A collection of post-apocalyptic fiction, for my summer holiday.
First, Ballard’s The drowned world, which I’ll try and write about later.
Then I read Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, which was very weird indeed. Written in the fifties, it’s about the world following a nuclear war between the USSR and the US, but it portrays the post-nuclear apocalyptic world as a great, jolly, exciting adventure, like Swiss family Robinson for the nuclear age.
The US and USSR blunder into war and nuclear weapons are used extensively throughout the US. Randy Bragg’s hometown of Fort Repose in Florida escapes a direct hit, but Florida is declared too dangerous due to the high levels of radiation and it sealed off from the rest of the US. The novel tells the jolly, inspiring tale of the Fort Repose inhabitants’ survival – under Randy’s leadership, they band together and through teamwork and co-operation cheerfully overcome obstacles, from looters and highwaymen to running out of salt. The only people to get radiation sickness are the white trash who have been looting jewellery in very irradiated areas, which serves them jolly well right. Just when they have managed to rebuild their community along brave new lines of co-operation (but nothing too suspiciously communistic), they have a marvellous windfall, discovering a handy attic (which for some reason they’ve never previously investigated) containing such treasures as a wind-up gramophone and a treadle sewing machine. What luck.
The whole thing is written in a very dreary flat prose, and the conclusion is utterly bizarre: the army officer who finally gets through to Fort Repose says, in response to the question ‘But who won the war?’ “We did! We really clobbbered ’em! Not that it matters.” The combination of all-American triumphalism with a half-arsed attempt to acknowledge the horror of nuclear war is jarringly odd, as is the fact that the over-riding message of the novel is one of hope: those who are prepared to adapt will survive. I wondered if this was just a result of ignorance about the effects of nuclear war – but Nevil Shute’s On the beach, which is horribly chilling, was written two years before Alas, Babylon (and is a much better novel if you’re looking for nuclear war fiction). Pat Frank must just be quite an upbeat sort of person. Or possibly insane.
After that I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s cradle, the first Vonnegut novel I’d read. I admired this rather than liked it: it’s clever and blackly funny and has some excellent jokes (“Son, someday this will all be yours” is the best), but that kind of dark but flip sixties humour is not really my sort of thing (although I like it much more in Catch-22 and Doctor Strangelove). Most of all in this I liked the teachings of the Bokononist religion which was just brilliantly silly and strange.
Then a random book I’d picked up in a remainders bookshop, Tatyana Tolstoya’s The slynx. This is an odd sort of satire. Two hundred years after The Blast, humanity has returned to a neolithic-age level of technology, eating mice and unable to make fire. Benedikt works as a scribe, copying the classic Russian literature that the dictator Fyodor Kuzmich passes off as his own. He marries above his class and discovers literature, and gradually moves towards rebellion – but it doesn’t end well.
This was fun, an absurd sort of satire on Russian history, but I found the translation incredibly irritating (Russian seems to lend itself to bad, over-slangy translations. I wonder why?) and most of all, kept finding myself picking holes in the post-apocalyptic set-up (if there are still people from before the Blast, why can’t they make fire? If so many books have survived, why no dictionaries?) I guess satire doesn’t have to have a perfect internal logic; I just have the kind of mind that dislikes it when it doesn’t.