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Chaos, Community, and Law in American Post Apocalyptic Novels
By Crazy Hare
One of the central concerns of American post apocalyptic novels is the need to impose some sort of order on the chaos that inevitably accompanies the wide-spread destruction of populations and their societies. Authors of these novels often incorporate issues of justice and law into their plots in order to measure the stage of development of the society after the fall, and, by implication, to compare these new social orders to the current one.
Some, like Jack London in his novella The Scarlet Plague (1912), George R. Stewart in Earth Abides (1949), Jean Hegland in Into the Forest (1996), and Cormac McCarthy in The Road (2006) picture societies that devolve into tribal, clan, or family units. These are the novels in which the die off has been severe, and there are too few survivors left to form large communities. More often than not, the families and tribes in these novels adopt the philosophy that, as the main character of Earth Abides explains, “The Tribe [has] right to protect itself and must do so. They would look for no more law or precedent than the primary one of self-defense” (Stewart 259). However, other American novelists, specifically Pat Frank in Alas, Babylon (1959), Ardath Mayhar in The World Ends in Hickory Hollow (1985), James Howard Kunstler in World Made by Hand (2008), and William R. Forstchen in One Second After (2009) envision end of the world scenarios in which communities adopt some type of more highly refined and organized legal code to combat the “law of the jungle” that inevitably characterizes stories about the end of the world as we know it.
London uses The Scarlet Plague to speculate about the stages of social development, applying evolutionary principles to human culture. The narrator of The Scarlet Plague is Professor Smith, aka Granser, who, in 2012, is teaching literature at Berkeley when the plague strikes. Granser has lived some sixty years since the plague wiped out nearly all of humanity, and he has seen the full blown aftereffects of the crash. One thing that Granser notices is the quickness and depth of the decline. After one of the boys assigned to care for him treats him cruelly, Granser thinks that the boys are “true savages. [. . .] In another generation [they] will be perforating [their] noses and ears [. . .] The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization” (21).
In 2072, when Granser tells his tale of the great plague, the people who are left live in tribes that have sprung from the half dozen or so original survivors in the San Francisco Bay area. The plague completely upturned a rigid class system that existed in London’s version of 2012 America. One of the tribes is founded by “Chauffer,” a servant who reverses class roles by turning the wife of his former employer into his sex slave after the disaster. Vesta Van Warden, one of the few women to survive the red disease, was an elite in 2012; her husband had been “President of the Board of Industrial Magnates [and] ruler of America” (75). After the plague, her former chauffer, Bill, owns her. Bill tells her, “you had your day before the plague [. . .] but this is my day” (79). And although Granser longs for Vesta and she even asks him to kill “Chauffer,” Granser fears the Chauffer’s strength and size and takes no action (79). In The Scarlet Plague, the end of the world ironically brings with it a sort of social justice when brute force nullifies all class distinctions and the oppressed become the oppressors.
Another mysterious plague is the cause of the end of the world in George R. Stewart’s classic Earth Abides. The setting, as in The Scarlet Plague, is the Bay area of California, and the protagonist of this novel is another academic, Isherwood (Ish) Williams. While doing field work, Ish is bitten by a rattlesnake. He makes it back to his cabin and passes out, missing the plague (apparently the snake bit has provided him with immunity) and regaining consciousness in a world nearly devoid of humans. After many years have passed, two young men of Ish’s small tribe drive a rebuilt jeep across the nation and bring back an outsider named Charlie (140). Crisis comes when Charlie, who has told the young men about his social diseases, attempts to strike up a romance with Evie, a disturbed young woman of the tribe. Rather than let Charlie threaten the group’s well being, Ish and other community leaders meet and vote to execute him (263). Here, law is clearly more structured than in London’s Scarlet Plague; here, there is a process; here, Charlie has been warned to stay away from Evie; here, there is agreement by the elders (not all of whom are male) about what action to take, and here, the community leaders share responsibility for their actions. Ironically, hanging Charlie doesn’t prevent an epidemic from sweeping through the tribe, and Ish considers a new way to deal with strangers: the “two-hundred yards law, that was the idea, and then look at them over the sights of a good rife” (273).
