Thursday, July 30, 2009

Apocalyptic Fiction: If Sarah Had Become VP

apocalyptic fiction--short stories and novels framed on the premise that civilization, as it has evolved until the time of writing, has been traumatized by some natural or man-made catastrophe; narratives dramatizing the consequences of severe trauma to earth and its denizens; the evolutionary unthinkable, come to pass.

Whether it is a nuclear holocaust, tidal waves, epidemic,eruption, greenhouse effect, or some politically inspired pandemic, the story of apocalypse begins with the consequences writ large, dramatizing its effects on the lives and status of the survivors. No matter if the catalyst is a metaphoric result of the sorcerer's apprentice, atomic rockets fired by insurgents, or a worldwide flare-up of mutant salmonella, the story is about what the characters do next and how they accomplish what they do. The apocalyptic novel thus begins with the literary equivalent of Mr. Dickens telling us, It was the worst of times. The English writer H. G. Wells (1866--1946), with his frequent ventures into the medium of science fiction, is often thought of in connection with the apocalyptic genre although Mary Shelley's much earlier work, particularly the 1826 novel, The Last Man, is a place to draw the historical if not the dramatic line.

Like Wells, the American writer Jack London had strong socialist beliefs and wrote about them throughout their careers. In his apocalyptic mode, London produced The Scarlet Plague in1912, depicting a San Francisco of 2027, after a global plague pandemic has killed off enormous chunks of the population. No stranger to her own political extrapolations, Margaret Atwood added another dimension to her speculation, The Handmaid's Tale with the overtly apocalyptic 2003 Oryx and Crake, which builds on extrapolations of genetic engineering and bio-technologies to produce various species who can then be exploited. Earlier, Richard Matheson's 1954 I Am Legend, posited a bacterial pandemic in which Los Angeles resident Robert Neville is the only survivor. The symptoms resemble vampirism, to which Neville, having once been bitten by a vampire bat, is immune.

Apocalyptic novels involve Earth being struck by asteroids and comets; as well there are cultural and political wars, and in John Wyndham's 1951 The Day of the Triffids, an invasion by plants of particularly aggressive behavior who are able to communicate with one another. The triffids are particularly fond of feeding on humans. Nevil Shute's 1957 novel, On the Beach, tunes in on Melbourne, Australia, dramatizing the effects of the survivors of an atomic holocaust as they await the effects of death from the radiation. Walter Miller's plangent 1960 novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz, remains one of the archetypal novels of apocalypse and reconstruction. Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel, On the Road, is yet another example of the flexibility of the apocalyptic novel; things were worse than bad--a cataclysm (probably nuclear, but not specified) has wiped out most of the population of the earth, leaving an unnamed father and son, who undertake a journey toward the sea.

There are literally hundreds of apocalyptic novels readily available for study, many of them from experienced and prolific science fiction writers, just as many others from men and women who have turned from more literary pursuits, driven by their individual senses of concern and politics, to this genre. The apocalyptic story begins with some worst-case scenario--the worse, the better--impending or having taken place. One or more characters is selected to sort through the wreckage and remains, then set forth to do something about making a contribution to the continuation of the human race.

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