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Post-Apocalypse Now

Call it optimism or call it denial, but I'm not one of those people who thinks the world is on its last legs. Even so, the literature of the meltdown fascinates me.

A friend of a friend, worried about the direction the world is heading in, started investing in gold (which, as G. Gordon Liddy assures us on the infomercial, has "never been worth nothing") and looking into water reclamation gadgets for the home. Hearing this, my advice was simple. Steeped in the pulp fiction of the post-apocalypse, I knew there was only one metal worth investing in. Lead.

He who stockpiles the ammunition can help himself to the rest of the stockpiles.

I'm joking, of course. Call it optimism or call it denial, but I'm not one of those people who thinks the world is on its last legs. I don't anticipate a coming societal meltdown and I'm not especially worried about the traditional catalysts: nuclear warheads, ocean temperature, zombie outbreaks. Even so, the literature of the meltdown fascinates me. I can't get enough. Which is why I was glued to Marcel Theroux's Far North.

Far North was a National Book Award finalist, a fact duly noted on the paperback edition's cover. Lydia Millet's review in The Washington Post, also on the cover, declares it "the first great cautionary fable of climate change." Most post-apocalyptic novels don't come with such a pedigree, so I could hardly pass this one up.

Like the Plymouth pilgrims, the twenty-first century Quakers in Far North leave in search of a New World. They find it at the tail end of the Old, in once-frozen Siberia, where the weather is slightly more hospitable than the region's reputation suggests, thanks to global warming. They establish a string of settlements dedicated to peace and community, fed up with the rampant consumerism they left behind, the technological advances of a twilit leisure society that distance people not only from the land and hard work, but from their own souls.

Only the settlers leave too late. As environmentalists back home abolish air travel and smoke stacks, humanity learns a paradoxical lesson: like rust on an old jalopy, pollution is all that held the world together. The climate worsens, setting off famines and war. Less idealistic migrations follow, overwhelming the Quakers and leaving Makepeace, the book's protagonist, in sole possession of one of the settlements, disabused of ancestral thoughts of non-violence by the exigencies of apocalypse.

The story opens smelling of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, with Sheriff Makepeace laying down the law—"Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city"—and then dries down to something akin to The Road. Witnessing a mysterious plane crash inspires Makepeace to undertake a pilgrimage of her own, treating readers to a bleak, quixotic, and ruminative epic.

Despite anxieties about Iran's nuclear program, mushroom clouds are surprisingly absent from today's post-Cold War doomsday fantasies. There are exceptions, such as the short-lived CBS drama Jericho, but for the most part our specters of choice seem to be disease (see the BBC's recent remake of the 70s series Survivors) and the aforementioned zombies (see everything else).

As with the environmental scenario, one theme is constant: we brought this on ourselves.

Our societal decadence is the ultimate cause, and some military germ lab is usually the proximate. Even the sea monsters of Surface, another short-lived television drama, turn out to have been genetically engineered. The destruction is of our own making, not God's, but apart from that the moral dynamic of these secular apocalypses is surprisingly consistent with earlier religious ones. Our fate serves as a commentary on the way we lived. A more virtuous people would never have met such an end.

Novels like Far North may owe a debt to Cormac McCarthy, but perhaps there is a greater debt owed to the classic science fiction tale, more or less a novel of ideas masquerading as pulp. Thanks to the NYRB Classics reprint of his 1955 novel The Chrysalids, I've been reading John Wyndham recently, too. Wyndham wrote the book that was adapted as Village of the Damned, the 1960s sci-fi classic featuring all those creepy blonde-haired, sociopathic kids with the gift of mind control. His earlier novel The Day of the Triffids served as inspiration and blueprint for Danny Boyle's film 28 Days Later, with fast-moving zombies substituting for the homicidal vegetables of the title.

The more I read of Wyndham, the more he seems to anticipate things to come. Even the watery finale of Surface puts me in mind of the closing chapters of The Kraken Wakes, in which an unseen enemy lurking in the deepest parts of the ocean melts the ice caps to flood out the humans (a bona fide environmental disaster, fifty years ahead of the trend).

