H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air (1908)
After the First World War, wrote historian Barbara Tuchman in her landmark history of the pre-war years, “illusions and enthusiasms possible up to 1914 slowly sank beneath a sea of mass disillusionment.” But there were some who were disillusioned long before that. In the decades leading up to the catastrophic conflict, all sorts of writers and thinkers worried about the possibility of a worldwide war, fought with technologies that were capable of causing destruction on an entirely new scale.
Concerns about a massive conflict were so serious that the major European powers held two peace conferences, in 1899 and 1907, despite the fact that they weren’t currently at war with each other. Fiction writers captured the martial zeitgeist with a steady stream of future war stories (including H.G. Wells’ 1898 The War of the Worlds), exploring military possibilities that would soon be realized.
The most bitingly clear statement of pre-war anticipation and disillusionment is H.G. Wells’ 1908 novel, The War in the Air. The book is a major genre milestone, one that explicitly lays out an important theme of the coming century: Our civilization is headed for a catastrophic end unless our moral progress keeps pace with our technological process. Continue reading
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
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
Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, tr. Ken Liu
Back in the middle of the 20th century, during the height of the Cold War, Soviet science fiction was an exotic commodity. As Judith Merril wrote about her 1966 anthology of Soviet SF:
[This anthology] contains some startling insights into the philosophical premises of the contemporary imaginative outlook in the U.S.S.R. And it provides a rather shocking reminder of how uneven the exchange has been so far.
For nearly a century, the center of gravity for science fiction has been the U.S and the U.K. But there is much in “the rest of the world” (as one anthology somewhat condescendingly puts it) that English fans never get a chance to read. More than fifty years after Merrils’ anthology, the exchange between U.S and foreign science fiction readers is still uneven, with very little foreign SF being translated. Some of the great works of the Strugatsky brothers remain in print in the U.S. And Stanisław Lem is still the great exception; nearly all of his works are available in English. But by and large non-English science fiction doesn’t really exist for American readers. 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