Sunday, August 07, 2016

Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: An Interview by Karen Tay

Auckland writer Karen Tay who (according to her bio note) "reads far too much, obsesses about cats, and dreams of someday escaping this Freudian coil we live in," has just published a fascinating piece entitled "Writing the End of the World," about Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, on local arts and culture website The Pantograph Punch.

I guess one reason I enjoyed the piece was because I was one of the people she interviewed for it (together with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes, and visiting Scottish author Louise Welsh). I don't think it's just that, though. It's a genuinely intriguing piece, which I highly recommend. It is, after all, a subject much in our minds at present, as the Trump Apocalypse looms.

Louise Welsh: The Plague Times, 2 (2015)

Karen is herself a very talented writer of fiction. I had the privilege of reading her novel Ice Flowers and assessing it for her Masters degree a few years ago, and wish very much that she'd succeeded in getting it into print so that I could recommend that to you, also. She tells me she's working on a second novel, though, so let's hope that that one gets published at some point in the near future.

Coming back to the article, though, Tay sees the genre as cyclic, conditioned by particular pressures of the time:
Each decade brings a unique set of challenges to humanity, but also another way for authors, the memory-keepers of society, to record our collective fears, anxieties and doubts about the future: to imagine both the destruction of the old, but also the beauty of the new rising out of death.
She does not, however, see it as a particularly pessimistic form in itself: "Hope is the premise of most post-apocalyptic fiction. The clue lies in the prefix ‘post’ itself – the implication that there is something afterwards, other than the dark finality of the tomb."

Just as a taster for her piece, I thought I'd include here my answers to Karen's original questionnaire:

Anna Smaill: The Chimes (2015)

  • When do you think eschatological fiction, or more specifically, post-apocalyptic fiction, started becoming popular? Why?
    I suppose that the obvious point of origin is the atomic bomb blasts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: after that, the Apocalypse could not but seem only too imminent. One can certainly point to earlier examples: Mary Shelley's The Last Man, Wagner's Götterdämmerung - but from the late 40s on various types of apocalypse began to dominate Sci-Fi, in particular (John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, George Stewart's Earth Abides, and so on and so forth).

  • John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids (1951/ 1962)

  • From the late 1950s/early 1960s to about the late 1980s in particular, nuclear holocaust speculative fiction was an extremely popular subgenre. Why do you think this was?
    Well, the Cold War is the simple answer. I remember one of my classmates at school telling me solemnly that there was simply no other subject to think about except nuclear disarmament - so likely did it seem to us, that we were almost literally counting down the days. You have to remember that it was the limited extent of the disaster at Chernobyl, rather than the event itself, that surprised us in those days.
  • In nearly every piece of popular early (pre-2000s) post-apocalyptic/apocalyptic fiction, the hero/heroine turns out to be white. Any "coloured" characters often revert to stereotype - for example, the "wise old coloured woman" cliche like Mother Abagail in Stephen King's The Stand. What do you think about this "whitewashing" says about the genre? Do you think this has changed?
    I think one might say that this was fairly typical of SF in general at that time. Even African American authors such as Samuel R. Delaney tended to soft-pedal the issue in his earlier fiction: sexuality was a more open subject for him than race. Delaney did write a classic essay in which he speculates that the hero of Heinlein's Starship Troopers is meant to be black, however. Careful examination of the text would leave that an open question for me, but Delaney does wonderful things with the mere possibility. (Paul Verhoeven's movie, of course, ignores the issue entirely in favour of his own preoccupations with Nazi aesthetics).
  • A lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is in the form of Young Adult or New Adult fiction e.g The Hunger Games, Z for Zachariah, Tomorrow When the War Began, the Maze Runner series. Why do you think this is? Is there something about youth that predisposes them towards a fascination for death and destruction?
    Yes, I think there is. Youthful readers are extremists, by definition. They want something grand and overarching, and are ready to be radical in their opinions. They lack the protective cushioning and inertia of older readers. That's one reason why genuinely revolutionary texts, such as Huckleberry Finn, say, or Catcher in the Rye, are so often aimed directly at a childish or adolescent audience.
  • Cli-fi, or climate change fiction is another growing sub-genre of literature, for obvious reasons (climate change and global warming are very confronting realities that current and future generations of humanity are and will have to face). The most popular contemporary example is probably Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake series. Do you think this is a reflection of the times? If so, does this follow a historical pattern?
    I edited a book of short stories by NZ writers called Myth of the 21st Century in which I and my co-editor, Tina Shaw, invited contributors to speculate what would be the dominant myths, or themes, or memes of the coming century. I expected a lot about climate change (both Tina and I wrote stories dominated by the notion), but it was interesting to me how little it figured in the other writers' visions. There's a wonderful early short story by Arthur C. Clarke in which the glaciers are returning to crush our cities, but for the most part there was a residual optimism in 20th Century SF writers which led them to postulate escape into the cosmos as the answer to climate change. Now, in our more down-beat times, we can no longer really believe such things. Hence movies such as The Day after Tomorrow and Snowpiercer and (the less successful) 2012. Whether there's a great deal of interest to say about it is another question: Waterworld is another example that springs to mind.

  • Kevin Reynolds, dir.: Waterworld (1995)

  • As a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, many of my favourite novels and stories have at the heart of the tale, the struggle between good and evil, with love often winning in the day. Do you think post-apocalyptic fiction is merely another vehicle for moral fables? OR is it something else?
    I think it's fundamentally an optimistic genre, in that it presupposes both the survival of the author (long enough to pen his or her screed, that is) and an audience - even if it's an alien one, such as the monkey couple who read the message in a bottle that constitutes Pierre Boulle's Monkey Planet (filmed as Planet of the Apes). I don't think there's anything wrong with moral fables, myself. What else do we have, after all, but attempts at mutual understanding? Whether that takes place in space, or in a nuclear wasteland, or in a busy city doesn't alter the fact that (as the song puts it) "the fundamental facts apply" ("As Time Goes By").
  • Why are you drawn to the genre yourself?
    I guess it's always exciting to think about starting again: rebuilding things from the ground up in such a way as to avoid at least some of the problems of the past. It's sad that we have to wipe everything out first to see a way of doing that, but that's just the way things are. Hawthorne's classic tale "Earth's Holocaust" puts it as neatly as anyone ever could, I think.
  • What is your favourite a) short story, b) poem, c) novel? Why?
    I think probably it would have to be Philip K. Dick's Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb. The title was imposed on him, as a (then topical) pun on Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, but the book itself is a very complex meditation on what might and might not survive such a cataclysm, complete with the typical Dick compassion for anyone who's different, and intense enthusiasm for small businesses rising among the ruins. There's a great bit of dialogue where a cart-driver is extolling the virtues of his pet rat, and trying to tell the protagonist about a series of "heroic deeds done by rats" (the chapter ends with a horse being eaten alive where it stands, by the jetty of a ferry). But there are so many! I'm very fond of the works of those Englishmen John Wyndham and John Christopher, too: The Kraken Wakes is another favourite, as is Pendulum. And don't even get me going on J. G. Ballard and all his wonderful contributions to the field, early and late: The Drowned World, "The Voices of Time", The Drought ...

Philip K. Dick: Dr Bloodmoney (1965)

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