Posts Tagged ‘Earth Abides’

One year later

March 21, 2021

One year into the pandemic. One year ago, we decide to isolate ourselves: not officially lockdown yet, but then our PM never has managed to act in a timely fashion… Then, I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and thought to myself, I’ll write a contemporary journal. It wasn’t long before I gave up: there was nothing to write about, with so much of my ‘normal’ life disappearing: no U3A language groups, no weekly yoga classes, no Quaker Meeting for Worship, no holidays, no seeing family. And there was no point in recording the tergiversations of useless, lying, corrupt and venal politicians because there’s public record of that wherever you look. I was full of intentions of reading other plague-related literature such as CamusLa Peste – which I still haven’t gone back to – and I did manage Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague recently. There’s still Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and George Stewart’s Earth Abides to reread.

Of course, some of those lost activities soon resumed on that tiring platform which is Zoom. Our French conversation group still meets fortnightly to talk about anything and everything, although with life as curtailed as it is, there’s actually far less for us to talk about. And I know I’m not the only one to notice how group conversations on Zoom and other platforms are different: much harder to pick up visual and body language cues with such small pictures, and one is inevitable distracted by one’s own picture in the corner of the screen. Our German group opted not to continue on Zoom, and I don’t know whether it will recommence; our Spanish teacher finally decided to retire from teaching. Quite a gap in my routines and my learning.

Our elders at local Quaker Meeting have done sterling work in enabling Zoom meetings every Sunday, for which I am very grateful, and again Friends agree that it just isn’t the same as being gathered together in the same room. Modern technology has meant it’s been easy to be in touch with friends and family, and at various points it was even possible to meet up under carefully defined circumstances. I have sorely missed my weekly yoga classes: our teacher carefully followed guidance and we managed to have some smaller, fortnightly classes but these inevitably fell at the first hurdle when things had to be tightened up again…

Travel – which has been one of my major retirement activities, with usually a couple of serious road trips to Europe each year – disappeared almost completely, although I did manage a week’s walking in Scotland late summer.

I thought I’d get loads of reading done, but this was not to be; I couldn’t settle on what to read, and frittered time away. Much gardening, and much tidying and decluttering happened. Things are different now, in that I’ve lately got a reading fit on and am revisiting lots of books I haven’t opened for many years, which has been very satisfying.

In and among all this, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting: what have I learnt over the past year?

I have learnt a good deal about people, and can see that we have not yet reached peak stupidity. People swallow the lies of politicians, and the lies spread on social media. People do not listen to advice, especially that of the experts in the field who advise us carefully. Too many joggers thud selfishly past, not putting distance between themselves and others, too fixed in their own little achievement bubbles; a lot of cyclists are the same; dog-walkers can be worse. People don’t wear masks properly, or pretend that they can’t. They clap for the heroes of our NHS and then vote for the politicians who have starved it of resources for years and pretend there’s no money for wage increases for nurses: people don’t want to pay taxes.

I have learnt how corrupt the UK actually is. We have a mental picture of endemic bribery and corruption which we associate with the Third World, when actually the same things are happening right here at home, and with our tax-payers’ money. Our NHS has done astonishing work tackling COVID and planning and carrying out a massive and apparently successful vaccination programme that’s the envy of many other countries: our shameless government is basking in the credit for this, and people are lapping it up. I’ve learnt how undemocratic the US really is, despite all those lectures to the rest of the world about its being a light shining on a hill, an example to the rest of the world.

In and among all this negative stuff, I’ve learnt how caring and thoughtful neighbours can be, with a word or a chat, a note through the letterbox or a message on social media. I’ve realised how important social contact is, especially now I’m retired. Retirement has made staying safe easier, although my greater age brings greater risks along with it. I’ve renewed contact with many friends and acquaintances with whom I’d lost contact for years. I’ve learnt the importance of sustaining regular exercise – the same boring circuit every day – and even made new friends, chatting briefly at a distance with total strangers whilst out for my daily walk. And I’ve learnt that being financially comfortable makes all these things much easier. We’ve wrestled with click and collect at supermarkets, and learned how much we don’t need to go shopping.

I’m a different person; tidier, more organised, somewhat more wary. I’m nervous about what happens when we’re ‘allowed’ to do things again: will I have lost my nerve? Self-confidence is one of those things that does wane as one ages… I am fervently hoping that I will still have the nerve to get behind the wheel of my under-used car and drive off to the forests of Luxembourg again when that is allowed once more.

