Four sources of the Apocalypse

April 27, 2009 | 46 comments
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With the past two months, I have read — for various reasons — four different novels laying out apocalyptic events within the United States. Here are the novels, in the order I read (or re-read) them, and with the reasons why I read them:

Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1977): a comet fragments and strikes the Earth in numerous places, collapsing much of world civilization, including the United States. I’ve read this several times before; I saw it cited on a blog (Samizdata) in a discussion on “the best end-of-the-world novels”  and decided to dig it out and read it again.

One Second After by William Forstchen (2009): a few high-altitude nuclear blasts over the United States shuts down most of the electrical and electronic infrastructure and devices across the country due to the electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) effect of the blasts. This is the newcomer of the bunch and portrays an America far more familiar and current that found in the other novels in this set. Again, I saw a reference to it on a blog (Instapundit), ordered a copy and read it.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957): actions (and inactions) of both the US government and US industry lead to an economic and infrastructure collapse of the United States far worse than the Great Depression. It had been 40 years or so since I read this novel, and given the current buzz around it, I decided it was time to read it again. Most people (correctly) think of this novel as a political/philosophical polemic, but if you actually read it, you’ll find the events and consequences described or suggested are pretty apocalyptic (e.g., collapse of the food supply chain, collapse of transcontinental transportation, collapse of the power grid, etc.). Of course, from Rand’s point of view, that was a good thing, but then Rand was pretty intense (and a bit wacky).

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959): a first-strike nuclear attack by the Soviet Union wipes out much of the United States, leaving isolated communities to survive on their own. One of the earliest (along with On the Beach by Nevil Shute [1957]), best-written and best-known of the nuclear apocalypse genre of novels, which is why it’s still in print 50 years later. Forstchen in his forward to One Second After acknowledged his debt to Alas, Babylon, so I decided to re-read it as well.

Now, lest you get the wrong idea, I am not a “survivalist” — cripes, I barely have four or so months of food storage for Sandra and me, and most of that is in the form of “just add water” meals in plastic buckets. I don’t sit around waiting (or like a few Mormons I’ve known, hoping) for the world to end; I like civilization, technology, ‘net access, fresh food, grocery stores, health care, and summer movies on a large screen. I also like employment and a steady income. I’m middle-aged, in less-than-prime physical condition, and have a few chronic medical issues. And I don’t own a gun and likely never will (though I have considered getting an air pistol to scare away the woodpecker who keeps poking holes in our house under the 2nd story eaves).

On the other hand, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a few significant natural disasters, plus living in Washington DC (in the District itself) on 9/11 and during the subsequent anthrax attacks (one of which occured at our local post office). I also know what it’s like to pack up our cars with 72 hour kits and important documents, getting ready to abandon our house if the wildfire on the other side of the hill should crest the ridge (which, thankfully, it never did, due to low-flying tanker planes dropping water on the flames). I know what it’s like to have power gone for days, to have the major regional transportation artery (Highway 17 between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley) blocked by landslides for weeks, or to have the local major airport (Washington National) shut down for months.

I think that’s exactly why these novels are of interest. A major theme through all four is our dependence upon a complex web of production, storage, manufacturing, transportation, technology and economics that has evolved over centuries and that we largely take for granted. The “what-if” nature of these novels makes me think about all that I expect or depend upon and what events could disrupt or end such items. Even in the disasters and disruptions that I’ve been through, most infrastructure elements continued to work, even if at reduced or constrained levels. It is inherent in the nature of distributed adaptive complex systems — they tend to be self-correcting, self-adjusting, self-healing. But a sufficiently serious event could overwhelm the ability of key critical systems to adapt and function.

