Reading the American Post-Apocalypse

Castle Romeo nuclear test, Bikini Atoll, 1954.

It wasn’t until I went on J.G. Ballard jag a few years ago that I realized the depth and variety of post-apocalyptic fiction. One book led to two more, and soon what I thought was niche sci-fi turned out to be much richer and plentiful than I had imagined, so much so that I now believe it’s unfair to label post-apoc a subgenre or subcategory of something else.

I scribbled thoughts and impressions as I turned the pages, and eventually I wondered if those notes might act as breadcrumbs to other readers seeking to wander a literary wasteland — especially in these seemingly end times. I present to you the result.

Often lists of post-apoc fiction are organized by the nature of the apocalypse itself: disease, zombies, climate change, robot uprisings, and so on. Yet the genre is so expansive that its pie can be sliced countless ways. As I read, every book seemed to speak in some small way about these contemporary United States, a nation that in 2017 often feels like eleven-thirty on a Sunday night. Some commented on loneliness; others about how ideology shapes us; still others on the American character.

Calling America

After Tarzan launched him to mainstream success, the bulk of Edgar Rice Burrough’s portfolio can be ignored as formulaic paycheck chasing, but it would be a mistake to dismiss his early works and their intriguing politics. The Thark society of A Princess of Mars (1912), for example, could be interpreted as speculation and warning of what state-level Communism would look like, something that had, until then, not appeared upon the face of the Earth (Burroughs thought it would resemble Sparta, in all its militaristic cruelty). Likewise, he satirized organized religion in its sequel, The Gods of Mars (1913).

Then there’s criticism of the first World War in his novella, Beyond Thirty (1915, republished as The Lost Continent, available free for Kindle or at Project Gutenberg). In May of 1915, a German submarine sank the RMS Lusitania and killed 128 Americans, fueling cries for American entry into the conflict. Others disagreed, seeing the Great War as just another scrum between tribal cultures that had persisted for centuries, a snake devouring its own tail. War wasn’t a disease — it was the European condition, and there was no sense in wasting American men and money on a cure.

Burroughs was clearly in this latter camp. Beyond Thirty posits a timeline in which the Americas segregated themselves along degrees of longitude — the 30th meridian to the east, the 175th to the west — during the Great War, leaving the two hemispheres to pursue their own destinies. For the Americas, the 22nd century is a world of futuristic peace. When an accident disables his submarine zeppelin (sure, why not), commander Jefferson Turck and three sailors are stranded past the 30-degree line, becoming the first New Worlders to set foot in the Old in 200 years.

The War to End All Wars, it turns out, succeeded by exterminating European civilization itself. Turck and company find England overrun by the descendants of escaped zoo animals and sparsely peopled with cavemen; meanwhile the continent is the colonial frontier of an African mega-state. Beyond Thirty has all of Burroughs’s trademarks — class prejudice, naked women, and the hero can’t trip over his own feet without being captured — and because of that, its brevity puts it among his better works. Yet Thirty’s noninterventionist message is what recommends it. Says one character at tale’s end, “Those who did not fight were the only ones to reap any of the rewards that are supposed to belong to victory.”

It’s hard to imagine that J.G. Ballard wasn’t at least aware of Beyond Thirty when he wrote Hello America (1981). Ballard’s reply to Burroughs speculates an inversion: the energy crisis of the late 1970s led to the damming of the Bering Strait to generate hydroelectricity, and the resulting change in sea currents drastically altered the North American landscape, leading to its abandonment. Without oil and gasoline, 22nd-century Eurasia has reverted into a steampunk society marked by Soviet-style rationing and ghettos full of the descendants of American refugees.

When a rare expeditionary ship sets sail to New York to discover the source of increased atmospheric radiation levels, our protagonist Wayne stows aboard in the hope of finding his father, who disappeared years ago during an earlier expedition. The mission dissolves upon arrival as each member’s mind becomes seized by the American metaphor — America has always been a place to remake yourself, whether into a gangster, a Hollywood starlet, or even the president — and they soon chase their mirages across a desertified United States, camping in motel courtyards, scavenging water from furnace boilers. Of course their journey ends in Las Vegas, now a lush rain forest, ruled by a germophobic Dr. Strangelove and his army of teenagers.

“I often feel that the real ‘America’ lies not in the streets of Manhattan or Chicago, or the farm towns of the mid-west,” Ballard wrote in his introduction to the 1994 edition, “but in the imaginary America created by Hollywood and the media landscape.” It’s hard to argue otherwise. Ballard portrays the U.S. in all its hallucinatory splendor: its endless interstates and gas stations and neon signs, where the same ingenuity that devised the atom bomb also created Walt Disney’s animatronic Hall of Presidents. America is, in a sense, just one big theme park. We Americans may be the children thronging among its phony attractions, but Ballard is careful to point out that childlike optimism — American optimism — isn’t such a bad thing.

