Reading the Gonzo Apocalypse

At the tail end of 2017, I posted a story on Medium about a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels I had read over the course of the year, books with themes and situations that often reflected upon these United States during seemingly cataclysmic times.

After the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve I kept reading post-apocalyptic fiction. For whatever reason — maybe because every daily headline was more absurd than yesterday’s — the stories I read in 2018 trended toward wilder, more fantastical visions of the end of the world. For the interested, here’s a quick update on the stuff I read.

Sea of Rust and Oryx and Crake

Machine or Mannequin With Parts Made in Japan

It’s ridiculous how much I enjoyed Sea of Rust (2017), C. Robert Cargill’s cinematic novel of what happens after the robot apocalypse, in which the tin-man rebellion that exterminated all human life is immediately followed by a civil war among AIs.

The result is a scorched planet inhabited by the few remaining freebots trying to keep one step ahead of warring mainframes, which want to assimilate them (and each other) and ultimately become the Earth’s singular intelligence. With factories under the dominion of the mainframes, freebots like Brittle must scour the wastes for the spare parts needed to survive. Unfortunately, Brittle is also one of the last remaining Comfortbots — an automaton nurse and caregiver — which puts her in literal crosshairs when the only other remaining Comfortbot starts to fail and needs her parts.

Cargill, a screenwriter, keeps the thrill-ride steamrolling along, peppered by flashbacks to the events before, during, and after the robot uprising. His style is perhaps a little unpolished — among other flaws is a tendency to punctuate. Sentences. Like. It’s. Twitter. Circa. 2016. — and for a self-aware toaster oven, Brittle doesn’t seem to have much on her mind beyond PTSD.

That said, it’s hard to stay angry at a novel in which an assortment of Futurama robots battle hive-mind drones atop a speeding Mad Max battle wagon. Alexa, make sure to pre-order the sequel — and please, don’t kill me.

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Yet what to think of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003)? On one hand I found it every bit as unputdownable as Sea of Rust, largely due to its kindred vision of created usurping creator. On the other, I learned the darling lefty author of The Handmaid’s Tale definitely has some rather narrow worldviews.

Just as Handmaid originated from Atwood’s anxiety over the state of women’s reproductive rights during the 1980s evangelical movement, Oryx and Crake has its genesis in her clear concern over GMOs. Snowman lives in a tree and wears a bedsheet, cared for by genetically modified people called Crakers. While wallowing in his own stink and self-pity — our protagonist brings to mind Thoreau’s jibe that “None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness.” — Snowman recalls his years as Jimmy, living in a crony-corporatist America where sequestered scientists churn out GMO medicines, enhancements, and food for consumers in the pleeblands.

You’d have to be very inattentive to miss where the book is going once Jimmy encounters a transfer student named Glenn but that predictability doesn’t diminish enjoyment of Atwood’s dystopia. Glenn is a sociopath and a genius, and he and Jimmy spend their days watching crush videos on the dark web and footage of pleebland riots on the news. Glenn’s eventual rise as a master gene-splicer (along with Jimmy’s simultaneous plateau into mediocrity) is merely background exposition for the real mystery of how Oryx, a woman loved by both men, fits into mankind’s final act.

Which brings us to Atwood’s cringeworthy depiction of women. Female characters in the novel are sparse (Jimmy’s mother, who’s arguably the most interesting of them, is felt more than seen). Oryx, meanwhile, appears late in the book, usually in scenes of degradation as an Asian child prostitute. Somehow she rises to the level of executive career woman, presumably by sleeping her way up corporate ladders. We never know for sure, nor are we privy to any inner development because she’s presented as — ahem — inscrutable. Ultimately her character exists simply to inject jealous tension between Jimmy and Glenn.

Feminists might argue that’s exactly Atwood’s point — that women are nothing but playthings in a world of male corporate plutocracy — but for me, it’s just weak writing. I kept turning the pages, hooked on thrilling action scenes of a man pursued through the ruins by carnivorous chimeras and Atwood’s lush metaphors (“Amanda Payne shimmered in the past like a lost lagoon, its crocodiles for the moment forgotten.”). But even with all that going for it, I’ve zero interest in reading any of the sequels Atwood has since penned.

