Dystopia, Post-apocalyptic, Post-nuclear, Part 2

Dystopian novels, what-if stories of the world’s worst-case scenarios, come in many flavors. In my last post, I discussed older novels envisioning a post-apocalyptic, post-nuclear world, especially those arising from the Red Scare era. In this post, I’ll be discussing later novels about the aftermath of nuclear disaster. In alphabetical order by author, these are the novels in the two posts:

  • One Second After, William Forstchen–discussed HERE
  • Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank–discussed in my last post
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding–discussed in my last post
  • Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban–discussed HERE
  • Fiskadoro, Denis Johnson–discussed HERE
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy–discussed HERE
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.–discussed in my last post
  • On the Beach, Neville Shute–discussed in my last post

To repeat: I’m leaving out many other amazing dystopian novels , both the post-nuclear kind and all the others. The great classic dystopian stories, such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, are tales of political, societal, and moral collapse. Even though 1984 is set after a great war that ends the world as everyone knows it, written post-Hiroshima and published in 1949, Orwell didn’t seem to have nuclear war in mind. More recent novels of this type include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and some fairly recently published fiction such as the novels of Christopher Brown and Claire North. Other writers situate dystopia in environmental collapse–Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (although Handmaid’s Tale‘s societal collapse does seem to have originated in an environmental disaster) and Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower are two notable examples. Other types include the world-wide pandemic novel, such as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I’ll probably post about these other types later on.

My three main examples in this post–Riddley Walker, Fiskadoro, and The Road–are unabashedly literary. As in my last post, I’m also discussing a kind of outlier, in this case One Second After. Because I have misgivings about this last one, I’ll save that for the end of my post. Then, if you don’t want to suffer my personal rant about it, you can close the browser!

Now for these later novels, much more consciously literary, all of them with built-in cult followings:

Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

The edition with this puppet cover is available here: https://www.thriftbooks.com/w/riddley-walker_russell-hoban/268676/item/7035174/?utm_adgroup=#idiq=7035174&edition=2946372. I see that a different edition on Amazon.com features an afterword by David Mitchell, and THIS amazing (but pricey) edition features great illustrations by Quentin Blake.

What a novel! Hoban wrote this book, published in 1980, after an inspiring trip to Canterbury Cathedral. An American writer known most widely for his children’s books, Hoban ended up spending most of his time in England. Very much like A Canticle for Leibowitz, and unlike such novels as On the Beach and Alas, Babylon (see my last post), Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker takes place many centuries after a nuclear war has destroyed civilization, not in the immediate chaotic aftermath.

Hoban’s novel follows the journey of a very young protagonist, a boy who has just turned twelve. But this is no young adult novel. In Riddley’s world, boys become men at that age, and by his society’s lights, he has just passed that marker. Society is fractured between the hunter/gatherers and the farmers, and it is a society characterized by violence and sudden death. Riddley’s father has died, passing the mantle of clan “Connexion Man” on to Riddley. That is, Riddley, like his father before him, is somehow expected to speak for the divine when the clan makes important decisions. He’s a kind of shaman.

As Riddley begins figuring out his new adult role, the political machinators of his society are up to no good. They have been desperate to retrieve arcane information from the pre-nuclear age that will give them some kind of advantage over others. They know it involves massive explosions of the type that drove their world back to the iron age, and they may have found a clue.

Riddley grapples with the motives of these powerful people, the adults who supposedly run society. Inadvertently, with Riddley’s help, they have re-discovered TNT, the first step down a dangerous path. Riddley struggles with whether to ally himself with the powerful and their desire to regain this lost and frightening knowledge, or whether it is better for society to suppress it. After all, his world is full of deformed, mutated people whose lives are irretrievably blighted by the long-term effects of nuclear fallout. Throughout the novel, Riddley puzzles out his own motives and attitudes, often obscure even to him.

Here’s the most eccentric thing about this novel. One of the major ways people in Riddley’s primitive world bond and communicate is through traveling puppet shows. Riddley joins one of these groups, always torn by how the strange device of speaking through the oracular mouth of a puppet either unites or harms his society.

