Post apocalyptic novels can vary in their setting and in the ways their characters respond to such settings. However, there was one theme prevalent across all novels presented this semester. In Parable of the Sower, Golden Days and Gold Fame Citrus, each novel contains characters that have supernatural abilities; abilities that are far beyond ordinary human capacity and/or have the ability to bring some sort of solution and are part of a process of restoring order in their “new world.” Why is this prevalent among Southern California apocalyptic literature?
After careful study of the characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world and their effect on society, a proper illiation can be made. The common theme of enescability across the post apocalyptic world, paves the way for the creation of figures that can solve problems outside human possibility. In order to understand why characters with superpowers exist, it is necessary to study the conditions and characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world.
As seen in Golden Days and Gold Fame Citrus, the world post-apocalypse may be caused by an outside disturbance, made possible by either by nature or by man. A common theme found across all novels is the classic condition of chaos; the proverbial sense of a lack of physical, mental and environmental stability and assurance. In many cases there is no way of knowing what lies beyond the confines of a character’s imagination or physical location. Novels like these create a more insidious atmosphere. In other non-post apocalyptic works of literature, a character has “systems to use ways to get what they want from the outside world in order to succeed in whatever his or her goal is. ” However, in post-apocalyptic literature, when disaster strikes, there is no immediate way for a character to respond in his or her usual manner.
There is a lack of support from outside resources. Lack of control is certain. There is a distinct movement from a world of comfort to a “free for all.” In other genres, there’s a chance of escaping the inevitable. This is not so in a world marred by the apocalypse. This alludes to an overall theme of inescapability. Such conditions of inescapability often give rise to a messianic figure; a person whose arrival is an end and a bearer of solutions and ideas beyond human comprehension. We typically see that the messianic archetype is a character who echoes that of Jesus Christ. They are portrayed as a savior, whether their role is to save one person, a community or the whole of humanity. With this in mind, it is easy to understand the rise of characters with supernatural abilities. They are often seen in some ways as the final solution to a underlying problem. The emergence of messianic figures are often essential and organic to post-apocalyptic works.
The combination of an inescapable setting and a supernatural hero/heroine extends beyond the realm of fiction. There exists scenarios in the real world that have become inspirations for contemporary post-apocalyptic works, the most common and popular of which has come from World War II. The threat of extinction in terms of American values of individualism and freedom were threatened by the expansion of Hitler and his brutish ideology, nazism. Not only was there a threat from the West (the center of civilization. ) America also faced resistance from the Japanese Empire in the Pacific. The tense geopolitical situation in many ways created a sense of despair, gloom and inescapability that mirrors that of today’s contemporary post-apocalyptic works. In response to the “apocalypse” emerged characters like Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Fearless, Miss Victory and Mr. America. These figures played on the messianic understanding of the apocalypse and were presented as saviors and sources of inspiration for the American public. These characters used their superpowers to fight fictional Nazis and were the propagandist solution the US government was looking for. These characters had traits of virtue, morality and independence that were often meant to embody the best of humanity and oppose the results and themes of the apocalypse. In a geo-political sense, there is a modern take on how people handle “apocalyptic” scenarios. In times of global angst, it is often recorded and observed that people will flock to authoritarian regimes.
A comparison can be made between authoritarian regimes and messianic figures. An appeal to authoritarianism suggests that the population is willing to give up individualism for security and solutions to problems they can’t deal with themselves. According to Vox, “ The Human Rights Foundation’s research [found that], the citizens of 94 countries suffer under non-democratic regimes, meaning that 3. 97 billion people are currently controlled by tyrants, absolute monarchs, military juntas or competitive authoritarians’.”
In contrast, within these times of struggle, Rebecca Sonlit, author of Hope in the Dark suggests that a messianic figure can emerge and can “save the day” in a different way. Combating authoritarianism, Sonlit suggests that political activism can act as the allegorical messiah, in which it can bring forth hope and restore the ideals and values of society in which we cherish. Her discourse on societal and political regression reflects this idea perfectly:“But hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises. Or perhaps studying the record more carefully leads us to expect miracles - not when and where we expect them, but to expect to be astonished, to expect that we don't know. And this is grounds to act.”
Now that the characteristics of post-apocalyptic works and the origins and meanings of messianic figures in a historical and contemporary context have been examined, we should explore such in the context of the books read this semester. Octavia Butler, author of Parable of the Sower, inserts her protagonist—a fifteen-year-old girl named Lauren. Her family along with her neighbors, live in a state of fragile existence in southern L. A. Bounded by loosely contructructed walls within a small gated community, they are threatened by by what lies beyond the walls; the homeless and the poor. A greater sense of unease comes from the threat of gangs that rove the streets, often times looking for people to torture or kill. These members are addicted to an advanced drug called pyro. The drug has the hypnotic and narcotic effect of causing arson. The physical restraints of her community’s wall paired with the seemingly indefinite threat of the outside world, coalesces into a mood of inescapability. Lauren possesses what one could call a super power called hyperempathy. Lauren has the ability to physically feel the pain and often, the pleasure of others.
Debilitating as it may sound, however, Lauren’s hyperempathy gives her an advantage. In a world torn apart by many people’s inability to empathize with others, she is consumed by her openness to the world around her. She also uses the ability to understand one’s emotions and pains to create a following and to spread her idea of a new belief system called “Earthseed. ” Lauren also wants to take her following and resettle in a safe and secure place that will symbolically “plant the seed” for her religion, and will allow for it to grow. This idea that Lauren has a power and such helps her gain a following to establish a new “religion” eerily plays off the messianic theme discussed thus far. It can even be argued that Lauren is seen as a sort of “Jesus” to her people in the end times. Lauren’s ability to utilize hyperempathy is a obvious reality in her world. It is a fact of her world that is acknowledged by those she uses it around. Her power is accepted and seen as a tool. She is depended on to use her powers. In a world that is ravaged by violence, Lauren’s hyper-empathy is a symbolic way of portraying that she can escape the apocalypse and it’s character of inescapability.