While Stewart’s classic novel reflects a number of Cold War concerns via the metaphor of a mysterious plague, Pat Frank directly confronts survival after a nuclear war in his famous novel, Alas, Babylon. After an attack has destroyed much of the US, the residents of Fort Repose, Florida, band together under the leadership of Randy Bragg, a lawyer, playboy, and former officer in the reserves. Blessed by a safe location and plentiful resources, the people of Fort Repose make considerable progress in dealing with a world without modern conveniences. In some ways, things are actually better after the attack than before; for example, the racism and segregation of the Jim Crow era suddenly end when the Franklins, a black family, become key players in the community’s survival.
The bad guys in Alas, Babylon are called, quaintly enough, highwaymen; they are a group of convicts and killers that Randy must bring to justice after they murder a bee keeper and assault and rob Dan, the town’s doctor. However, law in Alas, Babylon is a much more complicated affair than in either The Scarlet Plague or Earth Abides. In Alas, Babylon, there is a sizable number of survivors, and the old lines of order are not completely destroyed. After agonizing about his authority to act, Randy is relieved to receive notice, via short wave radio, that the acting president of the United States has declared martial law and authorized any surviving reserve members to don their uniforms and assume command of their local territories. Under the aegis of the state, limited as it may be, Randy arrests and executes the criminals (283). Randy goes on to organize a militia and reinstate civil, as well as criminal, law in Fort Repose. Even though the US has won the war, conditions are far worse in the rest of the nation than in Fort Repose. In fact, under Randy’s leadership, the community of Fort Repose is doing so well that no one accepts “rescue” when it finally arrives. Ironically, in Alas, Babylon, it is the war, via a sort of “creative destruction,” that allows a purification of the legal system, a purification that eliminates racial injustice when the community reestablishes order.
Another end of the world novel from the Cold War era is Ardath Mayhar’s The World Ends in Hickory Hollow. As in Alas, Babylon, in Mayhar’s novel, an isolated community struggles to maintain itself in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the US. The novel is set in the small town of Hickory Hollow, in deep east Texas, and the main characters are Lucinda and Zack Allie, young parents who have rejected the materialism of contemporary Houston and returned to Hickory Hollow and their neighboring family farms. The story is told from Lucinda’s point of view, and the reader follows along as the family, assisted by Zack’s mother, Mom Allie, who knows all the pioneer ways, conquers the obstacles of a nonindustralzed, post war world. The law problem is two sided in Hickory Hollow. Not only must the community band together to fight the Ungers, a matriarchal tribe of prostitutes and bootleggers who have survived on the margins of the law for years and who go for blood after the nuclear war, but the community must also face down would be authorities who cling to the past. When Highway Patrolman Schmidt arrives with a drawn pistol and a pickup truck full of copies of the legal code to announce that he is “the only government this whole area has left, from Dallas to the Coast,” (123) Mom Allie fires a warning shot and Zack sends Schmidt on his way. Zack declares Hickory Hollow to be “free and independent of any body or governmental entity that went before. We have one code: work for the common good or get out, alive or dead, as you prefer” (125). Once again, the local community has established a simple and effective code of law to deal with those who stand in the way—be they outlaws or “governmental” oppressors.
A more developed and refined code characterizes James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand. In this novel, the collapse of society has been a gradual thing, sparked by terrorist nuclear attacks on Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. and a flu epidemic that kills three quarters of the population. However, Kunstler’s novel is just as much about law and order as it is about surviving after the lights go out. Things move much slower after the end of the oil age, and most citizens of Union Grove are too consumed with the struggle for survival to a worry a lot about a legal system. Robert Earle, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, notes that “We all knew the apparatus of justice had dissolved” (57). In fact, in Union Grove, the constable is a drunk, the mayor of the town avoids meetings, and the elected magistrate, Stephen Bullock, refuses to serve. However, after the murder of one of their own, the people of Union Grove must establish a legal authority to deal with the crime.
