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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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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What is a Cozy Catastrophe?

In the book Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss coined the term cozy catastrophe. He used the term to describe a particular type of post-apocalyptic writing as famously seen in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. This form of the post-apocalyptic tale was particularly popular in the UK in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Aldiss’s use of the term was at base pejorative. Coming from what seems to have been a politically radical leftist position, Aldiss dismissed the sub-subgenre as being some manner of wish fulfillment: the return of the Empire, praise of nature and the simple life, or a criticism of science and industrialization.

Time, however, marches on and even if we give Aldiss his due for the fiction published prior to 1973, the cozy catastrophe itself has changed and Aldiss’s observations are no longer accurate for today – if they were even accurate in his own day, which they may not have been.

Blogger russell1200 on his blog reflexiones finales posted a short but important article about the cozy on July 14, 2011. My thoughts have been influenced by his article.

If Aldiss’s description of the cozy catastrophe is no longer relevant, than what are the characteristics that make a cozy a cozy?

Why the term “cozy”?

Let’s begin with the term cozy itself. Why a cozy catastrophe? What on earth can be cozy about a world wide catastrophe? The general consensus is that the term was borrowed from the cozy mystery subgenre.

So what is a cozy mystery? It is a mystery solved by an amateur sleuth. Think here of Miss Marple, Father Brown, Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, or Sidney Chambers in Grantchester. An ordinary person solves the murder when the professionals cannot. Likewise with the cozy catastrophe, a group of amateur survivalists survive, when others cannot.

The Catastrophe

A group of ordinary people have survived a catastrophe. What kind of catastrophe? In the cozy, the catastrophe, the apocalyptic event must be worldwide and pretty much wipes out most of the human race. Animals and plant life may also be affected, but the emphasis here is on the destruction of people. The rest of the world remains basically intact.

Recognizable Setting

The setting needs to be recognizable and the story plausible as a real world event. Something that could happen right now, today, to us.

This is very much like the cozy mystery. The amateur sleuth comes across a murder in his or her everyday world and for one reason or another must solve it when the police can’t or won’t.

One thing to keep in mind here is that distant future stories must somehow be coherently and realistically connected to our present day world. If not, they fail the real world test. The Time Machine and After London pass this test. The Planet of the Apes, a nifty story in and of itself, unfortunately, does not.

The Small Group

The story generally focuses on the survival of a small group of people or perhaps several small groups. The group comes together, or sometimes is already together at the start of the story, and then sets about trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Conflict can come from both outside sources, other groups perhaps or wild animals, and internal dissension.

A Survivable World

Is the world survivable if the group makes the effort to survive? This goes back to the nature of the catastrophe. The worldwide disaster needs to primarily affect people, leaving much of the pre-catastrophe infrastructure intact, which allows the group a base upon which to rebuild society. Whether or not they succeed is the telling of their story.

In my mind, this is a key feature of the cozy catastrophe. The survivors are not mere survivalists. They are the recreators of civilization. Or they at least make a valiant attempt to recreate the world they lost.

A New World

Society, civilization, at some point is rebuilt. Generally speaking. An exception is On the Beach by Nevil Shute. The new society is hopefully better than the old, but in fact may not be. But the human race does not die off, it survives and a new world is born. Much like at Ragnarok, where the old world of the gods is destroyed and out of the destruction Lif and Lifthrasir survive and begin a new world.

The Message of the Cozy Catastrophe

Frequently the cozy catastrophe is a vehicle for anti-establishment rhetoric. The “evils” of the status quo, the establishment, brought about the catastrophe. Whether those evils be nuclear weapons or biological experimentation, or GMOs not turning out as intended — it is our own messing around with nature or our inability to live in peace with each other that very often causes the demise of our world.

In that sense, the subgenre can be made use of by radical liberals and libertarians alike to promote their agenda. There is often a philosophical underpinning to the cozy. Issues of morality and how we should be as people are very real parts of the story.

 

Next week, we’ll take a look at what the cozy catastrophe isn’t. Until then, good reading. Comments are always welcome!

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