In the Church, we focus on a year’s supply of food, clothing, and other necessary items, but here’s a simple thought experiment that will likely leave you a bit uncomfortable. Imagine yourself without each of the following for just seven (7) days and ask how well you would cope:

  • power
  • water and/or sewer
  • natural gas/propane/heating oil
  • transportation and/or gasoline
  • access to grocery stores
  • use of banks, investment accounts, and/or credit cards
  • mail, phone and internet service
  • critical prescriptions and/or medical services (insulin, dialysis, etc.)
  • work, paychecks, and other forms of income
  • your house or apartment

Now increase the period to 14 days, and then to 30 days, and then to 60. Then consider combinations of these outages.

Back to the novels. The value in reading such novels is to ask yourself “What if?”, to see what all your assumptions are about natural or man-made disasters. Pick one, read it, and then look around the house to see just how ready you would be for even a mild event, much less an apocalyptic one.

Meanwhile, with the current swine flu concerns, maybe it’s time for me to go re-read The Stand by Stephen King (1978).   ..bruce..

46 Responses to Four sources of the Apocalypse

  1. Marc Bohn on April 27, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    (Out of respect for Bruce, I’m issuing a peremptory strike on those wishing to discuss off-topic thoughts or criticisms of, say Ayn Rand. There are plenty of other posts up for those (see, e.g., here)).

  2. Dave on April 27, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Bruce, have you read Orson Scott Card’s Folk of the Fringe? It’s sort of a Mormon slant on the post-nuclear genre.

    I think the LDS move from “food storage” to “emergency preparedness” is very beneficial. Things like a radio, batteries, flashlights, more batteries, a manual can opener, first aid supplies and medicines, more batteries, and so forth are much more likely to be of immediate practical assistance to people than bins of wheat out in the garage.

  3. Marc Bohn on April 27, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Interesting that you should mention the Stand. I drove through the Holland Tunnel last night after having read news all weekend about the swine flu and couldn’t help but think of Larry Underwood escaping New York as Captain Trips set in… made for an eerie drive.

  4. Ardis E. Parshall on April 27, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    I’ve read Alas, Babylon dozens of times (no exaggeration) — it’s one of my all-time favorite books, in part because it includes so many personalities and explores how they managed when left to themselves. Ultimately, the only ones who succeeded were those who pulled together with others, regardless of relationship or wealth or race. They pooled everything they had, both property and experience — the big glass-walled show house had no value then, while the family who had the only mule in the county and knew how to work him rose in stature. They defended themselves when necessary, but without any of the paranoia that accompanies most of our discussions of “having to live off of our food storage.”

    The successful ones were those who, in effect, lived the law of consecration.

  5. Hans on April 27, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    M O O N, that spells Bruce Webster and Swine Flu.

  6. bfwebster on April 27, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    Marc: Thanks for the redirection on Atlas Shrugged. I debated including it in the list because it tends to arouse passions, but most people aren’t aware of its apocalyptic nature. On the other hand, as per the famous quip about the Book of Mormon, Atlas Shrugged is a book that one apparently does not have to read in order to have an opinion about.

    Dave: Yep, I’ve read Folk of the Fringe, and yes, it’s a great and decidedly non-traditional LDS take on apocalyptic events.

    Ardis: Your point is pretty much one I made in the emergency preparedness handout I created for the Chevy Chase Ward back in DC. To quote myself (hey! What fun!):

    ——————————
    “Survivalism” (so-called) is at its very core a callous and cowardly approach to potential risks and disasters.

    – Classic survivalism: isolated, self-sufficient homestead with sufficient supplies, equipment (and, usually, weapons) to live independent of modern society and to protect myself and my family.

    – However, a ‘classic survivalist’ approach would only work if a very small percentage of the people affected attempted it—there just aren’t the resources and land for self-sufficient homesteads for 300 million Americans (or even 3 million).

    – The fundamental survivalist assumption is that the vast majority of the affected population will suffer significantly or die. It is inherently anti-social and anti-Zion.

    – It’s also not a very enriching lifestyle: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan)

    Social cohesion, by contrast, has a positive effect.

    – The probability and/or physical impact of adverse events (natural disasters, terrorist attacks, war) can and will be reduced by on-going joint efforts at prevention.

