I recently read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. It’s about the end of civilization, the action of the novel seeming to take place in what is left of the Western United States after, apparently, an atomic holocaust. It is a very dark novel in all respects, but it is a love story, too—about the love between a man and his young son, two of the very few survivors who are struggling to find food and shelter, and safety from other desperately foraging humans. Civilization collapses; cannibalism ensues. Everything is ashes. It is written simply and directly. I enjoyed the reading of it despite its darkness.
The book reminded me of two others I had read in the last dozen years or so, one twice: Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. The other, I am currently reading for the second time to refresh my memory of it: Earth by David Brin. It’s a big book, but a quick read.
My favorite among these is Earths Abides. As in The Road there is a main male character, but in addition there is also a family with well-defined characters that collects itself from the few survivors of a world-wide epidemic of disease. Civilization collapses slowly, giving more time to see how much man has separated himself and protected himself from the natural, non-electro-mechanical world. It is beautifully told. A bonus for me is that it occurs in familiar territory, primarily in the hills of Berkeley, California. One image of it persists in my mind: the use of otherwise useless copper pennies for arrow tips.
Earth is as big as the earth, it seems. It has everything in it: physics, astronautics, geography, hydrology, geology, sociology, economics, psychology, genetics, ethology, ecology, religious dogma, Earth as living Goddess (Gaia), sex, love, lots of Maori cultural stuff and more. The central story is a tiny but potentially catastrophic black hole in the middle of the Earth. In addition to this problem, the (future) earth has 50 billion people and rising seas due to global warming. But don’t worry, it’ll turn out all right because of the many heroes populating the novel, which has its villains too. I’m afraid, despite the wealth of thought-provoking information it gives us, it is a pot-boiler, made for Hollywood’s eventual attention. I probably won’t finish reading it this time.
We are fascinated with scenarios imagining and depicting the collapse of civilization upon which most of us depend, absolutely. There are people in the world able to exist directly from the land and forests they inhabit, but these souls seem to be fading from view.
A book I read a few years ago by Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari, shows us, among many other things on his soulful journey, how the Africans who live in the bush or outback are the most likely to survive over time, as compared with those who flock to the teeming, filthy cities and lose their ability to cope with the vicissitudes presented by natural forces. The novel Earth, takes the implicit position that science and technology will save us from all foreseen and unforeseen events.
Any of these books, including Theroux’s, is useful, at the least, to remind us of our mutual interdependence on the complicated systems we have built to support us: water, agriculture, electricity, information, transport and so forth. The collective noun for all this is, I suppose, infrastructure.
How secure do we feel about our Infrastructure? In whom are we placing our trust to assure us everything is and will be OK—no matter what?