Survival of the Fittest?
August 18, 2003 10:37 AM   Subscribe

On Sundays West Coast Live I heard an interview with Adam Johnson, the author of Parasites Like Us, a post-apocalyptic novel with a decidedly (if somewhat spurious) anthropological bent. Literary criticism aside, as an anthropologist myself (and die-hard sci-fi reader), it got me thinking of what our vaunted Western culture may have to offer the survivors of whatever catastrophe may befall our civilization in the future. From classic novels like Earth Abides, or even The Stand, writers and storytellers have tried to discern what may be the surviving aspects of culture once all else fails; what it is that has made and defines us as modern humans, and perhaps what it is that will sustain us. So, what is it that would sustain you? What would separate you from the crazed and the mad that seem to populate the annals of post-apocalyptic literature? Or perhaps more specifically, what is it that you value of your culture and your technology that makes it worthwhile to maintain and perhaps fight your way back to?
posted by elendil71 (28 comments total)
I'd fight my way to chocolate any day.
posted by archimago at 10:40 AM on August 18, 2003

"what is it that you value of your culture and your technology that makes it worthwhile to maintain and perhaps fight your way back to?"

Nothing, but when you're all gone and I'm the last one left I'm going through your drawers.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:46 AM on August 18, 2003

can anyone suggest other good titles in this genre? i liked earth abides quite a bit and have read a number of other books with similar premises (just finished oryx and crake which i liked very very much).
posted by luriete at 11:08 AM on August 18, 2003

Is this a setup for Battlefield Earth jokes?
posted by stavrogin at 11:10 AM on August 18, 2003

If I'm still living after you folks die, I'm afraid to say it, but I will feast upon your carcasses.
posted by sharksandwich at 11:22 AM on August 18, 2003

You don't have to wait til I die, crash. Tee hee.

In a more sober vein, the more we rely on technology and electronically-stored information, the harder it will be to rebuild after any type of Cataclysm. Just sayin.
posted by WolfDaddy at 11:25 AM on August 18, 2003

Parable Of The Sower and Parable Of The Talents by Octavia Butler are kind of post-apocalyptic. In that the world doesn't completely get destroyed, but everything does go to hell.

And it really hits the one thing I would keep -- a heck of a lot of spirituality. Because without that base, there's nothing.
posted by Katemonkey at 11:31 AM on August 18, 2003

I'm fond of A Scientific Romance, which is also post-apocalyptic and archaeological, though from the sound of it a very different story than Parasites Like Us.
posted by furiousthought at 11:40 AM on August 18, 2003

I believe that the drive to rebuild would become an obsession in a post-apocolyptic world, especially in Western societies.

Inner logic would say that I would personally resist trying to rebuild this society, but I think that I would miss living "the good life" too much and would do everything I could to try and "get back to normal."

Look at what happens when such a simple thing as electricity goes out (especially if it was winter), and you sometimes get the feeling that perhaps disaster isn't as far away as we would like to believe.

Very interesting point elendil, and as a graduate student (in Sociology), I sometimes find it embarrassing to admit that my all time favorite novel was Steven King's "The Stand." People always want to come off intelligent (especially in Academic circles), and usually pick things like Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" or something equally opaque. I have been a reader all my life, and for my money, the Stand is one of the best written novels of the twentieth century.

Take that.
posted by Quartermass at 11:57 AM on August 18, 2003

Wow, that's a different perspective, Katemonkey. I'd say just the opposite, in fact: the most valuable thing about "my" culture is the degree to which it has overcome superstition. If we survived this hypothetical cataclysm with the scientific method intact, we'd have all we would need to rediscover and rebuild the rest.

But on further reflection, there's never going to be a second chance. This is our shot, and if we don't make it, we're screwed: we've already burned all the cheap energy needed to bootstrap an industrial base.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:17 PM on August 18, 2003

Quartermass, I may have to dispute your literary claims over the quality of The Stand (which is derivative at best) but I do understand your point.

I've not read Mr. Johnson's novel, but I understand he waxes poetic favoring those whose academic knowledge leans towards the anthropologic, in that those folks may have a leg up, so to speak, over those less learned, once civilization falls apart. Now, this may be somewhat parodic (I hope) but it raises in interesting question, and one at the heart of what I was trying to raise interest on.

As a professional archaeologist and lifelong backcountry explorer, I HAVE learned to make stone tools, I CAN survive under most primitive circumstances given a modicum of forewarning and planning, and I HOPE I would be able to make do in a world without electricity and the comforts of industrial society. Not that I'd want to (where would my PS2 plug in?!)

