I’m so excited to be finally launching this nonfiction column on our website. I’ve been working over the last year with some fantastic writers on this project and I’m looking forward to publishing them. This column will begin by publishing weekly essays in conversation with one another around post-apocalyptic science fiction. It will also appear in our newsletter and the audio will be available via our podcast.
I’ve started to write this introduction many times in the last year. Where to start? Perhaps the best place is with the novel Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh. I read it when it was first published in 2011 and it has haunted me ever since. Unlike what we’re used to with science fiction, where an acute disaster ends civilisation as we know it, in Soft Apocalypse McIntosh posits that we are more likely to slowly slide into irreversible catastrophe without our noticing until it is too late.
What terrifies me is the illustration of society calmly absorbing the impacts of climate change, as though we are that frog in the pot of water as the temperature slowly increases to boiling. It’s the realisation that we are so absorbed in the everyday, we don’t realise we are already on the trajectory of the soft apocalypse. One scene in particular sticks in my memory – our protagonist has become homeless, having lost his job, and is trying to survive on the streets with the many others who also have lost their previous lives as middle class Americans. He comes across a former work colleague as her car stops at a traffic intersection. She is going on about her life as normal, driving her car and heading off to work for a regular day. Nothing about her life has changed, amidst the poverty and hopelessness that our protagonist is wading through. McIntosh’s image of this disparity in the “true apocalypse” is stark. That the “end of the world as we know it” won’t be/isn’t the same for everyone, equally. That the truth is, we are less likely to end the world with some big A-Bomb or World War III; that we are already ending the world as we know it, we just aren’t paying attention. Because, like everything else, this burden isn’t shared equally. For some, it’s already here. And the rest of us have the privilege of carrying on as though nothing is happening at all.
It was with this haunting idea in the back of my mind that I met the COVID-19 pandemic.
In remote Western Australia, with a desert expanse separating us from the rest of the country, and only a few roads in and out, we had the luxury of being able to close our borders to keep the virus out. And we did. We spent 2020 and 2021 mostly free from COVID. We were the former colleague still driving our car and going to work like nothing had changed. Our kids still went to school and we ate inside restaurants and we read about and watched the pandemic from afar.
We did have a few encounters with virus outbreaks over that time. And the way we reacted made me think a lot about the presumptions we make in the science fiction we create. Like everyone else in the world, at the start of the pandemic, we had a hard lockdown too. We worked from home. We grappled with cobbled together school work emailed home and Zoom classroom appointments. We worried about what was going to happen. We had to find ways to cope with it all. We had about a six-week hard lockdown. And then a couple of times later on we had short sharp lockdowns to contain an outbreak.
My city is sitting on the precipice of either another lockdown or another near miss of a COVID-19 outbreak. I’m familiar with this feeling – I’m antsy, I’m itchy, I can’t focus and I can’t sit still. I find myself wandering around the house aimlessly, unsure whether it will be business as usual this week or whether we’re about to have kids at home all day everyday again. And behind all of this, the dread that the virus will come near us. The fear of catching it.
What intrigued me about our lockdowns – both in my state and in other states in Australia – was how we all did them. Commentators in other countries said we were giving in to totalitarianism. That our society was too compliant and willingly controlled. I don’t think that’s what was happening at all. I saw Facebook groups pop up for local neighbourhoods where people adopted healthcare workers and walked their dogs, minded their kids, and grabbed them toilet paper from the shops before it sold out. I saw everyone wearing their masks as soon as mandates came in (we had them from time to time). I saw people taking care of each other. One mother said to me at school pick up, “I’ll do whatever it is if it means we can keep schools open.” The husband of a friend of my mum’s voluntarily disinfected our school’s bathrooms twice a day to add extra cleaning to the schedule.
What I observed around me was nothing like what science fiction had led me to believe would happen in an apocalypse. People weren’t angry; they weren’t out only for themselves. Even though there was panic buying in the shops, most people were still really generous. I recall early in 2020, as empty shelves in supermarkets were becoming a thing, I was chatting with the woman ahead of me in line at the checkout – I’d asked her how much chocolate was the right amount to stockpile for the apocalypse – and she checked to make sure I had enough toilet paper at home, even offering me some of hers, if I didn’t. What if most societies wouldn’t crumble just because of an apocalypse?
I’ve thought a lot about apocalyptic and dystopian fiction over the last two and a half years. One thing I’ve learned is there will be far more artisanal sourdough bread from wild yeast available at the end of the world than we expected. There is not nearly enough crafting written into apocalyptic fiction!
I decided to ask how others, especially SF writers, experienced the pandemic. And the result is this weekly column. I’ve invited a bunch of writers to contribute a piece on their journey so far through COVID-19 to this series. I’m specifically interested in the taking up of a new hobby, a new mindset, or a changed view of the world and humanity as a result of living through lockdowns and the pandemic. I want to know whether their view of apocalyptic fiction has changed with the hindsight of living through 2020 to 2022.
And, obviously, the best place to start is with Will McIntosh. His piece will debut Friday. Come back to read it. And then return every Friday for a new perspective in this series.