With the past two months, I have read — for various reasons — four different novels laying out apocalyptic events within the United States. Here are the novels, in the order I read (or re-read) them, and with the reasons why I read them:
— Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1977): a comet fragments and strikes the Earth in numerous places, collapsing much of world civilization, including the United States. I’ve read this several times before; I saw it cited on a blog (Samizdata) in a discussion on “the best end-of-the-world novels” and decided to dig it out and read it again.
— One Second After by William Forstchen (2009): a few high-altitude nuclear blasts over the United States shuts down most of the electrical and electronic infrastructure and devices across the country due to the electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) effect of the blasts. This is the newcomer of the bunch and portrays an America far more familiar and current that found in the other novels in this set. Again, I saw a reference to it on a blog (Instapundit), ordered a copy and read it.
— Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957): actions (and inactions) of both the US government and US industry lead to an economic and infrastructure collapse of the United States far worse than the Great Depression. It had been 40 years or so since I read this novel, and given the current buzz around it, I decided it was time to read it again. Most people (correctly) think of this novel as a political/philosophical polemic, but if you actually read it, you’ll find the events and consequences described or suggested are pretty apocalyptic (e.g., collapse of the food supply chain, collapse of transcontinental transportation, collapse of the power grid, etc.). Of course, from Rand’s point of view, that was a good thing, but then Rand was pretty intense (and a bit wacky).
— Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959): a first-strike nuclear attack by the Soviet Union wipes out much of the United States, leaving isolated communities to survive on their own. One of the earliest (along with On the Beach by Nevil Shute ), best-written and best-known of the nuclear apocalypse genre of novels, which is why it’s still in print 50 years later. Forstchen in his forward to One Second After acknowledged his debt to Alas, Babylon, so I decided to re-read it as well.
Now, lest you get the wrong idea, I am not a “survivalist” — cripes, I barely have four or so months of food storage for Sandra and me, and most of that is in the form of “just add water” meals in plastic buckets. I don’t sit around waiting (or like a few Mormons I’ve known, hoping) for the world to end; I like civilization, technology, ‘net access, fresh food, grocery stores, health care, and summer movies on a large screen. I also like employment and a steady income. I’m middle-aged, in less-than-prime physical condition, and have a few chronic medical issues. And I don’t own a gun and likely never will (though I have considered getting an air pistol to scare away the woodpecker who keeps poking holes in our house under the 2nd story eaves).
On the other hand, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a few significant natural disasters, plus living in Washington DC (in the District itself) on 9/11 and during the subsequent anthrax attacks (one of which occured at our local post office). I also know what it’s like to pack up our cars with 72 hour kits and important documents, getting ready to abandon our house if the wildfire on the other side of the hill should crest the ridge (which, thankfully, it never did, due to low-flying tanker planes dropping water on the flames). I know what it’s like to have power gone for days, to have the major regional transportation artery (Highway 17 between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley) blocked by landslides for weeks, or to have the local major airport (Washington National) shut down for months.
I think that’s exactly why these novels are of interest. A major theme through all four is our dependence upon a complex web of production, storage, manufacturing, transportation, technology and economics that has evolved over centuries and that we largely take for granted. The “what-if” nature of these novels makes me think about all that I expect or depend upon and what events could disrupt or end such items. Even in the disasters and disruptions that I’ve been through, most infrastructure elements continued to work, even if at reduced or constrained levels. It is inherent in the nature of distributed adaptive complex systems — they tend to be self-correcting, self-adjusting, self-healing. But a sufficiently serious event could overwhelm the ability of key critical systems to adapt and function.
In the Church, we focus on a year’s supply of food, clothing, and other necessary items, but here’s a simple thought experiment that will likely leave you a bit uncomfortable. Imagine yourself without each of the following for just seven (7) days and ask how well you would cope:
- water and/or sewer
- natural gas/propane/heating oil
- transportation and/or gasoline
- access to grocery stores
- use of banks, investment accounts, and/or credit cards
- mail, phone and internet service
- critical prescriptions and/or medical services (insulin, dialysis, etc.)
- work, paychecks, and other forms of income
- your house or apartment
Now increase the period to 14 days, and then to 30 days, and then to 60. Then consider combinations of these outages.
Back to the novels. The value in reading such novels is to ask yourself “What if?”, to see what all your assumptions are about natural or man-made disasters. Pick one, read it, and then look around the house to see just how ready you would be for even a mild event, much less an apocalyptic one.