    – The social impact of such events (and potential rise of anti-social behavior) is definitely reduced by social cohesion.

    – Physical, economic, and social risks to you and your family are lessened by working and bonding with others, rather than be separating yourselves from society.

    – Our goal is Zion: “And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18)
    ——————————

  7. john f. on April 27, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Great post. I’m with Ardis on Alas, Babylon. These concepts are truly chilling when you think about them in any depth. You’ve hit the nail on the head when you noted that these types of books show “our dependence upon a complex web of production, storage, manufacturing, transportation, technology and economics that has evolved over centuries and that we largely take for granted” — and this is precisely why they are so troubling for me to read.

    I’ve had a post brewing on this for a while too. Back in 2007, also by circumstance, I ended up reading a number of “apocalyptic” stories/novels and saw movies with those themes as well. My wife and I were watching Jericho (not really that good but interesting in its focus on these aspects of an apocalyptic scenario) at the same time Children of Men showed up in our Netflix queue. I would highly recommend Children of Men for these themes — it was chilling and stunning. I might still get around to my own post sometime.

  8. john f. on April 27, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Let me add that among the “apocalyptic” novels that I happened to read all in a short amount of time (by chance), which amounted to a study of sorts of the topic, were novels relating to life in Germany during the World Wars — either one but, of course, particularly World War II. As to the latter, you had a completely apocalyptic breakdown of society together with the horror of total war.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 27, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    For five years I was assigned to Headquarters Strategic Air Command. I participated in a week-long exercise in Kansas with the Department of Energy and FEMA and local authorities playing out a scenario of a plane crash involving a shipment of nuclear weapons.

    I also was the legal advisor to several week-long exercises of the SAC wartime emergency relocation team. Our mission was to assume control of surviving nuclear missiles and bombers after an initial exchange. After the first experience, I suggested a bunch of new scenarios to make it more realistic, taking into accoount the breakdown in Federal, state and local government in the wake of nuclear war.

    While nuclear weapon accidents have happened for real, as recently as 1982, thankfully we haven’t had to find out how realisitc our nuclear war scenarios are. My main impression of that experience is that very few people who were in the business of managing nuclear weapons were really worried about having to ever use them. If we had, every member of SAC would have received training in post-war survival and would have been equipped with essential survival gear, along with dispersed caches of food and other supplies needed to not only survive but also to reestablish government.

    The most moving of the world disaster movies of the last decade was Deep Impact, in which a small group of Americans is selected to ride out the first year after the impact in limestone caverns outside Kansas City, Missouri (they already exist and are used for records preservation) while a lone spaceship tries to blow up the comet. I think a more realistic scenario would, first, include launching a dozen or more spacecraft from multiple locations around the earth. After all, a stray rock out ahead of the comet could blow up a big chunk of Cape Canaveral. There would be multiple designs, including robotic spacecraft, with different approaches to diverting the comet. When the whole world is at stake, you might as well bet the wad on a bunch of options.

    Second, survival scenarios would include a lot of dispersed hardened sites around the country, again because a single rock from a comet could wipe out any one location. You would move everyone inland, away from the coast, precisely because tsunamis would likely result from hits in the 70% of earth that is covered by oceans. With the year of warning that the people had in the movie, you could build a lot of hardened shelters all over the place, designed to grow food out of season. Nuclear power plants would be at a premium, and could be pulled out of submarines and used to power communities. A lot of small nuclear plants would be thrown together quickly. And every community would need a full library of reference works and people with skills and basic industrial tools to rebuild infrastructure.

    I would love to read a story in which people pull together to ensure survival of most of humanity, along with much of plant and animal life. I frankly think that is much more likely than most of the gloom and doom notions we get in most of the apocalyptic stories. Lucifer’s Hammer does show a heroic community, not just heroic individuals, who survive by guarding and maintaining a nuclear power plant that will ensure their children can rebuild real civilization, and not just an iron age salvage society.

