Sunday, November 18, 2012

Everything Is Broken; or: It Takes a Village to Survive an Apocalypse

Everything is Broken, by writer John Shirley is perhaps not exactly a SF novel, but it does fit under the general umbrella of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction. Shirley emerged on the cutting edge of cyberpunk in the 1980s-- William Gibson once called him "cyberpunk’s patient zero, first locus of the virus, certifiably virulent". Since then has written some notable science fiction and horror, as well as political satire and commentary. The Apocalypse of Everything is Broken is a relatively small one: not a nuclear Armageddon or an ecological attack or a zombie invasion; but the catastrophe his characters face is no less frightening.

It's the Tea Party.

Russ Haver is a rootless young man who has been drifting since leaving college. Lacking a purpose in life, or more importantly, an income, he accepts his father's offer to come to Freedom, a small coastal community in Northern California. Russ isn't too thrilled about meeting his Dad, who divorced from his mother many years ago, but he doesn't have many options and he's to the point where an entry-level lawn-care job in a rinky-dink little town looks good.

Freedom is a small town with ambitions of becoming a resort community. It's name used to be Ferry Landing, but the mayor, Lon Ferrara, persuaded the town to change it to better fit his conception of a libertarian utopia.

We meet several of the residents of Freedom. Lon Ferrara, the mayor and a prominent businessman, who has gutted the town's infastructure and emergency services in the name of privatization and small government; His brother Mario, who runs the local tavern and does pretty well, mostly by going along with what his brother says.

Jill Hushbeck, a vocal member of the liberal Old Guard of the community, who used to be editor of the town newspaper before Ferrara bought it out. Brand Robinson, a weary and cynical writer. Pendra, a nice girl who lives with her grandmother next door to Russ's Dad and who becomes friends with Russ.

Then there's Dickie Rockwell, the leader of a local gang; a punk who has visions and who believes he has been touched by destiny to make Freedom his personal domain.

Russ has only been in Freedom for an hour or less when the tsunami hits. There have been reports of earthquake clusters up and down the coast for the past week; now one has triggered a tsunami which strikes the town. Like the Wrath of God smiting the sin of tacky tourist traps, the wave obliterates most of the community.

Russ finds himself with Pendra and with his Dad among the small group of survivors who band together in the aftermath of the destruction. Lacking a fire department or any emergency services, cut off from the rest of the world by the wreckage left by the wave, with no power or fresh water, they they desperately try to hang on until help can arrive.

But other people have other agendas. Lon Ferrara has just seen pretty much his entire business empire wiped out; but he still runs the town and he is not letting FEMA and the Black Helicopters take it away from him. He declines any outside aid and plans to re-make Freedom into his personal fief.
Dickie Rockwell has much the same goals as Ferrara, except he's less subtle about it. He simply loots whatever he wants and kills anybody who gets in his way. Ferrarra recruits Dickie's gang to augment his own personal militia, but it is soon obvious who is really in control.

In one scene where Dickie's gang has broken into the house of an elderly couple and is about to kill them, Rockwell launches into a rant which underscores the theme of the novel: where Ferrara's self-centered anti-government philosophy will lead.
"Oh well, the police!" Dickie said, strolling around the bloody smear. "Now they want the police! Our ol' pal Mayor Ferrara got rid of them! And you know he got rid of anything connected with 'big government,' so that means no one's here helping, which means, guess what -- real freedom in Freedom! You people are free! We're free! You're free to defend your shit and we're free to take your shit! It's like the pioneer days when they crossed a fucking mountain range and found some people living on the other side and they killed them dead and took their shit away! Now we get to do that! We came over the mountain -- so, we can just take your shit! It's the inspiration of history! Breathtakin' as the Grand Canyon! Ain't freedom grand?"
The story isn't entirely Good Liberals vs Evil Libertarians. There's a flakey New Age "life coach" and a middle-aged stoner who fit into the conservative stereotype of the liberal who are useless or worse. Ferrara even talks up "pooling resources" for the greater good, although in his case the greater good is himself. The author has a strong appreciation for the Right to Bear Arms; it's what enables the surviving townsfolk to defend themselves against the Mayor's militia. The hero, Russ, learning how to use and respect a firearm is a big part of his development from a drifting youth to joining the adults.

Thinking about this book reminded me of some of the other post-Apocalyptic stories I've read. It struck me that a lot of them were about community rather than individualism. Which is odd, given that most people who prepare for Armageddon seem to lean the other way. One of the first post-Apoc novels I ever read was Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, set in a small Florida town isolated by a nuclear war. How the people in trapped in the town work together is a major part of the story. In David Brin's novel The Postman, it's stated that what caused the Fall of Civilization was not the limited nuclear exchange, or the ecological disaster or the financial collapse -- the country could have survived all of those -- but rather the survivalists who took advantage of the crises to loot and destroy the remaining props of the social order.

Of course, as soon as this notion came to me, I thought of exceptions. Ayn Rand's Anthem came to mind, which is entirely about the exaltation of the Individual over the Group. And the hero of Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold is a square-jawed rugged individualist. On the other hand, Anthem is set many generations after the Fall of Civilization and says nothing about how people initially survived. And although Heinlein is certainly a strong libertarian, he also uses as a recurring theme the individual's responsibility to the community in which he lives.

And perhaps this is a science fiction theme too. Poul Anderson, one of my favorite authors, was like Heinlein a libertarian; but he was also an engineer and I think this latter is why so many of Anderson's stories dealt with fighting against chaos.

In Everything Is Broken, the community is able to defeat the forces of chaos and so will be able to rebuild. Russ, who at the beginning of the crisis can only follow his father's lead, grows in maturity so that he is not only accepted by the "adults" of the community; he is an adult. By the novel's end, he has found a purpose in life. He's going to go back to school to study law enforcement. He wants to do something to contribute to the community.

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