Post-apocalyptic writers take note

On The Civilizing Power of Disaster:

“Researchers in disaster science have again and again debunked the idea that catastrophe causes social breakdown and releases the ugliest parts of human nature. Research from the past several decades demonstrates, as one report put it, “that panic is not a problem in disasters; that rather than helplessly awaiting outside aid, members of the public behave proactively and prosocially to assist one another; that community residents themselves perform many critical disaster tasks, such as searching for and rescuing victims; and that both social cohesiveness and informal mechanisms of social control increase during disasters, resulting in a lower incidence of deviant behavior.” People become their best selves when crisis strikes.

“The history of modern disasters entails a parallel history of people suddenly exhibiting communal, altruistic impulses … A growing body of research suggests that large-scale emergencies loosen social mores just enough to open up new spaces for human resilience, imagination, and compassion.”

Winter survivors

So spring is beginning in the Sonoran desert–this morning especially, there was just a feel in the air that made it easy to believe that.

Yet walking with lnhammer yesterday, we saw the effects of this winter’s sub-freezing nights. The cardón cacti are so universally brown and yellow that it’s doubtful most of them will recover–doubtful many of them live, even now. Green, deflated prickly pear pads lie in piles around now-smaller plants, though some of those have survived, diminished. The less ornamental varieties have held up better than the more decorative, spine-free varieties. The mesquite are brown, and dropped all their leaves in the days after the frost. We take it on faith that they will come back, because they have before, though we wonder if it isn’t a little late for them not to be showing signs of green. The wildflowers are sparse, too, but sometimes years they are: drought as well as cold can do that. And neighbors wonder whether to prune their citrus trees now, or whether waiting will help them.

In the desert, it’s hard to tell which of the many browned and yellow things are truly dead, and which will come back. The dead-looking things do come back to life, not always, but more often than I would have expected, when I first moved here.

Many things will not survive this winter’s deadly frost. But some things will, in this land of prickles and spines, even if we’re not sure, yet, exactly what they are.

And that’s why I read and write post-apocalyptic fiction.

“It is a bedtime story. It is an instruction manual.”

Proof, once and for all, that it’s the rare story that cannot be improved by an apocalypse … via rachelmanija‘s Yuletide recs this morning, a postapocalyptic reinterpretation of Goodnight Moon: Goodnight Room.

The Old Lady is a hologram stuck on endless loop since the program froze. That is why she can only say, “Hush, hush.” The clack of her knitting needles always plays the same short rhythm. At night, sometimes, the bunny imagines it is the sound of a train. It is always night. There is never a train.

The kittens are not holograms. The kittens are real, but they don’t care about anything except playing with each other. They never age.

The bunny does not know how long it has been since the primroses were over.

It’s the end of the world as we know it and … shiny!

So in last night’s dream, I had some sort of advance warning of the world-destroying event to come, though not of its nature. Sensibly, I was working on booking it out of the place where this event would happen, trying to put as much distance between me and it as possible.

Doing so seemed to require traveling on foot, and involved the climbing and descending of many staircases.

And in the way of dreams, I kept getting distracted. First by friends of my travel companions, who they decided also had to come along. Fair enough. (In a rather unheroic moment I tried to argue against this, and was told there was no room for debate.) Then by some sort of … I think it may have been a knitting contest. Whatever kind of contest it was, apparently it was so important we needed to hold it early, get it out of the way before the world ended.

The contest must have taken some time, because by the time it was over, the larger world knew about the coming apocalypse too, the mass panic I’d been hoping to avoid by fleeing early was about to ensue, and I was dearly hoping I wouldn’t have to wait around for the prizes for the contest’s winners to be knitted, too.

Post-apocalyptic survival fail.

This World We Live In

Been meaning to talk about Susan Beth Pfeffer’s This World We Live In for a while now.

