There’s something very primal about creating a catastrophe of any sort and writing about it, either on the upswing of some impending disaster, on the downswing, or even well afterward. It’s natural to wonder what things would be like if things went to hell in a handbasket. Years ago it was the Red Scare and the threat of nuclear winter. Nowadays things are trending more toward eco-disasters. But in many ways it boils down to the same thing: stripping away the structure of our society and see what would come of it. It’s not nearly so simple as creating a Lord of the Flies analog, because in most of the better disaster tales, the characters know what they’ve lost. Shades of the old world can still be seen, even while the world crumbles.
I haven’t written much in this vein, but one of the appealing things for me about the disaster tale is that it’s reductive. It strips away so much from the characters that it removes a lot of the distractions of telling a story in modern day. It allows the author to focus in on the things we find most important. If traditional science fiction can be described as taking an idea and asking: what changes because of it?, then the disaster tale can be said to strip away almost everything and ask: what’s left?
It’s a very interesting experiment. What stays and what goes? What parts of our society would people on the opposite side of a disaster hold onto? Would they cling to religion? Science? Would an every-man-out-for-himself mentality rule the day? Right by might? Or would those who band together for common defense win out? The world is large enough that there would probably be a lot of both, but that’s the other interesting part of these tales, the personal side of it: what each individual actor feels about the change, how they react to it, and what they plan to do about it, if anything.
These tales bring out a man vs. nature sort of conflict as well, which can be intriguing if played against the characters and their personal goals as well as the group and their larger, overall goals. The neat thing is that you can play with the fallout of technological and environmental change. Many authors posit different causes, they posit different approaches to preventing the change, and so there can be any number of results, any number of combinations of surviving technologies and cultures and social memes. It’s a very interesting stew.
The politics in play is another subject that’s malleable, because it would have been forged anew. It’s inevitable when such a large population is forced to deal with ever-shrinking resources. The victors will tend to end up with the prevailing political wind, but that can change at any time. And this isn’t to say that politics need be reflected against a large canvas. Group politics can be very compelling stuff. Rob Ziegler’s novel, Seed, does this well, showing small group dynamics in various, small tribes of migrants in a future American southwest as they travel from north to south for fertile planting grounds.
Paul Goat Allen, a self-professed fan of the apocalypse novel, recently sat down with Jon Armstrong, author of Yarn. Mr. Allen call’s 2011 “the high-water mark thus far in this new Golden Age of apocalyptic fiction.” It’s a really interesting interview in which Paul talks about how apocalyptic fiction is on the rise again, and how many good books have been coming out lately (and more than a few from Night Shade Books). It’s an obvious extension of our collective worry (or disregard) of global warming. And for me, it’s a very welcome trend, not only because it’s a subject that bears considering, but also because so much good fiction is coming out of it.