Thursday, February 11, 2010

Apocalypse Then

I just read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." I started it on a subway ride home, and didn't put it down until I finished it. It's pretty bleak post-apocalyptic fiction: though what has happened to make the world so empty and awful is never explained in the short novel, its portrayal of ecological disaster and roving bands of starving cannibals was compelling and horrifying. I haven't seen the movie yet.

But I was reminded how much I used to be obsessed with post-apocalyptic fiction. As a kid in the 1960s and 1970s and into my young adulthood I used to read every piece of it I could find.

The cold war was certainly the background to the first half of my life: I remember Reagan's chilling "we begin bombing in five minutes" joke. It just wasn't hard to imagine the missiles and the bombers being sent on their way, and it just wasn't hard to imagine what would happen when they were.

I don't remember the Cuban missile crisis of 1961, but my parents assured me that they had bags packed at the door waiting for the sirens to go off. We no longer had "duck and cover" exercises in my youth, but the air raid siren used to go off every week in Chicago as a test...I think it was Tuesday or Thursday at 10 am? Maybe 4pm. Anyway it was like clockwork.

The Rest Must Die, Red Alert, and Alas, Babylon are prime examples of one sub-genre of apocalyptic fiction: the you are there at the minute it all ends subgenre. Fail Safe and War Day are others. The Rest Must Die is a hoot: it's about New Yorkers trapped in the subways when the nuclear war happens. I remember hilariously dated scene where, in the face of imminent doom, one woman rips open her dress and cries, "aren't there any REAL men left?"

Then there's the "what do we do now" subgenre. Books like Earth Abides, Malevil or Stephen King's more supernatural The Stand are good examples. It seems like the more optimistic of these books tend to man-made disease apocalypses more than the nuclear kind, assuming it's only most of the people who go away. Books like On The Beach don't allow much in the way of silver lining.

The third subgenre is the back-to-the-stone-age epics. I love this cover to Andre Norton's Daybreak 2250 AD. But there's also A Canticle for Liebowitz, Clifford Simak's City, and the Davy series by Edgar Pangborn, which I have lately dusted off to re-read. These are the books where we are literally bombed back to the stone age and society rebuilds: usually slowly and badly.

I wonder if younger people are still haunted by these dark man-made end-times fantasies. It's not impossible to imagine a nuclear exchange between the US or Russia or China, but it sure seems more distant. And even nuclear armed terrorists, well that's a scary thought but it's not quite apocalypse. Disease or ecological catastrophe on the other hand: maybe the whole global warming thing is just the newest twist in mankind's fantasy of its own oblivion?

Anyway, only two years til 2012. Good times ahead!


  1. I absorbed post apocalyptic fiction. I read damn near all of it, and there was so much of it. I've noticed a renewed interest in the genre in the form of zombie movies. '28 Days After', '28 Weeks After' , 'Zombieland' and the zombie vampire themed 'I Am Legend' were all post apocalyptic.

    I wonder why so many of us love to consider the end of the world? In addition to the right wing survivalists there's a whole little sub culture of 'left wing' eco catastrophe survivalists.

    I hold my fingers up and wiggle them to indicate quotation marks and sarcasm because I don't consider those people to be part of the left. They, on the other hand, consider themselves to be the only left there is.

    I guess I have to read "The Road". Oh hell, on the film front, I almost forgot one of my all time favorite movies, "Children of Men" . I guess that isn't exactly post apocalyptic, but it is a brilliant example of leftist dystopia.

    I'm going to email you separately about an unrelated (to the topic at hand) book I'm reading.

  2. Oh I loved Children of Men!

    I guess I forgot the Zombie apocalypse ones. I think I liked the Charlton Heston's Omega Man better than the Will Smith version... I haven't seen Zombieland.

    Borrow the can read it in one sitting.