The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Taken for Granted

by Steve Gajadhar

Sunday, July 22nd. The power is out. Growing up in Saskatchewan this was a regular summer occurrence, the heat of the day causing massive storms at night. Drops pounding down on the shingles. Thunder. Lightning lashing out at the earth, and the smells pushed through the screen door by the wind. When it was over everything was cooler and still and we’d sit and stare into the candles instead of the TV. Now the power is out here in Hawaii, the wind having knocked over a pole or some distant relay. Sirens in the distance. The wind screaming as it parts around our all of a sudden flimsier house. Now it’s should’ves and what ifs. I should’ve picked up those extra flashlights and candles, the bottled water and jerky. What if the power never comes back on? What if it’s us versus nature?

Post-apocalyptic literature, a sub-genre of speculative sci-fi, attempts to answer these questions. Post-apocalytpic lit and its subject matter cousin, social contract philosophy, have always fascinated me. Human beings stand atop a massive pyramid of technological infrastructure, and most of us have no idea how any of it works. Post-apocalyptic lit posits what the world would be like if the pyramid was swept out from under us. The physical results of an apocalyptic event are easy. Good post-apocalyptic literature explores the “us” part after the pyramid is gone, focuses on the relationships we have between each other, nature, and god.

Post-apocalyptic lit production surged after World War II, when nuclear weapons gave us the power to annihilate ourselves and the Cold War left many authors wondering if we would. Titles such as “Alas Babylon” by Pat Frank, and “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, explore the value of humanity as its own entity, separated from the technology that caused the destruction. Pat Frank showed us the brighter side of recovery and soldiering on, while Miller seemed to say that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Between the two they illustrate one of the core dualities of human nature.

Yet the Bomb is only one of the ways to start humanity along the path of the dodo. The pandemic is also a popular and even more prolific form of the post-apocalyptic genre. “The Stand” by Stephen King is black and white in its literal modeling of evil versus good, but it also avoids the pitfalls of confrontation as the sole plot device. “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood is a satirical warning against runaway progress and a metaphor for the effect of the individual on society, both themes underpinned and highlighted by an exploration of the necessity of religion. Then there’re impact events like the Chicxulub meteor that killed the dinosaurs, explored in “Lucifer’s Hammer” by Larry Niven, and in numerous Hollywood special effects extravaganzas. Thematically, impact event post-apocalyptic fiction seems mostly concerned with the survival and rebuilding of mankind. Aliens could also be the demise of our way of life as in “The Day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham, or the now classic (due mostly to the very bad movie) "Battlefield Earth" by L. Ron Hubbard. Wyndham’s book is a scathing illustration of the dangers of ubiquitous homogeneity a la the Soviet Union, a dominant point of view in the era Triffids was written, the 1950s. Ironically, our machines could revolt against us with runaway nanotechnology, or all powerful governors from the future.... We could even gradually decline Roman style, as in Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” series (also based around a dying sun), a great illustration of knowledge—both of origin and technology—simply fading with time.

Any post-apocalyptic list would be incomplete without including two prominent apocalyptic scenarios dominant in the early 21st century. The first, ecological disaster brought on by changes to the environment, has never been done better than by ice-nine in “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut. In addition to being one of the finest satirical novels ever written, Vonnegut’s book is also an admonishment of irresponsible scientists (Oppenheimer) and human stupidity. The second is an event that most religious people of all faiths of every generation have believed to be occurring within their lifetime: the end of the world by supernatural, religious forces. Or what I like to call eschatological apocalypse, which is also the branch that is the historic originator of all post-apocalyptic fiction. The “Left Behind” series of novels by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins is easily the most well known and best selling post-apocalyptic series of all time. Religiosity aside, the one thing the eschatological genre gets right is the end of the world. The world will end, if no sooner than in a few billion years when our sun runs out of fuel.