Next, in Carolyn See’s “Golden Days”, we are introduced to Lorna Villanelle, “a dreamy-eyed, est-style mystic” whose power of both positive thinking and supernatural ability have a profound impact of the development of her friend Edith. Edith and Lorna both have a string of failed relationships. Los Angeles Times author Nora Johnson wrote a review on See’s work. Her commentary on the setting of the novel is worth considerable note: “But the two ladies seem to be crazed less by intimations of uniqueness than by that puzzled, initially mute desperation that has since been translated into feminism. ” The stark setting of 1950’s America, a system that propagated paternalism, created a dualism of both inescapability of body and of mind. These societal attitudes arguably created a very real yet psychological apocalypse for the advancement of women, an apocalypse not mentioned in the story and is overshadowed by the later destruction of a nuclear war.
However, like in post-apocalyptic literature, there is a need for a character to develop powers; powers that show the audience that a character has some sort of authority and control in either their own life or in society. We see powers develop in Lorna. In caretaker-esque fashion, she cures a child's sprained ankle and also heals a broken bone. She even was able to cure David Mandlebaum’s cold with chiropractic precision, cracking and restructuring his nose. Lorna can also be invisible. This claim was met with skepticism from Edith. On page 71, Edith’s apprehension is eliminated when, “she [Lorna] wouldn’t let up on me for several weeks, arranging to meet me on crowded corners where I wouldn’t be able to find her. , making me wait and then reporting to me everything I had done while is was waiting. Then she would tell me that the opposite of being invisible was to be in two places at one, and I don’t know if it was a suggestion or what but when I saw people that looked like Lorna all over the place for a couple of weeks, and then just tried to forget it. ” Later, as her magic powers develop more, her fingers leave a trail of stars and her feet burn circles in the grass. It is important to note the significance of Edith’s reaction. In Edith’s explanation, there seems to be some sort of tangible evidence presented to her that points to the fact that Lorna indeed does have supernatural abilities. However, Edith seems to question whether or not these events and abilities are real.
This reaction characterizes the idea that people still hold steadfast to their own belief systems and prejudices. It can be argued that Edith does not one-hundred percent believe in Lorna’s abilities is because Edith often at times in the past held contempt for Lorna and her “in your face” and abrasive personality. I believe that Edith finally begins to accept Lorna’s abilities when she gets a hint of supernatural abilities herself. The theme of inescapability and desperation allow for messianic figures with superpowers to exist and flourish in post-apocalyptic works. Finally, there are examples of characters using super powers in the apocalypse in Claire Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus. Set in contemporary Southern California, the environment has been devastated by a environmental phenomenon named the “Amargosa. ” The Amargosa is naturally occuring feat of mother nature. Named the “dune sea” by the characters, this giant wall of expanding desert brought about drought and forced migration of persons living in the West, particularly California and Nevada. The apocalypse is set in a setting where people struggle to live in a reality ravaged with tribal conflicts, drought and famine.
The physical presence of the Amargosa, along with the state of conflicting tribal polities and lack of resources creates a sense of inescapability and entrapment, that is similar to the previously mentioned novels. In this “Mad Max-esque” setting emerges a leader. Messianic in the most literal way, a character named Levi provides water and supplies to the last isolated colony living within the Amargosa. Raised as a Mormon, Levi flirts with the idea that he himself is a modern-day Joseph Smith, and eventually becomes the founder of a colony. Amongst the colonists, Levi is exalted as a divine dowser who is able to find water within a land that has none. Ray a character in the novel doubts Levi and his intentions, but Luz, the protagonist and assumed anti-hero “is reluctant to look too hard at whether the prophecies are real or a mirage. ”It is later revealed that Levi’s power to conjure up water are complete and utter nonsense. Instead, we the audience come to understand that Levi is simply a charlatan. To ensure the survivability of his colony, he and a hunting party leave and attack travelers trekking across the Amargosa, taking their water and any food or necessities. It should be noted that the magnitude of the setting, a state that is inhabitable due to a lack of both food and water allows Levi to manipulate those by playing on their desperations.
After the analysis of three post-apocalyptic novels set in Southern California - Parable of the Sower, Golden Days and Gold Fame Citrus, it is easy to see that the common theme of enescability across the post apocalyptic world paves the way for the creation of figures that can solve problems outside human possibility.
Though each character lies on a spectrum-Lauren whose power is undeniable, Lorna’s power who is real but questionable, and Levi’s power which is absolutely malarky-they are one way or another viewed as messianic or are viewed as characters that provide inspiration and guidance in the development of other characters or society. The overall concept of chaos and entrapment, leading to the rise of a messianic or authoritarian figure is not purely fictional. We see such parallels in today’s society and past. In hard times, people look to institutions and people to solve problems and provide answers.
The recent 2016 election and global trend of authoritarianism is proof of such. In contrast, Rebecca Sonlit’s Hope In the Dark says that we can be the change we want to see in times of seemingly unending despair. This fictional concept was borrowed from the ideas of past religious texts and parables, like the story of Jesus and other Judeo-Christian figures. Post apocalyptic novels set in Southern California seem to capture desperation inherent to the human condition.
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