… and I Feel Fine

So, one of the first “real” books I read as a teenager was “The Stand” by Stephen King.  The idea of a de-populated America where good and evil clashed was an amazing world that was both repulsive and alluring simultaneously.  Having grown up in the Cold War Mutually-Assured-Destruction days of the 1970s, a world where civilization didn’t make it was a distinct possibility.

And so it sort of surprised me the other day when I was putting away some books that I realized that I’ve spent an awful lot of time reading post-apocalyptic fiction recently.  I’m not sure why, but in the last six months, I’ve read:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy follows the story of a man and his son on a journey across an utterly bleak landscape in a post-apocalyptic America nearly devoid of life and all remnants of civilization.  Unlike most stories in the genre, it is very introspective and McCarthy’s sparse prose mirrors the locale.  I’m not sure I liked it per se’, but I sure do think about it a lot.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham is a story very reminiscent of HG Wells’ original War of the Worlds – following the exploits of a respectable guy (a biochemist!) in a world gone haywire.  Nearly everyone is blinded and becomes prey to legions of intelligent, ambulatory and (too bad for them) carnivorous plants.  The deadpan prose is classically British, but there’s a lot of tension behind the calm.  This is a story that really needs to be remade by a modern filmmaker.

World War Z (An Oral History of the Zombie War) by Max Brooks is both an amusing and chilling book that “looks back” on the years (in what is almost our immediate future) in which a zombie plague nearly eradicated civilization.  In retrospective accounts, the start of the plague, its spread, the collapse of order and the drastic measures taken to ensure the survival of humanity are approached from several vantage points.  The story itself is good-reading, but Brooks’ digs at human nature and society are the best parts.

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse from John Joseph Adams is a collection of short stories that take the perspective of looking at life after the collapse of civilization.  This is a very good anthology and has some truly standout stories.  I have to admit that it was a little depressing to move from one post-apocalyptic world to another and so on… and that the stories here might be better read a few at a time between other things.

So, what’s it say that I’ve been gravitating towards these stories recently?  In general, I think I like the “what if” possibility of stories like this – I love to see the imagination work on such a grand scope – but that is true for many SF and fantasy works.  These stories in particular I think offer us a chance to vicariously throw away the homogenized society that we live and participate in – to get a clean slate.

But why should I be thinking of these things? I’ve got it pretty damn good – I love and am loved, have a great family, am healthy, I have wonderful friends, the best blog-neighborhood, and a good career.  And maybe that’s the core of it – maybe I can have fun with these stories of edge-of-extinction survival, because my list of “real world” worries is so small.

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29 thoughts on “… and I Feel Fine

  1. You know, I was just mentioning to Janie the other day, that for some reason, I really like post-apocalyptic movies. I think that your statement that these stories "offer us a chance to vicariously throw away the homogenized society that we live and participate in – to get a clean slate", is a really good explaination for their draw. The whole "what if" factor.

  2. I really enjoyed World War Z. Another one I've been reading lately is Freakangels, which is a post apocalyptic london graphic novel that's being published on the web currently.

  3. World War Z is waiting to be read. I have been interested in The Road but have yet to pick it up. Do you read any William Gibson. His writing is Cyberpunk and mostly about Govt and society collapsing but population increasing. A lot of cyberpunk is like this though. Snow Crash and Diamond Age are really good examples of this as well.

  4. "These stories in particular I think offer us a chance to vicariously throw away the homogenized society that we live and participate in – to get a clean slate." This is why I like them. And the more "realistic" they are the better. I want to know what it would be like if it really happened and see how normal folks like me deal with it. This is not generally the type of thing I thought I liked to read, but now that I've read a few of them, I want to read more.
    If there is a nuclear holocaust like in Alas, Babylon, I think I can just roll up in a ball and wait because I live among many naval bases, one of which is less than 5 minutes from my apartment. I'll be gone in the first hour or so. Pleasant thoughts, eh?

  5. The dark attraction of these types of stories probably stems from that need for a catharthis which we never really outgrow. As kids, we loved scary tales around a campfire and now, as adults, we look for a safe way to catch those same thrills and chills but need a framework that is expansive enough to satisfy our adult perspective. And it doesn't get much bigger than the End of Everything.

