Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Week 6 - Life As We Knew It

Sharon August 11th, 2008

With gas down to $3.89 gallon here and everyone trumpeting the rise of the dollar, I’m tempted to switch our book club to the “Happy Ending Book Club” but, I’m resisting.  So back to LAWKI.

First post today (I’m hoping there will be two, but I’ve got peaches and cucumbers calling me, so we’ll see) is the “Is this a real problem?  If so, is the book a good guide?”

First the commentary from DH the astrophysicist (remember to include an astrophysicist in your emergency kit ;-)) - the author does a bad job of describing the event in real terms, but the effects are probably understated if anything.  If an asteroid that large really were to hit the moon, you would not see instant “knocking” out of phase, nor would it instantly become larger, or you have near-instant tsunamis.  Instead, what would happen is that the velocity of the object (in this case the moon) would change, so it would take several days for major tsunamis to hit, and the dramatic visual effect of the moon would change most 2 weeks later, at perigee.

That said, however, Eric’s take is that if anything, the author *understates* how dramatically the world would change if this actually were to happen - a moon that was 10% closer would create tides that were 30% stronger - forever.   Much of the coastal areas of most nations would probably never be inhabitable again.  The volcano eruptions and earthquakes are perfectly plausible - what isn’t plausible is that things would normalize as quickly as they do. Eric was actually quite impressed that Pfeffer managed to create such a original and fascinating disaster scenario - because in fact, it truly would be utterly disastrous.  The only other caveat he had was that it is unlikely that astronomers would, in fact, underestimate the mass of an asteroid quite so much - so people probably would have had some sense that the impact might disturb things on earth. 

Ok, looking at the book as a preparedness manual, some people were quite harsh about the mother’s preparations - and there are definitely things to critique.  But honestly, given that the implication is that the mother in the story has never, ever thought about these situations before, has never done any preparations, her level of foresight, is, I think, rather good.  That is, she thinks not only of bottled water and short term preparations, but long johns, tampons and medicines.  She makes a fairly rapid transition from “normal” to “prepared” and does, not spectacularly, but reasonably well.

 I admit, all the shopping scenes in these books have inspired me to play the mental game “what if I knew before everyone else” - that is, what would happen if I was fairly sure things were falling apart and had a little notice.  What would I buy?  I come at this better prepared than most people - my fantasies tend to settle in around dog food and fresh fruit for as long as I can get it. 

What I think deserves critique is how the Mother begins to sort out her children - I find the idea that a 13 year old, even one who was fed at baseball camp (which to be fair to the Mother and siblings, is, I think a large part of the reason that they are trying to preserve him - because he never endured as much hunger as the rest) would be the one they’d choose to survive kind of bizarre.  But even more bizarre, I think is the behavior of the father - the trek across country is incredibly risky, and he knows he probably won’t see his kids ever again.  I can’t imagine any divorced father of my acquaintance, or any decent father I’ve ever met, abandoning his existing children entirely in favor of a proto-child, even at his wife’s insistence, much less risking both their lives and the unborn child’s when the parents might cross to them. 

 Of course, this is a plot device, and parents do abandon prior offspring, but in a survival situation, investing your energies in the long-term survival of all offspring makes much more sense than the cross-country trek.  Having Dad and Lisa move in with Mrs. Nesbitt, who desperately needed more people in her house would certainly make more sense, although, of course, divorced families often act irrationally.

We were tough on the mother for her choice to preserve her son, and perhaps justifiably to a degree, but it is worth noting that she’s starving to death, and that does affect your ability to think critically.  The constant references to school work aren’t just, I think intended to point out that it is hard to keep going, but that it is physically hard to do mental work on inadequate food.

 One of the things that does impress me in this book is the level of family unity and endurance - that is, people do do what is necessary to survive and go on - Miranda does get through the winter to the hospital, even though it doesn’t help.  Matt does help save everyone from smoke inhalation.  The book has its weaknesses (I think, for example, the religious subplot is incredibly stupid), but it does show something that doesn’t appear in the shiny, guns and ammo stories - that a lot of the time, survival is just about going on from where you are, and picking up and going on again after the next set-back.

What are your thoughts?


9 Responses to “Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Week 6 - Life As We Knew It”

  1. Hummingbirdon 11 Aug 2008 at 1:51 pm

    This is a really thought-provoking book, for all its points that may deserve criticism: most of all the unrealistic ending which, I believe the author felt was required in a young adults book.

