I came across Tyler Bumpus early this past winter of 2016 (February, more specifically) when I read the first book in his Swallowed World post-apocalypse series, The Eternal Season. I was enthralled… I was amazed… this was one seriously kick-ass PA story. You can read my review here.
There have been two postapoc stories that have captured my attention this year – this is one of ’em.
I recently asked Tyler if he’d like to write a guest blog for me. I was pleasantly surprised when he said yes. Writers are often very busy and I feel very lucky when there are those who take their precious time to write for my blog.
So, without further ado… here is Tyler and his thoughts on the interpretation of our post-apocalyptic nightmares…
BIRTH PANGS: INTERPRETING OUR POST-APOCALYPTIC NIGHTMARE…
by Tyler Bumpus
Now stop me if you’ve heard this one:
The world as we know it is gone. Poof. It was nuclear bombs. It was a virus. It was a meteor. Or the living dead, or aliens, or damned dirty apes, or maybe just the slow decay of time. The cause is mostly irrelevant. What matters is that thousands of years of civilization have been scrubbed; the human race left scrounging through the wreckage of its former splendor.
Whether or not you’re a fan of this kind of story, you know the trademarks—sprawling wastelands, derelict cities, haggard survivors driven to brutality or madness, clinging to their last threads of decency. We’re at the point that it all approaches cliché…sometimes even self-parody.
So what’s the fascination with seeing our cozy way of life rubbed out? Precisely what is the value of post-apocalyptic fiction?
(Aside from all those epic wastelander beards.)
The easy way out is to simply label them ‘cautionary tales.’ They warn us about the danger of nuclear proliferation; of biological warfare; of the cruel instincts inherent in human nature. What-have-you. This is, of course, too pat an answer. It doesn’t begin to explain the sheer creativity, the unpredictability, or the thematic complexity the best post-apocalyptic tales have to offer.
‘Morbid curiosity’ is another popular answer. Deep down most of us are sickos, right? We love a catastrophe. Watch us scour the news for the gruesome bits; crowd the barricades at a crime scene; rubberneck on the freeway for that glimpse of gore. It’s our roots. Survival of the fittest. At heart we are beasts yearning to drop the civilized act; return to the simplicity of a world governed by brute survival and the letting of blood. Apocalyptic tales feed those basest urges…
Tickles the cynic in me, but I call bullshit.
Death and ruin are fascinating, of course, but only because of what they mean for us. A species emerging from the chaos of the primordial world with—inexplicably—higher awareness than most life on earth. What use are such faculties to a mere beast? Intellect makes sense: helps us think up all kinds of ingenious ways to beat back our Darwinian competition. But passion? Aesthetics? Conscience? Hunger for meaning? These seem like serious handicaps for an apex predator.
So, surely the human being is a fluke. A clumsy faceplant on the evolutionary stage. A loopy life form suffering delusions of grandeur as it slowly destroys itself. And that’s what post-apocalyptic fiction is all about.
Phew. Glad that’s settled. Goodnight!
But that hunger for meaning…
The idealist says the world is pregnant with meaning. The nihilist says meaning doesn’t exist. I’ll leave that discussion to them because, frankly, it’s less interesting than the simple fact that most of us crave it. And why? There’s no evidence for any particular motive in nature. In earth’s history, what creature before man has hoped to discover meaning? Furthermore, when none is readily available, what creature has dared fashion its own?
If you’re still with me, what I’m babbling on about is the underlying function of mythmaking and storytelling. To entertain, sure. To inspire, to arouse, to enlighten, to transport. But all of these are half-assed ways of saying that storytelling is a concerted effort to imbue existence with meaning. A feedback loop between dreams and stark reality which helps enrich and elevate our outlook and—perhaps more importantly—our actions.
In less hoity-toity terms: the power of stories lies not in their absolute truth, but in their ability to push us to stop gazing vacantly into the abyss. To forge our own truths.
We need fresh myths like we need fresh air.
Wonderful! How uplifting! But where the hell do post-apocalyptic tales fit into this picture? I mean, we’re talking about stories that shatter our cultures, level our cities, rub our faces in the wreckage of human progress. Huge bummers, right?
Hardly. Our best post-apocalyptic stories are some of the most brutally honest, bravest, most optimistic goddamn stories we have. That’s right: optimistic. What other genre of storytelling imagines that amid the chaos and carnage of hell on earth, the human spirit might somehow abide—even transform?
The apocalypse gets a bad rap. It brings to mind fire and brimstone, damnation and extinction. But what about self-discovery? The word apocalypse itself is derived from the Greek apokaluptein, meaning ‘to uncover.’ To reveal. A metamorphosis through deeper insight. This contrast between the word’s roots and its cataclysmic associations is telling: Pain and terror are the gateway to new life.
The birth pangs of a new world.
If this all sounds terribly dramatic, that’s because it is. It’s an enduring motif throughout world religions and mythologies—Gilgamesh, Hesiod, Ragnarok, the Maha Yuga, the Book of Revelation, etc, etc, ETC. Mythically speaking, the apocalypse is less an ending than a traumatic new beginning.
The world of post-apocalyptic fiction, then, is our spiritual crucible. There is no comfy middle ground here. This place boils away all pretenses, lays bare the human soul in all of its genius and its malady. These stories challenge our self-image. They destroy all the old myths we comfort ourselves with. Strip away our frills, our affectations. Strip us to the bone.
And return us to that primordial chaos from which we first rose.
It’s a terrifying proposition, to be sure. But if nature tells us one thing, it’s that life stagnates in comfort and thrives in risk. In this wasteland, mankind is at last emancipated from tradition, from dogma, from all excuses for our behavior. Each human being is now custodian of their own humanity…and accountable for their own cruelty. The tired old myths are buried. A new human saga begins.
And that, to my mind, is the true value of post-apocalyptic fiction. The dawn of an unpredictable new mythology re-purposed from forgotten fragments of the old; startling new frontiers full of mortal danger and the lingering hope that we may yet rediscover the spark that first ignited our race.
Plus those beards are pretty damn epic.
When he’s not writing or scavenging, you can often find Tyler roaming the wastes at the following coordinates…