The well-done post-apocalypse story is a literary post-mortem on civilization. At its best, it looks at the wreckage of society to examine not only the workings of its physical infrastructure but the architecture of the human mind and soul.
Once upon a time, I read a fair number of these, but I sort of drifted away from it. In the last couple of years, by accident, I’ve read more than usual in the sub-genre.
Oh there’s still a lot of these stories published. But zombies have taken over the genre. Many self-published works seem to be survivalist manuals — not that anything is wrong with that. Some of Dean Ing’s works fit in that category as does, to some extant, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. However, who knows how many of these are badly written political screeds or how to manuals?
And I have little interest in YA novels. Even when I was the target age, I usually didn’t care for teenaged protagonists.
So, hoping to see what had been going on with the theme recently, I requested Paula Guran’s After the End: Recent Apocalypses.
Review: After the End: Recent Apocalypses ed. Paula Guran.
Paula Guran, as shown in her introduction, certainly understands the variety of potential apocalypses we face, that we read post-apocalypse stories to have something revealed to us, to feel grateful after being shown how our lives could be so much worse, and even that the post-apocalypse story and its attendant death and destruction is rather equivalent to daydreams of forbidden sex.
Unfortunately, this collection often fails meet those needs. Though none of the stories are bad, some are forgettable. I like the post-apocalypse sub-genre for the revelations it can offer about humans and our technological civilization. I want, in the post-mortem examination of a dead or dying world, to learn something about how it worked. I also want dire warnings and cautionary tales – even if I don’t accept a given danger is much to worry about.
It’s not really the authors’ fault so few works here deliver on this promise. They probably had no intention of fulfilling such a promise. Presumably many of these stories were written with their apocalypses as mere settings or rationalizations for the stories they wanted to tell. I suspect many of the authors here didn’t see themselves as saying something specific about the sub-genre of doom-stricken worlds. A further problem is that Guran limits herself to s small span of time to draw on. With one exception, all the works are from 2005-2017.
There were some outstanding stories that did meet my needs. Maureen McHugh’s “After the Apocalypse” has a single mom and her teenage daughter trudging through a slow motion economic apocalypse in America after Disneyland is struck by a dirty bomb. Not only does she finally realize that she is now of that formerly alien class “refugee”, but we come to see her final, surprising decision not as life under duress but, in a way, life has she has always lived it. “Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi is sort of C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons” – without the smart people. Its hero comes to realize that not only does no one care about the failing sewer pumps of New York City circa 2120, but no one can do anything about it.
While less satisfying stories due to their vague or unlikely apocalypses, Paul Tremblay’s “We Will Never Live in the Castle” and Cory Doctorow’s “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)” are quite self-consciously addressing the post-apocalyptic tradition. The narrator of Tremblay’s story inhabits the amusement park where he used to work, and, while he’s gotten the civilizational collapse he always longed for, not all his old dreams will be fulfilled. For such a technologically savvy writer, Doctorow’s 2002 story has the improbable setup of warplanes flying overhead years after the war ended thanks to automation. As with many of his recent works, he really is more interested in playing off other post-apocalypse stories connected than giving us a credible disaster. Specifically, he alludes to Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and John Wyndham’s Re-Birth. However, he does have a serious point about those who, to quote another Antipodean post-apocalypse work, The Road Warrior, just want to “live off the corpse of the old world”.
Another conscious addition to the post-apocalypse tradition is Kage Baker’s “The Books”. Its child characters, members of a Renaissance Festival troupe that tours America’s west coast post-disaster, are certainly aware of manuals full of all sorts of instruction on useful skills like glass blowing and the adults’ beloved paperback books, but, one day, they discover another kind of book. It’s a nice statement about the human need for story.
As you would expect, most of the stories here are set in America or Britain. Bruce Sterling’s “The Goddess of Mercy” though is set in a Japan weakened by North Korea nuking Tokyo. Specifically, the island of Tsushima has turned into a pirate haven. A high-tech ninja, a bickering reporter and peace activist, a Somali pirate queen, hostages, humor, and hacker anarchy come together in a satisfying and unsimplistic story. Nnedi Okorafor’s “Tumaki” is set in Africa after an alien invasion has rendered nuclear weapons and bullets inoperable. What turns out to be a story of young, forbidden love between a “meta-human” (seemingly a cyborg) and a Moslem woman, turns out to be a rumination on genocide. While I liked the setting and the delivery, I thought this another story marred by a vague apocalypse, and I’m generally not a fan of the sort of “genre-blending” it features.
When we do get an explicit disaster, the disaster de jour is, off course, global warming. M. J. Locke (aka Laura J. Mixon) gives us “True North”, an enjoyable story featuring warlords and airships and survivalists and a man find purpose at the end of his life. However, while I liked the plot and characters and found them realistic, the same cannot be said of the too optimistic ending. “The Egg Man” from Mary Rosenblum is another story of a lonely man wandering a post-warming wasteland. Here the hero wanders an even more parched southwest of America delivering pharmaceutically modified eggs and looking for his former lover. I’d seen this story before but was happy to get reacquainted.
