“Avalon Burning” @ SF in SF

On Saturday, April 21, I performed a section from Avalon Burning, my novel-in-progress, at SF in SF. This monthly series of “Science Fiction in San Francisco” readings is held in the absolutely terrific venue of the screening room of the Variety Children’s Hospital, and proceeds from the evening benefit the Variety Children’s Charity.

Bruce McCallister read as well, and his hardboiled and funny “divine comedy” of a supernatural hit man caught up in a god vs. the devil shell game was a perfect complement to my dark & gritty post-apocalyptic fantasia.

The evening was well-attended, and the Q & A following centered (unsurprisingly) on definitions of “urban fantasy” and resistance thereto.

Many thanks to all who came out, to Terri Bisson for his congenial hosting and erudite moderation, and to Rina Weisman for her continual efforts in coordinating a true asset to the city of San Francisco and the local SF community.

Here’s video of the performance. I wasn’t able to place a camera face-on, so apologies for the side-angle view.

Apocalypse Now & Then

(In 2009 I wrote a two-week series of blog posts about post-apocalyptic novels & films for Borders’ blog. Because this subgenre has continued to flourish, I am reprinting the posts here.)

Photo by Waldemar

I grew up in the shadow of mushroom clouds. If you’re under 30, it may be difficult to understand how inevitable nuclear annihilation seemed back then. We were sleeping in the atomic bed our parents had made in World War II, our dreams invaded by visions of sudden light and inescapable heat. Social theorists and psychologists offered explanations and hypotheses, but the obvious one never seemed to be proffered: The bombs were real. The missiles in their silos were real. We weren’t making this crap up. They were aimed at us, and within them slept annihilation forged by our own minds yet paradoxically inconceivable.

Then the Cold War receded and the world went online. Geographic borders became less relevant; multiculturalism became the watchword of the nascent global village. Sudden light and inescapable heat no longer usurped our dreams.

Then began a series of events that worked their way into the public consciousness. The comet Shoemaker-Levy strafed Jupiter and the public was made viscerally aware that there but for the grace of god and an accident of orbital mechanics go us. Paleontologists and geologists began proving that extraterrestrial strikes hadn’t just wiped out the dinosaurs, they’d wiped out damn near everything — and more than a few times, too. NASA’s Near Earth Object Program has catalogued some 5,500 proximate orbiting objects, 1,000 of which represent a genuine threat. We may have got this far by simple virtue of being sandwiched between falling rocks.

Meantime epidemiologists realized humanity was overdue for a global pandemic, probably a mutated flu strain. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed at least 50 million people (100 million, by some estimates) — in an age far less accustomed to readily available international travel.

And is it hot in here, or is it just us? The Northwest Passage opened up for the first time in recorded history. Sea levels rose. Species began migrating toward the equator. Extinction rates increased — not all of them due to climate change, either. Humanity’s very biomass was affecting the planet. The amount of grain it takes to feed the cows that feed us affects the food chain, the landscape, the atmosphere. People started buying electric cars as some kind of Band-Aid and blithely ignored the fact that most electricity is produced by burning coal (fossil fuel takes on a whole new meaning now, dunnit?).

And for the first time in human history more people lived in cities than out of them. Emergent digital infrastructures began migrating not only information but culture itself to a form that depended entirely upon an interdependent foundation of technological sophistication: Digital media and the Internet.

Things were looking kind of frail.

Only a generation ago our biggest worry was blowing ourselves up. Now we have evidence from a number of disparate sources that this fear is really a kind of hubris, a form of self importance. Because we can survive our technological and sociological adolescence and the universe can still  smoosh us like a tick at any time. Big rocks from space can smash our little anthill. Gamma radiation from a sun that went supernova about the time the Visigoths were knocking at Rome’s door can sleet through us and end our overpopulation worries in a couple of generations. Free-riding viruses treat us as public transportation and discard their vehicles when they’re done with them. Solar flares can swing for the centerfield wall. The planet itself can run a fever and send us packing.

And we might make such cosmic worries moot with our own two hands, because it’s possible we’ve gotten too smart for our own good — what a friend of mine calls Monkey with a Gun. One hiccup on a gene-slice alteration can uncoil a billion years of DNA. One glitch in a nanobot can run rampant through the species. The torch we pass now runs on electricity. Civilization is built on quicksand. Humanity is a house of cards. I believe its increasing interconnectedness and interdependence is almost entirely good for it (though ultimately worrisome for independent cultural survival), because it allows us to build up survivable resistance in ways far beyond those that defeat mere bacteria. I also think it’s gonna be a photo finish however it turns out.

Artists and opportunists, preachers and con men, futurists and fabulists, entertainers and infomercials have surveyed this ripe and artificed terrain and asked themselves, What if all this stops? Do we eat, drink, and make merry? Do we survive? How? Does our planet survive us even if we do? Or is the end of much of life on earth the price we pay for monomaniacal evolutionary success? How can we flourish without destroying what surrounds us? Because our very success is a kind of catastrophe in the making. A slow-motion apocalypse.

We are a worried people dreaming out loud. We buy our dreams of heat and light. We go to bookstores. We go to theaters. These are our training manuals. Our collective rehearsals. In silent witness we practice our emergency preparedness drills.  There is our reality-testing. There indeed may be our reality itself.

