Tales From the Coronapocalypse

The pandemic has sharply increased demand at food pantries:

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank in California has built “pop-up” pantries after some of its previous 275 or so sites had to stop operating during the pandemic, spokeswoman Keely Hopkins said. The new sites, many of which are serving hundreds of people per day, stay open for longer hours and use open spaces such as parking lots to facilitate social distancing, she added.

Paid staffers are diving in at many food banks to stock, sort and bag food for either delivery or drive-thru pickups, a measure they realized was necessary to protect volunteers, many of whom are older and particularly at risk for complications from the virus. Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee limits volunteers to 10 per room to fill boxes.

The board of the East Nashville Cooperative Ministry has proposed closing because so many of its volunteers are elderly, including Judy Wahlstrom, who runs the program.

[Associated Press]

For the past two weeks I’ve been volunteering via CERT at our local food pantry, which has switched to drive-thru service to maintain social distancing. I can testify to many of this story’s main points. The first few days we had plenty of fresh produce and frozen meat to give away, donated by restaurants who had more than they could use and a local country club cleaning out its freezer. Now most of that stuff is gone, with little promise of future donations. The only thing we have in abundance? Easter candy — boxes upon boxes of donated Easter candy. Meanwhile, one long-time pantry volunteer told me that several pantries in neighboring Bridgeport have shut down because they were staffed by elderly volunteers who didn’t want to risk going to work.

Pork and beef will likely become scarcer at grocery stores too:

Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s biggest pork producer, indefinitely shut down a slaughter plant in South Dakota this week after hundreds of workers tested positive for Covid-19. The plant typically accounted for 4% to 5% of total hog processing in the U.S.

Two people who worked at a Tyson Foods Inc. pork plant in Iowa died and two dozen are ill, with operations down. Three people died who worked at a Tyson poultry plant in Georgia. A worker at a Cargill Inc. plant in Colorado also died. JBS USA delayed the reopening of a Pennsylvania beef plant from Thursday to Monday.

[Bloomberg]

One of the survivalist lessons I took away from Sandy was to learn to cook vegetarian. Without power for a week, the meat in our fridge went fast. A few times I bought meat in the late afternoon, then took it home and immediately grilled it (we had our Weber charcoal grill plus a little propane stove), but as I boiled my umpteenth pot of ramen noodles I realized I needed to round out my menu options with ingredients that didn’t need refrigeration. While my vegetarian repertoire is still small — my two mainstays are eggplant curry and tarka dhal — it sounds like it may be expanding soon.

In Europe and Canada, farmers are flying in foreign workers to pick their crops. Here in the States, the problem is lack of demand:

At C&E, restaurant and business closures have led to an estimated 40% decline in demand for the farm’s green beans, Colson said. With the drop in business in Florida, Colson says the farm has had to leave beans out in the field — meaning they will die off.

In an interview last week from his farm in Florida, Colson said they’d had 3 million pounds of green beans that weren’t able to go to fresh market. Most of that was sold at a reduced price to canneries.

The rest, roughly a quarter million pounds, was left in the field.

[Daily Press]

My solution: ask volunteers to pick a portion of the crops on behalf of local food banks and pantries, then allow farmers to take the full market value of the donation as a tax deduction.

And people would volunteer to pick green beans because, in general, they’re helpful:

In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in Turkey in 1999, the emergency relief expert Claude de Ville de Goyet berated media organisations for propagating what he called “disaster myths.” “While isolated cases of antisocial behavior exist,” he wrote, “the majority of people respond spontaneously and generously.”

[Financial Times]

I’ve run into the disaster myth too. After Sandy, the National Guard was deployed in our neighborhood, patrolling the beaches in full tactical gear — like something from Smedley’s era, there were rumors of boats coming across the Sound full of thieves targeting the abandoned houses along the shore. Even today I’ll still hear someone talk about the alleged looting that took place during Sandy. Yet there wasn’t a single documented incident of local looting or vandalism during Sandy or its aftermath.

Not only are people generally decent and courteous in bad times, they often look for ways to help. Our local firefighters have been turning away people who show up at the station asking to volunteer: they’re untrained and unvetted, so they point them toward private charities instead (which is a good point — if you’re looking to volunteer, then recognize it helps to be something more than a summer soldier or sunshine patriot). But the fact that our first responders have to decline offers for assistance rather than patrol against window-smashing pillagers speaks volumes about human behavior during crises.

