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, 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.
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.
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.
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.