Left out of all these categories are the books that don’t fit neatly into any of them, of which I’ll list three, and three finer books would be hard to come by. “Blindness” by Jose Saramago takes away sight instead of the pyramid of infrastructure and technology. The results are as disturbing as they are illuminating, and show how quickly we can devolve into wandering packs of individuals bent on survival at any cost. “In the Country of Last Things” by Paul Auster is a book about hell as a post-apocalyptic New York, complete with a symbolic river crossing at the beginning. Allegorical and idiosyncratic, death and the search for death dominate along with the theme of nothing ever being released, for nothing new is created anymore, only transformed and scavenged. Samuel R. Delany’s “Dhalgren” is one of the most interesting sci-fi books ever penned, probably one of the most interesting books ever penned. It is a dense work and hard going in stretches, but the persistent reader is rewarded with the literary equivalent of an M.C. Escher print in which the ending sentence loops to the opening sentence. How many authors can tackle the very nature of perception in one long prose poem?

Post-apocalyptic fiction asks the simple question, who are we in crisis? Noble or evil? Lions, or merely upright hyenas? Our power was out a little short of an hour, but in that time I imagined the chaos that would happen if power never returned. How quickly would we revert to our kill or be killed roots? I live in a place where many people live “off the grid,” providing their own power and drinking water to their small properties. I had a debate at a party one night with a kindly off the gridder. His argument was that he and his family would be fine and be able to cope should the apocalypse come. I shook my head, and told him that I think the true nature of humanity is that a gang of us would come and take his property from him and kill him if he resisted. He had no return argument to offer, because deep down he too knew the nature of his fellow man. So do our great writers, and fiction is the best way to explore this nature and the end of the world. I hope it stays the only way.

Must Reads:

Jose Saramago, “Blindness”
Stephen King, “The Stand”
Pat Frank, “Alas Babyon”
Kurt Vonnegut, “Cat’s Cradle”
David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” –Particular interest due to part of it being set on the Big Island. I didn’t mention it above but this is still one of the best books of the last ten years.
Samuel R. Delany, “Dhalgren”
Walter M. Miller, “A Canticle for Leibowitz”
Paul Auster, “In the Country of Last Things”
Gene Wolfe, “The Book of The New Sun” –The inconsistent narrator will throw some off, but Wolfe is one of the world’s finest living writers and creators.

Further reading:

Keith M. Booker, “Dystopian literature : a theory and research guide”
Alan Weisman, “The World Without Us” –Forthcoming in 2007
John Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids”
Margaret Atwood, “Oryx and Crake”
Nevile Shute, “On the Beach”
Peter George, “Red Alert” –Adapted into Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick
Harlan Ellison, “A boy and his Dog” and “I Have No Mouth but I Must Scream”
Robert Heinlein, “Farnham’s Freehold”
Larry Niven, “Lucifer’s Hammer”
Mary Shelley, “The Last Man”
Cormac McCarthy, “The Road”


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

When I do read sci-fi, it's usually this genre. It's the fascination with worse-case scenarios taken to (il)logical conclusion. The books on your lists that I've read I've enjoyed immensely, so now I have some new 'to-be-reads' on my Goodreads Prolife page! Thanks Steve for this informative look at a genre that should be given more and more consideration as we face the consequences of our eco-actions and non-actions. A hot topic.

Tue Jul 24, 08:57:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I meant "Profile" of course! Why are these comments so hard to edit?

Tue Jul 24, 10:37:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Don Capone said...

I'd add War Day by Whitley Stieber to that list.

Tue Jul 24, 04:42:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

Dr. Bloodmoney, by Philip K. Dick belongs on this list as well. The best 'pre Armageddon or: how we get there from here' novel I've read is R.A. Lafferty's The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney.

Tue Jul 24, 08:04:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Great stuff, Steve. I learned a lot. Thanks for the schooling. When I was at TVO we ran The Day of the Triffids. Really scary stuff.

Tue Jul 24, 08:35:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Thanks all, and thanks for the additions to the list. I haven't read either of those, looks like my "to read" list just got longer...

Wed Jul 25, 03:47:00 am GMT-4  
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Wed Jul 31, 05:37:00 am GMT-4  

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