While cataloging Alas, Babylon, a classic 1959 apocalyptic sci-fi novel by Pat Frank, it occured to me how quaint nuclear holocausts seem to me now. Oh, the Russians bombed us into the Stone Age? How terrifying! We tore our short-sleeved dress shirts, and the girls in the typing pool were vaporized! I hardly ever read post-apocalyptic stories anymore, but I feel like I would panic less at reading post-nuclear apocalypse than post-environmental apocalypse. In the same way that Holocaust novels feel like history, but stories of Darfur feel like horror — if the fear is in the past, it can go in a box and it won’t make me as ill.
At the same time, I realize how much my child-of-the-’80s diet of nuclear apocalypse stories informed my image of what “apocalypse” means. In my most panic-stricken moments, what I picture are “everything is destroyed all at once” scenarios, which have somehow resulted in a blighted Earth populated by roving bands led by Mad Max warlords (with whom I will have to pay my way with my knowledge of gardening and cooking…you can see how quickly this gets ridiculous). As R pointed out, though, that’s highly unlikely to happen — at least not in my lifetime, in my country. The destruction will be slower, more drawn-out, in smaller pockets and less equitably distributed among rich and poor. Not to diminish the terrible things that we’re heading for, obviously. But this apocalypse fear is such an integral part of my personal mythology and it was interesting to see that reflect how much a child of the ’80s I really am.
(I wonder what my students who think about these things will have as their image of apocalypse? It will be environmental, almost certainly. Perhaps it will be like in Scott Westerfeld’s popular Uglies, where an oil-eating bacteria literally stopped us all in our tracks — the characters find skeletons in cars stuck in apocalyptic traffic jams. If you think about it, that doesn’t make much sense: why wouldn’t they have gotten out and walked, for heaven’s sake? But then, Scott is a child of the Cold War, too.)
Read-alikes: City of Ember, Jeanne duPrau; This Time of Darkness, H. M. Hoover; Nightfall, Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg.