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Survivalist Fiction

Entry updated 10 May 2021. Tagged: Theme.

During the near-half century of Cold War after the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan in 1945, nuclear Holocausts were a commonplace plot device in various genres of popular fiction. Some novels took readers teasingly up to the brink without actually carrying them into the terminal moments; Cold War thrillers of this sort are not generally treated in this encyclopedia. A rather larger number of novels treated the final war as a given, an assumed premise of the action of the tale, which took place subsequent to the horror of the actual event. One subgenre of this sizeable cohort of Post-Holocaust novels usually goes by the name survivalist fiction.

Though it takes much of its political extremism and attendant social prejudices from the genuine survivalist movement which flourished in the USA during the Cold War (see also Libertarian SF), survivalist fiction as such has little to do with the actual concerns of real survivalists, who tend to concentrate most of their energies on exercises and training and hoarding and forward-planning for the anticipated event; less thought is given to the aftermath, where survivalist fictions are almost invariably set. The significance of genuine survivalists is of the here and now, as an example of the pathos of "self-reliance" in a world too complex and fragile to reward simple solutions.

Of greater potential interest to sf writers than realist stories about survivalists is, perhaps, the apocalypse pathology (see Religion; Eschatology) detectable in the survivalist mentality. Those who live their lives in anticipation of surviving the holocaust are almost certainly geared to welcome its coming, and to feel that – by contrast with the civilian hordes who ignore the tenets of the faith – they comprise an Elect (see Superman) of true believers; and, typical of that form of psychopathy, demonstrate extreme agility in shifting the focus of their love or hate when conditions so demand – hence the 1990s shift of American survivalists' loathing from Cold War enemies to the Federal government. Survivalists, in other words, run the risk of seeing the holocaust as a test of Faith: of feeling virtuous about the End of the World. A novel like Robert A Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold (1964), though displaced through Time Travel beyond the normal boundaries of survivalist fiction, does convey the extremist mind-set of some participants in the movement, and the "Darwinian" ruthlessness they long to ape. But Farnham's Freehold is a tale of wish-fulfilment; the actualities of survival are clearly so unrewarding when faced directly that almost all sf which deals with nuclear holocaust directly treats its human protagonists as doomed. There is, in fact, almost no genuine sf that describes a genuine survivalist agenda without descending into fantasy; even Dean Ing's Pulling Through (1983), which is a good example of an extremely rare breed, has recourse to a magic sports car which enables the protagonist to leap over some otherwise terminal obstacles. Andrew J Offutt's The Castle Keeps (1972) is a scathing analysis of the effects of survivalist doctrines in any plausible post-holocaust world.

There are of course many sf tales of survivors – like Pat Frank's very popular Alas, Babylon (1959) and Gordon R Dickson's attractive Wolf and Iron (1990) – and likewise there are Post-Holocaust stories whose protagonists are oppressed, as in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's False Dawn (1978), by predators whose resemblance to survivalists may not be accidental; but survivalist fiction is something very different from tales like these. From about 1980, survivalist fiction has become established as a very particular kind of male-action story, set in post-holocaust venues where law-and-order has disappeared, and where there is effectively no restraint upon the behaviour of the hero, who therefore kills before he is killed, demonstrating his fitness to survive through acts of unbridled violence (which very frequently descend into prolonged sessions of rape and sadism). The first full-blown example of the subgenre is probably the Survivalist series by Jerry Ahern, which began with Survivalist #1: Total War (1981) and which now extends to more than 20 volumes. A second important open-ended series (survivalist fiction, like pornography, tends to be structured as a series of escalating repetitions of the same material) is William W Johnstone's Ashes sequence from 1983, in which an extreme right-wing political agenda is used to legitimize the hero's actions. Other sequences include David Alexander's Phoenix books, Laurence James's Wasteworld books as by James Barton, D B Drumm's Traveler books (initiated by Ed Naha, though some or most of the sequence was by John Shirley), Bob Ham's Overload books, Laurence James's and others' Death Land books as by James Axler, Mack Maloney's Wingman books, Victor Milán's Guardians books as by Richard Austin, David Robbins's Endworld books, James Rouch's Zone books, some episodes in Barry Sadler's Casca sequence, and the Doomsday Warrior books written as by Ryder Stacy (see Ryder Syvertsen). To this list could be added Mad Max (1979) and its sequels, although these are at the top of the heap; the same cannot be said of their cheap imitators. During 1992 several book series were terminated due to declining sales; it may be that the changing world scene had reduced their appeal.

There may be some connection between present-day survivalist movements in the USA and survivalist fiction as here described, in that survivalist fiction may seem to express a grotesquely decayed form of Heinleinian relish at the defeat of "civilian" values when the "real" world bares its teeth. But even this is to claim too much. Sadistic, sexist, racist, pornographic, gloating and void, survivalist fiction is an obscene Parody of genuine survivalism, and a nightmare at the bottom of the barrel of sf. [JC]

see also: Paranoia.

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