Is this an easy book to read? No. It is written in a style the author imagined could evolve from the ordinary speech of folks in the “Inland” (England) of the future, if that speech-pattern were to be distorted and perverted by centuries removed from its roots and thrown into a world of widespread illiteracy–back to a world where information is mostly remembered and conveyed orally. For that reason, and many others, the book is a tour de force. Its use of language is amazing. The characterization of a boy becoming a man in a dark and confusing time is brilliant. And in this book, there are no easy answers.

You MAY try to read Riddley Walker and give up. You MAY try to read it and find it fascinating. (I did.) You MAY try to read it and find it life-changing. If you are one of those readers in the third category, go straight to this web site to find your people: http://russellhoban.org (Actually, the last time I tried going there, I wasn’t able to connect. I hope this is a one-time weird internet thing and that the site hasn’t gone dark.)

Here’s a wonderful article about Hoban and his cult status. And here’s another about the unique language Hoban invented for his novel. I really resonated with this article, because its author, Jess Zimmerman, admits she loves The Faerie Queene--and so do I. Edmund Spenser, the author of that lengthy late sixteenth century narrative poem, was urged by Sir Philip Sidney not to write it in some strange made-up faux medieval, faux Chaucerian English. Did Spenser listen? He did not. The result of his literary risk-taking is a masterpiece–but just as Sidney warned, a not-very-often-read masterpiece. (Full disclosure: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on The Faerie Queene.) So Russell Hoban and this book fit the model. Be very excited, or be very warned, whichever applies to you as reader.

Fiskadoro, by Denis Johnson

Find it on amazon.com. As far as I know, it’s only available in paperback (also a hugely expensive hardback, used)–no ebook version.

Talk about a cult following. Johnson, an acclaimed poet and writer of fiction, is frequently lauded for his visionary writing. His best-known work, Jesus’ Son, is a collection of short stories, later made into a 1999 movie starring Billy Crudup. Other books of his have been made into movies: Tree of Smoke, The Stars at Noon–and these novels and other writings of his have been given prestigious awards and short-listed for others. If you look up Johnson on Wikipedia, though, Fiskadoro is listed in the bibliography section but otherwise not mentioned. It merits a short Wikipedia article. Reviews of it were mixed.

One issue some readers will probably have with the novel is its language. It, like Riddley Walker, is written in a made-up argot that Johnson imagined people in the post-nuclear Florida Keys might speak. Unlike the world of Riddley Walker, Johnson’s dystopian world has experienced nuclear holocaust in the fairly recent past–but long enough ago that people have forgotten too much about their origins, especially since most written records were destroyed in the conflagration. The only person in the novel who was actually alive before the known world’s destruction is a woman so old and close to death that she is lost in her own dreams of the past. A second character tries desperately to preserve culture–he plays the flute–but knows with despair that he is losing the battle. The title character, Fiskadoro, is a child of the apocalypse. He knows almost nothing of the past, except for the rock music that some vestige of the former world, situated in Cuba, broadcasts in staticky bursts.

Fiskadoro has grown to adolescence in a world riven into warring or suspicious gangs or clans or ethnic groups, where the only unifying idea is the looming threat of invasion from Cuba. His father, a fisherman whose job is crucial to the survival of this tattered remnant of society, has just been swept overboard his vessel and drowned. Fiskadoro’s name seems to mean something like “Fish-man” or “Fisherman,” or even “Harpooner.” Several reviewers mention Moby Dick. They are not wrong, and Fiskadoro is its Ishmael.

This novel is a kind of fever-dream of apocalypse, a drugged out dystopia. Yet it’s very interesting. I first read it decades ago and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Re-reading it now, I’m impressed by how inventive it is.

Toward the end, swept into the old survivor woman’s dreams as she fades away, the reader realizes this novel is just as much a post-Viet Nam story as it is a post-nuclear one. It’s about the end of a world, not just in the physical sense, but in the cultural, the sense of understanding the world where you live. The final pages of Fiskadoro transition into a kind of prose poetry that some readers have hated and some have loved. I’m not sure it totally works, but I found it very compelling.