A Buddhist maxim says to live your life as if you are already dead. Perhaps our civilization is in the throes of learning that as well.

Dead to the World, and Vice Versa

(In 2009 I wrote a two-week series of blog posts about post-apocalyptic novels & films for Borders’ blog. Because this subgenre has continued to flourish, I am reprinting the posts here.)

There is a subgenre of postapocalyptic scenarios that contains all of the elements I’ve previously discussed — societal breakdown, survivalism, moral quandary of looter/ predator vs. self sufficiency and altruism, questions of individual usefulness and the lengths to which you might go to in order to survive, entrenched technophiles vs. barbarians at the gate — and which implicitly contains all those elements’ fascination.  But this subgenre also contains an additional element that I believe accounts for its enormous popularity, outpacing all the other end-of-the-world scenarios combined:  The zombie apocalypse.

Zombie movies and books existed well before George Romero got hold of them and forever changed the iconography of the walking dead in the popular consciousness in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Plenty of earlier works featured zombies, usually as bastardized or misunderstood interpretations of the Vodoun zombi, a corpse reanimated by a possessing spirit. These were inevitably depicted as mindless shambling slaves, and the horror they contained for their audience was the fear of being a hypnotized acolyte, a helpless laborer.

What Romero brought to this party was global contagion, insatiable flesh-gnoshing, and the zombie equivalent of a vampire’s wooden stake or a werewolf’s silver bullet: The Bullet in the Head. Suddenly zombies weren’t isolated creepies a la The Mummy, they were everywhere, they were hard to stop, they wanted to eat you, and you could become one of them. All humanity was now Other, estranged, alienated, paranoid, susceptible.

This aspect wasn’t entirely original with Romero. Change “vampire” to “zombie” in Matheson’s classic I Am Legend and you pretty much have Dawn of the Dead, published in 1954. So what’s the difference? What made post-Romero zombies the mac daddy of apocalypse scenarios?

When the original Battlestar Galactica was in production, the network wouldn’t allow the depiction of wholesale slaughter of humanoid creatures, especially as the show’s demographic was considered to skew young. The solution was to create a race of robots: The Cylons. Because you can slag robots till your trigger finger just won’t pull anymore and no one will bat an eye. Not even the network standards & practices people.

Zombies are Cylons. They’re people you have permission to kill.  Because they ain’t people no more. And the standards & practices people of society at large not only won’t bat an eye when you slaughter them, they’ll cheer you on as a champion of the human race.

It’s no coincidence that zombie-hunting scenarios have long enjoyed videogame popularity. Here’s a first-person shooter that lets you make gnarly blue heads eat hot lead to your heart’s content and not feel a twinge of regret about it. Hell, you’re a hero.

The zombie apocalypse doesn’t just make you ask What would I do? It makes you say Hell yes I’d do it! Gimme a crowbar — I’m gonna bust into that gunshop. It’s no accident these books and movies emphasize variety and novelty — sometimes black-comedically — in the depiction of ways to whack deadheads. You get to act out your every free-floating hostility, every pent-up road-rage fantasy, every hell-with-all-of-you impulse. You have a free ticket to go postal. You get the hot babe and the Escape Chopper.

Zombies. The apocalypse we can all greet wtih open arms and loaded guns.

After the Fall Sale – Everything Must Go

(In 2009 I wrote a two-week series of blog posts about post-apocalyptic novels & films for Borders’ blog. Because this subgenre has continued to flourish, I am reprinting the posts here.)

Apart from the personal appeal or romance of apocalyptic fiction and movies (which I also hope we’ve demonstrated is markedly divorced from the actuality of any likely apocalypse itself), there’s a sociological, even anthropological take implicit in these scenarios — the good ones, anyhow — that I find much more interesting: Postapocalyptic entertainment (the fact that this isn’t an oxymoron is borderline terrifying, when you think about it) examines the question of who we are — as a society and as individuals — when the rules are suddenly gone. How much of people’s actions are thwarted, tempered, or abetted by fear of judgement, retribution, punishment, by innate morality, by necessity? How civilized are we in the absence of civilization?

(Curiously, though many books and movies feature characters who are predators, looters, or “barbarians at the gate,” I can’t recall encountering one that charts a character’s progression [maybe regression is a better word] from pre-disaster citizen to cannibal looter.  Hmm.)

These questions and themes are why I think of Lord of the Flies as a postapocalyptic novel, whereas Robinson Crusoe most certainly is not.

The bleaker, more fundamental, more nihilistic explorations of these scenarios go beyond asking How will you survive? to asking Why would you? To positing the irretrievable end of humanity, sometimes of all earthly life, and wondering if the instinct to survive is, by that point, a senseless acting-out of genetic instructions. (If you came here wanting one of them there feelgood kickass apocalypses, well — oopsy.)

The answer, of course, is hope. Hope springs eternal even where nature itself does not. Yay us.

The End of Daze

(In 2009 I wrote a two-week series of blog posts about post-apocalyptic novels & films for Borders’ blog. Because  this subgenre has continued to flourish, I am reprinting the posts here.)

