The first post-apocalyptic book I read was A Canticle for Leibowitz byWalter M. Miller, Jr. Though originally published in 1960, I read it ten years later when I started college. Set in a Catholic monastery in the southwestern United States, Leibowitz spans millennia and documents mankind’s efforts to rebuild civilization after twentieth century civilization is destroyed by a global nuclear war, the”Flame Deluge.” In a backlash against the war, the “Simplification” occurrs in which intellectuals were killed by rampaging mobs of “Simpletons.” Books—a la Fahrenheit 451—are destroyed. Literacy all but dies out. Monks of the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz, a Catholic monastery in the desert of the Southwestern United States, attempt to preserve scientific knowledge until human development is again ready for it.
As a child of the Cold War who grew up with images on TV of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and napalmed bodies in Vietnam, Leibowitz inspired a particular dread, only somewhat offset by its wry humor. To this day, it tickles me to death that, centuries after Saint Leibowitz’ death, the abbey preserved the collected writings, the “Memorabilia,” that survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, including the Holy Grocery List that starts with the humble word “bagels.” A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 1961, has never been out of print and has at least twenty-five editions. Appealing to sci-fi fans as well as the mainstream readers, it has attained the status of “literature.”
With the Cold War long over and the possibility for an atomic incident dimmed, and it seemed the fascination with post-apocalyptic civilization waned somewhat. In the last few years, though, perhaps because Global Warming has put a new face on the idea of an apocalypse, interest in our possible futures has increased. Certainly young adults have devoured The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Ender’s Game. Lois Lowry’s The Giver is taught in schools. Under the heading Best Apocalyptic or Post-Apocalyptic YA Fiction, Goodreads lists 217 books. I’ve recently read two additions to this sub-genre of science fiction, Sean Jackson’s Haw and Moira Young’s Dustlands series.
In Haw, the future is grim and bleak. The government has become a corrupt facade of democracy, on the verge of collapse, willing to sacrifice the many to maintain the few. Society has evolved into extremes of “haves”—the wealthy who insulate themselves in high rise buildings and hire private guards to protect them—and the “have nots”—citoyens who make up the bulk of society, scrabbling for their daily necessities, drinking heavily because alcohol is safer than the water. Lucas, a bioengineer and father, is on the lower end of the “haves.” He has a job, a home (an abandoned villa), and salary enough to eat fairly well. After the death of his wife, he raises Orel alone. When decreasing purity of water and increasing violence force them to leave this pitiless environment, they journey to a rural village near a nuclear reactor and face a new challenges. The prose is thoughtful, well-written and contains some unique imagery. Haw is told from an omniscient point of view so the reader sees bits of everyone’s thoughts, which is one of Haw’s strengths as well as its weakness. A review on the back cover says “Haw features an LGBT theme.” For most people, the literary theme is the main topic of a novel whether stated directly or indirectly. In Haw, LGBT issues were mentioned in passing here and there and certainly never reached the point of becoming a major thematic presence. This is where the omniscient point of view becomes a drawback. Had the reader identified more with Orel, the gay son, the fact that he was gay may have made a difference in the book. The LGBT issues may not have become an actual “theme” but might have become a thread or motif. For instance, the reader doesn’t know if Orel has come out to his father, Lucas; if Lucas knows or suspects his son’s homosexuality and, if so, how he feels about it. The reader doesn’t even know how Orel feels about his own sexuality. Jackson missed an opportunity here and could have done better justice to the character, Orel, his psyche, and his lover, Nico.
In contrast to the more formal omniscient voice of Haw is Moira Young’s Dustlands series (Blood Red Road, Rebel Heart, and Raging Star). Young, writing in very close third person voice, captures the unique voice of her protagonist, Saba. The reader intensely experiences Saba’s perceptions and feelings. She’s straight forward, doesn’t hold back about her faults and her strengths.The language in the book shows how much society has changed. For instance, people still the seconds between a lightning flash and hearing the thunder, “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…” The function of the words has stayed the same, but the spelling and/or meaning of them changed to “one Missus Ippi, two Missus Ippi, etc” indicating that formal titles (Mr. and Mrs.) have survived, but the concept of Mississippi as a river and state has long been lost. Saba, the protagonist, has grown up in Silverlake, a dried up dust-bowl of a wasteland, scavenging the remnants of the “Wrecker” civilization. The deaths of her parents destroyed her once-happy family. When four horsemen capture her twin, Lugh, Saba embarks on a quest to rescue him while caring for her little sister as well. She’s caught up in a band of renegade female warriors, The Free Hawks, and leans that she is a skillful fighter and a touch opponent. Her loyalty to her twin and her lover, Jack, lead to a world redefining climax. Both Haw and Dustlands are well worth reading, tremendously more interesting and intense than Hunger Games and Divergent. Those who missed A Canticle for Leibowitz should certainly check it out and read a true classic in post-apocalyptic literature.