    As for “is this a plausible problem”, I don’t really think so. Even though the moon has plenty of craters from former strikes, those were from an earlier era when there was a lot more debris flying around the inner solar system. There haven’t been any strikes in recorded history, not even near misses. The moon is so small and the number of large objects passing through the inner solar system is so small that a collsision is unlikely. I believe the earth’s gravity would be likely to divert it toward earth. However, I give the author credit for a really original and well thought out disaster scenario.

    As for the book as prep manual, it is pretty good for the things it makes you think about. The “what would I get at the store” question. I think dogfood is as good an answer as any. Mrs. Nesbitt’s list is really comprehensive, though it is hard to believe she would think of long johns right away in the middle of summer. Who knew this was going to be long term disaster?
    Readers of this blog, however, have given this a lot of thought and would be expected to come up with such things and more.

    One quibble as one who has been heating with wood for a long time. It is unlikely that the family would be very successful burning freshly cut wood in the stove all winter. It would be green and difficult to start since all the tinder they gathered after the disaster would be wet and not helpful. The chimney would fill with creosote from burning green wood and probably burn the house down. I don’t remember any chimney cleaning until the snow fell down it. Also, did they buy a lot of matches? I don’t remember, but mother probably thought of that too.

    I wouldn’t dismiss the religious subplot too readily. It seemed to me to be a plausible response on the part of people unprepared psychologically to cope with a challenge of this magnitude. You pray and it doesn’t help, so you decide it must be god’s will that you suffer and die. I can see people doing that, and actually would prefer they do that than take an automatic rifle and go out in a blaze of glory.

    Lastly (finally?) the choice of the youngest to survive. I am not a mother so I will have to ask those who are, but don’t mothers really (though they don’t like to admit it) favor their last “baby” who always remains that in their mind?

  2. Susan in NJon 11 Aug 2008 at 2:33 pm

    I love the disaster shopping “porn” in LH and this book even though I think the store scenario
    is unrealistic — only Mom seeming to realize that frozen food might not be the best choice. I love Mrs. Nesbitt trotting off to the Hallmark shop to buy candles. Except for some of the gender based roles and most favored son status, I thought Mom did a pretty good job. The family pulling together in a crisis was well-represented.

    The house seemed pretty handy, with the old stuff in the attic, etc.

    I also questioned Dad’s behavior, why wouldn’t he want to stay in one place (with his stockpile of food), try and insure
    the survival of his children, and with handyaccess to medical for the new expecting wife
    (other than to drive the plot). As portrayed in the book, things didn’t seem horribly strained
    between the two halves of his family. With a whole country in turmoil, it seems unrealistic
    that he could get to Las Vegas for grandma’s sake, or to Lisa’s folks either. Of course,
    maybe she was making his life hell on earth.

    With respect to the overall disaster, I liked the scenario but had thoughts along the lines of Eric’s
    analysis (astrophysicist brother, astronomers in the family, too much scifi for too many years, plus a lot of physics and math).
    The flu seemed like overkill . . . or was this one of those asteroid borne illnesses (they’re lucky it wasn’t vampirism).

    I know the author has done a somewhat contemporaneous companion volume set in NYC. I’d love to see how she’d carry this forward beyond the immediate aftermath/first volcanic winter, maybe with her explanation of where all that lovely emergency food at the end arrived from — massive population die off resulting in surplus warehouse goods in emergency shelters is as good an explanation as I can get at.

  3. MEAon 11 Aug 2008 at 4:56 pm

    In at least one culture (old China) where famine was a way of life, it was expected that if you had to chose a child to survive, it would be the eldest son, but that was a cultural assumption that we don’t have. It may, in part, have been an attempt to make things a little easier for the parents in that they didn’t have to make a choice.

  4. Rosaon 11 Aug 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Sad to say, the dad’s actions seemed totally plausible to me. Lots and lots of dads get a new wife and disappear as far as the older kids are concerned. I know way too many men with exactly that child spacing - a few teenagers/early twenties, then another couple babies to make the new wife happy.

    Plus, maybe her parents had a lot of resources or they had some other reason to think the trip would work out. Or maybe he was just engaging in the kind of wishful thinking Miranda did, that things were magically better somewhere else. Or maybe his new wife said she’d go on her own if he didn’t. Miranda wouldn’t be privy to that (or, if her parents were as together as they seemed, to any extra rancor in their divorce that would make him think he wasn’t welcome.)

    I did wonder about the volcanos, it’s good to hear your husband thought they were plausible. I did wonder about the “happy ending” - was the volcanic winter about over, or what? It was a good place to end the book, though, and not just for YA readers. Hell, even The Road had a happy ending, in its own way.

