Saturday, September 03, 2005
The Cozy Catastrophe
Chris Nakashima-Brown, one of the most talented writers I know, sent the following in email to a group of Austin-based sf writers this morning. I thought it deserved a broader audience and, with Chris's permission, I'm reprinting the entirety of it here.
This week's events have me digging out old Walker Percy novels, specifically, Love in the Ruins -- a "cozy catastrophe" set in a near- future New Orleans imagined from a 1971 point of view.
1. From the Turkey City Lexicon:
"The Cozy Catastrophe
Story in which horrific events are overwhelming the entirety of human civilization, but the action concentrates on a small group of tidy, middle-class, white Anglo- Saxon protagonists. The essence of the cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off. (Attr. Brian Aldiss)"
2. From the beginning of the first chapter of Love in the Ruins, set at an abandoned Howard Johnson's on the outskirts of New Orleans:
"In the pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate cloverleaf, 5 p.m., July 4
Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I cam to find myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?
Two or more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won't and I'm crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.
Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by the rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.
Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me. Undoubtedly something is about to happen.
Or is it that something has stopped happening?
Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?"
3. QUESTION: Is the "cozy catastrophe" tenable in a world of actual apocalypse? How would we react to a story about some fellow watching the New Orleans scene all unfold from his penthouse view atop a luxury hotel, secretly reveling in the freedom he finds as his moorings to bourgeois society are cut, and the whole mess collapses around him?
What happens to science fiction -- specifically, that favorite subgenre of mine, the literature of apocalypse -- when the cataclysm is actually happening?
Partly because of the narrative form, the oeuvre usually centers around a single protagonist. In the American pop cultural version, that protagonist achieves heroics through self-reliant individualism. How do we feel about the protagonist of Matheson's I Am Legend (Charlton Heston in The Omega Man), the last white man in the city, "finding" the things he needs to survive (see Patrick Nielsen Hayden's "white people find, black people loot"), fighting off the hordes of vampiric zombies (couldn't be an analog for black people could they?) Could we redo that story set in New Orleans on last Tuesday?
Speaking of Charlton Heston, how do you like watching the politicians and television news personalities grind their mental gears as the situation utterly fails to conform to the disaster movie paradigm? Mass catastrophe, it turns out, is not amenable to resolution by lone Western heroes. That only works on the micro-scale -- the lone yuppie father, loading his family into the Volvo to escape to the Houston Four Seasons Hotel, to the in-laws in a nice white neighborhood in Memphis, barely evading the hordes of vampiric zombies that will rape and eat them all if they fail to make it out before the giant tidal wave hits. Or the revolutionary leader who emerges from the mob, organizes it, and seizes the opportunity to take the city from the incompetent paternal government.
Did you see the stories yesterday -- obviously rumors -- suggesting people in New Orleans were slipping into cannibalism??
Our narrative, like our culture, values self-reliance over community. Does it have the tools to deal with suffering on a mass scale?
What do science fiction writers do when their futuristic scenarios show up in today? Online bill payment may not be as sexy as Case "jacking in," but at least it doesn't make you wonder if you will ever need to defend yourself as your world slips into a Hobbesian state of nature!
Who knew life inside a Bruce Sterling novel would be this fucking horrifying? I mean, like, where are the smart-ass jokes?
Pardon the Saturday morning rambling.