Archive for the ‘post-apocalyptic’ Tag

With Neither a Bang nor a Whimper   Leave a comment

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, winner of the Hugo Award for best Novel, 1977

The subgenre of science fiction that deals with visions of a post-apocalyptic world is certainly nothing new. In this rather drawn-out series of essays on Hugo Winners, I’ve reviewed The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1961), both of which deal in some fashion – one more overt than the other – with a world that has crawled out of the ashes of destruction. An argument could be made that Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in The High Castle (1963) is a post-apocalyptic vision of a different sort. In recent years, interest in this subgenre seems to have increased significantly. Considering the state of the world, these days, I suppose that’s not terribly surprising.

It’s not a style of fiction I often get into. Perhaps the unsettled times in which we currently live have made me too sensitive to disturbing visions for such tales to be entertaining or thought-provoking. For my money it’s bad enough the real world is overflowing with tales of a dysfunctional world; I need something different when I read for pleasure. So it’s a rare work of this subgenre that finds its way to my reading list, and when that happens, it’s generally a book that in some way transcends its marketing niche. A case in point would be the subject of this entry, a book that for me counts as one of the most outstanding and unusual examples of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a different take on this subgenre, something that is illustrated clearly by the way the apocalypse itself is handled. It’s clear at the beginning that terrible things are happening, and that both the natural world and human civilization are collapsing. Multiple symptoms of the slowly unrolling catastrophe are seen, but there’s no specific disaster scene, no single blow up that takes everything down, and no single smoking gun as a culprit. The crash is more of a long slide that takes years and generations to unfold, but is no less devastating for that slow pace. The reader knows what is going wrong with the world at large through discussions of the situation by the viewpoint characters, a group of families living in a valley off the beaten track, as they watch the combined ecological and social collapse close in around them. The world of Humanity seems to simply fall apart and die under its own weight, regrettably taking much of the natural world, or at least the animal kingdom, down with it. A truly massive, if slow, extinction that, for humankind, takes the form of a plague of sterility; extinction through attrition. When the collapse is complete, the extended families of the valley are all that remain, and it is how they survive that drives this story. They keep the human species alive, dealing with the plague of sterility, by cloning themselves. Multiple copies and multiple generations of cloned individuals push back the final extinction of humanity, while changing what humanity means with unforeseen and possibly unhealthy consequences.

More than that glimpse of the plot would give away too much of the story, something I try very hard not to do. Suffice it to say that the grand scheme for survival proves more complicated than anyone imagined, leading to serious problems as flaws in the society of clones come to light. The story is of a world fallen silent, as the title implies, and in that silent and ruined world this pocket of survivors struggles to move forward and to remain human, even as they come to question, and then attempt to redefine, what it means to be human.

To my mind, the point of this story isn’t the apocalypse or its cause; the author certainly doesn’t dwell on the calamity as if writing the script for a disaster flick. For all that there is a clear message here regarding our ghastly track record regarding treatment of this world that sustains us, this is as much (or more) a story about the conflict between the value of the individual and the community, and the double-edged sword of conformity. Not enough conformity, and you can’t hold a society together. Too much, and you have a system incapable of responding to the unavoidable changes brought by the passage of time. It also, in its way, underscores the danger of reduced diversity, of relying too much on too few to bear the weight of all that matters.

Some feel this story ends on a hopeful note, others think it depressing to the end. I must confess that my own opinion is divided between the two extremes. In the end, my recommendation is that you read the book and decide for yourself. In my opinion, it truly deserves its place among the classics of science fiction.

Apocalypse Then   1 comment

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

The idea of the post-apocalyptic tale is all the rage these days, a recurring theme in books, stories, and motion pictures. From weird, literally earth-rending Mayan prophecies to legions of the walking dead, the end of the world as we know it appears to be endlessly entertaining. A common theme in these disturbing visions of the near future is that we have no one to blame but ourselves for whatever catastrophe brings civilization down. If we’d been less selfish and more far-sighted, if only we’d refrained from tinkering with the “natural order of things” – usually in the name of greed – we could have avoided these grim fates. We never seem to learn from our mistakes, and so each technological leap makes the next repetition of foolish human behavior more deadly than the last, until in the end – it ends.

