I Heart the Apocalypse

March 23rd 2011

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A world-changing catastrophe is a favourite authorial device. It is – almost, but not quite – older than dirt. Whether or not you subscribe to the historical accuracy of Noah’s flood or the Epic of Gilgamesh is a moot literary point – trashing everything in sight makes a fantastic setting for a story.

Pandemics slay billions, massive asteroids slam into the Earth, god-like aliens render our puny weapons obsolete at the stroke of a heat ray, mutually assured destruction lives up to its name: the common factor in most apocalyptic-themed stories is that the protagonists are rendered powerless in the face of overwhelming, impersonal force.

And that’s the problem with turning the apocalyptic into good fiction: the survival of the main characters is more or less a matter of chance. Narrowly avoiding death, repeatedly, while an excellent idea for the people involved, can get increasingly ludicrous for the reader. That the person you’re following survives is, more or less, down to luck. Certainly, there might be some things they can do to shift the odds in their favour – but you can hear the creaking gears of the deus ex machina in the background.

What we really yearn for, however, is not John Varley’s masterful “The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged)”, where, in the space of a few words, everybody dies, or Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, where everybody dies. We do genuinely want survivors, even if we realise that the vast majority of human life will be snuffed out. We want heroes who carry our hopes and dreams into the future, and resolutely refuse to give up despite overwhelming odds.

It sounds corny, written like that. But it taps into a deep, almost embarrassing fantasy that Varley deliberately exposes then squashes: that we – you, me – we’d be okay. We’d make it. We’d be Max, the Road Warrior. We’d be Sarah Connor. We’d be the leader of a plucky group of survivors who’d band together, and we’d make something of it, all the while knowing that, in reality, we’d all be pretty much bugfood, and if – by chance – we survived the oncoming apocalypse, we’d probably be a traumatised wreck unable to think coherently, let alone fashion a working telegraph system.

While the apocalypse itself makes for good movies – now that computers can render it in glorious 3D – I’d argue it doesn’t necessarily make for good books. What makes good books is how people interact with each other in a world utterly changed from the one they knew before. Tales of the apocalypse have a prurient feel to them. It’s post-apocalyptic literature that calls to us – the ultimate fantasy of the human race enduring the impossible and civilisation rising again from the ashes.

This article was first published on the OrbitBooks.net blog, March 8th 2011.

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