Posts Tagged ‘post-apocalyptic literature’

George R Stewart: Earth Abides

March 31, 2021

I suppose this counts as another ‘plague’ novel, though the virus – a kind of super-measles – which largely wipes out humanity (at least in the US, where the novel is set) is largely a device to permit a post-apocalypse story. And although I first read it forty-five years ago, I was surprised to notice that it was written seventy years ago now, and so falls clearly into that category of post-Second World War speculative fiction which explored the end of our species, a notion obviously triggered by those cataclysmic years.

Our hero is isolated and immobilised by a rattlesnake bite during the crucial period where humanity is wiped out. He is moved to survive, explores the empty vastnesses of the continent, and eventually meets up with a few other survivors who form a small tribe in the San Francisco Bay area and survive largely by scavenging on the remains of the old world. The story follows him from his twenties to the end of his life, and thus covers the development of the tribe and their struggles for survival. The focus is on what is of value, of worth, really useful, and encourages some reflection on our current world.

The exploration of an empty, half-familiar world is well done; we get a clear sense of the hero’s character and attitudes emerging, perhaps echoing the author’s own sentiments about our species and our world. He eventually meets a woman and they settle in together and fortunately are very compatible; I had a moment of deep shock as I realised that, although this was the fourth time I’d read the book, the fact that she was not of pure white descent was so deeply concealed in the text that I’d not clocked it before (I think). And yet, Stewart – writing in 1950s America – wanted at least some of his readers to know this, and thus its implications for the future…

The growth of the tribe leads the hero to reflect on what knowledge from the past is actually useful to the new future, and what can realistically be preserved. Answer, not very much. He painfully learns that the old ways cannot be re-established: ‘civilisation’ was much too complex for a small group of survivors to replicate, and those who never knew the past are the future and have different ways of thinking and doing: the fracture between then and now is much greater than one suspects.

The most thoughtful – and shocking – episode is possibly when some of the younger members of the tribe return from an expedition with an outsider, who is immoral, apparently riddled with STDs and clearly posits a major threat to the community. They take the decision to kill him, and do so. But he has brought a strain of typhoid with him, which has devastating effects. And yet, the tribe needs new blood to escape the dangers of inbreeding.

Although it has dated rather, in some of its attitudes to race and sexuality in particular, it remains a very good and very powerful novel, sometimes surprisingly so, because Stewart is not content to remain with mere story; his character, the last American as he comes to see himself, is a thoughtful and reflective man rather than a man of action, and we follow his ruminations on where the human race will go, as we see it descending into semi-stone age scavenging. His initial concerns about keeping ‘civilisation’ alive are reduced to basic practicalities, and his legacy to the future is not preserving the university library, but teaching the next generations to dig a well, make a bow and arrow, and make fire using a bow, rather than matches…

The power of the writing can occasionally surprise, for example when the hero must say farewell to the son who is most like him and who dies in the typhoid outbreak, and equally when he makes his final visit to the university library and realises that all that accumulated wisdom of the ages is for nothing in the future.

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.

Richard Jefferies: After London

February 22, 2015

Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways mentioned Richard Jefferies and prompted me to re-read this short novel from 1885; it’s one of those books where, when you reach the end, you think ‘no, you can’t possibly end it here!’ which of course he can, that being any author’s privilege.

Some natural and ecological disaster has devastated Britain at some point in the past; the details are never gone into, but London has vanished into a vast toxic swamp, large tracts of southern England are now a vast inland lake, civilisation has vanished and the population collapsed; small tribes and princelings carve out territories, warring occasionally and ekeing out a meagre existence.

The first section describes nature gradually taking over the land; no people, but wild animals. Then a slight shift in the narrative implies there are still small groups of humans, cemented by references to the ‘olden times’ and ‘the ancients’. Though there are historians, there are few records of the past and little accuracy about what is known; knowledge seems to have been lost very rapidly, though it is still known that the ancients had great knowledge and capabilities… The remaining English are oppressed by the remaining Welsh, Scots and Irish: tyranny and slavery abound in the petty principalities.

Then a story of sorts emerges, with a hero – Felix Aquila – a misfit, a thinker and an explorer, who has a woman to woo and win, too. He is interested in the knowledge of the past, its books and artefacts, in a world where people know little beyond their immediate surroundings, and because groups of people are cut off from each other, there is no global picture of what is known or how things work. This part of the novel has a very convincing mediaeval feel to its atmosphere, and to its pace, too. He travels the inland sea in his dugout canoe through various picaresque adventures, narrow escapes, and making some discoveries. We see various separate settlements and tribes, and their disparate languages which make communication difficult, their customs and different kinds of knowledge. The spookiness of the wastes above the ruins of London, with the toxic atmosphere and slime and total absence of life reveals some astonishing and lyrical description, and this is one of the strengths of this work, the writer’s mastery of language and his ability to create convincing atmosphere.

It’s a very slow-paced read, which matches the pace of the world in which it is set; it hasn’t a specific plot, but the picaresque nature of Felix’ travels enhances the overall feel of the book. It’s a really good example of early post-apocalyptic literature, worthy to stand alongside Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

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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