Recently, Charlie Stross asked if it was still possible to write near-future SF. This got me thinking about other genres that might be going the way of the dodo…or the black swan. And lately, there’s been a lot of talk about apocalypse: global economic collapse, shrinking icecaps, disappearing bees, crucial elections…where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?
For some regions, the apocalypse has already occurred. The 2004 tsunami, Sichuan earthquake, and conflict in Darfur are tragedies of apocalyptic scale for the thousands of people affected: famine, pestilence, war, death. But Captain Tripps didn’t kill these people. Triffids never attacked them. Infrastructure failed them, instead. As Stephen King said, the world moved on. Without them.
So in a world in which the apocalypse has already occurred, is it still relevant to write post-apocalyptic stories?
My short answer is yes, but for three reasons:
The apocalypse is our favourite piece of speculative fiction.
Almost every culture has a myth about the end of the world (as we know it). We can’t seem to stop thinking about it. It fulfills an important cultural function: the fantasy of a complete tabula rasa, a new beginning, an opportunity to watch those we believe to be wicked getting their just desserts. Moreover, apocalypse myths are the ultimate ARG: we get to watch for clues, piece together arcane minutiae, and speculate about when and how the end will occur. Freudian death drives aside, we’re all just interested to see how it all plays out. We want to be right, even if being right means suffering through desertification or dragons or the devil.
That fiction still has a lot to teach us.
When SF writes the apocalypse, it’s always about how everyday existence will change. Life becomes one long survival horror game, with us swinging our big board with a nail in it at rabid dogs in an attempt to win those last few bottles of Gatorade. But the charm of these stories (for me, at least) isn’t in the gore, but in the way that they’re (awesome) Boy Scout manuals. They’re a series of lateral thinking puzzles. Given X (your recently-bitten buddy, locked in the closet) and Y (you, alone without your rusty nail), solve for Z (the zombie this individual will soon become). Possible answer: Mix bleach and ammonia in a deep bowl. Distract your former friend with a shot of Windex to the face, and leave him alone with the mixture in a non-ventilated space. Run.
Of course, dispatching of threats is only one side of the post-apocalyptic coin. The other is reconstruction. The word “apocalypse” means “revelation,” and best post-apocalyptic stuff always reveals hidden depths to characters. It depicts them becoming farmers or tinkerers or midwives or murderers, doing jobs and deeds they never thought possible, learning more about themselves and their environment. Discovery, not despair. Ingenuity, not inertia. Some of my favourite YA books feature kids striking out on their own and figuring out how to live by their wits: The Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain, Homecoming…in retrospect, my love of The Stand was just the next step, what with its obsessive detailing of the tribulations of rebooting Boulder.
This is not to say that the best post-apocalyptic fiction must be didactic. But in general, well-researched fiction is good fiction, because it is written by thoughtful and intelligent people who care enough to do their homework. This counts for every genre. And simply put, the more tightly an otherworldly element fits into an otherwise-recognizable world, the more unnerving the story as a whole becomes. (See Freud, The Uncanny.)
And we are constantly writing it.
Re-mixed and re-purposed art is in vogue lately, a facet of the growing DIY/MAKE/CRAFT/urban homestead movement — aca-fandom is one part of it, and so is a theory of literature by the likes of Michael Chabon, who says that “All literature, highbrow or low, from The Aenied onward, is fan fiction,” and Jonathan Lethem, who reminds us that “Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.” One need only examine Ulysses or The Waste Land to understand their point. Both are works while rely fundamentally on the reader’s understanding of a prior text, like The Odyssey or The Tempest. Both were published in 1922, four years after the conclusion of another apocalypse — the First World War. Like orphaned children sifting through wreckage, both works pick up the “non-perishable goods” in the Western literary canon, like the Arthur myth, and stow them carefully within the fragile construct of the epic poem or novel for later consumption and digestion.
Another word for this process might be “kippling”. I mean this not in the Philip K. Dick “useless junk” sense of the term, but rather the William Gibson “re-purposed castoff” manner, which features in “The Winter Market.” In it, an artist finds new functions for the forgotten detritus of everyday life. The post-apocalyptic world necessitates this kind of thinking, which Gibson explores later in the Bridge Trilogy — a chipset is melted into a knife and a fab unit transformed into a uterus, both products of a world which is post-apocalyptic after the Little Grande and Godzilla earthquakes. I suspect that Jonathan Lethem might call all contemporary creators “kipplers” of a certain kind.
This style of production isn’t so different from a cyborg theory of writing, which I have written about elsewhere, inspired by Donna Haraway. Both involve textual re-construction, and the cyborg is frequently figured as a consequence of the apocalypse (or at least the ideal survivor), whether it’s a boy in a mech or a woman with a shell.
Being neither particularly crafty nor endowed with an advanced exoskeleton, and being instead rather small and slow, I likely won’t survive whatever apocalypse arrives next. But the charm of post-apocalyptic stories is that I can imagine a future without me, populated by far cleverer and more industrious people who, with any luck, have done their reading.