Posts Tagged ‘George R Stewart’

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

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)?

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