In my comfortable childhood, how I longed for nuclear war(1). My friends and I, we were prepared. We didn’t have a bomb shelter, but we would make one in “The Darkies” (2) at fairly short notice. We didn’t have supplies, but we knew where to get them, at the very last minute. I convinced my mother to buy me “The Nuclear Survival Handbook” for Christmas. I was set. Far from the main action, we would not do too badly in Australia (I hadn’t read “On The Beach” at that stage).
What was the attraction? I do not think that we were drawn to a life of hardship – die Hitler Jugend would not have found many willing recruits where I lived. (In primary school there had been a boy who wore lederhosen. His name was Peter the German kid. We could tell by his pants. Apparently he could not be beaten in a fight, and so I was distraught when I heard that my little brother was in the wash sheds having a fight with him. Turned out his invincibility was overrated. Turned out too that he was Czech, and his family were some kind of refugees from behind the Iron Curtain. Don’t press me on the details.) A bit of it was the same attraction of gnosticism and cults – we know what is going to happen, and only we will be able to deal with it, with our insider knowledge. Most of it was movies. Adventure! No authority! We would be in charge of the crumbling ruins. We even knew what to do if Russia invaded. You just had to kill one soldier, then you had his gun, and could use that to kill a bunch of other soldiers, until they were all beaten and you had all the guns. Hey, they won’t shoot us first, we’re just kids.
This was all stuffed by nuclear winter. Instead of fighting psychic mutants and talking apes and riding on a horse with bikini clad Nova, at best we’d be wearing rags and pushing a shopping cart through the Rockies and avoiding sand-shoed cannibal armies. Not fun at all. I went to university and attended Hiroshima Day marches and stopped nuclear war.(3)
The children of today have so many dystopias to choose from, but they’re all the boiling frog. A long, meandering path to extinction. The pinnacle of human existence has passed, and it is all downhill from here. Global warming, antibiotic resistance, a new ice age, a major loss of biodiversity. Of course it is all distressing. it is also so tedious next to a nuclear war. Young people today do not have the same exciting Armageddon to look forward to, that my generation did.
I cannot see myself ever reading The Hunger Games (I make no adverse comment, my older children enjoyed them, the books that is, not actual participation in the Battle Royale), but I have enjoyed Paolo Bacigalupi’s YA dismal near futures (Shipbreaker, The Drowned Cities) after reading his adult The Windup Girl, as well as Pump Six and Other Stories. He’s won so many awards that I won’t say another word other than that the books are very good, and paint such a picture of the near future that I feel I could reach out and touch it. Also award winning but perhaps less well known is Will McIntosh, so i will talk about him.
I recently read Hitchers and Love Minus 80, both on the strength of having enjoyed his first novel, Soft Apocalypse. Love is brilliant on the abuse of technology by the profit motive. We learn to put the dead into suspended animation so they can be returned to life if their injuries are cured. We learn to repair devastating injuries. Life insurance policies cover the first, but few can afford to cover the second. Billionaires roam storage units putting the hard word on dead women – what will you do for me if I bring you back? You deny it, but you know, given the technology, somewhere, something like this would happen, and rather than adding value to the world, we would manage to add a whole new level of misery and desperation. In Hitchers, he envisages an afterlife as tedious as the meandering near futures of water rising and ecological collapse. An unavoidable nowhere with nothing to look forward to but a gradual dissipation.
Soft Apocalypse is exactly that, a gradual running down of the world we know, salvation just beyond our fingertips as lawful and useful authority loses its grip, and the habits of centuries combine to guarantee our downfall. Disaster follows disaster, and we follow the inexorable and inventive path to doom. Its not about surviving the moment. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is what happens after the emergency supply of food is gone, what happens after we try everything we can possibly think of to survive. The difference is, doing this while some sort of society exists. It is well thought out, literate, articulate, and enjoyable.
In Australia, Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam has been lauded, and I see no reason why it should not have been. It too is well thought out speculative fiction, and I was delighted to stumble across it and happy to read it. However, it was not marketed that way. It has won a major literary award, and was short listed for others, and published by a literary press. No doubt someone more discerning than me and trained in the ways of literary analysis would be able to tell me why one book is a genre piece and the other is literary fiction, but I haven’t worked it out yet. McIntosh’s prose is not pedestrian – in a recent edition of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine can be found a story of his, Over There, in which parallel columns of text tell stories from separate realities following An Event. This is no criticism of Amsterdam nor of his success, I think it is well deserved. It just reminds me of my old mate Stephen’s comment, “SF/horror/fantasy is anything that is marketed as SF/horror/fantasy: we tell the genre by what part of the shop it is in”, and I wonder how the McIntosh book would have done if it was not sold as a sf book. (I suspect the Amsterdam book would not have done well at all if simply sold as an Australian sf book.) (4)
The world will outlive me, after all. Hopefully history will change path, so that the next generation has a more exciting range of dystopias to worry about.
(1) Any survivable cataclysm would have done, but some of the most fun (I am Legend: vampires, The Day of the Triffids; well, triffids) did not seem likely, and others (When Worlds Collide; worlds colliding) did not seem all that survivable). While impressive, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno were too parochial, too small scale. As for Jaws, come on, I’m Australian, that was a typical summer at the beach. “Hi Mum.” “Where’s your brother?” “Eaten.” “Croc?” “Just a shark.” “Well, me and your father warned him.” Does anyone else remember Grizzly? I did a book report on the novelisation of the film, and got away with it. It ended with full page pictures comparing the killing of the bear at the end of the movie (bazooka) and book (flamethrower). The only reason I can think of for the different ending for the “book of the film” was so the writer could do an internal monologue for the dying bear.
(2) “The Darkies” was the official name given by everyone who mattered to a series of storm water canals stretching beneath our suburbs. There was serious cachet in penetrating deep within this subterranean world. Someone had made their way through them to the point where the pipe narrowed so that not even a child could go further. Others had walked into the darkness for miles, at which time they lit a fire and found the walls were decorated with lurid psychedelia. No doubt drugs and loud music were involved. We did not question the difficulties of organising a secret concert in a space with no power source and where teenagers could not stand upright. My main memories of trying to walk through them are bashing my shoulder on a pipe and seeing cockroaches everywhere. Like most things in life, “The Darkies” of the imagination was far superior to the actual thing. Plus some kid died in there, according to legend. When I was very little, I thought it was amazing that the water knew to run down specific concrete causeways. Only later in life did I learn that it was official council policy to concrete every stream and creek that existed, to remove any chance of there being anything living in or around them.
(3) Yep, prevented nuclear war all by myself. My mate Stephen had a hard line anarchist booklet which declared “March for peace? May as well stick your head up your arse for peace!”
(4) I appreciate that this could be seen as a complaint. Its not. I have no skin in the game, I didn’t write either book (I wish), I just thought the point was interesting. To reiterate, I enjoyed the Amsterdam book very much. I also enjoyed his follow up, another literary novel, this time about a family with superpowers, What the Family Needed.