Category Archives: post-apocalypse fiction

THE MONDAY BOOK: Alas Babylon by Pat Frank

Thanks for the week off, everyone. We really enjoyed spending time with friends in a remote location. And now, back to business as usual. We appreciate Paul Garrett sending a review for this week’s Monday book.

Alas, Babylon

Alas, BabylonYoung Greta Thunberg was catapulted onto the world stage a few weeks ago when she addressed the United Nations General Assembly about the “existential threat” of climate change. Those of us who lived through the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties remember another “existential threat,” that seemed at the time to be more ominous and unquestionable.

Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon (Harpers, 1959) was one of the first of many books, like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz and The Fate of the Earth, by Johnathon Schell that attempted to come to grips with the looming threat of nuclear war.

A writer friend mentioned this book to me a few months back when a particularly prickly situation with Iran was playing out in the Persian Gulf, a place with which I became intimately familiar back in 1988. Apparently, the book was required reading in some high schools back in the day, while I was forced to read A Separate Peace and The Red Badge of Courage, two other anti-war novels, which begs the question; were all English Teachers pacifists back then?

Written in the heat of the cold war (pardon the pun) a few years before the Cuban missile crisis, the premise is that an errant missile fired by an American pilot devastates a Soviet base in Iran, launching the world into an atomic conflagration. Virtually all the major American cities are devastated, leaving a small backwater town in North Central Florida relatively unscathed. As the novel unfolds, the residents are forced to deal with the after-effects of the calamity, when they are cut off from what is left of the world.

Frank’s novel was written in an era when people were expected to be relatively well-behaved. Most of the looting in the book takes place off the page and the lone set of thugs who threaten our heroes are dealt with swiftly, despite some collateral damage. This was before things like hurricane Katrina, the Mad Max franchise, and Cormac McCarthy’s desolate novel The Road demonstrated what the end of civilization could really mean.

There are some quaint passages, as when a woman’s abortion is referred to as “a mistake she will never make again.”

Alas, Babylon avoids the preachiness of other anti-nuclear books of the age, perhaps because in the 1950’s, when school children regularly practiced hiding under their desks, home fallout shelters dotted the landscape, and Civil Defense air raid drills were carried out on a monthly basis, nuclear war was a foregone conclusion.

Pat Frank died in 1964, a good twenty-five years before the Soviet Union collapsed after rotting from the inside, and the threat of nuclear war was put on the back burner. One can’t help but wonder what he would have thought.

Nowadays worries over the horror of nuclear war are all but forgotten along with many other bugaboos and jeremiads about things that could really happen and are just around the corner and threaten life as we know it. It seems the end is always near. Nor is chronophobia a recent phenomenon, as pointed out in what is reported to be an old Scottish prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us.”

While we know that over 250,000 people were incinerated or left to die a slow excruciating death at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is little direct evidence so far that anyone has been killed by climate change.

It seems that whether it is nuclear war, acid rain, the ozone hole, the coming ice age, global warming, creeping socialism, or the threat of a second term for Donald Trump, powerful people are always trying to scare us into doing their bidding.

As it turned out, it wasn’t nuclear annihilation that threatened to bring us to our knees but a sneak attack from an unexpected quarter, or as Toby Keith famously sang; “A mighty sucker punch came flying in from somewhere in the back,” on September 11th, 2001. So, while it may be true as the aphorism says, “Ninety percent of the things you worry about never happen,” we might add, “…but beware of those things you never see coming.”

 

 

 

 

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The Monday Book-turned-TV-series: THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood

HT MAI resisted watching this for three seasons, under the same reasoning I avoided watching NARCOS for quite some time: too close to reality. Please, divert me while I crochet, until I’m ready to re-enter Reality.

After Anne with an E built my saccharine to sufficient levels, I was ready. And so began what was not so much a binge-watch as an eyes-averted analysis.

The book has been interfered with, that much is clear. But not necessarily in a bad way. The end of Season 1 ended with Atwood’s famous quote as June Osborn is ushered into a police van,

“And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

Most people deem the book to end there, and readers had to choose whether June was getting out or not. It actually ends with a public address by a future scholar analyzing the fall of Gilead, and that speech is amazing in its chilling sarcasm, suggesting not a lot has been learned from the bad times.

The TV series continues from June (Offred) entering the van, going with the assumption that June is indeed rescued, sorta, for awhile. While waiting to escape, she makes some very human choices, creating a shrine for those killed in secret places, saying real prayers instead of the warped quotations of the Commanders and Wives.

