Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Doomer Fiction

I make no apologies or excuses for my book collection. In fact, I highly recommend building a library. In a lower energy world, without mind-numbing entertainment, like television, reading books, as a pastime, will enjoy a resurgence.

I enjoy reading all sorts of books, on all sorts of topics, but I've definitely had my favorite genres and favorite authors. For a very long time, anything by Stephen King was in the TBR. I read The Tommyknockers in a day.

It's probably no surprise, therefore, that the first doomer novel I read was The Stand. I was in high school, and I had some reasons for wishing that such a thing would happen ... and, of course, I'd be one of the survivors ;).

At the time, King's vision was completely fantastic. Certainly, the idea that a super-flu bug could wipe out the entire world was possible, but in that time, in my world, it just seemed incredibly unlikely. And, then, of course, there was that supernatural spin with Granny and the Randall Flagg. Oh, please!

Several months ago, I read Eternity Road, which was an amazing story, and which was probably, partially, respnonsible for some of the book culling we've done recently. Like Stephen King, Jack McDevitt envisions a post-epidemic world, but unlike King, McDevitt's world is centuries after the epidemic has killed off most of the population. The epidemic decimated the population, and in their attempts to simply survive, many parts of culture were lost, including the books, but there is the rumor of a library where the old volumes were preserved.

While I was reading the book, I thought, if I had to compile a collection of the best of the best, what books would I include ... which would I exclude? Which books would I want our future generations, people who will not have grown up as we have, to read to give them a sense of who we are? It's a fairly daunting exercise. There are a lot of things about our society and our culture of which I am not proud, but I think knowing about our ancestors, with all of their warts, is useful, if for nothing else than to show us how bad we can be in hopes that we'll strive to be better. It doesn't happen, usually ... but it's a useful theory, I think :).

Mass die off from disease seems to be a popular theme in doomer fiction. Despite his belief in the Long Emergency and the inevitable economic collapse leading to TEOTWAWKI, Kunstler's doomer novel World Made by Hand also speaks of a mass die-off due to disease (although it was preempted by some other catastrophy, and the die-off was exacerbated by a lack of modern medical treatments). What I don't like about his novel is that he also inserts a supernatural element. It's small and very minor to the story, but it's there. I'm actually looking forward to The Witch of Hebron: A World Made by Hand Novel to see where he takes it.

Some writers explore other end-of-the-world scenarios. In his novel, Last Light, Alex Scarrow explores the possibility that we are being manipulated by some group of very powerful, very wealthy individuals. He brings to full focus the conspiracy theories regarding who is really controlling our world economy and the irony is that in trying to manipulate population control, the "group" ends up destroying what they've worked so hard to build. The comeuppance aspect was actually pretty satisfying to me.

So far, Last Light is probably my favorite, except that I like to think that we wouldn't degenerate so quickly to mass chaos. I'd like to think that the average (adult) person is a little smarter than to drink untreated water. I like to think that, but I know it's probably not true. Many people tend not to think much in an emergency situation ... and then, there are, of course, the winners of such dubious honors as The Darwin Awards, who would do just as Scarrow predicts ... well, we can hope their stupidity will kill them before they can do any real harm to the rest of us.

Compared to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, those other novels are optimistic. To say that McCarthy's novel is not optimistic is a gross understatement of mass proportions. All life, with the exception of man, has been destroyed, and while McCarthy seems to want to end on a happy note, he's already set the precedent - there is no plant life, thus, there is no hope. The novel actually gave me nightmares.

Currently, I'm reading S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire. It's both optimistic and hopeful. If any of the novels prove to be true, I hope it's this one, and I hope I can find some horse wrangler who knows how to make swords out of old car parts ;).

The likeliest TEOTWAWKI scenario is one that we haven't even considered or planned for, and we can't plan for all possibilities, but we can explore our options for when the world becomes something we no longer recognize.

What's useful to me about these fictitious TEOTWAWKI scenarios is the thought exercise that is involved. I don't read for pure entertainment value (although some books certainly provide a lot of that, as well), but rather to push me to think about what I would do if ....


  1. You know what would be fun? If we tried to come up with a list of books that we would really want to survive in a drastically changed future. Would we choose only non-fiction? Preserve the knowledge that science has given us, even though the world at that time might not have any use for that knowledge? Inspirational? Would we want to preserve some sense of the present spirituality for the future? Fiction? Would we just want a hodgepodge of some of the best "fun" reads out there, in the hope that from it could be gleaned some idea of who and what we were?????

    Just for the record, The Stand would be on my list.

  2. Funny thing is that I've always looked at my personal library as a kind of legacy. Not necessarily in any realistic fashion, but I was once enough of an academic to wonder where my books would end up. Would a university library be interested in them? (I did have a good selection of books covering a somewhat obscure corner of academia.)

    So yeah, I've thought about a future in which my personal library might be a partial, imperfect, gap-riddled cultural time capsule. I have deliberately included many classic books, some of the giants of English-language literature: Dickens, Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc. And some of the world's great poets, even though my appetite for poetry is rather small.

    I think it would be both tragic and beautiful if one day my library were truly a treasure for a little community. I could never do the body of English literature justice, but at least some things would be available.

  3. My favorite survivalist book is Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. It's actually the sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but you don't really get that aspect until towards the end. It's the story of some men who escapes a Civil War prison camp in a balloon (used for reconnaissance) during a storm, and end up on an island with only the clothes on their backs - not even a knife. Very good read.

    World Made by Hand was okay, but I agree the supernatural part towards the end just didn't fit well and detracted from the story. Kunstler also doesn't care for religious types and takes it out on one of his characters.

    Dies the Fire had some interesting parts, but I don't consider it very useful from a survivalist standpoint due to ALL technology not working (including bullets and steam engines, etc.).

    My #1 suggestion for those looking for hardcore survivalist fiction is One Second After, about the aftermath of an EMP attack - technically realistic and absolutely chilling. Lights Out a close second. Patriots is good, but probably too tactical for some, and goes overboard with conspiracy theories (e.g., the UN is trying to take us over).

  4. I'm currently enthralled with American Apocalypse by Nova. You can read it online in serial form on his blog (link on my blog) by starting at the oldest post and working forward. He self-published the first volume and I'm currently editing the second volume for him before he self-publishes it.

    The setting is post-collapse America with increasing lawlessness. The main character is an old-style gunslinger. Fresh take in apocalyptic fiction and completely different from our focus in creating somewhat self-sufficient homesteads.

  5. Wendy, you might also like these stories:
    Fanfic set in the Emberverse.

    The Emberverse isn't realistic, with all the tech toys going away, but for me personally it's very interesting as a what-if. It was also a needed shove for me; I really started looking at self-sufficiency again after reading these.

    The scariest book I've ever read (including King's, sorry) was "The Last Gasp" by Trevor Hoyle. Go look it up :) It's perfectly reasonable, based on environmental science from the early 80's. Which is part of what makes it so scary.

  6. Cormac McCarthy's The Road gives me nightmares too. The thought of all the trees dead and falling is too much for me.

    Speaking of apocalyptic fiction, have you read Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood? The future is bleak, but not without hope.

  7. Wendy, thanks for mentioning my book LAST LIGHT. I'm glad you enjoyed it, although 'enjoy' seems to be the wrong word to use. It's quite grim really.

    If you're interested, the sequel to this came out last week, its called AFTERLIGHT and explores a post-oil world 10 years after the crash depicted in Last Light.

    Anyway, thanks again for name-checking my book

    all the best

    Alex Scarrow