Short News, Tinfoil Hat Edition

I’m a member of my town’s CERT chapter and one of the priorities of our team leadership has been countering the misinformation and conspiracy theories that are circulating. These days, it’s a noble ambition: I myself have heard the most crackpot utterances from people whom I otherwise consider to be sane and rational human beings. If we’re going to get through this, it’s because we washed our hands, not because we derailed trains into 5G towers.

So to that end, here’s a quick list of articles useful in debunking those folks in your life who’ve taken one too many bong hits around the lava lamp.

No, people are not hoarding toilet paper. The disappearance of TP from store shelves is due to more of it being used at home than at work. Commercial TP is a very different product than consumer TP and cannot easily be repurposed for home use. [Marker]

No, COVID-19 is a not an engineered bioweapon. Analysis of the spikes on the coronavirus has shown they’re so effective at penetrating human cells that their intentional creation is beyond modern technology — only Mother Nature is capable of it. COVID-19 is very similar to viruses that infect bats and pangolins, and it probably passed to humans through an unknown third-party vector. [Forbes]

No, we can’t just isolate the elderly or vulnerable. Not only is it logistically impossible, but concentrating at-risk populations would just make it easier for a contagion like COVID-19 to burn through them. Also, the fact that seniors and people with existing ailments are usually cared for by younger, healthier people makes strict isolation unworkable. [Washington Post]

No, it’s not too late for social distancing. This particularly irrational theory posits that because we didn’t begin social distancing back in January, it doesn’t matter what we do now and therefore the disease should take its natural course. The incubation stage for COVID-19 is 2 to 14 days and a carrier infects an average (the R0) of 2 to 2.5 people 5 to 6 people (updated by the CDC). If you can’t figure out that math, I can’t help you. So yes, regardless of what happened months ago, what we do right now has a large effect on how quickly we get through this and how many wind up dead. [CDC, Business Insider]

Update, 8 April: After further reading, I now realize the above is part of a bigger misrepresentation which supposes that COVID-19 has been present in the United States for months and therefore has largely saturated the population, and because a majority of people are asymptomatic, social distancing and quarantines are pointless since most of us already have the virus. If this was true, however, we would expect to see antibodies present in a majority of the populace, which we’re not finding. Complicating matters is a new study out of Shanghai that counted low levels or even no levels of antibodies in recovered patients, suggesting they could be re-infected. Update, 9 April: The Shanghai study looked for an unreliable marker. Other studies searching for better markers suggest a strong presence of antibodies in recovered patients.

No, Lamont did not lie about an infant dying of COVID-19. During one of his daily press conferences last week, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont stated that a six-week-old infant in the Hartford area died of the virus. This may or may not be true: the unresponsive infant was brought to a hospital, where he/she died. Currently, anyone dying in a hospital is tested for COVID-19 and the infant tested positive. Was it causation or coincidence? We won’t know until the medical examiner announces the autopsy results, but if we don’t assume that all deaths of positive people were caused by the virus, then we risk under-reporting the number of deaths and throwing off calculations of the disease’s mortality rate (among other things). Some anti-vaxxers/pandemic disbelievers, spurred by conspiracy theorist and all-around wingnut Candace Owens, have accused Lamont of lying about the death in an attempt to scare the public, introduce Communism, establish UN concentration camps, etc. While announcing the infant’s death by COVID-19 may have been premature, there’s zero evidence that Lamont or other officials lied or misled the public. Until the autopsy results contradict the cause of death, the infant is being tallied as a casualty of the virus. [Hartford Courant]

I Got Some Groceries, Some Peanut Butter

Have you suddenly found yourself at home with time on your hands? Are you looking for books to read about the end of the world while you wait out the end of the world?

Man, have you come to the right place. I love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and sometimes I even write about what I’ve read.

In 2017, I read books set (mostly) in a post-apocalyptic USA. I strongly recommend JG Ballard’s Hello America and Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow.

