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Finding Purpose in Post-Apocalyptic Literature

April 1, 2002

"Post-apocalyptic speculative fiction provides a window from which to view the 'stuff' of which humankind is made" (Shade n.pag.). By destroying some human accomplishments and allowing others to survive, an author allows the reader to see his world and his humanity in a new light. In books such as George Stewart's Earth Abides, Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, an apocalypse destroys human institutions that are superficial. Only people with something to believe in, or institutions that serve a purpose, are able to survive at all. Often, these surviving elements are dependent on each other: one provides an object for the beliefs or purposes of another, and in doing so, finds purpose of its own. In this way, two institutions ensure each other's existence; other survivors last only as long as they can sustain their own purpose.

The apocalypse, in its classical sense, is "the end of the world and the events that will take place before the end comes" ("Bible" n.pag.). In most modern apocalyptic literature, the apocalyptic event has already occurred when the story opens, or occurs within the first few pages. However, the progression of events in the book is usually deterioration, and in that sense, the apocalypse is an ongoing process. Several non-classical apocalyptic legends deal with a different vision of the apocalypse; for example, the American Indian concept of the end of the world is of one repeated infinitely in a "cycle, followed by a new creation" ("Mythology" n.pag.). In these myths, as in most apocalyptic literature, the apocalypse ends with a new world, developed out of elements of the old one, rather than ending in the complete destruction of the world. The author's message is within the permanent, purposeful, surviving elements; everything else is transient, unimportant, and destructible.

In Earth Abides, although the apocalyptic event is not of human origin, it is aided by humanity's technology. The Great Disaster was caused by "the attack of some new and unknown disease of unparalleled rapidity of spread, and fatality"; since it was "aided by airplane travel , it had sprung up almost simultaneously in every center of civilization, outrunning all attempts at quarantine" (Stewart 14-5). Nearly everyone in the world is killed; Ish spends a significant portion of the book simply trying to find other human beings. One main tangible human artifact] survives from before the Great Disaster: Ish's single-jack hammer. The single-jack hammer is the most important symbol in the book. It symbolizes the "importance of tradition to the family and the community" (Shade n.pag.), and is among Ish's only tangible links to pre-apocalyptic times. The Tribe believes that the hammer has some sort of power. The hammer makes Ish stronger, or wiser; the hammer is holy. By giving The Tribe something to believe in, the hammer allows it to survive. Ish found the hammer before the book started, making it an "actual link to the past" (Stewart 8) that stretches not only between points in the book, but between points out of the timeframe of the novel. This allows the reader to see the hammer as eternal, having neither a point at which it was found, nor a point at which it was lost. Stewart allows the hammer to survive because, although it has no real power of its own, its purpose is to provide a focus for the superstitions and beliefs of The Tribe, and therefore, by its own survival, it allows The Tribe to survive. In this way, the survival of The Tribe and the single-jack hammer are inextricably tied; by making the hammer eternal, Stewart gives the reader hope that The Tribe will be able to survive indefinitely, as well.

Ish, however, does not take stock in the superstition surrounding the hammer?he sees it as just a hammer, with perhaps some personal sentimental value. He is distinguished from The Tribe in that he has a conscious purpose, while The Tribe feels no need to do things. Ish's purpose lies in his drive to preserve the knowledge of humanity. He fights to keep the University library usable. He feels a great drive to find a child among those of The Tribe to take over his role as the intellectual and the leader. Suddenly, he finds this role filled. "'Joey!' Ish was thinking?and the name seemed to reverberate through all his consciousness. 'Joey! He is the one!'" (Stewart 166). Unfortunately, Ish's hopes for the preservation of mankind's knowledge are lost when Joey is taken by a disease?what the first disease failed to destroy, a second one manages to take away. Ish has failed in his purpose; "By the story's end, the community he founded has become a band of superstitious hunter-gatherers, as primitive as the Cro-Magnon" (Castro n.pag.). However, he can see that The Tribe will live on. Through their use of hand-made, primitive technology, their strong "superstitious" beliefs in the hammer, and their ability to coexist with nature, they will survive. Ish, seeing this preservation as another form of the preservation he fought for, feels his purpose completed and, therefore, he dies.

In A Canticle for Leibowitz, the apocalypse was of direct human origins; in the first section of the book, Fiat Homo, the reader learns of a nuclear war that destroyed much of the world. The following riots utterly destroyed science and technology, effectively sending the world back into the Dark Ages; therefore, "Civilization had been destroyed, but not all of human life" (Fuller 254). Men of learning opposed this reversion, ...calling the mobs "bloodthirsty simpletons."

Joyfully the mobs accepted the name, took up the cry: Simpletons! Yes, yes! I'm a simpleton...Simpletons! Let's go! This ought to show 'em! Anybody here not a simpleton? Get the bastard, if there is! To escape the fury of the simpleton packs, such learned people as still survived fled to any sanctuary that offered itself. When Holy Church received them, she vested them in monk's robes and tried to hide them (Miller 59).
The Church took on as its purpose "to preserve human history for the great-great-great-grandchildren of the simpletons who wanted it destroyed" (Miller 60). Purposeless though it may seem, "it is the monastic orders that have kept the thread of knowledge, not even comprehending it" (Fuller 254). The purpose held within this futile exercise is nothing more nor less than to provide a purpose for the monks who execute it. The Memorabilia, written by Leibowitz himself and found by Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, represent the knowledge of the old world: it is advanced, complex, and completely incomprehensible to the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. This newfound goal allowed the Church to survive the true apocalypse that followed the nuclear war: the destruction caused by the simpletons. In the third section of the book, Fiat Voluntas Tia, a second nuclear holocaust destroys the world once again. However, the Church has a plan in place, called Quo Peregrinatur, in which a Church-owned spaceship would take a group of its monks and nuns to Alpha Centauri in order to perpetuate humanity, the Church?and the learning provided by the Memorabilia. When, "at the end of Canticle, nuclear energy is destroying civilization on Earth and at the same time powering a spaceship used by the Church to save a remnant of humanity" (Ower 446), the reader sees that by pursuing its purpose?the preservation of religion, technology, and humanity through the Memorabilia?the Church is able to, both figuratively and literally, rise above the nuclear war on Earth and survive.