  10. bfwebster on April 27, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    life in Germany during the World Wars…particularly World War II

    Excellent point. My German teacher in high school, Ms. Kohl, was a survivor of World War II and the Soviet occupation of East Germany (from which she eventually escaped). She would occasionally erupt into controlled but very intense observations about how unaware we students — largely middle- and upper-class whites in eastern San Diego County in the late 1960s — were of what real hardship, poverty, and suffering were.

    We tend to think of ‘apocalypse’ in terms of catastrophic events to come. The US has already gone through one genuine apocalypse — over 600,000 Americans dying at a time when the US population was just over 30 million, and all the fighting, destruction, and dying taking place on American soil. In the 20th Century, in both the USSR and China, you have had tens of millions of civilian deaths, largely by starvation — and tremendous hardship and suffering among the tens of millions of survivors — due not to war but to political decisions by the respective political leaders (Stalin and Mao).

    Frankly, on the apocalyptic scale of things, things have been pretty quiet here in the US since the end of World War II (the 60s notwithstanding). And, frankly, I think we were somewhat spoiled by the false prosperity of the dot.com bubble in the late 90s, and we keep expecting those glory days to return, that they represent the normal state of things. We may be in for some rude awakenings, far beyond the current economic difficulties. ..bruce..

  11. bfwebster on April 27, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    #9: I think a more realistic scenario would, first, include launching a dozen or more spacecraft from multiple locations around the earth.

    Actually, the realistic scenario would be all of us sitting on the Earth, looking up at the sky, and saying, “Aw, crap.”

    The US hasn’t has the ability to lift humans beyond Earth orbit for over 20 years, and probably won’t for another 20 years or more, though China may before then. Russia, Japan and the European Union (EU) remain the only other governments that have launched probes outside of the Earth-Moon system (Mars, Venus, comets, asteroids). China and India have reached the Moon, but no farther.

    The simple truth is that nobody has the technology to directly fly to and target objects outside of the Earth-Moon orbit — such as an approaching comet or asteroid — in any meaningful time frame. Instead, we have to rely on long, slow transfer orbits and/or low impulse engines, often using one or more gravitational swings around the Sun and/or other planets. That’s why space probes are typically launched months and often years ahead of their arrival dates.

    And this is also why the Lucifer’s Hammer scenario is the most realistic one: the US and the Russians sent a joint crew up to the space station to observe the comet, but they can do little more than that. The same’s true today. ..bruce..

  12. John Mansfield on April 27, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    At Marginal Revolution this morning:

    Despite its name, Cape Verde is an arid landmass with minimal agricultural potential. The excess mortality associated with its major famines in unparalleled in relative terms. A famine in 1773-76 is said to have removed 44 percent of the population; a second in 1830-33 is claimed to have killed 42 percent of the population of seventy thousand or so; and a third in 1854-56 to have killed 25 percent. In 1860 the population was ninety thousand; 40 percent of Cape Verdeans were reported to have died of famine in 1863-67. Despite a population loss of thirty thousand, the population was put at eighty thousand in 1870. Twentieth-century famines in Cape Verde were less deadly, but still extreme relative to most contemporaneous ones elsewhere: 15 percent of the population (or twenty thousand) in 1900-1903; 16 percent (twenty-five thousand) in 1920-22; 15 percent (twenty thousand) in 1940-43; and 18 percent (thirty thousand) in 1946-48…

  13. C Jones on April 27, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    I like my apocalypses neat and tidy. Hence my love of On The Beach (the novel as well as the underrated 1959 movie with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, & Fred Astaire). The Road kept me up at night.

  14. Rameumptom on April 27, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    I’m thinking we are just as likely to have an apocalypse as seen in Orwell’s 1984, or in my favorite apocalyptic book, Brave New World, by Huxley.

    I see portions of both already beginning in our nation, as wordspeak has replaced truth, and technology is driving Americans down to the lowest common denominator as mindless drones for the machine.