Robie Macauley: A Secret History of Time to Come

March 10, 2021

     Another post-apocalypse novel here, a depressing though very good one. It’s set in the USA, initially in the late 1980s, when a race war erupts which ends in both the genocide of black Americans and the total collapse of civilisation in that country; after a brief account of the war and mayhem, we are then projected an unspecified number of years into the future, in which various small bands and settlements attempt, with varying degrees of success, to sustain themselves.

What works effectively is the total disconnect the writer creates: we are as disoriented as his characters as they engage with the remains of the world, and the leftover traces of the past ‘civilisation’; the survivors are all white, and there are only myths and legends about a vanished race, and a war. Everything has been forgotten.

The real power of the book – and it is surprisingly powerful – comes from its structure. The hero Kincaid is on a quest, moving westwards towards what seems to be the city of Chicago, and the Great Lakes, aided by the remains of a tattered roadmap of what he calls the country of Esso. Something drives him, perhaps a voice from the past of our times. And he encounters various people and places as he goes. Nowhere will he stay and put down roots, though he is asked. And there are stories of others, vaguely connected, as he travels; sometimes they interlock, and after a fashion the various strands come together in an extremely vague and open ending.

The narrative reflects the disconnected times: we are familiar with the present USA, and project our knowledge onto a story which strives to make this as difficult as possible; there is an alienation which is forced and almost Brechtian. And the vastness of an almost empty continent, filled with the incomprehensible ruins and detritus of our times is scary, as is the brutishness and the brutality of the survivors in their different ways. One particularly shocking episode only gradually reveals itself as a raid to capture slaves who are then auctioned in a public market: the writer says nothing about the slaves’ race or colour; we have to deduce his point for ourselves.

There is no hope at all that anything better will come after the calamity; this seems to have been a trope of such post-apocalyptic novels in the post-war era generally, and I was reminded of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, perhaps the archetype of the genre, in which history comes to repeat itself, and George Stewart’s Earth Abides, which does offer a sliver of optimism by the end. Such novels are a serious warning: to my mind, this is one of the strengths of science fiction. Progress – what ever we mean by that word – and civilisation (likewise) are fragile and hard-won concepts and may not be recoverable once we have let them slip through our fingers; in our times, that is a thought worth holding.

Jack London: The Scarlet Plague

February 18, 2021

Another book about a plague wiping out humanity, one to add to many that I’ve already read. This is more of a novella than a novel, and shows some of the limitations of London’s writing, I think.

Set in 2073, it’s sixty years after the Scarlet Plague (also known as the Red Death) virtually eliminated the human race. The last man alive to remember it is wandering the territory of the old United States with three of his young grandsons; they are alternately quite affectionate towards the old man, then tease and play tricks on him, and are also irritated and confused by the way he speaks. This last point was one of the more interesting ideas, for the old man – in his previous existence a professor of English Literature – has a wide and varied vocabulary which contains many words the younger ones have no need for or understanding of, their entire post-apocalyptic world being far simpler than his used to be. And they have skills which he has not.

They are, however, interested in his stories of the old world and its wonders and marvels, and also how the change came about, which is the frame for the story, of course. A plague broke out; it caused a rapid death once the main symptom, a reddening of the complexion, was visible – one might last a couple of hours. Dead bodies decomposed very rapidly, aiding the spread of the germs, and it seems clear one could carry and pass on the disease before symptoms become evident. Obviously civilisation broke down very rapidly indeed in such circumstances. London was a socialist, and so he briefly has the oppressed of the world wreaking some revenge on their former masters, until they too succumb. The educated and well-off try to segregate themselves in order to survive, to no avail. It is also clear that at the time of the outbreak of the plague, the US was no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy or plutocracy.

Few survive, but enough to allow a simple tribal existence to emerge; there are perhaps a few hundred people in the whole of the former western US; nothing is known of the rest of the world. The old man is concerned for the preservation of knowledge and has buried a selection of books he thinks may be useful, but literacy has already died out… London is not very subtle; once the old man is in the flow of his narrative, the young boys fade out, no longer interrupting or mocking him.

Humanity wiped out by a plague is done far more interestingly by Mary Shelley in The Last Man, and by George Stewart in Earth Abides; it did strike me that Stewart may well have been inspired by London’s tale to write his far better novel…

The novella is available to download free from Project Gutenberg; an audiobook is available at librivox.org.

