Anyone who reads science fiction or fantasy could answer that question easily; after all, those two genres are replete with all kinds of dystopian literature exploring the idea of The End Of Life As We Know It, from varying horrific causes. We aficionados know what’s coming down the pipe --- just because the flesh-eating zombies haven’t shown up yet doesn’t mean they won’t. But to assist the rest of you who are not conversant with post-apocalyptic literature, my public service act for today is to pull some classic literary examples from my bookshelves and acquaint you with the darker side of SF&F (Science Fiction and Fantasy, of course. Work with me, people. It’s not a kinky sex acronym.) You’re welcome.
Even though the lunatic-dictator fringe currently appears quiescent so the consequent threat of nuclear war appears low, I thought we’d cheerfully start with the Big One. On the Beach (OTB) was written by Nevil Shute, and Pat Frank authored Alas, Babylon (AB). Both were written in the 1950s, when our understanding of what a nuclear war would really be like were pretty primitive --- no one had the slightest idea about nuclear winter, for example, the sudden and precipitous drop in global temperatures that would occur (and remain for months) in the wake of injecting hundreds of millions of tons of ash, soot and debris into the atmosphere within hours.
Despite that, OTB was surprisingly, relentlessly grim --- the novel opens as survivors gather in Australia and the southern latitudes, simply awaiting the inevitable radioactive fallout to filter down from northern climes and kill everyone. Some people go about their lives in complete denial, others just… wait. Everyone’s supplied with suicide tablets for the end… which inevitably, ruthlessly does come. There’s no sudden deus ex machina in this tale, rescuing everyone from oblivion. I first read the book in my early teens, and it certainly made an impression on me --- like many others. Not really an entertaining read --- who honestly wants to read a story where every character dies by the end? --- but necessary in a rather downbeat sort of educational way. It was twice made into a film, neither of which I’ve seen.
AB, on the other hand, seems rather touchingly naïve in light of what we now know. The nuclear war posited in it does not spell curtains for the entire human race. It’s, really, just a war fought with bigger bangs, and at its conclusion, humanity kind of picks itself up, dusts itself off, and continues on its merry way, spreading truth, justice and the American way as it goes. (Mr. Frank makes sure to mention the USA “won” the nuclear war.) I first read it in grade six (I know, I know… I was rather a precocious child, he said modestly), and it, too, made quite an impression. Focusing on one Florida family, it was an entertaining tale… sort of a Dr. Strangelove meets Little House on the Prairies type of thing… and reassuring that we weren’t all gonna die. Even if we look on AB today and smile at its charming naivete.
More in line with current world events are the other works I unshelved for this epistle: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (IAL), published in 1954, and Stephen King’s The Stand (TS), first published in 1978, then again as an unofficial second edition in 1991 with several hundred pages of additional story restored after someone likely pointed out Mr. King was far more famous now, and people would probably shell out a potful more money to read any Additionale Wordes the master would care to share.
IAL is kind of the original post-apocalyptic, post-plague world, featuring for your amusement not flesh-eating zombies, but blood-sucking vampires (of a sort). Robert Neville is the one remaining human, and his solitary struggle to survive --- a struggle which also doesn’t end well, by the way --- inspired three films: The Last Man on Earth (1964), starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007), starring Will Smith. Interestingly, the Blu-Ray of the latter version has two different endings, one happy (or at least hopeful) and one --- ahem ---- not, catering to however you’re feeling on any given evening, I suppose.
TS is sort of the crown jewel of these offerings. It’s immense (as only Stephen King, who has publicly admitted to suffering at times from literary elephantiasis, can be), featuring multiple character and plot arcs that he also admitted to experiencing great difficulty reconciling. There’s a plague --- an artificially created flu waaay more contagious and lethal than any variety currently existing --- which kills about 97% of the world’s population. The survivors are locked in a titanic struggle between good and evil --- literally. This is Stephen King, after all, so we’re talking about really supernatural, personified good and evil. Despite my sarcasm, I found it an eminently readable, entertaining story. The down-and-dirty fight against the forces of supernatural evil make it very compelling. It was made into a TV mini-series, which made sense: condensing that monster down into a two or even three-hour film would have eviscerated the plot.
“Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. It’s curious to contemplate how, for most of us, our lives mostly play out quite slowly in predictable ways; then, when the unpredictable occurs, we frequently find it difficult to grasp the maelstroms into which we’ve been thrown. Food for thought… in the Twilight Zone.”