Brother Francis himself, however, cannot survive?on his way home from meeting with Pope, he is shot by cannibalistic highwaymen with deadly finality: "The arrow hit him squarely between the eyes" (Miller 108). Since the finding of the holy relic of St. Leibowitz, the blueprint, Francis had dedicated himself to the creation of a beautifully illuminated copy of the unfathomable technical drawing. The drawing complete, he was sent by the Abbas to take it, along with the original, to the Pope. A highwayman robbed him of the copy?his life's work?and let him go on. The humble Francis, after delivering the remainder of his gift to the Pope, finished with his assigned task, and having the fruit of fifteen years of labor literally torn away from him, finds no more purpose in life. His death was an acknowledgement of the failure he felt; he could no longer find a purpose to drive him.

In I Am Legend, a wholly different type of apocalypse takes place. After a nuclear war, dust storms and mosquitoes spread a disease even more horrific that of the Great Disaster in Earth Abides--this disease turns its victims into vampires. For most of the book, the reader sees Neville as the sole survivor of a terrifying disease. He manages to survive because he creates several purposes for his life. One of his purposes, "a relaxing of the few diversions left to him" (Matheson 107), is his hunt for Ben Cortman, his neighbor in pre-apocalyptic times and mortal enemy in the new world. Cortman, however, is only a representative of the vampire menace. It is he who calls, "Come out, Neville!" (Matheson 8) every night. It is he who mocks constantly mocks Neville's defenses. In hunting Cortman, Neville is really hunting for all the vampires of the world. Neville's other purpose in the world is his research. After he has his first "enlightenment" outside his wife's crypt, Neville feels a new drive in life. "The first excitement he'd felt in months made him break into a run for the station wagon....He had to do a lot of reading, a lot of research. It might be just the thing he needed" (Matheson 27). His new mission to research the bacillus vampiris germ is, indeed, "just the thing he needed"?for only with a purpose such as the one he has discovered can he survive. Now, focused by a new purpose, Neville's survival seems concrete.

However, both Neville and the reader mistakenly believe that the vampires are dead?that is, that they are no longer human, that they did not, truly, survive the apocalypse, that they are the germ's victims. However, Neville (as well as the reader) discovers through his interactions with Ruth that a new society has been formed. It turns out that "Mankind is not dead; it is merely transformed" (Nicholls 426). A whole world of thousands of "living" vampires has not only physically, but truly survived. They can think, they can feel, they can fear, and, most importantly they can believe. Neville, to the vampires, acts as the same monster that vampires had to human society; as he looks out the window of the cell they hold him in, he is surprised at

...what he saw on their faces?awe, fear, shrinking horror?and he knew that they were afraid of him. To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen, a scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with. He was an invisible specter who had lest for evidence of his existence the bloodless bodies of their loved ones....He was anathema and black terror to be destroyed....A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend (Matheson 159).
Although Neville himself does not survive, his sense of purpose being inadequate to save him, the memory of the horror that was "Neville" will live "forever". Its purpose, of course, is to provide something for the vampire society to fear?to believe in?and therefore, both his memory and the vampire society must survive in "the unassailable fortress of forever". Like the relationship between the single-jack and The Tribe in Earth Abides or between the Memorabilia and the Church in A Canticle for Leibowitz, this relationship, which so dominates the conclusion of I Am Legend, allows both the object of belief and the believers to survive.

Superstition and superstitious, preserved and preserver, feared and fearful: one survives by believing in the other, and incidentally gives the other the purpose it needs to survive. They coexist; if an author presents one as "eternal", than the other must be, as well; if one goes to the stars, the other may perpetuate itself in the same way; if the legend finds its way into "the unassailable fortress of forever" (Matheson 159), so must the believers. In post-apocalyptic literature, the intertwined fates of a symbol and those who give it meaning can give both indestructibility. Others, such as Ish, Brother Francis Gerard, and Neville as a living man can only survive as long as their purpose lasts; when they fail in or complete their tasks, they can no longer perpetuate themselves and they, like so much before them, die.

Works Cited

"Bible." Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia. CD-ROM, Compton's 1994.

Castro, Adam-Troy. "Classic Science Fiction Reviews." <> (2 February 2002).

Fuller, Edmund. "The Extraordinary Tale Speculating on Man's Destiny." Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books March 6, 1960, 1. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 30. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: Tor, 1995.

Miller Jr., Walter M. A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Bantam, 1982.

"Mythology." Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia. CD-ROM, Compton's 1994.

Ower, John B. "Walter M. Miller, Jr." In Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day edited by E. F. Bleiler. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982.

Nicholls, Peter. "Richard Matheson." In Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day edited by E. F. Bleiler. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982.

Shade, D. D. "Lost Books ? Earth Abides by George R. Stewart." <> (17 March 2002).

Stewart, George. Earth Abides. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.

Update: This paper was worth a 93%. Woo.

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