The Post-Apocalypse in Sci-Fi (Part III)

The Book of Eli:
This 2010 movie – starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and directed by the Hughes Brothers – takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States thirty years after nuclear war has left it a scarred and desolate place. Enter into this a wandering nomad named Eli (Washington), a man who is wandering to the West Coast with a mysterious book that “a voice” commanded him to take there. As he travels, the importance of his task is made clear, as the history of the post-war world he is making his way through.

Along the way, he encounters a town run by Carnegie (Oldman), a  man who dreams of building more towns and controlling their residents through the power of a (again) a mysterious book he has heard about. His men are busy at work, searching the surrounding countryside for this book, but so far to no avail. When Eli arrived in town, Carnegie forces him to stay, as he is the only other literate person he has ever encountered.

Ultimately, it is learned that Eli has the book Carnegie is seeking, and that this book is none other than the Bible. He escapes from town and is pursued by Carnegie’s daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis). He explains to her that the Bible he carries is the last remaining copy since all others were destroyed after the nuclear holocaust. He was guided to it by a voice, he says, and has since been making his way across the country, guided by his newfound faith.

Eventually, Carnegie catches up to them, mortally wounds Eli and takes the Bible for himself. However, Solara manages to escape from his custody and begins transporting Eli to San Francisco so he can complete his mission. They come at last to Alcatraz where a group of survivors has been holding up under the watch of the curator named Lombardi (Malcolm McDowell). When Solara reveals they have a copy of the King James Bible, they let them in. Eli, who for the first time is revealed to be blind, begins reciting the Bible from memory.

Back in Carnegie’s town, he manages to unlock the Bible and is horrified to see it is in braille and that his wounds will soon kill him. Meanwhile, Eli dies in Alacatraz just as the printing press there begins printing copies of the Bible and the curator puts the original on a shelf next to the Torah, Tanakh and the Qur’an. Solara decides to leave and head back home, taking with her Eli’s possessions in the hopes of making a difference. She, like him, has become a wanderer guided by faith.

Granted, the message of this movie might seem a little over the top. I, for one, can’t imagine why post-apocalyptic people would destroy Bibles. If anything, I would think they would take their frustrations out on science and turn to religion for solace. Still, the point is made very clear through several key acts of symbolism. Eli, though blind, is guided by faith and it keeps him alive. And though he is robbed of the Book, the true source of it’s power, which Carnegie wants to abuse for the sake of power, lies in Eli’s own self. Really, the message couldn’t be more clear, and yet it is demonstrated with a degree of subtly that one would not ordinarily expect from a movie with a religious message. But it’s not so much about the Bible itself, it’s about maintaining hope and faith in a world where these things have been abandoned.

A Canticle for Leibowitz:
Published in 1960 and written by Walter M. Miller Jr., this novel is a considered a classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi by genre fans and literary critics alike. Renowned for its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state, this book has generated a significant body of scholarly research, yet it was strangely the only novel Miller wrote in his lifetime.

Inspired by Miller’s own participation in the bombing of the monastery  at Monte Cassino in WWII, the story takes place in a Catholic Monastery in the South-Western US after a nuclear war – known as the “Flame Deluge” – takes place. Known as the Albertian order, the monks who inhabit this monastery are dedicated to preserving humanity’s scientific knowledge and rebuilding civilization over the course of thousands years.

The story opens roughly 600 years after the war takes place, in a time when science and technology, even the idea of literacy itself, has been almost wiped out by a campaign known as “Simplification”. At around the same time, a Jewish electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz, who worked for the military, converted to Christianity and founded the Albertan order.

After generations of hiding and smuggling books to safety within the orders walls, Leibowitz was betrayed and sacrificed by “Simpletons”, at which time the Catholic Church had him sainted and ordered the monastery beatified. Centuries after his death, the abbey is still preserving “Memorabilia”, the collected writings that have survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science. The story is structured in three parts titled: “Fiat Homo”, “Fiat Lux”, and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let There Be Man, Let There Be Light, Thy Will Be Done), with each part comprising six centuries each.

