Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Another post about post-apocalyptic fiction

Last week, I wrote a post about the Guardian's article on the modern popularity of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature.  I recently read this article by NPR (titled "Does Post-Apocalyptic Literature Have a Non-Dystopian Future?"), which is worth a read, as it has some good info on the genre at the moment.  NPR's article is better than the Guardian's, because NPR at least realizes that Cormac McCarthy didn't invent post-apocalyptic fiction.  However, as good it managed to be throughout, NPR failed to stick the landing.  Their conclusion reads:

Post-apocalyptic books are thriving for a simple reason: The world feels more precariously perched on the lip of the abyss than ever, and facing those fears through fiction helps us deal with it.

Really?  More "precariously perched...than ever?"  More so than, oh, let's say the Cuban Missile Crisis and the height of the Cold War?   Which was pretty close to the publication date of Shute's On the Beach (1957), Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963), Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), Jackson's The Sundial (1958), Ballard's The Wind from Nowhere (1961) and The Drowned World (1962), Boulle's Planet of the Apes (1963) or Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). Quick question: besides the Kubrick movie, what do all of these have in common? Answer: They were SF/Horror novels. Hey, you know what wasn't mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s but is now? SF/Horror novels. There are more apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels now because authors aren't worried about no one being willing to buy them, or of being pigeonholed in a marginalized genre. 

What McCarthy did was prove that there was a market for post-apocalyptic fiction that wasn't firmly nested within the market for science fiction and horror.  The NPR article, and much criticism in general, thinks that popularity of a genre must be due primarily to the culture surrounding it, and to that culture only.  There's a lot to be said about why we like post-apocalyptic literature, and there's plenty to be said about what types of post-apocalyptic literature we read now, as opposed to 50 years ago.  The problem that NPR and the Guardian both have is that they look at the rise in popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction, and start with the assumption that there is something about this generation's experience that makes them more prone to writing/reading about the end of the world than were the generations before us.  It ignores that popularity is in no small part dependent upon availability, which is itself dependent on popularity.  

But even with all these caveats, it seems odd to give McCarthy sole credit for sparking this trend.  In the same year The Road was published, we also had Max Brooks' World War Z, Stephen King's Cell, Will Self's The Book of Dave, the TV show Jericho and the movie Children of Men.  And that's coming on the tail of Spielberg's The War of the Worlds, The Dawn of the Dead remake, Atwood's Oryx and Crake, part of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Vaughan's Y: The Last Man, 28 Days Later, The Matrix trilogy... and this is only going back to the beginning of this century and ignoring the countless genre potboiler post-apocalyptic novels.


  1. Two post-apocalyptic novels I remember from my childhood rummaging used bookstore bins are Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and Malevil by Robert Merle.

    1. I personally love New Wave SF, so besides copious amounts of Harlan Ellison, I can think of Delaney's The Einstein Intersection and Dhalgren off the top of my head, plus a lot of golden-age SF (A Canticle for Liebowitz, Childhood's End, etc.). It's a genre with a long and interesting tradition.