Sunday, February 26, 2006

How NOT to write an apocalypse story

The Aftermath
by Samuel C. Florman
Thomas Dunne Books, 2001
RATING: * (of 5)

This book has to be the "Left Behind" of scientific apocalypse stories. Where that series preaches religion, this book plods on and on about modern civilization's great achievements and how important it would be to replicate them, even though doing so would be nearly impossible in practice. It's plagued by wooden writing; characters that are largely just names, titles and self-aggrandizing adjectives (about the only place some of them come to life is between pages 64 and 77); abysmal knowledge of human behavior; and list after list after list of minutia.

In short, it definitely violates at least Vonnegut's first rule of writing fiction.

The beginning is fairly typical. We see plausible short vignettes of the last moments of everyday people worldwide who get caught in the firestorms or tsunamis sparked by a massive comet slamming into the eastern Pacific and its fragments elsewhere.

The only problem with that is that the book is set up as a personal journal alternating with a survivor's "official" history, meaning Wil Hardy could not possibly have seen any of those events. Why? Because he's one of about 1500 people on a cruise ship in the Indian Ocean at the time. Most of them are engineers and their families, with a couple hundred crew who are mostly young and single.

While Florman is clearly knowledgable about engineering and some aspects of the history of science, this book falls flat on its face when talking about numerous other areas. For the sake of discussion, let's accept as plausible his imagery of the comet-crash causing an atmospheric firestorm that burns almost everything except for a "safe zone" that barely touches land in eastern South Africa and southern Madagascar. Common sense says such a global fire would spew trillions of tons of ash into the sky and probably blot out the sun for a long, long time.

The Tambora eruption of 1815 is generally believed to have caused the "year without a summer" of 1816, where summer frosts were reported in New England and Europe, halfway around the world. THAT ejected "only" 150-180 cubic kilometers of ash into the sky. Obviously, a comet causing the global destruction Florman envisions would send up FAR more -- he says it's about 16km in diameter (p. 36), more than half again as big as the one that killed the dinosaurs. Yet, he has the darkness and icy cold descending suddenly (despite the oceans' natural heat reservoir) and breaking in just four days.

How is that remotely possible?!?

What's FAR worse is his abysmal comprehension of trauma psychology. Face it: the people on this boat are suddenly isolated, their entire civilization annihilated, friends and any family members not present gone (although I suspect other pockets of survivors would in fact exist), a large chunk of their educations and technology now useless, etc. As he writes, "Her scientific terminology could not soften the horrifying reality that apparently human civilization had been destroyed." But shortly thereafter, the children are playing Bingo and Capture the Flag?!? Sure, the younger ones might not grasp the situation, but kids are extremely good at picking up on adults' cues, and they'd KNOW without doubt they would never go home again. Simply keeping the meals on time will NOT "keep chaotic nightmares at bay" for long.

Curiously, from a psychological POV, the added trauma of having their boat run aground and slowly sink would've been beneficial. Instead of being trapped on a boat with nowhere to go and little practically useful to do (a situation tailor-made for rapid "decompensation" as psychologists say), everyone now had to work to survive. That CAN help stave off traumatic meltdown for many people, but we can still expect to see widespread signs of PTSD cropping up in short order. Not everyone would get its full-blown, seriously debilitating form, but almost everyone would see some symptoms. In Florman's world, almost no one does.

A comparison to a real catastrophe is in order here, for perspective: A woman I spoke to from Mississippi said the simplest PTSD sign --"drifting off" in mid-sentence -- happens frequently to almost everyone she knows who lived through Hurricane Katrina. And they KNEW they could get help elsewhere, even if everyone nearby was "on their knees" as she put it. That lifeline would be GONE, completely and irreparably severed, for Florman's characters.

That said, it IS plausible they'd make the effort to save whatever they could of their books, tech, tools, etc. It's human nature to avoid trashing the past, and they would only really see how irrelevant many of their skills now are for basic survival by experience. Unfortunately, we never see that in Florman's world -- long stretches of the text are meetings between engineers talking about how they'll make those skills reality again, with very little discussion of what skills they REALLY need now, and even less actual ACTION. Even the survival skills they know of come from books and are described in lists.

And that's even after they meet a town of surviving Zulu. Common sense says the cruise people would aim to learn as much as they can from the Zulu -- and that element DOES pop up occasionally -- but their attitude is clearly aimed at rebuilding civilization even before they have a steady food supply, huts to live in, etc. In several places, Florman praises the "need" for some form of bureaucracy, and many pages are devoted to essentially listing how many people will be devoted to this impractical project or that... with no depiction at all of the engineers actually getting to know their new hosts as people or trying to determine what THEY might want from the future. (In fact, the major images they borrow are from the Afrikaners, not the Zulu, and I'd imagine that might offend a few Zulu.)

