Beyond Hope: Drawing Strength from Post-Apocalyptic Writing

I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the world. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Frodo and Sam in Mordor. Here’s the thing that nobody ever talks about: Frodo and Sam knew they were going to die. We knew they were going to survive. But Frodo and Sam believed that they would die. Even Sam—endlessly, absurdly, illogically optimistic Sam—eventually gave up. He pulled Frodo out of the mountain and led him away from the fiery destruction and staved off fear as long as he possibly could, but finally, he, too, closed his eyes, expecting death.

It took literally falling off a rock in the middle of a volcanic eruption for the super-hobbit in Sam to give up, but Frodo had abandoned hope long before. He walked into that hellish darkness believing he would never come out. He went anyway, and he did it because he loved his world. He didn’t need to believe that he was going to save it. He only needed to believe that he had tried.

I draw a lot of comfort and joy from the Lord of the Rings, but lately, I find myself turning not to its moments of triumph, but to its moments of abject bleakness. The Lord of the Rings is not a post-apocalyptic novel; the apocalypse is averted, albeit at an incredible cost. But it is not the implausible victory over Sauron that I look to for guidance. It is the utter hopelessness of Frodo’s journey through Mordor. The Ring destroys him in the end. But over the course of the journey, somehow, without hope, he remains human. He puts one foot in front of the other. It is this incredible feat—action without hope—that I believe has something important to teach us about how to live in our own broken word.

At a time in the history of our country that holds so much terror for myself and people that I love, I do not want books with happy endings, books that promise impossible futures. I do not want to read about how to overthrow Sauron. It might be possible in the made-up universe of Middle-earth, but it’s not possible in this one. I don’t want books about how to rid the world of darkness, but about how to be kind and strong in the face of it.

In Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi imagines a world ravished by climate change. The story takes place on the Gulf Coast, where New Orleans and its successors have long since sunk. City killer hurricanes are the norm. In a dirt-poor settlement on the beach, fifteen-year old Nailer works as a ship breaker, part of a crew that dismantles old oil rigs for scrap. His world is dangerous and bleak. Like those around him, he has no money, little food, and has spent his life doing incredibly dangerous work for almost nothing.

The story takes off when Nailer and his best friend discover a beached clipper—a ship of the ultra rich—after a city killer storm. The wrecked ship is loaded with wealth. If he can hold onto the scavenge, it’s his ticket out. But the scavenge is not so straightforward as it seems when Nailer finds a half-drowned girl alive in the wreckage. The moment is beautifully written—all he has to do is finish the job. I was certain he would kill her. This was someone he did not know, already on the edge of death. Nailer had everything to gain for himself and those he loved. And yet, in that moment, he could not do it. Even in the wreck of his life, even with a justifiable reason—would you have blamed him?— he could not make himself kill this unknown girl. Instead he saves her. He reaches into himself and finds this bit of human kindness, this scrap of mercy. This is the action that sets the story in motion.

In Station 11, Emily St. John Mandel imagines a future in which humanity has been wiped out by a global pandemic. Infrastructure fails; cities are abandoned. Modern life as we know it in the United States ends. There is devastation all over Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world. The story concerns a dangerous religious sect whose leader uses his power and influence to rape young girls. People murder each other. In haunting writing that will stay with me forever, Mandel describes a plane full of living passengers, quarantined to keep the disease from spreading. The people inside the plane are left to die. The plane sits there on the runaway for the rest of the book, its dead passengers never retrieved, buried, mourned.

Into this bleak future, Mandel writes into existence a band of actors and musicians known as the Traveling Symphony. They tour the country on foot and by horse, preforming Shakespeare in villages and settlements. Some of Mandel’s characters fail to act courageously; they give in to greed and despair; they become delusional with power. But. In the midst of unfathomable loss, there is also this little troupe of artists preforming the plays of Shakespeare. They are not doing it to survive, although their fight for survival is part of the story. They are doing it because they want art to remain in the world. They are doing it because beautiful things persist, even through apocalypse. The fact of this alone is astounding. The courage it takes for these characters lift up and celebrate that beauty is even more so.

In the final book of Margaret Atwood’s brilliant MaddAddam trilogy, a small group of people are slowly rebuilding their lives, post-disaster. The future Atwood spins is utterly foreign. Little pockets of people survive among the wreckage, but so do genetically-engineered animals-turned-monsters. The world she draws may be foreign, but the humans she populates it with are not: they fall in and out of love, they make families and break them, they fight and misunderstand and protect each other, trying to survive. The little community that these ragged survivors build, after the end of the world, looks a lot like any other city block, small village, extended family. They are hard. They kill in order to survive. But they tell stories. They build something out of the bleakness and the terror that surrounds them. It is not a story about the bleakness and the terror. It is a story about humans refusing to let that terror consume them.

It is not hope I draw from these novels, but comfort. Perhaps it is a version of the same comfort that people have been taking in each other for millennia, amidst death and disaster. The small comfort that comes from the warmth of another body, a song in the darkness, a story passed down through generations. I take comfort from the truth that lies in the pages of these books, that, in the middle of all the muck, we still find ways to love each other, protect each other, hold each other.