Brian Aldiss dubbed Wyndham's novels "cosy catastrophes," and it's true that his educated, middle class British protagonists tend to greet disaster by talking a great deal. It strikes me though that, like Theroux, Wyndham was at least as interested in the ideas his scenarios conjured—the scientific and political theories they undermined or propped up—as in the scenarios themselves. Unlike the contemporary taste in apocalypse, Wyndham doesn't kill us off with self-inflicted wounds. It's not we who brought this on. It's Them.

To be more precise, in The Day of the Triffids there's a hint that the Russians might be responsible, whereas in The Kraken Wakes, the recurring suspicion of Soviet involvement is played for ironic laughs. In The Chrysalids, set in the far future after an apparent nuclear apocalypse for which the ancients are suitably blamed, what begins as human agency turns out to be evolution at work.

David Strorm, the narrator of The Chrysalids, grows up in a religious home. The two books that survived the apocalypse are the Bible and Nicholson's Repentances, the latter of which includes a description of what it means to be made in the image of God, right down to the correct number of fingers and toes. This is helpful in weeding out the orthodox from the mutants, like David's six-toed childhood friend Sophie. When her secret is revealed, Sophie is banished to the Fringes to live with the other mutants. David's sea-faring uncle has seen enough of the world to know that there are places where orthodoxy is defined differently, where "mutants" are the normal ones. As it turns out, though, David himself possesses an aberrant ability: along with a few others, he is able to think collectively, giving his thoughts the form of shapes which can then be telepathically transmitted.

When David's abilities come to light, he and his companions flee to the Fringes, too, where necessity makes people more tolerant. If this were a contemporary tale, it might end here, illustrating the virtues of diversity. Wyndham, however, has a different moral in mind. David makes contact with the far-off inhabitants of Sealand (formerly New Zealand), where it appears everyone can communicate via thought shapes. Far from tolerant, the Sealanders see themselves as occupying a higher rung on the evolutionary ladder. The fundamentalists of David's homeland are right to perceive him as a threat. Their only mistake is to think they can win the battle, as the Sealanders demonstrate by a last minute rescue operation which annihilates the lower life forms like so much cattle. The story moves from intolerance to tolerance and back again, the assumption being that when evolution puts two rivals in the cage, the only possible outcome is a fight to the death.

All of Wyndham's stories seem to set up the same problem. It's just the rival species that change names. Apocalyptic destruction, which religious types see as avoidable judgment, turns out to be as inevitable as it is impersonal, the price of progress. There's a price in Far North, too, but it has nothing to do with progress. Nor is it the doom Makepeace's religious forebears anticipated.

"The scriptures were certainly fulfilled, though," Makepeace says, "just not in the way anyone had expected. There was no Second Coming, no lion and lamb lying down together. No. An orderly, modern city descended into a bunch of hungry tribes fighting over a desert." In the end, the dissidents from globalization and modernity get what they wanted. They're in touch with nature, in touch with the land. What they discover, though, is that they are no saints and the world is no Eden.

If one form of escape is to imagine utopia, another is to conceive of its opposite. Dystopian novels from Brave New World forward give us a glimpse of what the world can become if today's excesses go unchecked. They feed our political theories through the grinder of drama, and in the process make us appreciate the world we picked up a book to escape. Give it enough time and dystopia can look like utopia.

Makepeace figures this out. Before leaving her barren home in search of something better, she attempts suicide by jumping into a lake. Later, sold into slavery by paranoid zealots and forced to trek into a poisoned city, she recalls that setting of despair—the lake and the ghost town she left behind—and realizes it was beautiful. Those lonely days of exile were the best in her life.

In the mid-century post-apocalypse as conceived by Wyndham, the strong win out and something new emerges. Far North is too laden with grief for the lost world to contemplate a silver evolutionary lining. Society persists and teeters on in its brutal course, but always overshadowed by memories of the glittering world Makepeace's parents were so eager to abandon.

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J. Mark Bertrand J. Mark Bertrand
J. Mark Bertrand's latest novel, Nothing to Hide, came out in July 2012. ... read more »

Posted in Arts, Literature, Religion.

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