Sunday, 22 May 2011

Simon Turner - Post-Apocalypso

A triffid, yesterday.

I've spent the week, on the back of the Guardian Review's feature on science fiction last Saturday (which fulfilled the Review's remit of publishing at least one interesting article every six or seven months) immersing myself in post-apocalyptic fiction, because I'm exactly the kind of happy-go-lucky, optimistic type who revels in tales of speculative human catastrophe.  Let's leave aside for now the thorny issue of mainstream reviewing's tendency to ghettoise genre fiction as though it were 'literary' fiction's (Christ, I despise that term: it's utterly rancid with received notions of what the novel is expected and permitted to do, and there's an unhealthy sheen of snobbery attached to it as well, as if anything not originating from the pens of Atwood or Amis were deemed un- or anti-literary) dunce of a cousin (periodically patronising it with its own feature, just because the British Library has an SF exhibition on, which translates roughly as 'That's our populist remit out of the way: now we can get back to artificially inflating the reputation of whichever lyrical realist mediocrity we happen to be salivating over this month'), because it's not why we're here, and besides, it only makes me angry (see above).  The fact of the matter is that SF, considered as a cogent body of work in every narrative field, represents one of the cornerstones of human imaginative achievement.  It extrapolates from our current situation and considers the possible ramifications of certain developments (sometimes scientific, sometimes social), showing us not only where we might be heading but, often in the starkest and most troubling of terms, where we already are.  In effect, science fiction is a subset of the novel of ideas, but unlike 'literary' novels of ideas, SF deals with concepts and ideas that matter, that people might actually care about.

This is where post-apocalyptic fiction and film fits in, as the extrapolations and projections from the contemporary world in this instance are injected with an urgency that is absent from other breeds of SF.  We're not only looking to possible futures in works like I Am Legend or The Day of the Triffids, but possible futures where mankind has well and truly fucked things up.  In that regard, post-apocalyptic SF doesn't really have to take the form of SF at all: it might be, say, a perfectly normal virus that screws us, or a famine, or an atomic holocaust, all of which events have been, and remain, horribly plausible.  It's not the event itself that's of import (Cormac McCarthy's The Road takes this to an extreme, giving us the sketchiest apocalypse in literary history: it might be a nuclear war that wipes out human civilisation, or it might be environmental degradation, or a combination of the two, or neither - it might as well be the Rapture for all the information we're given.  What matters to McCarthy is the (monstrous) behaviour of those left behind) but rather the aftermath.  In effect, the post-apocalyptic scenario is a projection, not of society as it is, but of how the author conceives of society.  Which is to say that what happens post-event will match the political and social ideas of the author.  Two post-apocalyptic novels roughly contemporary with one another - John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) and John Christopher's The Death of Grass (1956) - bear this out quite neatly.  Wyndham's novel is the better known, having been filmed a number of times (most recently by the BBC), and its opening scene - the hero comes to in hospital to find the world irreversibly changed, and wanders dazed through the empty streets of a shattered metropolis - has influenced any number of other post-apocalyptic narratives: see 28 Days Later for an excellent homage (HBO's The Walking Dead more recently pulled a similar trick).  It's also strangely quaint, very much the product of a society that had just defeated Nazism and, in the process, created the NHS and laid the foundations of the welfare state.  Wyndham is, in short, an optimistic left-leaning liberal democrat (that's small l and small d: I don't want to insult the man), and the message of the book seems to be that, however grim things get, some form of British left-leaning liberal democracy will survive: in this instance, on a heavily fortified Isle of Wight (and, no, I didn't make that up).  Tellingly, his apocalypse is man-made: not malicious, just horribly short-sighted (appropriately enough, in a novel where most of the world's population gets blinded in the opening pages).  The triffids have been farmed (and perhaps genetically engineered) as a cheap source of cooking oil, whilst the 'comet shower' that causes the mass blindness I've already mentioned might not be a comet shower at all, but the result of a malfunctioning series of weapons satellites.  And a man-made apocalypse can be overturned, or at least countered, by the same inventiveness and cunning that created it, at least in the optimistic universe that Wyndham's characters inhabit.

 A tripod, yesterday.

Far bleaker is Christopher's The Death of Grass.  Readers of a certain age might remember the BBC's adaptation of his genuinely harrowing childrens' books The Tripods, which has haunted me to this day.  I suspect, having just read it, that The Death of Grass will likewise shadow me for the remainder of my life.  It's a truly shocking and troubling book, the dark and brutal flipside to Wyndham's Bevanite optimism.  The scenario is simple: a virus emerges in China that wipes out rice crops.  It swiftly mutates to decimate all grass crops, including wheat, rye and barley, leaving the entire world facing starvation.  The novel concerns the attempts of one family and a number of hangers on to make their way from London to the north of England, where the protagonist's brother keeps a (now-fortified and famine-ready) farm.  Anything else I might add would likely ruin the novel for any newcomers, so I won't pull any spoilers from my sleeves.  But I will say that I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.  It's still in print (there's a Penguin Modern Classics edition, in fact, and rightly so), so there is, frankly, no excuse.

But these are very English apocalypses.  Across the pond, the States has a rich record of post-apocalyptic scenarios of its own, and one of the most interesting is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954).  Like The Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend has been something of a draw for film-makers: most recently, Will Smith was given the lead in a rather flaccid adaptation, and in the 70s, Charlton Heston (the king of post-apocalyptic science fiction movies, having appeared in Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, both of which rule, in a pessimistic, post-Altamont kind of way) starred in The Omega Man, which is far better than the more recent attempt in every way, but still oddly unsatisfactory as an adaptation of the novel.  Part of the problem for any cinematic translation is that I Am Legend is very literary, very self-aware, and much of the novel's energy is given over to a critique of the genre from which it arose.  Matheson's novel proposes that vampires, far from being creatures of legend and folklore, are real and scientifically explicable: in the wake of an atomic war, a plague, the symptoms of which are eerily similar to vampirism as defined in classic horror and Gothic fiction, has ravaged the planet, leaving the novel's protagonist Robert Neville as (potentially) the last human alive in the States, or at least in LA.  Different in temperament though Wyndham's and Christopher's novels are, they share at least a sense of forward momentum: they're linear narratives, warped hangovers of the Medieval quest, with their protagonists searching for (and mostly failing to find) safe haven.  Matheson's novel is comparably static and claustrophobic: Neville spends his time holed up in his fortified house, his wife and daughter long ago having succumbed to the plague, fending off nightly attacks from marauding vampires, and spending his days desperately (and futilely) searching for a cure for the plague.  Neville isn't a typical resourceful SF hero: he drinks, he's inarticulate (mostly through isolation), sexually frustrated ... Indeed, there's far more in common between Neville and the narrators of Richard Ford's novels or Raymond Carver's stories, than between Neville and his adventurous and resourceful precursors in Wells or Verne, another facet that's failed to translate across into the movie adaptations: Charlton Heston and Will Smith are too heroic, frankly.  This is Matheson's greatest innovation, arguably, and it makes the horror of the situation all the more troubling.  The end of the world won't be survived by strong-jawed messiahs who'll save the human race at the eleventh hour: the last man on earth will be you, or me, and we'll be utterly powerless and monstrously alone.  I think I need a stiff drink.                                                          

1 comment:

Roger said...

If you haven't read it, read George R. Stewart's Earth Abides. Like After London, an interesting aspect is the author's relish in imagining the disappearance of the whole of contemporary civilisation and its trappings