The prism of petrol: drive, desire and the energy unconscious in Anna Kavan’s Ice


  • Simon Andrew Orpana University of Alberta


energy unconscious, petroleum, petroculture, apocalyptic fiction, psycho-analysis


This essay argues that psychoanalytic modes of interpretation can help us understand and intervene in the blockages and fantasies hindering the exodus from fossil fuel use that contemporary science tells us is urgently necessary. A reading of Anna Kavan's 1967 science fiction novel Ice reveals an "energy unconscious" at work by which petroleum fuels a violent and masculinist resolution to the alienation and fragmentation experienced by the protagonists. Such interpretations allow us to recognize how culture and subjectivity are shaped by petroleum, opening a space to work towards framing new narratives and values.

Author Biography

Simon Andrew Orpana, University of Alberta

Simon Orpana is an artist and researcher whose work explores the nexus between power, culture and everyday life. His writing on film, television and popular culture has appeared in numerous journals and book collections, including Zombie Theory: A Reader (2017). He is co-author, with Rob Kristofferson, of Showdown!: Making Modern Unions, a graphic history about the role played by Canadian steelworkers in shaping contemporary labour politics (2016). He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta working on a project that uses graphic narrative to articulate and challenge the barriers to imagining a world that is less dependent upon fossil fuels.


Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Aldiss, Brian W. “Kafka’s Sister.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts Vol.3 No. 2 (1991): 14-21.

Anna Kavan, Ice. Penguin Classics, 2017.

Byrne, Janet. “Moving Toward Entropy: Anna Kavan’s Science Fiction Mentality.” Extrapolation Vol. 23 No.1 (1982): 5-11.

Bellamy, Brent Ryan, Michael O’Driscoll, and Mark Simpson. “Introduction: Toward a Theory of Resource Aesthetics.” Postmodern Culture Vol. 26 No.2 (January 2016). Accessed December 17, 2018. doi:10.1353/pmc.2016.0010

Boyer, Dominic, and Imre Szeman, “The Rise of Energy Humanities: Breaking the Impasse.” University Affairs 12 (Feb. 2014). Accessed December 17, 2018.

Césaire, Aimé, Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Thesis.” Critical Inquiry Vol. 35, No. 2 (Winter 2009): 197-222

Chapman, Leslie. “Right-wing populism and the Real.” Touching the Real. May 8. 2017. Accessed December 17, 2018.

Crutzen, Paul J., and Eugene F. Stoermer. “The ‘Anthropocene’.” Global Change Newsletter No. 41 (May 2000): 17-18.

Daggett, Cara. “Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies Vol. 41 No.1 (2018): 25-44.

Energy Humanities: an anthology. Edited by Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2017.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” In The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment. Edited by Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel and Patricia Yaeger. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act. New York: Routledge, 1983.

Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

LeMenager, Stephanie. Living Oil: Petroleum and Culture in the American Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Magot, Céline. “The Palimpsest Girl in Ice by Anna Kavan.” Miranda 12 (2016): 1-14. Accessed December 18, 2018.

Malm, Andreas. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2016.

Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition, Edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.

Mitchell, Timothy. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. New York: Verso, 2011.

Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture. Edited by Shena Wilson, Adam Carlson and Imre Szeman. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

Petrocultures Research Group. After Oil. Alberta: Petrocultures Research Group, 2016.

Salminen, Antti, and Tere Vadén. Energy and Experience: An Essay on Nafthology. Chicago: M-C-M’, 2015.

Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco: City Light Books, 1999.

Szeman, Imre.“System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:4 (Fall 2007): 805-822.

Szeman, Imre, and Jeff Diamanti. “Beyond Petroculture: strategies for a left energy transition.” Canadian Dimension (Feb. 17, 2017). Accessed December 17, 2018.

Yaeger, Patricia. “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Systems.” PMLA 126.2 (2011): 305-326.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2009.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.