John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids

December 29, 2017

41XXnBs1XZL._AC_US218_This – probably the best-known of Wyndham‘s novels – was turned into a film with an abysmal ending at some point in the 1960s, when black and white films were still being made. As a novel, it works well because of its first-person narrative. A puzzling start, with the narrator in hospital surrounded by everyone else blinded by a super-bright comet, is followed by a lengthy and tedious but necessary flashback as the history and origins of the triffids is outlined, along with some rather crude Cold War propaganda and attitudes, which later turn out to be rather more prescient than it initially seemed: were the triffids a sinister product of biological and genetic manipulation in a laboratory somewhere, and were the bright lights which blinded everyone another sinister Cold War weapon which went off by accident?…. we are in the hands of a read science-fiction writer here, no doubt.

Triffids are deadly, mobile and carnivorous plants which can communicate with each other; without sight, humans are doomed, so here we are in disaster-novel territory, though not one quite so appallingly horrifying as Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, a novel which I honestly don’t think I could face reading again…

Wyndham’s characters and their attitudes are seriously dated now – the novel was published in 1951 – but his plot is plausible, even convincing in its development once the premise of the triffids is accepted. Changes to people’s behaviour and morals would be necessary if the species were to survive and regenerate after the collapse of civilisation, and many novels of this era consider this problem from a number of angles – think Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or George Stewart‘s Earth Abides. These are real questions, though framed in 1950s terms. We are inevitably soon in survival of the fittest territory; various attempts at group survival fail, in London and in the countryside, particularly ones run along millenarist, Christian fundamentalist lines. Among many of the survivors a curious hope in the Americans coming to the rescue is seen…

There can be no satisfactory ending to such a novel, of course, only a glimpse of hope and optimism, which is where Wyndham perhaps differs from other writers of the time and genre who are rather more pessimistic; a settlement on an island large enough to be self-sufficient, and from which the deadly plants can be eliminated, is possibly a start.

Post-apocalyptic futures…

February 24, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the taxonomy, or classification, of various types of what might loosely be called science fiction, in the light of earlier posts on this blog. There are differences and overlaps to consider, before I come on to today’s topic.

For instance, some utopias and dystopias might also be classified as alternative futures: Ernest Callenbach’s visions of California turning itself into an independent state run along ecological lines (Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging) might have been considered alternative futures in the 1970s when they were written. Many dystopias are clearly also alternative futures, or were when they were first written. And I suppose the argument might be made that all utopian visions are alternative futures, although that doesn’t actually get us any further.

But then it seemed to me, as I thought first about Richard JefferiesAfter London (see the preceding post) that the classification also needs to take post-apocalyptic visions into account, as many of these may also be alternative future scenarios…

Enough theorising, time to consider some of my favourite examples. One of the best science fiction novels ever (see my listings pages) is Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, also one of the most pessimistic visions of humanity I can call to mind. Hundreds of years after a nuclear war, monks – still the repositories of knowledge – preserve the relics of the ancients (us) as civilisation slowly and painfully rebuilds itself, over many centuries, until it reaches such an advanced state that it can once again build nuclear weapons. And yes, da capo. Double post apocalypse yes, dystopia? I’m not sure. in M P Sheil’s The Purple Cloud, poisonous gases wipe out humanity permanently; in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, it’s only temporary.

Apocalyptic scenarios were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s when consciousness of the fact that our species had reached such a high point in its development that it was now capable of not only destroying itself, but possibly most life on the planet, gradually dawned on writers. Not all visions used nuclear war as the trigger, in George Stewart’s Earth Abides it’s a disease, in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids it’s genetically-engineered plants plus laser weapons in space, though in The Chrysalids there has been nuclear war and attendant mutations.

Wyndham and JG Ballard are perhaps the obvious masters of the post-apocalyptic in different ways, although Christopher Priest, with The Death of Grass and The Empty World, rates a mention. All of these writers bring to science fiction, and to post-apocalyptic writing as a new genre, a consciousness of the ultimate fragility of our species, and indeed, of sentient life. Perhaps the first to consider this in a scientific fashion was HG Wells in The War of the Worlds, and interestingly Christopher Priest provides a marvellous twist on this story and on The Time Machine in his wonderful novel The Space Machine.

However, this is all to view everything from a twentieth century perspective, where science fiction itself is a recent notion, allowing us to ignore or forget writers from longer ago who also considered such notions, which brings us back to Jefferies, and of course, to Mary Shelley and The Last Man, which still gets my award for one of the best post-apocalyptic novels, for who can resist her fantasy of having the whole world to oneself to do with what one likes (with only oneself for company)?

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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