September 8th, 2005

Re-Animator/Read More

top picks for post-cataclysmic fiction?

Yesterday I played for my class the original 1938 "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast by the Mercury Theatre of the Air led by Orson Welles (based, of course, on the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells). No matter how many times I listen to that dramatization, I always seem to hear something new and relevant. It's a truly remarkable and chilling work.

Thanks to all of you who responded to my earlier post on dystopian fiction. I've been thinking about the relationship between dystopian works and post-cataclysmic (or post-apocalyptic, or post-holocaust, depending on which term you prefer) works. On the one hand, they are different literary creatures: to quote The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, dystopias create "hypothetical societies containing images of worlds worse than our own," and post-cataclysmic works focus on "the aftermath" of a disaster, "the kind of world the survivors build for themselves." So dystopias are warnings meant to inspire the reader to change the human behaviors and patterns that will lead to an inferior or undesirable future, while post-cataclysmic works focus on recovery from dire happenings that are not always under humanity's control.

The two seem to me to overlap at points. Some of the societies that emerge from cataclysms in science fiction literature are dystopian. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., which I mentioned in my last post, is a classic example. A Canticle imagines a dystopian world emerging after a devastating World War III - so, too, does Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, for that matter. (Of course, calling a war a cataclysm neatly sidesteps the issue of culpability, the fact that humans are responsible for war in a way they are not for other cataclysms such as meteor hits, alien invasions, or sudden plagues.) But of course in the literature many dystopian societies become what they are simply because current trends run amok, and not because some terrible disaster or violent clash helps those societies along. Think Brave New World.

It struck me that there also are post-cataclysmic works I find to be noteworthy just as post-cataclysmic works, all discussions of dystopias aside. The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, and The Postman by David Brin immediately come to mind.

Now that I've thought out loud and rambled quite a bit, I come to my question. Whether they have dystopian ingredients or not, which books would be on your list of the best post-cataclysmic literature?

A quote for the day:

"My wife, my colleagues, my students, my books, my observatory, my... my world... where are they? Did they ever exist? Am I Richard Pierson? What day is it? Do days exist without calendars? Does time pass when there are no human hands left to wind the clocks?"

from "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast by the Mercury Theatre of the Air,
October 30, 1938
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