by Don Sakers
One of the most popular types of science fiction nowadays is the post-apocalyptic story. These are tales set in a future following the collapse of our civilization. As a rule, this protest is over and done with when the story begins; in most cases, it happened in a past beyond living memory. (Stories of the actual collapse fall into the “end of the world” category, which I discussed in my March 2016 column.)
The collapse (often remembered as the Great Disaster, the Time of Troubles, the Crash, the Fall, or some similar capitalized epithet) might have any number of causes. It may have been astronomical (impact event, solar flare, cosmic dust cloud), geophysical (flood, supervolcano, ice age), biological (plague, invasive species), military (alien invasion, nuclear war, occupation by hostile forces), technological (robots, computers, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence), or any combination. The collapse might have been caused by humans (either deliberately or accidentally), triggered by natural forces (periodic ice ages, comet swarms, etc.), scheduled/predicted (e.g. the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, millennial events), or, again, any combination of these factors.
Frequently, characters in a post-apocalyptic world don’t even remember the exact nature of the collapse; only legends and myths remain to explain it.
Post-apocalyptic tales are as old as the deluge myths that exist in many human cultures (many supposedly based on rise in sea levels that occurred at the end of the most recent Ice Age c. 7000–6000 B.C.E.), or other myths involving humanity’s fall from a previous Golden Age.
Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man, which tells of a great plague and its only survivors, is frequently identified as the first modern post-apocalyptic story. However, it’s more properly an “end of the world” story. The first true post-apocalyptic tale, as near as I can tell, was the second part of After London by Richard Jeffries (1885). Part one (“The Relapse into Barbarism”) was a future-historical account of civilization’s fall, but part two (“Wild England”) is an adventure story, set long after in an England regressed to a medieval level of technology and society. Better known, of course, is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895), with its far future of degenerate Eloi and Morlocks.
With one major exception, post-apocalyptic stories didn’t really become popular until after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. The exception was Steven Vincent Benét’s “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937). We often incorrectly remember it as a story of post-nuclear-war (with its “Great Burning” involving fire from the sky and “deadly mists”)—but the story predated the Manhattan Project, and was based on the earlier war technology of World War I and the Spanish Civil War.
After Hiroshima, the collapse of civilization became more topical, and post-apocalyptic stories . . . er . . . exploded. Notable examples include Andre Norton’s 1952 novel Star Man’s Son (also published as Daybreak 2250 A.D.), Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959), Hothouse by Brian Aldiss (1961), The Drowned World (1962) by J.G. Ballard, “No Truce with Kings” by Poul Anderson (1964), “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison (1969), and John Christopher’s Tripods series (1969, The White Mountains and sequels). The Planet of the Apes movies (starting in 1968) deserve special mention. The book they were based on (Pierre Boulle’s 1963 La Planete des Singes) did involve a collapsed human civilization conquered by intelligent apes, but that planet specifically wasn’t Earth. It wasn’t until the film version that the human civilization was identified as ours. Whether or not the book qualifies as a true post-apocalyptic is one of those arguments you and your friends can use to keep busy on long winter evenings.
The post-apocalyptic fun continued into the 1970s, with ecological and economic collapse added to the mix. 1972 brought both John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and (in comics) the Kamandi/Earth A.D. stories of Jack Kirby. In 1974 came the weird film Zardoz, Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World (first in her Holdfast Chronicles series), and again in comics, John Wagner’s Judge Dredd and his Cursed Earth future. John Crowley’s Engine Summer (1979) and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) rounded out the decade.
The 1982 manga (and 1984 film) Nausicaâ of the Valley of the Wind was set in a post-apocalyptic world, as were Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1985 tour de force Always Coming Home. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower came in 1993. The Matrix movie trilogy began in 1999.
With the new millennium, post-apocalyptic stories expanded from the pages of SF to the larger world, as one property after another became blockbuster movies or TV shows. These included Robert Kirkman’s comic The Walking Dead (2003), Jueanne DuPrau’s City of Ember (2003), The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006), The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (beginning in 2008), and James Dashner’s 2009 Maze Runner series (although some of the latter fall under the category of “end of the world” tales).
Before leaving the subject, I’d like to mention some other fiction subgenres related to, and frequently conflated with, post-apocalyptic stories. People sometimes use “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic” interchangeably, and sometimes they overlap—but dystopian futures can happen without a collapse of civilization. Stories of the “Fortress City” subgenre are post-apocalyptic or dystopian tales featuring one relatively-advanced isolated city surrounded by hostile wilderness. In the far-far-future subgenre called “the Dying Earth” it isn’t just our civilization that’s collapsed—there are usually hundreds or thousands of centuries of rising and falling civilizations.
