Apocalypse: Four Fresh Steeds

It is truly bracing and instructive to contemplate the End Times — at least at safe remove, in the pages of fiction — especially as the world beyond our hearths churns and convulses unknowably, yet perhaps just short of ultimate disaster. Fire or ice, bang or whimper, the Rapture or the Singularity: facing our worst fears, we transcend them, and learn how to pick ourselves up from amidst the wreckage — of individual lives, of a whole civilization — if at all possible. As those savants Becker & Fagen remind us: “Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again.” And so the four books under discussion today also counsel, to varying degrees.

I quote the auteurs of Steely Dan in the previous paragraph not by accident, for Brian Francis Slattery?s impressive new novel, only his second, resonates with the jaded yet engaged ambiance of those droll, mordant and witty musicians. Full of poetry and vernacular, allied with pop culture and literature alike, jazzy, snazzy, both melancholy and joyful, Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six after the Collapse of the United States of America is a proleptic picaresque, a fugal meditation on life in the ruins of America. Appearing in October 2008, the book certainly must have gestated for at least a year or two previous. Yet it captures our current national quandary — and potential aftermath — with the scary precision of tomorrow?s headlines.

America has gone down the tubes along with its once-almighty dollar. Officials toss up their hands and walk away from their posts. Police join rioters, Los Angeles empties by half, slavery is reinstituted. Some seven years into the new era, life is brutal, short and nasty. Yet — inexplicably there?s a frontier, restored prelapsarian sweetness: “hey don?t miss any of it: spending hours in hardened masses of cars on the freeway, pouring concrete for foundations on barren hillsides?the linen suits, the calendar, the night shifts at diners and laundromats? They can?t recall what it was all for.”

Six Robin Hoods, mental or physical ninjas all — Marco, Zeke, Dayneesha, Johanna, Hideo and Carolyn — pit themselves against the Aardvark, King of New York and master of the nation?s slave trade. There?s awesome action, rueful rumination, shattering suspense, with our heroes pinballing from one coast to the other in a tender, dense portrait of a country remade by sorrow. Slattery?s prose skitters and slithers sinuously from flashback to realtime narrative, from one character?s POV to another?s, across broken shards of space and time, never afraid to pile on the salient excess or surreal conceit.

Obviously, the majestic Brockenspecter of Thomas Pynchon looms over Slattery?s enterprise: the Slick Six are the Whole Sick Crew, 21st-century style. But this shaggy postmodernism inheres also in the work of Rudy Wurlitzer and Ishmael Reed, William Burroughs and Edward Whittemore, old-school ancestors whom Slattery honors with his seductive prose and unremitting mix of dour optimism.

Whereas Slattery?s book whirls together impressionism and postmodern cubism and interiority, like some Ballardian catastrophe, Edward M. Lerner?s Fools? Experiments is a nightly-news, just-the-facts-ma?am technothriller: linear, logical, laconic. And unlike Liberation, which postulates a systemic and communal psychic collapse, the Lerner book details the practical misdeeds (and heroism) of individuals: intellectual hubris, rather than any kind of generalized zeitgeist deflation, is the culprit.

Two parallel tracks converge in Lerner?s tale. We are introduced to Doug Carey, a researcher busily perfecting a neural-interface helmet, and Professor Arthur Jason “AJ” Rosenberg, artificial-life experimenter. An initial scare that dramatizes the deadly potential of these twinned technologies arrives in the form of a software virus capable of colonizing human wetware and rendering its victims catatonic. No sooner is that threat dispatched than one of Rosenberg?s virtual critters escapes into the internet and begins wreaking havoc: launching nukes, opening floodgates, blowing up particle accelerators. Our cyber-dependent society seems doomed — but as you might guess, courage and self-sacrifice save the day.