America is both idea and ideal. It is a concept we buy into and a goal which, by merit of our mutual striving, binds us together despite everything. Case in point: when Gordon Krantz dons a mailman’s coat and hat in David Brin’s The Postman (1985). Having been the victim of outback robbery in the Oregon mountains, necessity becomes mother of invention when Krantz uses the uniform and a fictitious identity as a postal inspector to bluff his way into isolated settlements in search of three hots and a cot. But the ruse works too well: settlers thrust letters and packages at him for delivery to long-lost friends and relatives before pushing him down the road toward the next town. What’s more, the shiny badge on Krantz’s cap becomes a full-length mirror for whomever looks at it, reflecting debasement and barbarism. Belief in Krantz’s restored United States — again, a complete fabrication — demands that the survivors of the last war do better, and slowly but surely demands that Krantz the liar does so too.

The Postman goes a little sideways at the end; some sci-fi elements are introduced late and Krantz becomes more of a passive observer to events, giving the book a deus ex machina finale (Bonus: Fallout fans will also enjoy the clear inspirations for the New California Republic and Caesar’s Legion). Even so, Brin’s criticism of the prepper movement and its lunatic emphasis on weaponry over food production is knife sharp: for all their talk of going it alone, most preppers would be indistinguishable from a street gang five minutes after the Big One. Consensual cooperation, not isolationism or warlordism, is the path to civilization, and even in the absence of cataclysm the future is molded by the ideologies we choose, whether they’re feudalism, agorism, or possibly a weird brand of Amazon feminism.

Only the Lonely

Both the myth and misinterpretation of rugged individualism is sewn into American identity, begging the question of who better to start the world anew than an American. Rather than fall into despair upon breaking his glasses in the library, a true red-blooded Henry Bemis would manufacture some workaround or fix. Duct tape, after all, is an American invention.

But there’s also a loneliness to the American personality; it’s as if we never overcame the feeling of 1783, when we rubbed our eyes and found ourselves an outlier in a world of autocracy. By book’s end the protagonist of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) styles himself “the Last American,” the final rememberer of the way things were before a worldwide pandemic. When a rattlesnake bite allows Isherwood Williams to survive the disease, he appoints himself the chronicler of civilization’s return to nature, and for 300-plus pages we watch as he watches the weeds grow through the asphalt.

Restlessness eventually propels Ish to undertake a cross-country search for fellow survivors but when he finds them, his maddening objectivity prevents anything but the most cursory interactions. Instead, even after weeks of solitude, Ish much prefers weighing the chances of others’ survival. Spoiler: very few rank high in Ish’s estimation. Following him is like touring with an ambulatory video camera, a machine utterly indifferent to the people he meets and records. Eventually Ish returns home to his parents’ house, where he spends the rest of his life — and the book.

“What you were preparing against — that never happened! All the best-laid plans could not prevent the disaster against which no plans had been laid.” Stewart probably intended his novel as a portrait of resiliency for both man and nature and yet what comes across is almost spectrum-disorder quietude. Even after Ish finds a wife and a community forms around them, Ish’s internal monologue is nothing but judgey observations and pronouncements. He clucks at everyone and everything; the best apocalyptic strategy, if Ish is any guide, is to retreat into your mom’s basement and wait out eternity.

Stewart’s Last Man Standing echoes Jack London’s earlier work from 1912, “The Scarlet Plague” (available free at Project Gutenberg). Often described as a novel, “Plague” is actually a short novella (or maybe even a long short story) in which an octogenarian survivor of the titular pandemic recounts the events of civilization’s collapse to his grandchildren.

The children, all feral Lost Boys born decades after the plague, react to their Granser’s story with a range of disbelief. This simply adds to Granser’s isolation: reduced to dependence on the children for food, the former college professor can only observe impotently as they revel in their barbarism. One boy dreams of bartering with a witch-doctor for apprenticeship, after which he will employ voodoo to rule over others; another boy, more believing of his grandfather, seeks to tease from him the secrets of gunpowder, which the boy will likewise use for domination.

Granser can do nothing but throw up his hands. Mankind will rise and fall regardless of what he says or does — the only measure is time.

