WHAT I LIKE ABOUT POST-APOCALYPTIC FICTION,
AND WHAT I DON’T.
What I like (love!) about post-apocalyptic fiction:
When I was fourteen I read Gone with the Wind. I LOVED it, and I couldn’t bear it that Scarlett and Rhett didn’t get together in the end. But that’s another topic. One of the things that stood out the most for me, however, was when Scarlett went home to Terra and uncovered her father’s buried stash: a trunkful of money (Confederate, alas) and some moonshine/whiskey. The Damn Yankees hadn’t found it. I thought to myself, why didn’t they hide MORE???? If only they’d PREPARED! Thus began my love of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. I like reading about disasters. It is fascinating to read about characters who have been placed into an extreme situation and see how they survive. What I love even more is how the dynamics between people play out. Have you ever watched The Walking Dead? This is a perfect example. Yes, it has zombies in it, but it’s more about the characters and how each one deals when there are little to no resources left, the laws are gone, and they are under the constant threat of getting themselves killed.
Interpersonal Dynamics + Extreme Situations = Great Story.
Here is what I don’t like about [some] apocalyptic fiction:
What I’m about to say may piss some people off. I really don’t mean to, but it is inevitable so I apologize in advance. Okay.
Pet Peeve No. 1:
In many cases the main characters are all clones. Bob#1 (John), Bob#2 (Jerry), and Bob#3 (Dixon) are interchangeable, meaning they are all the same guy; he just happens to be speaking from three different mouths. Their personalities are identical with nothing to differentiate one character from another. Same with MarySue#1 (Janice), MarySue#2 (Sarah), and MarySue#3 (Cathy), the guys’ wives (sorry, ah, “gals”) who all cook just like mama used to. Their personalities are interchangeable, almost like they have a single hive-mind. Aside from these oh-so-prepared main characters, you have everyone else, who you might as well not pay attention to because they’ll probably die before the story ends. You have the Sheep (the whiny guys who didn’t pay attention to Doomsday Preppers, and don’t understand what just hit them. You can be sure they’ll die), the Meat-Headed Thugs (the Unprepared but Immoral who don’t understand that it is their duty to die, and they’re determined to Take What’s Yours), and finally the Big Bad Government who is out to take everything the “prepared ones” worked so hard to stash.
Pet Peeve No. 2:
Snoozefest. You know, the one-person monologue lasting a full page or more (sometimes 2, 3) where the main character (Bob) explains the almost-certain progression of events that will take us from Modern Citizens to Absolutely Fucked, followed not long after by the Great Plan, to which everyone else nods their approval, but not until the end, when he (almost always a guy, although it can be a woman) finally runs out of air. Why is this wrong? Well, when a group of people are together trying to figure out what to do after something bad happens, no one is going to sit there and listen to one person talk on, and on, and on, and on, without at least asking a question, offering a suggestion, or challenging an idea, unless they’re in a college lecture (or too stoned to care). It’s completely unrealistic and takes the reader out of the story. It also presents the risk of having the reader’s eyes glaze over and put the book down.
Pet Peeve No. 3:
All of the Bobs and MarySues are stuck with each other for weeks, perhaps months on end, and no one ever thinks to himself, “If Bob#3 doesn’t quit snarking back his snot and spitting out hawkers, I’m going to stuff his head in the compost toilet.” Tell me. If you were stuck in a one-room cabin with your best friend, but the guy took his shoes off every night and released a Great Stink, wouldn’t you get a wee bit cranky?
Pet Peeve No. 4:
The second the EMP hits, the main character in the story immediately knows exactly what happened (“This bears the classic markers of a powerful coronal mass ejection!” “A nuclear bomb detonated somewhere, no doubt about it!” “It can only be a man-made virus released by some mush-brained government official!”) and dives into action. Okay, I’ll give you a “maybe” on that one. What happens next though? The character (Bob – remember him?) proceeds to tell the nearby Unbelieving (i.e. losers and/or pompous sheep, according to the narrator) what just happened and they scoff, or perhaps Bob tells them nothing at all because he dashed off to grab his pre-1980 cargo van and hit the Tractor Supply in order to grab the final things he and MarySue need so they can hunker down before the [losers and/or pompous sheep] finally realize what’s just happened. MarySue, of course, will remain properly where she should be—at home, locking out the neighbors and filled with self-righteous “I told you so” thoughts, until Bob Jr. finally gets home from that Field Trip he left for two hours earlier. In this type of story, it’s already too late for the Sheep and they’re all going to Die, or else they’ll turn into Meat-Headed Thugs, but they’ll still get their just deserts later on.