  15. jjohnsen on April 27, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Lucifer’s Hammer and Alas, Babylon are two of my favorite fictional books of all time. I still remember the look on my mother’s face when she caught me reading the former during Sacrament Meeting as a teenager, disguised in a New Era. It took my dad (who had also read it) about 10 minutes to convince her I wasn’t trying to practice some satanic ritual in the middle of Testimony Meeting.

    I rank The Road right up there with those two, it’s amazing.

    I don’t know how much the content of these post-apocalyptic books prepare me for anything, but they sure get me thinking about what I need to work on as far as food storage and emergency preparedness go. I better re-read them again just to make sure I’m ready.

  16. William R. Forstchen on April 27, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    I am honored that you would take the time to review and comment on my book “One Second After.” Many thanks. I just wanted to add one point to this thread. If the book connects at all, I would urge “we the people” to contact our congressional representatives. Up until last year there was a House sub committee evaluating the threat of an EMP attack and providing recommendations to the House Armed Services Committdisee. I drew significant data from those reports and my heart felt compliments to Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R. MD) and Bennie Thompson (D. MS) (notice indeed that it was a bipartisan committee. . .our security is not a question of Liberal or Conservative, Republican or Democrat. . .it is about we as Americans) To my disbelief I discovered only a few weeks ago that the EMP commission was not just shelved but actually disbanded. If this issue is a concern, please urge your representatives to get on the ball, reconstitute the committee, and this time LISTEN TO WHAT THEY SAY.

    OK, that’s my bit! And yes, Frank’s “Alas Babylon” was indeed an inspiration. I believe it and other such books did serve as a wake up call in the 50s and 60s and thus the nightmare was avoided. But that nightmare still lingers out there and if we ignore it then Heaven indeed please help us.

    Most sincerely,

    William R. Forstchen

  17. Adam Greenwood on April 27, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    “Alas, Babylon,” is just a beautiful book. That bit about the drug addict wild for his fix still gives me the chills. The bit at the end about who won the war also gets you.

    Another Pournelle/Niven book that you might want to look at is ‘Footfall.’ It consciously addresses some of the issues you’ve brought out in this post, contrasting survivalists with community-minded survivors who swap and trade and potluck and make it through.

    That said, in response to bfwebster’s post above, while Mormon ‘survivalists’ are missing the spirit of the law for the letter (besides being creepy), they’re probably more in accord with what we’ve been commanded then those who are keeping neither.*

    *This makes it sound like I have some issue with bfwebster’s food storage. I don’t. This is more a general observation.

  18. Adam Greenwood on April 27, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Actually, the realistic scenario would be all of us sitting on the Earth, looking up at the sky, and saying, “Aw, crap.”

    The US hasn’t has the ability to lift humans beyond Earth orbit for over 20 years, and probably won’t for another 20 years or more, though China may before then. Russia, Japan and the European Union (EU) remain the only other governments that have launched probes outside of the Earth-Moon system (Mars, Venus, comets, asteroids). China and India have reached the Moon, but no farther.

    The simple truth is that nobody has the technology to directly fly to and target objects outside of the Earth-Moon orbit — such as an approaching comet or asteroid — in any meaningful time frame. Instead, we have to rely on long, slow transfer orbits and/or low impulse engines, often using one or more gravitational swings around the Sun and/or other planets. That’s why space probes are typically launched months and often years ahead of their arrival dates.

    This is pretty much exactly right. Chemical rockets are hugely complex beasts and right now no one has anything that’s really capable of getting out of the earth’s gravity well with any appreciable mass or velocity.

    But if we really were talking an apocalyptic asteroid threat or comet threat, we could probably cobble together a few kludges in a years time. The problem is that, being kludges, they would probably fail.

    On the other hand, throw enough cash at the problem and waive enough regulatory red tape and in year you could probably build a Sea Dragon or an Orion. You could get a *lot* of mass out of earth’s gravity well real quickly with an Orion if you didn’t care about blasting radiation all over the place. And if your alternative is an asteroid, you don’t care. Both of these designs were meant to be ridiculously overpowered and overengineered, so they actually work in a year’s crash program. They also both carry enough mass that you might have some small chance of actually doing something to the asteroid when you get to it.

