I love a good apocalypse story. There’s something about wandering the remnants of civilization as we know it, with everything we think of as permanent out of reach, that is just so eerie and interesting. Obviously I’m not alone in this, as it’s an incredibly popular genre in all forms of media, one that has only gotten more and more popular in recent years. It’s something that we all seem to daydream about, for whatever reason.
As an aside, a few years ago I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. It’s something that I’m thankfully able to, for the most part, control with medication, but while I was still coming to terms with the whole thing, it occurred to me that no matter how much I prepared for an apocalypse, having a chronic illness like this means I wouldn’t make it. I could have incredible survival skills, expertise in all forms of combat, stores of food and the means to rebuild, and I’ll still likely just die pooping in a bush. It was a surprisingly depressing thought at the time, and I had to modify all daydreams to incorporate a sudden cure for the disease.
This is the story of a small group of people, all of whom have properly working immune systems, facing the aftermath of an apocalypse and having to start again. We follow Isherwood Williams as he awakes from an illness, a rattlesnake bite, and finds himself basically alone in the world. He sets out to travel across America to find survivors. The beginning of this was my favourite, as that’s exactly the kind of novel I was in the mood for – searching for others, scavenging for supplies, and piecing together the mystery of what happened. He even has a dog companion!
The rest of the book shifts and becomes more of a higher level view of what was happening year by year. We still follow Ish Williams in specific scenes, but the story skips vast amounts of time and spans over half a century. This is probably the more interesting and unique part of the book, to be honest, but I think my problem was that I was digging the beginning so much. It can be difficult when the tone of a book shifts as dramatically as this, but it was really interesting to see the long-term effects of the apocalypse. So many stories show the immediate struggle to survive, or they’re set in a world that went through this in the past and have now settled, but it’s not often we get to see that journey. How does the near-extinction of humankind affect other species? What food do you try to grow when none of you are farmers? How do you deal with childbirth when none of you are doctors? How do you pass on old-world knowledge to children, and how will the children think of the pre-apocalypse world? He brings up a lot of questions and really takes time to explore them.
Men go and come, but earth abides.
I think one of the most frustrating parts of this was Ish trying to teach the children to read and no one being behind him on it. They had two libraries nearby, lost worlds of knowledge, and society was losing the ability to read. Of all the adults, Ish was the only one who could understand why this was such a travesty. I don’t know if these people were just particularly stupid or if, with the Internet and the immediacy of information we have these days, written knowledge is more revered, but it was so painful to watch that slip away from them. He was considering this from a survival point of view, those books contained farming and medical information for example, but even from just a cultural point of view it would be such a shame to have thousands of books and no ability to read them. I guess the moral of this near the end of the book was that humankind would find ways of adapting, but just no. Learn to read, you imbeciles.
There were several scenes in this that I found a bit bewildering, where people just didn’t act in ways that made sense to me. Near the beginning, one of the first people Ish finds is a man drinking himself to death, and instead of trying to help him for even a moment, he is just an immediate asshole to him. Sure, he’s not the sort of person you want at your side in this scenario, and it was a way to show how some people wouldn’t cope mentally even if they survived physically, but at this point Ish wasn’t sure if they were the last two people on earth of not, so it seemed a bit rash. Another example was near the end of the novel. Ish was an old man who the tribe relied on for advice, a wise man held in an almost religious light, and when he wouldn’t answer them right away or started to drift off, they would keep pinching him. Is this a thing we used to do to the elderly in the 40’s? Or something an adult would do to anyone, ever? Has pinching just gone out of style now?
Overall I really enjoyed this. There were bits that dragged a little, but I think they served their purpose for the story as a whole, so I’ll give them a pass there. Like The Time Machine, this is another case of a novel influencing an entire genre but managing to have more substance than most of the derivative works. I always assume novels like this will be simpler than their contemporary counterparts. for some reason, but that seems often to not be the case.