Pet Peeve #5:
Info-Dumps. For those of you who don’t know what that is, think of page upon page of exposition where the author goes into an in-depth listing of what will happen to civilization now. Throughout the story, you’ll run into vast black holes of narrative like this:
Bob and Bob worked on packing up the RV with camping gear, propane stoves, and MRE’s while MarySue made coffee, canned pickles, and then made cheese. Cheese can be stored for years if you dip it in paraffin wax. MarySue knew this because she read it in a survivalist manual, one of the sixty such manuals she thoughtfully downloaded from a free site on the internet that wasn’t at all a pirate site, onto her solar-powered e-reader. Since there won’t be any more grocery stores, Bob grabbed the goats and rabbits he happened to keep in the back yard and loaded them into his horse trailer. Since Bob grew up on a farm, he’ll be able to milk the goats and train Bob Jr. all about butchering rabbits, which MarySue has at least a hundred delicious recipes for. Just as Bob was loading the last goat, the neighbor looked out the window and looked pissed, but he’s on welfare so that’s to be expected, and Bob patted his gun and the loser/sheep/neighbor retreated back behind the curtain. Bob knew that wouldn’t be the last they saw of that one. The chickens were loaded next. MarySue can pluck a chicken in under 60 seconds. She packed up all their military-grade knives and made sure to place them within each reach, just in case any Thugs happened to stop them. While Mary Sue did that, Bob Junior (age ten) cleaned his gun and then helped his Uncle (Bob#3) create a compost toilet out of a five-gallon bucket…
Ever hear the phrase “Show, don’t tell?” No? Well, Telling is a Great Writing Sin, and info-dumps such as this are prime examples. Narratives of this sort read like an instruction manual. The first example didn’t convince you? Try this one:
Bob, to Bobs 2 and 3, and all their Gals:
We need to get to our bug-out location before the Sheep get hungry. The Unprepared will first loot the cities, and when they’re done there, they’ll move on to the suburbs, where they’ll proceed to kill whomever they need to [sheep, losers] to get food and weapons. Then gangs in a beater pickup trucks with sawed off shotguns [think Meat-Headed Thug] will come for the Unprepared Masses in their split level houses out in the boondocks, and if those people don’t already have enough food and toilet paper to last five years hidden in multiple pods buried throughout your yard, and a small army to defend it, they’re going to die. Because they’re Sheep. But we should be fine, because I have five-thousand rounds of amo to go with each of my eighteen rifles. Oh, and don’t worry. Bob over there is a former Navy Seal, and I learned how to make snares out of dental floss. Now that everything has changed, there won’t be any sanitation so disease will spread, and the doctors will all be dead, but I saw this coming and secured ten years’ worth of hand sanitizer and veterinary-grade antibiotics. MarySue—aw heck! I can’t tell you three apart, but can you make a couple pots of coffee? We Bobs need to organize a watch for tonight. Let’s nail all the windows shut. Oh, and it’s a good thing we taught ourselves Japanese. We’ll be able to shout instructions to each other in an ambush and the Thugs won’t know what to expect. Ha, ha, ha, what Sheep!
And so on and so on. Where’s the story? Where’s the interesting dynamics between people? Where is the incentive to go to the next page? There is none.
Hive-Minded Clones + Info-Dumping = Boring Story.
Here’s the thing, though. If I ever truly wanted to learn how to survive in a bad situation (the moon fell out of the sky, the dollar collapsed), books of this type make Great Field Guides. Unlike a textbook or a reference manual, the information contained in these tomes is presented in a way that is interesting enough to help you retain it. You could, if you wanted, consider this type of book a piece of Didactic Fiction—not written to entertain, but rather drafted with the intent to teach. If that’s why you read apocalyptic fiction—to learn how to prepare and/or survive—that’s perfectly fine. Read on, my prepper friend. If the SHTF, you’ll be eating rabbit while I die, like the good little sheep I am.
If you are looking do some research on how to survive the end of the world as we know it, there are plenty of instruction manuals out there hidden under the guise of apocalyptic fiction that are a lot more interesting than a field guide.
If you’re looking for entertainment, you’re going to have to get out your shovel and do a little digging. May I suggest starting with Alas Babylon, by Pat Frank, or Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Great stories, although the latter is a bit, well, long. Nothing wrong with that though. If you want something more modern, you could pick up a book or two by Jacqueline Druga. She writes some pretty interesting scenarios too (with realistic characters).
Now, back to my shovel. I need to do some digging myself. Mba-a-a-a-a-a! (That’s “Happy Reading” in Sheep).