So I’ve dipped my toe in the postapocalyptic water over the last week to offer a brief survey of books and movies that I think are important in the After-the-Fall canon. Of necessity I’ve left out a bunch that I’d love to discuss because they’re just plain fun (Night of the Comet, the Resident Evil movies, “A Boy and His Dog,” a ton more). But as a foundation for talking about what in the world could be so appealing about the end of the world, I think we’ve got a broad spectrum of approaches and scenarios here.

So what’s the appeal of the apocalypse?

Generally, and most obviously, is the What Would I Do? question. What steps would I take and to what lengths would I go to flee the nukes, ward off zombies, quarantine myself from plague, fight the aliens, hide from the comet strike (good luck with that one)? Could I beat this rap? And if I did, how would I stay alive in the aftermath? Avoid starvation, radiation, enslavement, being eaten, freezing/ burning/being raygunned to death? Am I a loner, a predator, a rebuilder?

A necessary component question that, revealingly, people seldom seem to ask themselves is, Why should someone let me in his bomb shelter? In other words, what do I have to offer the immediate situation and the long-term process of survival and rebuilding? It’s like a big-budget version of that ruthless, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? party-game gigglefest and marriage-ender, “Lifeboat.”

When I wrote my first novel, Ariel, at the ripe old age of 19, I set out to write a Boys’ Adventure Story about the coolness of getting by in the postapocalyptic world. As I researched and thought about what it would really be like, the book itself began to show me that my initial instincts were misguided:

Because we lived away from the city, I sometimes walked down the street to the canal, and it was easy, with no cars coming and no city noises, to pretend something had wiped everybody out. Everybody but me. I think I wanted it that way. I thought up endless scenarios: the typical and clichéd ones of nuclear annihilation, others involving humankind wiped out by mutant viruses, bacteriological warfare, invading aliens, or disappearance in some great exodus I’d somehow missed out on.

But I’d never figured on anything like the Change. And when it happened it turned out to be nothing like what I’d wanted all along. It wasn’t some grand and glorious heroic struggle, One Man’s Fight for Survival. It was work, and it hurt — emotionally and physically. I never found out what happened to some people I cared for very much. The end of the world turned out to be something I preferred to fantasize about rather than experience. In that wandering time before I met Ariel there was one thought that often ran through my head: I’d always wanted to be alone like this, but I’d never realized it would be so lonely.

That was about when I realized that the writer in me wanted to subvert the notion of survival as somehow romantic. The vast majority of postapocalyptic movies and books contain an element (if not an outright assumption) of “Wouldn’t it be cool if this happened?” (Ariel is certainly guilty of this.) Even the more dour ones mine the huge pathos of “love at the end of time,” or at least laud the human spirit in the face of cosmic indifference. I believe one of the reasons McCarthy’s The Road has generated such interest is precisely because it is one of the few such works that contains not an ounce of romanticisim whatsoever.

Next time we’ll go from personal to anthropological. Woo hoo!

Aisle of the Dead (part 2)

(In 2009 I wrote a two-week series of blog posts about post-apocalyptic novels & films for Borders’ blog. Because this subgenre has continued to flourish, I am reprinting the posts here.)

Today I conclude my brief look at movies I think have made significant contributions to Apocalypse Cinema.

The Omega Man. Based on Richad Matheson’s classic I Am Legend, Charlton Heston chows down on scenery as the last man on earth after a weaponized disease wipes out most of humanity, leaving behind only demented survivors bent on killing Heston’s Robert Neville. The 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders were still very much on Hollywood’s mind when The Omega Man was released (1971), and Anthony Zerbe’s terrific take on a charismatic Manson-esque leader of “the Family” of silver-eyed mutant technophobe survivors who pursue Neville is a perfect foil for Heston’s declamatory style. An allegory of the hippie back-to-nature movement vs. Heston’s usurping Modern Machine Man, The Omega Man also manages to reflect many other movements that were shaping the culture (counter- and otherwise) at the time — Woodstock, Easy Rider, civil rights — in a cheapo backlot film that manages to work in spite of itself. Featuring a great score by Ron Grainer that was unavailable for decades, The Omega Man is admittedly dated and reaching, but somehow it still works for me — maybe because it was my favorite movie in the whole wide world when I was eleven.

I Am Legend. The Big Hollywood production of Matheson’s classic novel had a storied and problematic gestation — at one point it was slated to star Arnold Schwarzenegger and be directed by Ridley Scott — but the final result starring Will Smith is surprisingly good and contains some setpieces that are absolute classics, if you can get past the unacceptably fake CG rave-style zombies. (To its credit, the production tried using madeup actors, but they were shooting in Manhattan in November with nearly nude extras and the whole thing got just plain dangerous.) Dead Manhattan has held a glorious poetry of decay for apocalyptic fiction at least as far back as Stephen Vincent Benet’s seminal 1937 “By the Waters of Babylon” (aka “The Place of the Gods,” shamelessly cadged by Andre Norton for Star Man’s Son [1953], aka Daybreak 2250 A.D., and an early influence on me), and this is the first movie to get it right. Subtly featuring grass growng through the pavement and the unnerving wrongness of pervasive cricket chirps throughout the cityscape — clearly someone did his homework and read Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us — the imagery of urban desolation should have gotten costar billing.