Star Man's Son, Damnation Alley, and The Man Who Japed

I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire

Andre Norton’s first full-length novel, Star Man’s Son (1952), panders to its audience. Having clearly learned what notes to strike in her previous career as a children’s librarian, Norton laid out YA’s ur-outline some 45 years before Harry Potter with this science-fantasy of rejected teenager turned hero.

Fors is a both an orphan and an outcast, a silver-haired mutant among an enclave of pure-strain human survivors of the Great Blow-Up. After being passed over again for promotion to a higher echelon of his community, he’s faced with the prospect of being a farming drudge for the rest of his life, all because of his dirty blood.

Rather than submit, Fors runs off to explore the wasteland where his father perished, picking through urban ruins and crossing deserts melted into glass by atomic fire. Eventually Fors must consolidate several hostile tribes into an alliance against a rising tide of mutant Beast-Things, who aim to supplant mankind — mainly by eating us.

It’s a boy’s adventure tale set against the backdrop of crumbling skyscrapers instead of castles and dungeons, but Norton took her job seriously (she legally switched her first name from Alice to foster legitimacy among her young readers — I mean, who wants to read a book written by a girl?). The writing doesn’t stray far from simple sentences and straight-forward dialogue, but even so, she managed to sneak in some radical messaging for the 1950s. “Why should there be distrust between the twain of us because our skin differs in color?” asks a black character of Fors, who’s white. “In peace there is trade, and in trade there is good for all,” says another, later. “When the winter closes and the harvest has been poor, then may trade save the life of a tribe.”

Lessons of tolerance and free trade? These days, that’s crazy talk.

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It’s hard to say nice things about a novel that even its own author disliked. Roger Zelazny expanded an earlier novella into Damnation Alley (1969) solely with an eye toward a film deal (which eventually came to fruition in 1977 — and which Zelazny similarly reviled). As a writer myself, I can’t fault his pecuniary motives; but as a reader I have to wish he’d put more thought into what’s fundamentally a great idea.

Hell Tanner is a captured murderer diverted from prison and put behind the steering wheel of a futuristic big rig for a suicide run from Los Angeles to Boston, carrying medicine to cure an East Coast outbreak of plague. Seeing his chance for escape, Tanner puts pedal to metal and strikes out across a United States blasted by nuclear hellfire and infested with swarms of giant bats and other mutations.

The novel’s plot is laughably linear and so steeped in its late sixties atmosphere of California motorcycle gangs, cops, and counterculture that it’s hard to picture the characters sporting anything other than bell-bottoms and fringed leather vests. And while the high concept of the book is matched by Zelazny’s terrific descriptions of monsters and killer tornadoes, secondary characters come and go and subplots are nonexistent, which is why Zelazny’s conceit of a bad-guy-as-savior thrown into a dystopic/apocalyptic setting has seen much better interpretations (e.g., Escape From New York). If given the choice between the two versions of Damnation Alley, read the novella instead — if only because it’s shorter.

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As if we needed more proof that our contemporary reality is a phantasm sprung from Philip K. Dick’s Benzedrine imagination, I submit his early novel The Man Who Japed (1956) as exhibit Z.

Set in a post-post-apocalyptic world where civilization has rebuilt after a devastating nuclear exchange, Allen Purcell has lived a strait-laced life under Moral Reclamation, the conformist and puritanical one-world government that safeguards against immorality, which in its adherents’ view is what led to World War III. Purcell is such a good citizen, in fact, that the government promotes him to head its propaganda department.

Except Purcell also has a dimly remembered night life in which he “japes” society through vandalism, drunkenness, and other petty transgressions. His scaling the peaks of success has produced a psychological schism between his square public persona and his inner critic of Moral Reclamation’s inertia and claustrophobia. This conflict comes to a head when Purcell the propaganda chief orchestrates — wait for it — a fake news broadcast.

Later Dick is so much weirder and darker than early Dick, and here Moral Reclamation doesn’t come off as particularly sinister; nonconformists, for example, are exiled to a vacation planet that sounds more like a reward than a punishment. But Dick’s trajectory is still easy to see: his love of psychology and pharmaceuticals, the authoritarian setting, the questionable value of our perceptions. In other words: drugs, dystopia, and gaslighting. Welcome to the future!

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That’s it for 2018. Cash me at the bottom of 2019 to see where the endtimes took me this year. Fingers crossed we’re all still alive.

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