Last year I read post-apoc novels set in the UK, including some really great ones like When the Tripods Came, Fugue for a Darkening Island, and of course, The Day of the Triffids. All of those books were written by Brit authors.

And in 2018 I read some gonzo adventures featuring robots and mutants written by C. Robert Cargill, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and others.

JG Ballard’s The Drowned World is okay but I liked his collection Memories of the Space Age better, particularly his short story, “The Cage of Sand.”

I’m also a huge fan of Jeffrey Barlough’s Western Lights novels, which are Victorian gaslamp mystery adventures set in a post-apocalyptic alternate Ice Age. In 2013, I interviewed Barlough about the series.

The Unstrung Harp

Mr. Earbrass has been rashly skimming through the early chapters

This week I completed the eighth draft of my fourth and latest book. It’s not the final version by any means, but it’s the version I’m comfortable showing to people while I consider improvements. There’s never a final version to any book, even once it’s sent to the printer; I keep a running list of corrections if a revised edition of Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer should ever be requested.

Often when I reach this milestone, I pull out my copy of Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey, a collection of his first 15 books, and reread the The Unstrung Harp. The story details the process of CF Earbrass, renowned English novelist, as he writes and publishes his latest work. The Unstrung Harp spans the period just before he begins writing and concludes with his escape from the reactions and reviews by suddenly going on holiday.

Never before or since The Unstrung Harp has a better rendering of the authorial journey been set to paper. Having read it first as a teen, it’s become a nostradamic document for me, a compilation of quatrains describing events and experiences that have come to pass.

In one panel Earbrass writes so long and hard that he skips lunch, whereupon he retreats to the kitchen to eat a jelly sandwich. That’s practically my daily routine.

Upon finishing a chapter, Earbrass sits and ponders “where the plot is to go and what will happen to it on arrival.” How else do you write a book?

Earbrass finds a presentation copy of an old novel in a second-hand bin but can’t remember who Angus is. A friend of mine once found a presentation copy of Smedley at a used-book sale and apologized to me, as if he was the one who gave it away.

Earbrass is cornered by an irate reader, who believes a character in the novel is modeled on him. Not only has this happened with my fiction, I also have a Smedley stalker who shows up at places to argue with me.

What’s amazing is that The Unstrung Harp was Gorey’s first book, originally published in 1953, and yet reading it, you’d think it was written by an established author reflecting on his career by way of self-mockery. Nope. Instead Gorey wrote a prophetic parody of the writing life, a blueprint of absurdity. For me, the humor only grows with each re-read.

Reading the Brexit Apocalypse

Brexit is an act of secession, the breaking away of one polity from another, and say what you want about it, the fact that not a single shot has been fired over Brexit is a compliment to the patience and forbearance of both the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Here in the States, our two big acts of secession didn’t go so well. We exchanged cannonballs with the British Empire to establish an idealized land of freedom and liberty, and 244 years afterward we’re still striving to live up to those goals. Later, some of us wanted to break away to preserve an ideal of nostalgia and, more precisely, slavery, and by war’s end an estimated 800,000 men and women lay dead. We Americans have seen both flips of the coin, the good act of secession and the bad one too, a heads where people sought to establish a radical new order and a tails where they fought to preserve a dying status quo.

The driving force behind secession is a particular vision of the future, a dream conforming to the ideals of the secessionists. In other words: secession is utopian. At stake in Brexit are multiple conflicting models of what the UK could be. Even now, for example, with a break from the EU truly on the horizon, there appears to be little consensus about the precise relationship between an independent UK and its former partners on the continent. Which vision will coalesce into reality? Take it from a citizen of a country that’s been there before: with so many cooks in the kitchen, the finished meal won’t be to anybody’s taste.

In the meantime, post-apocalyptic fiction can provide us with some insights because, similar to secessionism, it’s a utopian art form. Unlike secondary world fantasy or science fiction set on alien planets, post-apoc is about our world with the slate wiped clean — it explores what social constructs would develop on an Earth unshackled from history, a landscape where civilization can begin again from the grassroots. It imagines what secession often seeks to accomplish.

Throughout 2019, I read a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels written by British authors and set in Britain. Their interpretations of what their country would look like stripped of its conventions varied but certain themes and motifs recurred. Presented here are my glimmers into their futures, their observations, and their judgments about what it means to be British.