My point was that how would any of us manage to survive under such extreme circumstances, the kindness of literary license notwithstanding? Would the sociologist or anthropologist have a better chance? A physician? A politician? A survivalist in Montana?
posted by elendil71 at 12:40 PM on August 18, 2003

"A survivalist in Montana?"

Absolutely, the rest of you only know how to build stuff. We up here know how best to destroy it ... for our gain.

(/joke, just for the humor impared and urbane paranoids)
posted by Wulfgar! at 12:59 PM on August 18, 2003

the gilligans island style of nice western knowledge conquering a primitive situation is a great myth.

knowing how to find water, how to find food, and how to cook anything you kill would be the only skills that matter if things sunk too far...

i'd say the people best suited to survive would be those who already survive on almost nothing--unless you can machine metal, make chemicals you need, refine oil into gas, etc...
posted by th3ph17 at 1:01 PM on August 18, 2003

Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke. It makes me feel very very small.

But otherwise, what Quartermass said in re: the Stand.
posted by UncleFes at 1:17 PM on August 18, 2003

I have to disagree with th3ph17 here. Though the average Sociologist or anthropologist may not be skilled at using tools, they might have a slight advantage on Survivor (pretty much every Sociologist I know watches this show - the drama of structure/agency with a good amount of back stabbing thrown in for good measure), their advantage? Cultural capital, or culturally-valued taste.

Lets go with the Survivor metaphor for a minute. The people that make it far in that game are not always the ones that can build the shelter or get the food. The winner has always been able to deal with the group and piss off the least amount of people.

Thus, if post-apocalyptic survivors are eager to rebuild the society (which I think they would), perhaps the social scientist would do al right, though not in the same manner that they do in the current system (i.e. no more irrelevant arm chair musings!). Though ultimately, they would survive on an individual by individual basis, or in pther words, they might have a slight advantage, but most would probably fare no better than the bank manager or the convenience store clerk.

I think.
posted by Quartermass at 1:22 PM on August 18, 2003

Quartermass makes a good point.

My suggested reading in the post-apocalyptic genre is The Last Man on Earth, one of those anthologies that Asimov and Greenberg edited way back when. It's kind of a cheat, since its theme is not the end of the world, necessarily. However, there is a lot of crossover, and the stories within are awesome.
posted by Hildago at 1:43 PM on August 18, 2003

our cultures are based upon communication and language to transmit knowledge and technology. How many generations would it take to lose that?

One or two?

how do you learn about technology that doesn't exist? You can, certainly, but you would have a greater chance of survival if you concentrate on things you can apply.

So what do you try to regain first? Non-mechanized farming? very few in industrial nations know how to grow Food without machinery and chemicals. Or do you attempt to keep all of your weapons working? ammo doesn't last forever. Loading your own lacks consistancy and your firearms will malfunction. Gasoline loses potency. Aircraft take huge amounts of resources to keep in running condition.

our industrial society is perched atop a huge amount of information that would be difficult to rebuild because almost no one understands any of it.

sure, we could have city-states based out of surviving Costco's. They would trade with the neighboring HomeDepot tribe [who 8 years after tribulation gloriously triumphed over the Lowesians.]

the hackers would take to the hills, creating wifi networks using the sensors left to monitor the redwood forests. perhaps they would be the first to have continent wide communications again. who knows. fun/amazing speculations, but surviving is not the same as rebuilding civilization. the cultures that have had the least contact with industrialized nations would slowly return to their 10000 year old stasis and things like TV's and nike running shorts would become things of myth.

old men would sit by the fires, telling stories about the amazing god Google who knew everything, but no one would believe them.
posted by th3ph17 at 4:02 PM on August 18, 2003

Ever since I first read Earth Abides I've always paid special attention to expiration dates on over-the-counter medicine and canned foods. Y'know, just in case. If everybody else were to die, I'd have a few years to use up my AA batteries, Tylenol and pineapple rings before I had to worry about turning totally Stone Age.
posted by Guy Smiley at 4:23 PM on August 18, 2003

Thanks for this post, I have been looking for things to read in this genre.

