A Message of Hope

Post-apocalyptic literature addresses the question: what would life be like if the world as we know it came to an end?

The answer can be dark or light, dystopian or utopian. All depending on how the author wants to play the game. For now, the dark, dystopian answer seems to be what everyone wants. Hence the popularity of all the various iterations of the zombie apocalypse, and such books as The Hunger Games, or such TV series as The 100.

The end of the world as we know it ushered in Hell on Earth. In most cases, this approach to the post-apocalyptic story is survivalist in tone. The main character or characters are in a fight for their lives from beginning to end, with little relief in the middle.

However, the apocalypse, if we survive it and depending on the state of the world if we do, doesn’t have to be a hopeless cesspool. It can be a time of starting over and hopefully making things better. Everything depends ultimately on the author’s Weltanschauung, or worldview.

That is why I like the cozy catastrophe. At the end of the day, it offers us hope. It offers us a vision of the world where our better side triumphs. In the midst of disaster and its aftermath, the best of what makes us human comes to the fore.

The cozy catastrophe may have a battle for survival as part of the storyline, but the main emphasis is on rebuilding the world. And hopefully make it better than it was before the catastrophe.

S. Fowler Wright in Deluge and Dawn, classic cozy catastrophes (you can read for free at http://www.sfw.org), spends little time on the catastrophe and no time on why it happened. The bulk of the story in both books is allotted to how Martin Webster is going to create a new society without the flaws of the old one and how he will deal with the opposition to his leadership.

The ending of his 2-part saga in Dawn is somewhat bittersweet, and yet the world goes on. In spite of everything it goes on and humanity will survive.

In The Day of the Triffids, the book closes on a note of profound hope. Hope that all will become better for the human race, we’ll learn, and that humanity’s mucking around with nature won’t be the end of the human race.

Writers of cozy catastrophes, for the most part, see the catastrophe as wiping the slate clean. Then, if the survivors are up to it, they can build utopia.

In Dean Wesley Smith’s Dust and Kisses, the enterprising main characters are doing alright on their own when they run into each other. And then trouble comes to town. But is it? Again, hope wins the day.

Not all cozy catastrophes have a happy ending. Some are bittersweet. Fowler’s above mentioned Dawn. Earth Abides. Terry Nation’s book Survivors. But generally they are on the whole upbeat.

My own The Rocheport Saga is part philosophy, part family saga, part satire, and part action/adventure. And all about one man’s quest to fulfill his dream for a new world, a better world. In other words, utopia.

Perhaps it’s painting with too broad a brush to say writers of dark dystopian post-apocalyptic books are pessimists and cozy catastrophe writers are optimists. Nevertheless, the unrelenting darkness of something like The Hunger Games trilogy stands in stark contrast to the optimism expressed in The Day of the Triffids. Or even Earth Abides, where the main character doesn’t get what he had hoped for and yet the human race will survive and perhaps end up better than before.

Pessimistic or optimistic. Dystopia or utopia. Which is your preference?

Until next time, happy reading!

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Book Review: Defiant, She Advanced

When it comes to political and economic theory, I place myself in the libertarian camp. To my mind the rights of the individual trumps all. I’m opposed to collectivism and statism in all its forms. It does not take a village to raise a child. IMHO 🙂

And even though Ayn Rand was quite popular in my college days, I never read any of her books. Consequently, libertarian fiction is new to me. So when I ran across George Donnelly’s short story series, There Will Be Liberty, I decided to buy both books. After all, sci-fi and libertarianism—how cool is that?

I finished reading Defiant, She Advanced: Legends Of Future Resistance a week or two ago and decided to review it. As with all short story collections, some stories are better than others. Better in my eyes, that is. Because, as we all know, what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, is all a matter of opinion.

So let’s take a look at the short story collection Defiant, She Advanced and see how it stakes up against the competition and let’s begin with me giving you a tiny taste of the flavors that you’ll find in this collection. Then be sure to get a copy and decide for yourself!

