It’s probably no coincidence that I’ve been reading more and more fiction that presents disastrous alternative histories of the world, something we have all thought about in 2020. I began a few years ago wanting to read something by Margaret Atwood. I was put off by The Handmaid’s Tale (also didn’t get through it on TV). I ended up reading the three volume series that begins with Oryx and Crake. Others have followed, some good, some bad. Here are my thoughts. I’m not reviewing the books, just providing a quick summary of the disasters involved. I am intrigued by what disaster novels get right and what they ignore about the potential effects of apocalyptic change.
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
What happens? A disease kills all humans.
Who/what caused it? Not an attack from space, nor mutation of much-abused nature, the disease turns out to be invented and spread by a group of tech superstars who believe they are going to save the world. The founding characters all take the names of endangered species.
The group who “knew what was best” for humanity designed new beings who would not possess the regrets that seem to weigh down all humanity. The perpetrators inadvertently die along with most everyone else. Not everyone dies, and the new creatures are not everything that their creators might have wanted. The survivors are a random group.
The author gets right: If you introduce fatal disease into the world, you cannot dictate who gets it and who survives. The details of life in a completely deconstructed world are what you would expect, a combination of scavenging from the old, and a return to farming.
The author gets wrong: Would anyone have survived after such an event? If they survived the disease, wouldn’t they die of shock once they realized what had happened?
Is there a funny part in this apocalypse? Bouncing blue penises.
Worth reading? Yes. No one can predict the future, even tech stars.
The End of October, by Lawrence Wright
What happens? An unknown virus causes a global pandemic. The book came out just as the Covid-19 lockdowns began. It seemed eerily predictive.
Who/What caused it? The source is unknown for much of the story, a virus that mutates to a deadly, rapidly spreading form.
Henry Parsons is the epidemiologist sent by the CDC to stop a new disease killing people in a refugee camp in Indonesia. By the time Henry arrives at the camp a taxi driver exposed to the illness has set off for Saudi Arabia to participate in the Hajj. Millions are infected, and world crisis sets in. The plot veers into preventing world war, more James Bond than real life.
The author gets right: Wright is absolutely correct in describing reactions to a pandemic, especially hoarding, panic, and some dramatic scenes of death.
The author gets wrong: In this story, children still attend school, certainly not happening in most places. Electricity, water, food, medical care still seem to be available, though overwhelmed in the active pandemic areas.
Is there a funny part? Not in this book.
Worth reading? If only to check out the author’s take on pandemic reactions and the ways he pegged what would happen in some situations and not in others.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
What happens? The complete collapse of civilization.
What caused it? 99% of the world’s population dies within a few months in a pandemic of unexplained origin.
First, TV goes off, then the internet blanks out, then electricity, then running water. Gasoline and aviation fuel last a few years, but survivors mostly find one another by walking from place to place, scavenging the houses of the dead. The book follows The Traveling Symphony, a group who live by bringing excerpts of Shakespeare and classical music to tiny communities that have survived. They travel in horse drawn refashioned pickup trucks
Entertaining? Survival shifts from looting the homes of the dead to farming and hunting. One man develops The Museum of Civilization, a case full of electronic devices that used to function.
Frightening? When a self-appointed prophet appears, he and his followers rapidly go from intoning bible verses to brainwashing their community. From there they begin taking hostages to exchange for whatever they want, mostly ammunition and wives for the prophet. The ruthlessness of the group who believes they are “the light”, and everyone else is “the dark” is terrifying.
The author gets right: The Traveling Symphony, with the motto, “survival is not enough” is charming, something that I hope would happen after a total collapse. They scout empty school buildings for musical instruments.
The helplessness of people who have lived in a city their entire life is probably accurate. At the abandoned airport where much of the story takes place, there are actresses, copywriters, and salesmen, but no engineers, mechanics, or farmers to help get the community restarted.
The author gets wrong: There is a lot that is glossed over. Life would probably be more nasty, brutish, and short than this novel indicates in a world without antibiotics, surgery centers, or police. There are no roving bands of thugs. People begin to cooperate very early on, and after one man is ejected from the community (for rape), there doesn’t seem to be much intra-community strife.
