Cozy Catastrophe Review: On the Beach

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The human spirit thrives on hope. I think the King James translators put it best (if not a bit inaccurately) when they wrote: and on earth peace, goodwill toward men. Humans have wanted and longed for peace and utopia ever since one person set him or herself above another.

Persecution and oppression always produce in those persecuted and oppressed the hope that there will come a day when persecutions will end and oppression will be no more.

The Israelites created their Messiah. Marx envisioned a utopia with no state and no bosses. And for those of us who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we longed for a time when the atomic bomb would be no more and we’d wage peace instead of war.

The ‘50s and early ‘60s we’re especially fraught with tension. Nuclear drills in school. The H-bomb. The Korean War. The Vietnam war. The U-2 incident. The Cuban missile crisis. There was a subtle and constant fear that the human race would completely annihilate itself in a nuclear holocaust or a nuclear winter.

The book that perhaps best epitomized that fear is On The Beach by Neville Shute, first published in 1957. It is a novel of nuclear holocaust and how we might react to the impending annihilation of the human race.

There is very little plot in On The Beach and the story line is simple. A nuclear war has occurred before the book begins. The northern hemisphere is obliterated and the radiation cloud is slowly sinking southwards. The people there, in the south, have perhaps another year to live.

The story focuses on two couples and how they deal with their impending deaths. This is tragedy, pure and simple. The novel opens with impending doom, there is a brief moment of hope which turns out to be false, and then the unrelenting radiation cloud arrives and with it — death.

On The Beach has to be one of the saddest novels I’ve ever read. I found it to be a rather ponderous and slow moving read. Even boring at times. But Shute pulled out one of the most heart-wrenching endings I’ve ever read. I think the novel is worth reading. If for nothing else then to see a picture of the end of the world that isn’t met with hedonistic abandon.

Shute gives us a picture of ourselves at what might be called our finest hour: meeting our certain end with dignity and grace.

A modern riff on this idea can be seen in the movie Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World.

The question, though, in my mind is this: is On The Beach a cozy catastrophe? The novel regularly appears on list of cozies. The calm approach to impending doom, drinking tea and eating crumpets, is frequently cited as a hallmark of the cozy. However, I don’t think the novel is a cozy.

This putting of On The Beach in the cozy catastrophe camp bothered me because the world comes to an end. No one survives. Recently I watched the movie Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. The story line of Seeking is simple. (Spoiler Alert) An asteroid is going to destroy Earth. A man and woman meet, eventually fall in love, get separated, get back together, and meet the world in each others arms. A doomsday story, pure and simple.

And so is On The Beach. It’s not the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world for the entire human race. It’s doomsday.

For a cozy catastrophe to be a cozy, the earth must be survivable and there must be survivors. Neither is the case in On The Beach. The book is an end of the world story. Not a cozy catastrophe.

However, the book is worth reading. Contemporary audiences, however, may find the book slow moving. Be aware there isn’t much plot here. There’s a heavy emphasis on duty and civility and a fascinating insight into how we delude ourselves. And the heart-wrenching ending.

On The Beach is not a cozy catastrophe, but a great end of the world novel.

As always, comments are welcome! Until next time, happy reading!

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Cozy Catastrophe Review: Ray Bradbury’s “The Highway”

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Good things often come in small packages. A surprisingly delightful cozy catastrophe can be found in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Highway”, which appears in his 1951 short story collection The Illustrated Man.

The story is very short, only seven pages, and basically has no plot. However, don’t be fooled. Bradbury, by a masterful use of character portrayal, tells a very effective story. In fact, the story is a perfect illustration of Bradbury’s dictum: create your characters, let them do their thing, and that’s your plot.

I am going to forego summarizing the story because I don’t see anyway to do so without giving away the ending, which would be a shame if you wish to read this delightful and thought-provoking little tale. I will point out why I think this story falls into the cozy camp and in doing so give you a bit of a feel for the story.

The Catastrophe

First of all, the catastrophe is quick and there is little discussion of it. A nuclear war has occurred.

The Amateur

The main character, Hernando, lives on his farm with his wife near a river and a road. The road is a main north-south highway, but isn’t a freeway. From the description, we are safe to assume it is a two lane road. One on which lots of tourists travel.

Where Hernando lives exactly is not specified. But because Bradbury also makes clear Hernando’s first language is Spanish, we can again assume his farm is probably in Mexico or Central America.

Contrary to the so-called cozy stereotype, Hernando is not middle-class, nor British. It’s obvious he’s poor. He has a burro and a wooden plow. His wife grinds corn with a block of lava rock. Aside from his farm, the highway provides him with important things which enable him to live apparently  somewhat comfortably. The highway provides him money from tourists who want to take his picture, it’s provided him with a shiny hubcap that he and his wife use for a bowl, and the highway provided him with a tire, which he cut up to use for the soles of his shoes.