In Fiat Homo, which takes place in the 26th century, events revolve around a young novice who while on a Vigil, finds his way to a bomb shelter with the help of a mysterious Wanderer. The discovery triggers an uproar at the Monastery, as it seems that the shelter contains relics belonging to Leibowitz himself. Some fear the sensationalism triggered by the discovery will hurt Leibowiz’s canonization, which is still being debated. After many years, the canonization is given the green light and Francis is sent to New Rome to represent the order at the Mass. Unfortunately, he is murdered in the wilderness and is buried, by none other than the Wanderer himself!

Fiat Lux opens up  in the 32nd century, 6 centuries later, when the New Dark Age is coming to an end and a New Renaissance beginning. At this point in time, the Abbey is coming into conflict with the city-state of Texarkana, a metropolis’ who’s growth was hinted at in the last pages of Fiat Homo. The mayor, Hannegan, is essentially an upstart dictator who intends to become ruler of the entire region my manipulating alliances and gaining access to the Abbey’s own stores of knowledge. In the end, Hannegan’s intentions to occupy the abbey and make war on his neighbours leads to a schism whereby Hannegan is excommunicated by the Pope and he declares loyalty to the Pope to be a crime in his domain.

In the last part, which takes place towards the end of the 38th century, humanity has once again returned to a state of advanced technology, complete with nuclear power, weapons, and even starships and extra-solar colonies. As a state of cold war sets in between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition, the Order begins to enact a contingency plan known as “Quo Peregrinatur Grex Pastor Secum” (“Whither Wanders the Flock, the Shepherd is with Them”). As the nuclear bombs begin to fall, members of the Order board a starship and launch for deep space. With Earth about to succumb to nuclear war yet again, the Order is heading out to ensure that both humanity and its knowledge survives.

The stories central themes, which include the rivalries between church and state and the cyclical nature of history, are what make it such a memorable and enduring classic. Even though it is set in a fictitious future, it is loaded with allegories that connect it to the past. Nuclear war in the near future is the fall of Rome, the ensuing New Dark Ages a reiteration of the last, and the final nuclear holocaust between the Coalition and Confederacy represented contemporary fears of nuclear Armageddon.

By the Waters of Babylon:
Also known as “The Place of the Gods”, this short story was originally published in 1937 by Stephen Vincent Benét. Taking place in a future where industrial civilization has been destroyed, the story is narrated by a young man named John, a son of a priest who’s people live in the hills. In his day and age, John’s people believe that past civilizations were in fact Gods. There homes are considered hallowed ground and only priests are permitted to handle metal artifacts taken from them.

Eventually, John decides that he will go to the Place of the Gods, an abandoned city that was once part of industrial civilization. In order to gain his father’s approval, he claims he is going on a spiritual quest, but keeps the intended location a secret. John then journeys through the forest for eight days and crosses the river Ou-dis-sun to make his way to the sacred place.

Once he gets to the Place of the Gods, he finds abandoned buildings, statues and countless indications that the “Gods” were in fact human. When he finally finds the remains of a dead person in an apartment, he comes to realize the truth. The Gods were in fact humans whose power overwhelmed their better judgement, hence they fell.

Upon returning to his tribe, John tells his father of the place called “New York”. It is at this point that it is made clear that the “hill people” live in the Appalachians, and the river he crossed was the Hudson. In the end, his father warns him that recounting the experience to the other tribe members will have destructive consequences. The truth, he claims, can be bad if not conveyed discretely and in small doses. The story ends with John promising that once he becomes the head priest, “We must build again.”

Farnham’s Freehold:
Based on his own experiences in building a fallout Shelter, this 1964 novel by Heinlein involves a family that is transported to the future after a nuclear explosion puts a dent in their reality. In addition to the thematic elements of nuclear war and time travel, the book also contains some rather interesting commentary on race relations and segregation in the United States at the time.