    But that assumes certainty a year out that we’re going to get hit, which is pretty unlikely. It also assumes that we’d know what to do with an asteroid once we got to it, which is also somewhat unlikely at this point.

  19. clark on April 27, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Don’t forget the sequel to Lucifer’s Hammer – Escape From Hell wherein our trustworthy sci-fi author encounters Sylvia Platt and tries to rescue her from hell all the while encountering the devil’s bureaucrats.

  20. clark on April 27, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Whoops. I meant Inferno. I was thinking of a different kind of after the apocalypse…

  21. Dan on April 27, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    Thanks for the recommendations Bruce.

    As far as my preferences, I love The Stand. I love how King took his time showing how society crumbled when enough people started dying.

    For writers who want to write about how an apocalypse may look like, or the effects on a society, one should look at how Western European countries fared during the Black Death. Western Europe lost between 40% and 60% of its population! It radically altered society.

  22. Greg Smith on April 27, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Another good one is David Brin’s _The Postman_. Ignore the Kevin Cosner film. This shows the banding together element well, and illustrates the inter-connectedness.

    (Brin uses the idea of the postoffice/Postman as a symbol for civilization–think about it, you pay less than 50 cents, you put a letter in a box on the street, no one steals it, no one takes it, and it gets delivered anywhere in the world to any person.)

    It also includes elements of how the “survivalist” mentality actually worsened a bad situation, and now all the remaining US citizens hate the “survivalists.”

    When you’ve read it, you’ll see why they thought it would be a good movie.

  23. Ken on April 27, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    I have to second both The Stand, and The Postman. Excellent books.

    I have to disagree that Atlas Shrugged is a post apocolypse book thou. Yes it does to an extent illustrate the break down of society. I just think that was no where near Rand’s intention. The book is based on a premise that I don’t really see happening now or then. I think that the post apocalypse part of the book is more a byproduct of her beliefs. I don’t know it just seems that she feels it is more about the message then what she uses to tell it.

    On the other hand I think Ayn Rand’s book The Anthem is an excellent post apocalypse book. Id recommend reading it, it shouldn’t take long its only 104 pages.

  24. sparsile on April 27, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    I agree that “Alas, Babylon” is very good. “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart is wonderful. The movie “Testament” starring Jane Alexander” and the book “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy are excellent as well, although decidely downbeat as they leave the viewer/reader with not much hope for humanity’s future. And one can’t leave out “A Canticle for Leibowitz” as one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels.

  25. Owen on April 27, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    Also try “Dies the Fire” by SM Stirling. It isn’t quite about apocalypse per se, but has many of the same “how would you get along withing x, y, and z” elements.

  26. Matt W. on April 28, 2009 at 12:05 am

    I’m currently reading “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, and let me say I am totally unprepared for a zombie attack.

  27. Ken on April 28, 2009 at 8:02 am

    lol @ 26

  28. Adam Greenwood on April 28, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Earth Abides, is excellent. So is A Canticle for Liebowitz, though it really isn’t about the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

    The Postman has a fantastic conceit, but the more you get into the book, the worse it gets. Brin really, really dislikes people on the right and he feels no qualms about working off his dislikes in his books. Plus he moves away from the Postman conceit and starts getting into this genetic enhancement mystic warrior mumbo.

    Dies the Fire has the usual advantages and disadvantages of a Stirling book (if you like unisex, Nietzschean military aristocracies, you’ll like this book and all his others), but its not a very useful exploration of ‘how would I do without X,’ since in the series X is the laws of physics.

  29. Rob Perkins on April 28, 2009 at 10:26 am

    I enjoyed reading The Postman and I enjoy corresponding with David Brin; I mirror one of his websites and his ideas are usually thought provoking.