The fairly new genre of “Zombie Apocalypse” stories, while tracing their lineage back to Matheson’s I Am Legend, has become a distinct subset of post-apocalyptic stories. Similarly, there’s a subgenre of action/adventure thrillers set against “After the Fall” landscapes, as well as a Christian fiction subgenre (literally set after the Apocalypse) concentrating on those Left Behind.
Finally, the whole genre of disaster fiction has a subgenre that peaks every time there’s a well-publicized, scheduled apocalypse (think Y2K or the 2012 “Mayan apocalypse”) and involves the collapse of our civilization.
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eSpec Books, 241 pages, $14.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $4.99 (e-book)
Genre: Fortress City, Post-Apocalyptic SF, Teen SF
Brenda Cooper is perhaps best known for her two novels in the Glittering series (Edge of Dark, 2015, and Spear of Light, 2016), a pair of cutting-edge far-future transhumanist adventures. Post is an entirely different novel, the low-key post-apocalyptic story of a young woman who leaves the only safe refuge in order to explore the outside world.
Teenage Sage lives in the Garden—a peaceful community sheltered in the remains of the old Oregon Botanical Gardens. Outside, society has collapsed from disease, drought, and other natural disasters. Life in the Garden is safe but dull, and Sage longs to see the world beyond its walls, where it’s rumored that other groups are working to rebuild a shattered society.
Sage takes every opportunity she can to sneak outside, to talk to passing refugees for news of the larger world. When she’s caught one time too many, the ruling council gives her an ultimatum: the next time she leaves the Garden, she’ll be banished and never allowed to return.
The draw of adventure and the unknown is too strong, and soon Sage departs. The odyssey that follows takes her to the ruined city of Portland, where she makes friends and enemies, and gets involved in the struggle to rebuild the world. She deals with authoritarian dictators, paranoid hidden enclaves, and long-running wars.
In addition to being a post-apocalyptic story, Post is also a coming-of-age story. Cooper does an excellent job of balancing the inner turmoil and growth of adolescence with the outer turmoil and growth of a recovering world. Sage, like the various people and societies she meets, deals with issues of rebellion, fear, trust, and vulnerability.
The book’s major theme, though, is as meaningful for adults as for teens: the eternal struggle between security and freedom. The safety of the Garden, like the security of the totalitarian regimes, demands one price; the freedom to advance and improve society demands another. Sage’s quest to find a balance between the two is a universal dilemma that we all face.
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Lost Among the Stars
Paul Di Filippo
WordFire, 201 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (e-book)
Genre: Short SF Collection
Paul Di Filippo is a prolific author of short science fiction. While he has also published novels (more than thirty of them, in fact), he’s made his name with over two hundred short stories, novelettes, and novellas. He’s been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and has won both the British Science Fiction Association Award and the French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire.
Di Filippo’s stories range across the whole landscape of SF and fantasy, but frequent themes include cyberpunk, alternate history/parallel worlds, and social satire.
In addition to all this, Di Filippo is also a talented and intelligent reviewer; he frequently appears in our sister magazine, Asimov’s. And we all know that reviewers make the very best authors, right?
This year is the fortieth anniversary of Di Filippo’s first story sale; WordFire Press is marking the occasion with Lost Among the Stars, a collection of eleven recent stories. Six of these tales appeared in 2013, four in 2014, and one is published here for the first time. One story was first published in Analog (“Desperados of the Badlands” in the November 2013 issue); the others are from a wide range of sources.
As you would expect, all of these stories are good. There were, in my opinion, a number of standouts. “City of Beauty, City of Scars” is set in the city of Aesthetica, a place where the currency is nothing less than beauty. In “Chasing the Queen of Sassi,” a grieving widower finds himself in the Italian town of Matera—where a temporal anomaly opens onto a Neolithic kingdom and he falls in love with an ancient goddess. And “The Via Panisperna Boys in ‘Operation Harmony’” is a rollicking alternate World War II story in the form of the early pulp SF stories.
Di Filippo himself introduces the collection and gives personal notes on each of the stories, something that’s always a treat. In addition, no less a name than Robert Silverberg contributes a general introduction to the book.
We don’t see Paul Di Filippo in Analog often enough; make sure you don’t miss this wonderful collection.
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Time On My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel
Daniel M. Kimmel
Fantastic Books, 189 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
Genre: Humorous SF, Time Travel
Here’s Daniel M. Kimmel again, and time travel will never be the same.