According to cartoonist Peter Bagge’s introduction, Apocalypse Nerd (2008) began as a projection of how someone without any survival skills whatsoever — someone like Bagge — would fare in a post-apocalyptic world. Like Isherwood and Granser, Bagge’s white-collar American finds his education worthless and his morals even less so.

Tech drone Perry and his outdoorsy buddy Gordo are returning from a weekend in the woods when they learn North Korea has nuked Seattle and Portland, so they make a U-turn for their cabin. Living off the land isn’t the tough part; they’re eventually driven by boredom and diarrhea (a result of their monotonous diet of venison) to search for others, leading them on an odyssey through trailer parks and hidden mountain enclaves, ducking (or sometimes joining) marauder gangs. Perry soon learns that Mother Nature doesn’t reward survivalism so much as sociopathy, and Bagge’s bowlegged bendy characters have never made homicide so LOLable. Highly recommended, though maybe for cynics only.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Race is intrinsically entwined with American history, and yet it’s funny how we sometimes have to look overseas to take a good look at ourselves.

It’s impossible not to compare John Christopher’s The World in Winter (originally released as The Long Winter) with J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. Both were published in 1962; both are largely set in London. Both use solar radiation as the instrument of doomsday: for Ballard, an increase in solar radiation leads to global warming and the melting of the polar icecaps; while for Christopher a decrease results in a new glaciation. Both also comment upon imperialism and race relations, though in the final analysis it’s Christopher who holds the more nuanced — and frankly less racist — perspective.

Christopher’s protagonist, Andrew Leedon, is a successful television producer who, in the course of reporting a story about decreasing solar radiation, befriends the man who steals his wife. Leedon turns to the other man’s spouse, Madeleine, for consolation, and slowly the two of them fall in love. With dropping temperatures and London buried under snow, the foursome doesn’t have the luxury of thrown glassware and custody battles; instead their frayed relationships re-weave into a survival matrix. When the pound sterling collapses, the government falls, and the United Kingdom is subsumed by gangsterism, some of the four escape to Nigeria.

Suddenly thrown from middle-class comfort to refugee penury on the streets of Lagos, Leedon finds the pragmatism learned during his wife’s affair comes in handy; his Britishness initially prevents him from accepting handouts, yet in no time he resorts to grabbing any help offered. It’s a timely example of table turning. Africa is flooded with Brits and northern Europeans, their homelands now locked in ice; some of the Nigerians are kind, others eager to pay back the racism they’ve endured. Most are indifferent. More than once Leedon is stymied by the Nigerian custom of dash, the bribes paid to authorities and officials to grease society’s cogs.

This custom isn’t depicted negatively as much as it is presented as fact, and it’s this tendency, rather than warming vs. cooling, that sets Christopher above Ballard. While the blacks of Ballard’s book are lustful, drunken stereotypes, Christopher’s are emblematic of a not irreconcilable culture clash. A Nigerian may endure in England and an Englishman in Nigeria but each case demands submission to an alien world he may not ultimately want to make. Christopher’s sympathies obviously lay with those who admit the price is too high, but his plea to not repeat the mistakes of colonialism ends the book on an optimistic note: Catastrophe not only allows us to remake ourselves, it also permits us to remake the world into something better than before.

(PS: More on The Drowned World here.)

Africa barely receives a mention in The Sixth Winter (1979) by Douglas Orgill and John Gribbin, a 70s disaster thriller in the vein of The Poseidon Adventure except that here the vessel is spaceship Earth. Protagonist William Stovin warns of a coming Ice Age and is largely ignored until cooling temperatures and sudden flash-freeze tornadoes strike Alaska and Russia. Not to mention the wolves, which now travel in packs numbering in the hundreds.

The joke here is determining how much of the novel is fiction and how much is Gribbin’s wannabe Cassandra Complex: it was during this time that Gribbin, an astrophysicist who graduated from Cambridge, landed himself in trouble for predicting that a planetary alignment — something called the Jupiter Effect — would lead to earthquakes that would wipe out southern California. Did Gribbin really believe his own plot of impending ice? Still, like Christopher, Gribbin imagines the huge population displacement provoked by such a climate change, even if it’s largely ignored in favor of his call to create Winter Man, a return to Noble Savagery which also involves being a bit rapey. Like Ballard, climatic apocalypse is just an excuse for Orgill and Gribbin to lower themselves to racist caricature.

That said, the really unbelievable part of the book is an American government that reacts smartly and nimbly to disaster (I see you, Puerto Rico!).

The Kids Are Alright

Every high-schooler is aware (or at least should be) of the origins of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) and how it was written as a rebuke of R.M. Ballantyne’s earlier work, The Coral Island (1858). Ballantyne believed that English children thrust into savagery would have a civilizing effect on their surroundings, even in the absence of adults. Golding, of course, knew better.