Those currently exploiting this interest in violent ends for civilization sometimes seem to think this is all a new way of writing fiction, but of course this fascination with the end of the world is anything but new. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War remember such visions all too vividly, and as all-too-believable realities. By its sheer destructive power, the “bomb,” in the hands of leaders cursed with blind stupidity, seemed destined to bring everything to an end. It was a fearful time to grow up, and frightening fiction was written, and filmed, to point out the dangers we faced. For a long time it seemed no one was listening, but I suppose that when you use giant ants and fleshy-headed mutant humans for cautionary tales, nuclear war becomes a little harder to take seriously. In time the danger was taken seriously and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse now – while still all too real – seems a bit less likely. This was not the case in the ’50s and ‘60s, when I was a child. It felt imminent, and no few of us expected to die very young.

Science fiction writers of the time were in some measures as guilty as Hollywood in exploiting the fear of things nuclear, rather than driving home the idea that this was not only a serious and dangerous business, but an avoidable fate. Published science fiction from that time included many tales of a world in ruins, in which determined men and women struggled to preserve civilization while fending off the mutant progeny of nuclear war. That there might be NO survivors in the end, mutant or otherwise, was a long time entering the popular imagination – Nevil Shute’s grim novel On the Beach being an outstanding exception to the rule at that time. Another author who stands out from the crowd in this regard is Walter M. Miller, Jr., whose post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz stood far enough apart from the rest to be recognized for the exception it was, and to be awarded the 7th Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1961.

A Canticle for Leibowitz opens centuries after the Flame Deluge consumed the world, destroying civilization and taking the human race to the brink of extinction. Something like a civilization has risen from the cold ashes of that terrible event. Curiously enough, the Roman Catholic Church has somehow survived and kept its history and traditions alive – more than its own, actually. A new monastic order exists, named for Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, who was martyred trying to preserve the knowledge that made civilization possible, when most other survivors sought to erase the past in a misguided effort to avoid repetition of history through cultural amnesia. The mobs attempted to eradicate science and literature, blaming these for creating the technology that incinerated millions, and left millions more to die less merciful deaths. Leibowitz led a small band of folk who hid books from the mobs, and memorized others, something like the book people of Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. The new monastic order grew from these heroic and often deadly efforts to save books, repeating the Church’s earlier medieval roll as a repository of knowledge in a dark age. The story begins with the tale of one Brother Francis, who discovers a cache of pre-deluge material that quite likely is connected to the not yet canonized Leibowitz himself. His grim life and its times set the stage for the next phase in the restoration of civilization, a civilization that evolves pretty much along the path of its predecessor, with the same old greed and lust for power. In the end, over millennia, humanity not only restores what was lost in the nuclear fires of the Flame Deluge, it reaches further, sending human colonies out to the stars. But it would seem that even in a star-faring age, when people still give birth to monstrous reminders of a horrible past, certain lessons remain unlearned.

This is not a “fun” book to read, and it’s quite clear that it was never meant to merely entertain. The B-movie two-headed mutants sprinkled through the narrative illustrate the cost of ignorance, but never really challenge the rebuilding of civilization. They are a burden to it, instead; a reminder of a past that can be willfully ignored, but not truly forgotten, or left behind. It’s a grim and regrettably believable tale, especially for anyone who has made even a modest study of human history. This book asks uncomfortable questions of a sort that have no tidy answers. The writing is some of the best you will find in the genre, with characters as believable as they are at once flawed and determined. No, not the escapism so many assume all sci-fi to be. It is instead a compelling work of literature, and one you will either appreciate for its quality and its message, or hate for its grim reminder that those who refuse to learn history may very well be consumed by it. For while history can be deliberately rewritten, or willfully ignored, its consequences are inescapable. This, in the end, is what I believe Miller is trying to say, a message that remains for the most part ignored, even though the continued popularity of apocalyptic fiction reveals that we are not entirely unaware of our danger.

 

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