Thursday, February 19, 2015

Notes for the Laopocalypse

In his introduction to his anthology, Wastelands, Stories of the Apocalypse editor John Joseph Adams walks us through a brief history of post-apocalyptic literature, making the case that Mary Shelly's 1826 novel The Last Man should be considered the first significant post-apocalyptic work.  He cites many other classic novels in the genre including Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Naturally, Cormac McCarthy's The Road gets a nod, as does A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Long Tomorrow, No Blade of Grass and The Long Loud Silence.

John Joseph Adams collected stories that went beyond "wandering," "scrounging" and "defending" which many see as hallmarks of the genre. Instead, he sought "tales of survival and of life in the aftermath that explore what scientific, psychological, sociological, and physiological changes will take place in the wake of the apocalypse."

Adams feels post-apocalyptic SF gained popularity after World War II as people saw the devastation of the atomic bomb and the rise of the Cold War when "worldwide nuclear annihilation seemed a very real possibility." The majority of stories in his anthology are definitely grounded within an American consciousness and sense of values and priorities.

Nearly a year ago, Noah Berlatsky was raising some hackles as he suggested that science fiction as a genre has some problems with colonialism and racism that could be worked on. "As much as the genre imagines the future, it also remixes the past—often by envisioning Western-style imperialism visited on the Western world."

In Lao science fiction, thus far, and particularly our post-apocalyptic work, I've not seen works where "white people" were subjugated in ways that Berlatsky sees trending. But I will say they're also not an apex culture in those works, including mine. They're typically decentered from global affairs. Maybe one day we'll see a shift, but for now, I kind of enjoy the "It's not always about YOU" approach our writers have taken.

One of the strangest and least understood zones of post-colonial recovery is that of imagination. After nearly a century of really corrosive conditioning, cultures and communities trying to get out from under the thumb of colonial/imperial power must fight to fully imagine themselves in the future.

 I find it particularly insidious that often refugee communities are told to fixate on creating a body of memoir literature, histories, perhaps childrens books, and rarely brought into mainstream or small press publishing to discuss the richly imaginative. This is deeply problematic.

I'm not saying exclude memoir and histories, but when that's ALL you expect refugees to make, going forward, it's a very dangerous perpetuation of disparity.

A refugee community that doesn’t have the ability to see a future for itself becomes fixated on its past and ends up aimless. Without creating a body of science fiction, empowering ourselves to imagine a future we are present in, we risk becoming merely the janitors of carnage. Survivors whose only duty is to sweep up the last memories, package them for a rubbish bin and the turn out the lights before we lock the door on our moment in history.

In many ways, although we have not had much, if anything, in the way of Lao science fiction set in the post-apocalypse, I think, we have experienced many things that arguably position us better than many societies. We were secretly bombed to the point that 30% of Laos still remains contaminated with cluster bombs and other conventional ordnance. It's not an atomic weapon,  but considering that more tons of bombs were dropped on Laos than on all of Europe during World War II, I think that's significant.

Laos hasn't even really gotten much traction in addressing the use of chemical defoliants that included Agent Orange and its relatives. We've been fortunate that there are few reported cases that rival some of the tragic deformities and mutations seen in Vietnam, but the long-term effects still aren't really widely appreciated. 

In the aftermath of the last two centuries, more Lao live outside of Laos than in it. The community's nature is now quite peripatetic. We're faced with very real scenarios regarding how much of our old society we can preserve, how much we truly want to rebuild, and how do we make the transition. 

Our neighbors in Cambodia also bring an interesting perspective to the process when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge attempted to wipe the slate clean and do a complete reboot through Year Zero and the Killing Fields. What lessons can we all extract from this, and how do we shape our Southeast Asian post-apocalyptic literature to really push the question in vital directions?


michael linden said...

Where are the first two illustrations sourced from? Could you give me a link?

Bryan Thao Worra said...

Thanks for asking. They're French engravings in the public domain from the 1880s from Laos. There are different scans around the web at the moment.