  5. Rebeccaon 11 Aug 2008 at 7:52 pm

    I think so many people prefer the “guns and ammo” books because that scenario is so much easier to deal with. What I mean is, it is a lot easier psychologically to think about picking up a gun and shooting than just going on after the break or coping with starvation. It’s a lot more exciting too. ;-)

    I too liked the shopping porn, but then, I’ve all ready said that.
    I haven’t read the book (couldn’t find it) but I do wonder about certain things in the survival situation: why didn’t they go looking for edible foods in the forest (especially during the summer); why didn’t they start chopping wood in the summer, why didn’t they hunt, why didn’t they rob the neighbors? These are all things that come immediately to my mind as possibilities. (Ok, maybe I wouldn’t rob the neighbors, but its an option a lot of people would take.)

  6. Tracion 11 Aug 2008 at 11:04 pm

    I read LAWKI a few months ago but the mom’s quick thinking the day of the hit, stuck with me. Especially her realization that she needed all the cash she could get her hands on. I have spent some time trying to come up with an emergency plan that may include my husband and 18 year old son getting supplies and/or cash on their way home. The plan hasn’t quite come together yet, but having read this book it is part of my
    *What If* scenarios.

    Oh, and man would it SUCK to have volcanic ash covering the sun!

    The companion novel Dead and Gone set in NYC was interesting too.


  7. Sharonon 12 Aug 2008 at 7:19 am

    I’m looking forward to reading the companion novel. Rebecca - they didn’t forage (didn’t know about it, I suspect), but they did start chopping wood in the summer. I admit, I doubt hunting will hold up much in the ‘burbs for very long - so I suspect those with no experience won’t have much luck, at least with large game (they didn’t really have a forest, so much as some woods in back of their house). I think the presumption, that this was a very suburban family, and that their choices were suburban choices sort of fit.

    Rosa, I guess what I mean is that the father’s response seemed implausible given the kind of educated (son goes to Cornell, Mom is a writer, Dad a Professor), class and culture and kind of person they were trying to portray the father as. And even then it isn’t perfect - I get that it happens, but I also think that Dad got totally off the hook in the last discussion, while the mother who was left to feed the kids by herself, raise them and buy baby clothes for the new half-sibling got hosed, which is sort of why I brought it up.

    Magma is tidal, actually, so more pull by the moon would definitely mean more volcanoes.

    As for favoring the baby - I honestly don’t know. My kids are so little that I can’t imagine.


  8. Rosaon 12 Aug 2008 at 8:23 am

    I was actually thinking of that kind of academic-upper-class and management-class men - the working-class guys I know with more than one family didn’t have the wherewithal to pick up and move, so they’re all close together (and usually closer in age - those guys aren’t as attractive to women half their age when they’re 40).

    But I know a bunch of middle-class-turned-poor kids who were the first kids in that scenario, dropped into poverty as teenagers when their dads disappeared, plus I babysat for a couple families of second kids when I was in college. I have a lot of hope for the guys my age who grew up vowing not to disappear like their dads, but so far they are not coming through any better that I can see.

    But, yeah, just because mom’s there, she gets all the flak.

    I’ve been trying for years to keep a cash stash, and my boyfriend just doesn’t see why he should remember to hit the bank when he knows there’s money at home, so he keeps spending it. But I do worry that the ATM system might go down in an ice storm or something, and leave us broke.

    It seemed odd that the cashiers were even taking cash, though. In my hometown, during a week-long blackout, the grocery store decided it wasn’t safe to be open. It seems like either the place would have shut down, or the cashiers would have been threatened or freaked out, and left (maybe with a cart of groceries themselves).

    I wonder, if the electricity were off, if the autolocks on the shopping cars wheels would engage at the edge of the parking lot?

  9. Caroleon 11 Sep 2008 at 12:01 pm

    LAWKI was a great read. It was another way to think of disaster preparedness, as well as a well-written and original story. For someone who hadn’t been thinking along preparedness lines, I thought the mom did very well. In fact, the family had so many advantages (wood stove, early and smart shopping, cool stuff stored in the attic) that I wondered how so many other families managed to survive as well, without these sources. I have recommended this book to many friends!

    I found Pfeffer’s second book, The Dead and the Gone, to be much less realistic. Two teenage children manage to survive in New York City (which would be under water, but somehow wasn’t) by going to church, basically. There was little of the kinds of violent behavior which one would expect to find in any city in this scenario. How could an unarmed teenage boy walk around NYC with bags of food in a time of such severe hunger and societal breakdown?

    I, too, would be interested to read a sequel to LAWKI, which shows life moving forward after that first long, hard winter.

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