    Adam’s incorrect; he dislikes a certain mode of thinking and calls it counter-productive, decrying it on the left as often as it appears. He’d rather just solve problems pragmatically.

  30. Adam Greenwood on April 28, 2009 at 10:42 am

    1. Based on the book, that’s not the case.

    2. Whatever Brin calls his personal ideology, the kind of strawmen you see in The Postman just makes for bad fiction.

  31. Rob Perkins on April 28, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Meh; Brin picked a survivalist tyranny, and set it very close to my home. I enjoyed it on many levels and disagree that it was “bad fiction”. Don’t base his thinking on the contents of that book; it’s merely what he was thinking *about* at the time.

    I know this guy; you’re not correct about him.

    Besides, all fiction is strawmen. All of it a contrivance.

  32. Ardis E. Parshall on April 28, 2009 at 11:13 am

    I didn’t like Earth Abides, if it’s the one I’m remembering (most of humanity dies of a natural biologic disaster; the main character is always carrying around his prospector’s hammer, or whatever it was, because it’s a tangible reminder of his own past, and that hammer becomes a mystical symbol of authority for the next generation?)

    Survival isn’t worth a dang if survival means only the physical continuity of the race. If the next generation has lost all knowledge of who they are and all memory of the achievements of humanity, what’s the point? They’re no longer human, they carry nothing but animal DNA from us, they cannot benefit from our triumphs or mistakes, they do not build on what we did, so why do we care about them in the clean slate of a new world any more than we would care about the sea slugs in such a world?

  33. Stephen M (Ethesis) on April 28, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Err, most ICBMs are capable of being repurposed. Yes, they use a low earth orbit, but the load factors, the same ones that go into launching the space shuttle, allow for enough thrust to throw payloads out of Earth’s gravity well altogether if you reduce the payload.

    While the term “ballistic” is in ICBM, modern design uses a good deal more powered flight (to make the transit faster) than you might suspect.

    That said, there is a lot of interesting material in thinking about apocalypses. I’ve even got a friend writing one now (I agreed to read the manuscript and make comments).

    It is an interesting genre, partly a sub-set of SF, but not limited to that.

  34. Adam Greenwood on April 28, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Besides, all fiction is strawmen. All of it a contrivance.

    Nope. You can’t justify poorly written stuff by saying that everything is poorly written.

    And this isn’t just a question of my particular ox being gored. I didn’t like OSC’s Empire, Andrew Klavan’s Empire of Lies, and a host of others for the same reason.

    Ardis Parshall,
    Earth Abides is bleak, and that’s an interesting point you make. But I think what makes those people human is the same thing that makes a memory-less and culture-less baby human–the potential to become part of that stream of memory. That said, I can see how this obliteration of the past would be especially distasteful for a historian like yourself. And the survivors in Earth Abides only enter into the stream in the afterlife, which we believe in but which isn’t part of the framework of the story. If you want to avoid the afterlife, maybe you’d say that the continuity these survivors have is the continuity of what you might call ‘racial memory’–love, hope, tragedy, despair, longing, archetypes. These clean slate people don’t share your history, but some of them will share your longing for it.

  35. Wm Morris on April 28, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    I echo the praise for Alas, Babylon. I think The Road is a fine novel, but it’s not true post-apocalyptic science fiction. It’s metaphysical horror. There’s no attempt made at explaining any of the how and there’s very little science at all that makes sense for the eerie landscape the protagonists inhabit.

    The Stand at least makes some attempts at explaining how they reached the current state of affairs even if the end there are some metaphysical or supernatural occurrences.

  36. Vader on April 28, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    I’ve read and enjoyed Alas, Babylon and Lucifer’s Hammer. Both were some time ago.

    It sounds like my opinion on She Who Must Not Be Named will have to be expressed elsewhere.

