Friday, July 24, 2015

The State of Apocalyptic Literature

Nothing like impending doom and the destruction of civilization to make for entertaining reading, movies, video games and TV shows.  It's a popular brand of fiction that has been around a long time.  Probably the earliest example is Mary Shelley's The Last Man, published in 1824.  Since then there has been a steady stream of apocalyptic literature:  The Stand, Lucifer’s Hammer, A Canticle For Leibowitz, I Am Legend, On The Beach, One Year After, The Drowned World, Alas Babylon, The Postman, The Hunger Games, Divergent–the list is endless.

And why this fascination?  It's apparently a popular form of fiction as new novels on this subject are cranked out just about every year.  Rather than speculate about other readers I'll talk about my interest.  For me, it's interesting to see a different way of living.  Sort of a return to the old ways of life without indoor plumbing, electricity, speedy travel and communication, refrigeration, internet...all the things that enhance and add comfort to our lives.  It's observing how the good people maintain order without creating a police state.  It's also about scrutinizing human nature and seeing how quickly normal, law abiding people quickly turn to their baser instincts.  And it's not a myth–one can see the breakdown occurring at most natural disasters or the aftermath of war.  Most authors of the apocalypse generally get this right.  

Of course it's a world none of us would want to live in.  Unless you are a survivalist loner.  Constantly searching for food, or trying to harvest it from a poisoned landscape would indeed be a hard scrabble life and one not long lived.  Constantly looking over your shoulder for possible attacks or robberies; continually having do defend what you possess; dealing with health emergencies with little or no medical treatment available; burying family and friends as they die in the aftermath of total ruination.  My main interest is seeing how people cope with all of this hardship and get thru it.  I suspect that is the main interest of the authors writing such stories.  Let us all hope and pray it never happens. 

What follows is a run down of some of the apocalyptic novels I read and my comments on them.  It's not meant to be a best of, and it is by no means final; I'll add more books to the collection in time.  So stop back in the future for updates.

The Stand by Stephen King
One Apocalyptic Novel to Rule Them All

Stephen King once remarked how dismayed he was that so many people told him how The Stand was their favorite novel, despite all of the best sellers he's churned out over the past  30 years.  Never the less, The Stand is epic story telling featuring the age old conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil in the aftermath of a weaponized flu outbreak and it never gets any better than this.  Featuring great characters such as the Godly Mother Abigail to the creepy demonic Randall Flagg, the narrative is as big as the landscape stretching from the northeastern area of the USA, across the rocky mountains, to the desert sands of Nevada.  It is to King's talent as a fiction author that he breathes so much life into his characters and the story itself.  He can make the supernatural, seem natural. 

It's King's biggest novel, at 1,200 pages and is good to the last drop. Published in 1978 it was updated with additional narrative in 1990.  If you have not read it I recommend the later version.  King has been criticized for unsatisfying endings.  He almost did it in The Stand but managed to pull it off at the end.  One thing that always interested me about the story is how the evil and seemingly undefeatable Randall Flagg gathers an army of misfits, losers, and social outcasts to his side but in the end, they are ultimately his undoing.  And how fitting is that?  

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Politically Correct Version of Apocalypse

This novel could also be dubbed the "chick-lit" version of the apocalypse as well. The story starts out promising enough about a troupe of post-apocalypse Shakespearean actors traveling to and fro among isolated communities presenting the plays of the great Bard.  It's a cool idea really, and an interesting take on this genre of fiction.  But ultimately, it bogs down on the weight of the author's own pretentious and misdirected thematic direction.

One of the characters, a famous actor, dies early on before the killer flu breaks out and his life is revisited in flash backs throughout the story.  Why, I have no idea since he must be one of the most boring literary figures to ever appear in print.  What a waste of paper! One of the characters keeps a scrap book of clippings on this man.  What on earth for?  Is the post-apocalyptic world this dull?  It is in this version of world's end.

