Archive for June 11th, 2008

The Post Apocalyptic Book Club

Sharon June 11th, 2008

Ok, back in my end-of-days (end of book, actually ;-) ) mode, I mentioned the idea of a post-apocalyptic novel reading group, and there was much rejoicing (ok, maybe not rejoicing, but at least some enthusiasm).  This sort of things warms my Lit-Geek heart, so I thought I’d put together the beginnings of a reading list.  What fun!   And yes, I know I’m stealing Crunchy Chicken’s eco-book club idea – I promise, Crunch, I’ll pay royalties.

So in order for you to have time to have a life, but also to cover the range of things, I thought we’d do two a month.  That doesn’t mean you have to read two of them, but I know a lot of people have already read these, a lot of them are, shall we say, light reading, and you don’t have to read both – or any – you can follow along and decide whether you’d like to read them later. 

I’m also going to go all Professorial on y’all and offer up the option of discussing a third text, an older, literary piece that I think has something to say about the idea of post-apocalyptic novels, and I’ll offer some recommended reading as well if you want to follow the month’s theme out further.  This is really mostly about me – I want to think about these things together, so I’m throwing them out.  I’m still working it out, but here’s what I’m thinking.

July - Month One: The Classic Guy’s Apocalypse: Cannibalism, Cannons and Doom!

Books: _The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress_ by Robert Heinlein and _Lucifer’s Hammer_ by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Supplemental High Culture Piece: “The Wasteland” by TS Eliot

I could have picked a lot of books to start this off, but I wanted to go to books that I think are “classic” versions of the post-apocalyptic science fiction story (the really classic 20th century ones are nuclear holocaust novels, but I think we’ll do those seperately, as their own theme later on).  These aren’t the earliest science fiction books, but they are very representative of a particular genre.

The Heinlein book is, I think, flat out his best, and I used to teach it in a class on political fiction.  It is not, in fact, a post-apocalyptic novel, but a novel about narrowly averted apocalypse.  Heinlein has a couple of actual post-apocalyptic novels, most notably the transcendently awful _Farnham’s Freehold_, but TMIAHM has two advantages – it doesn’t suck and it also is a meditation on what is required to avert an impending environmental apocalypse.

I’m going to say upfront that I don’t think highly of _Lucifer’s Hammer_ but I include it for two reasons – one, it gets a lot of airplay.  It comes up in PO discussions fairly often.  The other reason is that it does a very good job of exploring the survivalist vision – something I think we’re going to end up talking about a lot.

Again, nobody has to read both, and you certainly don’t have to read “The Wasteland” – I include it because I think both Heinlein and Niven/Pournelle, both technocrats, are in some ways dancing around the self-destructiveness of modernity – both believe in technological destinies, and fundamentally dismiss the idea that self-limitation is mandatory.  But neither can finally get away from what I see as an underlying unease about this idea – an unease that Eliot expresses so beautifully.  So I’ll probably write a post about the links between the three texts, and if you want to read Eliot, I’d love to hear what you think.

Here’s a tentative schedule of my plan for the rest of the year, including months in which I’ll take a poll and do the books you folks want.  Most of these books should be available from your local library, or through inter-library loan.

 1. July - Classic Guy Apocalypses:  Cannibalism, Guns and Doom: Heinlein and Niven/Pournelle, with Eliot as an option.

2. August - The Girl’s Guide to Apocalypse : Sherri Tepper’s _The Gate to Women’s Country_ and _Life as We Knew It_ by Susan Beth Pfeiffer.  Optional: _The Handmaid’s Tale_ by Margaret Atwood.

I probably should have included Atwood as a primary text, but I’m assuming a lot of us read it at some point, and I think Tepper’s for all that it is very troubling, is a more creative approach to the question of gender and apocalypse.  If you aren’t familiar with _Life as We Knew It_ it has been a very popular book among teenagers – including lots of teenage girls (it is a Young Adult book) and is shaping the discourse a bit.  I think it is important to read popular fiction. 

