All Tomorrow’s Hangovers
Last week I read Far North by Marcel Theroux. It is an excellent example of the post-apocalyptic novel and I’m grateful to the judges for shortlisting it for the Arthur C Clarke Award as otherwise it would have passed under my radar. However, not for the first time, I wondered about the enduring popularity of this form. Why is that when authors from outside the genre write science fiction they invariably produce post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction?
Yesterday’s Guardian featured another pair of these: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shyteyngart, reviewed by Tibor Fischer, and Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, reviewed by Justine Jordan. As Fischer remarks: “another drawback to the dystopian novel is that once you’ve read one you don’t need to read another; ditto the post-apocalyptic novel”. There is definitely something to this, particularly with regards to post-apocalyptic fiction. There is only one story to be told after the end of the world – the struggle for survival of body and soul – and whilst that is a story with a lot of mileage, it is still inherently limited. The equivalent would be if whenever an author wrote about the Second World War they only ever set their story in the gulag.
Another thing that has often puzzled me is the casual conflation of dystopia and post-apocalyptic. Jordan’s review was completely derailed for me by this line halfway through:
Where recent eco-dystopias such as The Road or Year of the Flood conjured an environmental degradation that degrades humanity’s moral sense beyond repair, Amsterdam’s tone is refreshingly unapocalyptic, and his novel is more interesting for it.
I will be charitable and assume that Jordan has read both those novels but I don’t see how the term “eco-dystopia” can be applied to either. This goes beyond conflation to total mischaracterisation: The Road takes place after a nuclear holocaust, The Year Of The Flood takes place both during a standard dystopia of late capitalism and after the release of a bio-weapon which has wiped out humanity but left the planet intact. In the case of Margaret Atwood’s novel there is simply no humanity left to have its moral sense degraded and, whilst there is plenty of moral degradation on display in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, to say it is degraded beyond repair is to miss the whole point of the novel. Jordan opens her review by stating: “Apocalyptic fiction tends to follow an irresistible drive towards vanishing point, the moment the last lights go out.” I would say the opposite: apocalyptic fiction is usually driven by a need to keep the flame burning as long as possible. Despite the brutality of Far North, The Road and The Year Of The Flood not all hope is extinguished and there is a chance that the light will last just a little longer.