Lerner?s utilitarian prose and short chapters, as well as a steady flow of well-plotted events, make for easy reading. From time to time, a certain scientific poetry emerges, as in the description of the synchrotron?s destruction in Chapter 33. But overall, the conceits are familiar, the characters only stock, and the implications of his artificial life less transcendent than the author imagines. Pulling back short of revolutionary change, the book returns to almost a status quo ante, fearful of leaving the world we know too far behind.

There’s no such timidity about William R. Forstchen?s One Second After. Remorselessly, brutally deracinating, incontestable in its precise extrapolations, this leering skull of a novel exists as far from such “cozy catastrophes” as The Day of the Triffids (1951) as does Cormac McCarthy?s The Road (2006). But whereas the wasteland in McCarthy?s novel was an enigmatic fait accompli, Forstchen?s post-apocalyptic America is reached by an inexorable speedy grind, a hasty decline from our presently privileged estate — and the author rubs our blithely ignorant faces into every rude moment. That Forstchen manages to bring this off without authorial superiority, schadenfreude, or survivalist glee is perhaps the most amazing trick of all, producing a narrative that compels the reader?s admiration, while not being exactly a pleasant recreational experience.

We are initially placed at Black Mountain, North Carolina, delightful semi-rural setting to a small college, where teaches widower Dr. John Matherson, retired soldier. We savor his family life — two daughters, spunky mother-in-law — and get acquainted with the townspeople. Then the lights go out — literally. Three high-atmosphere nukes detonate above the USA, sending out a continent-wide EMP surge that fries all solid-state equipment. From iPods to dynamos, cars to TVs, the country is stripped down to stringent pre-industrial roots.

Within three weeks, there?s cannibalism and roving bands of madmen. John Matherson feels duty-bound somehow to hold Black Mountain as far above the barbarism as possible. The steps he takes, the ethical, moral and strategic quandaries he faces, are shatteringly demanding. It?s a noble fight, but one that tears the heart out of him and every other right-thinking survivor.

By keeping the scope of his tale intimate and localized (a coda at the end extends the scenario globally), Forstchen achieves a power of telling that rises to the monitory. His explicit goal with this Cassandran “entertainment” is to forestall any such future. May his audience be a vast one.

The collapse in Kit Reed?s novel Enclave is only a nominal one, more a perpetual and familiar state of self-maintaining global decadence rather than any push-comes-to-shove crisis. Nonetheless, the well-to-do of Reed?s near-future scenario still fear for their scions, and so fall easy prey to a con-man named Sarge. An ex-Marine, Sarge has Messianic visions about building an Ark to preserve the best and the brightest of a young generation — or at least those whose folks have enough money to buy their way into his refuge. An uncharted mountainous island, former home to an order of monks (now extinct save for one enigmatic survivor), becomes a Final Redoubt known as the Clothos Academy, staffed by Sarge and a few adult helpers. Into this bunker pour — not by choice, but by parental ukase — a host of spoiled kids. The doors are locked, and then —

What ensues is a combination of The Lord of the Flies (1954) and “The Masque of the Red Death.” It?s Outward Bound as reimagined by B. F. Skinner. Echoes of every crackpot American utopian dream, from Fruitlands to Jonestown, ramify throughout the text. I suspect the savvy Reed might also have had Robert Merle?s Malevil (1972) in mind as well, the tale of a handful of folks finding refuge from nuclear war in a French chateau.

Having just last year passed the fiftieth anniversary of the sale of her first story, Reed brings a tone of honed wisdom to her tale. Her take on human nature is salty and sage, yet she manages to nail the slangy characters of the skanky teen girls and World-of-Warcraft-besotted boys with a topical precision. Add in her recent books about body image (Thinner Than Thou ) and adoption (The Baby Merchant ), and you see how canny she is about hot-button issues.

Enclave illustrates the valuable lesson that when faced with impending destruction and disintegration, the only response worse than panic is rigidity of thinking and mercenary self-interest. If such a moral has a particularly urgent resonance when placed against breaking news, all the more credit to Reed’s understanding of how desperate measures sometimes make desperate times that much worse.