The books in question generally a doomsday theme, but each author often takes a wildly different approach. The new genre has three main elements that warrant analysis: How society collapses, how people react and the tenacity of the main characters.
The heroes have got to be tough. When society collapses, death waits in many guises. Especially nasty is the rampant cannibalism of those who can't hack it and eat people.
This end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it fascination extends far beyond novels. Jim Guy, a reporter at the Fresno Bee, touches on the sentiment in a recent story about surging gun sales. "Blame it on the upcoming election, fear of crime or even the Mayan calendar, but Fresno gun dealers say business is booming," Guy writes.
It could be better
The economy staged a anemic recovery about two years ago, but few in the trenches give that much credence.
Give Guy's story an extra shove and the real culprit behind this paranoia and gun buying emerges. It's the economy. But it's more than just lost jobs. The situation is bleak for many people. A friend of mine in the service sector says he's working an extra shift today, but it doesn't mean much.
"Extra money," I say.
He nods. "But bills. They keep coming," he says.
Another indicator affecting this overall gloomy mood -- besides general crime -- is wire theft. Got a darkened street? Chances are wire thieves tore off the vault cover, hooked a truck to the cables and ripped them out. Copper's worth money.
Bill's my canary
And according to Bill, my not-quite-homeless friend in Old Town, it's getting bad out there. He says seven of his acquaintances have died in the past couple of years. One was a regular on my street. Multiple causes, certainly. But those on the bottom of the economic pile are the first to feel its negative effects. The pickings for plastic PET bottles and aluminum cans have become increasingly scarce, and for many that's their entire income.
Bill's already dealing with the apocalypse. For him the cause of the collapse was likely his drinking. He's a few months younger than my 51. But from scrawny body to his leathery, deep-tanned skin and missing teeth, he looks decidedly closer to the proverbial bucket.
Ecotopia on point
Ecotopia" author Ernest Callenbach, who died earlier this year, left what he called "a few thoughts that might be useful to those coming after" on his computer. TomDispatch.com ran the piece recently in its entirety. In it Callenbach discusses the "Big Picture," and it's not too different than the prelude to many of the books on my Kindle.
"We live in the declining years of what is still the biggest economy in the world, where a looter elite has fastened itself upon the decaying carcass of the empire," he writes. Ecotopia was published in 1975 and chronicles a fictional era in which Washington, Oregon and Northern California secede from the Union "in the midst of a terrible economic crisis, creating an environmentally sound, stable-state, eco-sustainable country," TomDispatch says.
Callenbach organizes his thoughts by subject, including hope, mutual support, organize, learn to live with contradictions and practical skills, which he says so many don't have and I tend to agree.
What Came After
One of my favorites of the dystopian genre is Sam Winston's "What Came After." In this novel, the upper classes live in the remnants of big cities, protected by privatized armies. Corporations, the ones that survived, make the rules. Chief among these is an agribusiness that cultivates only genetically modified crops. All heritage crops are banned. The food must be reprocessed by the company so it's safe to eat. As a result, everybody in the lower classes either dies of starvation or works for corporates in their huge collective farms.
The hero of the story is the Mechanic. He figures out how to fix things when most have forgotten or never learned those skills. The mechanic finds an underground society literally living in bunkers and growing and developing the old food stocks so people can grow their own. The people in charge don't much care for him.
Another novel is J.F. Perkins' "Renewal," which was published in a series of 10 99-cent novels. This format reminds me of old Flash Gordon serials, which I watched in the late 1960s when they were packaged on multiple reels and sent to the tiny Alaska island village where I lived. Society in Perkins' version just broke down, burdened by excessive debt and ineffective politicians across the globe. The tale chronicles the account of one family who figured out early they better take care of themselves and prepare for the worst because nobody else would.
They're on a family trip when disaster strikes. They hole up in a Southern small town and eventually find a home with a widow who lives on her own on a small farm. She teaches them how to grow their food and make everything they once took for granted. Eventually, they draw others into their circle and fend off challenges. Because there's if there one thing these stories have in common, it's this -- if you have something of value, somebody else will kill you to get it.
Writer Hugh Howey goes in a completely different direction with his series, "Wool." It's about a series of underground towers constructed by the U.S. government when a government faction assumed the end was near. The towers were filled with people of a powerful senator's choosing, planning to re-emerge when life on the surface returned to normal.
Problem in "Wool" was that nuclear winter stuck around for generations. The people in the "silos" didn't know anything of the world that came before and society in the metal tubes begins to break down. The wool in the title refers to the steel wool people sentenced to death must use to clean the outdoor camera lens so people underground can see the poisoned surface of Earth.
I love reading this stuff, mostly because it reminds me of the resiliency of the human spirit. My father grew up in post-World War II Hungary. He said everybody was starving and to survive they did whatever they could. As a result, he saved everything and did everything himself. His words to me were: "If man can make it, man can fix it." The result was often very substandard, but we got by.
Then my parents split and mom decided to embrace the return-to-the-woods lifestyle in Alaska. Make your own everything. I smelled like wood smoke and goats for my formative years. But I learned how to make just about anything. I'm not so hot at growing food, but I can tear down a house board by board and rebuild it.
Lessons of my father
I'm reminded of a bag of clothes my father gave me more than a decade ago. I believe this may have been the beginning of his early onset dementia, but it was in character. In the bag were all his old bathing suits. Every single one since he arrived in this country in 1956, saved and folded neatly. "For the boys," he said.
My boys wanted nothing to do with them. But the out-dated suits reminded me of when I was maybe 4 and my dad could do the butterfly faster than anybody at Lake Sammamish, just outside Seattle. He taught himself the stroke.
In his younger days, he would've been great to have around in one of those novels. He fought street to street against the Russian army in Budapest. (He assured me he never killed anybody, but my godfather said, "Hell, he nearly cut that one [Russian] in half.") He could grow anything no matter what kind of soil. He could cook like nobody's business. And he could somehow coax that old 1963 Ford pickup to keep going long after the normal guy would have had it compacted.
Lest anybody think I've gone off the deep end, I assure you I'm still hoping for the best. I'd prefer to think we'll figure it out and get out from the single-fuel mentality that appears to dominate and drive our economy.
There is a better way.
Clean energy can be harvested for free. The up-front cost is a little steep, but we can get there with some scrimping and saving. Once we figure out how to effectively store that power at a cost competitive with fossil fuels, this cataclysmic doom may just fade away with the bad air.