O.T. Nelson was clearly trying to emulate Golding when he wrote The Girl Who Owned a City (1975); alas, he falls in laughably with Ballantyne, but instead replaces the supremacy of British morality with the supremacy of Objectivism.

After a pandemic wipes out everyone old enough to drive a car, 10-year-old Lisa is left with the responsibility of caring for her younger brother Todd. Lisa has a knack for finding food and supplies, which leads her to organize the neighboring kids into a “militia” to protect against thieving “gangs.” Lisa never once acts out of altruism — the militia’s purpose is to protect her and her brother — and this irony of sameness between her army and its rivals passes without mention in the text. It very likely went over the author’s own head as he typed, his dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged beside him.

Soon Lisa and company fortify themselves inside a high school, guarded by attack dogs and barbed wire and boiling oil, fending off attacks from increasingly bigger gangs. At one point she and some loyalists are evicted from the new city, which Lisa insists is her sole property. When others ask why they should help her recapture it, Lisa replies, “I’m sorry… Will you help me plan the recapture of my city where you’ll be safe?” While Nelson possesses a wildly more optimistic view of the organizational abilities of 10-year-olds than this father of two, he also unintentionally captures their egoism perfectly. Quid pro quo is the American creed, and for him the future’s untended children will be guided by not by self-interest but rather by selfishness, raising flags emblazoned with the motto “Gas, Grass, or Ass” high above the ramparts of their supermax castles.

Len Colter, the protagonist of Leigh Brackett’s absolutely brilliant The Long Tomorrow (1955), would agree that kids, like adults, are guided more by emotion and self-preservation than logic. “It was a stupid world, full of stupid people,” he comments to himself at one point, and remarkably, he isn’t even referring to a presidential election.

Apparently, Brackett wrote the book after observing that the Amish were the best equipped folks to rebuild after Mutually Assured Destruction. Colter lives in a world where America has returned after a nuclear war to 19th-century agrarianism, enabled by a Constitutional Amendment that forbids towns larger than 1,000 residents or 200 buildings. Without cities, there can be no scientific progress, and therefore no nukes.

Restless and curious about the greater world, farm boy Len begins the novel in the shadow of his wilder cousin Esau. When the pair discover a walkie-talkie, they begin an odyssey through their technophobic land where even talking about construction of one roof over the limit leads to stonings, lynchings, and Charlottesville mobs. Gradually the fire inside Len eclipses that of his cousin, and he becomes the primary driver behind their quest to answer the riddle of Bartorstown: Does an Emerald City full of technology and learning still exist somewhere in America? Or is it just a myth?

Brackett excelled at characterization regardless of the sex of her stage players. Alas, the inverse isn’t always true, and if you ever need proof that men struggle to write female characters, look no further than Scooby Apocalypse, Volume One (2017), authored by Keith Giffen and J.M. Matteis. The collection, which gathers the first six issues of the monthly comic, takes a popular fan theory — was the original 1969 run of Hanna-Barbera’s Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! set in a depopulated and economically ruined America? — and leans in. Here Scooby-Doo is an uplifted great Dane on the run from a secret military facility; Shaggy is the renegade trainer who abetted his escape; Daphne and Fred are a pair of Fortean TV journalists; and Velma is a scientist employed by the aforementioned military project that incidentally unleashes a nano-virus transmogrifying most of the world’s population into monsters.

Except there’s not much mystery for Mystery, Inc. to unravel; after evading the murder and chaos of the initial societal breakdown, the gang spends their time collecting supplies and scratching their bellies, repeating the same facts we already know. But it’s the characterization of Daphne that creeps: in issue one the redhead punches Fred square in the nose for making a joke, then progresses to repeatedly smacking, hitting, and throttling Velma.

You read that right: Daphne physically bullies little four-eyed Velma. If a male character was this violent, feminists would be throwing Scooby Apocalypse into the same bonfire as The Killing Joke; but here Daph’s abuse is played for laughs. Despite the great pencil work and lush colors, in the fuck-marry-kill ethos of the wasteland Daphne would be zombie chow in the rearviews of this reader’s Mystery Machine, which is why I won’t be bothering with Volume Two.


Many of the books I read wound up on this list haphazardly due to recommendations from friends or blogs (the more obscure the book was to me, the better). I ran out of 2017 before finishing every book on my list; still to read are Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley.

What are your favorite post-apoc novels? Feel free to sound off in the comments, and may your 2018 be the best of all timelines.

Writer, runner, author.

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