Pacific view

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Post Apocalypse SCI FI

Dear Gentle Reader,

I went 6 months without blogging at all; the reasons why are too numerous to mention. But during that time my reading hardly slackened and I even took notes for future posts. So I have lots of material at the ready. I dusted off the following from my summer reading:

If you are a devoted reader of books, you probably harbor somewhere deep inside your heart  a soft spot for science fiction. Maybe you don't confess it openly. I know I don't. Doesn't seem very elegant, or, I don't know, seemly. Especially for a dignified person of a certain age. But there it is...a life-long jones for sci-fi and fantasy. So I've been on a binge lately and meaning to post an appreciation of post-apocalypse novels. Why specifically appreciate post-apocalypse novels? This may sound strange, but despite the fact that thematically they explore my worst nightmare—AKA the end of the world--I find them oddly comforting. Since we seem hell bent on destroying ourselves anyhow, it can be kind of uplifting to imagine what kind of new world we could create out of the ashes. Of course when I embarked on my, research... into this genre, I went online and checked out other people’s lists. Whoa. I realized just how many of these books exist that I haven’t yet read yet . Now I’m left with another pile of TBRs…

On to the ones I did read...

“Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank, published 1959. I can now understand why this classic had such a large influence on a whole generation of post-nuclear holocaust books. There is something very all-American & apple pie about this tale. I can envision the movie starring a young Tom Hanks, with George Clooney in the small but important role as the doomed older brother. Set in a small town in Florida after a nuclear attack by USSR devastates most of the US of A, the story concentrates on the survivors and their fierce determination in coping with the aftermath.
The book was written just before the Cuban missile crisis in1962, at the height of our national anti-Soviet paranoia. In the tiny town of Fort Repose, in central Florida, we meet our protagonist, a Korean War veteran named Randy Bragg. The opening scene has Randy receiving a disturbing and cryptic message from his brother Mark, an Air Force colonel who is on assignment in the “Hole”. The Hole is the SAC (Strategic Air Command) headquarters, a supposedly indestructible bunker, four stories underground, where the government is directing US military response to any potential enemy attack. Mark warns Randy that the unthinkable—a nuclear attack by the USSR-- is imminent, and asks Randy to look after his wife and two kids in case anything happens to him, a likelihood on which you can bet your bottom dollar. (What? You wanted subtlety?)
The story is told from a strictly 1950’s male perspective, which can get truly annoying at times, with the author showing off his knowledge of military and technical jargon, and waxing poetical about atomic submarines and fighter planes. Gender roles are pretty rigid: the heroes are tough, manly men who keep their heads in a crisis, and the women are sexy, competent, good at taking the children firmly in hand, yet still prone to breaking down and weeping on the men’s shoulders.
The book’s greatest strength is in the thoughtful way it examines what life would be like in the aftermath. When the major population centers of the world have been vaporized, any semblance of functioning government or infrastructure is non-existent, all power and communication has been cut off, and money is rendered worthless, how do ordinary people cope? Eschewing any maniacal back-to-the-Stone-Age, Mad Max type of scenario, Frank rationally, calmly considers what polite, civilized people actually might do when they are left without food, cars, electricity, antibiotics, and running water. This is for me where it gets interesting.
Our previously held assumptions and priorities are turned upside down. Divisions between rich and poor are erased overnight (there's no need for money, folks!). Racial and class prejudice hang on a bit more stubbornly, but those differences quickly go by the wayside. What matters most is physical strength and mental stability, and the all-important access to fuel, batteries, gasoline, kerosene, uncontaminated food and water, medicine, guns and ammunition.
Frank has some interesting ideas about what happens to different personalities when faced with a crisis. Why do some people grow in stature and become leaders, while others succumb to savagery, superstition, or magical thinking? Some can’t face reality and keep clinging to the hope that any day now, power and services will restored and things will return to normal. Some are spared by the immediate holocaust but end up dying anyway because they can't make the necessary mental adjustment. Survival of the fittest.

For a more current take on this theme, try “A World Made By Hand” by James Kunstler.  (Also, “Into the Forest” by Jean Hegland.)