Clearly, not all cozy catastrophes are about middle-class British blokes who hate the working class.

The Setting

The setting is recognizable. It is a rural place south of the US border. The story focuses on Hernando and his wife. He is going about his everyday tasks when the disaster hits. What tips him off to something going on, is the highway has no cars on it. Something big has happened.

A Survivable World

Suddenly, a stream of cars appears all going north and when the stream is finally gone a lone old Ford shows up that’s overheating. Hernando fills the radiator with water and finds out from the young people in the car a nuclear war has happened. And then the car drives off. What is obvious, there is no sign of the calamity where Hernando lives and we can assume his little corner of the world is survivable.

A New World

The only point I see which might disqualify the story as a cozy catastrophe is the hope of building a better world out of the ashes of the old. For Hernando and his wife, there are no ashes and life goes on. Which is a point Bradbury liked to make: our modern world is too complex and too fragile and isolates us from the simple pleasures of living an uncomplicated existence. So, in a way, for Bradbury, Hernando’s world is the desired new world.

One can, of course, argue something must be survivable for all the cars to have headed north into the war zone. If the US had been totally obliterated, why go there?

The story, though, is about Hernando and for him there is no other world than the one he has always lived in.

Conclusion

In this seven page story, master storyteller Ray Bradbury tells a tale which uses the cozy catastrophe format to tell us a story of the value of simple living.

The tale is very much worth reading and I encourage you to do so. Add a copy of The Illustrated Man to your library. You won’t regret it.

Comments are always welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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Cozy Catastrophe Review: Earth Abides

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The cozy catastrophe can have no better representative than George R Stewart’s Earth Abides. To the modern reader who is expecting a thrilling nail biter of a novel, oozing zombies at every turn, this is not the book for you.

However, if you are looking for a thought-provoking story of a person, a story of a person’s life, a story about a real person who is not always likable and yet has a vision that rallies people around him, a story of hope and inspiration — than this book is your cup of tea.

Earth Abides is about Isherwood Williams and his life after he survives a rattlesnake bite and a deadly pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population. While the world of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and into the ‘60s quaked in its boots worrying over a nuclear holocaust, Stewart showed us there are other things about which we need to be concerned. Primary of which is our lack of concern about our impact on the natural world and its counter-impact on us.

When Ish, as he is called, comes down out of the mountains where he has been hiking and discovers the world as he knew it had died in a matter of weeks, we see a person befuddled by the enormity of the tragedy and yet one who as a result develops the resolve to not let knowledge die. He gets a car and drives from his home in California to New York City and then back to California, taking in a grand tour of the devastated country.

What Ish learns is that people don’t know how to survive for the most part and secondly, they never knew what to live for. What really matters in life. Earth Abides is in part philosophy masquerading as a novel. The questions Ish asks himself and what he eventually demands of the group that collects around him are important questions we should all ask ourselves before disaster strikes us.

Ish discovers that the world of businessmen and middle-class values does not prepare one for the real stuff of life. Stewart contrasts a southern African-American family with a Euro-American couple in New York City.

The poor blacks know more of life than the prosperous whites. The African-Americans set about to create a family of survivors: a man, a woman, and a young boy. Ish finds the woman pregnant. They have collected some farm animals and planted a garden. They make Ish realize that is what he needs to do rather than simply scavenge the detritus of the dead world.

The white couple in New York, by contrast, have no children, drink booze all day, play cards, read mysteries, and eat their meals out of tin cans, sometimes to Chateau Margaux. They have not given one thought as to what will happen when winter comes. Ish likes them for they are not despondent over what happened, but he realizes they will not survive because they don’t know how to and aren’t capable of thinking beyond their urban middle-class box.

George R Stewart wrote Earth Abides in the 1940s, it was published in 1949. His language is a bit dated by our politically correct standards and his science is also. But Stewart’s vision of hope is timeless. He was a professor of English at UC Berkeley. He was educated at Princeton, Berkeley, and Columbia. Dr Stewart was something of a polymath and unfortunately is virtually forgotten today. He wrote widely on a great array of subjects.

Stewart’s vision of a possible future for the human race is an interesting one. In a time when blacks were largely ignored by the greater society, Stewart shows them to hold the future in their hands. They know how to survive. Ish, whose name is symbolic, Ish meaning man in Hebrew, and is white marries a woman, Emma, who is at least partly African-American. That in an era in which miscegenation was very much taboo. Emma’s name is also symbolic for it means whole or universal. Ish calls her “the Mother of Nations”.