What is it about dystopia and made-up languages? It does make sense. Language does move on, and in a world divorced from its past, language would surely get distorted and reinvented. Hoban’s and Johnson’s novels (and Anthony Burgess’s) take the brave step of imagining what it would be like. Because of course I’m thinking right away of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. That is a dystopia of the societal collapse type, though, so I won’t be discussing it here.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

First off, there’s a controversy about this book, published in 2006. Is its dystopian landscape the result of a nuclear holocaust, or is its bleakness and cruelty the result of some other type of disaster? I’ve heard “meteor like the one that killed off the dinosaurs,” and a few others. Here’s the controversy in a nutshell, from the Cormac McCarthy Society’s web site. Clearly, I’m with the forum poster who thinks the disaster that precedes the events of The Road comes from some type of nuclear strike, and I’m really partial to the EMP theory (more about that later).

Whatever really did cause the disaster (McCarthy never explicitly says), a nuclear winter-type event has blighted the entire world, and a father and young son must get down out of the mountains–probably the southern end of the Appalachians– and to the coast before the cold kills them. The world of their journey is just about as bleak as it gets. I say “just about,” because no one who has read McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel, Blood Meridian, can possibly conceive of a world bleaker than that. The world of The Road is plenty bleak, though.

The total destruction of all plant and animal life; the suicide of the man’s wife because she can’t bear to watch them all die; the gun with two bullets, one for him, one for his son, when it becomes clear he’ll die leaving his son alone–the bleakness keeps on coming. Oh, did I mention the cannibals? Roving bands of cannibals, in fact, who impregnate women for the food their pregnancies will produce. Or just other desperate people who will make off with their meager belongings if they can, these belongings the only objects that stand between them and death by exposure or starvation. Some readers think the ending of The Road is hopeful. In the movie version, there’s certainly a gleam of hope. I’ll say no more about that.

I’ll only say that if your vision of the post-apocalyptic landscape is more like the kind in certain video games–the Fallout series, for example–you’re in for a jolt. In Fallout 76, for example, your character romps around dressed like a glorified tin can to discover all manner of bounty, especially (yum) left-behind dog food and stale slices of pumpkin pie dispensed by wonky automats. Sure, there are ghouls to fight off, but you are heavily armed. And yes, the landscape is bleak in post-apocalyptic West Virginia, but not appreciably bleaker than actual West Virginia. (Now I’d better duck. Sorry, West Virginians!) (So I’m from that other Virginia. So sue me.)

I’m joking here so I won’t have to think about The Road. It’s very, very grim. There’s not a scrap of food that hasn’t already been scavenged, and nothing more will ever grow, so the characters are slowly starving to death. And that’s just one of the grimnesses. Why torture yourself by reading this book, some ask. A lot of reviewers have pointed out the reason: yes, this novel is full of extreme cruelty. But it is also full of extreme and tender love between the father and son. It’s also the first Cormac McCarthy novel not filled to the brim with purple prose. Sure, the man is a genius (no one, but no one, has nailed Manifest Destiny the way that man does in the truly repellent Blood Meridian), but his prose tending toward ersatz Faulkner sometimes makes me want to throw up. This novel is that marvel, a relatively restrained Cormac McCarthy book. Now not only all West Virginians but the full complement of Cormac McCarthy cultists hates me. But I do love The Road. This is my second time reading it, and I loved it even more the second time. The movie really doesn’t do it justice, so if you’ve only seen the movie, you haven’t experienced it. So read it!

One Second After, by William Forstchen

This is the book in the post that I regard as a kind of outlier–not that it doesn’t quite fit the topic, the way Lord of the Flies maybe didn’t quite fit in the last post, but because the other three novels I’m discussing here are clearly what we might call “literature,” while this one is clearly popular fiction. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing–not at all. I write (try to write) popular fiction myself, and I read and enjoy a lot of it. Besides, the distinctions between the two can be murky, or maybe just beside the point. Shakespeare was “popular fiction” in his day. Etc. Etc.

But this book was clearly written with a wide audience in mind–no off-putting strange language experiments or terminal grimness, or both. So the writing is clear and workmanlike. We’re not supposed to focus on that, but on the story. Nothing wrong with that.