3. September – Energy Crash Month!  Caryl Johnston’s _After the Crash_ and SM Stirling’s _Dies the Fire_.  Optional Supplement: Selected poems and essays from Thoreau, Emerson and Berry

I haven’t read Johnston’s book yet, but am looking forward to it.  I have kind of a love-hate relationship with Stirling, who I think is a weak writer, but who I enjoy nonetheless.  I want to talk about differing visions of life without much or any fossil fueled energies.

I haven’t picked the texts for each month yet, and I welcome suggestions, and votes.  Here’s what I’m thinking.

4. October: Reader Choice Month – I’ll take a poll and select your faves, and put together a theme.  Will it be “Zombies?”  “Time Travel?” “Reversion to Hunter-Gatherer Society?” or something completely different.  And how shall we choose?

5. November: Nuclear Holocaust Month! (Don’t I have the best, most cheerful titles? ;-) )

I definitely want to do _Alas Babylon_ and am considering _On the Beach_ but if someone has a suggestion for a less-obvious choice than OTB, I’d welcome it.  I can’t remember is _The Postman_ explicitly post nuke?  I want to get that one in somewhere.  I’m probably going to suggest that instead of a novel, we all watch “Dr. Strangelove” one more time, but maybe I’ll come up with something more literary.  The fun is in the juxtaposition, isn’t it ;-) ?

6. December: Ecological Doom Month!: Still mulling over the choices on this one – got a fave?  There are so many options! Perhaps something by Kim Stanley Robinson?  Suggestions?  I’m almost tempted to include the horrible Michael Crichton climate-denial novel, because again, I do think it is enormously important to read and discuss the books that alter our culture, but I’ll only do it if everyone swears they will not buy it ;-) .

7. January: High Culture Month – I’ll be reversing the order of things, and offering literary primary texts and a trashy supplement.  Hey, it is January, right? You’ve got time to read.  Maybe McCarthy’s _The Road_ and selections from _The Canterbury Tales_ (I bet you didn’t know they were post-apocalyptic – but several are plague narrative) and Boccacio’s _Decameron_ or maybe Ben Jonson’s very funny and very sad play “The Alchemist” or Mary Shelley’s _The Last Man_. Or maybe you have a suggestion?  For a supplement, I’m going to to find the trashiest, worst post-apocalyptic novel ever.  Suggestions?

8. February: Horrible Disease Month! – Stephen King’s _The Stand_  and Jose’ Saramago’s _Blindness_.  High Culture Text: Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” – a classic plague text.

9.  March – Religion and Apocalypse: Ok, this is going to generate some controversy.  I’m going to suggest we read Butler’s _The Parable of the Sower_ alongside the first of the _Left Behind Novels_.  The reason for the latter is that they are the single most frequently read and influential apocalyptic novels in history – and most of us ought to know what they say.  One of my lit profs once observed that there has never been a time in history where what we treated as literature was so deeply disconnected to what most people are actually reading.  That’s a disconnect that shouldn’t exist - because it is shaping the popular perception of apocalypse.   Literary Supplement: I’m torn between _The Swiss Family Robinson_, or the Book of Revelations. 

10.  April -  The Collapse of States: If we don’t do _The Postman_ elsewhere, certainly this.  Roth’s _The Plot Against America_ is a good option.  What Else?   High Culture options: _Things Fall Apart_ or Narudin Farah’s _Close Sesame_

11. May – Internet Fiction Month – This month I want to showcase some of what’s out there that isn’t being formally published.  I’ll put up a range of short stories and online novels that we can explore.  There’s a lot of fascinating stuff being written out there.  If I can get my act together, I’ll also put up a short story or two of my own, and encourage you all to do some fiction writing.

12. June - Population Apocalypses: Too Many? Too Few?  Certainly PD James’ _The Children of Men_, and again, so many choices, so little time.  Suggestions? 

Ok, obviously, I need your input.  And you might want to get reading – I’ll start with the Heinlein in the second week of July (I’m out of town the first).

Cheers – and what fun!  Doom, doom and more doom!