Salvation Road

The Girl With All the Gifts

One of the more telling observations of history is that many of the great migrations of our planet, if not most, have involved people trying to escape their own government. There’s even a word for it: democide.

Set in a post-zombie UK, M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts (2014) introduces us to Melanie, who, along with her classmates, is sequestered at an army-run research base located north of London, far from the last outpost of English civilization on the southern shore called Beacon. Unraveling why the children are crucial for the scientists’ research absorbs the early chapters, until eventually the base is compromised and a ragtag group of action-movie archetypes — including Melanie, the star student — must trudge back to Beacon, surrounded on all sides by the running dead.

Girl started as a short story, which, due to popular demand — and by popular, I mean Hollywood — Carey later expanded into both a screenplay and a novel, written concurrently. It must be a nice problem to have. Perhaps for just that reason the book is divided into halves: the first, which includes the original story, is rich and well-written, while the second descends into cinematic, easily storyboarded clichés (I’m looking at you, guy-who-goes-off-by-himself-and-gets-eaten).

If you’ve ever watched a Romero movie or an episode of that HBO franchise, you’ve probably already read this story of a familiar survivors’ march across the countryside. Still, Carey’s expository unwinding of the collapse, particularly of a government that turned against its citizens in its death throes, entertains nonetheless. The darkness of a zombie apocalypse is always tempered by its fantastical impossibility and so, at its foundation, remains a joke — but a government bombing its own people to save itself? That’s all too believable.

The End of the World Running Club

A better expression of peregrination as plot device is Adrian J. Walker’s The End of the World Running Club (2014). Edgar lives the life of a middle-class Englishman in the suburbs, working his days in an office, boozing his nights at the pub, not exercising, not eating well, and most of all, not being a terribly good father or husband. When an intense meteor shower devastates Earth’s northern hemisphere, Edgar and his family escape to their basement just in time.

After being rescued by soldiers from a nearby barracks, Edgar returns one day from a scavenging mission to find his family has been evacuated by an international agency to Cornwall, where ships intend to transport survivors to new lives in the southern hemisphere. He and the remaining left-behinds have until Christmas day to hoof from Edinburgh to Falmouth if they ever want to be reunited with their loved ones.

The band’s journey through a crater-pocked countryside makes for a different landscape than most books centered around zombies or nukes. As with Girl, the ragtag bunch of runners (the roads are too badly marred for vehicles) is a motley of stereotypes — the soldier, the pensioner, the tattooed biker with a heart of gold — but Walker colors outside their lines to develop them into something better.

The same can’t be said for many of the villains they encounter; the band is constantly attacked and captured by a series of highwaymen and gangsters, all of whom originate from the lower classes. In fact, the only bit of charity they receive is from a minor nobleman dwelling in a secluded manor. Walker, who lives in London, is very specific about who’s responsible for tearing the UK apart, whether by resorting to predatory violence in the aftermath of an asteroid strike or by voting Leave. It’s the tragic flaw of the English: they can’t help but be snobs, even when the protagonist’s arc aims to mold him into the ideal of the modern progressive Labour-voter.

Greybeard

For a people who live on an island, the theme of running away from your problems is surprisingly common in British post-apoc. In Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964), the titular character and his friends begin an odyssey down the Thames after their village descends into anarchy, incited by a rumor of an impending invasion by stoats (a kind of weasel, if you remember your Wind in the Willows).

It seems trifling, but as the novel is set decades after the last child has been born due to humanity’s sterilization by nuclear fallout, the townsfolk — none of them under the age of 50 — are prone to hysterias and panics. Fearing the mob mentality of their neighbors more than the stoats, Greybeard (born Algernon Timberlane) and his companions cast off in a boat to find a new home along the riverbank.

The lack of young bodies able to perform the maintenance necessary to keep civilization running has reduced Britain to a land of social atomization among the ruins. Aldiss cuts their journey with interstitials about Timberlane’s life before, during, and after the disaster, painting a cheerless picture of a society fallen into nihilism in the face of self-caused extinction. Are so many of the characters given to quarreling, grudges, jealousies, and even casual violence because they’re demented by age, or because deep down that’s who they’ve always been?

