After the Apocalypse…

August 3, 2014

Thinking about utopias and dystopias in recent posts reminded me of post-apocalyptic scenarios. It might seem as if that particular strand in literature must be a relatively recent one, in that only since the invention of nuclear weapons have we been forced to accept the possibility that we could annihilate ourselves as a species.

But no: back to Mary Shelley, author of the more famous Frankenstein. She wrote a novel which I think I prefer, because it’s rather less frantic and over-written than the former – The Last Man, which describes just that situation: a plague gradually kills off all human beings save one, who travels through the empty and deserted remains of civilisation, reflecting on his fate. It’s an astonishing effort of the imagination, and deserves a wider audience. Early in the twentieth century, in The Purple Cloud, M P Shiel imagines a similar series of events.

Perhaps because we are such a social species, writers have striven to imagine the opposite. Perhaps because we are a warlike species, they have sought to imagine us ultimately defeated, by greater forces than ourselves – H G Wells could have had us completely annihilated by the Martians in The War of the Worlds, but chose not to, developing a different message for the human race by pointing out the fragility of any organism when faced by unknown microbes or bacteria.

And then there’s the fantasy element, as we read any of these novels: what would I do in that situation? What if I had the world to myself, all its resources and riches: how would I play with them all? Where would I go? Shelley’s hero wanders through the beautiful places of Europe…

John Wyndham imagines a combination of elements dealing the death-blow to humanity in The Day of the Triffids: another warning about humans over-reaching themselves. Deadly plants which can communicate with each other wipe out the blinded human race, except for a small enclave which retreats to the Isle of Wight, there to exercise constant vigilance against the dreaded weeds.

One of my favourite tales is Earth Abides, by George Stewart: a storyfrom the 1950s again sees humans almost wiped out by a plague; there are some survivors, but what interests Stewart is how they would struggle to survive in small numbers, with their limited and compartmentalised knowledge, how much they would need to re-discover and re-invent in order to sustain civilisation, and how inevitably with the passage of time and generations, so much knowledge and ability would be lost, and the gradual sinking into primitiveness and savagery would be hard to avoid. It’s a poignant tale, perhaps somewhat dated now, but good for making one think about the fragile veneer of civilisation…

I think the best, and most harrowing and haunting, at least to my knowledge, has to be Walter M Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s set in a remote, post nuclear holocaust future where a bastardised version of the Catholic Church strives to preserve the knowledge of the past in its monasteries; slowly and painfully, civilisation is re-established, but only for humans to gradually and inevitably make the same ghastly mistakes all over again: nuclear weapons are re-invented and wreak their horrific toll once more. Such a pessimistic vision of the species and its history could only have come out of the 1960s, with the threat of annihilation hanging over the world. It’s beautifully written, painfully described, and leaves us with no hope.

But now, I’m off to re-read a novel from the 1990s: A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright, in which a Wellsian time machine maroons a traveller in a post-apocalyptic Britain…

 

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