Last January, I kicked off my BookLikes blog with a theme of post-apocalyptic novels, and I decided to return to this theme this year. The last few months has been a time of great and sudden change for me, good change, but still, it can be strange to look back to a completely different world a month before. It's striking how quickly everything can shift, though in general changes happen slowly and often we hardly notice when we have passed the point of no return.
For instance, in Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the authors write a fictional historical reflection of the “Penumbral Age,” when industrial civilization began to fray and collapse due to self-inflicted climate change. Writing from the perspective of scholars from the Second People’s Republic of China, circa 2393, it reads like something that could be assigned to first year students in a low level history course. An amusing glossary of archaic terms like “environment,” “capitalism,” “communism,” and “internal combustion," the academic accounts of the extinction of Australia’s human population, and the resettlement of the people once known as the Dutch in the Nordo-Scandinavian Union make it a harrowing and thought-provoking read. Using fiction to predict the tragic results of current trends is one of the major sparks behind post-apocalyptic literature, and here is both a disturbingly realistic and hopeful look at what we will face in coming decades. Also, Oreskes’ and Conway’s experiment with fiction sets up one of the main themes I noticed this year, as well as providing the background for many of the future worlds laid out in the other works I read.
It is true that human life can only truly exist in the present, yet we tend to spend a lot of it concerned with both the future, and the past. Fears and hope for what lies ahead commingle with memories of triumphs and tragedies from the past, whether looking forward with worry for a time in which we have no control or looking back with nostalgia to a time we understood. Much of apocalyptic literature, for me, seems to spring from the intersection of this juxtaposition. The apocalypse, and thoughts about the coming future in general, often feel to be the result of our looking back at the past and trying to use it to make sense of the future, but of course, they all stem from our present concerns. The books I read for this theme exemplify these issues.
Whether envisioning a world as the logical result of climate change and economic decline of our current times, or one stricken by an invasion of demons from another dimension, I noticed an interesting current of childhood nostalgia, fantasy, and imagination running through many of these accounts of the end of the world. Games, storytelling, and other themes associated with childhood exemplify the preoccupation with nostalgia mixed with a fear of things not getting better as we get older. In my favorite book from last year, Wolf in White Van, for instance, Sean, the narrator’s, main escape from the horrible, disfiguring accident that put his own life on hold is his creation of the Trace Italian, a table top play by mail game of choice and consequences in a post-apocalyptic future America. Why did Sean choose this imagery and what significance did it have to his own life, changed so drastically and irrevocably? As seen in the course of the novel, these fantasy games had real consequence on the "real" world, too. I thought it was fitting to chose this entry's theme music from among the apocalyptic songs of the Mountain Goats.
Ryan North’s Adventure Time comics, illustrated in pitch perfect imitation of the show by Shelli Paroline, and so good at a capturing the feel of Pendleton Ward’s seminal cartoon series, also shows a broken, post-nuclear war world as imbued with a childlike magic, wonder, and nostalgia. As the for the everyday adventures of youth under the broken down remnants of contemporary society. Ward has said in interviews his favorite emotion is “feeling simultaneously happy and sad,” a sentiment that fits well with this contradictory look at the future. The second volume, in fact, deals with a post-apocalyptic take on the setting itself, which makes for an interesting recursive take on the characters and themes of the show.
Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies, another graphic novel, also deal with these same themes, depicting both a post-apocalyptic world inhabited only by children after beings of supernatural evil decimated the world, as well as the “real world” of the present; which is real, and which is imaginary? Dalrymple’s art work here is breathtaking, the amazing and detailed watercolors bring the diverse characters to life and highlight the stark beauty and horror of the dead world of the future. While following the heroes quest motif of the Wrenchies and their quest to put an end to this evil, at great cost to themselves, the story structure is loose and much of the dialog deeply philosophical, making it a bit inaccessible at times.
MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood’s conclusion to her dark, cutting, and farcical sci-fi trilogy begun with Oryx and Crake, MaddAddam also deals with the primacy of stories and storytelling, and its relation to the truth, the past, and the future. As an allegory for the current horrors of corporate capitalism it can come across as a little heavy handed, but as the human survivors attempt to come to terms with their horrible pasts and look forward to a new future with the “noble savage” Crackers, who may be primed to repeat humanity’s mistakes or create a more harmonious and beautiful world, and the stories and "myths" related to them by Tobey and her successors may be the key to how they turn out. While my least favorite entry in the trilogy, and it seems like the most old fashioned take on the apocalypse I read this time, there was still a lot to think about.
California, by Edan Lepucki, was perhaps the bleakest and most realistic novel I read. California best captures, I feel, the zeitgeist of today as it’s young, urban protagonists, husband and wife Cal and Frida use their DIY throwback skills (baking, gardening) to scrape out a subsistence in the wilderness after they abandoned their home in the collapsing city of Los Angeles. The cause of the collapse is left vague, but climate change, economic failures, and war all have a hand in it, and they can still remember their childhoods, when hot showers and the internet were still things. Frida treasures a few “artifacts,” pieces of her former life she keeps hidden (most prominently, a fancy turkey baster) and spends much time going over the events of her childhood, while Cal hopes to start completely anew in this new world. Thoughts of the past and future intermingled among both characters, especially as Frida finds out about her pregnancy and another relic from her past both threaten or promise to save them. How will our relationships survive and evolve in the end of society?
Star’s Reach, by Archdruid and peak oil blogger John Michael Greer, is in interesting account of an America few hundred years in the future, after society has regressed to a far more sustainable level after the environmental degradation of the 20th and 21st centuries. “Meriga,” a loose nationstate ruled by a hereditary female "Presden" has become a neo-feudal culture not unlike most of human cultures throughout history. It is interesting how this fairly “hard” science fiction world follows a quite nostalgic “fantasy” quest style, with the main character becoming a member of the “ruinman” guild to explore the dungeon-like remnants of contemporary society for rare materials and other treasures. I found the setting particularly interesting, with it’s matriarchal nature revering religion and preserved remnants of modern culture, trying to identify the location through the garbled names of the market towns and fortresses, like Sisnaddi (Cincinnati) and Nasul (Nashville). It is interesting how it too follows the theme of how history takes form, how the past is remembered and how we try to present ourselves, though l it is a bit didactic in it’s goals and occasionally comes off as a bit preachy. Still, quite a unique story.
Finally, Bar None by is another world stricken by a supernatural curse, which seems to have killed off most of the population with a terrible plague and transformed some people into strange creatures, though it begins with a small band of survivors hiding out in a Welsh manor, enjoying a rather cozy life before deciding to head out into the world. The past remains a major concern for all of the characters, no less the narrator, who recalls his wife and life before the end, and the delicious beers he enjoyed with her. Each chapter is named after one English brew or another (Old Empire, Summer Lightning, Cornish Rebellion- sounds delicious!), adding to the nostalgic ambiance, and as the narration went on and strange things begin to increase, the devotion to beer remains a solid anchor.
Perhaps I’ll enjoy a beer to think back on the last year, and where am I now, and reflect on where I may be in another year! This time, the mood music piece is "Slow West Vultures," from the Mountain Goat's Album the World About to Come, which seems quite apropos here.
*Theme music for blog: "Slow West Vultures," The Mountain Goats, We Shall All Be Healed, 2004