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Ruined Earth

Entry updated 10 November 2023. Tagged: Theme.


Term used in this encyclopedia for the longer-range sf aftermath of Disaster and Holocaust scenarios. First comes the cataclysm, then the Post-Holocaust struggle with a general emphasis on survival and adaptation. If humanity avoids extinction, the details of past technology and the fall of civilization are apt to become increasingly blurred – and often mythologized – with each new generation of survivors. Beneath such cultural Amnesia lies the promise of rediscovery via a potentially moving Conceptual Breakthrough.

The novel in which the ruined-earth story takes on its distinctive modern form is Richard Jefferies's After London; Or, Wild England (1885), in which the author's strategy is to set the narrative a century or more after the catastrophe has taken place; in this way an interesting, alienating perspective is gained. The hero takes his own society for granted (as in most later stories in this vein, it is quasimedieval); he endeavours to reconstruct the nature of the fallen civilization that preceded it, and also the intervening years of barbarism. Ever since Jefferies's time the longer-term Post-Holocaust story has tended to follow this pattern; for every book whose hero lived through the Holocaust itself, there are several whose story begins long after the disaster is over but while its effects are still making themselves felt. Though such stories continue to fascinate, there has been surprisingly little variation in the basic plot: disaster is, in the average scenario, seen as being followed by savage barbarism and a bitter struggle for survival, with rape and murder commonplace; such an era is often succeeded by a rigidly hierarchical feudalism based very much on medieval models (see also Medieval Futurism). When the emphasis falls on struggle and brutality, as it very often does, we have in effect an awful-warning story. But often the new world is seen as more peaceful and ordered, more in harmony with Nature, than the bustle and strife of civilization. Such stories are often quasi-Utopias in feeling and Pastoral in their values. There is no denying the attraction of such scenarios: they tempt us with a kind of life in which the individual controls his or her own destiny and in which moral issues are clear-cut.

Another famous example is Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Place of the Gods" (31 July 1937 Saturday Evening Post; vt "By the Waters of Babylon" in Thirteen O'Clock, coll 1937), which blends superstitious fear and plangent nostalgia in its telling of a barbarian boy's response to the technological wonders of a ruined City. Its sentimentality was to become a recurrent note in many such tales after World War Two established the real possibility of world Holocaust: it ends, "We must build again." Wilson Tucker's first sf novel, The City in the Sea (1951), clearly expands upon a similar presumption that human civilization is doomed to fall – in this case after a nuclear World War Three – but may, eventually, be reborn.

Perhaps paramount among sf ruined-earth scenarios is Walter M Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup dated 1960 but 1959), an ironic black comedy about the ways in which a post-holocaust civilization's history recycles and recapitulates the errors of its predecessor. The story is set largely in an abbey, where fragments of half-understood technological knowledge have been kept alive by the Church. The book is vivid, morose and ebulliently inventive; it has been very influential. A further outstandingly fine achievement of the subgenre is Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban, in which the nature of the future civilization is vividly evoked through its devolved language (see Linguistics; Ruins and Futurity).

Miller's vision of Technology as being (though morally neutral) at once saviour and destroyer is echoed in several works, including some already cited, in which an antitechnological majority, usually medieval in social structure and rigidly conservative in outlook, is unable to suppress the scientific curiosity of young malcontents. Two good examples are Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow (1955) and John Wyndham's Re-Birth (1955; rev vt The Chrysalids 1955).

Several of the authors cited here have not been closely connected with Genre SF. The ruined-earth theme, particularly in the UK, has had a powerful attraction for Mainstream writers, perhaps because it offers such a powerful metaphor for exploring Man's relation with his social structures: it pits art against Nature. Two strong UK examples from the 1930s are John Collier's Tom's A-Cold (1933; vt Full Circle USA) and Alun Llewellyn's The Strange Invaders (1934); both evoke the atmosphere of a fallen society with considerable intensity of feeling.

Further novels which place their emphasis on the kinds of society that might develop in the longer term after the holocaust include: Aldous Huxley's deeply dystopian Ape and Essence (1948); Margot Bennett's The Long Way Back (1954), in which civilized Africans send a colonizing expedition to legendary Great Britain, where they find Whites still living in caves; Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F Galouye, set in an Underground Pocket Universe; Edgar Pangborn's lyrical Davy (1964); Brian W Aldiss's Non-Stop (1956 Science Fantasy #17; exp 1958; cut vt Starship 1959); and Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), where Pollution has destroyed the animal kingdom, and which, much changed, was the basis of the film Blade Runner (1982).

