Louis Pope Gratacap’s The Evacuation of England (1908)
Digging the Panama Canal in 1907
One of the pleasures of reading older post-apocalyptic fiction is seeing how the major themes and plot ideas of today’s genre were first introduced more than one hundred years ago. But just because writers came up with these great ideas doesn’t mean that their books are any good. Many of them are; however the American writer Louis Gratacap’s pioneering post-apocalyptic novel wins the prize as the most turgid and unreadable novel I’ve ever read. In fact, I’ll admit it: I didn’t actually read the whole book; my reading quickly changed into a slow skim. Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute has the same opinion:
Gratacap’s range was wide, incorporating much material which has become central to sf, but his books are overlong, choked by his compulsive didacticism, and nearly unreadable today.
So why bother with The Evacuation of England? Because Gratacap came up with a major innovation that is absolutely central to post-apocalyptic SF today. To my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong), Evacuation is the first novel in which civilization is destroyed by a natural disaster caused by human beings. It’s the world’s first anthropogenic climate change novel. Continue reading
This week, Science for the People observes its annual holiday tradition, helping you find gifts for the science lovers on your list. Brian Clegg, John Dupuis, and Rachelle Saunders share their most-treasured science books from 2014, as well as classics to help fill out anyone’s science library. And they speak to writer/illustrator James Lu Dunbar about “The Universe Verse,” a scientifically-accurate rhyming comic book about the origins of the universe.
Visit the Science for the People blog for more information and links to the books mentioned in this episode.
*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.
Van Tassel Sutphen’s The Doomsman (1906)
The Doomsman opens in what seems to be the primitive past: A young man sits on the shore of a bay, dressed in a tunic. In the forest behind him are the heavy wooden walls of a stockade, a clue to the defensive nature of life in this sparsely inhabited country. But not everything fits. The young man is looking across the bay at a vague, dark outline of some tall structure, while in his hands he holds a book: A Child’s History of the United States. He is sitting on the shores of New York, looking out at what’s left of Manhattan.
It would make a great opening shot for a movie — a YA post-apocalyptic movie. The Doomsman is, like After London, one of the earliest examples of the post-apocalyptic YA adventure. The plot follows the familiar pattern: A restless boy is trying to understand his society and discover how it fell from its seemingly more glorious and technologically marvelous past. Excitement, danger, and romance ensue; the boy proves his manhood, discovers the secrets of lost technologies, and seeks to win the girl. (The gender pattern here wouldn’t be swapped until decades later.) Much of what appeals to us in present-day YA blockbusters like the Hunger Games is here in Doomsman, in a form that only feels a little dated. Continue reading
George Long’s Valhalla (1906)
Post-apocalyptic worlds are always haunted. The empty ruins of great cities, the artifacts of lost technologies, the mouldering books, and the memories of the vanished civilization make it clear that the survivors are now living in the world of the dead. In George Long’s Valhalla, the haunting is literal: the world is now one great hall of the dead, with a billion spirits ready to lend their ghostly hands to help the survivors build a better future. While it’s stiffly written and poorly plotted, this short book is nevertheless an interesting artifact from that optimistic time before the First World War. As he describes a new civilization rebuilt under the guidance of the dead from the last one, Long suggests that the root of human dysfunction is simple: jealousy of love and power. Without jealousy, there would be no serious conflict and people will get along just fine.
Like The Purple Cloud, Valhalla is one of those post-apocalyptic books where the world has been almost entirely depopulated, but those who are left don’t really have to struggle for survival. Living in the aftermath of the greatest natural disaster ever, Long’s characters don’t worry about the challenges posed by nature; more threatening are the challenges they pose to each other. The catastrophe itself is a vaguely described series of events that resemble the biblical apocalypse: Continue reading
M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901)
The Book of Revelation isn’t the only part of the Bible that inspires post-apocalyptic fiction — Genesis plays a big part too. The Bible’s story about the beginning of the world has become a popular way to think about the world’s end. Adam and Eve, a paradisiacal Eden, and humanity’s fall get transformed into a last couple, a post-apocalyptic haven, and the forbidden fruit of some unexplored territory or lethal knowledge. What could be called the very first post-apocalyptic novel was explicitly written as a bookend to Genesis. Nathaniel Hawthorne later wrote a replay of Genesis that takes place within the empty remnants of civilization. M.P Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, an overwritten but under-read classic, is also a post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve story: the fall of civilization is brought about by a reach for the unexplored North Pole, and a last couple must consider the moral dilemma of repopulating an empty world.
The Purple Cloud is the first post-apocalyptic novel of the 20th century, but it starts with a throwback, by putting the whole thing within a mystic frame story of the sort employed much earlier by de Grainville and Mary Shelley. Most of the novel consists of the first-person record of the last man as he wrote it down in his notebooks; to get those notebooks in the hands of 20th century readers, Shiel has them dictated by a medium to her physician, who then passes the manuscript on to M.P. Shiel. Finding a plausible explanation for how a future story comes into the hands of present-day readers was a particular concern of 19th century SF writers, but would soon be largely abandoned. Continue reading