“We are happy!” says one character. “For all that everyone has lost since the terrible Accident of 1981, one thing at least we have gained — there is no longer need for the hypocrisies and shams of civilization; we can be our natural selves.”

Released from the manacles of society and the bonds to other countries — or even to their own countrymen — the dwindling inhabitants of England are left unencumbered and free. “All of which pointed to a moral that they should have learned long before,” says one character to himself: “Never trust a bunch of lousy politicians to do your thinking for you.” Spoken like a true American.

March of the Zombies

When the Tripods Came

“One of the basic weaknesses of science fiction,” wrote John Christopher in his 2014 preface to When the Tripods Came (1988), is that “it is not very good at guessing the future.” Christopher was responding to criticism of his Tripod Trilogy that the alien invaders are technologically advanced in some senses and yet seem woefully backwards in others — a perception largely due to the original series, written in the late 60s, having been outpaced by real-world developments. Christopher penned the fourth book in part to explain the aliens’ technological deficiencies. “Scientific knowledge doesn’t have to follow the pattern we’re familiar with,” says one character, citing historical examples to reinforce the suspension of disbelief.

Science fiction frequently gets the details wrong but just as often predicts a larger truth, especially because human behavior doesn’t change. In Christopher’s prequel, we learn how the invading Masters, outmatched by Earth’s more sophisticated weapons, conquered the planet anyway. After the first Tripods are easily destroyed, their memory insidiously lingers in a children’s television show, which eventually splits humanity into pro-Tripod “Trippies” and the rest of mankind who, like the parents of Fortnite-addicted kids, assume the whole thing is a fad that will blow over. Hoo boy, are they wrong.

The true dread is in the benignity of the invasion. The Trippies aren’t always violent, and the real menace lies in the subtle changes in their behavior. Our protagonists make several attempts to escape the Trippies only to be roadblocked by provincial prejudice or nationalism, something they’ve never experienced before. The shared threat of invasion from another world, rather than bonding people together Watchmen style, instead makes Trippies and non-Trippies alike hostile to refugees. “It would make it easier to keep us under control,” theorizes one character about the newfound xenophobia. “Divide and rule.”

Christopher’s prescient suggestion — made way back in the days of Reagan and Thatcher — of the divisive potential of pop culture and mass media adds a layer of contemporary terror to an otherwise pulse-pounding narrative of a boy and his family increasingly surrounded by pod people. As the book is a prequel to a series published in the 1960s, it’s no spoiler to tell you the sinister narrative slides from cozy horror into full-on jailbreak, and I stayed up late finishing it, unable to turn the pages fast enough. If you’ve ever felt unease at discovering that a loved one possesses some unsavory political views, When the Tripods Came may make you relive the sensation.

Fugue for a Darkening Island

Of all the books in this list, Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) is the most relevant to Brexit. It’s also the most bleak. The story follows Alan Whitman, an upper middle-class English everyman: he’s a college history professor who wears corduroys and lives in the London suburbs; his politics are liberal; he has one child and a loveless marriage; he’s carried on a comical number of affairs with students and colleagues. He is mashed potatoes of a man, someone who’s never made hard decisions or strongly believed in anything except an erection.

When drought and famine culminate in a limited nuclear exchange in Africa, millions flee the continent for less-irradiated climes, including two million who land in Britain. The influx overwhelms the housing and labor markets, creating civil unrest and eventually all-out civil war. Whitman and his family find themselves among the displaced, and much of the narrative (told as an achronological clip show) involves their wanderings in the southern English countryside as they duck combatants and their allied militias.

Priest takes great pains to avoid demonizing the refugees, stressing that the violence is between African militants (suggested to be former soldiers supplied arms by a provocative USSR) and the fascist nativist government. The war is further complicated by a third interracial faction which seeks to restore peace and the constitutional monarchy. Throughout it all, Whitman insists on maintaining the absolute neutrality of his pre-war life, which reduces him and his dependents to the status of wretched drifters, skulking around deserted villages and scavenging for tinned food.

