by Andrew Gifford
The post-apocalyptic genre is all the rage now in the literary world. I can’t even keep up with the new titles that come out. That wasn’t always the case, though. When I was young, to fulfill my post-apocalyptic cravings, I had to comb through the bookshelves. When the internet came along, I’d end up special-ordering books from various sources in those days before Amazon took over the literary world.
Mainstream apocalypse fiction was always available, of course. I read whatever I could get my hands on, but the good stories were few and far between. You’d talk about them with fellow aficionados as if they were rare birds—oh, yes, I’ve read the extended version of The Stand! (Nowadays, everyone has.)
Each time I read one of these rare birds, I’d seek out the work that inspired the author and fall down strange rabbit holes researching the occult, the world of conspiracy theorists, and other fringe nonsense–something that’s hard to describe to the Wikipedia generation. A Wiki rabbit hole today is far different from when you had to follow your initiative through text-based bulletin boards on a 2400 baud modem.
Some authors were kind enough to name-check their sources. For example, David Brin’s The Postman featured tantalizing quotes from Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age at the head of each chapter. These days, you can find The Coming Dark Age kicking around on Amazon and everywhere else but, in the 90s, I had to resort to contacting Vacca himself in Italy and ordering a copy. The Coming Dark Age isn’t fiction—it’s a hare-brained paranoid rant about how the new world order is going to rip the carpet out from under us the moment the lights go out and civilization collapses. It’s so outlandishly bizarre that it reads like fiction (the malevolent World Government of Sweden will conquer the United States) and, so, it was added to my post-apocalypse library. (An amusing footnote here is that Vacca told me he had never heard of Brin or The Postman.)
This habit of searching out the sources of post-apocalyptic fiction stayed with me even when it was easier to get my hands on whatever I wanted courtesy of Amazon and Google. As post-apocalyptic writing rose in prominence, I kept my eye on the weird stuff at the lower tiers of the literary ladder. In June of 2009, news that Dr. Paul O. Williams had died crossed my daily searches in the various blogs that tracked apocalypse literature. I’d not heard of him before, but his obit talked about the series of seven books he was best known for—the Pelbar Cycle.
Even now, as the post-apocalypse genre explodes, no one has really touched on the sub-genre that some call post-post apocalypse. What will the world be like hundreds or thousands of years after the apocalypse?
The post-post-apocalypse is just starting to make a comeback. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is set twenty years after a plague wipes out civilization. Mira Grant’s Feed series studies the world a generation or so after a zombie apocalypse. In The Passage, Justin Cronin creates a fascinating, immersive world a century after the end. But, the further ahead you look, the more you start to lose the tried and true tropes of the apocalypse genre. Fans of the genre love the uncertainty. You get expendable main characters, and the inevitable collapse of the feeble attempts to re-establish civilization. What’s a good apocalypse story unless, like in Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, you get a last stand on a hilltop as murdering, lunatic rapists crawl slowly towards you? Or, as in Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, or King’s The Stand, you find yourself in the middle of a black and white world ruled by the agents of absolute good and absolute evil? Or, as with The Walking Dead, you steel yourself against the inevitability that a beloved, long-term, major cast member could experience a silly, pointless, throwaway death at any moment?
Even twenty years after the apocalypse, as with Station Eleven or The Postman, you still have to deal with the lunatics and the failure of civilization. Even a hundred years, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re still talking endlessly about picking up the pieces or, as in The Passage, there are no pieces left to pick up.
But a thousand years? All the pieces have been picked up and all the uncertainty is gone. Now the narrative shifts from the apocalypse to the generations that survived and rose up to reclaim Humanity. Sometimes that future race of survivors are weird and misguided, as in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Authors take many different approaches in the post-post-apocalypse genre because, well, they can. They’re free of the tropes. Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road is simply a tale of adventure and wonder as a scientist a thousand years in the future explores the ruins of our ancient lives.
The Pelbar Cycle is something very different. It’s a political drama, a gender study, an homage to the American Indian, and there’s so much going on that we don’t really care about the apocalypse or what happened. The post-apocalypse world is simply the background set.
A thousand years after a catastrophic global nuclear war, the remnants of humanity exist only in small groups. The series revolves around a matriarchal society founded by Amanda Pell, a survivor in the nuclear wasteland. In the hard days after the apocalypse, she gathered other survivors around her and they sealed themselves away from the horrors of the wasteland. A thousand years later, their descendents have become the Pelbar. They are isolationist and ultra-conservative, hiding behind the thick, fortified walls of three cities along the Mississippi—now known as the Heart River. They are surrounded by patriarchal nomadic tribes, with whom they have recently developed a very tenuous trading relationship and vague non-aggression pact.
