Post-apocalyptic fiction is pretty popular these days, especially in its flesh-eating zombie variant, but – for no other reason than that my eye noticed a book on my shelves the other day – I’ve recently been thinking idly about a couple of older novels of the world gone to ruin. They’re interestingly different from, and similar to, each other and their modern counterparts.
These were both pretty famous in their day (late 40s for Earth Abides, late 50s for On The Beach), and I guess still are, to a rather more modest extent. It’s a while since I read them, but both are pretty firmly lodged in my memory; the tone and feel of them is, at least, if not every detail of the plots. They have more memorable ‘voices’ than a great many books.
Those voices, it’s got to be said, comes across as pretty dated these days, both in language and attitudes. In one way they’re quite modern, mind you: in neither of these books is there a great deal of optimism. Earth Abides is a good deal less bleak than On The Beach, but even so it’s – in one sense – a story of failure. Its hero wants to preserve or restore the norms of the civilized world, despite most of its inhabitants having succumbed to a plague. He fails (not really a spoiler, since it says as much in the back cover blurb of my copy), but does so nobly, and with dignity. The book closes with one of my favourite endings in all of science fiction: an elegy for the lost human civilization, as the natural world and the planet itself continue. Really, really good stuff.
On The Beach is a slightly different kettle of fish. It was written a decade later, by which time the threat of nuclear war was pretty much the only kind of apocalypse on anyone’s mind. Its end of the world is about as complete as you can get: a vast radioactive cloud, the result of global war, spreading gradually across the planet and killing everyone. Absolutely everyone. No brave bands of survivors holed up here or there. Everyone who’s not already dead is going to be, before long.
The last bastion of human life is in Australia, but the cloud is slowly coming closer and there’s no escape. No hope of last-minute salvation. If this book was being written nowadays, chaos would no doubt ensue. There’d be a complete breakdown of law and order, a wanton free-for-all. But in On The Beach, virtually everybody behaves really quite extraordinarily well. They mostly continue, in stiff-upper-lip 50s style, to lead ordered, restrained lives. Remarkably little really happens in the book. There’s a submarine voyage to look for signs of life in the northern hemisphere, but that’s about it in terms of what you might call ‘action’. Most of the novel’s about people quietly preparing themselves for the inevitable end; not just their own, but that of life itself.
That quiet, subdued tone of voice makes the few moments that really bring home the horror and desperation of the survivors’ plight all the more striking. There’s a very good scene where everyone decamps to a racing circuit for a final festival of motor sports, acting almost as if it was just a normal track day in a normal world. Except the drivers throw all caution to the wind, and practially invite their own fiery deaths. Because why not? They’re all going to die soon anyway.
What struck me, thinking about these books, is that they do something no modern post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read does (and I should stipulate here that I’m by no means an expert of the sub-genre. I haven’t even read The Road, because … well, to be honest, I’m not sure I can handle quite that level of bleak these days). Neither Earth Abides nor On The Beach is exactly what you’d call an exciting read, although Earth Abides has its moments. Both of them are based on assumptions about human behaviour and the nature of apocalypses that seem a little implausible to the modern reader, and both are a bit old-fashioned in their writing style.
But if you can get past all that (not necessarily easy, I’m the first to admit), and let yourself go along with them, they do this thing that in my experience not a lot of modern sf novels do. They move you. No cheap emotional twists or contrived conflicts, no wanton torture of characters to induce the reader’s pity. Not that much grand drama of any sort. They just, in their quiet, persistent ways, move you. That’s a very powerful and – if you’re anything like me – pretty rare thing for a book to do.