity in light of their non-elite status. Their subsequent attempts to generalise Julius’s ethnicity (and assimilate it with their own), cause him to reject any form of cultural categorisation. After failing greet a fellow African cabdriver with sufficient friendliness, Julius is attacked for his detachment from some imagined ethnic solidarity: ‘[n]ot good, not good at all, you know, the way you came into my car without saying hello, that was bad […] Hey, I’m African just like you, why do you do this?’ (Cole 40). The verbal condemnation has no effect on Julius’ psyche, merely strengthening his resolve that he will resist ‘people who tried to lay claims on me’ (ibid), indicating the personal identity politics and entrenched resistance that results from increased planetary connectivity.

bird migration

Are bird migration and urban wandering connected?

[Image by Krystian Olszanski under a CC BY license]

More importantly, the novel explores the global pathways by which non-elite citizens are enveloped by the processes of globalisation. The cosmopolitical commentary of Open City specifically demonstrates how, in the wake of 9/11, immigrants and other marginalised subjects negotiate their identities and allegiances in the West, while acknowledging the means by which processes of globalisation force a confrontation with the unassailable concerns of race and cultural difference. In problematising the ideals of cultural relationality in a post-9/11 context, Open City suggests that human rights inequalities and the persistence of racial exclusion are setbacks (or at least regressive tendencies) to the implementation of active ethical agency. The novel consequently interrogates the geopolitics and power relations surrounding global migration, revealing who ‘belongs’ and who is excluded from Western life.

However, transnational movement alone fails to encapsulate the global flows characterising twenty-first century fiction. As Ian Woodward and Zlato Skrbis identify, due to the rapid acceleration of digital communicative technologies, ‘mobilities may be imaginative and virtual, as much as they are corporeal’ (Woodward and Skrbis 128). Such technologies reformulate global relations and lead to the construction of new virtual communities that are founded on non-corporeal connections and override geographical or cultural divides. The Internet, then, serves as the means of promoting cultural understanding and awareness of otherness, forging connections between global citizens who will never meet face-to-face. And yet, although the proliferation of digital technology possesses the unprecedented potential to activate awareness of the lives of global others, it is often manipulated and abused for corporate gain.

Hari Kunzru’s 2004 novel Transmission shares Open City’s fear of cultural homogeneity, but focuses specifically on the global inequalities arising from digital connectivity. The novel charts the effects of a malicious digital virus which progressively subverts and disrupts Western systems as an instrument of the marginalised protagonist, Arjun Mehta. Arjun’s virus, operating as ‘the revenge of the uncontrollable world’, demonstrates the emancipatory potential of digital technology as a form of cultural resistance (Kunzru 148). His ‘invisible contagion of ones and zeroes’ emerges as a fear of the cultural ‘other’, with the subsequent circulation of unbounded flows and digital connectivities reflective of the fearful discourses associated with transnational exchanges and immigration in general (Kunzru 4). Like David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, Transmission presents a vision of millenarian society under unprecedented globalisation, spanning transnational borders and interrogating the limits of technological networking. By acknowledging the continued importance of racial and national identities to the contemporary moment, the narrative interrogates the deterritorialisation of migrants by the globalising power-structure of a transnational corporation, parodying the workplace practices of digital giants such as Apple or Microsoft in turn. The exploitation of Arjun as a form of disposable labour, working on ‘one of those slave visas, being paid a fraction of what it would cost […] to hire an American engineer’, suggests that heightened awareness of global others has not resulted in a weakening of cultural asymmetry; rather, global discrimination has merely been transferred into the digital realm (Kunzru 65). As a result, ‘life in magic America’ ultimately transforms Arjun into ‘a non-person’ marginalised from cultural connectivity (Kunzru 159). In an article for his former magazine Wired, entitled ‘Rewiring Technoculture’, Kunzru notes that digital workers are often manipulated by an ‘ideological smokescreen’ to ensure that Western corporate elites ‘live la dolce vita, while […] the majority of workers will be dehumanised technicians performing repetitive tasks to service the networked machine’ (Kunzru n.pag).

digital virus

The digital virus demonstrates the emancipatory potential of digital technology as a form of cultural resistance.

[Image by Charis Tsevis under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

The convergence culture of the twenty-first century may be increasingly interdependent, yet vast inequalities persist. Digital corporations and their online practices emerge as a form of Western domination, being blind or merely insensitive to the external constraints of non-Western others. Rather than welcoming non-elites others into an interconnected and interdependent network, Kunzru’s narrative emphasises that the digital merely underscores the borders between those global citizens who belong and those who are excluded from elite cultural spaces. In this sense, parallels may be drawn between the fictions of Kunzru and Cole, who recognise how non-elites and transnational migrants are forced to negotiate new identities and forms of belonging to confront the global inequalities of twenty-first century life.

These ‘global’ fictions indicate that cosmopolitical concerns regarding terrorist threats, xenophobic tensions and cultural exploitation weaken calls for more progressive and productive forms of harmonious global interconnectedness. Rather, globalisation has forced contemporary fiction to retain scepticism of more utopian global discourses in order to confront present social and ethno-political realities. Cultural relations are increasingly mediated through the awareness of inhabiting a shared, but not unified or equal, world. Twenty-first century fiction therefore points towards the need for an emergent and affirmative cosmopolitics that responds to the vast inequalities governing global interaction. It is only by acknowledging the continuing relevance of locally relational attachments, alongside new forms of global interconnectedness, that contemporary fiction can accurately explore alternative reconfigurations of planetary community attuned to the diversity and complexity of twenty-first century globality.

CITATION: Kristian Shaw, “A Unified Scene? Global Fictions in the C21,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2015): n. pag. Web. 26 June 2015,  http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.3.03

Kristian Shaw is an AHRC-funded PhD student at Keele University. His research focuses on the transition from postmodern to cosmopolitan writing in late C20th and C21st transatlantic fiction, including an analysis of time and space in the works of Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and David Mitchell. He completed his MPhil thesis at Durham University and is currently working towards a critical companion to the fiction of David Mitchell. He is an undergraduate tutor, freelance editor and book reviewer.

Works Cited:

Barnard, Rita. ‘Fictions of the Global’. Novel 42:2 (2009): 207-215.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization: The Human Consequences. Cambridge: Polity, 1998.

Boxall, Peter. Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Cole, Teju. Open City. London: Faber, 2012.

Featherstone, Mike. ‘Localism, Globalism, and Cultural Identity’. Global/ Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary. Ed. Rob Wilson and Wimal Dissanayake. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1996. 46-77.

Hannerz, Ulf. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places. London: Routledge, 1996.

Inda, Jonathan Xavier and Renato Rosaldo. ‘Introduction’. The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader. Ed. Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002. 1-34.

Kunzru, Hari. ‘Rewiring Technoculture’. Wired, 1997.  

-. Transmission. London: Penguin, 2005.

Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. London: Sceptre, 2004.

-. Ghostwritten. London: Sceptre, 1999.

Woodward, Ian and Skrbis, Zlato. ‘Performing Cosmopolitanism’. Routledge Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies. Ed. Gerard Delanty. New York: Routledge, 2012. 127-137

Please feel free to comment on this article. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.