At a more popular, adventure-story level, several writers have picked up the idea (found also in Brackett's The Long Tomorrow and Wyndham's Re-Birth/The Chrysalids, already cited) of a secret enclave of scientifically advanced technocrats in an otherwise primitive world. Such is the situation in Philip E High's These Savage Futurians (1967 dos), which has two rival enclaves; and in Piers Anthony's trilogy collected as Battle Circle (omni 1977), which began with Sos the Rope (July-September 1968 F&SF; 1968). A film pitting barbarians against an island of Technology is Zardoz (1973), where the sympathy, as often happens, is with the barbarian. In stories of this type technology is generally feared, since it was through technology that mankind almost destroyed itself. A furtive technology is pitted against Magic in a Far-Future medievalesque venue in Fred Saberhagen's trilogy consisting of The Broken Lands (1968), The Black Mountains (1971) and Changeling Earth (1973), but here, despite a tenuous rationale, the tone of the story is more that of Sword and Sorcery than of sf proper. Indeed, many sword-and-sorcery stories are set in a long-after-holocaust period when mankind has taken the route of magic rather than science; the rather silly idea underlying this is presumably that if we give up depending on technology we may be able to work miracles instead. In one of the commonest variants, again as in Wyndham's Re-Birth/The Chrysalids, the magic is rationalized: the post-holocaust society (or at least a Pariah Elite of radiation-spawned Mutants) develops Psi Powers.

Other notable individual novels dealing with ruined-earth themes in the late 1960s and the 1970s are City of Illusions (1967) by Ursula K Le Guin, where ruination is imposed by devious Aliens; Heroes and Villains (1969) by Angela Carter; "The Lost Continent" (in Science Against Man, anth 1970, ed Anthony Cheetham) by Norman Spinrad; Hiero's Journey (1973) by Sterling Lanier; Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas; Solution Three (1975) by Naomi Mitchison; Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! (1976) by Kurt Vonnegut; and Dreamsnake (fixup 1978) by Vonda N McIntyre. A fine story from this period was "A Boy and His Dog" (April 1969 New Worlds) by Harlan Ellison, interestingly filmed as A Boy and His Dog (1975); other relevant films include the already-cited Zardoz (1973), and Le Dernier Combat (1983; vt The Last Battle).

Later examples of note include The Postman (1985) by David Brin; Always Coming Home (1985) by Ursula K Le Guin; Wolf in Shadow (1987; vt The Jerusalem Man 1988) by David Gemmell; Seven American Nights (in Orbit #20, anth 1978, ed Damon Knight; 1989 chap dos) by Gene Wolfe; Wolf and Iron (October 1974 F&SF as "In Iron Years"; much exp 1990) by Gordon R Dickson; and the Mara and Dann sequence by Doris Lessing, beginning with Mara and Dann: An Adventure (1999).

Ruined-earth settings are also fairly often found in Children's SF, such as the Prince in Waiting sequence by John Christopher, beginning with The Prince in Waiting (1970), and the Zanne series by Gwyneth Jones, beginning with The Daymaker (1987) as by Ann Halam.

Interesting and generally admirable adult sf series with a ruined-earth background include the seven Pelbar books of Paul O Williams, beginning with The Breaking of Northwall (1981), in which fragmented societies in a rural future USA begin slowly to knit themselves together. Another is Richard Cowper's Corlay sequence opening with "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" (March 1976 F&SF) and The Road to Corlay (1978), a contemplative Pastoral work set in England centuries after low-lying areas have been covered by the rising sea. William Barnwell's Blessing Trilogy beginning with The Blessing Papers (1980) features a fantastic and indeed Science Fantasy-like quest in a world recovering after a holocaust deliberately brought about for metaphysical reasons. Storm Constantine's Wraeththu trilogy, beginning with The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (1987), presents luridly but with some flair a hermaphroditic race arising in a devastated world.

The rusting symbols of a technological past protruding into a more primitive, natural, future landscape of the ruined earth (see Ruins and Futurity) are among the most potent of sf's icons. Their power persists and even increases when they appear in Far-Future or Dying-Earth settings. The Television series Life After People (2009-2010) makes effective use of CGI to depict ruined-earth versions of noted landmarks and landscapes at various times after the vanishing of humanity. [PN/JC/DRL]

see also: New Zealander.

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