Reading the On-the-Nose Apocalypse

It may not come as a surprise that I didn’t read a whole lot of post-apocalyptic fiction in 2020.

Or did I? The endless doomscroll of my Twitter and news feeds, of spiking graphs and preposterous statements by politicians at every level, has been ten months (and counting) of life imitating art.

We’ve struck every cliché: the ominous foreshadowing over Wuhan; Chinese journalists, scientists, and medical professionals pleading for help, then suddenly vanishing; lockdowns and morgue trucks and mass graves on Hart Island; leaders lying or obfuscating when they’re not actively blocking relief efforts; civil unrest; denialists and ignorant contrarians of every ideological bent; opportunistic wingnuts derailing trains or concocting outlandish kidnap schemes; and all-around confusion “increased by a spate of new and conflicting regulations, and by the arbitrary way controls were imposed or lifted,” to lift a quote straight from Anna Kavan’s Ice.

And of course the deaths. 2020 was a year in which 3.2 million Americans died, the most in US history. In the past 12 months, one out of every 100 Americans dropped dead — 1 percent of the population — and of those deaths, 10 percent were from covid. Clearly none of us needed a V8 Interceptor to become Mad Max. To live the apocalypse we just had to wake up in the morning.

This year, rather than sticking to a theme, the books I read were randomly pulled off the shelf or my Kindle. I wasn’t actively seeking plague stories. I was just looking for distraction.

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The Night of the Long Knives by Fritz Leiber

My initial excitement at discovering a little-known 1960 post-apocalyptic novella called The Night of the Long Knives (free for Kindle) by Fritz Leiber, author of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, was blunted by its banal premise.

Set in a post-nuclear irradiated American Midwest, the Deathlands are the haunt of solitary marauders and psychopaths exiled from the vestiges of civilization that still exist beyond its dust-bowl borders. The kill-or-be-killed ethos of these wastelanders prohibits them from forming lengthy bonds, so each aimlessly wanders the desert in a never-ending death stagger, briefly uniting for some common purpose before turning on each other.

Amazon is littered with self-published ebooks with this very same concept: survivalist porn written and consumed by white gun nuts who imagine themselves self-sufficient murder machines but who, in a true endtimes scenario, would keel over as soon as the insulin and Narcan ran out. Suspecting Long Knives was similar, I nearly DNFed early on.

But it’s a testament to Leiber’s plotting and fast pacing that I kept reading what turned out to be a decent story. Protagonist Ray is high-plains drifting when he encounters Alice in a very 2020 meeting —

She looked slim, dark topped, and on guard. Small like me and like me wearing a scarf loosely around the lower half of her face in the style of the old buckaroos.

— but before they go too stabby-stabby on each other, an oldtimer named Pop and a crashed pilot sweeps them into a conflict between the remaining civilized city-states. Pop is himself a reformed murderer who roams the Deathlands as an evangelist for nonviolence. He finds much opportunity for conversion in Ray and Alice, so the book’s action is spliced with long dialogues about killing, justified and otherwise, both martial and personal.

One intuits that the author, like others from the World War II generation (Leiber was a pacifist who worked for Douglas Aircraft on their troop and supply transports), was trying to reconcile his actions with his beliefs to develop a kind of Cold War ethos. This probably resonated with readers of Amazing Stories, where the novella first appeared. While it never blooms larger than those midcentury roots, Long Knives is nevertheless a quick and fun read.

Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road (1997) epitomizes 1980s and 90s science fiction: a fat mass-market paperback 400 pages long, where nothing happens for the first 100.

We are introduced to an early industrial society rebuilding after a global pandemic centuries ago; we learn of a failed expedition to locate a repository of ancient Roadmaker knowledge in which everyone but a single survivor perished; we meet a cast of characters mumbling about embarking on a second attempt.

It’s right there in the title: this book is about a journey, and yet readers must first slog through 25,000 words of watching the protagonists make sandwiches and fill their Thermoses. Much like the relics they search for, Eternity Road is in some sense an artifact from another era when books were sold by the pound.