You might remember his 2011 collection of essays on SF films, Jar Jar Binks Must Die. Or perhaps you read his 2013 novel Shhh! It’s a Secret, a hilarious satire that pitted Hollywood against invading aliens. Now in Time On My Hands, his two satirical targets are time travel and academia. The result is a fun and funny tale of (as the publisher’s blurb says) “. . . time travel, lost love, divided loyalties, and the eternal search for really good Scotch.”
Reporter Max Miller returns to his alma mater, a university in Rochester, to investigate a press release about a professor who claims to have invented a time machine. He finds Professor Wilford Price, a classic absent-minded professor who narrates the amazing story of his time travel device.
In the space of 189 quick pages, Kimmel addresses just about every question about time travel that has ever emerged in science fiction. Professor Price meets himself, attempts to stop historical disasters (he doesn’t manage to prevent 9/11, but he does manage to abort the U.S.-Canadian War), arranges the research that created the time machine, falls in love, and confronts the nature of temporal paradox.
Kimmel, who has taught film and media classes at several colleges and universities, also deals with the demands that time travel places on the academic world. Professor Price and his colleagues discuss the grammar of time travel and the nature of causation. They come up with a basic code of ethics for time travelers to follow. Price employs a team of grad students as his support staff. And, of course, there are the inevitable conflicts over prime office space.
To top it off, the whole interview—and thus the book—adheres to the Aristotelian Unities by taking place entirely within the period of as single day.
Kimmel knows his stuff, both as an academic and as a longtime scholar of science fiction. His characters ring true, and he ties together all the many threads of the plot into a satisfying whole. The book is a breezy, enjoyable read, and while it’s not the kind of book that causes you to fall out of your chair laughing, it’ll definitely give you more than its share of chuckles.
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Wildside Press, 526 pages, $19.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $0.99 (e-book)
Genre: New Wave, Philosophical/Religious SF, Visitors from Space
We haven’t heard much from Gordon Eklund in a good long time.
Eklund’s career started in 1970 with the Nebula Award-nominated novelette “Dear Aunt Annie.” He was very active in the 1970s, both individually and in collaboration with Poul Anderson, Gregory Benford, and (posthumously) E. E. “Doc” Smith. He and Benford shared a 1975 Nebula Award for their novelette “If the Stars Are Gods” (later turned into a novel). He wrote two of the early Star Trek tie-in novels.
And then . . . nothing. It wasn’t until 1997 that he began appearing again, and then only with a few short pieces, the most recent of which appeared in 2014.
Much of Eklund’s work was well-crafted action/adventure science fiction, the regular commercial fare of the typical full-time SF writer at the time. In his stories and a few early books (most notably 1974’s All Times Possible), he produced a different type of work, anchored in the counterculture-inspired New Wave: more reflective, quirky tales with a slightly more literary bent, dealing with topics like gender, sex, and morality.
With apologies to the late Paul Harvey, now we know The Rest of the Story.
From the mid-1970s until 1982, Eklund was hard at work on his magnum opus—in his words, “the Big Ambitious Novel I was going to write because I wanted to write it . . . a comic novel about sex and death and science fiction.” He poured everything he had into the book, which he hoped would be the big breakout novel that would make enough money and bring him enough prestige to be able to write what he wanted from then on out.
But publishing is a weird business. For any number of reasons—change in editors, shift in the public’s taste, the changing economics of SF publishing—Eklund’s Big Ambitious Novel was never published. Eklund’s career virtually ended—not, he says, because he couldn’t write, but because there was nothing he wanted to write.
Now, three and a half decades after the book was finished, Wildside Press brings Eklund’s masterwork, Cosmic Fusion, back from oblivion.
It’s a big, meaty book, not only the last book of the New Wave, but one of the best.
One day the aliens arrive, in a fleet of ships that sweep around the Earth, leaving devastation in their wake. Some cities, towns, and villages are destroyed; others, seemingly at random, are spared. Millions died.
Then three days later, the dead return. They have no memory of what happened to them, yet they appear fine. Except they don’t breathe. Or sleep.
Ranging around the globe, the book tells the multilayered story of those affected by the visitation and the changes it wrought. A large cast of characters deals with a new, somewhat insane world where nothing in human culture is untouched. It’s an epic tale, told with humanity and even humor. Well worth reading.
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Vintage Books, 495 pages, $16.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
Genre: Literary SF, Parallel Worlds/Other Dimensions, Time Travel
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Here’s another story involving time travel, this one from the literary side of the science fiction field.
Dexter Palmer burst on the scene in 2010 with The Dream of Perpetual Motion, a powerful love story set in a steampunk-flavored alternate world. Now he turns his talents to time travel and parallel worlds, delivering another powerful and very personal story of a couple in crisis.
Rebecca Wright has faced personal tragedy and has largely recovered. She has a good tech support job at an internet dating company; in fact, it’s on that company’s site that she met her husband, Philip, a decade ago.
