Within science fiction, there is a great tradition of the oddball post-apocalyptic novel, pioneered by Philip Dick in Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) and Deus Irae (with Roger Zelazny, 1976). It is a tradition still thriving today in books like Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon (1995) and Ryna Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife (2012), and it includes Denis Johnson’s lyrical Fiskadoro. The oddball post-apocalyptic novel is not concerned with the gritty realities of survival; instead, it takes place in a less lethal and much more hallucinatory setting that is populated with various hucksters, grotesques, dreamers, and generally confused people who are trying to figure out just what the hell is going on.
The post-apocalyptic setting of Fiskadoro is a group of small fishing communities in the paradise of the Florida Keys, about sixty years after a nuclear war destroyed North America and probably much of the rest of the world. Life here is based on scraps of the pre-holocaust world: physical scraps, scraps of language, scraps of identity, and scraps of awareness of the birth of the present world. Salvaged car seats make up the living room furniture, and people speak in a combination of broken English and Spanish. The residents of these villages piece together their identities by assuming names of celebrities nobody can any longer recall, or grandiose but largely irrelevant titles like ‘Manager of the Miami Symphony Orchestra’. Continue reading
City at World’s End, Edmond Hamilton (serialized 1950, book reprint 1951)
On March 1st, 1954, on the Bikini atoll of the Marshall Islands, U.S. scientists detonated a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb called Castle Bravo. The expected yield of Bravo was five megatons TNT, but the scientists had missed a crucial fusion reaction that took place in this particular bomb design. As one scientist described it to the historian Richard Rhodes, “They really didn’t know that with lithium7 there was an n, 2n reaction [i.e., one neutron entering a lithium nucleus knocked two neutrons out]. They missed it entirely.” The actual yield of Bravo was three times the expected yield, measuring in at fifteen megatons. The blast blew a 6,500 ft diameter hole through the coral and trapped people in observation bunkers that were supposed to be situated far from the blast zone. Japanese fishermen aboard the vessel Lucky Dragon were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout, leading to the death of one member of the crew and sparking an international incident between the US and the country that less than nine years before had been the world’s first nation to be attacked with nuclear weapons.
Recent popular fears that physicists would destroy the world through miniature black holes created in the Large Hadron Collider are just the latest manifestation of the difficulty people have long had in deciding whether to view scientists as the sorcerer or the apprentice. Continue reading
I picked up Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife for Christmas, and can’t wait to start reading it. (Alas, I must first make a little room on my stack.)
Here’s what Paul de Filippo has to say about the book that io9 called this year’s weirdest post-apocalyptic novel:
With his new book, Blueprints of the Afterlife, Boudinot takes this finely wrought but perhaps thematically underpowered mimetic-absurdist vehicle and drops in a rocket-powered speculative engine. If Misconception took off from “So Little Time,” Blueprints launches hypersonically from “Written by Machines.”
The bulk of the novel unfolds about a century from now, in a postapocalyptic future barely emerging from an interregnum called the Age of Fucked Up Shit. We will witness at several removes, in the form of interview transcripts with one Luke Piper, the birth of FUS, an enigmatic era whose full meaning and dimensions Boudinot sternly and bravely refuses to fully resolve. With its leitmotif of “superposition,” the physics riff most familiar from the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, this novel pinwheels out multivalent explanations for almost everything, demanding that the reader navigate his or her own best-determined path of causality through the sly and shifting narrative.
But do not take that to mean that Blueprints of the Afterlife is an impenetrable nest of hypertext. Far from it. Its linear propulsion, studded with bravura set pieces, is compulsively readable in the manner of any consumer-friendly epic fantasy novel, overstuffed with unforgettable freakish characters (in the Age of FUS, freakish is the new normal); laugh-out-loud or cringe-worthy incidents; and rafts of genuinely innovative scientific, spiritual, and philosophical speculations delivered in sleek and colorful prose.
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
The much-revered writers of the Golden Age of science fiction can be quite rough around the edges, even downright embarrassing on occasion. The writing is hurried, the plots of plot-driven books are disturbingly inconsistent, and the characters are primarily stock types and authorial mouthpieces. To top it off, many of these novels are ambitious, earnestly offered as novels of big ideas. These ideas are usually sympathetic (tolerance, freedom, racial equality, escape from religious tyranny), but generally reduced to platitudes expressed in long, somnolent sermons by the your standard pointy-headed philosopher-scientist.
So why bother to read these books? Continue reading
The possibility of human extinction in End of the World sci-fi is sometimes paired with a consideration of our next evolutionary step – a concept that is less scientific than it sounds (evolution shouldn’t be considered in such linear terms), but one that does make an effective fictional tool for thinking about human impermanence.
Arthur C. Clarke’s majestic Childhood’s End is about the end of Homo sapiens and evolutionary succession, in a sense. In this case the end of the human species doens’t occur as a result of nuclear annihilation or an asteroid stike, and our evolutionary successors don’t emerge from a struggling population of mutant survivors. The end here comes through a double transcendence. Our species leaves behind its childhood in a way that reveals our relationship to nature in its most universal form, and to science and rationality, which prove not only more powerful than our wildest imaginings, but also, paradoxically, small and limiting in the larger scheme.