The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal
What happens? In 1952, most of the US government and a lot of the East coast of the US is destroyed an asteroid. After a few years of nuclear winter, Earth is going to heat until the seas boil and all human life is destroyed.
What caused it? An asteroid unexpectedly hits earth, landing on Washington, DC, Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean.
In this scenario, the world has some time, a generation or two, to get to the moon and establish a colony before Earth becomes uninhabitable.
Entertaining? One of the best things about this story is the author’s effort to incorporate the racism and prejudice of the 1950s and suggest how disaster could have steered the world toward greater equity. There are no computers or other electronics apart from the space program, where women “computers” are indispensable. Women pilots have trouble breaking into the corps of astronauts, and women of color have even greater difficulty, but change begins.
Frightening? The premise of the book, a meteor landing in the ocean, is an unlikely event, but it would indeed make the world uninhabitable.
The author gets right: People cope with the nuclear winter, but when it begins to warm again, they get comfortable and lose interest in the space program, despite the countdown to when everyone will die. This sounds like the present reaction to global warming.
The author gets wrong: There is a crater in place of Washington, DC, and the only living member of Congress and the cabinet is the Secretary of Agriculture, who takes over as President. The power came back on pretty quickly in the surviving areas for such a huge disaster.
The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters
What happens? Scientists predict earth will be hit by an asteroid in just over a year.The world goes crazy, reacting to the inevitable impact with everything from denial to preemptive suicide (“jumpers”).
Who/what caused it? It’s the universe.
Entertaining? Henry Palace, the “last policeman,” can’t seem to help himself when someone asks for the answer to a puzzling question. Everyone around him assumes that people who disappear have gone awol or crazy, while Henry gets on his bicycle and goes to find out.
Frightening? In a chilling scene, Henry visits the coast on one of his quests, and finds ocean liners filled with refugees approaching the US. (The estimated impact zone is in Malaysia/Indonesia.) News reports refugees being welcomed, but Henry sees the Navy sinking the ships and firing on survivors in the water.
At the end of Countdown City, the water supply, the last of public utilities to keep functioning, finally stops. I won’t spoil it for you, but the result is not good.
The Author Gets Right: Lots of people do crazy things when they know they are going to die in the near future. Lots of people keep doing what they normally do, because they can’t think of what else to do. Not everyone wants to go gamble away their savings, or dance on top of a bar.
The Author Gets Wrong: The power goes out, yet food still arrives in huge trucks. A few people secretly cobble together what’s left of the internet via generators. Gasoline disappears, yet buses occasionally speed down the highway taking people to places they believe might allow them to survive. Henry’s sister stops by in a helicopter. There’s a lot that doesn’t seem likely.
The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
What happens? The US stays out of WWII and veers into Fascism and anti-Semitism, with suggestions of even worse to follow.
Who/What caused it? Charles Lindbergh gets elected instead of FDR.
In this reimagining of history, Lindbergh is depicted as a Nazi sympathizer, though toward the end it’s suggested that the Nazis may have been holding his child (thought dead after abduction as an infant) as a hostage.
Entertaining? Yes, Roth deftly takes history on a dark detour and just when things are going to get very bad, and Jews may be sent to re-education or prison camps, Roth backs down. He gets history back on track with the unexpected disappearance of Lindbergh (suicide, murder, plane crash) and the election of Eisenhower. The story outlines a brush with disaster, that is averted just as quickly as it began, and sets history back on track.
Frightening? It’s an excellent alternative history, and you can put the group of your choice in place of the Jewish community that Roth uses as the government’s target, and the results are still scary to contemplate. For this scenario to happen, politicians have to be utterly unscrupulous, following the person in power but disavowing all his proposed (truly terrible) policies once he’s gone. (Sound familiar?) The ease with which oppression builds and then ebbs away should scare you.
The author gets right: How quickly neighbors turn their backs on each other to protect their own families. He’s got blustering, know-nothing politicians down pretty well. The shift to toadying from normal White House activity is eerily familiar these days, though the book was published in 2004.
The author gets wrong: The happy ending, if there is one, is that the US goes back to normal as soon as Lindbergh is gone and Eisenhower is elected. Would terrible policies be swept away along with a bad president? Will they?