The series is interesting because it lets in the thoughts and motivations of other characters; in Atwood’s book there was a moment when one of the aunts broke down and told the girls she was trying to help them, they all had to make the best of what was left available to them. Atwood also made clear in her book that the Marthas and Aunts feared being deemed no longer useful; in the TV series, it’s a little more complicated. The aunts are enjoying their power. Also, Serena Joy in the series is not a former televangelist as she was in the book, but the author of A Woman’s Place, one of the manifestos that later ousts her from being a thinking part of the Glorious Revolution into the meek helpmate Gilead requires women to be. She is more complicated than in the book. I like this.

There are also more clear examples of the regular working folk outside the extremes of Handmaids and Wives, and definite hints at the blurred lines between collusion, collaboration, and just trying to survive. In all honesty, in this series, none of them look that different from each other. Which is kinda terrifying.

What does look different is the venom poured out toward religion overall in both book and TV series being very carefully differentiated from True Religion, the kind Jesus talked about, taking care of widows and orphans and showing compassion. Quakers come out well in the series as they did in the book, I am pleased to note. But there are also points where characters are shown praying with sincerity versus being rote repeaters of things they are supposed to say. Churches are torn down, nuns and priests hunted, because they weren’t doing religion Right.

When June lights a candle at the wall of memory she’s created from an execution site, she prays with humble sincerity. Which is kinda brilliant contrasting against the constant Gilead reminder to her that God loves the Meek, which means she should keep her eyes down. Subtle, and thus so effective, this juxtaposition. When June gets to choose how she acts toward God, she IS meek, and loving. When it’s forced on her, not so much. Hello Christian Right movement, are you listening? Don’t alienate us from REAL relationships to God through your rhetoric. That’s in the Bible, actually; Jesus says it’s a very bad idea.

Back to Handmaid: its beyond-the-book parts are so clearly reflecting the cultural lexicon found in today’s divided America. While the book is usually better than the movie, I’m highly recommending this series for MATURE audiences only; it is violent and sexual, usually to make a point, but sometimes gratuitous.

And that’s my final thought on the series. Do you remember The Stanford Prison Experiment, which had to be stopped early because those chosen to be guards with near-absolute power over the “prisoners” became so brutal, injuries occurred? I wonder how many of the men wearing all-black and acting as low-pay extras playing The Guard cried during or after the filming, how it made them feel or act at home. There is one scene in which a large group of handmaids believe they are going to be executed for an act of defiance. Herded in restraints into an execution site, the scene involves guards roughly handling the women and such.

If you look closely -he is only there for a fleeting second -one of the men who reappears often as a non-speaking Guard throughout the series is an older, balding man. He is in the midst of the terrified group of women, shoving them around, and when you catch his face, he is distraught. Not angry, not trying to get the job done.

Not acting.

He looks something between remorseful and despairing and terrified, and I swear he’s crying.

Holding us all in the Light, that’s my review.

You can read about the Stanford Prison Experiment here.

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Wendy and the Furries

big bad wolfThe National Rural Health Association held its annual conference in Atlanta (that most rural of American localities) this year. On Tuesday we started lamenting the state of rural health infrastructure and planning our dire futures.

On Wednesday, two giant skunks appeared in the lobby of the hotel. Whispers rippled around the place: the furries were coming.

The 800 attendees of the health conference divided: a third of them googled furries, a third fled to their rooms, and the rest staked out seats at the bar and watched the luggage parade.

More than 6,000 furries descended. The number of sparkly unicorn heads on luggage carts, the inflatables trapped inside plastic, eyes always looking out with pleading expressions, and the unflappable Atlanta red cap bellmen, pushing carts with dignity as leopard tails fell over the sides, moving little pink fuzzy claws just before they got trapped in the wheels. Oh, the photo opps.

 

 

That was nothing compared to Thursday night in the bar–and the lobby, and the restaurant, and the main plaza, and the escalators…

 

Turns out, furries are really nice, ehm, people? If you ask they generally enjoy having their photos taken, or saying a few words to friends back home who love their particular species. Witness Mr. March Hare, who waved to my friend Willie, the first woman I know to decorate her kitchen using an Alice in Wonderland theme.

Friends back home who know me as that nice buttoned-up author who crochets and rescues cats, and doesn’t make trouble for the neighbors, sent polite private messages when I began posting Furries on my FB feed. A fellow musician and Rennaissance Faire enthusiast summed up the gist of these, “Umm, Wendy, did you go there on purpose?”