The murder occurs at Karptown, a former trailer park, now a salvage station supplying goods to the people of Union Grove. Karptown is led by Wayne Karp, a “motorhead” who has assembled like mined individuals to recycle materials from what had once been the town dump. The people of Union Grove tolerate Karp and his tribe (they all have wings tattooed over their eyebrows) because they provide a useful service and because Karptown gives the less than upstanding survivors a place to live outside the borders of Union Grove. Karp is the autocratic leader of his group, and his word is law.
Another model of order in the novel is that offered by Stephen Bullock. Bullock is an enlightened leader who provides housing and jobs to those who will live and work on his farm. Bullock has become totally self sufficient and has established trade with Albany via boats that sail up and down the Hudson. He has provided his people with a sense of security and purpose that the townspeople lack. Bullock and his people live in a world unto themselves; Bullock’s farm is something like a kindly managed feudal estate.
Bother Jobe and his “New Faithers,” a group (cult) of Christians who all live and work together under Jobe’s leadership, offer a religious model of order. When Brother Jobe and his group arrive in Union Grove, they make it clear that they are seeking a peaceful place where they can sustain themselves. The group has migrated from Virginia to Pennsylvania to New York. The New Faithers have fled to upstate New York because there were “civil disorders in Philadelphia and Baltimore, refugees fleeing, [. . .] bandit gangs. Pennsylvania became a desperate place” (148). Brother Jobe is instrumental in convincing Robert Earl and Stephen Bullock to restore a system of law in Union Grove. But first, readers are informed of the chaos in Albany, where government has collapsed and where a warlord named Curry holds one of Bullock’s boats and its crew for ransom. The scenes set in Albany clearly indicate that law and order are at the heart of rebuilding after social collapse. As one shop keeper explains, “New York City is finished. [. . . ] They can’t keep order there, and you can’t have business without order” (142). Robert Earle (now the mayor of Union Grove) and Jobe’s men rescue the crew back and bring Curry to justice as well, setting up the final confrontation with Karp and his tribe of outlaws.
When Robert and Loren present Karp with an arrest warrant, Karp laughs: “Served me with paper. [. . .] It’s an old-time thing for those of you too young to remember. A government agent serves you with papers, and [. . .] they want to take away your property or [. . .] your freedom” (278). Only with the help of Brother Jobe and his men, who seem to blend religion and justice successfully, is Karp brought to jail.
In World Made by Hand, the people of Union Grove reinstitute a system of law that has all the trappings of the justice system before the fall, including the election of legal authorities. But the community is only able to do so after the outsiders, the “New Faithers,” come to town and refuse to allow Union Grove to fall victim to the chaos that has affected the rest of the nation.
William R. Forstchen , in One Second After, gives readers a description of the most developed and organized community response to the chaos that results in an end of the world as we know it situation. The protagonist is John Matherson, a retired military officer turned history professor. Matherson and the community leaders in the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, develop a response to the horrors that occur after terrorists subject the United States to an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack. Instantly after the attack, the electric grid and everything attached to that gird, as well as all modern vehicles, fail. The result is starvation, lack of medical care, and general lawlessness. The community leaders, including Matherson and the county sheriff, establish martial law and deal with looters and thieves via firing squad. But the real challenge to law and order comes when an army of cannibal gangsters called the Pose threatens the town. Matherson and his colleagues organize the community, including students at the local college, into a militia that is able to confront the gangsters. One Second After, with its graphic description of slow starvation and life after modern medicine, is surely the one of the bleakest of the American end of the world novels, but, due to Matherson’s efforts, the community continues to follow conventionally structured law and order, willingly granting authority to the sheriff and willingly serving to fight the Pose. Indeed, even community members who would have once been criminals are now integrated into the main stream. When the militia forms, Matherson notes that “more than a few of them were toting firearms that would have triggered an ATF raid in the old days,”(283) and one Viet Nam vet shows up with “what had been an illegal full auto M16” (267). Authority, in the form of the American army, finally arrives in Black Mountain a year after the EMP attack, and then Matherson learns that although many in Black Mountain have died, the survival rate is higher than in other areas, mainly because the community had joined together to maintain order and law.