To my mind, I Am Legend’s dirty little secret is that it is clearly a remake of The Omega Man; I’d be willing to bet no one involved in the production ever read the Matheson novel (or, if they did, it was decided to ignore it in favor of the remake). I highly recommend watching the DVD with the unreleased alternate ending.

Testament. An unforgettable 1983 film about a mother (Jane Alexander) trying to keep her family together in a small Bay Area community in the wake of a limited-exchange nuclear war that likely has claimed the life of her husband (William Devane). There are moments of unbelievable raw emotion here (or, if you didn’t like it, moments of painfully inept sentiment). For me it works but it’s too “clean,” in that it deals with emotional issues but shies away from the gritty truth that would follow such devastation. It’s a bit as if Oxygen channel had made a post-apocalypse movie. The performances are powerful (and Lucas Haas is about three minutes old in this movie!). For the unflinching version, see the next entry.

Threads. About the time America was up in arms over the supposedly controversial 1983 TV movie The Day After (a laughably unsubtle piece of hamhanded clumsiness directed by Nicholas Meyer, who should have known better), Britain was staggering around in mute numb horror produced by watching the mockumentary Threads, which (for 1984) was an unflinching Grand Guignol of life — such as it is — after the Big One. Relentlessly depressing (the handheld-camera jaunt through a critically massed ER trying to operate without power is worth the movie by itself), Threads takes a more extreme stand than most of its ilk in order to make its point, and features the most feel-good movie ending since Sophie’s Choice and Requiem for a Dream left ’em giggling in the aisles. The mockumentary style and scope work against the film a bit, distancing viewers from more direct personal attachment to any characters. Then again, this may be a blessing. Stupidly unavailable in a U.S-region DVD, I’m sorry to say.

Addendum to Original Post

I would add these two entries to those posted on the original Borders guest spots:

Jericho (TV series). The small Kansas town of Jericho is fortunately located in a relatively safe area between major nuclear strikes following a massive series of detonations that effectively destroys U.S. infrastructure and isolates towns, in what is essentially a well-done update of Alas, Babylon. Gritty and fairly realistic in its examination of many facets of the problems facing a small town suddenly cut off from the world (medicine, governance, vigilantism, looting, hoarding, fallout, etc.), Jericho boasted a talented cast playing absolutely credible characters. The show was dark and sometimes pretty grim (not one a them there light-hearted holocausts that network executives prefer), Jericho only played for two seasons. Totally worth seeing even if things don’t quite get resolved. Currently available to stream on Netflix.

The Book of Eli. About 100 years after a nuclear holocause, Denzel Washington is Eli, a bad-ass prophet-like man on a mysterious pilgrimage west. Shantytown boss Gary Oldman discovers that Eli is carrying a Bible, and he really, really wants it because most books have been destroyed, and the legendary reverence for this one will give him major mojo over the townfolk.  Naturally Eli ain’t about to give up his damn Bible. This sounds a lot dumber than it is. Washington is perfect in the role, for reasons I don’t want to say, and Oldman gives his best Early Shouting Oldman performance in years. I don’t want to say a lot about this movie because I don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s become one of my favorite post-apocalyptic films. Special mention to the perfect haunting score as well.

Honorable Mention

Survivors (BBC series). Lone survivors of a supervirus a la The Stand form a group and learn to rely on one another. My review on Netflix: I thoroughly enjoyed the two seasons of this show, but let’s get this out of the way right off: There’s a lot of stupidity in this thing. It doesn’t matter how many times the group is beaten, robbed, held at gunpoint, trapped, or conned, they absolutely refuse to get themselves even as much protection as a salad fork. Except for Tom, because he’s a Career Criminal, don’tcha know. They refuse to take precautions before entering buildings. When a member of their party has been taken they hang signs all over the city pointing to where they are, and not only does it never occur to them that the people chasing her when she escapes can read the signs, too, it doesn’t occur to the people chasing her, either.

They do a great job with the dead cityscapes, but there’s no evidence of the carrion that would be everywhere if 90% of the human race suddenly died. And lawns remain remarkably well kept. Stuff like that.

There’s a ton more. But I forgive it all of this stuff, because the characters are (with a few exceptions, such as Sarah) wonderfully well drawn. You genuinely care about these people. Enough that you hate to see them making the same stoopid mistakes over and over.

One thing you simply can’t help but notice as an American: Wow, there are a LOT less guns in England. It’d be rednecks & paramilitaries on parade here. On this show, if one guy has a gun, he’s got a dozen people rallied around him.

The closest comparison is Jericho, which for my money was a much more intelligent series that progressed quite logically. Still, I hated knowing that Survivors was canceled and there’s no getting past the cliffhanger ending of Season 2. You should know that going in.

And kudos for not having zombies.

Aisle of the Dead (part 1)

The SF in SF reading was terrific! Huge thanks to everyone who came out, and to Rina Weisman for inviting me. I’ll have video & a more detailed post sometime next week.

(In 2009 I wrote a two-week series of blog posts about post-apocalyptic novels & films for Borders’ blog. Because this subgenre has continued to flourish, I am reprinting the posts here.)

Having covered some novels I think have been important contributors to the Literature of Last Things, let’s turn our attention for the next few entries to movies that have given us some Technicolor insight into the end of the world.