***

Our world, right now, is not, technically, post-apocalyptic. A rouge virus hasn’t wiped out ninety-nine percent of humanity. Hostile aliens haven’t invaded the planet. We haven’t lived through a nuclear holocaust. We haven’t genetically engineered ourselves into a new half-species, no longer bound by the rules of evolution, with devastating consequences we did not predict. But reading these novels—with their bleak and brilliant depictions of a ruined future, both terrifying and weirdly compelling—I am reminded that we do not need to imagine a post-apocalyptic world in order to understand the trauma of living through apocalypse.

Our world is full of apocalypses. It’s not the apocalypse that turns us into monsters. We have turned ourselves into monsters all by ourselves. Right now, in this moment, as I sit in at my kitchen table writing these words, there are humans all over the world living in situations as bleak and desperate as Nailer’s. What was slavery, if not an apocalypse? How can we use other language to describe the war in Syria? Hurricane Katrina? The 2011 earthquake tsunami in Japan? I could fill a paragraph with the names of authoritarian dictators from around the world. I could fill another with the names of Nazi concentration camps. I could fill another with the names of genocides. The names we gave to events in which millions of human beings are murdered. Rwanda. The colonization of the Americas. The Holocaust. The Middle Passage.

Our world has always been ugly and broken. The planet didn’t come that way; we did it. I do not believe that we will ever live in a world that is otherwise. Humans have created horror after unspeakable horror. We have gotten good at it. But humans have also created many things of astounding beauty. We have continued to love each other. We have raised kind and curious children. We have not been able to eradicate the dark and dangerous parts of ourselves, but we have fought them, and, sometimes, we have won.

I do not have any hope for the future. I do not have any hope that we can save ourselves or our planet. I didn’t have any hope before Trump was elected, and I don’t have any now, in the first hours of his presidency. I do not turn to post-apocalyptic novels seeking hope. I turn to them because they offer me guidance. They are stories about how to embody the best parts of our humanity, against the backdrop of a landscape that reflects the monsters inside us. They illuminate a way to live through apocalypse—be it current or future—without loosing myself and the core of decency and strength that lives inside me.

Post-apocalyptic novels tell the stories of people living in imagined futures—futures that are merely fictional mirrors, reflecting back to us our own world as it exists today. There is nothing optimistic about these imagined futures. But there is something deeply optimistic in the characters that inhabit them. The writers of these post-apocalyptic novels have not imagined improbable worlds without war, free of poverty, rid of injustice and healed from the ravages of climate change. They have imagined something much more courageous, and much more useful: devastating futures, where, despite all odds, people continue to reach into themselves for that warm stone of humanness, that knot of compassion, that small spark of tenderness, and, miraculously, find it.

***

I do not know what I would do in Nailer’s position, faced with the decision to kill a half-drowned person I did not know in order to create a safe and bearable life for myself and the people that I love, or to save that person, knowing that it would put that me and those I love in immediate danger, erasing the only chance at safety I’d be likely to get. I don’t know. I have never lived through an apocalypse. What I do know is that Ship Breaker—and many other novels like it—lights a way.

Perhaps I trust post-apocalyptic and dystopian writers so much because, in their stories, they refuse to turn away from the darkness. They walk into it. They explode it. It becomes massive. They blow it up until it becomes impossible to ignore all the ways in which their terrifying futures reflect current reality. The darkness is already here. In Ship Breaker and Station 11 and MaddAddam, Bacigalupi  and Mandel and Atwood refuse to turn away from the worst-case-scenario, from the ugliest, most unspeakable parts of our humanity. But they also lift up what is beautiful, what is tender, what is just. In terrifying futures that are all too familiar, they illuminate, from time to time, human beings acting in moments of remarkable grace. From this, I draw my strength and my courage.

We are never going to make the world livable for all of us. I wish I could believe otherwise. I can’t. What I can believe—what post-apocalyptic literature helps me to believe—is that we can keep acting like we’ll get to that world one day. I can believe that in whatever version of the apocalypse—mild or dire—we find ourselves living through, we can choose to be courageous. We can choose to embody justice. I can believe that alongside the monsters we turn ourselves into, there will always be some of us fighting to keep whole that unbreakable heart of humanness inside us. I can believe that right now—and when I find myself in a time more dire than now—I will find the strength that Nailer and Frodo and the Traveling Symphony found.

If you have hope—if you can feel it in the deep places of your body, if it lives inside your mouth and your fingers, an unseen and certain faith—then use it. We need you. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten even halfway to Mordor without Sam. But if, like me, you are utterly without hope, if you cannot find it inside yourself to believe we will ever arrive in the just world that we have imagined—remember that you are not broken. You are not weak. Hope is one kind of fuel. Fire burns on many.

Frodo walked into Mordor without hope. We can, too.

***

Read Against Trump, Day 5: Post-Apocalyptic Novels for Strength

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Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel

The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

Find Me by Laura van den Berg

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

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