  37. Jay S on April 28, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    While not apocolyptic per se, the World Made by Hand by James Kunstler displays a near-apocolyptic world trying to decide between dying and holding on. Essentially, a series of climatic catastrophes, terror attacks and the lack of oil causes civilization to grind to a halt. It tells the story of one man in the upstate new york village of Union Grove, and the struggle to rebuild infrastructure, deal with the local robbers and find meaning. I would heartily recommend it.

    I read Dies the Fire as it is based in the Willamette valley – and while it does have a mormon reference (the character survives by living of her the food storage of her neighbors, an elderly mormon couple who pass away), it delves too much into fantasy for my taste.

  38. John C. on April 28, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Regarding the upcoming zombie apocalypse, Max Brooks’s World War Z is surprisingly well done.

  39. Rob Perkins on April 28, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    I’ll put in a good word here for Susan Beth Pfeffer’s “Life As We Knew It,” which is decent teenaged apocalyptic stuff. My daughters are entranced.

    Nope. You can’t justify poorly written stuff by saying that everything is poorly written.

    I suppose not. But since that itself is a strawman…

  40. Adam Greenwood on April 28, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    I must have been writing fiction . . .

  41. Lorrie on April 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    I read “Atlas Shrugged” a few years ago and found it absolutely fascinating. I think I wil have to read some of the other books that have been mentioned.

    Although I am not one of those Mormons who is looking forward to the end of the world, I do believe in being prepared for an emergency. I do have a year supply of food, including wheat (that believe it or not we actually use).

  42. Bruce in Montana on April 28, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Great…the wife just complained about Barnes & Noble credit card charges. I see another complaint coming. :)

    Atlas, Babylon is excellent.
    Another .. not-so-popular and not-so-apocalyptic title is “Unintended Consequences”. Like all good novels of this genre it is not only believable, it’s hard to see how it can’t/won’t eventually occur.

  43. Supercrowley on May 1, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Just wanted to chime in that I also rank The Road among the very best post apocalyptic novels but have to disagree with those who seem to think it has a dark or hopeless message. I think it is exactly the reverse. It is not about the depravity of man, but rather the ability of man to keep his humanity against all odds, even when few if any others do and even when things appear hopeless.

  44. GLF on May 1, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    An economic boomlet fueled artificially by government overspending ends in an economic crash, USA Mormons gathering to the hills & beyond, governmental & societal collapse, foreign invasion, and individuals & families making hard choices about security, loyalty and faith.

    That’s the start of a five-volume fictional series planned by LDS author Chad Daybell in Springville, Utah, called Standing in Holy Places. Volume 1 (The Great Gathering) and volume 2 (The Celestial City) are in print, with volume 3 (The Rise of Zion) coming out this summer.

    After reading various non-LDS cataclysmic and anti-utopian novels over the years (including the first of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series recently), I’ve enjoyed Mr. Daybell’s unfinished series for its presenting the questions of “what if?” or “what would I do in that scenario?” while holding on to hope and looking through the Apocalypse’s smoke & fire to Zion beyond.

  45. Thomas Parkin on May 2, 2009 at 8:58 am

    #43 is exactly right. The bleaker Cormac McCarthy’s novels are, the more they are about hope.

    The Road absolutely devastated me; and remembering the final couple pages renews that feeling in me, can bring me to tears. But it is constant on the potential for people to be good, to remain good, to “carry the fire”, where there is utterly no reason to familial love.

    On the other hand, All the Pretty Horses, far more conventionally beautiful, far closer, even if Romantic, to a life as it might be lived, seems to me almost without hope. The goodness in it is no less isolated than in the Road, and it is isolated among people we would more or less recognize.

    Up to The Road, all of McCarthy’s novels seemed to carry a message that goodness is alien in this world, causing some critics to (rightly, I think) label him Gnostic. The Road grounds goodness as a thing belonging to this world. ~

  46. Greg on May 8, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Great post. I still need to read Atlas Shrugged. The other day I posted a video of Irwin Redlener discussing How to Survive a Nuclear Attack. It provides some basic background on the subject and has some practical advice – that is, assuming we ever need that advice!