The second issue is the title of the book, drawn from a graphic novel of the same name.  Oh how cool!  I kid.  Some of the characters obsess over it.  I never understood what was so special about this comic book or why any of the characters cared about it.  It seems to have no relevance to the plot and it's not a guide to where anybody needs to go.  When a central object is a ring, a sword, or whatever, it forms in the mind's eye more clearly and carries the weight and purpose of the narrative.  Describing printed graphics is off-putting and it's hard to visualize what the art really looks like and what impact it is supposed to have.

And finally all the agendas.  The females are strong, decisive, intelligent and virtuous.  The men are bunch of spineless sissies who blunder about like a bunch of dullards being outwitted and led by the highly intelligent and resourceful women.  What a poor specimen of manliness they all are.  They resemble a bunch of trendy metrosexuals.  The only remotely strong male figures are the bad guys but like the other men in the story the females outwit them.  Anyway, this is all part of the modernist writers and their rearranging of gender rolls in making women appear almost super human or god-like.  Strong female characters are great!  But come on, we need a reasonable balance here.  

Overall...promising but not enough post-apocalypse story telling that quickly fades into a bore of things better left alone.

One Second After by William R. Forstchen
EMP Apocalypse

One lady in this tome remarks, "Sometimes I feel like a character in a bad novel."  Sorry to inform you dear Character, but this is your eternal home!  Let that line be a good example of what you aspiring writers out there should never use in a story.  It might blow back on you!  While the highly educated William R. Forstchen may be well versed in the technology involving an EMP attack, which fries all electronics and sends the modern world back to the dark ages, fiction writing is apparently not his forte.  It's an example of how career flipping sometimes fails and one should stick to their chosen field of endeavor.  The story reads like a first novel (which it is not), the one you write to get some experience but have enough good sense to never publish.  His characters are bland–they don't live and breathe. Their dialogue comes off stilted and lacking in natural flow.  And speaking of that, in the tablet version, two characters have a conversation that lasts for around nineteen pages.  Oh my!  I skipped most of that blather and don't feel bad because of it.  

A good book to read about how an EMP works but the rest is typical post apocalyptic battle lore where the barbarians show up for your stuff and your women and you have to kill them all.

One side note...I was really annoyed how he treated my home state of Florida.  It got hurt the worse in the disaster with some sort of poisoning of the ocean.  Oh come on!  There are thousands of lakes, ponds, creeks and so on to fish out of not to mention a steady supply of wild game.  Really, we would survive far better than his characters located in the NC mountains.  Can you farm up there in the winter? No, and in fact, it’s hard to farm at all in the mountains.  Here, we can grow vegetables and fruit all year long.  Abundant game, livestock, fish in the’s the author’s biggest goof.

World War Z by Max Brooks
Zombie Apocalypse!

Haven't we had our fill of zombies?  Not by a long shot!  Zombies have come to possess our fears of future ruination  with a touch of horrible bizarreness.  They pop up all over the place in popular culture from movies, TV shows, comic books, video games, to an unending publication of novels.  Like a wave of shuffling zombies it just keeps on coming.

Max Brooks's account of a zombie apocalypse is quite original with a novel that reads basically as a series of after action reports.  No set of characters reappear throughout the story so each report is different.  Brooks documents the ebb and flow of a world wide bizarro zombie conflict in such a realistic manner you have to remind yourself this is fiction, not a history of a real event.  The zombie war features patient zero outbreak, techniques and survival of individuals, military tactics to stave off the undead hordes, the psychological effects on the survivors, and all manner of interesting lore. 

Ultimately, a great entry in the apocalypse genre.

And the movie.  It's just okay.  Stick to the book.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Shooting, Flying and Fornicating in the Post-Apocalypse!