“The Slow Suicide of Living Again” by Wendy McElroy leads off the book. The story is the most overtly libertarian of the bunch, but that isn’t bad. Wendy’s done a great job of integrating libertarian thought with the storyline and making it flow as a coherent whole. The tale begins with a restitution agent describing a tense scene where she barely escapes from sex traffickers. But that’s the least of Mackenzie Jones’s problems. For her world is soon turned upside down and reality…? Well, what is reality anyway? A very memorable story. Perhaps the best in the collection.

Stories of good guys versus bad guys are usually told from the perspective of the good guy. “Thompson’s Stand” by Jake Antares tells the story of a rebellion against authority from the perspective of the bad guy. A tale of surprising compassion.

“Under the Heel of the Aether Imperium” by J P Medved is a steampunk space opera, with all the things we love best in those two sub-genres. It is a fun-filled, rollicking adventure yarn. This story is complete, yet sets the stage for an ongoing series.

William F Wu’s “Yellowsea Yank” is another steampunk adventure. This one, though, is set on earth, in China, and is filled with action, adventure, mystery, suspense, romance, and mistaken identity. What’s not to like?

1984 is perhaps the most terrifying picture of totalitarianism ever written. George Donnelly, in “Doubleplusunhate”, gives us an Orwellian story that is dark and disturbing. Make sure your teddy bear or comfy blanket are nearby.

Steampunk and the Western frontier seem to go together. Jack McDonald Burnett’s retro-future “Get Kidd to Bounty” gives us the Old West atmosphere in steampunk trappings and does so admirably. This is a classic escape story and will keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s also thought-provoking. One of the best in the collection.

For me, Robert S Hirsch’s “The Intruder” was weak. A rather predictable revenge story, with a techno-fight scene that I didn’t find all that interesting. This was probably the weakest story in the collection.

The writing in Jonathan David Baird’s “Workaday” was very good. Unfortunately, I thought the story suffered from being too short. The storyline needed some fleshing out, because too much seemed to be left unanswered. It just seemed too contrived and sketchy to me. The writing was good, I just wished there was more of it.

“Flourescence” by J P Medved was quite different from his other story in this collection. A dystopian fantasy about a girl with a very special grandmother. The story addresses the issue of authority versus the individual. I found it thought-provoking.

The collection concludes with a long story by George Donnelley, “The Death Shop”. The tone of this science fiction story is dystopian and the story ends with a surprising twist. Even now, reflecting on this tale, I’m not sure what to make of it. I found it disturbing and it left me… Well, I’m not sure. I guess, if anything, questioning what is real and what is a dream. Read it for yourself and see what you think.

All in all, Defiant, She Advanced: Legends of Future Resistance (There Will Be Liberty, Book 1) was worth the money. There is good thought-provoking, as well as fun, entertainment here. The libertarian thought, while present, was not in your face. No preaching here. Hats off to Mr Donnelly for achieving an excellent balance in good storytelling and in presenting political/economic thought. I recommend you get yourself a copy. I don’t think you’ll be sorry. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the series.

Comments always welcome! Until next time, happy reading!

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Cozy Catastrophe Review: The Time Machine

Class-in-Time-Machine-crop

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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The Cozy Catastrophe – Additional Thoughts

Town-Centre

Above, Pripyat two decades after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Last week we looked at those elements which were essential to the cozy catastrophe. This week we’re taking a further look at the subgenre to dispel a couple misguided thoughts.

Formula Fiction

Ever since Brian Aldiss coined the term cozy catastrophe, the subgenre has gotten a bad rap by many both in and without the science fiction community. One of the charges against it is that it is formula fiction.

Jo Walton, on the TOR website, disparagingly wrote, “You could quite easily write a program for generating one.”

In response, I’d argue all fiction is essentially formulaic. Because stories fall into familiar patterns. Ronald B Tobias, in his book Twenty Master Plots, has not only broken down all story lines into twenty basic patterns, he goes further and enumerates the eight lowest common plot denominators. These are the eight things all stories must have to be a story. Now doesn’t that sound like putting together a formula?

