Because of my profession as a science fiction and fantasy book critic (I’ve reviewed more than 5,000 titles), I get mocked from time to time by family and friends who think I’ve become detached from reality because I read too much genre fiction. To them – and specifically my own father who is still waiting for me to get a “real job” at the post office – science fiction and fantasy novels are simply pulpy literary escapism with no real significance to the real world. In other words, a waste of precious time that could be better spent listening to NPR, reading a newspaper or watching CNN.
The fact of the matter is that science fiction in particular is not only a dynamic source of virtually unlimited – and highly intelligent – speculation for improving and advancing humanity as a whole but also a profoundly powerful barometer or the overall political and societal wellbeing of the human race. Just look at a sub-genre of science fiction – apocalyptic fiction. In times of global uncertainty and instability, the number – and profundity – of apocalyptic fiction releases increases dramatically. WWII gave us 1984 by George Orwell (1949) and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949). During and shortly after the Korean War, numerous genre classics were released, including Andre Norton’s 2250 AD (1952), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954), The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955), and On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957). The Cold War inspired Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle (1963), Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb by Philip K. Dick (1965), and Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny (1969), to name just a few.
Over the last few years, apocalyptic fiction has seen yet another massive resurgence – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (2006), Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler (2008), World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler (2008), and Lamentation by Ken Scholes (2009) are some of the more noteworthy releases but there are countless others.
In February of this year, debut author David Oppegaard visited BarnesandNoble.com’s fantasy/SF forum to talk about his disturbing end-of-the-world novel, The Suicide Collectors, in which 90 percent of the world’s population has killed themselves out of sheer despair. When he was asked why he thought apocalyptic fiction is so phenomenally popular right now, his response was enlightening: “…given the glacial pace of publishing, most of the apocalyptic books out now were started by their authors around 2003-2005. This was the heart of the Bush administration, and most writers… probably weren't feeling too optimistic about the state of the world, and neither were their readers. Especially in the wake of 9/11, which basically showed the world that even the mighty can fall, and fall fast. You can wake up one morning and everything can change; great loss is always around the corner.”
With a summer that looks to be chock full of highly anticipated end-of-the-world novels (The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin, One Second After by William R. Forstchen, In the Courts of the Sun by Brian D’Amato, etc.), I feel simultaneously attuned to the jittery pulse of humanity and hopeful for our future – and this after tuning in to CNN for a few moments and watching “breaking news” concerning the ongoing probe into the death of Anna Nicole Smith and an interview with the latest American Idol contestant to be voted off the show.
So Dad, let’s revisit that comment about being detached from reality, shall we? Go read Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s 1960 classic A Canticle for Leibowitz and then we’ll talk.