Kunstler’s version is based on the premise that contained in his nonfiction book, “The Long Emergency” where he lays out his argument that as the earth depletes the supply of oil, our global infrastructure will collapse and we will need to go back in time and back to the land, returning to a way of life where people were self-sufficient and neighbors relied upon one another to survive. In “A World Made By Hand” we skip over the horrific details of the apocalypse and its immediate aftermath, and we go straight to a time about 20 years after the collapse, when the survivors have come out fitter and stronger and are in process of forging a new world. 
As Kunstler envisions this potential new society, it almost sounds kind of appealing. We’ve traded in a national highway system, power grid, and computer chips for a primitive (but sustainable!) water system powered by gravity, and medicines made from plants grown in the backyard. It’s kind of like Little House on the Prairie. People have to re-learn the practical trades of yesteryear: carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, and shoemakers. Everyone needs to grow their own food, make their own clothing, and slaughter their own livestock. We are all locavores in the new post-industrial world. One fortunate by-product of the collapse of oil, coal, and fossil fuels, is that the formerly polluted rivers, streams, and air have returned to a state of pristine cleanliness. Horses have taken the place of automobiles and currency has been replaced by a barter system. A semi-feudal system of government seems to be cropping up in places where law and order is brutally enforced, but there are also pockets where something resembling democracy is slowly starting to re-establish, albeit on a small scale. The surrounding country is a dangerous place –there is an outlaw community composed of bikers and lowlifes who spend their time looting and pillaging, and enforcing their own brand of rough justice. There is violence and death, but it is also hopeful and humanistic. Women are subjugated, relying totally on men for sustenance and protection, and functioning as housekeepers and bedmates. And there are some confusing supernatural elements that add little of entertainment value but do much to distract.


“Lucifer’s Hammer” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pourcelle. Won both the Hugo and the Nebula award. I’m not sure why I read it except that a lot of folks loved it, and it was touted as classic of the genre. (In retrospect I wish I had read Stephen King’s “The Stand” instead.)  The book details the end of civilization as brought about by a massive comet striking the earth’s surface. The comet collides and sets off a chain of consequences, including earthquake, tidal waves, fires, flooding—the whole nine yards-- which wipe out most of mankind and plunge us into another ice age. It’s like a speeded-up version of global warming.
The novel was published in 1977 and it feels dated, and not in a good way. I usually enjoy the experience of being immersed in the politics and culture of another time, but I find the ethos of these particular times a bit unpleasant-- maybe because I lived through them the first time around.

The book divided into thirds, dealing with the Before, During and After the Impact (as the runaway comet strikes the planet-- which the characters refer to as “Hammerfall”). The first third of the book is spent introducing the large cast of characters and unfortunately it reads like a formulaic disaster-thriller. This is not good writing. You know how some people dislike books that have too much description in them? Well, this book has too much dialogue--page after page of hokey repartee, and dreary, repetitive interior monologue.  
Reading the book feels like watching a 1970's disaster movie where they did a hack job on the screenplay and blew the budget on special effects. The good guys are the science nerds: the techies, astronomers, astronauts and nuclear plant technicians, who know how to save the world but are prevented from doing so by the craven shortsightedness of…drum roll for the villains, if you please… politicians and whoever controls the purse strings. You know, those goddam bastards who cut the NASA budget and ruined the space program.

The heroes are macho survivalists who work out, know how to use firearms, drink whiskey and smoke cigars, and one sexy woman, everyone else is so weak or ethically challenged they deserved to have perished in the initial conflagration. One of the good guys is a techie nerd who is in charge of a nuclear energy plant that is so well constructed that it’s basically the only structure left standing after the asteroid strike; It suffers no loss of cooling, no radiation leakage, nuthin’! Why?  Because it’s just built so damn well… If ONLY we hadn’t listened to Al Gore and his army of gutless environmental freaks, and had built us a ton more of these, we wouldn’t have a global warming problem today!

It takes us half to two-thirds of the way through the book until we finally get to the interesting part, which is the speculative part of science fiction: just how would society remake itself after every aspect of government and industry and technology and civilization as we know it is smashed to bits, and what form would it take?