Two additional novels, Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, present readers with end of the world situations that result in their characters’ retreating to a family or clan structure, similar to what occurs in the novels by London and Stewart. Hegland’s Into the Forest is perhaps the most unusual of the after the fall novels. The story focuses on a single family, a father and two teenage daughters, who live literary at the end of the road and on the border of a northern Californian national forest, some forty miles from the nearest town and ten miles from the nearest neighbor. Law in Into the Forest is a family affair in which self defense is the code. The story is told in the form of a journal keep by the younger of the daughters, Nell. After their father dies in an accident, Nell and her sister, Eva, must survive on their own. All goes well until an intruder appears and rapes and impregnates Eva. Fearing more outsiders will attack them eventually, Eva and Nell burn down their house and retreat into the forest, taking only a few books, seeds, and their father’s rifle, returning to a way of life that would have been familiar to natives of the region before the Europeans arrived. Into the Forest, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, strips society and the code of law to its simplest form, a single family unit that struggles for survival in a law of the jungle situation.
In The Road, not only have most of the humans died, but apparently nearly all vegetation and all animals have also perished. Two sorts of people populate McCarthy’s novel: those who are cannibals and those who are not. In The Road, the characters, known only as the man and the boy, make their way south toward the sea, hoping to find food and warmer weather. In The Road, there is no law other than the law of survival; if there is any symbol for law in the novel, it is the pistol that the man carries with him at all times. Perhaps to indicate how little justice remains in this world, the man has only two bullets for the pistol. Yet even in this bleakest of post apocalyptic novels, there is hope that, somehow, good will endure. This vague hopeful notion of “good” is symbolized by the metaphor of “carrying the fire.” The man and the boy, father and son, “carry the fire” of hope through a wasteland of ash and ice. In The Road, as in Into the Forest, there is no community, no remaining fragments of a legal system, no law. When confronted by what the boy calls “the bad guys,” the man and boy have no recourse except fight or flight. The only hope is that the good guys, the non cannibals, can band together as family units and continue to “carry the fire” into a world that has gone dark.
Of course, there are many other novels in this genre that reflect the concern for law and order in a world after the collapse. In all of these works, novels such as David Brin’s The Postman (1985), Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Patriots (1990) by John Wesley, Rawles, and even the huge and hugely popular The Stand (1978) by Stephen King, the essential measure of culture and civilization resides in the type of law and legal code that the survivors embrace. Indeed, American post apocalyptic fiction, from London in 1912 to Forstchen in 2009, is as much concerned with defining civilization via a discussion of law and order as with describing the collapse and survival after the collapse. Perhaps some have been too quick to dismiss American post apocalyptic novels as simple entertainments, genre fiction existing on the shelf between science fiction and action adventure. Beneath the action and the fight for survival, these novels are concerned with larger issues related to law and order, to the nature and evolution of culture, and to the relationship between societies and individuals.
Works Cited and Consulted
Brin, David. The Postman. 1995. New York: Bantam, 1997. Print.
Forstchen, William R. One Second After. New York: Forge, 2009. Print.
Frank, Pat. Alas, Babylon. 1959. New York: Harper, 2005. Print.
Hegland, Jean. Into the Forest. 1996. New York: Bantam, 1998. Print.
King, Stephen. The Stand. 1978. New York: Signet, 1990. Print.
Kunstler, James Howard. World Made by Hand. New York: Grove, 2008. Print.
London, Jack. The Scarlet Plague. 1912. London: Bibliolis, 2010. Print.
Mayhar, Ardath. The World Ends at Hickory Hollow. 1985. Lexington, KY: Borgo P. , 2007. Print.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. 2006. New York: Vintage, 2007. Print.
Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle. Lucifer’s Hammer. 1977. New York: Ballantine, 1983. Print.
Rawles, James Wesley. Patriots. Berkeley: Ulysses P., 2009. Print.
Stewart, George R. Earth Abides. 1949. New York: Del Rey, 2006. Print.