This version of the post-apocalypse comes down to a bunch of gunning, flying and sexing.  The lead character survives the end of the world to fly around in a single engine plane in Colorado with his dog.  How cute!  Dog characters rarely survive in stories like this so shed your tears now.  The lone survivor sets up sniper nests to shoot the bad people when they come up to his house with the porch light on.  Bang!  How is that for the cowardly dispatching of the bad guys?  His ex-army buddy on the other side aides in shooting them too.  The violence charges on with little sympathy for the victims, or guilty conscience among the shooters.  Eventually the sole survivor meets up with a hottie living on the mountainside with her daddy.  Nothing like love among the ruins though you can hardly call this book a post-apocalypse romance novel.  It all ends rather abruptly with the good people surviving at the end but with nowhere to go.  There is no there, there.  Where is the character development?  Where is the big plot reveal?  Who are these people anyway?  I was left wanting more and not getting it.

One thing I did find disappointing, and a bit annoying, is that in the book's Reading Group Guide is a list for other Apocalypse novels to read.  The Stand is not on the list.  That's an offense.  Oh well, all interested readers in this type of fiction know and have most likely read The Stand by now.  At least somebody can write a classic of the form, something that alludes Mr. Heller.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Post Apocalypse Doom and Gloom

Probably the most depressing of apocalypse novels listed here.  The end of the world as we know it doesn't get any darker and grittier than this.  The story involves the travels of a father and his son.  Together, they travel thru a ruined landscape of gloomy skies, distant rumblings, bad people, cannibals, and a constant scavenging for food.  McCarthy never tells the reader what the names of the two characters are what caused the end to come.  Despite being the darling of the lit critics, and a hipster of modern prose, McCarthy forgoes quotation marks for his dialogue. How's that for hip prose writing?  It's up to you to suss out who is talking to who.  I guess the old way of doing it is for the throwbacks that still love pecking away at their manual Underwoods.  I'm suspecting that Cormac McCarthy fancies himself some kind of cool dude.  Only too cool for school since he isn't going by the normal literary rules of serve and volley.  Despite all of that independence, he actually won a literary award for his dark story.  

Having said all of that, this novel is high up in the cannon of  apocalyptic fiction.  The movie is a very accurate portrayal of the book.  God help us if any of this ever comes true.  

Swan Song by Robert M. McCammon
The Supernatural Apocalypse Mixed with Mad Max

Often compared to King's The Stand and deservedly so.  Also often said, if you like The Stand you'll like this too.  I sure did.  Robert M. McCammon's version of the apocalypse features interesting characters dealing with episodes of supernatural and magical events, warring armies of survivors, and mixed with great hardship for all.  Yes, Swan is a special little girl with supernatural powers to guide them all thru the holocaust. (Mmm...I wonder where McCammon got that character sketch from?)  The main plot revolves around three bands of survivors: A shape shifting Randall Flagg type entity in pursuit of a homeless woman with a magical jewel; a former soldier with a whiz kid; and a giant pro wrestler teamed up with Swan.

Robert M. McCammon demonstrates his skill as a very good fiction writer.  His dialogue and pacing is well focused and his characters are fully realized with noticeable personality types, each with their own speech patterns.  He chronicles concise backgrounds on his characters, but not long, rambling bios.  Because of this, the narrative isn't bogged down and the story takes flight at a good pace.  His handling of a nuked out world with adverse weather, bizarre lighting, endless destruction, and dangerous people and animals is very well rendered.  

Highly recommended.

The End by G. Michael Hoff
EMP Apocalypse...Again!

Now there is an appropriate title for an apocalyptic story.  They could all be named that. What G. Michael Hopf does in The End is make One Second After look good. Which also means it's that bad.  

Authors have learned that when approaching a subject of this scale to concentrate their energies on a hand full of survivors.  Robert M. McCammon did in Swan Song and so Hopf does here concentrating on his main character, a former Marine with his family; his brother in the Marines overseas; and lastly, a Speaker of the House drafted to be president since DC has gotten nuked and the real president and vice president have been vaporized.  And off the story goes running, with the usual mayhem of societal breakdown after the EMP occurs and modern life comes to a grinding halt.

