October 17, 2004

Apocalyptic devastations

(Since I'm reading books with similar themes, and writing one as well, I think I'll pause to write a bit about their different takes on common issues. For the most part I'm going to focus on A Canticle for Leibowitz, Riddley Walker, and The Postman, but I may wander into a few other books, notably The Handmaid's Tale and Fahrenheit 451. (They have similar themes but take place in less-destroyed worlds.)

In The Postman, which takes place only sixteen years after "towering, superheated funnels had punched through to the stratosphere, filling it with tiny bits of suspended rock and soil," the world is wrecked but starting to recover. Gordon Krantz has fought his way from the radioactive remains of St.Paul to Oregon, struggling with a world blasted not only by radiation but by drastically changed weather patterns and ferocious survivalists. Oregon is in much better shape than anything else he's seen, though, and there are signs that life (and the weather) are starting to return to normal.

In A Canticle for Leibowitz, the effects of the "flame deluge" are more drastic. The book starts centuries after the great disaster, which has changed the minds and bodies of the survivors drastically. The church appears to be the sole surviving institution, and that barely. It could be worse, of course - when "Lucifer is fallen," it seems unlikely that the world will recover a second time. Perhaps.

Riddley Walker's world, supposedly at least 2347 years after the disaster, is broken to the point where magical explanation seems sensible. Dogs are a constant threat to the survivors huddled in their 'fents', and radiation is definitely still around, though no one seems to have geiger counters. The northeastern tip of Inland, now called "the Ram", has been separated from the rest by a flood of uncertain origin - "a jynt wave it wer a wall of water hyer nor a mountain."

All of these worlds are in worse shape than the one created at the end of Fahrenheit 451, perhaps because it was written in the 1950s, before standing in the wake of a nuclear explosion was obviously a bad idea for the lifespan of those blown over. Awareness of the relatively contained damage of the relatively smaller bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hadn't yet been replaced with visions of nuclear winter and massive and persistent fallout well beyond the blast zone.

Even The Handmaid's Tale, which isn't quite post-apocalyptic, has plenty of elements of a broken planet, most notably the declining fertility rates that drive much of its plot.

Post-apocalyptic fiction seems to have declined with the end of the cold war. I suspect we're more hopeful that the nuclear missiles will sleep in their silos. I'm curious what new genre will emerge to replace that scenario. I'm working on my own, but suspect that the recent increase in widespread fear will eventually have an effect on writing at least as powerful as that created by the fallout shelters and arms races of 1945-1989.

Posted by simonstl at October 17, 2004 08:18 PM