Dawn of the Dead. A postapocalypse film so iconic it’s hard to say anything new about it, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead has been completely absorbed into the cultural landscape (Bonus Geek Points if you recognized the Robot Chicken end title theme as the mall music from Dawn of the Dead originally performed by The Goblins). This one has it all, because it invented most of it: Shambling zombies who are comical alone but terrifying en masse, shockingly rapid societal breakdown, the Escape Chopper, the abandoned shopping mall (I totally stole this for a scene in Ariel), the foraging & hoarding, the Funny Good Guy Getting Infected, the Bullet In The Head is All That Will Stop Them. Placed in historical context, it’s worth remembering that DotD was released unrated due to its unprecedented graphic grossness (setting off a makeup-effects arms race in the process) — a level of goosh that’s pretty much standard videogame fare nowadays; few have considered that the apocalypse may already be happening in slow motion.

Every zombie trope in existence owes a debt to Romero’s tightly directed film. Even the inventive 28 Days Later is basically DotD with overcaffeinated brainmunchers. Also noteworthy as another in the “technnophiles defending themselves against the barbarians at the gate” theme common in postapocalyptic movies. If you think you can substitute seeing the remake instead, save yourself two hours of your life you’ll never get back and avoid it like the plague it clumsily depicts. The original is a true landmark.

The Road Warrior. George Miller’s reductionist Campbellian (anti)hero myth is a true classic of kinetic roadpunk poetry whose striking imagery and energy continue to be ripped off by lesser talents to this day. This and Bladerunner shaped the feel of movies for a solid decade and more. Mel Gibson became an international star playing Max, a damaged former cop who Just Doesn’t Give A Damn Anymore as he cruises desolate highway stretches in “the last of the V8 Interceptors” across a wasted world in search of more fuel so he can keep on keeping on. Archetypally and structurally identical to Star Wars (Georges Miller and Lucas benefitted hugely from reading their Joseph Campbell, specifically Hero with a Thousand Faces), the film’s lean energy and simple drama played out against bleak landscapes go a long way in elevating the story to the level of myth. A “whiteclad technocrats keeping the fire alight” vs. “barbarians at the gate” storyline helped a lot.

I freaked out when The Road Warrior was released because it looked exactly like the image I’d had for my first novel, Ariel, which was right about to be released. I’ve heard that a very similar thing happened to William Gibson regarding Neuromancer when Bladerunner was released. Zeitgeist, indeed.

The Quiet Earth. This largely unknown 1985 New Zealand film deserves a wider audience. Modest in budget, personal in focus, and quirky in approach, this movie’s premise is that a government energy-grid project throws the world into a parallel universe, killing everybody except those who were right at the moment of their death when the event occurred. The first part focuses on a lone man’s increasing disaffection as he tries to cope; the remainder focuses on three survivors’ efforts to affect another fundamental change as they realize that the universe into which they’ve been thrust is unstable. Also one of the most striking final images of any movie ever.

Miracle Mile. You answer a payphone outside a coffeeshop and it’s a scared private in a missile silo who has accidentally called the wrong number and thinks he’s telling his parents that the nukes are flying and they’ve got about an hour to live. What do you do? You set out on a mini odyssey across the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles to find that girl you’ve just met and get hold of an Escape Chopper, what else? Hampered by budget cuts and containing possibly the most uplifting depressing ending this side of The Road, Miracle Mile still manages to convey a sense of urgency and escalation as people find their own ways to fight the inevitable. Also notable for being Tangerine Dream’s best film score.

12 Monkeys. For my money the best time-travel movie ever made, Terry Gilliam’s fatalistic expansion of the classic French short “La Jete” stars Bruce Willis, never better as a prisoner forced by the desperate leaders of a remnant humanity gone underground to travel back in time in an effort to learn the source of the plague that has decimated the global population. Willis’ James Cole is haunted by a dreamlike childhood memory of a man being shot to death at an airport security checkpoint. Everything Cole does in the past (our present) to learn about or avert the coming plague only brings that dream image closer to reality.

Unlike the Terminator series, 12 Monkeys does not play fast and loose with violations and paradoxes, but adheres strictly to the logic that any attempt to change the past becomes by definition part of that very past, and every frame of 12 Monkeys is geared toward achievement and explanation of Cole’s opening dream/memory sequence, filling the viewer with an almost unbearable sense of tragic inevitably. And shame on you if you didn’t realize that it has a happy ending. One of my favorite movies.

Books to Die For (part 2)

(In 2009 I wrote a two-week series of blog posts about post-apocalyptic novels & films for Borders’ blog. Because this subgenre has continued to flourish, I am reprinting the posts here.)

Finishing my list of postapocalyptic books I think are standouts in the field. Tomorrow we’ll cover movies. Then we’ll get to the nitty gritty.