The story begins with the Farnham family holding a bridge game in their home, which is attended by Hugh, his alcoholic wife Grace, their son and daughter (Duke and Karen), her friend Barbara, and a black domestic servant named Joe. After they are alerted to the fact that nuclear war is commencing, the people rush to the bomb shelter and wait for it to pass. When it seems that the bombs have stopped falling and their oxygen is running low, they walk out and begin to investigate.

What they find is that they’ve been transported to Africa, where an advanced civilization now exists that uses white people as slaves. Initially, they suspected they had been sent into an alternate dimension, but quickly realize that they are in the future. They are spared because Joe, their black domestic servant, is able to communicate to their captors in French.

In time, Hugh and Barbara agree to take part in a time-travel experiment in exchange for their freedom. They are sent back to their own time, where they escape from the bomb shelter just as the bombs begin to fall. However, they soon realize that they are not in their own time, but an alternate dimension where things are just slightly different. They survive the war and agree to spend the rest of their lives trying to prevent the future they saw from coming to pass.

The Quiet Earth:
Originally a novel written by New Zealand author Craig Harrison in 1981, this story went on to inspire the loosely-adapted film of the same name which was released four years later. In both cases, the story revolves around a small group of survivors who awaken to find that the world is now devoid of humans and most other forms of life, and that time itself seems to have stopped.

The story begins with John Hobson, a geneticist who was experimenting with using radiation to activate dormant genes, which was meant to have an accelerating effect on human evolution. He wakes up in a hotel room from a nightmare where he was falling, only to find all clocks stopped at 6:12. Upon leaving the hotel, he finds that all clocks have stopped at 6:12 and that everyone appears to have simply vanished. He dubs this phenomena “The Effect” and begins looking for other survivors.

His journey takes him back to his research facility where he finds the corpse of his partner, Perrin, inside the radiation chamber. Retrieving Perrin’s locked box of papers and grabbing some weapons and supplies he sets out for Wellington. Eventually, he finds someone, a Māori lance-corporal named Apirana Maketuin, who agrees to accompany him. They eventually reach the capitol and settle in, hoping to find other survivors and run tests on “The Effect”.

Things deteriorate before long, as Hobson begins to worry that Api might be a psychopath due to his wartime experiences in Vietnam (he finds pictures of him posing with the mutilated corpses of Viet Cong). His plans to kill him with sleeping pills are interrupted when they accidentally run over a woman in the street while joyriding. They return to the hotel and make her comfortable but know she will inevitably die. This leads to a further breakdown between Hobson and Api and they fight. Api dies in the confrontation after apparently giving up.

Finally, Hobson breaks open Perrin’s box and realizes that his partner had him under surveillance because he considered him unstable. Hobson comes to the conclusion that the Effect was his doing since the the project cause the unraveling of animal DNA, and hence only those with the dormant gene pair would be spared. It is at this time that Hobson begins to have flashbacks from his last days at the facility, during which time he sabotaged the machine because of growing misgiving about the project and mistrust for his Perrin’s motivations. It was this sabotage that caused the Effect, and the reason Hobson slept through it was because he took what he thought was a fatal dose of sleeping pills.

Maddened with grief and guilt, Hobson jumps from the window and begins to fall to his death. But then, he wakes up in the same hotel room he found himself in at the beginning, recalling the same dream where he was falling. He checks his watch and it says it’s 6:12… Spooky! Though it bears a strong resemblance to such works as I Am Legend, The Quiet Earth went beyond in that it chose to focus on the themes of perception, culpability, and alternate states of consciousness. All throughout the book, it is not quite clear if Hobson is dreaming, in an alternate dimension, the last man on Earth who is responsible for the death of countless life forms, or just plain crazy.

Shadow on the Hearth:
This post-apocalyptic novel, which was the first novel to be released by Canadian sci-fi author Judith Merril (1950), takes place a week after nuclear bombs have devastated, but not destroyed, civilization as we know it. The plot revolves around a mother named Gladys Mitchell and her two daughters – Barbara and Ginny, who are fifteen and five years of age – as they struggle to deal with worsening conditions and a system that is quickly becoming an abusive dictatorship.

