Without further ado, here are the novels (oh, and: huge spoiler alert, so don't read unless you want to):
Survivors by Terry Nation (1976)
This is the book that inspired the eponymous TV-series (according to the inside flap – Wikipedia says the novel was written based on the series; chicken and the egg anyone?), which I haven't seen but which is without a doubt very good. The novel itself, I must say, is not perhaps my idea of high literature, even when compared to some of the other science fiction novels in the genre (notably The Death of Grass). In Survivors, almost everyone is wiped out suddenly by what is essentially the Black Death, except the survivors simply label it “the 'Death'” - a flu-like disease which, after an initial six day incubation period very swiftly leads to the demise of 99.99% (or some such ridiculous number quoted by one of the doctors) of the infected. The few thousands remaining must survive on scavenging and, eventually, rediscover agriculture and toolmaking. A group mentality is born, where some simply band together to farm, whereas others band together to loot, or to rule over the farmers – essentially returning to a feudal type society where a strong-armed baron rules over hamlets or individual farmhouses. Finally, in a move reminiscent of The Last Man, Abby and her group decide that the British winters simply cannot sustain life, and they decide to move south towards the 'cradle of civilization' where winters are milder and life less harsh.
What can be said of the book? It is, I believe, a case of classic science fiction extrapolation almost getting out of hand. Through a series of increasingly unlikely encounters, we the readers are introduced a varying bunch of factions formed directly after the apocalypse. Early on, for instance, Abby meets the founding members of the National Unity Force, which eventually turns into a classic robber baron-type organization, levying taxes, laying claim to loot, and even imposing conscription on those it arbitrarily considers to be within its jurisdiction. In another encounter, we are given a brief look at a man named Garland, the fourth son of an earl, and a textbook example of a 19th century adventurer, up until then a relic. Capable, tough, forever gallant and above all relishing every moment of the post-apocalypse, he's either a sociopath or just someone who realizes he's found his niche at last. Garland wishes to reclaim his family's mansion and rule those around like a benevolent dictator, and is participating in a sort of guerilla/Robin Hood campaign against the 'squatters' who have taken up residence there to do so. Although the only real action hero in the novel, Garland is killed off-stage from something as unheroic as a gangrenous wound. Various other encounters also give us a glimpse into Nation's perceived version of post-apocalyptic Britain, including a travelling band of scavenger-traders, operating out of Birmingham, which attempted to reinstate the gold standard, and a group of boatsmen near Dover that ferry the willing across the channel to France in return for food and petrol (although these might very well have been swindlers).
The philosophical side of the apocalypse is also explored, almost immediately and with about as much subtlety as the political/social landscape mapped above. The main philosophy, which is, Abby's view that the survivors cannot rely on scavenging and using up the materials of the old world, but must rather endeavour to rediscover old techniques, both for farming and for making tools and such, is contrasted with the short-term goals of looters and tough guys like the NUF, who are content with living off the remnants all around. The decision for the exodus to France, for instance, is prompted by Abby's realization that they simply haven't the time or manpower to do anything except plant the bare minimum for survival every year – which will eventually lead to their tools and equipment breaking down, without them ever having had the time to relearn how to make them. The unsubtle criticism of modern day man's ineptness is all around, including an early encounter with an older professor sporting a hearing aid with only two more batteries, who asked Abby if she knew how to make something as relatively simple as a candle or a glass decanter.
In short, Survivors is a survivalist fantasy first and foremost, concerned with the rediscovery of 'old' skills and a gradual return to a simpler, agrarian society, which is nonetheless frustrated by the ambitions of men with guns wishing to wage war (a word often thrown around, both regarding the NUF and Garland's skirmishes). Although it is bleak, it is never hopeless, especially as the core group around Abby shows itself to be uniformly made out of 'good guys' (with the possible exception of Tom Price). Nation only scratches the surface of the psychological and emotional side of things, preferring to stick solely to practical topics – perhaps a good way of going about it for a TV series, where the actors and the director can provide an emotional outlet, rather than the text itself. Unfortunately though, although there is plenty of drama and excitement, the novel reads more like a textbook on practical post-apocalyptic survival than as a story about humanity struggling to cope (socially, psychologically) with its new surroundings.