Priest’s point is that nonalignment is an illusion; after all, the simple fact of Whitman’s white skin means certain groups treat him better than others. Because of this, some critics accuse Fugue of racism. In his introduction to the 2011 edition — Priest revised the book to make it less detached as well as to clean up the language — Priest says he modeled the catastrophe on the Troubles of Northern Island, and speculated what would happen if its sectarian violence spread to the whole of the UK.

Priest’s argument isn’t so much about whites versus blacks as it is against neutrality itself, bringing to mind Sophie Scholl’s quote about the fecklessness of the nonpartisan in the face of emergency: “But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe.” Being born white or black or Catholic or Protestant means you’ve already been assigned to a side, so being uninvolved is out of the question. The real dilemma is what to do with that fact and whether a man should succumb to blind tribalism or act upon his principles to fight, and maybe even kill, for something better.

The Day of the Triffids

No survey of British post-apoc would be complete without John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), which I regard as among the best of the genre. I’m not alone; the opening in which the protagonist Bill Masen finds himself waking in a hospital after a global catastrophe inspired the film 28 Days Later; and with its scenes of triffids breaking through fences by the sheer weight of numbers or lingering hungrily over corpses, it can be argued that Wyndham single-handedly inspired the zombie apocalypse whole cloth.

Masen, a biochemist who works with the mysterious ambulatory plants known as triffids, is recovering from a triffid sting to his eyes when he wakes up to learn that a cosmic light show the night before has blinded anyone who saw it. When he removes his bandages, Masen finds he can see but mostly everyone else cannot. The adjective “cozy” is sometimes used to describe Wyndham’s book, which is an odd label considering that many of the victims soon succumb to starvation, suicide, or disease due to society’s plunge into eternal night.

Once again, our hero begins an odyssey, first through London and then eventually through a southern England in which the carnivorous triffids, once a rung below us on the food chain, have been promoted. Unlike most post-apoc, however, Triffids culminates in a revelation not often repeated in the almost 70 years since its publication: the apocalypse was not brought about by a single event — humanity can weather a lone catastrophe — but rather by a series of them.

Society is too complex a machine to be disabled by a mere broken cogwheel, Wyndham reminds us; but should too many parts shatter, then the thing collapses. This metaphor in mind, one questions whether Brexit, the Good Friday Accord, and mutterings of a second Scottish referendum are but a single straw or too many for the burro to bear.

Wyndham’s plotting is impeccable, sprinkling scenes of triffid horror between showcases of the different societies that form after the disaster. A college professor establishes a kind of benign Handmaid’s Gilead (chalk another tally on the inspiration wall) in which repopulating the Earth is the primary goal; but a splinter group soon shears off into matriarchal Christian socialism. Another character enslaves the sighted for the benefit of the blind, another group fortifies themselves in a castle, and still another seeks to reestablish medieval feudalism.

Throughout his adventures, Masen repeatedly encounters people hopeful that Americans will soon arrive to save them — they can’t imagine a world in which the US is just as crippled as they are. This “Micawber fixation on American fairy godmothers” arriving with crates of chlorinated chicken and paprika full of rat hairs is the hope that keeps many of them hanging on. It’s the most utopian of all the groupthinks Masen runs into, a salvation fantasy held by too many in the real world.

Scrapheap City

Children of the Dust

Arguments over Brexit have been no exception to a common rhetorical device in which each side accuses the other of being retrograde and reactionary. Who are the more conservative, the Remain voters who wanted to keep things as they are or the Leave voters who wanted a change? Is the desire for sovereignty over the affairs of one’s country forward thinking or a throwback? It’s a question without a clear answer.

For Gen-X readers, Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985) will either summon memories of watching The Day After on TV or of reading Children in school. Judging by the reviews left on Goodreads and Amazon, the novel was a popular assignment for Commonwealth kids in the 80s, and copies are easy to pick up on second-hand sites — mine is an ex-library edition from an elementary school in Burnaby, British Columbia.

With its young protagonists and grim description of nuclear warfare, it’s easy to see why teachers would assign it to middle-grade readers. Mutually Assured Destruction occurs on page one, and from that dark start we follow several generations of the Harnden family as they deal with the immediate devastation, the rebuilding efforts a few decades later, and a reborn England some fifty years afterward. Lawrence doesn’t spare the gruesome details: after quickly throwing together a makeshift bomb shelter in their house, the initial group of protagonists slowly succumbs to starvation and sickness, all while smelling the stink from their own poop bucket in the corner. The fun-time apocalypse of Fallout 4, this isn’t.