“A Story, with Beans” from Steven Gould is another look at the world of his novel 7th Sigma, an American Southwest infested with metal-eating “bugs”, and its hero from a different perspective. Like the novel, I enjoyed it.
Several stories seem to use mysterious disasters or retro disasters as set ups for surrealism, ambiguity, madness, and horror. These aren’t stories warning of real dangers or worried about plausibility. They have other concerns.
Livia Llewellyn’s “Horses” is a character study, with a Missile Facilities Technician, with horror and existential despair before, during, and after a rather improbable U.S.-Russia nuclear exchange. The six characters of John Mantooth’s “The Cecilia Paradox” may or may not be the sheltered survivors of a global apocalypse. Or they might be reality tv contestants. One thing is for sure: they are under the rule of a madman. The narrator of Brian Evenson’s carefully cadenced “The Adjudicator” may or may not be mad and may or may not be curiously immortal as he ponders his fate in the wake of being asked by his post-disaster community to kill a man.
Some stories are more straightforward if no more serious in their speculative setups.
Lauren Beukes’ “Chislehurst Messiah” attacks British barbarians in the ruins of the UK post-plague, the upper class twits represented by the delusional protagonist who waits in his apartment for Scotland Yard’s CO19 unit to arrive all the while watching the apocalypse on YouTube. And Buekes even takes a swing at the modern anti-vaccine movement. Mostly, though, it just comes across as an exercise in nastiness.
Simon Morden’s “Never, Never, Three Times Never” is about the faith of true love as found in two refugees, one wheelchair bound, the other blind, on the way to a possible sanctuary in London.
The cause of civilizational collapse is pretty straightforward in John Shirley’s “Isolation Point, California”: humans go murderously insane when closer than 19 paces from each other. The narrator and a woman he meets try, in such circumstances, to satisfy their need for intimacy.
While Carrie Vaughn’s “Amaryllis” is set in a world after general environmental collapse, it seemed to be set far enough in that future as to be just another science fiction tale set in a world different from ours. Its narrator must confront the social stigma attached to her as an illegal birth in a world of population control.
Along with the McHugh story, Paul Park’s “Ragnarok” was the entry – it’s not actually a story but verse written in the Anglo-Saxon alliterative style – I was most looking forward to. While not bad, I did find it disappointing. While the story was bloody and I was amused to hear of Black Eirik of the Glock Nine, the plot struck me as nothing special and the verse occasionally broke the alliterative requirements of the form.
Also not bad but forgettable were a couple of other stories. Blake Butler’s “The Disappeared” is about a child, perhaps mutating, thrown in a government facility in the midst of a crises of disappearing people that include the child’s mother. Margo Lanagan’s “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross” features a humanity largely infertile. While there is a memorable bit in a brothel staffed by aliens, the conclusion of the story seems to have to do with the peculiarities of a sexual fetish than symbolizing a humanity changed by pollution or alien contact.
A collection worth reading as long as you don’t expect to a lot of serious workings of this old theme.
Some Afterthoughts on the Politics of the Stories
There were some curious ambiguities and satirical elements in some of these stories — at least if you assume, that, until proven otherwise, all science fiction writers, are conventional liberals.
Nnedi Okorafor’s “Tumaki” is, ultimately, about the alleged eight stages of genocide: “classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and denial”. I object to the implicit logic here that to classify is almost to setout on an irrevocable path to death camps. Thus, say, we must not classify immigrants even by illegal or legal. The story does go in that direction to with classification via the label of “meta-human” resulting in attempted extermination.
And, speaking of classifying ethnic groups … I was somewhat surprised to see that the villain of Park’s “Ragnarok”, “cruel Jacobus”, is a “Gypsy” and a “gap-toothed Roma”. I’m stunned such an uncharitable perpetuation of stereotypes was allowed in an age seeing Romanies entering mainstream society all over Europe.
I suspect Lauren Beukes has little love for her upper class twit Simon Thomas St. Martinborough in “Chislehurst Messiah”. He looks at the yobs trashing civilization and sees “Parasites like them were the reason he voted Conservative. That and tax cuts.” But they are really are a stupid lot. And the anti-vaccination bit is a YouTube video with an Eastern European noting “zis is vot happens ven you don’t vaccinate your children.”
And, finally, I gather from his appearance on Episode 160 of the Coode Street Podcast Palo Bacigalupi inherited both liberal hippie ideas and a Puritan devotion to duty and service. Both certainly show in his “Pump Six”. The dysgenic effects of the
modern welfare state (similar in effect to the cause of stupidity in “The Marching
Morons” and the movie Idiocracy – which, now that I think of it, also has a water problem) seem a more viable cause of the general stupidity depicted than seemingly very slow acting water pollution (it’s more than a 100 years in the future, after all). And then there is the character of Suze, the narrator’s stupid lesbian boss who can’t be fired but threatens to dismiss the narrator for consulting a manual. Ultimately, she can’t be bothered to stop screwing her secretary on work time though. I doubt, though, Bacigalupi wants us to think about modern affirmative action and civil servant hiring practices.
Indexes to more fantastic fiction reviews by title and author/editor exist.
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