Survivors & One Second After
Apocalypse Literature: A definitive, updated guide. More of a challenge than I thought when I was toying with the idea a few days ago.
I think the best way to begin is to start with the two post-apocalypse novels I’ve just finished (Terry Nation’s Survivors and William R. Forstchen’s One Second After). The latter inspired me to wade into this idea because, like The Road and The Pesthouse, I wasn’t aware that it existed until I accidentally stumbled across it.
For post-apocalypse cinema and TV, we have the reliable and informative Quiet Earth blog, but there’s nothing for literature (though the Quiet Earth site does maintain the best list, it lacks the same focus as their TV and film coverage). The current lists and resources out there are years out of date, or, like the lengthy Wikipedia list, generally unapproachable. So, instead of simply listing books from the genre, I’ll throw together a description, and try to keep an eye out for news and updates. The biggest problem with stuff like that Wikipedia list is that not all apocalypse novels are born equal. While what’s “good” and “bad” is, of course, subjective, it’ll still be handy, I think, to know which post-apocalypse novels are children’s books (like The Girl Who Owned a City), which are patriotic soapbox garbage (like the Out of the Ashes series), and which are religious drivel (hello Left Behind!). I won’t say that they’re bad, necessarily, as I have a terrible weak spot and endless tolerance for the flaws of post apocalypse novels, but I do prefer the pure escapism of the genre. No messages, no soapboxing, just pure action-thriller.
So as I work through the lists, and my own reading, I’d be grateful for any suggestions from the folks reading this. And, yes, you can suggest the religious/patriotic/children’s nonsense, as well. I want to eventually develop a truly comprehensive list that is both informative and maintained through the years. Plus, as I said, I’m a sucker for the genre.
Now then – on to my recent reads.
Creator of the Daleks Terry Nation launched a mid-70’s series about a plague that wipes out nearly the entire human race. The survivors – led by wealthy suburbanite Abby, London prissy-pants Jenny, asshole Greg, and shifty Welsh criminal Tom Price – must face all the typical problems, from scavenging food and fuel to battling rogue groups of inexplicably violent shitheads.
The book has plenty of grandstanding Luddite-style talk. The famous speech from the first episode of the series which forms Abby into the leader of our heroes is somewhat haphazardly reflected in the novelization – the need to go back to the “old ways” when the stuff of society runs out. This is a great scene in the pilot episode, but weirdly contrived in the novel.
Nation left the series after the first rocky season, which featured a string of episodes about posh Brits with cut-glass accents dealing quite sensibly with brutality. Tom Price, in the original series, was relegated to a comic role, and quickly written out. After Nation left, the remainder of the series became a horror show. Season two is like Little Apocalypse on the Prairie, and season three makes about as much sense as something out of Monty Python’s Confuse-a-Cat service.
Redone in 2008, the modern series lacks just about everything that makes a show watchable. Gone are the cut-glass accents and the hokeyness of the original show… Gone also is the desperation, the death, and grim British countryside of doom. Though Tom Price is restored to a title role.
Nation adapted the book from the major episodes that he wrote for series one. Consequently, it’s almost a bit too self-referential. There’s that Ellison-esque hint that Nation was pissed off at how the first series was imagined and took long detours in the book that pretty much fucked what little hope there was in the series. But that’s something that Terry Nation is known for. Even without him as the showrunner, Survivors was one of those shows where a major character could die pointlessly at any moment. Not even ranking a special episode or a finale. Nation would repeat that strategy with Blake’s 7, where we lose Blake early on. (Abby, our leader in Survivors, only gets one season.) The novel kind of makes you glad he didn’t last with the show, because sitting around watching that kind of death and despair just wouldn’t be much fun for three seasons. At least when major characters are casually killed off in Blake’s 7, there’s that fantastic British sci-fi show divide between the show and the audience. Survivors, on the other hand, is about us – you and me – doing poorly.
However, Nation lacks the ability to ease you into these deaths in the prose version of the show. When you hit the last page of the book, you want to take it outside and shoot it. While the storytelling transcends time (that is, you aren’t sitting there going, wow, this was written in 1976), Nation doesn’t really put the story together effectively. You get into Abby, you feel sorry for Jenny, you never quite understand Greg, and, just as you’re about to start growing into the story, he wildly rushes you through five years of dreary homesteading, then they all decide to move to Italy, and then you hit the climax, and then you burn the book and scream at it.
There’s a long out of print sequel by John Eyers which, supposedly, dwells on the darker aspects following the conclusion of Nation’s novel, and is a bit more human.
In the end, Survivors is a fast and enjoyable read if you’re familiar with the original series. But season one of the show does a better job with the story than Nation’s stilted prose.
One Second After
William R. Forstchen
It’s only thanks to random book review blogs that I noticed this book, and I’m glad I got it in me. One Second After falls into a weird category… It has many marks against it, but it’s also exciting and addictive. The marks against it should have killed the book – it features a ranting, “keep watching the skies” introduction from Newt Gingrich (friend of the author), the author himself is a fuddy duddy conservative religious sort, and it’s got tear-jerking patriotism that made me want to remove my teeth before the sugar-rot got to my brain.
Meanwhile, while the author confesses that his biggest influence was Alas, Babylon, it was almost a ripoff of Lucifer’s Hammer. The same sort of hero’s journey and noble homegrown militia confrontation against a weirdo cult for the climax. Worse yet, Forstchen doesn’t out and out copy that Lucifer’s Hammer climactic battle, he wildly skips from the start of the battle to the bitter end. A skip in the narrative so jarring it almost ruins the novel.
The apocalypse in this case comes from an EMP blast. An unknown enemy hits the US (and elsewhere – but who cares about foreigners?) with three high altitude nukes. The EMP blast takes out everything. As it dawns on folks that the power’s not coming back on, everything devolves into terror and savagery. Forstchen does not pull any punches on that front. The gruesome decline and fall of humanity is charted over the course of the book as our hero’s small town starts out with a population of 10-15,000 and ends the story with around 900 survivors. Tremendous care is given to the motivations and inner workings of the policy-makers in the town – ineffectual mayor, golden-hearted sheriff, do-gooder councilman, and campus police chief, along with our hero. The small North Carolina college town is, clearly, where the Alas, Babylon parallels lie. Will noble rural America stand tall against the evils of the larger cities, the apocalypse, and man’s inhumanity to man? And, uh, the Chinese?
Despite all the negatives, Forstchen really has a knack for characterization and storytelling. Our hero, a retired air force bigwig now a college professor, is a wonderful character. Just what a post-apocalypse story needs. And the fate of his family is expertly woven into the narrative (and chokes you up when the inevitable finally happens). As much as I hate the patriotic nonsense, Forstchen’s writing has you tearing up along with our heroes as they salute the American flag and fight for everything this country should hold dear.
Best of all, the book has a gripping afterward from Navy EMP expert Captain Bill Sanders, who details his study of the threat and, sans the Gingrich mania, drives home this very possible, and very easily achieved, potential apocalypse. You laugh at the hideous intro from Gingrich, but the afterward does leave you watching the skies.
(Note to Forstchen, in response to his introduction: EMP apocalypse stories do exist. It’s hinted as one of the many disasters to have befallen the US in The Postman and, of course, we got two seasons of Jessica Alba’s ass in Dark Angel, set in a dystopian post-EMP blast future.)