Strife eventually develops between those who endured outdoors and those survivors in government bunkers who seek to restore Britain as it was — and who see the outsiders as a means to that end. The perception of the outsiders as deformed bumpkins, even though they’ve persevered through radiation sickness and nuclear winter, stems from the vault dwellers’ own snobbery, who believe a return to agrarianism is a step backwards. Meanwhile the pacifist outsiders have no such phobias about the bunker people and welcome their preserved technology, with the caveat that it be used for ploughshares instead of swords.

Lawrence makes it clear who she thinks is the more old-fashioned, but at the end of her no-nukes, back-to-nature, can’t-we-all-just-get-along sermon is a warning about the ultimate dangers of conformity, the attachment to old and irrelevant ideas. All the science in the world isn’t worth much if you’re just going to blow it up.

After London

Richard Jeffries was a British naturalist whose novel After London (1885) likely appealed to Grand Tourists who had to journey to the Mediterranean to see monumental ruins. Jeffries goes into great detail about the reversion of the southern English landscape after an unspecified catastrophe, with the book divided into two sections; the first, “The Relapse Into Barbarism,” reads like a supplement for a roleplaying game, with much verbiage spent on the encroachment of vegetation.

The upshot is that the mouths of the Avon and Thames both became silted, with the backed-up water forming a massive freshwater lake between the Bristol Channel and an uninhabited London, now a swamp haunted by fatal mists and vapors: as went the pyramids and the Colosseum, so too went Buckingham and Westminster. Civilization along the lake has reverted to feudalism, with various noblemen warring with republican city-states and each other.

The second section relates the adventures of Felix Aquilas, eldest son of a mechanically inclined baron who reintroduced the trebuchet to siege warfare, only to find himself victim of court jealousies because of his innovation. The result is a fine levied against him that he cannot hope to pay. Left without an inheritance, Felix sets off across the inland sea to establish his own barony.

Our hero’s voyage isn’t terribly exciting. Many words are again spent on descriptions of wind, water, flora, and fauna, but Jeffries’s message is 180-degrees to Lawrence’s: screw primitivism — the only way to get ahead in this world is to out-innovate and technologically crush your enemies. Throughout, Felix is stymied by distrust and lack of imagination for his improvements and he suffers the indignities of a Great Man among backwards yokels.

Precisely because of its age, the book’s pro-technology, anti-Luddite stance is refreshing, accompanied by none of the modern hand-wringing over new scientific developments. Jeffries leaves no doubt who the regressives are. “The richer and upper classes made use of their money to escape,” Jeffries tells us regarding the ambiguous cataclysm. “Those left behind were mainly the lower and most ignorant.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re the elite or the prole: either way, it’s always the other one who’s the bitter-ender.

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As always, there are probably a hundred other books that could’ve been included here, so feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments. And don’t think I’m picking on the Brits; in 2017, I took a look at what post-apoc fiction says about the USA.

In the meantime, stockpile your curry bricks, lace your trainers, and let’s hope we survive to meet again at the bottom of 2020.

Cross-posted on Medium.

The Case of Blackbeard’s Anchor

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Allen v. Cooper, a case centered around the issues of copyright and Blackbeard. My worlds are colliding!

The Allen in the case title is Rick Allen, who owns an underwater video and photography company called Nautilus Productions LLC. In 1996, Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was discovered in North Carolina waters, and afterward Nautilus contracted with Intersal Inc, the company that located and identified the wreck, for the exclusive image rights to the recovery operation. This meant that no one else was allowed to take photos of the shipwreck in situ (which is beyond the ability of most photographers anyway as the wreck lies 28 feet down about a mile offshore) or of pieces and artifacts of the wreck as they were brought to the surface. I’m not sure what the status was of photographing the artifacts once they reached dry land.

The state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources lacked the funds to recover the Queen Anne’s Revenge themselves, so they hired Intersal to salvage it instead. In return for foregoing any claim to the artifacts, including coins or precious metals, Intersal was granted exclusive media and replica rights to the wreck. This allowed Intersal to profit on their salvage work by creating educational media and other promotional materials. Bear in mind that because the wreck belongs to the state of North Carolina, Intersal never had a claim to the artifacts in the first place.