There is a definite political message here; the author must have had envisioned a society that was a cross between Ayn Rand style libertarianism and techno-survivalism-- a right wing mish-mash where the rugged individualists with a deep respect for the latest technology are morally superior to the low life scum. Here the bad guys are environmentalists, religious fanatics, urban ghetto street hoodlums, “women’s libbers”, hippies, commune dwellers, trade unionists, and Russians who still believe in communism. Feminists don't fare too well either, even though there is a token female on the space shuttle, as well as a token black astronaut. Stereotypes abound, from biker gangs to ghetto hustlers to sexy women with courageous hearts and great legs. One of the characters muses that the silver lining to Hammerfall is that it effectively puts an end to “women’s lib”. And in the scenario that’s being portrayed here, the status of women immediately devolves to that of property, a prize given to the strongest and manliest men. All power is transferred to the men with the biggest guns.
There are a couple of good points, like the media blitz that crops up around the early news reports of the comets, the excitement among people who wanted something crazy out of the ordinary to happen, something to spice up their routine, the religious fanatics who sprang up, to pray the comet away, the end of the world preachers who were making a fortune by soaking the gullible and the frightened. Also the people who see the end of the world as a way out of their own personal financial difficulties, legal troubles, unhappy marriages, or in one case, the perfect excuse for a demented rapist to commit murder and mayhem without having to worry about doing jail time.
The fact that this novel was written years before our 24-hour infotainment cycle had taken over the culture, makes it surprising in that it is so prescient. The book gets more interesting from page 200 on, which is the point of Hammerfall (as they call the moment of impact). The story is told from multiple viewpoints, as different people experience the asteroid strike and its aftermath…scarier than your-worst nightmare...fireballs in the sky, earthquakes, tidal waves, terrible electrical storms, seas boiling, Keeps dwelling on images smashing cars, collapsing bridges, bursting dams, and breaking glass, people screaming. You can just picture the TV movie that will be made from this book. Except that it never did get made into a movie. The film “Deep Impact” came closest to it. There are some memorable images, such as two archaeologists witnessing the second eruption of The Greek volcanic island Thera; a surfer riding the tsunami, (to him its just a very big wave), while knowing his death is imminent. Then there are the images that are completely -woops! - over the top: a couple throw a dead baby out of a car window, Four astronauts, two Soviet and two American, make their reentry into earth’s orbit, parachute into a cornfield, and as they emerge from the space capsule they are met by a band of hostile men with machine guns and rifles pointing at them
Apparently the authors didn’t know where to draw the line between shivery fun and creepy-disgusting.
Now I need to read Stephen King’s “The Stand”, but it’s over a thousand pages so I guess I should wait for the right time, like maybe when I am in bed for a week with the flu.

“Canticle for Liebowitz” by Walter Miller is in a class by itself. It was published in novel form in 1959, and as such it won the Hugo award in 1961. But it originated as three novellas that were published earlier in sci-fi magazines. Except for the plot device of nuclear war, fallout, mutants, and in the third part, space travel—the book is more philosophical than speculative. It poses questions rather than answers. It is ironic allegory--sardonic, ridiculous, tragic, humanistic, eloquent, darkly cynical, yet ultimately hopeful. Its topic is humankind, specifically our propensity for self-destruction and self-deception. It’s a view of Mankind from a distance, as we might be seen by our Maker: stubborn and ignorant but containing the spark of divine genius.
This is a fairly well known book so I won’t summarize the plot. The book is steeped in the rituals and traditions of the Catholic church, and most of major characters are clergy. One of the main characters is a comic fool or wandering Jew that would feel right at home in an I.B. Singer tale. Gimpel the Fool becomes a wandering holy man in the end. It posits the argument that as civilization crumbles and we are thrown back to another dark age, the church is the only organization that is capable of protecting and preserving all the knowledge of the world throughout the millenia. Eventually (a few thousand years later), we pull ourselves up out of ignorance, superstition, and barbarism, to the dawn of a new enlightened age. The gears of industrialization get humming again; we reinvent the light bulb but we can’t change our essential nature and are driven by hubris right back to the brink of destruction again. When will we ever learn? Apparently there is a God, but what does he want from us? Why does He allow suffering? What is the meaning of human suffering (see Camus--The Plague)?
Scientists and all educated people are seen as being to blame for nuclear destruction, so in the new world they burn all the books and kill all the literate people. People proudly wear the title of Simpleton (badge of ignorance) as a badge of honor. This mirrors the galloping anti-intellectualism of today.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from “LIebowitz”:

"From a distance one's adversaries seemed fiends, but with a closer view, one saw the sincerity and it was as great as one's own. Perhaps Satan was the sincerest of the lot."
"Where's the truth? What's to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder's been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there's no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier."
"Is the species congenitally insane, Brother? If we're born mad, where's the hope of Heaven?"
"It will come to pass by violence and upheaval, by flame and by fury, for no change comes calmly over the world."
"To Brother Librarian, whose task in life was the preservation of books, the principal reason for the existence of books was that they might be preserved perpetually. Usage was secondary, and to be avoided if it threatened longevity."

More of my favorite Canticles (this book is craaazy!):

His supreme Unctuousness
Albertian Order of Liebowitz
Age of Simplification
Mrs. Grales, the bicephalous tomato woman

Note: There was a fair bit of Hebrew and quite a lot of Latin in the book. (For some reason, large chunks of the Catholic Mass were quoted verbatim.) I found it helpful but not necessary to read with a Wikipedia list of Latin phrases open at my side.  


The Stand-  Stephen King
Philip K. Dick
The Female Man- Joanna Russ
Joan Vinge
Vonda McIntyre- Dreamsnake
C.J. Cherryh


The Dispossessed- Le Guin
Left Hand of Darkness- Le Guin
Lathe of Heaven- Le Guin
Octavia Butler
James Tiptree
Thomas Disch
Kelly Link
Tanith Lee (not sci fi but fantasy)

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