The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)
This is essentially a long short story, or a novella, or some other such appellation, seeing as it's not a very big work. I wanted to jot down my thoughts on it right after Survivors, since much like Nation's novel, this one too is set in Britain. Christopher's apocalypse comes in the form of a virus that specifically targets cereals – wheat, grain, rice. Much like in Survivors, the pre-apocalypse is a time of propaganda and attempts to avoid widespread panic, but the main characters (John Custance, Roger Buckley and gunshop-owner Pirrie with families) soon realize where things are going: very soon, food stores will run dry, and life will become a desperate struggle to find food. Unlike Survivors, however, there is no 'Death' on a massive scale: everyone is at least initially still alive. Since we can't have a post-apocalyptic survival tale featuring millions of people walking the roads, Christopher solves the 'problem of too many people' by having the government threaten to launch nuclear bombs on all major cities to curtail the population (which, I believe, does not ultimately happen). In a curious twist, it is in fact these hordes of soon-to-be ravenous people who are the main 'threat' in the novel, and essentially what Custance and his band are pre-emptively escaping. Of course, they're not the only who got that the idea, and they soon meet all the other roving gangs in anarchy-stricken Britain. Their goal is an isolated and easily defensible plot of farmland, set between a rapidly coursing river and unassailable mountains, which is tended by John's brother. On the way they pick up some survivors, leave others behind, kill to defend themselves and kill to eat and above all begin to lose most layers of basic human decency in a cavalcade of “it was us or them” justifications.
The story itself is a lot more contained than Survivors, in that it only details a single journey across the land, rather than years of agriculture, childbirth etc., which might be one reason for it being more compelling as well. But the main reason, perhaps, why The Death of Grass is so captivating lies in the fact that our heroes aren't the good guys. They are, in fact, looters. They are, in fact, a band of armed men who will do whatever it takes to survive – and not only that, they will also justify it. In the end, it is revealed that John's brother has (predictably) already found a likeminded group, who have already moved in and fortified the farm. The brother is willing to let John and his family enter, on the condition the rest of John's band is left outside. Rather than keeping with filial loyalty, John doublecrosses and kills his brother and the gang he lives with, and moves in in his stead. 'It was us or them'. Much of this 'evil' influence comes from Pirrie, who is in many ways a sociopath of the Garland type – a person who relishes in the newfound freedom of the post-apocalypse, except he does not hold on to any old chivalric ideals. Instead, he kills his hateful wife the first chance he gets, and then 'claims' a younger girl for his own at a later point. Yet his usefulness and skill with the rifle makes him indispensable. Despite allowing all of this to happen (or in some cases making it happen), the reader cannot help but root for Custance and his band. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the apocalypse: where else is the mentality of eat or be eaten clearer than when it comes to the bare necessity of procuring food? Any other type of apocalypse would, first of all, have killed off most of the populace, and second of all, left traditional food crops unscathed – in this version, all that remains are potatoes and too many mouths to feed.
Philosophically, the apocalypse (much like Survivors) brings out old, nasty traditions. The women are relegated to second-tier citizens almostinstantly, and in some cases (as detailed above) literally become goods that can be claimed. The men, on the other hand, very quickly place themselves into a pecking order, with John Custance and Pirrie on top. In one memorable scene, they meet another group of armed men, and John suggests they team up for security. The leader of the other pack, however, wishes to stay top dog – and Pirrie shoots him down with no remorse. Afterwards, all the men of the other group pile in to shake hands with John, and almost immediately begin calling him “Mr. Custance” - only a step below 'Lord' or 'Sir'. This theme of leadership is one the two novels share, and the implication seems to be that as long as the chosen leader is strong, the group will thrive. Although John initially thinks of his role as leader as only temporary, by the time they gain their stronghold, he is sure that his children will become rulers after him, in an unprecedented return to old system of inheritance.
