Wednesday, September 02, 2009

When It Changed

There are, at bottom, two kinds of sf disaster novels. In the first, the disaster is so complete and overwhelming, and so sudden, that it forms a distinct and abrupt break with its past (our present). There is a before, and there is an after, and after the before everything is changed. Some sf novels (Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, for instance, or John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids or Stephen Baxter’s Flood) deal with the break itself, and the aftermath. Civilisation is wrecked, more or less noisily, messily, and quickly. A comet hits the Earth; there’s a nuclear war or a plague or an outbreak of grey goo; the sun flares. Things fall apart and a plucky few survivors begin the hard task of starting over; not rebuilding the civilisation that’s been lost, but creating something new. In a rare few novels, notably Ballard’s early work (aside from his first novel, The Wind From Nowhere, which is a far more conventional disaster narrative) - The Drought; The Drowned World; The Crystal World - the characters embrace and internalise the disaster. They are not the founding fathers of a new kind of civilisation; they are the last of the humanity, accepting with various kinds of grace or resentment their doom. But for the most part, sf writers view catastrophe as a chance to start over. Even in many sf novels that don’t deal with directly with disaster, some kind of radical break with the present is implied. It is a part of the back story. Things changed sometime in the past, but the effects of those changes are implied. They are absorbed into the texture of the novel.

The second kind of sf disaster novel is less dramatic. The catastrophe is not caused by one thing but is woven from many causes. And these do not cause an abrupt change and a clean break with the past, but drive a slow and complex process of transformation with an unclear endpoint. They are, in other words, heightened versions of what’s happening right now - Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, my own Fairyland. They tends towards the satiric mode; lean towards the dystopian but don’t entirely embrace it. I’m thinking about writing another one.


Blogger George Berger said...

Let's not forget Brian Aldiss' great phrase "cosy catastrophy." In his "Billion Year Spree" he used it to describe major disasters in which the protagonist doesn't suffer very much. One example of his was Stuart's "Earth Abides."

September 02, 2009 8:05 pm  
Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

Speaking of Aldiss, one might consider his Barefoot In The Head and almost certainly Earthworks as examples of Paul's second category; his Greybeard remains an exemplar of the first.

September 03, 2009 2:51 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

The cosy catastrophe is a variant on the first category of disaster novel, I think. Most people die, but the hero finally gets to run things his way (mostly British, but it could be argued that Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer falls into that category).

James Bradley has published
an excellent essay on the topic, in which he argues persuasively that American end-of-the-world novels tend to be noisily apocalyptic, while the British versions are quiet, slow ebbings. Greybeard is certainly a fine example of the latter.

September 04, 2009 12:13 pm  

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