 

 

 

 

 

toucansFalling into the furry convention also coincided with my birthday. Friends had promised to take me to the Atlanta aquarium, but we just parked ourselves ringside and watched the lobby fill with fur–and scales, and a trio of inflatable toucans (maybe?) who stole the show. From Facebook, friends flung advice: Give them cookies! They love cookies! Don’t step on their tails, they get surly. Don’t worry, they only bite if you ask nicely.cookie furry

 

 

And the furry jokes, which we will gloss over. These came down to a bunch of friends asking, “But what is the point of this” with others more in the know sending some iteration of “cosplay with benefits.”

I knew about furries peripherally, because Jack and I play Celtic music, because of being at book festivals where cosplay might come into view, and because some of the crocheting I do has been, I think, bought by a furry or two who didn’t self-identify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I never got to meet any before this weekend. We had the time of our lives, my friends and I, watching the furries walk past the erstwhile posters intended to save the world with their statistics and dire warnings of hospital closure. Which will save the world first, do you think, people trying to get stuff done, or people trying to make sure everyone has a good time?

A partnership would have formed if we could have found him in time: one furry was dressed as a large mammal (authorities differed as to lion, wolf, or dog) in a doctor’s coat, complete with stethoscope. The Virginia delegation hunted him after our awards ceremony for a photo opp, but alas it was not meant to be.

Gracias, furries, for reminding us that having fun is healthy. And, well, fun. We had the time of our lives, watching y’all possess and enjoy that hotel. Thanks! Have a cookie.60197676_2540615052616210_5072177147590737920_n

 

 

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The Monday Book: WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo

bulawayoI got this book out of the library on CD to keep my company careening up and down I-81. It was very good company indeed.

The opening chapter was the winner in a short story contest, and sets up the whole theme of the book: the innocence of children observing the folly of white people trying to “save” Zimbabwe (and a neighboring country or two). The whole book is one long lesson in irony. Had she taken a different approach to the writing, Bulawayo’s book could have been non-fiction history. Or horror.

One of the best features of her writing is how the children who are its heroes run through the insanity around them. They find a woman who hung herself because she had AIDS, and take her shoes to buy bread because they’re hungry. They run to meet the NGO truck that passes out toy guns without food. They lament that they no longer go to school because life is so boring, then they play “funeral,” imitating the machete-hacking death of a local leader who encouraged the citizens of the “Paradise” refugee village to vote. When the BBC crew that covered the actual funeral find them playing this game, they are horrified.

Not the children. They are living their lives in the circumstances surrounding them, watching the crazy go down with the sweet, confused, triumphant, intent on getting food and staying out of trouble for the most part. Not unlike the adults around them, just a little less aware of the subtleties.

I actually recommend this novel to people writing about trauma, because it shows how the voices of children narrating terrible things can make space for people to read about it without blaming the narrator or the writer. (It takes the me-me-me out of memoir.) That said, I don’t want to cheapen what Bulawayo has accomplished here. More than using innocence to point out guilt, shame, horror, she’s written with an internal voice of honest brutality that comes off as gentle. Her writing is lovely. What she’s writing about is not, on two levels: the violence of a country coming apart, and the whiteness that haunts both its dissolution and its recovery.

In a quest to be “woke,” several of my friends have begun a challenge: reading books or watching movies that represent African or Caribbean voices without white saviors. Bulawayo’s books should be at the top of this list.

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The Monday Book (series) GUEST AUTHOR WILLIE DALTON

ad picThis week’s Monday Book comes from my friend and fellow cat rescuer Willie Dalton. I don’t normally care for paranormal romance, but her series was so imaginative, based on such an interesting premise, that I read and enjoyed it tremendously.
“You’ll never guess what happens next…”
    That’s the tagline on my logo, and I tend to hold true to that.  In the writing world there are plotters, and there are pantsers, writers that write by the seat of their pants and wing it, I’m the latter. I’m usually just as surprised by the twists my books take as anyone who reads them. I like things this way though, I’d bore myself otherwise.
    My most recent works “The Gravedigger Series,” takes you on the journey of life and death through the eyes of Helena Pierce. Hel, is a small town gravedigger, following in the footsteps of her adopted dad, Ray. She’s tough, both physically, and emotionally from being in a male-dominated line of work. It surprises her as much as anyone when she falls in love with the mysterious Raphael who shows up in her cemetery one day and it makes it all the worse when she meets her own unexpected death soon after.
  Hel wakes up in the underworld and takes on the role of reaper, but there are no black cloaks and scythes, just another shovel. Now she’s digging people up from the other side of the grave so their souls can move on. Vampires roam the underworld, and a new lover has her intrigued but she can’t move past everything she left behind.
  In, “Digging Up the Dead,” and most recently, “Digging to Hell,” the underworld opens up even further and Hel finds herself in the presence of gods she thought only existed in myths. Was chance the driving force behind this life of death and heartache she knows so well, was it love, or was it fate?
  A lot of people ask me how I came up with the idea for this series. Sadly, it came from my other passion as a kitten rescuer. Many tiny kittens come to me each year, too fragile and weak to last more than a few hours, or days. I have spent many hours digging tiny graves and grieving for these lives that didn’t stand a chance. I’ve poured my blood, sweat, and tears into the ground to give these babies a final resting place while their spirits sprint over Rainbow Bridge. I found a solace in writing these books, and a way to channel the heavy emotions that the work brings on. Digging a grave, even for an animal, is humbling and raw. Growing up, it was always men who would bury pets that passed, partly because it was very physical and partly, because men are less emotional. I think the idea of women digging graves adds in that nurturing, emotional element that takes us from the ones who bring new life in, and then see it to the end.
Facebook.com/authorwilliedalton