The Death of Grass is not a survivalist book in the same way as Nations' novel, as it does not concern itself with the truly long term, or with any organizations or the like that might form. Rather it is an exploration of exactly how swiftly and ruthlessly 'civilized behaviour' evaporates in the face of the apocalypse, and of the elements that replace it: tribalism, nepotism, survival of the fittest. Refreshingly, our heroes aren't the 'good guys' who watch as others devolve, but rather just a group of survivors among others, looking out for their own. The text is minimalistic, and much is left to the reader's imagination, but in my view it works very well. It is terse and sometimes terrifying, and highly recommended.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
For once a novel wherein I've watched a movie adaptation (I say 'a' since there are many) before reading the book (or short story). The movie in question was the recent Will Smith flick, and I can honestly say that although the movie was a beautiful rendition of post-apocalyptic, post-human New York, it didn't really have anything to do with Matheson's story.
In I Am Legend, the world has inexplicably been taken over by what appears to be vampires, the living dead. Blood-drinking, repelled by garlic, religious symbols and their own mirror image, and slain by stabbing a stake through their heart or by exposing them to sunlight, they at first truly appear to be the supernatural. Robert Neville believes himself to be the last survivor, and makes do as well as he can in his fortified house, which every night comes under siege by his old neighbours and friends. His life is carefully timetabled, and he fills the daylight hours with equal measures of vampire-killing and scavenging, or doing other tasks around the house, such as securing every opening with garlic. He is particularly tormented, for some reason, by the women, and is apparently of a rather horny disposition, and sleeps poorly at night with the aid of too much alcohol and ear plugs. At first, Neville appears rather self-destructive, breaking things in frustration, sometimes coming close to exposing himself or his home to the vampires. Over time, we are given glimpses into his past, the progress of the disease and the events leading up to his isolation. And Neville also gives himself a reason for existence: finding out what exactly the disease is all about.
This is a very effective technique for a novel of this type, where we only have a single protagonist to worry about, and none other he can interact with (until the end stages of the book). His frustrations and his discoveries slowly make the picture clearer. He finds the bacillus that causes the change, and figures out how it functions. He realizes that some things (such as garlic and sunlight) are (sometimes lethal) allergic reactions, whereas others (such as mirrors and crosses) are merely strong psychosomatic ones. He alsofigures out where the bacillus came from: a result of radioactive mutation, spread through ubiquitous 'dust storms', which in turn are the result of some other, more mysterious calamity suffered earlier (perhaps a nuclear war – referred to as the “bombings” (p.45) that are causing said dust storms). In a way, then, the apocalypse of the vampire plague was caused by human hand as well, if nothing else due to the (apparently global) dust storms. He places a great emphasis on the fact that the whole 'vampire' myth is ultimately only a result of deranged minds, religious fervour and the yellow press.
The one thing Neville does not figure, despite his research, is that some might not be as badly affected as others. The great end twist, which also explains thename of the novel, is that the 'living', non-crazed vampires have found a way to live with the disease, and eventually even thrive (and send a spy, Ruth, to find out more about him). Neville, as the sole surviving 'human', has become a sort of terrifying legend to these people – a day-time hunter who can kill any of them at any time, a terrible scourge upon them possessing mystical powers (i.e., he has become a 'vampire' to the vampires). He is, finally, executed for his 'crimes', albeit these crimes were committed without him being aware of it (although he does become a surprisingly dispassionate person by the end of the novel).
In this novel, like in the two previous ones, the agent causing the apocalypse is not exactly a result of human action, although the connection between the 'bombings' and the mutated bacillus is a fascinating one. The only other thing connecting this to the other novels I've read is that Neville, too, survives on scavenging – except he never has a thought to agriculture, since he is only one man, and has more than enough food to get by. Instead of fear of looters or gangs, he simply fears the monsters gathering outside his door every night. He does worry about his belongings – his generator, for instance – but not that they are stolen, only broken. Although there are several aspects of survivalism in his day-to-day life, Neville is ultimately never in any real danger of the elements. Rather, it is the day-night cycle that controls his life, and which also forces him to stay at one place (although he, unlike his Will Smith movie-self, never seemed to make any particular effort to contact any other potential survivors).