The plot/situation of the novel is truly chilling: a particular type of nuclear attack has paralyzed the nation. No one has dropped an actual nuke on the U.S. The enemy (whoever they are; it’s unclear who they are) has exploded several nukes in the atmosphere, completely disabling the electronics by which we all live these days. This is a very real danger. (A close family member is actually working on a problem like that–can’t say more, or he’ll have to shoot me.) The day the nukes go off, everything in the main character’s world just stops. Or rather, almost everything. His mother-in-law’s old Edsel still runs, one of the few vehicles that can, because it’s not stuffed full of fragile, vulnerable electronics. Terrible hardships result, including the end of refrigeration and the subsequent deaths of many vulnerable people, such as Type II diabetics. The novel pretty convincingly shows how the main character, a fictional college professor at the actual Montreat College in actual Black Mountain, NC, rallies the community to survive long enough for order to be restored. I suppose that’s where I sort of didn’t follow–I tend to think matters might go the way of The Road instead. But it’s pretty realistic, and it avoids the kind of Robinsonade that these types of novels sometimes devolve into. That is, the characters go all Robinson Crusoe on us, making their own clothes out of goatskin and whatnot. There’s a little of that, but not too much. I found the net result of Forstchen’s fictional situation pretty convincing, too–that while the U.S. might emerge from such an attack not completely ruined, our failure to take heed results in our becoming a lesser power in the world lineup. So this is pretty absorbing fiction and a cautionary tale both technologically and politically.

So what didn’t I like about this book? STOP READING NOW if you don’t want to listen to me go on a rant.

There were some tear-jerker scenes, but I’m a sucker for those, so that’s not my problem. I guess I found the main character too John Wayne for me. Thankfully, I didn’t discover the second coming of Farnham’s Freehold when I started to read–a few things I’d heard led me to believe I might. The main character reminds me a lot of the main character in Alas, Babylon (see my last post), but that character was a lot more likeable, a lot less arrogant than this one. Partly this is because of my own situation, I suppose. I have spent quite a bit of time a few ridges over from Black Mountain, spent my time in Pisgah National Forest, and all my old Presbyterian aunties were in rhapsodies about Montreat this and Montreat that throughout my entire childhood. I do love that landscape, so that was a plus for me when I read this novel.

But I too have been a college professor in a liberal arts field at a small church-related college in a small southeastern town, and yes, there’s a lot of nepotism and cronyism, and I know I benefited from some of it myself. But it’s nothing to boast about. Not only that, but . . .you know. . .at a college that small, EVERYONE takes their share of the eight o’clock classes, painful though it is. Maybe people in history are more privileged than those of us toiling in the salt mines of English, where there are no TAs and EVERYONE takes their turn at freshman comp. So–a sense of personal pique here? I tried to get past that. But also–was that a dig against Guilford College? I hope not. Maybe the author meant the dig against some other well-meaning bunch of woozy liberal loonies.

I just can’t help thinking we’re heading straight into a dystopic nightmare, and I don’t simply mean some EMP taking us out, although I agree that’s a danger. I think we’re heading there because of short-sighted policies based on greed and jingoism and a culture that privileges some of our citizens over others, the wealthy over the poor, and I fear we began heading in that direction because of some of the people who apparently helped this author write his book. So I distrust that. End of rant.

But I do fear for the whole genre of dystopia. The great poet W. H. Auden remarked in a 1952 essay, “Notes on the Comic,” that satire was an exhausted form, requiring that writer and audience share assumptions about what is “normal” for that writing form to succeed. When the shared assumptions wither or fracture, satire dies. Or take the political thriller House of Cards. Once actual dirty politics overtopped the ones in that show with the vileness of its excesses, I stopped watching. I could just watch the election news. (I had a similar reaction to Scott Lynch’s third book in the Gentlemen Bastards series, although I’d never stop reading those, whenever he wants to resume them, and if he never does, I thank him from the heart for the ones he did write.) So what happens to dystopia when reality surpasses it? We’ll be living there, not reading about it. And it won’t be fun. And it won’t necessarily come at us through some dramatic EMP. That may be why, as much as I enjoyed reading and in some cases re-reading these post-nuclear dystopian books, I think I enjoy (if that’s the word) the societal collapse ones more.

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