The style of writing is a partial throw back to the Victorian third person omniscient, which I find to put a certain distance between the reader and the story. For the story is told to me by an all-knowing narrator. Earth Abides is somewhat in this style and therefore creates a certain distance between reader and story. If one can overlook the manner of the telling, then one will find the classic that this novel truly is.

The detractors of the cozy, and I’m primarily pointing a finger at Brian Aldiss and Jo Walton and those websites that repeat their criticisms, have so narrowly defined what the cozy is, as though it is solely a British thing, they have turned off readers to a truly great treasure trove of fiction that can stimulate the best in us in the here and now. Earth Abides busts wide open what very much appears to be the self-loathing of Aldiss and Walton. Their own dislike of their own middle-class existence.

In Earth Abides, we see a college student collect together a band of largely working class people and craftsmen. He draws inspiration from a class and race that was marginalized in his day and age. The main character breaks the old taboos in his quest for a better society, but realizes he can’t do it alone. Earth Abides is not a tale filled with thrills and spills. It is one filled with ideas and filled with hope for a better world. Something we all want. It is the classic cozy catastrophe.

Comments are always welcome! Until next time, happy reading!

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Cozy Catastrophe Review: The Day of the Triffids

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If you do a web search for “cozy catastrophe” you will come across quite a few websites parroting the nonsense that this form of the post-apocalyptic tale was written almost exclusively by white middle-class British blokes after World War II longing for the days of Empire and Tory government and that the cozy was simply their way of lashing out at the world they didn’t like.

Such a position simply reveals the ignorance of those making it. If one looks at the history of the form, one is quickly  disabused of such a notion.

Of course the negative attitude of these critics has one source and that source is Brian Aldiss. Why Aldiss was seemingly so opposed to the fiction of John Wyndham baffles me and I will not attempt to understand what is probably not understandable.

Today we will take a look at The Day of the Triffids, the 1951 novel by Wyndham which is ultimately responsible for the term “cozy catastrophe”.

Below is the BBC’s version of the Triffid

The Day of the Triffids begins with a worldwide catastrophe that’s made most everyone blind. As if that isn’t bad enough, the blindness is followed by a fast killing plague. And then there are the Triffids: those giant, mobile, carnivorous, and seemingly intelligent plants created in a lab to be a supply of an exceedingly nutritious oil.

The hero, who was recuperating in the hospital from a triffid sting and had his eyes bandaged, wakes in the morning following a beautiful meteor shower to find nothing as it should be. Eventually he removes his bandages. He can see and discovers no one in the hospital can. Workers, doctors, and patients alike. Then he discovers everyone who saw the meteors has gone blind.

At first, only the hero, Bill Masen, realizes the danger posed by the triffids and no one will listen to him. No one except for Josella Playton, whose home is overrun by triffids early on.

The triffids are manmade. Masen also speculates the meteor shower was a manmade disaster. A weapons system of orbiting satellites that accidentally went off. Masen also speculates that the plague which soon breaks out is also a biological weapon created in a lab that somehow got free.

In 1951, the horror of World War II was only six years gone. The Korean War had started the previous year, the Cold War was being waged between Russia and the West, and the threat of a nuclear war occurring was a very real fear. I remember getting civil defense pamphlets in school. People stockpiled water and food and built bomb shelters. Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold is a time travel story about nuclear war and the salvation one man’s bomb shelter provides.

That everyone might be wiped out was something we all felt who were alive back then, if not consciously, certainly unconsciously.

At the same time, we all hoped for a better world. A world free from war and the threat of annihilation. Is it any wonder why the cozy catastrophe, with its message of hope, was so popular? And continues to be?

The Day of the Triffids posits two types of manmade disasters: biological warfare and plant modification gone awry. The latter reminds me of the current debate over GMOs. Wyndham was clearly warning us that our end may not come in a mushroom cloud, but may be due to the fact we need to eat and growing enough food for the world is a constant problem.

The storyline is very broadly typical of the cozy. A small group of survivors bands together and tries to continue some form of civilization. Of course each group of survivors has their own spin on what the new civilization will look like.

Seemingly the main criticism of cozies is that everyone’s middle class. In Triffids, certainly Bill and Josella are. But that isn’t necessarily the case regarding the other survivors we meet. The character Coker certainly appears to be from laboring class. Regardless, though, of whatever class people start out as, everyone, in order to survive, must become a laborer.

The catastrophe has made everyone equal. In fact, when some form of militaristic authoritarian government eventually reaches Bill and Josella, They flee. They want no part of the class structure to be imposed on them.

Ultimately The Day of the Triffids is about hope in the face of adversity, about an innate sense of goodness and decency which will rise up in the face of extreme suffering and calamity, freedom from authoritarianism, and about our dreams for better future.

