I love a good apocalypse.
I’ve been thinking a lot about apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction a lot since reading The Passage on holiday in a remote house on the edge of a cliff in Cornwall (dramatic and stormy weather included); a recent post on The Book Smugglers made me think about it harder, and then reading Boneshaker cemented the fact that, for me, apocalyptic-themed fiction is one of my favourite subgenres around. The end of the world scenario could be anything from a super-flu virus (The Stand) to global warming (arguably the case in The Road though, granted, it’s never explicitly stated as such) to a zombie invasion (World War Z). If you’re John Wyndham it can be plants, because John Wyndham was so good he could make plants terrifying. It can be past, present or future, it can be set on earth, in space or somewhere fantastical. It’s the point at which there is nothing to gain, characters have absolutely nothing to hide behind and all the vast variety of possible plotlines have the same simple goal – the survival of humanity. Not a victory, but merely continuation. There’s no winning. Generally, life’s like that, although with less rubble and more tourists.
In Angela Carter’s short story ‘Elegy for a Freelance’ the city’s poised on the brink of a civil war and, just as society teeters on the brink of chaos, so does her lover and their precarious way of life. It’s not quite apocalyptic but there’s a sense of a tremendous world-changing struggle that’s just beginning as the internal stresses of human nature are suddenly unleashed and the revolution begins. It sets a tone, and not a tremendously positive one. I love the sensation that everything’s about to go into freefall and that there’s no certainty about how it will end up, whether “civilization” will re-assert itself or something completely new will emerge from the mess. It’s a social apocalypse with the prospect of wiping the slate clean of all that has gone before; what is next?
In contrast, what Mark Charan Newton has in Nights of Villjamur is a world under a dying red sun as a new ice age encroaches, freezing the seas and covering a once lush and fertile empire with snow. Villjamur is surrounded by refugees hoping to take shelter in the city in an attempt to survive the freeze (though it’s suggested the ice age will last fifty years, the sun’s dying, so any respite couldn’t last long). It’s part murder mystery, part political thriller in a claustrophobic atmosphere. There’s more than a sense of impending hardship and strife – every facet of the city’s description is thick with past glories fading fast in the face of the longest winter, the people are suffering, and the emperor commits suicide, overwhelmed with the hopelessness of it all. What should be a depressing story about a dark, dank, unhealthy place feels more like a story about the people who won’t give up on others around them in the face of a global catastrophe. It doesn’t drag the reader down; even when my favourite military side-guy didn’t make it, it wasn’t depressing and it wasn’t done just to up the body count, but to make a point about his real character. I had a few niggling problems with it (Randur was one of them, Urtica another, and Eir fell completely flat) that with a different author I don’t think could have worked, but Newton got away with it chiefly because most of his characters are sympathetic and fascinating to follow, especially Jerynd, the detective with a tail and relationship issues and Brynd, the albino soldier with… something akin to relationship issues.
Although I can’t predict whether or not there’s an impending world-ending event in Newton’s Villjamur, it’s a good example of a civilization enduring the stress of a looming, creeping catastrophe. It’s slow, but it’s coming. Usually it’s a sudden event: in World War Z the otaku, the obsessed fan boy, is living his life online at home with his mother leaving his meals outside his door – the next day, he’s jumping from balcony to balcony to escape zombies, seeing a chaotic Tokyo dissolving around him.
The Passage‘s catastrophe happens – as these things are wont to do – when twelve test subjects break out of a lab and spread the vampire virus far and wide. The book contains one of the most disturbing accounts of the actual dissolution of society as children are loaded onto a train and evacuated, as written by a survivor years after the event. For all the book contains many other scenes that are also disturbing, harrowing and weirdly fascinating, that one section stands out in my mind because even after hearing it read out by the author at his Waterstone’s signing and reading it once to myself and once out loud to a friend (it’s amazing bedtime reading, she was so freaked!) it still gave me goosebumps every time.
And then the aftermath. The Passage‘s vision of the aftermath is bleak and hostile as the danger’s still out there, and papers in the text mention a convention of academics discussing the writings left by survivors, held hundreds of years later. World War Z has a similar conceit – the author travels around the world interviewing people for their experiences of the war, how they survived and what happened to them. There’s an Afterwards when someone can wander around the world again and reflect on the past and learn some lessons for the future. Even King’s The Stand – the book that kept me up for 48 hours at the beginning of a school week because I was so obsessed with it – has the frayed ends of humanity coming together again after the massive flu pandemic and the epic good/evil battle.
(Just to make sure, King and Cronin back up their apocalypses with nuclear explosions. Just so you know there’s a smoking crater where a big noisy city used to be. In case someone missed the bit where everything’s gone and 99% of everyone’s dead. It’s easy to miss these things.)
In Margaret Mahy’s Maddigan’s Fantasia, the apocalypse happened a long time ago but still changes the roads and layout of the land. The earth’s still reshaping itself. It’s not finished, but the people are rebuilding their ways of life with such determination to succeed that the Fantasia performs a crucial role; it entertains and distracts and even fixes. For a long time I resisted reading YA because I thought it would be written too simply to appeal, but Margaret Mahy’s books (amongst others) convinced me otherwise; Maddigan’s Fantasia presents a post-apocalyptic society with magical and human evil alongside magical and human goodness, balanced wonderfully. The state of the world isn’t the main plot, however – it’s to do with the need for power in the power vaccum, when tyrants try to become tyrannical and good people do bad things in attempts to do good. That’s exactly what the focus of the story needs to be after our world is done away with – if, indeed, humanity (or whatever race is afflicted) is due to survive.
If not, then… wow. Harsh.*
*Evidence this was written at 1am on a work day after a lot of work days: Ewa sums up the extinction of a species as “harsh”. Not her finest hour. Nor is writing in the third person! Ewa is clicking ‘post’ and going to bed…