  6. We watched "I Am Legend" a month or two ago, and I really liked it — right up until the end. I wished the filmmakers had the courage to stick close to the end as was written in the original — that would have totally rocked.
    Also, apparently, "The Road" is being made into a movie — wow, is that ever gonna be a laugh riot.

  7. Budd — I haven't read any William Gibson — or cyberpunk in general. For some reason, its been a sub-genre that hasn't really appealed to me. I did read Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicron" and thought it oh-kay.

  8. BF — when I was in high-school, ABC made the mini-series "The Day After", which scared the crap out of people then — now, I think people look back and think of it as somewhat schlocky, but it was maybe the first attempt at a real depiction of post-nuclear events on tv.
    As I read the more realistic ones, I realize how useless I'd be in a post-apocalyptic world!

  9. So, as part of the MTV-generation, what happens when I quickly become bored and desensitized (as I sort of did by the end of the anthology) to the thrill of contemplating the end of civilization? Where do I go next??

  10. Reminiscences, by Douglas MacArthur- Rickenbacker, by Eddie Rickenbacker – The Conscience of A Conservative, by Sen. Barry M. Goldwater were the first serious books I read when I was 12 years old.

  11. Good stuff… my Mom says that 'Day Of The Triffids' was originally serialized in one of the popular magazines way back in the day.Pretty good movie adaptation too.Wyndham also wrote 'The Midwitch Cuckoos' which was the basis for 'Village of the Damned'.

  12. I liked I Am Legend also, except for the ending. I also didn't like the CG zombies. It would have been scarier/more intense with human zombies.

  13. If you only ever read one cyberpunk novel make it Stephenson's Diamond Age. Once you get past how the funky microwave matter compressor things work, it is an excellent book. Snow Crash would have to be second in my book due to a samurai sword carrying pizza delivery man that gets it to your door in half an hour or he dies. Suggested The Road to my book club and picked it up at the library today. Will start it after Asimov's Caves of Steel, Batman: The Long Halloween, Sandman: Volume II, and some Hellboy Graphic Novel. Wow, I best be getting off here so I can read.

  14. I remember watching "The Day After" in school. I think it was in Physics class in high school. That was quite depressing. I have to say that I prefer reading this type of story to watching it. The same goes for horror. I love Stephen King, but I don't usually want to see his books played out on the big screen.

  15. Two others you might consider: a favorite of mine, The Handmaid's Tale, and a new one I just picked up which absolutely kept me in suspense the entire time: Under the Skin by Michael Faber. Read his book, then read his other book and you will not even know it's the same guy. Seriously crazy stuff…

  16. SteveP — I remember the movie a little — I watched it when I was a kid on a Saturday afternoon "Creature Feature" — I don't remember the details, but I remember it being pretty good.

  17. GW — I really loved the Dark Tower — I fell off of reading SK in the 80s because I thought a lot of his books were getting really bloated… the book that brought me back was "The Green Mile".

  18. Noelle — I loved The Handmaid's Tale — it's so incredibly creepy. In fact, I really like most of the things I've read from Margaret Atwood. In fact, another one that could go on this list is: Oryx and Crake. I will have to add the Faber books to my to-read list… thanks!

  19. I was just going to comment on both the Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake but Noelle beat me to it (she was the one who originally gave me tHT back in college). Atwood does such a good job with dystopia!

  20. Anthologies tend to create a sort of "genre-fatigue," probably in part because you don't get a novel-length involvement in the characters and so you rely on the plot more for your reader satisfaction; when the plot is the same, even with clever variations, the anthology can begin to wear. I noticed this with Stephen King's anthologies: even though some of the stories were terrific, by the time you get to the third book, you're a little done in by the "innocent characters stumble into yet another terrible situation" scenario. Read something different before you come back to the genre again. And speaking of S. King, I remember that I loved "The Stand" right up until the resolution of events in Las Vegas, which seemed arbitrary. I once read an interesting interview with Stephen King where he described his view of God as being somewhat bloody and capricious, and this clearly played itself out in the novel, but I always thought it a weakness in an otherwise outstanding book.

  21. Cori (& Noelle) — I was trying to decide whether Oryx&Crake was more dystopian or post-apocalyptic in nature — in general I think it's the latter, but with elements of both. There were scenes in that book that scared the crap out of me.

  22. Pingback: Book Review: “The Passage” by Justin Cronin | Steve's Place

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