Pelbar society withstood the post apocalypse, and the struggles of the generations that followed Amanda Pell. The first book takes very little time to tell us, though, that the suffocating rules of the society are starting to fall apart. The world is emerging from the ashes and the Pelbar are, in the end, a product of the post-apocalypse. The first book follows the adventures of a Pelbar male, Jestak, sent into exile for questioning the rules. He embarks on an adventure that is the first step in uniting the two local barbarian tribes outside the walls of the cities. While the first book is largely about bringing the disparate groups in the Heart River Valley together, the beginnings of the larger narrative start out very quickly as well. Jestak makes first contact with a society of slavers who are part of the wider world of archetypical post-apocalypse bad guys living to the east and the south of the Pelbar sphere of influence.
The books cover several generations. Some follow the adventures of Pelbar exiles—usually men, and the women who foolishly love them–and some follow members of the barbarian tribes who, over the course of the series, become more and more integrated with the Pelbar. The Pelbar, in turn, lose their conservativeness and, slowly, leave the protection of their walls (though it takes many deaths and the shocking destruction of a city to do so). Everything is building towards an ultimate confrontation between what becomes the peace-loving agrarian Heart River Confederation–our heroes the Pelbar and their associated tribes—and their polar opposites, the Innanigani, who run three cities on the East Coast. (The TV show Jeremiah borrowed heavily from the midwest confederation vs. the creepy east coast idea, by the way.)
Over the course of seven books, that ultimate confrontation takes one hundred years to happen. This is, in my opinion, very unique. Our hero in book one is long dead by book seven. We get handoffs from the old generation to the new generation but, overall, we’re asked not to be attached to particular characters but, instead, to be attached to the ongoing narrative of this new society. As a result, the sea change that occurs with the Heart River tribes makes sense. A bunch of primitive yahoos settling down to be farmers and working hand-in-hand with volatile, man-hating isolationists? Yeah, that might take a while.
In the meantime, we get a series of solid adventures with two main families at the center of them all. These families eventually intermarry and are the glue that bring the Pelbar and the native tribes around the Heart River together, but it’s no easy task. Our main heroes in each family are wanderers, and always consumed by a mad curiosity to see what’s over the next rise. We follow them through three generations as they encounter crazy airplane worshipers (a weird cross between the mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Captain Walker’s children in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), they visit tribes on the west coast, they wander through the blasted, radioactive remains of major cities, they save people who have lived 1000 years in a bunker (and, in the process, introduce some useful sci-fi technology into the Pelbar armory); and they travel as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, as far north as the Canadian wilderness, and, of course, into the east where they have to deal with the Innanigan. In the process, they unite all the remaining great tribes, make enemies of those who don’t want to join them, wipe out a few societies, and even make contact with what appears to be groups of Japanese survivors who have developed into an advanced seafaring nation using wind and solar power to travel the world. (Another footnote: book three, The Dome in the Forest, is basically Hugh Howey’s Wool. Just in case you’re under the impression that he’s wildly original.)
The heroes from the Pelbar/tribal families aren’t really major leaders. They just want to explore, so the theme is always some poor, good-hearted sucker who simply can’t sit still, discovers some grand new thing, and is being slowly pushed towards taking up arms and being the improbable leader in the coming confrontation.
It’s strange and somewhat exhilarating that Williams takes so long to get to the denouement. You don’t get the feeling that he’s stretching out the series, either. There’s an organic growth towards the final confrontation between those wicked east coast people and the proud and noble descendants of the survivors of Peoria and Chicago. And, as I say, this slow subplot is just fine. You can’t just suddenly have two massive armies go at each other. When we first meet them, the Pelbar have hardly left the confines of their cities in one thousand years.
Williams isn’t the best writer. The Pelbar cycle is sometimes a hot mess. But this is what I call “journeyman sci-fi”, which has a long and noble tradition. Star Trek is journeyman sci-fi, The Incredible Hulk, and so on. It’s people on the road moving from adventure to adventure with no real endgame in sight. It’s just their little insular stories, and the extra layers that Williams attempts to put into the narrative, while flawed, end up being terribly addictive. The reader knows that this little insular adventure ultimately means much more in the global politics of the shattered, future world…even if our main character is pig-headedly sticking to their individualistic desires.
It’s this meeting of two worlds and writing styles—the aimless journeyman stuff and the larger narrative with an endgame in mind—that makes the Pelbar Cycle an important chapter in apocalypse fiction. Each book is usually under 270 pages, as well, so the Pelbar Cycle is the sort of thing you can sit down and read during a long weekend at the beach. And I think you should do just that.
(This is part two of a four-part cycle of essays on the post-apocalyse in literature. You can read part one in the spring issue.)
Andrew Gifford is the publisher of SFWP.