Turns out your humble blogger Jackson once had a run-in with Allen and Nautilus over this very issue. Way back in 2009, I posted an update when the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project (the aegis of the state, Intersal, Nautilus, and who knows who else) raised a grapnel anchor from the seabed. I illustrated the post with a photo of the anchor taken from North Carolina’s own project media page, which is to say, my source ended in .gov.

Now, generally speaking, using images or photos from government sites for newsworthy purposes is considered fair use. When quoting text from a source, public or otherwise, it’s fair use if you quote less than 10 percent of the whole body. Photos can be dicier because no one uses 10 percent of a photo — they show the whole thing. Furthermore, not all government entities have a grasp of fair use or even basic copyright: when I was writing Smedley, the Connecticut State Archives demanded that I request permission to quote any sources in their possession by filling out a separate form for each citation, claiming that they owned the copyrights to all of their materials. This is complete and total bullshit, of course, because nobody owns the copyright to letters or documents written 230+ years ago, so I never complied. But again, complications notwithstanding, generally it’s OK to use stuff from government sites for journalistic purposes, particularly when the page is designed as a digital press release, as was the case here.

A couple of years after I wrote that post, I received a very aggressive email from Nautilus Productions threatening to sue me. They claimed they had exclusive permission to all images of the wreck, and they demanded that I pay them three times the cost of the image’s price as compensation for this alleged crime of reprinting their photo on my site.

I responded that I was happy to take the photo down — again, the post was already a couple of years old at this point — but I added that I’d taken it from North Carolina’s own project page, so fair use. A few days later, I received a much more conciliatory email suggesting that I could keep the photo as long as I added a credit to Allen and Nautilus Productions in the caption. I had the impression they hadn’t known about the photo on the state page beforehand and they realized their accusation of infringement against me was weak.

I added a strikethroughed credit to the post but removed the photo — like I give a fig about a bunch of chuckleheads who can’t even figure out who has permission to use a photo of an 18th-century anchor. In journalism, when you write something bad about someone you’re not surprised when they resent it, but nothing is as frustrating as writing good or at least neutral news, only for the person to whip around and bite your hand like a snake. The whole incident annoyed me so much that I stopped reporting about the project on the blog altogether.

Apparently, that photo wasn’t the only image used by the state against Nautilus’s wishes, and in 2013, all of the parties — North Carolina, Intersal, and Nautilus — clarified their positions regarding photos and videos. They started quarreling again soon afterward, and Nautilus sued the state for copyright infringement, to which the state argued the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act gave them sovereign immunity from lawsuits. The North Carolina legislature also passed a law making all photos and videos of state shipwrecks public domain (dubbed “Blackbeard’s Law”), which further pissed off Nautilus and added to their litigation. Intersal also separately sued the state.

No excavation of Queen Anne’s Revenge has occurred since 2015 due to all of the lawsuits.

The case as it stands now before SCOTUS is less about pirates and photographs than it is about sovereign immunity. You can read a full summary of the case’s history here, and even take a headlong dive into the weeds with the transcript of the oral arguments here (pdf).

While I don’t begrudge Intersal or Nautilus some means of compensation for their salvage efforts, I’m also dubious of private companies claiming exclusivity of resources or research when tax dollars are involved (I’m looking straight at you, Elsevier). What I don’t understand is why North Carolina didn’t specify that Nautilus must provide them with a certain amount of open content for public relations; or if they did, why the state then violated the agreement. Governments are as fickle and arbitrary as diseased raccoons, so I can imagine North Carolina’s state attorneys changing their minds while the ink was still wet on the 2013 settlement.

On the other hand, if no such agreement existed, then Nautilus’s naivete of the political environment is astounding. The politicians who write and pass the budgets, not to mention the public who pays for them, will want to see pictures of the shipwreck they’re partially funding, so Nautilus should’ve thrown them some freebies. If that’s what happened, then Nautilus has nothing but their own greed to blame for their current legal hell.

We’ll find out what SCOTUS decides next summer.