I loved Life As We Knew It, the first book set in this world. Loved it. In particular, I loved Miranda, who starts off as a somewhat self-centered ordinary teen who–after the world pretty much collapses when an asteroid hits the moon and knocks it into a new, closer-to-earth orbit*–is forced to slowly focus on the things that really matter, face tough moral choices, come to her own conclusions about what she will and won’t do to survive, and become generally stronger and less self-centered. I loved her transformation, which is shown through her diary entries.

In This World We Live In, Miranda is still surviving, but … there’s no transformation, or there wasn’t for me. She’s mostly continuing to survive. She makes some hard choices–harder choices–in this book, but I felt like she didn’t go anywhere new as a character, and so I didn’t fall in love with this story the way I did the first one, for all that the prose went down just as easily and was just as readable for me, the diary format used in both books just as effective.

I also had some issues to do with female characters and lack of agency in this book.

Which, of course, I can’t talk about without spoilers.

SPOILERS AHEAD–scroll over to read!

The smaller issue had to do with Miranda. In the first book, I assumed Matt, Miranda’s older brother, was more trusted than Miranda to do things simply because he was older. But in this book, when Matt needs to take a sibling with him on an any-gender-can-do-this fishing expedition, it’s her little brother Johnny who gets to go with him, with Mom insisting Miranda can’t go.

And slowly I realized that Miranda couldn’t go, though the story never says it directly, because she’s a girl, and girls and women are assumed–so assumed the book feels little need to spell it out, though there are a few hints later–to be in more danger in this new big bad dangerous world than men. I assume because they’re physically weaker and also because they’re more likely to be assaulted by the men around them.

Yet here’s the thing. The whole world is dangerous. And I didn’t see that it was more dangerous for a 15-year-old girl than for a 12-year-old boy — they’d be of comparable physical strength, and anyone could get attacked for any number of reasons.

So the whole women-are-more-likely-to-be-victims-and-have-to-stay-home thing creeped me out, and it didn’t ring true to me, though Miranda’s mother clearly believed it, and Miranda sort of did too–enough so that she felt like she was being a petulant child when she complained, rather than like she was pointing out real logic flaws with her mother’s reasoning.

But Miranda’s being held back from the big bad world didn’t bother me nearly as much as what happened with Julie. Julie was also 12, I believe; she and her older brother Alex are both from the companion novel the dead & the gone.

Throughout the novel, Julie has no say at all over her fate. She falls in love with Miranda’s little brother Johnny, and he with her, and their relationship, the little we see of it feels far more real than Miranda’s more forced relationship with Alex. Yet even though there are others who plan to stay with Miranda and her brother and their family and who would welcome Julie’s staying, too, Julie is told repeatedly she can’t stay with them unless Alex–who’s all of 17–gives permission. She gets no say. If Alex says she’s leaving with him, she’s leaving with him, and what she wants doesn’t matter, even though in this remade world I see no less reason for Julie to get to make her own decisions than Alex.

But it gets worse.

Because Julie is paralyzed during a tornado. She’s not going to recover, and there’s no real medical care in this world–Julie isn’t going to make it, not over the long term. Alex is away, so Miranda makes one of those hard decisions: she gives Julie a couple of sleeping pills, and she smothers her with a pillow, and she lets everyone assume Julie passed away peacefully in her sleep.

The situation that led to this decision felt contrived already. But what really bothered me is that never did she sit down and say to Julie, “Hey, this is what’s going on. This is why things are pretty bad, and these are our options.” And let Julie, like, decide for herself. Because maybe Julie had opinions about whether she wanted to hang on even though things would be difficult and painful and she wouldn’t survive in the end, or whether she wanted someone to give her a more peaceful death. She was mentally entirely there, and there was no evidence she was any less capable of handling hard decisions than anywhere else.

Julie’s lack of agency, which existed for no reason I could see except to let Miranda make her hard decision without interference, and which built on her lack of agency throughout the book–it bothered me. A lot.

And in the end, the world is no better off than when we started. That was okay–it wasn’t really any better off in the first book, either. But in the first book Miranda, at least, was in a new and better place, and in this book–she was arguably in a different place, but it wasn’t that same sort of growth and change–of transformative–place, at least for this reader.