Looking at the novel sixty-five years after it was published, I’d say it has much in common with Heinlein’s libertarian manifesto The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Triffids has none of the negative features pejoratively assigned to it by Aldiss and his ilk. In fact, I’d say it is the opposite. The book is about liberty, equality, and fraternity. It is a book showing that in the worst of times we can be at our best as human beings.

Comments are always welcome! Until next time, happy reading!

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Cozy Catastrophe Review: The Time Machine

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The Time Machine by HG Wells is a classic work of science fiction. The story is often classed as a cozy catastrophe. After recently re-reading the book, I’ve come to the conclusion not only is the work not a cozy catastrophe, it isn’t even post-apocalyptic literature.

I think it far more accurate to call The Time Machine a dystopian dying earth social satire.

So why review it? Because it is so frequently classed as a cozy catastrophe, I think it exemplifies the confusion about just exactly what is a cozy catastrophe. I think The Time Machine bears examination in order for us to clarify what elements are essential for a cozy to be a cozy.

Let’s take another look at the elements making up the cozy catastrophe subgenre of post-apocalyptic literature.

  • The Amateur
  • The Catastrophe
  • A Recognizable Setting
  • The Small Group of Survivors
  • A Survivable World
  • The Building of a New World
  • The Message of Hope

The Time Traveller, as the story’s main narrator calls the secondary narrator, tells a small group of his friends a story. The story is of his journey to the year 802,701 AD, where he spends approximately a week, and then travels on to a time about 30 million years into the future where he sees the end of the earth.

Even this briefest of descriptions gives us a clue that the story does not fall into post-apocalyptic literature, for there is no apocalypse. There is the Dying Earth and so we could put the story in that category. However, the journey to the dying days of our planet is a very minor part of the story. The focus of the story is that week The Time Traveller spends in the year 802,701 and that, in my opinion, firmly places the story in the dystopian social satire category of science fiction.

The Time Traveller discovers a beautiful land when he finally stops his machine. The land is inhabited by small child-like people who speak a language unknown to him and exist solely on a diet of fruit. They do nothing but eat, sleep, and play. They live in large buildings which are slowly decaying and which they probably didn’t build. They are clothed, but The Time Traveller sees no means of production.

During the course of the story, the Time Machine is stolen, he befriends one of the people, a female named Weena, and learns they are called by the name Eloi. The Time Traveller also learns there is another group of beings that live underground, whom the Eloi refer to as Morlocks. The Time Traveller deduces the Morlocks stole his machine and he makes a brief exploration of their underground world looking for it. In the process, he discovers the Morlocks run large machines and eat the Eloi.

The Time Traveller posits several explanations as to how the future world he briefly visited came about. None of them involve a catastrophe. This is where Wells’s socialism comes to the fore. The Eloi and the Morlocks are the result of natural degeneration due to class conflict. The conflict between the owners of production and workers.

That is the basis for The Time Machine being classed as a dystopian story with a heavy dose of social satire, which takes a side road down Dying Earth lane.

The only cozy elements are those of a survivable world and the recognizable setting. Other than that we have a process of natural devolution in which the human race separates into the roles of predator and prey — with the satire being that the descendants of the working class now literally prey on the descendants of the owner class. There is no catastrophe, no group of survivors, and no desire to rebuild civilization. The Eloi are ignorant of their past and desire nothing but play. The Morlocks apparently clothe them and eat them. No desire to change things there either.

I found The Time Machine, first published in 1895, to be cluttered with Victorian tropes and to be rather dull reading. At least for me, page after page of description with little conflict is on the dull side. True there is the stealing of the Time Machine and the effort to get it back. There is the conflict with the Morlocks, marred by the typical strong man suddenly too easily exhausted and subject to fainting. The science of the possibility of time travel is historically interesting but very dated.

Where the story makes its mark is in the popularization of the concept of time travel as a scientific reality instead of a product of magic or dreams.

I recall the TV show The Time Tunnel, from 1966-67. For me very exciting stuff, even though it didn’t make it to a second season. It’s an example of our love affair with time travel. Along with such movies as Looper, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Back to the Future. And the current spate of time travel romance novels.

The Time Machine, for all its faults as a story by today’s standards, is still worth reading. While it isn’t the first time travel story, it is the story that made time travel a staple of science fiction and started us thinking about the real science of time travel.

The Time Machine isn’t a cozy catastrophe, but it is very dystopian and does give one reason to pause and think about the growing disparity between the haves and the have nots.

Next week we’ll continue our survey of cozy catastrophe literature with the book that resulted in the coining of the term cozy catastrophe. Until then happy reading! Comments are always welcome.

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