Enter The Apocalypse is a new anthology of short fiction from TANSTAAFL Press that features thirty-two authors all dealing with a version or another of the apocalypse. It’s the first in a planned trilogy of apocalyptic-themed anthologies from TANSTAAFL, and this one portrays the way it could start. One of the writers included in the anthology, Trevor Zaple, talks about it in today’s post.
Line from “And I Will Sing A Lullabye”:
“We’re children lost in the forest, with an unimaginable force of evil bearing down on us that we can’t see.”
The notion of the apocalypse has held a certain dark fascination in the human imagination since we first gained the luxury of sitting around and telling each other stories that would scare our pants off. It’s a natural sequence of thought, when you look at it. Death was and continues to be an unavoidable part of life. It’s easy to extrapolate the death of every living human from the death of one; if them, then not all of us? It has never helped that uncomfortable reminders of the fragility of the human species have followed us at all times.
At one point, in the misty time before agrarian settlement, scientists have determined that the human population on Earth was once reduced to a mere 1,500 individuals. Since then, a number of Extinction Level Events have haunted us in the starless and Bible black: the flood that mired the Fertile Crescent thousands of years ago continues to show up in Christianity even today; the volcano that destroyed Pompeii echoes to modern warnings about “supervolcanoes” that are set to shroud the Earth in soot and ash; the Black Death that killed off a quarter of Europe’s population in the 14th Century still chills us today, in the form of plague fiction by authors as diverse as Camus and King, and the ubiquitous zombie films and television shows that pepper contemporary media. Sometimes there are stark reminders of the powers outside our world, as in the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan peninsula where many believe the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs (as well as much other life on Earth) impacted. Sometimes there are stark reminders of the powers in our world that we only pretend we have some control over, as in the twin shrines of nuclear devastation in Japan. For (nearly) every possibility of human extinction, there’s a story that one of us wants to tell about it. Some of them, like Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer, are stories about the plucky resolve of the human species, it’s resilience in the face of The End. Others, like Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, are stoic reminders that, despite our best efforts, we all will die.
It’s bleak stuff, and there’s an awful lot of it. The apocalypse, and it’s close cousin the post-apocalypse, are among the most popular genres of fiction out there, regardless of your preferred form of media. Why? Why do we want to remind ourselves of our ultimate mortality in such a chilling, sweeping way?
French postmodern philosopher Jacques Ranciere lectures, among other things, on the politics of fiction. To keep it brief, one of his ideas on the subject is that stories begin in the lives of people – the anonymous textures of everyday life. As befitting postmodernism, he rejects the idea that everyday lives have a grand, overarching narrative to them; people’s lives are comprised of a series of events that have a logical flow to them but there are no stories in people’s lives, in the sense of having an arc, a beginning, a conflict, a climax, and a dénouement. Real life is rarely so organised. The author creates the story, by scooping up these anonymous textures and subjecting them to the tyranny of the plot. They are, in a sense, projecting their own ideas about what constitutes a grand meta-narrative onto a field in which no such narrative exists.
One fundamental aspect of people’s lives is that events will occur over which the person has absolutely no control. Cancer. Car accidents. Gas explosions. Political machinations at the highest levels. Economic decisions made in the boardrooms of companies and organisations, often in completely different countries. The loss of control is a nightmare for most people; it manifests itself in sexual kink as BDSM, in political behaviour as voting for populists and demagogues, and in fiction as an embrace of the apocalyptic. You can’t control disease – and neither can the characters of The Walking Dead or The Shore. You, unless you’re an extremely high-level political elite, can’t control nuclear war – and neither could the characters of A Gift On The Shore or A Canticle For Leibowitz. You’re largely powerless over losing your job due to economic downturns, and so was the family of Into The Forest. Control, then, either the desperate retention or the bitter loss thereof, is a major factor in the anonymous textures of people’s lives, and it shows in the abundance of apocalyptic fiction. Crime, war, disease, the economy; these are the concepts that are scooped up and hammered into a grand narrative, often replete with memorable characters and wide-ranging adventure. At the heart of these stories, though, are people with the same concerns and anxieties as you or I, only theirs are writ large in dripping blood.
The apocalypse, as a device for telling stories, will continue to be a feature for as long as we fear losing control; or being subject to forces beyond our control. Every generation has it’s own particular fears that manifest themselves in The End. The Cold War gave us a sharp upswing in nuclear paranoia. Robert Kirkman rightly noted that fear of automation, of losing ourselves into technology and the daily grind created the widespread clamour for anything zombie related. It’s perhaps no secret, then, why a number of authors including Margaret Atwood have been calling for authors to embrace the idea of “cli-fi”: apocalyptic science fiction that deals with the onrushing horrors of climate change.
Does that seem like a forced narrative in itself? Could such a genre compete with the howling cannibalistic dead? Let me ask you this:
Can you control the weather?
[Trevor Zaple is an author of two novels (as well as countless shorter pieces) and a risk analyst with the Western Leadership and Democracy Lab. In his off-time he enjoys time with his family, crafting increasingly bizarre electronic music, and seeking answers in the vast blackness that lies beyond time itself, in that order.]
PS. Incidentally, I have a story too in this anthology, under my usual fiction byline. Mine deals with virus and bacteria, and I’ve too contributed a blog post on a fellow’s writer site.