The story entertains once the characters get off their asses and set out, and as I read, I kept checking Google Maps to follow the group’s progress based on the landmarks noted in the text. The America that collapsed was a more advanced version than our own, and many of the obstacles the party faces involve AIs and automation still purring among the ruined cities and towns. This, combined with the RPG collection of characters — a wizardly scholar, a woodsman tracker, a healer, etc. — strongly reminded me of the 80s game Gamma World minus all of the mutants and monsters, doubling down on the book’s nostalgia factor.

Eternity Road is a throwback on another level, too: it’s optimistic sci-fi. Commonly post-apoc ends with the protagonists adapted to their new world but rarely is the world itself changed. McDevitt instead returns to a rosier view of America and mankind in general, believing in science and rationality and technocracy — in his future, rediscovered technology will be accepted by people and put to beneficial use. While the past few years give me reason to doubt that’s always the case, such idealism is a cozy campfire in the long dark wilderness of 2020.

Ice by Anna Kavan

It’s hard not to read Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) as a parable of addiction and obsession, although who is the addict and who is the anthropomorphized drug is difficult to suss. One pursues and the other is pursued, begging the question of whether it’s the junkie who chases or is chased. At the very least, the two may be interchangeable.

The slipstream plot, reminiscent of JG Ballard at his most New Wavey, features no proper nouns, no clear actors, and very indistinct geography. An anonymous narrator, recently returned to his homeland, goes to visit a young woman who rejected him for another man; when he arrives at the house he discovers the husband alone and abandoned. By chance the narrator discovers the woman is now prisoner of a petty foreign dictator known as the warden, whereupon the narrator schemes to liberate her, following the couple from place to place. Yet his goal is nothing more than to imprison her himself.

All of this is set against a backdrop of world war and impending glaciation: harbors freeze, snowstorms blanket roads and ruins, food and warmth becomes increasingly scarce. Whether the war precipitated the climate change — it’s suggested some kind of nuclear attack or accident has affected the poles — or vice versa is never clarified. Further complicating things is the narrator’s seamless launching into dreamlike fantasies of the girl’s death or abuse, with him taking a savior’s role, before returning to the point of divergence and continuing.

While not the most enjoyable book I’ve ever read, Kavan does a laudable job of fixing mental illness down on paper. Throughout, it’s clear the story nothing to do with love. Kavan’s fever-dream chronicle is a tale of possession: the narrator only wants to her so that no other man does; and the woman, who understands this, resents him for it. This in turn confounds him, too lacking in self-awareness to grasp his own blundering. Like a contemporary incel, he never realizes his problems are of his own manufacture or that his goals would be more accessible if only he shed a drop of his narcissism and self-importance.

As with all my post-apocalyptic reads, it’s easy to draw parallels with current events, and with Ice, especially current leadership.

When the Tripods Came

Bonus Track: I included this book last year when I read a bunch of UK post-apoc, but if one novel could summarize 2020, it’s John Christopher’s When the Tripods Came (1988).

Though ostensibly about an alien invasion, the otherworldly bad guys remain largely offstage for most of the book. Tripods is more precisely a novel about social contagion and civilization’s dissolution from within. Employing a divide-and-conquer method, the aliens prefer to let humanity overthrow itself by inflating xenophobia and regional and national prejudices. People who come in contact with the pro-alien Trippies soon become Trippies themselves, and while not necessarily violent, their growing numbers make it increasingly more difficult to avoid or resist them. As borders are sealed and paranoia skyrockets among the noninfected, the protagonists find themselves clinched in ever-tightening bear traps.

With one fell swoop of a story Christopher managed to consolidate both the concepts of viral contamination with ideological estrangement. No issue is so small or simple that it can’t be polarized into extremes, and it’s precisely this splintering that prevents organized resistance to the Tripods or, for that matter, covid-19. If only everyone could meet in the middle — hey, let’s all wear masks but agree that draconian regulations are counterproductive — then the enemy could be easily beaten.

But nope. It would take the humans of Christopher’s Tripods series three more books to defeat their alien overlords. Meanwhile here I am ten months later, getting my brain swabbed just so I can drop my son at college, delivering meals-on-wheels to retirees because the senior center is shuttered indefinitely.

Often the problem isn’t so much the problem. It’s the people.

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That’s it for 2020. If you want more apocalyptic suggestions, I read a bunch of Brit books in 2019, some rando novels in 2018, and end-times fiction about the US in 2017. Until next year, stay safe, be kind to others, and wear a fucking mask.

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