What then is the philosophy of this one? It is a character study, for sure – how does a single man survive in a world surrounded by sub-human monsters? There are the various aspirations and desires of the main protagonist, above all the will to explain the end of the world. That will appeased, Neville seems to be at some kind of peace; until Ruth shatters that. It seems though that even after Ruth's appearance, he still didn't have any desire to truly understand the new vampiric society that had appeared unbeknownst to him. As the title of the book proclaims, he has become a legend, relic of old times, left behind and, finally, exterminated. That, in addition to the bombing-induced dust storms, with a healthy dose of survivalism, seems to be what I Am Legend brings to the table of post-apocalyptic discourse.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)
This one is perhaps the most difficult of the bunch to categorize and to discuss, since it does not only concern itself about the end of the world and the immediate aftermath, but rather details the post-'Flame Deluge' world's slow and steady rise from the primitive 'darkness' directly following the apocalypse all the way to a rediscovery of atomic energy and the eventual re-destruction of the world. This is all seen through a succession of abbots for the (catholic) monastery dedicated to St. Leibowitz – a saint whose purpose in life was to safeguard the secrets of the old world until the new would be capable of learning from them again.
Although the subject matter here is serious enough, and the events throughout are likewise dire, Miller never lets go of his humorous side. From the description of Brother Francis and his fear of the great demons of Fallout, to the much later domne fighting with his electronic dictation machine and failing miserably, it's hard to read through the whole book without laughing. Considering post-apocalyptic novels tend to lean towards the sad and depressing, it was a bit of a change. That, and survivalism is never a question in this story. The monks of St. Leibowitz go through good times and bad, but as monks, they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves in a manner all the white-collar British middle class men and women of previous books have been entirely unable to do. That, and the story only actually picks up centuries after the Flame Deluge, when most of the old world has been reduced to rubble and legend.
My edition (Orbit, printed 2009) has a cover picture which encapsulates the central tenet of the Order of St. Leibowitz – both its positive and negative sides. The picture is of a shopping list – “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels – bring home for Emma” - except that the P has been beautifully illustrated in the manner of old religious manuscripts, and the rest of the text is written in fancy Gothic lettering. In other words, what the monks do is preserve everything from the old days, often by making endless and meticulous copies of it, without actually understanding the importance or relative unimportance of the texts. In one instance, a brother makes a gilded, illustrated, beautiful copy of a blueprint, retaining the lines and 'squiggles' of the original but adding all the trappings of a medieval manuscript to its margins and wherever he felt it was permissible. The brother, of course, had no idea what the blueprint was actually of, or even what it had been used for, or the fact that the original print as it was was a lot more readable and usable than his illustrated copy. The fact that, when later on a mission to bring both the copy and the original to New Rome, he is robbed, the robbers only take the copy rather than the original points out how skewed the concept of what is valuable and what is not has become.
However, eventually the value of the monk's hoard of knowledge does become apparent, and their musty old libraries are finally visited by the learned men of the new renaissance. Despite some tensions, the purpose of the monks of St. Leibowitz is actually realized, and the narrative shifts to a present-day or perhaps near-future scenario (or far future, perhaps, for Miller). Suddenly, there is the threat of nuclear war again, and soon enough it does come to pass – the total annihilation of the human race once again. This time, however, the church has sent out a space ship to a colony in the stars, containing the whole Memorabilia of the Leibowitzian monks – and thus ensuring the continuation of their mission.
The book goes through too many characters and events and epochs for me to succinctly state what the philosophy of the novel is, aside from what I've discussed above. Miller briefly describes the formation of new kingdoms and realms, of new wars and warlords and bids for power, of religious crises and a technological renaissance. One might ask if it's really a good idea to preserve past knowledge, especially if it's just going to lead to a repeat of the original mistakes. Then again, the monks also preserved the knowledge of the Flame Deluge and warned against that, yet no-one took heed. In other words, a fairly pessimistic outlook. The most powerful image the book leaves is that of a brotherhood of monks keeping the old knowledge alive forever and ever, whether or not they know what it once was for. It is, ultimately, impossible not to sympathize with their task, and hope that some day the circle can be broken.
The circle, incidentally, is something that can no longer exist in modern post-apocalyptic literature, at least not if the writer is astute enough – something I will comment on in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. The reason is simple: fossil fuels. But that is not something one can assume Miller would have thought of back in 1959.
I will continue with Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood in a separate post, and possibly also discuss In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster and finally Cormac McCarthy's The Road, since I have a feeling these might be the central novels around which I will concentrate my thesis.