Anyway, comments and thoughts welcome, as always!

*I know the science of the asteroid impact makes little sense. For me, that didn’t matter. The story was about what the consequences would be if we started by accepting that such a thing had happened, and as such, it worked for me.

More Mockingjay thoughts

A couple more thoughts, after some time and thinking and processing. Spoilers again, though not as huge as before.

As before, please go over to the original post on livejournal to comment, as it’s too easy for spoilers to turn up in comments places reading this post via rss feeds, especially facebook.

But first, I enjoyed malinda_lo‘s thoughts about Mockingjay. And there’s some pretty good spoilery discussion going on at gwendabond‘s place, too.

I don’t think I ever wanted Katniss to be a hero. What I did want her to do was to seize control of her voice and use it for her own purposes and use it for her own purposes. I was hoping they would be peaceful, the-killing-has-to-stop purposes, and I would have felt pretty betrayed if they’d been I-can-people-people-for-my-own-purposes ways, because that would have gone against everything the story set up.

But neither of these was the story Collins’ was working towards. I think it’s legitimate as a reader to want a different story–as readers, we all go into stories with biases and things that we enjoy in our stories, and I think that’s fine. As writers, we go in with biases as to how those things ought to be achieved, which can be more problematic, since we’re generally wrong, because the stories we’re reading aren’t our stories.

Anyway, as malinda_lo points out, while I wanted Katniss to be forced to seize her power as a public figure at least for a time (one of my biases–I enjoy stories where characters find their voices and their power), Katniss didn’t want that, and this has been consistent throughout. And what I think she did in the end was use the power she’d always been more comfortable with, since before the games began–the power to shoot an arrow true.

I did like the fact that she was realistically broken when it was over. I gather the darkness of this was startling to many readers, but I would have been startled and a bit skeptical if she wasn’t.

And here’s the other thing I realized: I was thinking, when I first read the book–as I think many readers thought–that Gale had changed over the course of the trilogy. I thought it was done well, believably, but then I remembered something …

At the start of The Hunger Games, Katniss mentions without regret that she tried to drown Buttercup. Toward the end, when they announce the games can only have one winner, she raises her bow without hesitation to shoot Peeta, and only sets it down after he sets his weapon down–but it doesn’t even occur to her that this is an option, at first.

Which makes me realize: Gale didn’t change, and move away from Katniss.

It’s Katniss who changed, and moved away from Gale.

And I find that kind of fascinating, and think it was well-done.

For all that I still think the romance is secondary, and not what the story is really about.

Oh, and one more thing. If I haven’t said? I’m totally transferring my loyalties to Team Buttercup. Just saying.

Mockingjay preliminary thoughts … SPOILERS

I devoured Mockingjay in a day-and-a-half. So any other thoughts should be seen in that light. This book was compelling enough that it was a success for this reader. Enough so that I want to … talk about it.

Any comments beyond this point will mostly be spoilers. Scroll over to read.

Spoilers welcome in comments, as well. (Please come over to livejournal to post them, though–too easy for others to see them in facebook!)

Things I liked: The compulsive readability of the book, as I said. Katniss’ uneasiness with being a tool of either side and how she pulled away from being that tool in the end. Gale’s increasing ruthlessness, which I at once found uneasy-making and yet understood. The way the story didn’t flinch from the horribleness of the war. The way both sides were willing to sacrifice the loved ones of their games’ victors to keep those victors under control. The constant presence of the media, as a sort of running commentary on our own world. The fact that those media included photojournalism of a sort as well as reality television. The fact that the cat lives–I am so Team Buttercup now. Just saying.

Things that will give me nightmares, because they were done quite well: The parachutes–omg, the parachutes–which I utterly believe in all their manipulativeness. Also what was done to Peeta, which was effective because it not only wrecked Katniss but also took away much of her and possibly the revolution’s moral center.

