I picked Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang as my NeNoReMo novel by the scientific act of looking at our bookshelves, taking books off and putting them back on the shelf. Three things made me gravitate towards it: It was a post-apocalyptic novel, a Hugo-winner I had not read, and was written by a woman. And I am very glad I picked it. It is a very compact story of isolated family community in Appalachia preparing for and surviving apocalypse, and then trying to combat infertility by cloning.
In many ways it shows its age. The 1970s worries about pollution, overpopulation and nuclear war are very present in the way Wilhelm depicts the end of the human civilization, and the way she handles the themes of collectivism versus individuality I think owes a lot to the cold war and anti-communistic mentality of the era.
That said, it sucked me in right away. I enjoyed the prose and found the clones who are empaths within their own sister/brother group, and really coldly place the good of the community above the good of the individual well depicted, but was a bit annoyed with idea that only rugged individualism can produce creative thinking. That said, I thought she succeeded very well in the third part of the novel, where Mark, the individual tries to navigate his position among the clone culture increasingly losing their ability to do anything but follow orders.
I think the novel is having a conversation with Huxley – both have Shakespeare quotes as titles, an outsider individual bringing the problems of genetically manipulated culture in focus, and both their concern with individualism and collectivism clearly spring from the existence of Soviet Union.
And then, as it sometimes happily happens, I went into binge mode: Next post-apocalyptic novel up was Leigh Brackett’s the Long Tomorrow from 1955. Jo Walton calls it an example of American pastoral post apocalypse, and she is not wrong. In Brackett’s world nuclear war has destroyed USA and the survivors have been taken in by sects like Mennonites and Amish who knew how to survive without the mod cons. To remove the threat of another nuclear holocaust the survivors banned technologies and cities, and all live in small towns or rural areas. Len and his cousin Esau are not satisfied with this life, and take a road trip west to seek a mythical town where scientists live.
It is a beautifully written novel, and managed to surprise me more than once. First and third section are most interesting ones if one thinks the development of characters and themes, but I found myself enjoying the middle part most, especially the trip up the Missouri and through Nebraska and then to Rockies which sort of mirrors the Oregon trail. The only negative I have to say is the way women are marginalised and female characters are not fleshed out.
Next, I grabbed George R. Stewarts 1949 novel Earth Abides (which I just can’t say out loud without thinking about Big Lebowski). Again, civilization is destroyed, this time by a virulent disease. Ish, a grad student in geography has been out in the wilderness doing field studies during the epidemic, and is one of the few survivors. After a road trip from west coast to east and back, he settles in his old home in San Francisco with few other survivors. They live by scavenging and hunting, and slowly watch the next generations degenerate to a superstitious hunter-gatherer culture. This was a frustrating reading experience, I found Ish an overbearing asshole and his tribe annoying in their complacency. I do understand that it is part of the whole idea of the novel – that driven, intelligent people who survived the disease were too emotionally fragile to survive in the post-catastrophe world – but I think it is a silly idea. After the previous works, this seemed a decidedly weaker take on the theme.
John Wyndham wrote a number of post-apocalyptic novels, most famously the Day of the Triffids which is excellent and Kraken, which is even better. Chrysalids is a story of post-nuclear world, where people guard against mutations by eradicating the mutated plants and animals, and exiling people. In a rural community, some children develop telepathic abilities with the predictable results. Though there are scenes of violence in the novel, and a clear message - the fundamentalist attitudes toward difference probably reflect the rise of McCarthyism in USA – I still found the novel on the cosy catastrophe side of post-apocalyptic stories. For example, the story’s narrator David, who is one of the telepathic children shows marked detachment from his (admittedly fundamentalist) family and strong commitment towards the other telepathic children. It is quite understandable, but I would have liked the narrative to problematise it a bit more.
Next book in my post-apocalyptirama might technically not qualify as a NeNoWriMo novel. Hugh Howey’s Wool is a novel that has been put together from short stories and novellas, originally self-published in Amazon’s ecosystem from 2011 onwards, then the work was picked up by Simon&Schuster for 2013 paper edition. So, your mileage may vary as to the publication date. In a post-apocalyptic world, people live in a huge underground silo, built over an oil field to secure energy. There are of course secrets and mysteries as to how this came about and what really is outside. The book left me a bit torn. The first short story is very classical, could have been written in the 1960 and works well as such. The second is excellent and really conjures up the environment and characters. Then onwards, unfortunately, the book feels padded. Because just prior I had read four older, short, tightly plotted novels which felt just right, I totally lost patience with Wool which meanders and wholly loses all the tension in the narrative. And that in turn made me loose interest in the novel.
Then back to the older books. Neil Barret Jr’s Through the Darkest America I disliked. It is a post-apocalyptic pastoral, but even more clearly a western with cattle-drives, shootouts and a raging civil war in post-apocalyptic setting where the cattle is mindless humans. I found its relentless focus on violence, torture and rape gratuitous, the handling of the SF-part of the scenario weak and the “aw shucks, pa” -language just annoying.
After doing searches in our Library Thing catalogue I thought we did not have Mathieson’s I Am Legend. Turns out we have it Finnish and as I searched by title only I missed it and had to have Jukka to point out we actually have it. I Am Legend has a status of a classic as the ur-novel for all zombie-apocalypse novels, though in this case zombies are vampires. Unfortunately, on the page 101 of the Finnish edition a dog dies, and I don’t read on principle books where the dog dies. So, this does not really count as I did not finish it. And sure as hell don’t plan to watch the movie, even if they changed the storyline. Also the most necessary website ever: doesthedogdie.com
Things unfortunately did not get any better. Wilson Tucker’s Long Loud Silence has one thing going for it: the title. Which is great. Otherwise, even counting that 1952 things that seem clichés would not have been, it is a bad book. USA east of Mississippi has been bombed and contaminated by botulism and pneumonic plague, and the army is guarding the river to keep the contaminated away. The science is shoddy, the plot meanders, and the way Tucker objectifies all the female characters is deplorable even for 1952. The main character is such an idiotic selfish asshole that you just want him to die. In my private head-canon “nineteen” – a girl he had dumped outside Chicago in the beginning and finds again in the end – takes a shotgun and blows his face away. Maybe this was supposed to be a nihilistic look of the society breaking down and how an anti-social and stupidly cunning individual survives, and maybe the revised 1969 version brings focuses on this angle better, but the original one was just… bad.
The last “classic” post-apocalyptic novel which we – as far as I know – own and I had not read before, was Edgar Pangborn’s Davy, which I had to excavate from the bookshelf in the cellar. It ticks a lot of boxes: it is a picaresque, a bildungsroman and another example of the post-apocalyptic pastoral, so if you ever participate in a reading challenge with lots of genres, it might be a good candidate. I struggled to finish it. The first strike against it was the back cover which compared it to Tom Jones – book I have always found supremely boring. The second was the info dumping footnotes and the third was the way place names were spelled (Vairmant for Vermont, Conicut for Connecticut and lots which I, as a non-native English-speaker did not get). Davy travels through the predictable post-nuclear pastoral landscape where oppressive church keeps people in thrall, has adventures, learns stuff and then looks back on his life. I found the narrative annoying, and Davy another intensely unlikable main character.
In conclusion best books here by a mile where Wilhelm’s and Brackett’s. Wyndham was also very well worth reading but the rest – I don’t know. As a modern book Wool had different problems that the rest and a good editor might have gotten a decent book out of it. In the others, the post-apocalyptic setting does often seem to be a backdrop for a chance for men to be “real men”. And there is enough toxic masculinity in the world without needing to read novels about it.