I liked Into the Forest, it's a more girl-centered view of such things. As far as raw survival skills go, I wish I could attend the Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School in Montana (they have some nice journals of some of the trips they've taken).
posted by beth at 5:08 PM on August 18, 2003

One end-of-civilization prospect, very real, but often ignored is the superior mutant theory. Mankind, to my knowledge, has had only one mutation that might have displaced us, the Porcupine Men of Euston Hall in Suffolk.
(No link, I'm afraid, but taken from "The Best of M.D.N", a collection from a medical magazine.)

The first of them was exhibited before the Royal Society at age 14, in the year 1731. "The boy's skin, which was covered with rough scales chiefly about the belly and flanks, looked and rustled like the bristles or quills of an Hedge-Hog, shorn off to within an inch of the skin." It was noted that they were strong, alert, fast, and highly intelligent. Unfortunately, for them, reproduction with women who had no such skin was terribly painful. They did, however, last five generations before dying out, and even at the time there was concern that they were better then the average man.

Interestingly, animal species seem to have an inherent understanding of the *danger* of superior mutants, and will often kill, or abandon to die, one of their number with too divergent traits.

But were a "colony" of such "people" to come about, and be able to defend themselves, or find some other sanctuary from us, would mankind slowly, or quickly, die out, suffering from the fate so many other genetic losers in the past have suffered?
posted by kablam at 7:37 PM on August 18, 2003

I'll suggest Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz.
posted by SPrintF at 7:51 PM on August 18, 2003

The family kablam was referring to: Anomalous Skin-Diseases

All the members of the well-known family of Lambert had the body covered with spines. Two members, brothers, aged twenty-two and fourteen, were examined by Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire. This thickening of the epidermis and hair was the effect of some morbid predisposition which was transmitted from father to son, the daughters not being affected. Five generations could be reckoned which had been affected in the manner described.

It doesn't make any mention of contemporary reactions to their mutation, though.
posted by cmonkey at 8:11 PM on August 18, 2003

Did someone say Paris sites?
posted by ParisParamus at 8:13 PM on August 18, 2003

One end-of-civilization prospect, very real, but often ignored is the superior mutant theory

The idea of homo superior has always fascinated me in an entertaining way. While I've read many scifi stories in which the superior mutation is telepathy, Asimov's The Gods Themselves features a grouping of people called intuitionists, a concept that I find really quite interesting to think about.
posted by WolfDaddy at 8:35 PM on August 18, 2003

A fascinating read in a similar genre are the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who posited the mental and spiritual evolution of man, rather than an overtly physical one.

His philosophies are also the (loose) basis of a rather remarkable series of sci-fi novels by Julian May that begins with The Saga of Pliocene Exile. Not a great link but the novels are well worth reading.
posted by elendil71 at 9:17 PM on August 18, 2003

I'm particularly fond of Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence (part of Womack's Ambient series), which not only illustrates the heartbreaking change of a twelve year old girl in dystopian New York, but juxtaposes that perspective against governmental and economic breakdown. What impressed me so much about the book was how it profiled the harsh death of civility while somehow not coming across as Manichean as it was depicted.
posted by ed at 9:32 PM on August 18, 2003

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore, a first person homage to Mark Twain, is my favorite.

The book inaugurated the rebirth of the Ace Special Series in 1984. It was the first and best of The Three Californias series. It's really well written and far deeper than what skills do you need to survive after the Bomb? Sometimes I think part of these post-apocalypse stories--The Stand comes to mind--appeals to the nascent looter in us all. Wouldn't it be nice if all the rest of the people died and we could have all the consumer goods we wanted for free?

I liked Womack in Elvissey but further exposure to his ultraviolent S&M schtick and cutesy but unworkable futurespeak left me cold. And his versimilitude sucks--the world is in utter chaos, the country's in civil war and a giant corporation runs the country. No one has a job and everyone's shooting at each other all the time and there's food and consumer products for sale and people have money or something to barter to get it all--what is wrong with this picture? Elvissey had a great concept but I just found him tiresome after that. No offense, ed.
posted by y2karl at 10:07 PM on August 18, 2003

Alfred Bester's novelette They Don't Make Life Like They Used To has always stayed with me. A guy and a gal meet in Manhattan after the war and leave IOUs in department stores as they outfit the Boat House in Central Park and settle down into a chaste domesticity. Then, one day, they they think hear shots and the guy fires off his rifle in return and they get a reply. As they run through the park towards the sound, the come across the Alice in Wonderland statues--all with shiny new mantis heads just installed. Game over. Only then do they run back to the house to board the windows and, finally, get it on...
Ooh, that one stays with you.
posted by y2karl at 10:31 PM on August 18, 2003

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