Probably the worst part novel is the main character, Gordon Van Zandt.  The ex-Marine starts out as a tender family man only to quickly turn into a cold blooded killer, shooting unarmed men and then robbing them.  The hero is sociopath with no remorse where the ends justifying the means.  Van Zandt at one point gets a man to surrender by telling him he won't hurt him.  Then shoots him anyway.  How can the reader root for a monster like this?

All writers have their quirks in their writing.  With Hopf, he has the habit of mentioning a character's height when introducing them and most of them are tall.  The men mainly and the women rarely.  It borders on being obsessive and after a while, hilarious.  Apparently the author considers the short characters somehow disadvantaged as if they lost life's lottery on tallness.  However, the author notes that they make up for it with "colorful" personalities, as if the shorties need some kind of redemption.  With every new person introduced I waited for the height report and Hopf never failed to deliver.  Frankly, this displays a tad of amateurism on the author's part.  Too much repetition.  A no-no for professionals.

G. Michael Hopf could easily be the character in the Beatles's tune, Paperback Writer. He has a pot-boiler writing style and one could almost envision him at his Underwood cranking them out. And in fact, he does, since The End (apparently not really the end...) is the first book in the four-book, New America Series.  These are self-published books and this first volume features poor editing, awkward and redundant sentence construction, amateurish dialogue, and minimal character development.  One can hope he got an editor for the following volumes.  A language arts teacher would do nicely as I discovered for my self-published novel. 

I would avoid this one.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Vampire Apocalypse!

Author Richard Matheson proves himself an able writer of prose.  In this account of civilization’s end, a bacterium causes humanity to convert to the classic vampire meme. Matheson creates a plausible vampirism biology which his lead character investigates for a cure.

The hero of the story Robert Neville, must withstand nightly attacks in his fortified house while resisting the urge to give up. Neville is haunted by the loss of his wife and daughter and often turns to drink. This novel is a classic study in isolation and Matheson accurately relates Neville’s loss, pain, and loneliness as he questions his desire to go on amid the chaos of the bizarre world he is cast in.

Once again, the movie starring Will Smith is nothing like the novel.  Hollywood just uses the title. Too bad as the story presented here is so much better than the one they invented for the movie.  Plus, the novel's ending explains what I Am Legend means.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Femdom Dystopia!

It's seems fiction of late with strong female leads just can get any balance.  Just like Ocean Eleven's modern feminist agenda, Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy suffers the same fate.  The strong main character, Katniss, is so dominating she could just be called Super Girl with a bow and be done with it.  As per the script, the females are virtuous and brave and the men are either villainous or spineless wimps and cut outs.  The archetype here is: A strong man is an evil man. 

In this post apocalyptic world where what is left of civilization is divided into districts ruled by a central government.  Since food is in short supply a competition is devised to have children and teens fight each other to the death in a nationally televised event to win food for their district.  It's all heavily hyped to the population at large, like a bizarre dystopian version of a Super Bowl game.  The kids, picked by lottery and treated as pampered stars, are trained in combat and weapons and how to murder one another. 

And this trilogy of books is marked as a children's book series!   A totally creepy idea.

The heroine of the story, Katniss, does what nobody else can do–beat a rigged system and out wit its software and special effects.  She not only wins but saves a boy she's partnered with, Peeta, who like other spineless males, needs her help to get thru it all.  She then goes on to become the leader of a resistance movement.  More bloodshed follows.  Is Suzanne Collins is trying to show kids that violence solves problems?  It does in this dark dystopian tale.

Never the less, this best selling trilogy has won critical acclaim from the usual typists in the mainstream media who typically review fiction like this with little regard to moral considerations or the message being sent to young people–a story of morbidity, of torture, and of killing people, even the most innocent, to feed your family.

Really, it reads like End Times fiction until our own real-life End Times dawns on us.

Stay tuned...more to come...

All books mentioned in this piece are available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iTunes iBooks, and Kindle.