Friday, July 1, 2011

The Three Peroids of Survivalist Literature

I don't believe I've ever read an article or a book analyzing survivalist fiction as a distinct sub-genre with it's own literary qualities, artistic goals, and objective merits. Of course it's easy to see why. The sort of people who enjoy performing that kind of abstract literary zoology tend to also be urbane, liberal academics, who either instinctively dislike the entire idea of the genre, or find the sorts of people who read and write such books to be so inherently repulsive as to be unmentionable. Hence the lack of McFarland publications entitled things like "Preparedness Or Paranoia? A guide to the work of James Wesley Rawles" or "Boston T. Party: a guide to the fiction and non-fiction of Kenneth W. Royce."

There have, of course, been endless seminars, essays, and books on the post-apocalyptic genre. I even helped write some of them. But "survivalism" doesn't seem to have received academic, or even extensive amateur, attention as its own unique endeavor. So, since I am perhaps uniquely qualified to do so, I'll try to give the subject a least a cursory analysis, and hope that those of you reading this will add your own observations to mine.

Survivlist fiction as a genre can be reasonably broken up into three distinct periods: early (or "Atomic"), middle (or "Ecological"), and modern (or "Economic"). These designations are by no means definitive, though the periods do seem to build upon their predecessors, with ideas going in-and-out of style over time as with any other genre. Thus a reader is almost as likely to find survivalist fiction in which society has collapsed due to nuclear war during the Ecological period as he is during the Atomic period, while the during the Economic period he is less likely to encounter it as the Cold War slowly vanishes into the rear view mirror of history.

The initial Atomic period of the genre occurred during the 1950's and 60's. It produced such memorable works as Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (sited as an inspiration by such later writers as Brin, Rawles, and Forstchen) and George R. Stewarts' excellent if downbeat Earth Abides; one of the first novels to interject ecological issues into the post-apocalyptic genre. It also lead to the creation of a whole lot of astoundingly awful cinema, with a few gems tossed in amongst the rubbish (Vincent Price's The Last Man On Earth and Harry Belafonte's The World, The Flesh, and The Devil come to mind).

While Nevil Shute's On The Beach falls into the same period and is certainly an excellent example of post-apocalyptic fiction, it doesn't qualify as part of survivalist canon, as its characters all accept the inevitable doom of the human race and commit suicide in various ways. This runs contrary to the basic theme of the genre: an advanced but corrupt inevitably society falls, forcing ordinary people to perform extraordinary feats of courage and ingenuity as they attempt to rebuild a new, often better world from the ashes of the old. Though the characters often face shocking hardships and tough ethical choices, the tone is generally upbeat. In the end principled, intelligent, and civilized people win out over self-serving, short-sighted, and degenerate ones.

For these same reasons several pre-Atomic period novels must be excluded from the genre of Survivalist literature, even though they would seem at first to merit inclusion with it. DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe, Johann David Wyss' Swiss Family Robinson,and Jack London's short story To Build A Fire, are all excellent examples of stories about survival (or in the case of London's story NOT surviving), but none take place after the destruction of the protagonists' entire society. In fact, in each case the protagonists are trying to stay alive so that they can return to a society they know to still exist, removing one of the core motivations of characters in Survivalist fiction: the driving urge to rebuild the world as a better place.

The second, Ecological period of survivalist literature took place during the 1970's and 80's. While the Atomic period generally relied upon nuclear devastation as its triggering event, this second wave of stories broadened its focus to include other, more abstract (and often magical) themes - though typically these include some sort of "mankind punished by nature for his transgressions" ecological theme. Some of this era's more memorable works include Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer,John Christopher's The Death of Grass (Okay; it was written in 1956. But they made it into a movie in 1970) Steven King's voluminous The Stand, and S.M. Stirling's quasi-magical Dies The Fire.

This period also saw the creation of many interesting (though not necessarily good)survivalist films and television shows. These include The Road Warrior, Damnation Alley, the American TV series Ark II, and the (much better) British series The Survivors.

Of course no discussion of Survivalist literature from this period is complete without mentioning David "I hate rural Americans" Brin's 1985 The Postman. To be very straightforward: I loathe this book. Not because it's badly written. Brin is, in fact, an excellent science fiction writer, and I am quite fond of some of his books (the Uplift series in particular). But Brin uses the Postman to project his subconscious fears of rural Americans onto a wide screen (literally, since the book was turned into a crappy Kevin Costner film). In his mind it's Survivalists who somehow cause the apocalyptic event, though how this happened is never clearly explained. By being reactionary gun nuts, apparently. Civilization is only maintained by University of Oregon graduate students and, of course, that modern utopia known as California. And, of course, it's the knuckle-dragging rural people from places like eastern Oregon who can't wait to swoop down barbarian-style on their more civilized urban cousins, who are (naturally) totally able to take care of themselves in style after the apocalypse.

[Take a clue from Niven, Pournelle, Forstchen, Rawles, and (frankly) me David: it's definitely going to be the other way around. Bubba and Jose just don't do cannibal army.]

The Survivalist literature of the "modern" or Economic period reflects current economic concerns about hyper-inflation, the instability of global markets, the unpredictable effects of information technology on human society, and a general sense of urban decay due to overabundance. As I mentioned in the last post, James Rawles Patriots is a good example of this type of type of novel, though possibly it isn't a good novel artistically speaking. William R. Forstchen, on the other hand, is an excellent writer, and while his novel 2009 One Second After isn't as packed to the gills with technical information as Patriots, it's quite a good novel. Based upon several years of intensive research and interviews, it examines what might happen in a “typical” American town in the wake of an attack on the United States with “electro-magnetic pulse”(EMP)weapons. It's set in a small college town in western North Carolina and is a cautionary tale of the collapse of social order in the wake of an EMP strike. The book was cited on the floor of Congress and before the House Armed Services Committee by Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, chair of the House Committee tasked to evaluate EMP weapons, as a realistic portrayal of the potential damage rendered by an EMP attack on the continental United States.

However, one of the interesting things about One Second After is its portrayal of the apocalyptic economic effects on the United States by an EMP. With communications, transportation, refrigeration, and manufacturing effectively eliminated, the country goes through a series of "die-offs" over the period of one year, leaving only about 20% of the population alive nationwide. (This is an average. Food-rich Iowa had the highest survival rate with a 50% die-off, while New York city and Florida had a 95% die-off from its fighting among the large populations, high elderly population, and so forth.)

What makes Forstchen's scenario all the more horrifying is that a) no one is directly harmed by the atomic blasts that generate the EMPs, and b) The book contains a brief non-fiction afterword by United States Navy Captain William Sanders about EMP, which includes references to the reports of the United States EMP Commission. Chilling stuff!

We are far from done with the Economic period of Survival literature. Whether based (as I believe) on realistic fears about hyperinflation, or on imaginary, subconscious, and possibly even xenophobic terror of economic globalization, I expect that more and more books like Patriots and One Second After are in the offering. Let's just pray that they continue to be speculative fiction... and not autobiography or prophesy.


  1. fine! ignore all zombie scenarios! even though we all know that is the most likely!

  2. Well, there's no mention about plague scenarios, so no, I don't think he included this in his review. But it could just be that survival horror is its own genre of literature.

    I do suggest a slight deviation here; there are survivalist literature hidden where you don't expect it. Personal example is John Ringo's Time Spike--while it isn't as bad as it seems in the epliogue, it does put a survalist pressure on one of the nastiest places to be in... a Supermax facility.