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.
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 and on the cover: 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.
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 she is the 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.
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.
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.
JG Ballard’s The Drowned World is okay but I liked his collectionMemories 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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).
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
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
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
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.
of the Zombies
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 staying 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 Dion-soundtracked 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
doesn’t matter if you’re the elite or the prole: either way, it’s always the
other one who’s the bitter-ender.
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, pull on your jumper, lace your trainers, and let’s hope we survive to meet again at the bottom of 2020.
At the tail end of 2017, I posted a story on Medium about a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels I’d read over the course of the year, books with themes and situations that often reflected upon these United States during seemingly cataclysmic times.
2018 was even weirder and scarier. A government shutdown, the Khashoggi murder, category-5 Hurricane Michael, US withdrawal from the INF treaty, shootings in Parkland and Pittsburgh, marches against Brexit in London and riots in Paris — every daily headline seemed more absurd than yesterday’s. It was no accident that the post-apoc fiction I read in 2018 trended toward wilder, more fantastical visions of the end of the world.
Here’s what I read.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.