At one point, a character says, "What do we do if the survivors in this very strange corner of the world do not care to join with us in our enlightened enterprise?" That line's a great depiction of both arrogance and the overall clunky writing style. It's arrogant in the same way missionary work is supremely arrogant, because it assumes other ways of living are somehow inferior simply because they're different and/or less complex. It's clunkiness should be obvious; can you imagine anyone actually SAYING that casually? Neither can I, but Florman routinely has characters speak this way.

Such phrasing strongly reminds me of some autistic people I've worked with over the years, and I DON'T say this in any derogatory sense, just as a description. Couple the phrasing with the book's apparent lack of comprehension of how humans really behave under stress and it makes me wonder if Florman is himself autistic.

Even the name they give their makeshift settlement -- situated improbably away from a river instead of on it, and a pretty long hike from the Zulu village -- demonstrates an autistic inflexibility: "Engineering Village." Couldn't they at least have named it after a famous engineer or scientist -- say, Hawkington or Einsteinville? It is, after all, the place they may be living forever, and I could easy imagine many engineers among them wanting to honor scientific heroes.

The Zulu have also suffered, of course: When the newcomers visit the Zulu village (Ulundi), they're shown to "one of the few buildings that remained standing amid charred ruins" by children playing in those ruins.

Again, WTF?!? Somehow, despite their own homes being in ruins, many of their people, crops, and livestock dead (and probably others escaped), and their clan structure wounded, they can supply several deliveries of food to the newcomers, some of whom apparently do nothing but talk. HOW? The fact that this occurs in the Southern summer is helpful, but not enough to make it believable.

Vonnegut's rule #6 (link above) says the characters should have nasty things happen to them "in order that the reader may see what they are made of." There's plenty of nastiness in The Aftermath, but we never really see what the characters are made of, nor how they got to be the way they are. They're all one-dimensional, especially the stereotypical enemy marauder "Queen Ranavolana."

This woman is probably the most implausible character of them all: what little we know of her history is clear on the fact that she's a young American drifter, drug addict, and loser. I find it very unlikely she'd ever be able to convince a bunch of rugged criminals from Madagascar to buy into her story that she's "sent by the Creator to be their savior" and the reincarnation of their island's brutal 19th C. queen, whose name Florman misspelled. She'd be FAR more likely to end up being forced into sexual slavery, especially after civilization's demise.

Florman makes repeated reference to the fact she gives her pirate fleet red sails, even at one point having the cruise ship's captain claim he'd never seen any ships with sails that color. Huh? I find that extremely hard to believe; you can see almost every sail color imaginable at any sailing race or Tall Ships event.

About the only realistic thing surrounding her existence and threat to the engineers and Zulu is the proposal to create a militia; although it seems pretty arrogant to base it on American methods and not on whatever survivors of the South African or tribal police or armed forces there are, if any. There are probably some, and they'd be FAR more likely to have weapons than the cruise ship folks.

At least Florman makes a token recognition of this arrogance, with the captain saying (unheard by anyone), "There are other democracies in the world...." His chronicler, Wil, also privately seems to recognize that the techno-philic obsessions his group has ignore much of their new reality, writing, "To hell with the scientific view and to hell with the demands of technology. ...Why have we survived if we do not carry on, if we do not reproduce...?"

But events showing such recognition of their situation are few and far between. Florman talks blithely about turning lactic acid from corn into plastic, in blatant denial of the fact there wouldn't BE any surplus corn. He has the "good guys" predictably defeating the pirates and planning year-long sailing voyages solely for the sake of exploration around the world ... rather than fishing or some other survival function. (Where are the supplies coming from? Who can be spared to go? what if there really ARE other survivors... and some are pirates? What about basic bad weather, which would probably be VERY unpredictable for YEARS after a massive comet strike? Yes, such trips should eventually happen, but NOT in the first year.) He has sewer and water lines beign built as if by magic, but out of what? Brickworks, sawmills, blacksmithies, and other enterprises "were busy day and night" within the first six months ... despite the fact that many survivors would be in shock, hungry, injured, and have little access to any of the materials for such enterprises. Ninety percent of the planet BURNED, remember?!?

I could go on (and on and on) about how BAD this book is. But I'm sure you get the drift by now. Just file this one in the "don't bother" category.

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