Sunday, 30 May 2010

After the Apocalypse

I've always been a sucker for a good post-apocalyptic tale. Even a bad one can do it for me at a pinch. As a teenager I loved "Hothouse" by Brian Aldiss, in which a small group of humans travel through a massive tropical forest. It's a fantastic 1960s version of the greenhouse effect in which either the trees have grown, or the people have shrunk, so they're the comparative size of beetles.

This week I've been reading Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", to make up for missing the movie. In between was the book I've loved more than anything I've read in the past couple of years, Jim Crace's "The Pesthouse".

Part of the fascination of these books is imagining what the world might become in the future. In "Hothouse" it's just that, a supercharged landscape of exuberant vegetation. In "The Road" it's almost the precise opposite, a nuclear cataclysm (one presumes) leaving everything dead - blackened treetrunks, the shore littered with fish bones, barren fields and ash clouds blocking the sun. Once again, "The Pesthouse" is somewhere between. Food still grows, but there's never enough, people have fogotten what all but the simplest technology is for, and life is a struggle for survival.

What makes a good post-apocalyptic tale, though, is love. The central question of all these three books is whether the characters in them can survive, and whether they can remain human and intact despite the forces that try to destroy them.

Take, for instance, the central characters in "The Road". They are father and son. Their wife and mother has chosen to commit suicide, and the question is ever-present whether she made the wisest choice. The pair have no names, and their life is reduced to the barest essentials of survival - finding food, staying warm, keeping out of sight of predators. These predators provide the stark alternative. In a world where no food grows, there are only two ways to eat. Either you can scavenge for the leftovers of the age before the apocalypse, or you can turn cannibal. The man and boy have chosen the first course, and so have to be constantly on the alert for those who have taken the second. To keep themselves from that, they talk to each other about being the "good guys", about "carrying the light". Yet the light is the barest flicker. Whenever they meet someone more helpless than themselves, the best they can do is let them live, perhaps share a small morsel of their food. In such an environment, where food is a finite, dwindling resource, how long can humanity survive? The hope is dim, yet it is still there in the love between man and boy.

Crace has never been one for such grim landscapes. As in all his books, "The Pesthouse" is rich in plant and animal life, in colour and movement, in light and shade. Yet it has an atmosphere of inevitable decline. It's two main characters have names, Franklin and Margaret, a young man and woman thrown together by a natural disaster that kills his older brother and her entire village. The pair are saved precisely because they are wounded - he by an injury which has prevented him descending the hillside to the village, she by a fever which has led to her village quarantining her in its forest plague house. Their infirmity (although it should be said that Franklin is a huge strong man) is amplified by their innocence. Despite living in such a harsh world they have always been protected - he by his mother and older brother, she by her family. Thrown on their own, their hope seems to lie outside themselves, in a journey to the coast where they can take ship for the riches and comfort of Europe. Yet when they arrive at the port, through all the dangers and hardships of the journey, this hope proves illusory. It is only at this point that the two find what it is they really dream of - their still-innocent love and the possibility of building a life together even in this poor land.

"Hothouse", as befits Brian Aldiss, provides the strangest and yet perhaps most glorious hope of all. After surviving many hazards, and first using then escaping a fungus which tries to take over his personality, its hero Gren leads his followers to the place where they can enclose themselves in seeds, to emerge triumphantly with wings in another place.

Ultimately, these stories are not about the future, or about other places and times. They are about us. What makes us human? How hardy and enduring is this humanity? Can it survive even the most complete of catastrophes? Ultimately, the answer for each of these writers is "yes". Humanity survives. Many peripherals are shed along the way. Wealth, technology, mastery of the earth, permanent homes, even names can be shed, but in the midst of it some core of humanity survives. Of course, there are versions of this story in which it doesn't. For Aldiss, humanity can continue to grow and evolve, reaching for possibilities beyond our current state of being. For the ever-modest Crace, love and peace remain possible even amidst the greatest hardship. Even McCarthy, the grimmest and most horrifying of these three writers, ultimately allows hope to prevail over despair. The light lives on.

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