A thing that surprised me: Gale lived. I thought he was so marked for dying, because the characters I love always die, and because his increasingly gray morality made him the sort of fictional character who would die. Instead he got a reasonably decent life in the end, pretty doing what he’d want to be doing.

A thing I admired: That the author was willing to sacrifice (name redacted, just in case someone got past the spoiler warnings before finishing after all, but feel free to name said character in comments)–because I assumed that was a character who was untouchable, and because it was used to good effect, and so didn’t feel cheap to me. (Okay, you can probably guess just from that.) I think it took a lot of not-flinching to write that scene, and I admired the author’s willingness to do so.

The thing I disliked the most: The fact that, in the end, there actually was a right answer to the romance and the question of whom Katniss belonged with. The book did such an excellent job of showing how there were things about both Gale and Peeta that Katniss needed, and then … a decision was made, and it was clean and without regrets, and … I don’t know. I think I was kind of hoping the answer would be neither, because in the end maybe Katniss was too broken to fall in love at all once the war was over. Then again, I can see the need–and desire–to have some bit of joy and happiness at the end for her. But I still would have preferred some ambiguity, because I think there would have been quite a bit no matter what Katniss chose, or didn’t choose.

And the thing I wanted most and didn’t get but maybe that was just me: I wanted, when the war was through, to see Katniss using her voice and her power to shape the direction the country would go–to move the people toward the sort of mending and true mercy and reconciliation and basic humanity she so clearly craved throughout the book, and that I loved her for craving. To see her playing some ongoing role in trying to help us get it right this time, even though, as Plutarch says, we haven’t pulled it off before and may not this time.

Instead Katniss gets to reclaim her personal humanity and see to her own mending and being merciful with herself, and maybe that’s enough … but I wanted more. Broken as she is, I still wanted to see her reaching out into the larger arena she was unwillingly cast into, maybe not right away, but eventually.

I’m still thinking about that last one, and whether it was something the story was structured to want, or simply something I wanted.

Spoilery comments and thoughts welcome!

Post-apocalyptic poetry

kmessner‘s post on post-apocalyptic YA pointed me to this dystopic Auden poem, “The Unknown Citizen,” which she suggested reading in conjunction with pambachorz‘s most excellent Candor.

Which got me thinking about my favorite post-apocalyptic poem–Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet.” I first met this poem–of all places–on a sample AP English test in high school, and it’s been one of those whose lines run through my head at random moments ever since:

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?–
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?


What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?

But before that, thanks to a stray reference somewhere in one or another of Madeleine L’Engle’s books (one of the O’Keefe family stories?), I’d already imprinted on W.B. Yeats’ apocalyptic “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …

What about you? Have an favorite dystopic or apocalyptic (post- or not-) poems you want to share?

Don’t think we’re going back to Hogwarts next semester

Read Catching Fire in a couple quick gulps yesterday. Maybe not quite as perfect as the first book, but I wasn’t exactly offering to put it down, either. Had lots of thoughts about it (including being pleased with myself for having kind of sort of almost seen the very ending coming), but this morning, I find myself thinking about love triangles.

Specifically, about how to do a certain sort of love triangle well and badly. (In this case, one woman with two guy, everyone-happens to-be-straight love triangles, but maybe others, too.) Ideally:

– Neither guy should be a jerk
– Both guys should have a legitimate claim on the heroine’s soul — no self-delusion or general stupidity required to be drawn to them both
– The heroine should have a legitimate claim on both their souls — we should be able to see why they’d be interested in the first place, when it’d be easier to go off and find someone available
– And most importantly, all three characters should have other things going on that are more important than who anyone chooses or fails to choose

It’s the fact that I never despise either Gale or Peeta — or Katniss — that makes this thing work, and that makes, really, talking about “Team Gale” or “Team Peeta” make little sense — they’re all equally real characters, and the story (unlike another story that readers think about in such terms) is bigger than that, and I’ll mourn a little no matter what happens there.

Okay, maybe I’ll mourn a lot depending what the author does in book three. Because mostly, right now, I’m “Team Let’s Get All Three of Them Out of This Alive.”