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The Monday Book: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury

The-Martian-Chronicles(picture courtesy of By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31139878)

Sometimes you pull out an old favorite – or to be specific, you’re shelving in the bookstore and it falls off as you’re putting something on the shelf, and you pick it up and that’s you lost the rest of the evening.

But gained so much more. I love Bradbury’s writing, and I’d forgotten how he saw the slow progression of Earth people onto Mars, the many ways he’d envisioned people’s hearts moving through Space and not changing much once they landed in a new destination.

Chronicles is a mishmash of short stories, all centered around the theme of Earth colonizing Mars over time, but each a freestanding piece with few overlapping characters. I LOVE the ones where he explores social justice, as in Black People go live on Mars and when the White People blow up Earth, they have to ask permission to come ashore. I love the one where forgotten scary characters from Folklore take up residence because Earth minds don’t have room for them any more. I love the one, early in the book, where an unhappily married Martian couple wind up being the demise of the first explorers. Think of it: the colonization of another planet, ended by a jealous husband?

Bradbury thought of this and so much more in his Chronicles. They don’t feel dated. Even though he invented things willynilly and didn’t see half of what technology actually delivered coming, Bradbury’s writing feels timeless because it focuses on people: what we want, what we fear, what we crave (which is a little different than wanting) and what we pretend we don’t fear. So very interesting to read in the lyrical prose he pulls together. He’s so quick, like a comic caught in print.

This judge gives Martian Chronicles all the stars.

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The Monday Book-turned-Movie: CLOUD ATLAS

Cloud-Atlas-Actors-Different-Characters

I know, I know, you’re very disappointed in me. But I’m on a crochet deadline, and was  looking for Netflix background–less Netflix and chill than Netflix and hook, but there you go.

So I watched Cloud Atlas because the book by David Mitchell had intrigued me but we sold it before I could rad it. And three hours of movie lets one get a powerful lot of yarn moved into correct position.

The thing about this movie is it was able to add something the book wasn’t: jokes about who was playing what part.

For those unfamiliar, Cloud Atlas is pretty much based on the idea that no matter what century it is, people are behaving pretty much the same. There are good guys, bad guys, hustlers and altruists, and it all moves around in a big circle.

The funniest part is, the hunk hero from 2143 or so is the matron of an evil nursing home from 2012. That part cracked me up. Although the fact that “soylent green is people” was a funny line in 2012 and a real thing about food in 2143 was a bit sobering.

Cloud Atlas runs from the 1800s, when on ships running from Jamaica a bad guy is trying to poison a nice guy who saves another nice guy from getting beaten to death, through the 1970s when corruption in the oil industry is getting nice people killed, past 2012 when it’s the publishing industry and nursing homes that get the scrutiny, into ethical futurist questions in 2100 and 2300 (after the fall a few winters, if that tells you anything) when Earth is back to barbarism. If you don’t take it too seriously, it’s a good film. If you start to ask questions about how people know certain things or can gain access to certain places, forget it. This is a shallow, bright ride.

But it is a ride with some breadth, as the 2100s are shoot-em-up thriller, the 1970s are detective novel, 2012 centers around money, and 2300s is eat or be eaten with a few surprises thrown in. It was as bright and breezy as the afghan I was crocheting while watching, and less knotty if one didn’t ask too many questions.

For escapism or background noise, Cloud Atlas works well. For serious thought fodder, one doesn’t need two hours and 51 minutes of star-studded cast to know that everyone is pretty much after something, for good or ill, and that we recycle stock characters in the parade of our life. History repeats itself because we don’t learn the lesson the first time. Just ask Charlottesville.

 

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