Stories follow patterns. Doesn’t matter if they are mainstream, literary, experimental, or genre fiction. The pattern of boy meets girl has been told at least a million different ways. But the pattern — the formula — is the same: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl, and, depending on whether the story has a happy or sad ending, boy keeps girl or boy loses girl. Isn’t that a formula?

Ms Walton rather snobbishly condemns the cozy catastrophe of being formulaic and exempts other subgenres of science fiction. But if we look at space opera we find very definite formulas and tropes there as well. The classic good versus evil storyline. The underdog become hero. Spaceships that magically have gravity in a way that is scientifically impossible. All planets with life have an earth-like environment. What Ms Walton forgets is that we gladly suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy the story.

Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, pulp fiction, which was all genre oriented and very formulaic, was exceedingly popular and similarly dismissed as inferior because it wasn’t literary. Yet the best writers and stories of the pulp era are still read today, while many literary writers have been forgotten and their works molder away in the catacombs of some library or have ended up as landfill.

The cozy catastrophe in the hands of a good writer is no more formulaic than any other story. Over the next few weeks we’ll look at some examples of novels categorized as cozies and hopefully I’ll demonstrate that cozies aren’t as formulaic as some may think.

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Another view of Pripyat

Not a Survivalist Story

We enjoy survival stories. People versus nature. The good surviving the machinations of the bad. We cheer when they survive and weep when they do not.

Movies such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Road are survival tales, even though The Road is also post-apocalyptic. So are “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphin, Robinson Crusoe, and Lord of the Flies. Even movies such as Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction have elements of the survival tale, which may account for their popularity.

In the cozy catastrophe, while survival is important, it is not the paramount concern. That the group will survive is essentially a given. At what stage of civilization the group will survive isn’t. That is where the conflict comes in.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic tale of survival. The question we keep asking ourselves is will the man and his son survive the wasteland the earth has become. At the end, we are left with some hope the boy will survive.

In Earth Abides and The Day of the Triffids, it is assumed the main characters will survive. The question is how and in what condition. This switch in focus is due to the cozy catastrophe being a story of hope, a story of our attempt to create utopia.

The cozy, while having elements of the survival tale, isn’t essentially a tale about survival.

A schoolroom in Pripyat

Not Dystopian

In our post-modern world, we have gone down two roads: one is a fantasy world where good battles evil and wins, thus giving us a measure of hope in a world where we don’t feel any hope; the other, is that of a dystopian nightmare where even if good (and good may not even be that good) wins and the impact is at best minimal. We are essentially doomed and the doom has only been forestalled.

I believe we have a love affair with dystopia because we have little hope. We no longer trust government, science, or religion to solve the crucial problems facing us. We no longer believe civilization is getting better with each passing generation. Things just seem to be getting worse and there is no stopping the free fall. We are reveling in our own demise.

We see this in movies, TV shows, and books such as The Iron Heel, Max Headroom, the Mad Max series, The Handmaid’s Tale, Soylent Green, Never Let Me Go, and The Hunger Games. It’s difficult not to think we’re screwed and we did it to ourselves.

In the cozy catastrophe, the tunnel may be very dark but there is a light at the end of it.

Hope

The cozy catastrophe is not dystopian, not primarily a tale of survival, nor is it formulaic tripe. It is, however, a tale of hope. The cozy is primarily utopian in nature. Brought to his and her lowest, people band together to survive and thrive. To rebuild the world and make it a better place than before.

That theme is stated over and over again in The Day of the Triffids, the classic work for which Aldiss coined the term.

And maybe that explains why contemporary writers, at least some of them, have such a difficult time with the subgenre. Things may have been bad before the great demise, but they weren’t all bad. The disaster, while horrible, gives us a chance to start over and get it right. We are Lif and Lifthrasir after Ragnarok making a new beginning. Goodness, hope, kindness, and justice will prevail.

Next week we’ll begin looking at some examples of the cozy catastrophe. We’ll examine the themes and storylines and see if we don’t find some truly wonderful tales — in spite of what the naysayers would have us believe.

Until then good reading! Comments are always welcome!

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