For starters, all civil authority has broken down in the wake of the war and been replaced by the Security Office, a form of emergency services that exercises all power. Gladys’ contact with the services is the local “emergency squadman”, Jim Turner, a neighbor who begins to display a rather creepy fascination with Gladys along with a desire to turn the emergency to his own advantage.

Similarly, the difficult situation breeds suspicion and intolerance on behalf of the authorities who begins see enemies everywhere. The Mitchell’s maid, a woman named Veda, comes under suspicion when it is learned that she was off sick during the time of the attack. Much the same is true of Gladys’ old science teacher, who predicted that nuclear war would be inevitable and now fears the paranoid Security Office might suspect him.

Meanwhile, Gladys tried to maintain a disposition of stoic calm, mainly because she believes its her role as a mother to act as though everything is fine. While her intentions are good, she’s slow to admit that Turner and the authorities are corrupt, that their situation is bleak, or that she might need to manipulate certain people to get her way. But in the end, she is willing to go to great lengths to protect her family, from both external threats and the threat of dissolution.

In several key aspects, this story demonstrates some of the overriding themes and feelings that were present during the early cold war. We have the specter of war and dictatorship, the focus on the single-parent family, the idea of domesticity and sexism, and the affirmation of the mother figure who will do whatever it takes, even if she seems naive and silly, to keep her family safe and secure. While it might seem dated by modern standards, it is nevertheless a fitting and accurate portrayal of life in the 1950’s and the likelihood of what would come of it if the bombs started to fall.

The Time Machine:
Last, but not least, we have the story that has made my lists in one form or another on numerous occasions. In addition to being an example of utopian and dystopian fiction, The Time Machine is also a fitting example of post-apocalyptic science fiction. This is part of what makes H.G. Wells novella a timeless classic, in that it transcends or jumps between genres and can therefore be read from a number of different perspectives.

In this respect, the Time Traveler’s trip to the distant future, where the world has degenerated into a two-tier structure between the monstrous Morlocks and the stagnant but beautiful Eloi, can be seen as an example of post-apocalyptic society. What’s more, their respective degeneration is seen as the result of humanity’s obsession with class distinction, the masters becoming lazy and ineffectual while the workers have become cannibalistic and brutish.

Another apocalyptic element in the story comes towards the end when the Time Travelers recovers his machine from the Morlocks and travels another 30 million years into the future. Once there, he sees some of the last living things on a dying Earth, a red landscape similar to that of Mars which is covered by lichenous vegetation and crab-like creatures wandering across blood-red beaches. As he jumps further, he sees the Earth’s rotation gradually cease and the sun die out, the world falling silent and freezing as the last organisms die off.

In a deleted section of text, which H.G. Wells apparently included in the original serial version at the behest of his editor, but cut from the novel once it was published. Here, Wells demonstrated “the ultimate degeneracy” of man by having the Time Traveler escape from the Morlocks and jump once more before traveling 300 millions years into the future. Here, he found an unrecognizable Earth populated by furry, hopping herbivores, which he interpreted to be the descendents of the Morlocks and Eloi. Thus, in addition to first losing the instincts that defined humanity at its greatest, the Morlocks and Eloi, themselves descended from humans, even reverted to an earlier state of evolution in the end.

Though not a post-apocalyptic tale in the strictest sense, this story does contain the necessary elements of such a story. You have humanity degenerating as a result of cataclysmic events or its own inherent weaknesses, civilization as we know it being destroyed or disappearing, and even the world itself coming to an end.

Final Word:
And that’s all I got for post-apocalyptic sci-if. Sure, there are countless more examples that could be included, but three lists is enough for me and I’m neck deep in other concepts that are vying for page time. In the coming weeks, expect more news on technology, space exploration, the upcoming anthology, Data Miners (set for release in August) and plenty of assorted tidbits on stuff that relates to the world of science and science fiction. Take care all and see you again soon!

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