Saturday, September 12, 2015

Old Books: Post-apocalyptic Visions from the Past

I've been reviewing and updating the dystopic and post-apocalyptic book list for teens, and it has made me think of some offbeat older titles, directed to adults, that came out decades before The Hunger Games and Divergent made this sub-genre so pervasively popular, so I thought I'd review a few here for those who are interested.

Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, 1959 (e-book only)

I discovered this book in my early 20s (and still own that old, battered copy), by which time it was already somewhat obsolete, but it's such a humanly told story that despite hindsight revealing its inaccuracies, it's an enjoyable read. It was one of the first apocalyptic novels of the nuclear age, and even 56 years later it consistently appears on Top 20s science fiction lists.

The book shows the effects of nuclear war on a small town in Florida, as a microcosm of what would be happening all over the country (the parts that didn't suffer a direct hit, that is) after that kind of event. The main character, Randy Bragg, is a "native son," basically a well-intentioned guy with lots of ties to the community. If we were to characterize him today, we'd probably call him a player--he's the slightly irresponsible younger brother with the sports cars and a way with the ladies. His older brother Mark, however, is married with two kids and is a Colonel in Air Force Intelligence. With insider's knowledge about how close America and the Soviet Union are to making irrevocable moves, the two brothers work out a code: If Mark sends Randy a telegram saying "Alas, Babylon," Randy is to batten down the hatches and get ready for trouble. The code (and the book's title) are from Revelation 18:10, which says, "Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come." The book details what happens on and after the day that telegram is sent.

A "Playhouse 90" episode based on the book was shown on CBS in 1960.

Lucifer's Hammer,

by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1977

If you like a long, detailed narrative filled with suspense and action, featuring a huge (but well developed and memorable) cast of characters, this is the post-apocalyptic book for you. The primary cause of the apocalypse is not war, however; the threat to the future of humankind is a comet headed our way. The comet's existence was simultaneously discovered by amateur astronomer and wealthy California industrialist Tim Hamner, and a star-gazing kid named Brown from somewhere in the midwest, so it is initially christened the "Hamner-Brown Comet." But as the comet comes closer and closer to earth (which it is supposed to miss by a wide margin, according to the scientific community), an evangelist filled with religious fervor gets hold of the story and starts calling it "Lucifer's Hammer," a precursor of the End Times. After the inevitable happens, the story focuses on the realities of surviving "Hammerfall." A bonus for Los Angeles readers: Most of the action is set in and around Burbank, the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, and the hills between here and Central California, giving the events an added immediacy.

War Day, by Whitley Strieber and James W. Kunetka, 1984

This is one of the most starkly realistic books I have ever read about what the United States might be like after nuclear war, probably because it is written in first person by the two authors as if these events had actually happened to them. In the book, Strieber and Kunetka are journalists who are insatiably curious about the state of the States five years after a "limited nuclear attack" changed everything, so they decide to take a road trip to find out. The book is written in the form of a research article, told in alternating first person by the two authors/characters, and includes interviews with individuals in various parts of the country, including random strangers, businessmen, and present and former government officials. The narrative also includes mock government documents from Aztlan (a newly formed state in the former American Southwest) and from California, regarding the events and aftermath of the war.

The book has just the right combination of "factual" information and personal anecdotal narrative to pull off a completely believable (and quite frighteningly bleak) post-nuclear saga from the point of view of regular people. If you have ever wondered what could happen at the push of a button, this book paints a clear picture.

So now that we're feeling all cheerful

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