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.

Man Made

Sea of Rust

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.

Oryx and Crake

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.

I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire

Star Man's Son

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.

Damnation Alley

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.

The Man Who Japed

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.

Reading Among the Ruins

The World in Winter and The Sixth WinterIn case you missed it, in 2017 I took a deep dive into the post-apocalyptic genre and then posted a mega-review at Medium of what I found.

It wasn’t until I went on J.G. Ballard jag a few years ago that I realized the depth and variety of post-apocalyptic fiction. One book led to two more, and soon what I thought was niche sci-fi turned out to be much richer and plentiful than I had imagined, so much so that I now believe it’s unfair to label post-apoc a subgenre or subcategory of something else.

I scribbled thoughts and impressions as I turned the pages, and eventually I wondered if those notes might act as breadcrumbs to other readers seeking to wander a literary wasteland—especially in these seemingly end times. I present to you the result.

My criteria for the list was often based on obscurity, so there’s no Leibowitzes or Lucifer’s Hammers. Instead, the more off-beat the book, the more likely it appealed to me. There’s some J.G. Ballard in there, naturally, but also some Leigh Brackett, John Christopher, and even Jack London. Still, the list of books I didn’t get to is even longer: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins (which I’m told is more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic), and on and on.

Strangely, as I read I felt like every book had something to say about the state of America in 2017, so if you’re looking for something to read that speaks to current times without being too on the nose, check it out.

Domo Arigato Mister Paychecko

Maria points the way.
CC BY Havelbaude, remixed by DJ Jax K

A few weeks ago I received the news that my role at my bread-and-butter freelance gig has been automated. The job — which is a mishmash of coding, editing, and technical writing — has increasingly been my work focus over the past five years, and yet by the end of 2016 it will be performed by computers overseen, presumably, by interns.

Recently while ruminating over robot apocalypses — and I’ll give you one guess why — I questioned the assumption that AIs would necessarily want to kill humans. After all, we haven’t shared the Earth with another intelligent species for about 40,000 years so we shouldn’t assume that two of them couldn’t coexist. Then I recalled that any program is only as smart as its programmers, which is why computers are great for playing chess and winning trivia game shows but immediately out themselves as Nazi nymphos the moment a single degree of emotional intelligence is required. Anything crafted by the hands of shaved chimpanzees will naturally be obsessed with murder and fucking.

I’ve worked in the Internet since 1997 and while I will miss the gig’s sweet, sweet income, I’ve found that layoffs/contract expirations can be blessings in disguise. There’s always the possibility that the automation will be less promising than expected and the work will still require a human touch (again: it’s only going to be as good as its architects), but I choose to believe this is the kick in the pants I need to get back to neglected ideas and projects, primarily long-form nonfiction. Like it or not, the robots are shoving me into a brighter future.

Postcards From the Post-Apocalypse

Bombay Beach on the shore of the Salton Sea, CA, April 2008.
On the shore of the Salton Sea, California. CC BY Alexander Novati

J.G. Ballard is unquestionably the godfather of post-apocalyptic fiction. Early on he wrote a number of Earth-ending novels featuring titular catastrophes — The Drowned World, The Burning World — but his short fiction also dabbled in localized doomsdays, stories in which cataclysms are contained or at least only opaquely affect the rest of the planet.

Memories of the Space Age, his eight-story collection from 1988, showcases a Western civilization that is mostly intact; it’s only the motels and cocktails bars along A1A and the psyches of his characters that have collapsed. Many of the stories are set in and around Cape Canaveral after space exploration’s sunset, its denizens scavenging canned goods from grocery stores and liquor from old Starlight Lounges, living in deserted hotels with railed balconies overlooking drained swimming pools. Even when they’re not — in “A Question of Re-Entry,” a UN official travels upriver into an Amazonian Heart of Darkness to locate an errant astronaut whose module went off-course — the landscape is no less upheaved; Major Tom’s splashdown in the godforsaken jungle is cataclysmic for everybody involved.

The collection’s opener, “The Cage of Sand,” is also its strongest, a story in which an invasive species unintentionally brought to Earth has turned Cape Canaveral into a quarantine zone whose only citizens are incomplete jigsaw puzzles questing after the final pieces of their heads. Likewise “The Dead Astronaut” depicts a Kennedy Space Center bombarded by space junk and corpse-filled capsules scavenged by relic hunters. You have to wonder how much of Ballard’s childhood in war-stricken Shanghai appears on the page; his characters live on civilization’s fringes, in abandoned offices and hotels among forgotten technology. Even when no Seventh Seal has been opened, such as in “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island,” the characters dwell in ruins slowly but surely being absorbed by beach dunes and creepers.

Three of Ballard’s stories, written in 1981–82, are tedious rewrites of the same outline. Here, escape from Earth’s gravity well has broken some fundamental law of the universe, snapping time itself — or at least mankind’s perception of it; meanwhile some madman pursues our hero’s wife. I vacillated between interpreting these stories as an evolution of humanity to adapt to the long distances of space travel or as a Luddite warning against technological progress; but in the end, though poorly done, I saw Ballard returning to a theme of earlier works like The Drowned World.

Along the Mullica River, NJ.
Somewhere along the Mullica River, New Jersey.

Ballard is sometimes credited with prescience for The Drowned World but he wrote so many potential futures that one or two were bound to strike close to the target. Solar storms have dissolved the ionosphere, raising the Earth’s temperature and melting the polar ice caps. The continents are flooded, the cities either submerged or choked with silt and runaway vegetation, and humanity has retreated to the poles. Dr. Robert Kerans works as part of a military expedition to map lost cities in the eventual hope of reclamation. Yet members of the team, including Kerans, spend their nights suffering through atavistic nightmares of a primeval past while their waking hours are consumed by a drive to wander off into the jungle. When the expedition departs, Kerans goes AWOL to stay behind; but the vacuum left by the military is immediately filled by scavenging raiders, who interrupt Kerans’s plan for a lifelong camping trip. If you’ve read Ballard, then it’s no spoiler to say that many of his stories and books end with the main character stumbling off into the wilderness alone, ready to adapt to the new environment. Kerans’s dreams and impulses are a necessary mutation.

I think that’s Ballard’s main point right there, both in his Space Age stories and in novels like The Drowned World. Much of the post-apocalyptic genre ends poorly for the hero. Life after the apocalypse is harsh and cruel, with cannibalism and terror — and that is why most post-apocalyptic fiction is ultimately conservative moralizing. The status quo was good, it tells us, and then the status quo was upset. Now life sucks.

CC BY SA Michael Rivera
Suwannee County, Florida. CC BY SA Michael Rivera

Ballard says something fundamentally different. Humans, he says, both as a species and as individuals, always evolve to meet the wasteland. It’s hard not to be reminded again of his childhood in Shanghai, or of the fact that a few years after he began writing professionally, Ballard’s wife died, leaving him a single dad with three young kids. He survived, and I imagine he would argue life after both events was not always worse than before. We define apocalypses as catastrophic, as world ending, as floods and famine and mushroom clouds, and so we fail to see the post-apocalypses we inhabit everyday. A house fire, a divorce, the death of a parent or spouse are just as world ending to those who must go on living afterwards among the blasted shacks and melted mannequins of the interior atomic bomb, of the White Sands of the soul. There’s something optimistic in Ballard’s visions of dead astronauts in orbit and underwater Londons. Bad things happen but we outlive them, adapt, and stagger on.