The Time Machine, H.G. Wells. So often considered as a time-travel classic that it’s easy to forget that this timeless (yuck yuck) novel of social darwinism gone awry gave us the innocent and inept Eloi living clueless in the ruins of their ancestors in the year 802,701, preyed upon by the steampunkish Morlocks, who are maintaining a remnant of civilization apparently by rote. Wells’ unnamed narrator moves even further through time to witness the death of the earth itself, cold beneath an ember sun, as the last living thing stops moving on a barren redlit beach. Wells accomplished all of this in about 60,000 words, too. Amazing book.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. A boy bonds with his father on a trip to the beach! It doesn’t get any simpler than this: Years after an unspecified apocalypse has destroyed virtually all life on earth (implicitly not all at once but through a chain reaction of ecosystem cascade failure following some global trauma), a father tries to protect his son as they journey toward the ocean and the forlorn hope of community and life.  McCarthy reverts to Hemingway minimalism mode (think The Dead Man and the Sea) for this gloriously despairing slog through a bleak devastated landscape. McCarthy never explains his apocalypse, which drives SF purists crazy. Good for him. McCarthy is the most fearless writer in America right now, and arguably our best prose stylist. That he is also commercially popular continues to astonish me, and reinforces my cynical belief that people pretty much read at the level of event and notice little else. I’m perfectly willing to be persuaded I’m wrong.

Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank. Somewhat dated now, Frank’s 1959 novel of a Florida community struggling to survive the aftermath of a nuclear war was one of the first in a long line of “survivalist” postapocalyptic novels in the public conscience. Written in the shadow of the sword of Damocles that hung over an entire generation that felt fairly certain it was going to end up reduced to breathable material, this isn’t a book about politics or social darwinism, it’s a book about trying to have hot water again. That the community is “reduced” to the circumstances of probably half the global population speaks to the appeal of postapocalyptic works in general: Horror for the comfortable is the loss of comforts. What is most interesting about Alas, Babylon is precisely that its characters’ struggles are much less interesting when considered apart from the aftermath of nuclear war — take away the bombs and it’s basically The Mosquito Coast – but that reduction colors everything, and fueled an entire subgenre for decades.

Mockingbird, Walter Tevis. The author of The Hustler was also an underappreciated SF writer who turned in a haunting, poetic postapocalyptic novel about a feckless, illiterate humanity reduced to tranquilized uselessness as they are protected by robot caretakers who were programmed a little too well. Here Tevis explores what it might be like to become the Eloi from the inside, and at the same time he turns in what might be the only novel ever written about the end of humanity due to illiteracy. Tevis’ android supervisor Spofforth is a singular creation and one of my favorites in SF. Inexcusably out of print.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding. This may seem a weird choice in a list of postapocalyptic fiction, but I think apocalypse and the nature of humanity were very much on Golding’s mind when he published this 1954 masterpiece. A group of schoolboys survives a planecrash on an island. Unsupervised and unfettered by social constraint, they reenact the Scene Primeval in miniature, and the book is essentially a meditation on the artificiality of the veneer of civilization and what we are when we shed it (though I’d offer up that one of the things we are is creatures that eventually build civilizations) — the grist for postapocalyptic fiction’s mill. Making war is part of our innate ape heritage to Golding (who also wrote, tellingly, The Inheritors, about early hominids), and the inescapability of this even after we become “civilized” is beautifully brought home when the boys are finally rescued by a navy cruiser — a warship (a detail apparently lost on a great many readers & critics).

The World Without Us, Alan Weisman. This nonfiction book by journalist Alan Weisman seems weirdly to have been written specifically for me, as it surveys what would happen to the world were humanity to suddenly vanish — essentially the premise of Ariel and Elegy Beach (Weisman wisely elects not to wonder what would happen if magic were suddenly possible and formerly mythological creatures were present, though.) This book was astoundingly well-timed, occurring as essentially a reference work just as post-apocalyptic scenarios were sprouting up across all media. A must-read for anyone considering writing about human beings going bye-bye to any significant degree.

Emergence cover first edition Books to die for (part 2)Emergence, David Palmer. Palmer’s first novel is a bravura tour de force starring one Candy Smith-Foster, 12-year-old homo post hominem supergenius who survives the end of everything by hiding in her father’s bomb shelter, emerging with her pet parrot Polly to learn how to survive in the emptied world until finally setting out to find others of her own kind. Candy writes in Pitman shorthand, and the book is a blow-by-blow recounting in truncated, telegrapher style (tellingly, Palmer is a court reporter) that shouldn’t work but succeeds gloriously. The wheels come off the storyline by the end, but until that point the novel’s detail and setpieces are wonderfully depicted, and Candy herself is a memorable voice in SF. Palmer is reportedly finishing a sequel (and, David, have fun with the emails you get when you publish a sequel a quarter-century after the original. I know whereof I speak). It’s a tragedy that this book is out of print. Are you listening, SF publishers?

ariel shaw th Books to die for (part 2)Worth mentioning here is the terrific Jim Burns cover for the paperback original. When Emergence was published I was insanely jealous, as it was exactly the cover I’d imagined for Ariel. Then Ariel was published with its own glorious Barclay Shaw cover and I wasn’t jealous anymore. Even more synchronistically, David and I knew each other in Gainesville, Florida, when our first novels were published. Oooh-WEEEEE-oooooh.

There are some “classics” in the field that I’ve left out of this list because, frankly, they didn’t work for me. If after-the-fall books are your cup of tea (and, golly, why wouldn’t they be?), you undoubtedly have a list of your own fave raves. Feel free to share — you can’t get enough of the end of the world.