Lately, though, Rebecca’s had nagging moments of feeling that things just aren’t . . . right. Small objects go missing. She walks into a room and then can’t remember why she came. People on television suddenly seem unfamiliar to her. Her dreams are disturbed and erratic.
Philip, meanwhile, has little sympathy. A methodical techie, he’s focused on his current invention, a “causality violation device.” His obsession with this device, which has lasted as long as Rebecca’s known him, has made him something of a laughingstock among his colleagues in the physics community and left his career stalled.
However, Philip is closer to completing the device than anyone knows. And, of course, the odd things going on in Rebecca’s life are linked. For the device opens up alternate realities, and Rebecca and Philip are about to face greater challenges than they can foresee.
Science fiction is often called a literature of ideas, and that’s true as far as it goes. But SF is at its best when it explores those ideas through their effect on individual characters. Palmer knows, and demonstrates, that big philosophical and social concepts can best be addressed on the small, personal level. Rebecca and Philip’s struggle to hold their stressed marriage together is a metaphor for a larger society trying to hold itself together through the stress of changing technology.
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If This Goes Wrong . . .
Edited by Hank Davis
Baen, 351 pages, $7.99 (mass market paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
Genre: Humorous SF, Reprint Anthologies
In these troubled times, we all need something to laugh at. Fortunately, Hank Davis is here with a new anthology that has us covered.
One of the tried-and-true methods of writing science fiction, as identified long ago by Robert A. Heinlein, is to extrapolate a current social or technological trend into the future; that is, to complete the sentence “If This Goes On . . .” Davis gives us seventeen stories, by fifteen authors, that alter this premise to “If This Goes Wrong . . .” In science fiction, there’s a lot that can go wrong—badly, hilariously wrong.
In formal logic, there’s a form of argument called reductio ad absurdum (“reduction to absurdity”) which attempts to show that a given proposition inevitably leads to an impossible conclusion. That’s the tradition that underlies most of these stories.
These stories range form 1893 (Ambrose Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master”) to the present (Sarah A. Hoyt’s “Tic Toc,” published here for the first time), but mostly cluster around the 1950s and 1960s. Four first appeared in Astounding and one more in Analog.
The authors include Frederic Brown, Lester del Rey, Gordon R. Dickson, Randall Garrett, Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, Katherine MacLean, Jody Lynn Nye, Clifford D. Simak, and a few lesser-known names.
There are a lot of fun stories here, of enormous variety. Sense of humor varies among readers, but you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a good number of these hitting your personal funny bone.
Since we’ve been talking about time travel, don’t miss Frederic Brown’s “Experiment”—a succinct little tale that explores one of the problems involved in temporal experiments. Gordon R. Dickson’s “Computers Don’t Argue” (first published in 1965) anticipated some of the difficulties we face nowadays in working with computers and the Internet. “The Dwindling Sphere” by Willard E. Hawkins points out one of the practical problems of an old SF favorite technology, direct matter-to-energy conversion. “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean deals with the effects of a slight miscalculation in applied sociology.
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Del Rey, 224 pages, $15.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $11.99 (e-book)
Genre: Psychological/Sociological SF
Here’s a nice little fable from the ever-talented China Mieville. I’m still trying to decide if it’s technically science fiction or fantasy—I suspect this is another argument for those long winter evenings—but let’s just call it “speculative fiction” and move on. It’s a great story.
This is one of those fables of the meaning of truth and reality, so you’re going to have to bear with me if the following sounds a little confused:
A boy and his parents live in a secluded house far up the side of a mountain, far away from the town below. As the story begins, the boy runs down into the town, screaming that his mother just killed his father. Moments later, he realizes that isn’t right. He saw something, something terrible and shocking, but now he’s not sure who did it, what they did, or who the victim was. If there even was a victim.
By now it’s clear that we’re deep into a psychological minefield, and we can’t be sure of anything. Villagers care for the boy and dispatch police to take him back home . . . where there’s no evidence of a crime.
Time goes by, as the boy lives alone with one parent, anxious yet unable to escape and join other children in the town.
Then a man appears at the door, an official census-taker, carrying detailed records and asking odd questions. Who is this census-taker? Why has he come? Will he lead the boy to deliverance, or condemn him?
This is the kind of book that’s not just read, it’s experienced. Miéville weaves a spell with words and images, and the best thing to do is let him carry you along. Trust me, the ride is worth it.
Just as worlds and societies come to an end, so does my space. I hope you’ll enjoy some of these titles, and see you next time.
Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, and the Rule of Five serial at rule-of-5.com). For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.
Copyright © 2017 Don Sakers