The first tales of the earth’s destruction were religious, purposeful purgings. By the nineteenth century, the end of the world had become a common theme for novelists. The Last Man by Jean-Baptiste de Grainville, published in 1805, is considered the first secular apocalypse story. A trickle followed: death by plague, natural calamity, or an alien visitation until a floodgate of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction opened in the 1950’s as the bombing at Hiroshima followed by the development of even more powerful nuclear weapons awakened the reality that mankind did not have to wait for an angry god or rapacious Martians but itself had the capacity to destroy the world.
Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank is emblematic of fictional nuclear holocausts. Unlike many novels of this genre, Alas, Babylon promises that civilization can be rebuilt.
In 1959, when Alas, Babylon was written, the United States was reeling with fear. The belief was common that the United States was being outpaced by the Soviet Union. Sputnik punctured confidence in American supremacy even as the United States viewed itself as being on the short end of a missile gap. Frank pictures the Soviet Union exploiting American weakness and peppering the United States with nuclear weapons. Almost all major cities have been destroyed, and most of the surrounding area has been contaminated by radiation.
Frank also provides hope. The United States government survives, now based in Denver. Randy Bragg, the protagonist of Alas, Babylon, leads a community of survivors in Fort Repose, Florida. There’s no electricity. Diabetics are the first to go since insulin can no longer be refrigerated. Food runs out, and Randy and his neighbors subsist on farming and fishing. Conveniently, Randy owns a citrus orchard and has his own well. His friends, the Henrys, have been planting corn and yams. The local librarian finds a book about herbs and mushrooms, and the survivors forage. They figure out how to make a still, producing alcohol for medicinal use and for trade with other survivors a few miles away. They discover that armadillos actually taste good. Nonetheless, medications disappear, and diseases like typhus and smallpox reappear. Randy and his group almost perish from lack of salt in the punishing Florida heat, until they luckily discover a reference to a nearby salt lick in a centuries-old manuscript.
Armed highwaymen appear, bent on plunder. Randy organizes a local militia and defeats the bad guys. Alas, Babylon retains some of the old purge themes. The greedy who enter contaminated areas to loot jewelry die from radiation poisoning. The banker who cannot imagine a world where currency is worthless commits suicide. The prideful are forced to adapt or die. Daringly for a Southern writer at the time, Frank paints the bad guys as racists. Before the attacks, Randy was a rudderless womanizer and borderline alcoholic, frittering his days away as a sometime lawyer. Adversity builds character. Randy becomes a leader in the post-nuclear holocaust world. He’s no longer alcohol or tobacco dependent. He marries his girlfriend.
At the end of the novel, a helicopter lands in Fort Repose, an emissary from the new Denver government. It turns out Randy and his group have not been contaminated. There’s some hope of resupply, but not too soon since fuel supplies have been destroyed and fuel-producing areas will remain contaminated for centuries to come. Reminded of the conflict after a year of focusing on daily survival, Randy asks Paul Hart, the helicopter emissary, who won the war. It’s the United States, but the win is pyrrhic.
“We won it. We really clobbered ’em!” Hart’s eyes lowered and his arms drooped. He said, “Not that it matters.”
The engine started and Randy turned away to face the thousand-year night.
The Drowned World (1962) by J.G. Ballard forecasts what the world might look like if climate change continues. Robert Kerans is a biologist, part of a team commissioned by a governing group at Camp Byrd in Greenland to study evolving flora and fauna in lagoons covering a drowned city that turns out to be London. Temperatures are soaring, and the four or five hours of work that can be gotten in must be accomplished before noon. Regular storms belt the area. The surface is covered with lagoons and jungle, with only the upper stories of buildings remaining visible. Both animal and plant life are regressing toward the Triassic, thousands of new species resulting from mutations in an “avalanche backwards into the past.” Mosquitoes are the size of dragon-flies, and giant bats race through the air. The water levels continue to rise as do the temperatures. The sun is an “enormous blow torch.” Temperatures at the equator are up to 180 degrees. Fertility has declined drastically. The past and the future (in this case a return to the prehistoric) are conjoined. “In the early morning light a strange mournful beauty hung over the lagoon; the somber green-black fronds of the gymnospores, intruders from the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white-faced buildings of the 20th century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time, the illusion momentarily broken when a giant water spider cleft the oily surface a hundred yards away.”
In the case of The Drowned World, climate change is not man-made, although Ballard predicted man-made climate change in a later novel, The Drought. It’s the result of solar flares. Unlike most heroes in post-apocalypse fiction, Kerans embraces the new world. He sees the future receding into the past to a point “where a second Adam and Eve found themselves alone in a new Eden.” Kerans and others experience strange dreams of the Triassic world, triggered by unconscious instincts handed down through the generations. At least some humans are “being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs.” When his commander Riggins returns to Camp Byrd, Kerans, his girlfriend Beatrice, and a fellow scientist Bodkin stay behind. They are soon joined by a group of looters led by Strangman and his black helpers, trailed by a group of albino alligators, a warped commentary on the colonial past. When Strangman drains one of the lagoons, exposing the buildings and sidewalks of the past, Kerans and his friends see abomination. They have come to see the waters as nurturing amniotic fluid.
In the end, Kerans bombs the barriers holding back the waters and restores the lagoon. He heads south, alone and wounded, “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.”
Ballard’s version of climate change is in service to his theory of psychological time travel. That’s not likely to be the way it will go.
More contemporary post-apocalyptic novels may have gotten a better read, in both senses of the word. There’s The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Oryx and Crake (2004) by the inimitable Margaret Atwood for starters.