Books to Die For (part 1)

(In 2009 I wrote a two-week series of blog posts about post-apocalyptic novels & films for Borders’ blog. Because this subgenre has continued to flourish, I am reprinting the posts here.)

Before talking about why postapocalyptic fiction and films are appealing, I’d like to take the next few entries to offer up some books and movies I think are standouts in the field. It’s an opportunity to give you a sense of my sensibility (tres clever, no?) and to present some works I think have been either overlooked or not normally included amid all the clang and clamor that is the end of the world as we read it.

dhalgren2 184x300 Books to die for (part 1)Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany. One of my favorite novels and the book that made me want to write for a living. A very contained apocalypse, really, concerning an American city that has been cut off from the rest of the world. Depopulated, burned, transmogrifying, the city is as much a character as any of its memorable inhabitants. Buidings burn but are not consumed, landmarks and locations seem to shift, twin moons and a giant sun rise, gangs and communes dominate, laws and social conventions are largely ignored. Not the most accessible book in the world, but the craft and power of Delany’s prose here are some of the best you’ll ever read.

The Stand (original version), Stephen King. The broad cast of wonderfully developed characters and sheer epic scale of The Stand make it the Lord of the Rings of end-of-the-world novels. A weaponized superflu virus with a 99.9% mortality rate gets loose and reduces humanity to birdfood in weeks, setting the stage for a bliblical confrontation between opposing forces of survivors. (This novel is also one of the few good-vs.-evil conflicts I can stomach.) King walks you through the whole process from initial outbreak to post-confrontation aftermath with a level of realistic detail that is absolutely irresistible in a story that manages to attain the level of myth. One gets the impression ensuing generations will add the account as a third book of the Christian bible.

Though I’ve linked to the uncut version because it’s the only one in print, I highly recommend the original published version instead, because, frankly, King is a writer who enormously benefits from editorial direction and tightening; sadly, those days seem long behind him.

I Am Legend, Richard Matheson. A classic across the board, and deservedly so. Often imitated but never duplicated, Matheson’s novel was the first to breathe new life into hoary old eurotrash vampire lore, treating it with relentless logical sensibility as a communicable virus that kills most people and transforms those remaining into seemingly mindless bloodsucking ghouls. Robert Neville is the lone human being unaffected, and his everyday struggles simply to maintain in the face of futility are beautifully told and heartbreaking. (Trivia: I set the Change in Ariel at 4:30 as a nod to Neville ruminating over a clock stopped at 4:30 in I Am Legend.) Adapted with varying success as the movies The Last Man on Earth (with Vincent Price), The Omega Man (with Charlton Heston), and I Am Legend (with Will Smith), the novel still stands as a monolith never rendered in another medium with its original power. It also has one of the best final paragraphs ever written.

On the Beach, Nevil Shute. The end of the world as airport novel, Shute’s 1957 classic centers around the last remaining American submarine crew reaching Australia ahead of the inevitable clouds of lethal radiation in the aftermath of a full-scale global thermonuclear war. Shute doesn’t focus on the war itself, and the novel is all the more powerful for that, essentially treating Australia as a kind of RMS Titanic in which every look, line, and love is colored by the approaching iceberg of humanity’s fate. Wonderfully fatalistic, the depictions of society’s slow unraveling are haunting and memorable. The Stanley Kramer film, starring Gregory Peck, is also highly recommended (though after seeing it you’ll never want to hear “Waltzing Matilda” again).

More books tomorrow, and then we’ll cover movies.

After Thoughts

In 2009 Borders Books asked if I would do a two-week (!) guest stint on their fantasy & SF blog. To be honest, I can’t remember if they picked the topic of if I did. In any case, the posts centered around post-apocalyptic fiction and film.

Since these continue to flourish, I thought it would be fun to repost my Borders blog gig.  It’s a look at my favorite post-apocalyptic books and movies, and an examination of why they’re popular. (I didn’t address the popularity of post-apocalyptic scenarios in Young Adult fiction a la The Hunger Games because I’m not familiar enough with the market to write about it with any real authority. But its increasing popularity continues to fascinate me.) Anyway, here’s the intro. We’ll dive into the meat tomorrow.

Not with a blog but a writer

My first novel, Ariel, and its sequel Elegy Beach a quarter-century later, are a bit unusual in that they’re postapocalyptic fantasy novels. The Road Warrior of the Rings, or somesuch. Which was kind of unusual in 1983, when Ariel was originally published.

I grew up with a soft spot for postapocalyptic fiction & movies (and I suppose it’s worth mentioning here that the post aspect has always interested me more than the actual apocalypse part, so I dunno about playing favorites with the how of it all), and I’ve done a lot of thinking about what the appeal is for an audience. I’ve written a surprising amount of fiction that could be classified as postapocalyptic, and a surprising amount more if I’m allowed to include stories featuring characters making their way through desolated landscapes. It’s definitely one of my tropes.

I’m curious about the current resurgence of postapocalyptic fiction and films even as I’m clearly part of it. (Coincidentally enough my postapocalyptic zombie novella “Like Pavlov’s Dogs,” originally published in Skipp & Spector’s Book of the Dead, has just been reprinted in John Skipp’s magnificent Zombies anthology. So I have three postapocalyptic works in print at the moment. Hmm.) People always look for some deep sociological meaning behind such trends. Anyone want to theory up on this one?

Reading @ SF in SF

This Saturday I will be performing at the truly wonderful SF in SF series, along with writer Bruce McAllister (Dream Baby, Humanity Prime).

Mr. McAllister is a Hugo winner who has published in an impressive array of places, including Glimmer Train and the coveted Year’s Best American Short Stories. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing him. The subsequent Q & A will be moderated by Terry Bisson.

The evening is to promote The Urban Fantasy Anthology. My story in the anthology, “Talking Back to the Moon,” is an excerpt from my increasingly-long-in-the-making novel Avalon Burning. I’ll be performing a different section from the novel on Saturday.

Saturday, April 21, 2012
The Variety Preview Room Theatre
The Hobart Bldg., 1st Floor
(Entrance next to Citibank on Market St.)
582 Market Street @ 2nd and Montgomery
San Francisco, CA 94104 (map)

Doors open 6:00 PM; event starts at 7:00
$5-$10 donation at the door benefits
Variety Children’s Charity of Northern California

Cover Stories

One of the many great things about my experience with Subterranean Press regarding the publication of Mortality Bridge was the cover. Bill Schafer, Subterrranean’s publisher, asked me to submit cover ideas. That alone was pretty damned cool, as writers don’t get asked that very often. (To be honest, that’s usually a good idea. One look at most writers’ website designs is enough to verify this.)

I can’t draw worth a damn, but I’ve done a bunch of graphic design work, and I worked in advertising for years (something I’m glad to have done, and even more glad to be no longer doing). Thank goodness that the spiffy magic of photo editing & illustration tools helps make up for a lack of drawing ability. I hunted around online for images I could composite, and I turned in two rough concepts:

And cover artist (and horror icon) J.K. Potter turned in this cover, which shows you what can happen when a real artist gets hold of an idea:

For the e-book & softcover, I was again asked to submit ideas. (Yay!)  Conceptually, it was really just going to be a reiteration of the hardcover image. I set a die-cast Checker Cab and a plaster gargoyle in front of a textured wall and took a bunch of pictures. I picked one I liked:

Then I made a ton of changes to it.  I matched light sources & shadows’ replaced the wall with a rock cliff background and color-matched that; added a tunnel, shading, and rocky ground, and beat up the Checker Cab. (I use Paint Shop Pro X, which should make the spine of any professional designer curl like a question mark.) This is what I ended up with:

I really like it, and it’s a total failure. As an image I think it’s intriguing. As a design — blecck. Everything’s happening on the left side. Your eye goes straight to that huge flat blank space of cliff wall formed by the crescent of the inside edge of the gargoyle and the top right of the cab. Even worse, there’s no way to design around it. Putting the title in that space is hideous (trust me on this). Moving the elements around destroys the idea or makes it confusing. Wahhh.

I worked with the cover designer to see if we could preserve the idea, but any kind of monster or statue proved hugely distracting. A taxi cab parked in front of the gate of hell is really intriguing. It poses all kinds of questions and implications. Put a monster in it and you totally lose that. So we worked on keeping the feel while emulating the hardcover. This was the final result:

I thought it was okay, but then I got the actual softcovers, and I thought it looked great.  There’s still a blank space, but the artist made use of it by pumping up that white line of partly opened door, so that your eye follows it straight down from nicely art nouveau title to the cab.

Every book cover is a problem that someone found a solution for. The number of solutions is vast. I find this stuff fascinating for the same reasons I’m interested in logo design: How do you convey an idea, a story, a reputation, a service, in a simple and easily understood image? Art directors at major publishers have to do this dozens of times a month.

Audiobook as acapella

I was fascinated with certain sections of the audiobook of Elegy Beach because the narrator, J.D. Jackson, picked up on the rhythms, even while his interpretation was very different from my own. I’ve used a lot of spoken-word pieces in my Groovelectric dance-music series. They work really well over tribal, percussive tracks. I’ve used acapellas, movie dialog, poetry, etc. One mix, Body Slam, is devoted to slam poetry. So it’s surprising that it took me this long to look at my own work as a resource for adding to mixes, especially since I tend to put some effort into writing in rhythm.

Since the latest Groovelectric mix, “Cave Paintings,” was another tribal/percussive mix, I thought it would be fun to use something from the “vibe” section of the Elegy Beach audiobook. This is a kind of post-apocalyptic rave in which the narrative, at points, assumes the rhythms of the music at the event.

I copied out the audio sections I wanted to use and did some editing.  I finessed the phrasing to make it more on-beat. (It’s not as if Mr. Jackson narrated with a metronome going.) Then I lowered the pitch a bit, for effect and because it works well with heavily percussive music.

I auditioned tracks until I found one that had a nice, dark flavor that was insistent but not too busy. I dropped a lot of other vocals throughout the mix — gospel, chants, etc. I’m really happy with the result. It’s funny, but after a decade of utilizing spoken-word pieces in mixes, it felt very different to use something of my own. It was fun.

You can play or download “Cave Paintings” below. The Elegy Beach section starts around the 31:30 mark. If you’ve read Elegy Beach, you might enjoy this, considering what’s happening in the section of the novel that I used.


Download “Cave Paintings” [01:13:28, 69MB]