When I was a kid, I read a ton of DC Comics. I started with Batman because of the 1960s TV show, moved on to Superman and other superheroes, and along the way read a short-lived comic book series called The Atomic Knights about a band of post-nuclear-holocaust survivors.
That was my first taste of post-apocalyptic fiction. I occasionally read other end-of-the-world novels like On The Beach and even wrote my own nuclear-survivor short story in junior high in which a research crew in Antarctica return and discover that all of New York City has been levelled except for the rotating animal chimes in the Central Park Zoo. Of course two of the researchers realize amidst the debris that they are in love and vow to create a new better, civilization together.
Shut up. I was in junior high, okay?
Several years ago I read The Road and its uncompromising bleak vision blew me away. Probably among my top five favorite books of all time.
This fall I’ve read a string of new dystopian novels, spurred by a New York Times story about the genre. The Times contended that The Road opened the door for “literary” apocalyptic fiction.
(Background: The publishing world has its own self-constructed silos where novels are slotted into marketing categories such as romance, crime, chick-lit, fantasy, literary fiction, and so on. The Road’s success meant that well-written novels with an apocalyptic theme didn’t get automatically locked into the “science fiction” silo. They could be marketed both to science fiction readers and to people who like thoughtful, character-driven general fiction.)
I’ve read three of the books mentioned in the Time story – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, California by Edan Lepucki, and most recently, The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber.
I was regretfully disappointed by the first two. They were well-written, with fully drawn characters and nuanced relationships. But…
Station Eleven seemed weirdly bland for a post-apocalyptic book. It mostly takes place more than 15 years after a super-contagious virus has devastated the world’s populations, and the few survivors seem pretty happy and well adjusted amidst the ruins. Many don’t even remember the details of the cataclysm. There is one power-hungry madman but he kind of fades away and there is never a real confrontation with evil. Everyone lives happily ever after in a suburban airport that has been turned into a refuge.
Station Eleven’s author is Canadian, and (sorry, Canadian friends!) I couldn’t help thinking: Take out the unrelenting evil, the hopelessness, the cannibalism on which Cormac McCarthy built The Road… this is a Canadian view of the apocalypse. ;-)
California follows one young couple who leave L.A. to homestead in the wilderness in the wake of societal breakdown. They eventually encounter a utopian-type settlement nearby, and get enmeshed in drama with the leaders of the settlement. Again, this was unsatisfying for me. At times, the whole apocalyptic setting seemed merely a vehicle for Lepucki to write about the challenges of two people alone in a marriage. And then the machinations of the the settlement got tedious. The stakes seemed low and boring. I didn’t care about power struggles in the settlement – I wanted to know what had happened in imploding L.A.!
Which brings me to The Book of Strange New Things, which I have just finished.
I LOVED it.
Like Lepucki’s book, it centers on a marriage. Peter, a former addict turned committed Christian, has signed on to be pastor to the alien residents of a distant planet where a mysterious global corporation has set up a human colony. His equally devout wife Bea stays at home, where it turns out that natural disasters and social disruption are starting to doom the earth.
It is SO well done. I love that Peter and Bea are thoughtful, intellectual Christians whose faith you can respect, something you rarely see in contemporary fiction. There is tension and drama on multiple levels – Will the aliens be friendly? Will the mysterious corporation turn out to have an evil agenda? What happened to the previous pastor who mysteriously disappeared? What will happen to Peter and Bea’s relationship with all those billions of miles between them? What will happen to Peter’s faith and his sobriety?
And it is all realistic, consistent, and believable within the universe that Faber has created. There are no unexpected monsters lurching out of volcanoes on the planet, no cataclysmic rocket explosions, none of that Hollywood-type stuff.
This is all of particular interest to me right now because the novel I’m currently working on is also a work of speculative fiction. It’s not apocalyptic, but it does something similar. It takes parts of our culture and uses them as the base for a completely different reality – a world that is not our world, but has recognizable elements of our world. It’s a novel that starts with the premise, “what if such-and-such were to happen…”
So I ask myself: What is it that succeeds in books like The Book of Strange New Things, The Road, and The Time-Traveller’s Wife (another favorite of mine that bridges the divide between science fiction and literary fiction)?
- Internal logic. These created worlds and scenarios have rules and logic. They may be completely different from the science and logic of our world, but they are consistent within themselves. Once you accept the premise of the book, the things that happen all make sense. No deus ex machina resolutions where friendly aliens suddenly descend and make everything right, no unbelievable coincidences where the man in the mask turns out to be the hero’s long-lost brother.
- Character development. They center on characters – people’s relationships to each other, their existential choices. There is nuance, ambiguity. Unlike a Hollywood sci-fi movie, the question isn’t “will the hero save the universe” but “will the hero understand herself, how will she respond when her belief system crumbles etc.”
- Larger issues. They raise provocative larger issues about our future as a society, how we relate to each other, the purpose of our lives, and human morality. They leave us thinking about our current world in a new way. Why bother creating an alternate universe if you’re not going to use it to explore large issues and look at our world differently?
- Unflinching. For me, at least, these books need to go to a dark place to be fulfilling. They need to confront our worst selves – our mortality, evil, the limits of human love — and see what happens. No sugar-coating things.
- High stakes. These books convey high stakes and urgency. That needs to happen on an individual level; it can happen on a societal level too but the individual level is paramount. As readers, we have to really care that something important is at stake here. With The Book of Strange New Things, I felt that so much was at stake – Peter’s entire life as a recovered addict, his faith, his marriage, his ability to go on living with some sense of purpose and integrity.
Right now, with my own manuscript, I am struggling to keep things character-driven and consistent and not slip into action-movie melodrama. There’s a kind of gravitational pull to the action movie, like driving a car where the wheels are out of alignment and it keeps veering to one side.
It would be very easy to add lots of hustle and bustle and battle and magic. But that’s not what I need to do. I need to keep hold of the steering wheel and stay with the characters and with the internal consistency of the world I’m creating.
What do you think? Those of you who are writers? Those of you who are readers?